With the body of the latest bundle of releases consisting primarily of unimpressive amateur horrors and dull documentaries, it’s not the best of weeks for streaming viewers. Maybe we can put the drabness of the week down to the lack of a single worthwhile comedy release; either way there’s not a lot to offer those in the market for an entertaining online movie experience. So poor is the overall stock, in fact, that I’ve taken the liberty of pointing to a few older but more interesting titles you might have missed in the bodies of some of the reviews below. Never fear though, it’s not all bad: we do have some titles to offer that may attract your interest, the best of the week offering us an international perspective on the burden of grief and the dullness of life; take your pick as ever and feel free to report back with your findings.
Maybe the best example of that kind of actor whose face is infinitely more known to the general public than his name, Steve Buscemi knowingly gathers a cast consisting almost entirely of such talent in this, his second feature directorial outing. Neither as emotionally involving as his terrific debut Tree’s Lounge nor as hugely charming as his later follow-up Lonesome Jim (also available to stream), Animal Factory nonetheless offers a host of enjoyable characters whose realistic interactions and unforeseen narrative arcs break the mould of the prison film genre. A bald and energised Willem Dafoe gives a typically powerful turn as the de facto kingpin in San Quentin, surrounded by a strong cast including Edward Furlong and Mark Boone Junior which Buscemi (himself appearing in a fine supporting role) utilises to the full extent of their all-too overlooked talents. RECOMMENDED.
Director: Christopher Taylor
Told though it is through interesting interviews with intelligent people, the major message of Food Fight boils down to one simple point: processed bad; organic good. It doesn’t make for a particularly poor watch by any means, but the educational content it presumably desires to hold is nowhere to be found, the film instead a series of conversations with the growers, purchasers, chefs, and political advocates of healthy eating in modern-day America. The subject deserves plenty of in-depth coverage; alas, that this certainly isn’t. That Christopher Taylor’s direction is particularly staid and standard doesn’t help matters either, leaving the decent interviewees to espouse facts most people will already be well aware of. A good measure of a documentary’s success is whether or not it attracts you to alter your own lifestyle; Food Fight will earn this response from few, if any. SO-SO.
An effective metre by which to gauge the extent of one’s horror fandom, Head Trauma’s conclusion will be almost immediately evident to anyone who’s seen enough movies. It’s a testament to the film’s sad lack of narrative originality that its final act should be so obvious so early, the consistent foreshadowing of the big reveal so creakingly evident that it wears thin within mere moments. An amateur production evidently imbued with much passion from all involved, it’s a real shame to say it just doesn’t work, the unconvincing performances, contrived dialogue, and forced relationships making it impossible to relate to any of these characters. Some finely edited scenes of surreal and scary visions offer Head Trauma’s one true merit, but it’s just not enough to overcome the failures of the rest of the film. AVOID IT.
Effectively weird but eventually just bizarre to its detriment, Colm McCarthy’s feature debut is an ambitious blending of folkloric horror and creature feature that succeeds consistently in giving us realised characters yet fails entirely to make the terrible events that befall them at all engaging to the viewer. With aspects of body horror, psychological chills, and atmospheric oddity, it’s perhaps the victim of trying too hard, the earnest attempts at establishing a unique terror register commendable though never terribly successful. James Nesbitt offers a brave performance that sees him stabbing pigeons, stripping nude, and generally behaving with very little social grace, unfortunately it’s all on the high-end of histrionic and the result is less malicious threat than bombastic bravado. McCarthy’s may be a premise worthy of plaudits, but his execution leads only to a crippled mess of once-good ideas. AVOID IT.
Director: Rob DelGaudio
Who among us hasn’t angrily wondered if the extensive airport security measures we have to tolerate these days are really necessary? Director Rob DelGaudio begins by examining the failings of the Federal Aviation Authority in the years immediately prior to 2001 that, despite heavy protestation from “Red Team” security analysts, remained unaddressed, effectively paving the way for the events of 9/11 to take place. Interviewing those who spoke out against the out-dated systems that, shockingly, failed up to 97% of the time, DelGaudio’s film is almost a modern-day Serpico, the tragedy of these people in the face of bureaucratic blockades surprisingly emotional. The latter half loses its way in pointing to the failings of the current Transportation Security Administration, but some inventive visuals and charismatic interviewees keep it more or less on track. Absolutely fascinating. RECOMMENDED.
Bookended by a pair of astonishing sequences transporting its protagonist to the majestic “mirror to the sky” landscape of the Salar de Uyuni, Punished is quick to show us that it’s far from the average revenge thriller. Distinctly melancholy in tone and thoroughly non-indulgent (though still explicit) in its violence, it’s far more on the Sympathy for Mr Vengeance end of the spectrum than the I Spit on Your Grave. Constructed with little respect for chronological order, it constantly re-evaluates the rough relationship between a bereaved and revenge-thirsty father (played with great humanity and nihilism by Wong Chau-Sang) and his late daughter, demonstrating how the most bitter interchanges often hide the deepest love. It takes time to really get to the heart of the matter, but once it does it’ll have you completely gripped and pretty damn moved too. RECOMMENDED.
Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Not an unworthy companion to Michelangelo Frammartino’s masterpiece Le Quattro Volte (also available to stream), Sweetgrass shares the same wordless adulation of nature’s beauty and quiet appreciation of humanity’s place in a world far beyond its control. What few scenes of dialogue permeate the beautifully captured shots of Montana’s mountain pastures are problematically forced, working against the otherwise entrancing naturalism. Coming from an anthropological background, Castaing-Taylor uses the framework of a sprawling natural setting as a backdrop against which to evaluate humanity. By unravelling in the final thirty minutes the portrait of perceived simplicity to expose the complexity and human dissatisfaction beneath the postcard image, he makes the rest of his film look dull by contrast, but it’s small price to pay for an unexpectedly probing dissection of what makes us tick as a species. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Haven’t we had enough of nasty rural families viciously assaulting unassuming travellers already? The last decade’s transgressive breed of Francophone horror has spawned some truly brilliant works that take the genre in wonderful new directions (look no further than Martyrs), but for the most part all it’s given us is film after film of pointless gore and bloody misadventures for underdeveloped characters. The Pack slips right into the latter camp, little more than a less interesting rehashing of Frontier(s), and there was a dull film already. An unforeseen plot turn somewhere around the halfway point does facilitate a rather enjoyable third act, but everything that precedes it is so cripplingly dull and unimaginative that it’s all but impossible to stay focused on the screen. Throw all the fake blood and serviceable CGI you like at us, without something to back it all up we’re just not interested. AVOID IT.
Director: Bruce Van Dussen
Told entirely through a host of talking heads and a number of interspersed stills, Bruce Van Dusen’s documentary on the 2007 deployment of an additional 20,000 troops to Iraq might be considered a jingoistic back-slapping of American foreign policy were it not for its crippling inertia and face-numbing lack of a single element of entertainment or interest, let alone the energy to slap any backs. Glossing over the more abhorrent aspects of what many consider the 21st Century’s answer to Vietnam is one thing, but doing so in such a bland, disinterested manner is just unacceptable. As cinematically involving and factually accurate as having a heavily-redacted history textbook read to you, it’s dreary and intolerable. The addition of the subtitle “The Whole Story” only goes to show how offensively inept and disregardful of its audience this dross is. UNWATCHABLE.
Taking on the role of the free-spirited son who tragically dies while walking the Camino del Santiago pilgrimage was a touch of genius on the part of producer/writer/director Emilio Estevez, the story’s themes of familial relationships only aided by his own father playing that of his character. Though subscribing entirely to the established narrative route of road movies, the heartfelt nature of the piece makes it an emotionally involving watch few won’t be able to relate to. It’s a story that could have easily fallen victim to saccharinity, but Estevez’s script crafts characters so realistically flawed that the work assumes an immense genuineness. There are few things Sheen can’t communicate just with his face alone; to watch the plight of this pained man as realised in his every expression is to be immensely and irresistibly moved. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.