The Exorcist on Netflix Instant: Rewatching the Best Horror Movie of All Time

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BY ADAM FOX

1973’s The Exorcist is the furthest thing from underrated when it comes to the scary-flick canon. Every new release that’s even slightly in contention for “best horror film of the year” is inevitably compared to William Friedkin’s masterful tale of demonic dread. Trailers like to flash ballsy quotes in an effort to earn your hard-earned cash like, “Scarier than The Exorcist!” (this is always bullshit) and “The best horror movie since The Exorcist” (this is usually bullshit).

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Not a bad remake at all, but yeah… bullshit!

I don’t mean to come across as some disgruntled and jaded codger when it comes to the genre. After all, horror film (and my fascination with all things macabre) have stood as the cover photos in my catalog of interests for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I even think that The Exorcist is such an untouchable feat in filmmaking that no director from our generation should  bother to recapture its magic.

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Adam Fox: resident disgruntled and jaded codger.

The main problem lies in the fact that movie studios have taken a liking to financing projects that skip through the boring stuff (character development and solid individual acting performances) and jump straight to the good stuff (computer-generated ghosts, jump scares, excessive gore). The issue is that my idea of what constitutes as “good” and “boring” are viewed inversely by Hollywood, and as a result, I’m left feeling incredibly underwhelmed when I trek to a theater to catch the latest spooky offering.

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“They sure don’t make ’em like they used to…”

…And I don’t really know what the hell the reason for this phenomenon is, either. Do studios think that horror movies are attended exclusively by teens who lack the attention span to make it through a healthy dose of backstory prior to seat-jumping? Is it strictly a budgetary thing? Has the genre evolved so dramatically throughout the years to the point where a horror film can’t just be a great stand-alone movie anymore?

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“You draft-dodgin’ sons of bitches wouldn’t know a good horror movie if you were sittin’ in the theater and it gave you a reacharound!”

The reason The Exorcist is so brilliant has actually very little to do with little Regan’s entanglement with the demon Pazuzu and more to do with how the movie unfolds. The message conveyed throughout that the presence of disharmony (or evil) brings out the worst in humankind is far from subtle, but far more clever than a film like The Babadooks metaphorical head-beating.

And even the uninitiated know that no ghost, demon or monster has anything over a human being and their capacity to inflict pain on one another. It doesn’t even take stomaching the latest ISIS video leaked on the Internet to realize that humans are responsible for a metric ton of horrifying, fucked up things. This is where a handful of horror films really hit a home run and where so many others fail; when the novelty of seeing a terrifying monster in the bathroom mirror wears off, you’re left looking at your own reflection staring back at you.

The Exorcist also straddles that fine line between reality and fantasy so expertly that it evokes the most terrifying two words imaginable after watching a horror film – “It’s possible.” Perhaps it was years spent in the American Southwest that made me particularly vulnerable to Catholic mumbo-jumbo, but there’s a reason why the topic of exorcism is such a meat-and-potatoes staple for horror films. After all, The Exorcist was based on the 1949 real-life exorcism of Roland Doe which has long since been the Roman Catholic Church’s Rule 1…

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First rule of exorcisms: You do not talk about exorcisms.

Exorcisms are grounded enough in reality that, combined with Catholicism’s constant fixation on sadness, despair and good old-fashioned title fights of good versus evil, they create for some plausibly terrifying results on a big screen.

The Exorcist also succeeds at being a solid movie against the backdrop of a ghost story, without being “just” a ghost story. The moral dilemmas of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) are vast as he struggles with pledging fealty to the Catholic Church and his guilt in committing his elderly mother to a mental institution. We easily recall the memorable scenes like the head-spinning, the pea soup and the spider-walk, but the story was ever only really about an embattled Jesuit priest in over his head who commits one final, selfless act to save a little girl. It’s nothing especially heady, but it certainly rises above the ranks of its colleagues whose characters show up to shuttered houses to, you know, find out why doors are closing and the furniture is moving.
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I feel like I’ve created an unintentional ranking system whenever I watch a horror movie that scales from “one” to “Exorcist,” with most modern horror releases failing to reach even a five. I’d like to think of this less as elitism and more as being so affected by the film the first time I watched it that I now have impossibly high hopes for the genre, knowing full well what it’s capable of. The Exorcist is far from perfect and even starts to show its age a little these days, but it will forever remain king of the genre until someone successfully unseats it from a four decades-long reign. You come at Linda Blair, you best not miss.

GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.0

NOTE: Creator of this blog Sam Adams does not endorse Adam Fox’s assertion that The Exorcist is the greatest horror film of all time. Mr. Adams does, however, endorse Mr. Fox.

Beasts of Western Europe: Bullhead and Wolf on Netflix Instant

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“Man is a rope, tied between beast and Superman—a rope over an abyss.” —Nietzsche

When you think of beefed-up Euros going apeshit on the silver screen, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger probably come to mind before heady art house flicks. Rather than glorify alpha-male violence, Bullhead (2011, Belgium) and Wolf (2013, Netherlands) are films that delve into its psychological underpinnings and criminal repercussions with stunning visceral and emotional results.

Both stories pit their protagonist as a man walking the tightrope between brutish beast and conscientious being. Both even go so far as to flesh this paradox out with a sort of reverse anthropomorphism (man becomes bull, man becomes lupine predator).

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Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead: GOT VODKA?

I know I may come off as a bit of a horse’s ass (reverse-anthropomorphic pun intended) for opening with a Nietzsche quote, but I think it’s relevant here. The maniacal German philosopher’s notion of the “he-man”—or Übermensch—is probed bluntly and bleakly in both Wolf and Bullhead. Sure, we see the aesthetic glory and brutal splendor that Nietzsche lusted after (and that Hollywood loves to commodify), but we also see these notions deflated and emasculated in the most devastating ways.

If you want two great crime movies with similar themes, here they are. If you want two great crime movies that make you go off on Nietzschean existential tangents, here they are as well.

Bullhead
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Much like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, director Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead is a devastatingly bleak European gangster flick that ventures into the more obscure areas of criminal enterprise. It also deals with the dynamic of a juvenile friendship, beginning in adulthood and flashing back to a horrific juncture that created a shameful rift between the boyhood mates.

In this sense, Bullhead plays a bit like a minimalist, apolitical version of The Kite Runner—if only Khaled Hosseini’s story had been put in the hands of Nicolas Winding Refn (a particular, neon-lit club scene could have been seamlessly woven into any of the Pusher films).

Bullhead sets its ominous tone from the opening frame, with a monologue played over a shot of a misty field. The not-so-upbeat narration ends this way: “No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time, fucked.”

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Bullhead expresses the natural sentiment associated with sublime Belgian pastures: We’re all fucked.

The film’s tortured, brooding protagonist is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). Jacky has taken over his family’s corrupt livestock business, and for reasons I can’t disclose without playing spoiler, has an escalating habit of shooting himself in the ass with bovine growth hormones.

The film pushes this notion of the intermingled similarities between beast and man to the point that you almost expect Jacky to morph into a minotaur. But this isn’t necessarily a setback if you can dig a film based on slow, foreboding character study.

I also can’t emphasize the word “brooding” highly enough in regard to Schoenaerts’ magnificent portrayal of a gloomy beefcake who trudges through life with a menacing chip on his shoulder. And like any prodded bull, Jacky is prone to fits of severe, blind rage.

The film’s narrative unfolds around Jacky reuniting with his former bestie (Jeroen Perceval of Borgman) as the  Vanmarsenille farm is linked to a mafia hit. As Jacky meets with a gang boss and tries to keep his family business in check, a lost love from his past also enters the picture. With the pressure on, Jacky eventually breaks out of the pen. And what ensues is a bit like watching a bull in a China shop.

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Jeroen Perceval, most recognizable from Borgman—that creepy Dutch movie about the devil doing home invasions.

Bullhead excels as a disturbing character study of an alpha male in mental anguish and turmoil. It’s a refreshing departure from Hollywood, where a guy like Matthias Schoenaerts would be designated to mindless roles in movies where a bunch of shit blows up. In other words, it’s kind of like watching Requiem for a Dream… starring Vin Diesel.

The film’s conclusion isn’t exactly satisfying, but hey, it’s a movie about a guy who injects bull testosterone into his ass. What did you really expect?

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.4

Wolf
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If Drake were to make a biopic about Drake, he would probably want  his inflated ego to come across much like Marwan Kenzari’s character of Majid in director Jim Taihuttu’s Wolf. Drake, of course, likes portraying himself in gritty black-and-white videos as a version of himself that isn’t softer than a tumble-dryed down pillow. And like Drake’s vision of himself, Majid is a muscle-bound, culturally conflicted badass who started from the bottom and… well, you get the gist.

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Aubrey “Drake” Graham: the menacing figurehead behind albums like Take Care, and tours like Would You Like a Tour?

I digress. We meet Majid—a Muslim of Moroccan heritage—as he and his sketchy buddy Amil (Chemseddine Amar) casually discuss speed bikes on a vacant street while window-shopping. Next thing we know, they’re bashing in a storefront and going full-fledged GTA.

The laid-back dialogue of this scene contrasted with its ensuing criminal violence brings to mind Pulp Fiction. It’s a bit like watching very small-time versions of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega chop it up about foot massages and Le Big Mac before unleashing their vengeance.
Jules Winnfield Vincent Vega Pulp Fiction foot massage

This scene isn’t the only one in which Wolf borrows from the sleek badassery of American crime classics. There’s also as much Tony Montana shit going on here as the next rags-to-riches gangster flick. And in terms of that reverse-anthropomorphic thing, there’s a moment where Majid confronts his spirit animal and director Taihuttu essentially plagiarizes one of the most poetic scenes from Deerhunter.

But perhaps the most relevant comparison for Wolf would be Mathieu Kassovitz’s brilliant La Haine (1995)—another black-and-white flick depicting petty crook life in Euro slums and backdropped by a hip-hop aesthetic and soundtrack. (There’s a fantastic—albeit hyperbolic—montage in Wolf that shows Majid and Amil making their crime comeuppance set to hilarious Euro thug rap that name drops Keyser Soze and Julius Caesar. An American remake could definitely use this 2 Chainz song…)

Like La Haine, Wolf gets into the sociopolitical nature of racism and systemic corruption in what outsiders might typically think of as idyllic European cities (La Haine‘s Paris and Wolf‘s Utrecht). The inner struggle that Majid faces as a brutish kick boxer and criminal mixed with his family’s strict Islamic heritage is particularly engaging, and points to the film’s highlight—a remarkable and dynamic performance from Kenzari (who is starting to get some Hollywood play in the film’s wake).

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Majid’s two-timing girlfriend Tessa: the Dutch Alexandra Daddario

Wolf is certainly a more entertaining and more rapidly paced film than Bullhead. That said, it can easily be criticized of being influenced by American films like Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction and Deerhunter almost to the point of copyright infringement. Still, Kenzari’s breakout performance as a conflicted he-man struggling between family, pride, honor and infamy is worth the 122-minute runtime alone. Add in some fantastic cinematography and gripping fight scenes, and Wolf makes for one of the more impressive recent additions to Netflix Instant’s strong cache of foreign crime cinema.

GRADE: B+ / A- 
IMDb: 7.3

-Sam Adams

Joe on Netflix Instant or: The Beautiful Insanity of Letting Nicolas Cage Be Nicolas Cage

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If you filled a speedball with a dose of Winter’s Bone, a dash of Eastbound & Down and a hefty pour of old-school Nicolas Cage, the result—once injected into celluloid—would be director David Gordon Green’s Joe.

In many ways, it’s the kind of film that Scorsese and Bob Rafelson and Sam Peckinpah were making in their heyday. I’m not saying that Joe is as good as Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but for the most part, it’s got the type of filmmaking balls that those flicks had.

And much in the same way that badass character actors like De Niro, Nicholson and Warren Oates were given free reign to go apeshit in those flicks, Nicolas Cage gets the opportunity to show why there are still those among us with faith in a guy whose recent filmography has redefined Hollywood’s Mendoza Line.

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What’s not to love about morally conflicted men with the weight of the world on their shoulders and a vicious mean streak?

But before I get too much into Cage, let’s get back to that idea of why Joe, for the most part, feels like a fitting accompaniment to that period of unbridled, freeform filmmaking that was so excellently captured in the nostalgic documentary A Decade Under the Influence.

On the surface, Joe opens as a film about a volatile but goodhearted ex-con who’s gone semi-straight and now runs a work crew that poisons trees at the behest of a big lumber company. Joe hires on a 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud) to help out, and the two develop a close bond. Problem is, boy has a drunken, money-grubbing pappy who’s meaner than the day is long. A scarfaced nemesis of Joe’s also helps set the stage for the film’s storyline.

But the storyline is by no means why I’m gushing about this film. Joe excels much more as a series of  dark, improvisational backwoods vignettes than it does as a traditional narrative. It’s got that raw edge of ’70s classics like Deliverance, wherein much of the film’s wit, hilarity and unease comes from real folks (and a few trained actors) engaging in loosely directed, improvisational scenes composed of regional dialect.

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“You betta get yo ass up out my mothafuckin’ jaw… Ya country mothafucka!”

Essentially, Joe is a mood piece set to the tune of barking dogs, rain, booze, skid row slumming and cigarette smoke. But the film’s mood is also just a backdrop, or a platform for two of the most unforgettable performances from 2013.

One of these comes through the off-the-cuff acting of Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless drunken drifter who was tapped to play Tye Sheridan’s dad. Regardless of whether you decide to watch Joe, I highly recommend reading his tragic story.

In one of the most equally unsettling and poignant cinematic scenes I can think of, Poulter’s character Wade (AKA G-Daawg), stalks a man over a bottle of cheap wine. Without giving anything away, what plays out in this scene is what makes Poulter’s character mesmerizing throughout: the depiction of a man hellbent on ruin and greed who, at the same time, hangs on to the most utterly minuscule shred of humanity that could possibly exist within a person.

In that same scene, Poulter also delivers a line that could easily serve as an epitaph for the actor, who died by drunkenly drowning in a puddle of water before Joe was released…

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“A person just don’t know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.” -Gary Poulter, 1959-2013

You can’t write a character like Wade, who goes on a lengthy diatribe about “popping and locking” and shows off his own dance moves in a scene that’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite meets the knee-slapping redneck gas station attendant from Deliverance. The only way you can get a performance like his is to drag a quasi-genius hobo like Gary Poulter off the street, stick him into your movie, and see what happens. In Joe—as in those films of yore—the gamble pays off with an almost hyperreal effect.

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“You don’t know nothin’.”

And now I think it’s about time we discuss Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps you watched Ghost Rider and its sequel and wanted to swallow a cyanide capsule. Perhaps you watched Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry or The Wicker Man remake (truly one of the worst movies ever made). Perhaps you’re just so let down that an actor with so much promise decided to go the De Niro route, spending the last 20 years involved mainly in a series of disastrous money grabs. Or maybe you’ve just had enough of this:

(I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.) Moving on…

I will admit that what I’m writing about Joe is by far the most biased recommendation I’ve given on this blog. There was a point in my adolescence when I idolized Cage the way Johnny Depp did Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t merely admire the man—I wanted to be him. I took this obsession so far as choosing Nicolas as my Christian name when I was confirmed at age 13.

After all, three of the greatest action movies ever made had just come out: Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air (yeah, Con Air is a classic in my book… hate all ya want). There was not a man in Hollywood with the swagger or ability to deliver a line like Cage.

Then came duds like Snake Eyes, 8MM and Bringing Out the Dead, and all of a sudden, the Michael Jordan of acting was gone in sixty seconds.

At that age, I was unaware of a little flick—sandwiched between those epic blockbusters—called Leaving Las Vegas (also on Netflix Instant). Cage proved there his acting chops were both something extraordinary and something of a uniquely inimitable brand that only one man possessed.

Since Joe‘s release, it’s been billed as Cage’s return to form, and his strongest work since Leaving Las Vegas. The latter is true, but for every 10 Season of the Witch’s, Cage has managed to slip a few great, overlooked performances into his repertoire. Chief among these was his work in the great Werner Herzog’s miserably titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A lot of folks also liked Adaptation. (personally I could give two shits about the pretension of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Cage was good in it). And Lord of War was a thoroughly enjoyable machismo rip-off of Goodfellas.

So what is so damn special about Cage’s performance in Joe? Well, not only is he given free reign to be himself, but he’s given free reign to be a vile, hilarious psychopath, which if we’re being honest, is exactly where Cage excels:

Cage goes rogue-Cage in this movie, and for anyone who’s ever been a fan of his, it’s one of the most glorious damn things in years. This said, I think it would be a mistake to heap all the praise solely on the man himself. Which is where David Gordon Green comes in.

Green has a resume that makes very little sense. In the early 2000s, he was doing touchy-feely indie flicks. Then he joined the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill bandwagon and directed Your Highness and Pineapple Express. And then he made that pandering piece of indie laxative that you’ll see on every Gawker-y Netflix list called Prince Avalanche. However, he also directed 12 episodes of the sensational John Rocker-themed HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride as Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers.

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Eastbound & Down: one of the best comedy series ever made. Period.

EB&D merits mention in this growing novella of a post for a few reasons. Namely, co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride were executive producers on Joe (and also because of Green’s connection)For those who can detect it, Joe is full of the exact same brand of black humor that EB&D made a killing on. And that—combined with the improvisational acting and bleakness of Winter’s Bone—is what makes Joe such a fascinating, eclectic anomaly of a film.

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Cage’s fixation with referring to canines as “assholes” provides for some of Joe‘s better laughs.

Not everyone is going to love this movie. And since its much more scattered and unhinged than your traditional Hollywood narrative, I’m sure a lot of folks will just wonder what the fuck is going on. Which is fair, because Joe has its share of flaws. (For example, the constant shrouded-in-menacing-mystery dialogue about who Joe really is is played up more than just a little heavy handedly.)

But if we’re calling Joe a flawed movie, I’d add that it’s hands-down one of the best flawed movies made in the last 40 years. Joe is country noir at its finest, and a prime example of a national treasure getting back to what he does best.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I particularly recommend this flick to folks who liked Blue Ruin; Jeff Nichols movies like Shotgun Stories and Mud; and anyone who’s ever read a Daniel Woodrell novel.

Black Mirror on Netflix Instant: Twilight Zone for the ADD Generation, Part II

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BY ADAM FOX

1987’s The Running Man was one of my favorite movies growing up. While I likely appreciated the bravado of one Arnold Schwarzenegger and the video game-like levels of its plot as a kid, it wasn’t until later that I finally grasped what the hell was really going on. The Running Man was quintessential ’80s action at its cheesiest, to be sure, but it did ask a pretty good question: How far are we willing to go for entertainment?

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“I’m not into politics, I’m into suh-vival:” A slogan the Governator used to great effect in both Running Man and his California GOP campaigns.

I bring up Paul Michael Glaser’s magnum opus because its story is not dissimilar to the second episode of Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits.” “Fifteen” introduces us to a futuristic environment in which presumably working class citizens—never changing from their dull-gray jogging attire—spend their days accumulating a collection of points, or “merits,” on stationary bicycles. To help prevent this process from getting too tedious, a selection of video games are offered as an overlay to the exercise, including scenic backdrops or risqué sex scenes.

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Hell… on wheels.

The merits are permanently saved to inhabitants’ profiles and can be used to purchase things like food, entertainment, or entry fees to any of the enormously popular game shows that play throughout the day. One of them even involves unleashing high-pressure hoses on the morbidly obese.

Unlike Running Man, these spinners/SoulCyclers aren’t hardened criminals, whether real or imagined. They’re certainly prisoners in their screen-covered cells, but most lack the self-awareness to grasp their predicament—except for Bingham “Bing” Madsen (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya, who American audiences might recognize from Kick Ass 2).

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Daniel Kaluuya, kicking ass and drinking beer

Bing is disillusioned with this dystopia of rampant materialism and unfulfilling labor and refuses to buy into it, becoming the Winston Smith of his era. He begrudgingly starts the grind anew each day until he meets the beautiful Abi (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay). His crush develops into an impassioned affair when he stumbles upon Abi quietly and masterfully singing to herself in the bathroom.

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“Nice jumpsuit. GAP?”

Bing encourages Abi to compete on the American Idol-style talent show “Hot Shots,” believing she possesses the talent to harness her singing and earn a one-way ticket out. The Hot Shots entry fee is a steep 15 million merits, and since Abi is new to the bikes, she has a minimal number saved. Bing, in a selfless act, volunteers his own merits to gift Abi an entry ticket, draining his entire account in the process.

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Jessica Brown Findlay channels her Orwellian Kelly Clarkson

What ensues creates for easily one of the more tragic and unsettling editions of Black Mirror. Initially appearing to be a somewhat typical revenge story a la Mad Max, “Fifteen” transforms into a bold, hard-to-stomach statement on everyone having a price. The acting is particularly outstanding in this episode on the part of the two leads (Kaluuya and Findlay) who portray a seamlessly organic love story sans Nicholas Sparks sap. The emotional poignancy of the middle part of the episode proves that good writing isn’t just confined to lengthy Oscar-bait—although the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up should’ve put that notion to bed a long time ago.

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UP: The happiest fucking movie ever referenced on this blog.

This episode is one of the least “dark” of Black Mirror’s library, but its message is certainly still consistent with the rest of its titles. Viewers expecting a shock-value follow up to the swine-sexing antics of “The National Anthem” will be a little disappointed, but the bulk of “Fifteen” is so goddamned interesting that it manages to provide one hell of a scintillating ride.

“Fifteen” is also the longest episode of the first season, clocking in at just over an hour and giving it the feel of an actual film with its deeper set-up and lengthier scenes. Black Mirror is also a decidedly British show, so while the American Idol-type format of “Fifteen” might feel like a dated reference to an American audience, X Factor is very much a thing overseas much like Idol was in its heyday. Everyone who watches should be able to agree, however, that the ramifications of elevating the modern game show can go far beyond just Richard Dawson slipping your girlfriend the tongue.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 8.1

The Slum Kids Aren’t Alright: Fish Tank and Gomorrah on Netflix Instant

Gomorrah
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On one hand, Americans are usually complete prudes when it comes to addressing vulgar adolescent behavior in film (Larry Clark movies not withstanding). On the other, Europeans seem to have no issue depicting teenagers in all manner of lude acts. When Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t busy being a great film, it was essentially a lesbian scissor-porno. And Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Alfonso Cuarón’sY tu mamá también and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers had enough teenage fucking to rival a sleepover party at R. Kelly’s house.

Foreign filmmakers also don’t shy away from adolescent violence. For every We Need to Talk About Kevin, one can easily counter with a handful of fantastic subtitled flicks. Amores Perros, La Haine and City of God immediately come to mind.

Most of these films take place in gritty, urban slums. So if Finding Forrester doesn’t really cut it for you as a coming-of-age classic, allow me to recommend two unfiltered and unforgettable Netflix Instant titles that make Spring Breakers look like High School Musical.

Fish Tank
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Like the brilliant 1995 French indie hit La Haine, Fish Tank depicts European slum life set to the beat of bass-heavy American hip-hop. I must admit it’s a bit comical to see a bunch of anglo Brits with their Britty tea-and-crumpets accents vicariously living life to the tune of Nas, Gang Starr and Yung Joc (not to mention some great non-hip-hop in the form of Gregory Isaacs and Bobby Womack).

Of course there’s nothing new about this—white Brits (like most whites) have a long tradition of appropriating black music and culture. Perhaps I just think Amy Winehouse came from a more sincere place than, say, a corner kid in Marc Ecko who looks like Eminem but talks like Harry Potter.

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This about sums up how seriously I can take white British gangstas

To be fair, our 15-year-old protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis in a breakthrough performance) in no way comes across as a poser. In terms of being street-tough, she makes Drake look like Oliver Twist. (The film opens with a great scene where, in true British fashion, Mia breaks another girl’s nose with a football-hooligan-inspired headbutt.)

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“Oi!”

Mia is a b-girl who plays classic hip-hop on her cassette player and break dances in vacant tower apartments as a way to escape her shitty existence. She’s a loner and a bit of a tough cookie—or as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking younger sister, Tyler, would describe her, a “cuntface.” As for Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), she’s terrific as the anti-Abigal Breslin—consider her “Little Miss Moonshine.”

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Mia: Drinkin’ beer and smokin’ dope and fightin’ round the world!

If 10-year-olds dropping “C bombs” and drinking and smoking seem unnerving, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mia and her sister live in a beatdown East London flat with their hot mess of a mom (Kierston Wareing). Mommy’s chief concerns seem to be nursing her hangovers, drinking, men and throwing white-trash reggae parties. The kids can pretty much fuck off.

fish tank

Bad, bad mommy…

One morning while gyrating in the kitchen to a Ja Rule video, Mia is walked in on by a handsome, shirtless Irishman. Mommy’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is charming as all get out. “You dance like a black. that’s a compliment,” he says in his jovial brogue.

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“Top ‘o the mornin’.”

Connor takes the family on fishing trips. He introduces them to soul music (see an amazing use of Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'”). He’s essentially the first decent thing to walk into their life in a longtime. Or so it would seem.

But wait. Let’s talk about Fassbender for a minute. Fish Tank was made before he was Magneto; before he got an Oscar nod for 12 Years a Slave. It’s fun watching a great actor at work in the days before he hit the big-time, and Fassbender’s work here is right on par with what I’d consider his two best performances: a hunger-striking IRA man in Hunger and a sex-addict in Shame. Speaking of Shame (which I highly recommend), if you found that bleak, just wait till you get toward the end of Fish Tank

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Does it get any sleazier?

As for the film’s drawbacks, there’s this slightly annoying, blunt metaphor in the form a sick horse that Mia finds in a desolate parking lot. I won’t even get into the heavy-handed symbolism—just consider it that magical fucking plastic bag that was flying around in American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, you’re artsy—we get it.

When it comes to strange scenarios involving horses in gritty, urban landscapes, personally I prefer whatever the fuck this music video has going on:

Fish Tank isn’t a perfect movie (the coming-of-age stuff gets a little sappy), but its view into slum life in East London is incredible in the most unsettling of ways. It’s also driven by two unforgettable performances (Jarvis, Fassbender), not to mention some strong side roles. And it’s a testament to the fact that a killer suspense flick can be made without much of anything in the way of action or bloodshed. Simply put, it’s just a brilliantly disturbing little film.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.3

Gomorrah
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It’s not the bloodshed. The thing that makes Gomorrah (2008)—a nonfiction-based tale about the disastrous societal effects of feuding Neapolitan gangs—most difficult to watch is the undercurrent of doom that pervades the entire film. If there is a moment in Gomorrah where it looks like things are trending toward uplifting, I must have missed it.

The film opens with a page straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy. A group of gold-adorned, Speedo-clad gangsters bask in the neon glow of tanning beds as atmospheric Euro-pop thumps in the background. Then a bloodbath ensues.

Gomorrah

“GTL, baby.”

Winding Refn’s work isn’t the only thing that comes to mind throughout the course of this deathfest. To say that director Matteo Garrone borrows heavily from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman works (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) would be an understatement. Like much of Iñárritu’s résumé, Gomorrah is harrowingly bleak, and consists of a series of interwoven narratives following a cast of characters all playing out different roles in the same hellscape.

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It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Perhaps the most poignant of these stories is the one of Marco and Sweet Pea, a pair of teenage gangster-wannabes. Deluded by what I referred to in a previous post as the “Scarface Effect,” Marco struts around in Hawaiian shirts yelling, “I’m number one.  Tony Montana! … Shit Colombians. They’re everywhere!” Of course, all of this is taking place in the slums of Naples, where the closest Marco and Sweetpea come to Colombia is through the diluted cocaine they pilfer off a group of petty drug dealers.

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Tony Montana                                     Bony Montana 

As Marco and Sweetpea score a big bag of blow and stumble on a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers, their delusions of grandeur only become wilder. They have the tools of their fictional heroes, but they’re still just kids acting out a fantasy—and a very dangerous one at that. The most memorable scene in Gomorrah shows the pair blasting AKs and heavy artillery on the banks of a river, clad in tight, Euro underwear.

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Walter White would be proud.

Other story lines in the film follow a masterful tailor who attempts to profit from covertly working for Chinese competitors; a grocery boy who gets caught in a blood war and must choose allegiances; a young man who works for a morally reprehensible businessman who disposes of toxic waste in deadly fashion; and a skittish, gangland accountant who distributes payoff cash to the slum-living families of incarcerated gangsters.

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Don Ciro, the sketchy payoff guy

The prevailing theme is that each character in Gomorrah has a shot at monetary gain, but said monetary gain is always at the expense of bloodletting. For those who choose to profit, death is right around the corner. For those who don’t, hopeless poverty is the reward.

With all this bleak, unrewarding depression in mind, one might ask why in the hell I’m recommending this film. Fair enough.

Like Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Gomorrah isn’t exactly “fun” to watch. (Although, unlike Biutiful, viewing it does not induce one to seek out a Prozac prescription.) In the same vein as Amores Perros and City of God, Gomorrah portrays a brutally graphic and honest depiction of a drug-driven, gangland culture and its inherent casualties. Like those aforementioned gems, Gomorrah is the kind of cautionary tale that is realistic enough—and so unsettlingly bleak—that it reminds viewers why, just maybe, aspiring to be the next Scarface is a pretty stupid fucking idea.

Would this have been the same movie without the inspiration of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably not. But if you like the stark depravity those two directors seem bent on, Gomorrah is a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Of the laundry list of titles referenced in this post, City of God, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II are all on Netflix Instant.

Black Mirror on Netflix Instant: The Twilight Zone for the Attention-Deficit Generation

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BY ADAM FOX

I clearly hadn’t done my due diligence on bleak boob tube when it was announced that British TV series Black Mirror would join the ranks of Netflix Instant. This, of course, happens on a weekly basis to many a television show of typically shoddy quality, but when I started to hear comparisons to The Twilight Zone and promises of pitch-black satire stuffed in each episode, I couldn’t help but give it a watch.

I can happily say with confidence that Black Mirror in its entirety is one of the best things on Netflix Instant, especially if the above-mentioned description appeals to you in the slightest. How could something so right up my alley from 2012 have Trojan Horsed me so? I don’t necessarily have my finger on the pulse of current British television, but after watching a handful of episodes of Black Mirror, I was surprised that something of such high-quality, pervasive creepiness evaded me for so long.

After the initial shock wore off, I was in for a real treat. Black Mirror is the brainchild of English satirist and broadcaster Charlie Brooker. It’s far from a traditional television series in that each of the two “seasons” contain a mere three episodes, clocking in at just under an hour each. Much like The Twilight Zone before it, each episode contains a completely unique premise with its own host of characters. It’s only in Brooker’s persistent thinly veiled social commentary that, as with Rod Serling’s legendary  narration in Twilight Zone, a thread of continuity exists. You don’t need to watch Black Mirror in any type of order, although it does help build anticipation for the gold nugget sandwiched in the middle of Season 2 (“White Bear,” which is probably the best of the bunch).

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The late, great Rod Serling

Every episode of Black Mirror is bleak as hell, has a lot to say, and is set in the not-so distant future. The most appealing part of Brooker’s science-fictioned setting is how engrossing and completely plausible it is. Brooker skips the hover-board and sports-gambling hypotheticals in exchange for something that hits a little closer to home.

Keep it. I've got a Pitbull now!

“Keep it. I’ve got a Pitbull now!”

Modern technology in its entirety is taken to the woodshed here, examining the roles of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Farmville as antagonists in the journey to be, and become, human.

The first episode of the series, “The National Anthem,” focuses on British Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) and the abduction of Princess Susannah, Duchess of Beaumont (Lydia Wilson). The Princess is a much-beloved public figure with the people’s interests at heart, much like a Princess Di or Kate Middleton before her (the comparisons being undoubtedly intentional). The kidnappers are wholly unknown, but whoever is behind the plot filmed a ransom note in the form of an eminently sharable YouTube video showing a bound Susannah directly addressing PM Callow. [MINOR SPOILERS] To ensure her safe release, he must fuck a pig on live television by 4 p.m. that afternoon.

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David Cameron says, “I’d fancy me a proper swine shaggin’.”

It’s certainly pitch-black comedy and it’s intended to be, but the tone of the episode flawlessly descends from lighthearted to soulcrushing as we’re put in the place of a man in a position of power faced with a very real decision. The attitude of the British public changes as well, with 87 percent of the population wholeheartedly supporting sex with swine so long as it leads to seeing their beloved Princess Susannah once again. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s hardly explicit while simultaneously being difficult to watch as we see Callow risk everything in the face of the seemingly omnipotent court of public opinion, exacerbated by the potency of social media.

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“Things were so much simpler when all PMs had to do was terrorize Ireland and imperialize third-world nations…”

“The National Anthem” is an excellent, scathing initiation into the futuristic environs of Black Mirror. It’s not the strongest episode of the set, but like those that follow after it, it will disturb the shit out of you and keep you reflecting on it long after it’s finished. This characteristic, to me, is the linchpin of any work worth its weight. I was skeptical at first upon being lambasted with endless Twilight Zone comparisons that heightened my expectations, but Black Mirror has soundly exceeded every one of them. “The National Anthem” offers plenty of satire that might only truly stick with native Brits conscious of their own political state, but it’s also a strong word of caution that echoes universally.

Grade: A-
IMDb : 8.1

In Bruges on Netflix Instant: Holidaying Hitmen and Irish Wit, Low Assembly Required

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BY ADAM FOX

Three thoughts cross my mind when watching 2008’s cult crime-comedy In Bruges:

  • I remember when Colin Farrell was supposed to be the new action mega-star of our time;
  • I really need to visit Belgium, and;
  • I’m embarrassed how writer/director Martin McDonagh’s depiction of American tourists is regrettably and painfully spot-on.
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“I coulda been a contender…”

Which begs the question: Why is this film perpetually in the monolithic wasteland known as a department store’s $5 “bargain bin?” That space is relegated to future installments of the Air Bud franchise, with the vacant-eyed golden performing in increasingly obscure sports. Perhaps the price tag is an accessible way to ensure that the film finds a home in every cinephile’s library. Either way, In Bruges is an excellent, tidy representation of the assassin genre, and is refreshingly cerebral in comparison with its like-minded counterparts.

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“HE’S ONLY GOT ONE SHOT…”

Rookie hitman Ray (Farrell) and his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent off to the quaint medieval town of Bruges, Belgium by their crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after Ray mistakenly kills a child in an operation gone awry. They’re confined to a tiny, inconspicuous inn and told to wait for further instruction from Voldemort himself before departing. Ken is the glass-half-full vet who attempts to enjoy all of the cobblestone-covered offerings in this “fucking fairy tale” of a city, while Ray, rather ironically, despises Bruges and all that it represents. In what is essentially Disney’s Fantasyland spread over a more generous acreage, it’s humorous to witness Ray’s gigantic axe to grind with the innocently charming Bruges.

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“I feckin’ love Bruges!”                      “I feckin’ hate it!”

Ray, at the behest of optimist Ken, begrudgingly tries to make the most of his time stuck in this desolate hell-hole and ends up meeting beautiful Belgian Chloë (Clémence Poésy) on a movie set not dissimilar to Eyes Wide Shut, but with little people amongst the Venetian masks. On an ensuing date, Ray is hilariously up front about his career choice and is somewhat nonplussed when Chloë reveals hers—a production assistant who also deals drugs (an important position undoubtedly high up on the Hollywood pecking order). Ray’s gloomy disposition changes drastically when in Chloë’s company. But he still fucking hates Bruges.

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Clémence Poésy: More beautiful than Bruges

(SPOILER ALERT, following paragraph only:)
After some time passes, Ken receives the call from Harry/He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to take Ray out on a boat and Fredo Corleone him. Harry is a complicated and neurotic character who also happens to be a man of principle, and decides that Ray must face justice for shooting a child, accident or not. Ken just can’t pull the trigger on his partner and, after attempting to get Ray out of Dodge completely, incurs the wrath of Harry who decides to head into town and deal with the situation himself. What results is an epically gorgeous beer-battered shoot-‘em-up through the windy, narrow streets of Bruges.

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“Kill the Irishman!”

The dialogue in In Bruges is particularly smart, snappy and positively Irish, driven by the strength of Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes’ performances. There’s a moral gravity associated with the choices the characters make throughout the film, interspersed with sweeping commentary on ethics. But each of the three lead actors look like they’re having a fucking blast filming the scenes, which in turn makes it extremely enjoyable to watch, and much easier to swallow the larger story arc the film offers. In Bruges isn’t the reel companion piece to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or anything, but there is a little more at stake than just the lives of expendable characters the audience doesn’t actually care about (as crime movies can often stray).

Bruges, Belgium is obviously a major player and the unsung hero of the film, occupying significant real estate in the story without turning it into some type of travel documentary. I’m not exactly sure how an unassuming little village like Bruges came to be the consensus centerpiece of a crimedy, but it works beautifully. Eschewing more common European locales like London, Paris and Venice affords it an immense amount of unexplored flavor. The scenes themselves aren’t too unfamiliar for fans of the genre, but they’re somehow different and more memorable with a background of belfries and bridges that closely resemble Arthurian legend.

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“Feckin’ gorgeous, eh?”

In Bruges is viciously rewatchable, enormously entertaining, and Colin Farrell’s crowning achievement over a long-spanning career in films wholly inferior to this. There’s something very vintage about the character- and dialogue-driven In Bruges, easily dismissed by the short attention-spanned Michael Bay adherents but coveted by the jaded critic-codgers like myself. It tells a story thoroughly yet succinctly, hitting all the right strides in making its comedic moments actually funny and its action moments tense.

There’s a great chance you watched this back in 2008 as it was released along with a healthy amount of fanfare for a movie of its size, but it stands the test of time incredibly well and was even better than I remember it being. In Bruges is proof that if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of adrenaline-seeking theatergoers, you don’t necessarily need to beat them over the head with CGI.

IMDb: 8.0
GRADE: A –