Streaming Bleak This Week, #2: Bob and the Trees on Netflix Instant

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Forewarning: This film requires a severely generous attention span. The basic premise is that a guy named Bob runs a farm and logging business in rural Massachusetts, and everything in Bob’s life is going to shit. He makes bad business gambles involving said trees, and attempts with futility to nurse his prize cow back to health as it succumbs to some parasitic flesh disease.

Meanwhile, Bobwho looks like a more grizzled Ted Lavine from that Hills Have Eyes remakecurses, spits, drinks and jams the fuck out to hardcore underground rap. Sometimes he drives to the village on his moped and yells at people. Sometimes he drinks and practices his golf swing in the snow. The film is really about Bob and his downward spiral, and what a breaking man can salvage from a broken situation.

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Bob and the Beers…

It’s also just a cinema vérité-ish exploration of a wonderfully strange dude (Bob Tarasuk, who plays Boba guy who’s probably a lot like Bob Tarasuk). It almost feels like a lesser follow-up to the great Werner Herzog’s Stroszekthe latter of which Roger Ebert deemed “one of the oddest films ever made.” Or perhaps if they made a toned-down sequel to David Gordon Green’s Joe on a $5,000 budget. 

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Bruno Schleinstein takes on Wisconsin trailer park life in Werner Herzog’s classic Stroszek (1977)

To first-time feature director Diego Ongaro’s credit, there’s no smarmy melodrama involving the aforementioned plot points. Apart from Tarasuk’s performance, much of Bob and the Trees feels like awkward improv community theater. That last point will probably stand out too much for some viewers, as will some tediously long scenes.

But if you truly can stand a slow-paced, grim and “meditative” film with questionable resolution, Bob and the Trees is worth it if only for the subtle but fucking hardcore way it cuts to black. Come to think of it, the last scene in this movie is probably the main reason I’m writing about it. The story behind it is also worth a read.

IMDb: 7.0
GRADE: B

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: They Look Like People

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on Netflix Instant: The Hipster Vampire Movie that’s Better than Jim Jarmusch’s Hipster Vampire Movie

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night best of Netflix instant
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Director Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the vampire movie Jim Jarmusch should have made. Or perhaps the one he would have made 30 years ago.

Instead, Jarmusch served us Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)a largely plotless mood piece about self-indulgent hipster vampires; a film that self-indulgent hipster critics saw their transparent, vain reflection in, and heaped with such enigmatic praise as “a meditation.”

Tom Hiddleston Tilda Swinton Only Lovers Left Alive hipsters

“I hope they serve PBR in hell.”

While we’re on the subject, don’t patronize me about how Only Lovers was an allegory to the plight of the aging rockstar, the death of rock and roll, or some other grandiose malarkey. Its attempts at tongue-in-cheek humor about immortals cavorting with dead artists was groan-inducingly pretentious to a Diablo Cody-esque level. (And I don’t see how the fuck Tom HiddlestonAKA morose, bootleg Jared Letowhining nostalgic about the merits of vintage guitars and LPs equates a “thoughtful, atmospheric” film.)

As a former Jarmusch fanMystery Train and Down by Law were at one time two of my favorite moviesmy two cents is that the guy hasn’t made a worthwhile flick since Ghost Dog. But hey, perhaps I just have a softer spot in my heart for the hipsters of yesteryear (Jarmusch’s castings of Tom Waits and John Lurie) than the egocentric shitbags he’s portraying nowadays.

Tom Waits John Lurie Down By Law

John Lurie and Tom Waits in the phenomenal Down By Law—back when being a hipster stood for something!

Oh, and about that other movie…

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
a girl walks home alone at night on netflix streaming

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, A Girl Walks Home at Night, that terrific Iranian vampire flick that feels a lot like those great Jarmusch films of old.

It opens in the fictional town of Bad City, as our brooding, Iranian James Dean of a protagonist Arash (Arash Marandi) steals a cat from a junkyard for no apparent reason. While this occurs, gypsy organ music that sounds like something off Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs plays in the background.

Then there’s the bleak, barren industrial cityscapes that Arash walks through as he puffs cigarettes in his dark shades. We see the recurring image of an open mass grave in a dried up canalan early signifier that rules of modern law and logic are less important to this narrative than the weird we’re about to be immersed in. And with these stylings of offbeat mystery, sinister imagery and grim coolness, the influence of black-and-white Jarmusch classics like Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise is undeniably apparent from the get-go.

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Cool Cats, B.A.D. City

After a bit more of Arash chain-smoking and cruising around in his vintage hotrod, we get a picture of his family life, which is far less hip. Arash’s dad is a feeble junkie, heavily indebted to a slippery goon who looks a bit like a hybrid of Ivan Drago and one of the Taken thugs.
Dominic Rains Hey Girl A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Our last major character (outside of House of Cards‘ Mozhan Marnò as a beautiful prostitute) is, of course, The Girl. Bad City is kind of like an underpopulated Gotham, and The Girl (Sheila Vand) is its vampire bat-woman. She patrols the streets in a black cloak and one of those black-and-white French sailor shirts that hipsters seem to fancy. She also rides a skateboard. Consider her the anti-manic, empowered pixie dream girl.

Sheila Vand Zooey DeSchanel A girl walks home alone at night

Sheila Vand: The Iranian-American answer to Zooey DeSchanel

A large part of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’s intrigue is its balance of beautifully bizarre art-house stylings mixed with the type of live-undead romance that worked so charmingly in Let the Right One In (and failed so miserably with those apathetic, narcissistic mopes from Only Lovers). A magically lit scene set to the tune of White Lies’ aptly titled “Death” shows our lonely outcasts basking in the shadows of a disco ball as they come together in the night. Like so much of the film, it blurs the line between dream sequence and traditional narrative, and feels more like something out of Lost in Translation than your typical bloodsucker fest.

Sheila Vand Arash Marandi A girl walks home alone at night white lies death song

Love at first bite.

Then there are the parts of the film that feel more like art-house for art-house’s sake—but that’s really not a bad thing here in less you came looking for Blade 4. A scene halfway through shows the film’s randomly everpresent cowboy drag queen dancing with a balloon in an empty dirt lot. What does it mean? What does it say about the movie? Factually, little. Artfully, it’s one of A Girl Walks Home’s many bizarre and inexplicable gifts to simply take in. Or maybe it’s just a rehashing of American Beauty‘s plastic trash bag scene. You decide.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night drag queen

Stranger than purgatory...

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night leaves us with a few other unsolved riddles. Mainly, what the fuck is the deal with that cat? Still its blend of art-house, horror and romance makes for one of the best additions to Netflix’s recent catalogueand arguably cements it as the best vampire flick since Let the Right One In.

If you want a more traditional vamp story, try Stake Land (also on Instant). If you’re a Jarmusch fan with a dark bent, it doesn’t get much better than this.

IMDb: 7.1
GRADE: B+ / A-

-Sam Adams

Wild Bill on Netflix Instant: British thuggery with a pulse

Wild Bill Movie Netflix Instant
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Guy Ritchie is to modern-day British gangster cinema what Ed Sheeran is to teenage girls with cherubic hobo fetishes. When Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released in 1998, a subgenre that had birthed such classics as Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1980) was reanimated on a global stage.

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…a lesson the King of Cockney taught us in Get Carter.

No doubt highly influenced by Tarantino’s hyperreal stylization, Ritchie followed up his raucous debut with another cult-classic, Snatch. Since, however, his schtick has devolved into half-assed attempts like Revolver (most notable for Andre 3000 giving the worst performance by a rapper since Ice-T in Leprechaun in the Hood); the unwatchable remake of Lina Wertmüller‘s glorious sexistential 1974 film Swept Away (most notable for Madonna’s performance in the worst movie starring a pop singer this side of Gigli); and those Sherlock Holmes movies—which conjure a video game idea Michael Bay thought up while taking a shit.

Andre Benjamin Revolver three stacks horrible

Q: What’s cooler than being cool?   A: Never acting again, Three Stacks.

That said, Ritchie deserves credit for his better “Mockney” efforts, and perhaps more so for the wave of UK crime cinema they’ve inspired. Sure, the movement has spawned its fair share of overstylized, horribly written filth that many a Brit no doubt loathe being associated with. Specifically, I’m referring to just about anything Jason Statham has ever done (full disclosure: I have lapped up every Statham movie on Netflix Instant with the guilty-pleasure-induced appetite of a middle-aged housewife with a box of Franzia and a Lifetime marathon).

But there have also been some absolutely brilliant films added to the canon. Sexy Beast (2000) is a genre-bending classic that features Ben Kingsley’s turn as one of the greatest big-screen villains of all-time. Terence Stamp killed it in the paternal revenge thriller The Limey (1999). And of course no one’s kicking Layer Cake out of bed for eating crumpets.

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Don Logan: All-around nice guy.

While Snatch—and at least six Statham-led movies—are currently on Netflix Instant, so is another fantastic, lesser-known modern British gangster flick:

Wild Bill
wild bill Charlie Creed-Miles

There’s a storm brewing throughout Wild Bill, a film about a “nutter” who’s just come home from eight years in the pen and is reintroduced to his two slum-living boys. Our titular antihero (played by Charlie Creed-Miles, aka Billy Kimber from Peaky Blinders) is a small-time crook with a larger than life reputation.

In many ways, Bill’s disposition is much like that of Nicolas Cage’s in Joe (another film titled after—and focused mainly on the psyche of—its lead). Both men are ex-cons with unpredictable temperaments who could snap at any given moment. And as in Joe, much of Wild Bill’s tension lies in the fact that we know from the outset that Bill—at first feeble and aimless upon his release from prison—will once again go wild. The questions that drive the story are simply when, and to what consequence?

Pressure is added to these questions when Bill is unwittingly forced into a parental role he’s clearly not cut out for. Initially, he takes the responsibility as if he were Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. He uses the free lodging that his older, mature son has provided as a haven for pot smoking, drunkenly passing out on the couch, and consorting with a kind-hearted hooker.

billy bob thornton bad santa wild bill Charlie Creed-Miles

“Can we fix you some sandwiches?”

Reality soon hits Bill like a swift kick in the bollocks when a street gang from his past starts making threats on his family. From here, it’s on Bill to see what extent he’ll go to in righting a heretofore unremarkable and wasted existence.

A large part of what makes Wild Bill an exceptional British gangster flick is that it draws elements from both Guy Ritchie and another British filmmaking stud, Danny Boyle. It’s got the fast-paced, street-tough humor of a Ritchie flick, but also the more real-world-savvy emotional core found in the breadth of Boyle’s work (and the comedic flair of Trainspotting). In short, unlike what Ritchie detractors—and haters of other Mockney offshoots—might argue, it’s not simply style for style’s sake.

wild bill cast

Familiar faces from Wild Bill ‘s motley crew.

Another similarity Wild Bill shares with both Trainspotting and those better Ritchie films is its use of a colorful ensemble cast. Director Dexter Fletcher employs a who’s who of talented B-list British crime actors. Leo Gregory and Marc Warren (both familiar from Green Street Hooligans) play Bill’s shifty nemesis and a cracked-out dad, respectively. Neil Maskell (Kill List—also on Netflix Instant, and totally worth the watch), plays one of Gregory’s cronies. Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, Snatch, Layer Cake) makes a brief cameo. Andy Serkis—Hollywood’s favorite CGI stand-in—sheds his Gollum and Planet of the Apes makeup to play a menacing crime boss. And Iwan Rheon provides a comedic turn as a petty crack dealer who thinks he’s a badass rasta (hard to reconcile when pitted against his role as Ramsay Snow the Castrator on Game of Thrones).

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Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Snow.

The only debatable setbacks in this film would be that it’s not really as much of an all-out “gangster” flick as some of the aforementioned titles, and it also leans a bit heavily on heartfelt drama (a taboo subject on this here blog) as it comes to a close. Still, there’s more than enough smashing of pint glasses, soccer hooligan head-butting and general badassery to appease those looking for a proper follow-up to Lock, Stock and Snatch. And beyond that, it’s just a bloody damn good film, spearheaded by the underused Charlie Creed-Miles’ magnificent work.

GRADE: B+/A-
IMDb: 7.2

-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.

Nicolas Cage Warren Oates Jack Nicholson Robert De Niro

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.

deliverance You don't know nothin

“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.

Kenny Powers David Gordon Green Joe

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.

V/H/S and V/H/S/2 on Netflix Instant: Found footage not to be frowned upon

V/H/S and V/H/S/2 on Netflix Instant
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“Found footage” has grown to carry a rather negative connotation amongst horror fans. Much of this is for good reason, what with the innumerable low-budget, low-quality and utterly braindead derivatives of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity (including several of the half-assed Paranormal sequels themselves). But recent strides have shown that there’s still sustenance waiting to be milked from this zombie-cow of a sub-genre.

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980): The grandaddy of found footage and one of the most gruesomely warped movies of all time.

Highlights among these modern additions include REC, the great George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Trollhunter and 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan (the last two of which are available on Netflix Instant). Bigger-budget films like Chronicle and Cloverfield were also impressive, although I’d file them more under sci-fi-suspense than horror.

The psychology—not economics—behind why found footage films have become so successful is rather simple. On one level, we live in a culture that is unhealthily obsessed with voyeurism. On another, I would argue that this sub-genre caters to horror fans who, like myself, have trouble suspending their disbelief (e.g., I don’t believe in ghosts, so it’s hard for me to take exorcism or haunting stories seriously unless they get really damn creative.)

Watching a horrific tale unfold in what appears to be a more organic way works—at the very least—as a device that heightens the plausibility of such stories for viewers. Or put more plainly, the lifelike stylization of a movie within a movie overwhelms my ape brain, enabling it to quickly succumb to ideas I might have previously scoffed at. … At least that’s my two cents.

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Zombie rabies: somehow much more believable when shot with a shaky handcam on night vision.

So as a horror lover who believes found footage is by no means an exhausted fad, one might ask what took me so long to get toV/H/S and V/H/S/2. The answer, quite simply, is that they have absolute shit scores on IMDb. The first installment carries a lousy 5.8, and the second is just slightly higher with a 6.1.

I’ve warned readers several times that horror scores on IMDb are usually at least a point below what a non-horror movie of equal caliber would draw. Still… I can only think of a handful of movies that ever ranked at a 6 or below that were worth my while (Here’s to you, Beer League). So why did these two really good horror flicks score so low? Chalk it up to moral outrage from non-horror fans translating into IMDb lowballing. Which is a good segue for a more specific look at our first recommended film in this post:

V/H/S
Hannah Fierman V/H/S Amateur Night

V/H/S opens through the lens of a group of hipster jackasses going around and filming themselves in acts of torment and destruction. Their first “prank” is a pseudo-rapey act in which they attack a couple in a parking garage.

I’m fairly sure quite a few of those negative scores on IMDb came from viewers who couldn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of the movie. While the actions of these small-time goons is certainly morally reprehensible, the shoddy, shaky, handheld recording quality of the film in the opening sequences is even more of an affront to the general public. It makes Blair Witch look like it was shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki.

Emmanuel Lubezki Children of Men six minute shot

The brains behind Children of Men‘s famous uninterrupted six-minute action shot, Emmanuel Lubezki also killed it with Birdman and Gravity. Too bad he wasn’t available for V/H/S

For those who can exercise a bit of patience, V/H/S quickly takes a turn for the better as the criminals get a cash offer to break into a house and recover a video tape of unknown origin. As the baddies start popping movies into VHS players, they realize they’ve stumbled on a treasure trove of what are mainly supernatural snuff flicks.

Here, V/H/S begins its anthology format, diving into five shorts by five different directors. Thankfully, the earlier narrative goes largely by the wayside, and we’re treated to a series of immensely harrowing found footage tales, all shot in at least slightly superior quality to that barely watchable intro.

V/H/S isn’t the first horror movie to embrace the anthology format (Creepshow and Three… Extremes immediately come to mind), but it is a novel idea for the found footage genre. It’s particularly refreshing when pitted against all that Paranormal Activity jive in which we typically have to wait through about an hour of cabinets banging, chandeliers rattling and lights going on and off before we actually get to see the shit hit the fan.

paranormal activity

Paranormal Activity: Proof that you can make hundreds of millions by screening footage of people sleeping.

If you’ve ever been irked by comedies that are hilarious for the first 45 minutes and then fizzle out due to that whole “narrative thing,” V/H/S is exactly the antidote, except in horror form. The first short, “Amateur Night,” introduces us to more rapey dudes who go bar hopping and bring some drunk girls back to their hotel. Of course, said bros are looking for love in all the wrong places, and date rape quickly turns into a date with destiny.

“Amateur Night” is the strongest of the five shorts in V/H/S, but the other stories—about a couple being stalked on a honeymoon in the Grand Canyon; a demonic backwoods retreat; a Skype chat gone wrong; and a Halloween party from hell—are all intensely creepy shorts.

V/H/S may not be reinventing the wheel, but outside of come choppy camerawork, it’s about as entertaining throughout as a horror film could be. And it also gets some kudos for being the predecessor to one of the best found footage movies ever…

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.8

V/H/S/2
V/H/S/2 Hannah Hughes

The recipe for V/H/S/2 is essentially that of its prequel: gallons of blood, lots of boobs and an ever-present nobody-walks theme. However, it’s as if the directors came back and fixed every kink. For one, the main narrative—a dickhead private dick and his sexy sidekick looking for a lost kid and stumbling on more VHS tapes—actually weaves through the films shorts in a way that makes it more than just a castaway excuse for an anthology film.

V/H/S/2 would also probably be more aptly titled H/D/CAMCORDER, as all of its sequences are shot in much higher definition than the original—lending some strong visual appeal to the horrific bleakness of each. And the second installation is a bit more concise than the first, with four shorts instead of five, and 22 minutes less of run time. (Note to indie filmmakers: Editing is not your enemy!)

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I see dead people… in HD.

V/H/S/2 also has the crowning achievement of creating what’s at least debatably the best half hour of found footage work ever made. Directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, the third sequence in the film, “Safe Haven,” is far and away the pinnacle of both V/H/S films.

The (comparably longer) short begins with a documentary crew filming a notorious Indonesian cult leader. Eventually, they persuade the sinister guru to let them bring cameras into his lockdown camp to expose the truth. Seeing as Ti West and Joe Swanberg have a heavy hand in both V/H/S films, it’s worth noting that this initial set up is eerily similar to that of The Sacrament, West’s 2013 found footage riff on the Jonestown Massacre, which stars Swanberg. (The Sacrament is on Netflix Instant, and is a totally worthwhile horror flick.)

safe haven

“Drink the Kool-Aid, motherfuckers.”

But where The Sacrament leaves your typical doomsday cult scenario, “Safe Haven” takes it a giant, cloven-footed step further. The end result is simply one of the most gloriously gory and innovative executions that modern horror has to show for itself.

The other three segments in this blood-red mosaic don’t disappoint either—both in terms of execution and innovation. Adam Wingard’s “Phase I Clinical Trials” is viewed literally through the eye of a guy with an ocular implant that records his surroundings and allows him a closer connection to the paranormal; “A Ride in the Park,” by Blair Witch alums Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sánchez uses a GoPro to capture a carnival of carnage in a quiet forest; and arguably the second-best short in this film, Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” well, the title is kinda self explanatory.

Slumber Party Alien Invasion

A PSA from “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”: Dear Signs, you sucked.

In all, V/H/S/2 delivers more shocks and excitement over its 96-minute run time than the entire Paranormal Activity saga combined. It’s not only one of the best found footage movies of all time, but also arguably one of the best and most creative horror flicks of the past decade.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.1

-Sam Adams

Fifty Shades of Bleak: The Fall Returns to Netflix Instant

the fall jamie dornan gillian anderson
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[NOTE: No big spoilers for Season Two, but refer back to this post if you missed Season One.]

Unfortunately, the above image is not an official promo for the BBC’s steamy Belfast-BTK series The Fall. It’s actually more of an, um, abstract dream collage representation of what Season Two might evoke to viewers. (Gillian Anderson’s character keeps a dream diary, and Jamie Dornan’s does nudie collage scrapbooking, so I don’t think I’m reaching that far.)

In that Season One recommendation, I mentioned that the show was phenomenal, but that it left us with what I most eloquently described as “an asshole of a cliffhanger.”

the fall season one

“Just gonna drive away in me car with me homely wife and make yeh fuckers wait a few years…”

Without revealing too much, the six new episodes added to Netflix Instant do a nice job of picking up the pieces, albeit at a pace that might inspire some to launch their own killing spree on BBC producers—provided this were a weekly series and not delivered all in one fell swoop. (Recent medical reports show that Netflix is effectively curing ADD through its wonderful full-season-all-at-once template.)

To be fair, the slow build-up doesn’t really come in the form of extraneous plot lines (here’s looking at you, Boardwalk Empire‘s countless hours of Margaret Schroeder fretting over minutiae).

Margaret Schroeder annoying

“The cheeldrin need their day care and I don’t particularly like these flowers and perhaps I’ll go throw a fuss at the dress shop or get tah screwin’ the Irish lad who works for me husband or some such…”

Season Two begins a few weeks down the road from where Season One left off. Paul Spector, AKA “The Belfast Strangler,” (a dreamy, asphyxiation-fetished Jamie Dornan) is still at large. The search quickly hones in on him, and a season-long game of cat and mouse between Spector and investigator Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), unfolds.

If you wanted resolution, there’s definitely more here than in Season One. But the show seems to struggle with the main  narrative predicament that The Killing did in its first few seasons (rest assured, this is a much more carefully constructed and fully realized series than what was going down in the Pacific Northwest.)

the killing holder

A question The Killing took about 12 episodes too many to answer…

That predicament, as I’m sure it has been posed in countless BBC screenwriters’ meetings, is, “When the killer’s caught, what the fuck do we do with this show?”

I’ll leave any speculations on that question in the hands of the viewer. I will say that it’s to the show’s credit how it manages to stay engagingly suspenseful even as Season Two’s narrative meanders along. I should underline that this season of The Fall is much more of a criminal suspense show, and much less of a bloody thriller.

That last note brings up an issue that one could say is either a narrative fault of Season Two or a moral fault of its viewers (present company included). Essentially, it’s simply not as compelling to watch as Season One, and much of that has to do with a lack of, well, murder.

A large degree of this show’s allure comes from the fact that Paul Spector often blurs the antogonist/protagonist line. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a really, really bad guy. But c’mon, his shirtless-prone character often seems less like the BTK Killer and more like the equivalent of Ted Bundy in a Calvin Klein ad.

Jamie Dornan Calvin Klein The Fall

Jamie Dornan: Just your prototypical, run-of-the-mill serial killer

The point? As fans of crime shows, we are implicit in wanting to see how much bad guys can get away with. We like it when the body count rises; the deadlier the game, the higher the level of intrigue. And our baddie really does not get away with much at all for the majority of Season Two.

So yeah, I respect The Fall for being a really good crime show that succeeds without pandering to its audiences’ base bloodlust. But the fact remains that we still came to watch a serial killer show. Season Two leaves that desire wanting.

The series seems very aware of this predicament. It even builds it into a dialogue exchange as Gibson watches a video of Spector in the midst of nefarious acts:

Spector, to the camera: “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Gibson: “Who [are] you talking to? Yourself? Me? People who like to read and watch programs about people like you?”

In a stylistic touch, Gibson appears to be breaking the fourth wall as she asks this question. OK, The Fall—you got us. We are guilty of, uh, being fascinated by your serial killer show.
Breaking Bad you got me Bryan Cranston heisenberg

But here I am pointing out a lot of faults in what I think is actually one of the most intelligent and compelling series currently filming. So let’s get to some of the pros.

Gillian Anderson, for one, is bar-none one of the best actors working in television. The icy portrayal she gave in Season One becomes more fleshed out here as the show delves into her sexuality, morality and—god forbid—sentimentality. “You can see the world in that way if you want,” she says to a colleague who calls Spector an evil monster. “You know it makes no sense to me. Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”

For a character who maintains poise in her profession by playing the one-note, sinister, head-motherfucker-in-charge, Anderson infuses an uncanny dramatic range into the arena of emotional subtlety.

gillian anderson the fall

Give this woman a friggin’ Emmy, already!

As for Dornan, he does a fine job, but the underpinnings of his psyche don’t exactly reach Lecterian heights. He’s either angry or manipulatively heartfelt or vacant—and that’s about his emotional range. It would be nice to see a bit more.

And while we’re on the subject of Dornan, let’s address the handcuffed, spread-eagled elephant in the room. What I’m talking about, of course, is that in less than a month from Season Two debuting, Fifty Shades of Grey will hit theaters.

Let me put the twisted sickness of that in perspective. In The Fall, Dornan plays a man who uses his handsome wiles to gain the trust of women and then bind them with rope and perform erotic choking acts on them. In Fifty Shades… well, I know nothing about Fifty Shades, but I’d imagine he does the same exact thing. Only difference? Christian Grey is a sex symbol that will have women lining up around the block on Valentine’s Day. Paul Spector, on the other hand, is a murderous rapist.

I wonder if Dornan got the part when some Hollywood exec was watching The Fall and thought, “Hey, this guy’s hot and really does the BDSM thing well. Let’s just cast him in a role where he does the same thing without killing his sex partners.” It would kind of be like if Anthony Hopkins had followed up his role of Dr. Lecter by taking Robin Williams’ place in Patch Adams.

patch adams hopkins silence of the lambs

“Would you like a bedtime story, Clareeeece?”

As far as what else keeps The Fall moving, its creator Alan Cubitt altruistically gives several of Season One’s role players much bigger parts. Spector’s 16-year-old worshipper Katie (rather creepily sexed up by the 22-year-old Aisling Franciosi) becomes a key player in Spector’s criminal movements. Her performance and those of other more-seasoned actors are all well played. The only issue is that Anderson and Dornan dominate this show so heavily, it’s difficult for anything that’s not centered on their characters to carry as much intrigue.

All said, despite a slower pace and my nervousness that The Fall could easily go the wayward route of The Killing if it doesn’t figure itself out, it remains perhaps the best current crime series this side of True Detective. Queue it up without further delay.

SEASON TWO GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

Best of the Bleak: Eighteen Top Lesser-Known Crime, Thriller and Horror Netflix Instant Titles from 2014

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Consider this post a witches’ brew. The contents started as a liquid composed of every crime, thriller and horror feature on Netflix Instant. Then I cranked up the heat and gave it a year-long simmer, meticulously skimming away the fat and nasty bits. After that, I spent the next three months tasting and testing till I finally had a small saucepan of the darkest, most delectable demi-glace. I then took that shit and poured it over the finest unicorn liver and paired it with a nice barrel of chianti. And now… Dinner is served, cabrones!

hannibal lecter drinking

Bon appétit!

Wait. Did you catch all that?

Essentially what I’m saying is that I spent a year combing through Reddit subthreads, countless hours watching every imaginable film and series on Netflix Instant, and three months writing about my favorite lesser-known titles (along with the help of my partner-in-crime, Adam Fox). I’ve now condensed all this research into a list of 18 of the best horror, crime and thriller features that you may have not seen on Netflix Instant.

Are a few things missing? Sure. No list is definitive, and that’s what next year is for. But consider this a damn good menu, with every item coming highly recommended by the chef himself.

Here’s the list, graded and alphabetically ordered, with titles linking back to our initial long-form posts:

MOVIES
headhunters

Blue Ruin
blue ruinBittersweet revenge. That’s what Dwight (Macon Blair), a dumpster-diving hobo, is after when he hears the man who killed his parents is getting out of prison. Blue Ruin delivers as one of the most beautifully shot, darkly comical and poignant films of 2013. If you liked Shotgun Stories or are simply a fan of revenge and vigilante justice flicks, look no further. B+/A-

Fish Tank
fish tankA charming Irishman enters the life of a teenage breakdancer who lives with her drunk mom and foul-mouthed sister in the slums of East London. Michael Fassbender (pre-Magneto fame) provides one of his best ever performances as a boozy savior who seems too good to be true. This film creates a riveting wave of suspense, despite being the only title on this list devoid of much action or overt violence. A-

God Bless America
God Bless AmericaIdiocracy and the 1970 hippie-slaughter-fest Joe meet Network in Bobact Goldthwait’s blacker-than-black satire on American media culture and narcissism. Bill Murray’s brother, Joel, is phenomenal as an everyman who finally hits his breaking point and goes on a monstrous killing spree… inspired by human compassion. B+/A-

Gomorrah
gomorrahFucking hell, this is a bleak one. Director Matteo Garrone takes a page from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s book and intertwines four slum tales, using the gang-ridden streets of Naples as his canvas. Ranked by A.O. Scott as the sixth-best film of 2008, I’d highly recommend this to fans of Amores Perros and City of GodB+

Headhunters
Nikolaj Coster-WaldauThis fast-paced Norwegian thriller tells the story of an art thief who gets in over his head by stealing from a special ops manhunter. Said manhunter is Game of Thrones‘  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who brings all his kingslaying charm to what is perhaps the most throughly entertaining movie I watched all year. A-

In Bruges
in brugesLike I said, “mostly lesser-known” titles. If you haven’t seen Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly wry flick about a pair of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) holidaying in the “fucking fairytale” town of Bruges, consider this a must-watch. For those who have seen it, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson as a Bad Lieutenant-esque Irish cop. (I’m quite eagerly anticipating director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up, Calvary, which hits Netflix DVD queues on Jan. 6). A-

El Infierno
Joaquín CosioThe best lesser-known movie on Netflix Instant. Period. A Mexican man is deported back home from the States, only to find his nation in ruinous drug violence. So what does he do? Break bad and become a narco hitman, of course. Rarely is sociopolitical commentary as entertaining to watch as in director Luis Estrada’s masterpiece. My top recommendation on this list—which would explain why I wrote a fucking novella on it (see link). A

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devilI didn’t write about Oldboy because if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen it thirteen times. I Saw the Devil continues in the tradition of Park Chan-Wook’s gut-wrenchingly violent Vengeance Trilogy and is, with perhaps the exception of Oldboy, the best film made in the landscape of prolific gore-horror that is South Korean cinema. Alongside El Infierno and Tell No One, this rounds out my top three recommendations within this list. A-/A

Let the Right One In
let the right one inThis Swedish kiddie vampire tale makes Twilight look like Sesame Street. If for some reason you haven’t seen this, please do—it’s arguably one of the best horror movies ever made. A

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
At what what point do I just give up and dedicate my entire blog to South Korean revenge movies? That’s a question this grim story of a mysterious Asian Jason Bourne putting his life on the line to save a young girl brings to mind. While not quite as devastatingly sinister as The Vengeance Trilogy, director Lee Jeong-beom’s 2010 flick is every bit as good—and much more action-packed. B+/A-

Stake Land
stake landAside from Let the Right One In, it could be argued that this devilish, little vampire road movie is the best bloodsucker flick since Dusk Till Dawn. It’s basically a much smarter, more artfully crafted and fully realized version of The Walking Dead. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of vamps, do me a fucking favor and skip that hipster trash that hipster critics are raving about, Only Lovers Left Alive. I consider Jim Jarmusch a god among directors, but that was his most pretentious bit of bullshit ever. On a more upbeat note, keep an eye out for the Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I nominate for best horror-film title of 2014. As for Stake Land… A-

Tell No One
tell-no-oneMichael Caine named this 2006 French mystery thriller as one of the top ten movies ever made. While I don’t fully agree, I also wouldn’t call that hyperbole. This story—about a doctor who uncovers a secret about his dead wife—somehow manages the task of being both one of the most beautiful love stories and most action-packed thrillers in recent memory. One of my top three picks on this list. A

The Taking of Deborah Logan
the taking of deborah loganThe found-footage genre finds new life in this jump-out-your-seat scary flick about a lady with Alzheimer’s who becomes possessed by demonic forces. While my smug, Masshole co-writer Adam Fox may disagree, I’d easily call this one of the best horror movies of 2014. B+/A-

You’re Next
You're nextAn Australian survivalist chick winds up at the dinner party from hell as a cast and crew of mumblecore jag-offs redeem themselves by creating one of the best slasher films in years. If there was any justice in this world, Dwight Twilley would win an Oscar for “Looking for the Magic”—which director Adam Wingard uses immaculately here.  B+/A-

SERIES
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Black Mirror
jessica brown findlay sings in black mirrorDid I just give a shout-out to Adam Fox? He’s the guy who’s been writing up Black Mirror for this here site. Charlie Brooker’s series of seven (so far) unrelated stories is a menacingly bleak futuristic take on technology, dystopia and human fallibility. So far we’ve posted on Fifteen Million Merits (B+), a glimpse of what happens when The Running Man meets American Idol in hell; and The National Anthem (A-), which deals with a British prime minister deciding whether he should follow through on a terrorist threat to fuck a pig.

Happy Valley
blogIf you haven’t watched Happy Valley yet, perhaps it’s for some of the same reasons that it took me so long to get around to it: The marquee image on Netflix displays an unknown, middle-aged actress in a British cop uniform. Meanwhile, there are several other British series plastered on the same page containing well-known actors in their prime, like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumbertwat. So why should you choose Happy Valley, a show about a small-town detective who gets involved in a high-stakes kidnapping case? Let the record state that I am not comparing it to Breaking Bad… but it is the best show I’ve seen since the best show ever made ended. That’s why. A

The Fall: Season One
The FallThe Fall is perhaps one of the most intelligent cop shows on TV this side of True Detective, and now that Rust and Marty are out of the picture, Gillian Anderson’s lead as icy investigator Stella Gibson is perhaps the best character in the genre. The only downfall of this first season—which trails a sadistic Belfast serial killer—is that it left us with an asshole of a cliffhanger. Quit dicking around, BBC—deliver the goods! A-

Peaky Blinders: Season One
peaky blinders“When you walk through the garden…”. That was the line that Tom Waits opened episodes of The Wire with. “Take a little walk to the other side of the tracks” is the line Nick Cave opens Peaky Blinders with, and his “Red Right Hand” is the best intro song to any show since David Simon’s deservedly heralded series. There’s also a lot of other awesome shit happening here, like Cillian Murphy—as the leader of a Birmingham street gang—slashing people’s faces with razor-embedded scally caps. Blinders isn’t the most highbrow fare, but its first season is one of the most entertaining pieces of television I’ve seen in years. The second season falls a little short, but that’s another story for another time. A-

-Sam Adams

NOTE: A big year-end thanks to everyone who’s patronized this site, commented on it and given their support over the past three months. It means the fucking world. Also, a huge thanks to my man Adam Fox for helping me keep the ship afloat. We’ve got much more in store for 2015!