A Georgian Film: Landmine Goes Click (on Amazon Prime)

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With a premise that might as well be an interwoven riff on Funny Games, Deliverance and I Spit on Your Grave, director Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve watched since the notorious A Serbian Film. The story starts innocently enough, with a guy leaving his fiance and best friend standing on a live landmine in the middle of the European Georgian wilderness. That’s the innocent partleaving your friend and future wife to get blown to smithereens over an infidelity.

What devolves next is not for the faint of heart. Actually, I’m not sure who it’s for, or if I should even be recommending it on this blog. Which is why I bring up Funny Games, a movie I loathed watching but one that does pose the important question of why our society gets off on cinematic sadism. Or as Jamie Dornan put it in one of The Fall’s more memorable lines (before the series took a horse tranquilizer in Season 3), “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

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Why yes, Jamie Dornan did in fact get the role of a charming sexual sadist in Fifty Shades of Grey by playing a psycho-sexual sadist serial killer in The Fall. Gotta love Hollywood…

Indeed, that question begs answering in Landmine. One could argue that once this backwoods horror-show of rape, murder and torturous brutality comes to a close, there is a smidgen of moral resolution. But that might be a stretch.

All disclaimers aside, Landmine Goes Click is an expertly paced horror thriller that’s as evocative in its “revenge porn” as some of the most twisted major cinema to come out of the ’70s (I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes). And it’s hard not to admire the all-out psychologically warped performances of Sterling Knight and Kote Tolordava as a Yank and Georgian in a cat-and-mouse game of mortal combat.

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Georgian actor Kote Tolordava (left) died shortly before the release of Landmine Goes Click in 2015.

As in Funny Games, some of Bakhia’s scenes do linger to a point of near-unwatchable unease. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you can handle A Serbian Film, you won’t have any problems getting through this. You didn’t come to this website to read about Twilight, right?

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

-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.

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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.

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part II

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There are times when an ordinary man needs to take matters into his hands, and more often than not, those hands end up soaked in blood. While us level-headed civilians may not partake in or even advocate for vigilante justice, the vicarious thrill of watching Joe Citizen exact revenge on the big screen is undeniable. (There’s a reason why the great Charlie Bronson was able to rattle of four Death Wish sequels.)

These films can be even more intriguing when the protagonist isn’t, say, a gun-savvy war vet (see: Clint Eastwood’s incredible performance in the otherwise-misguided Gran Torino), but rather a timid, everyday man who’s been trampled into submission by forces he’s always seen as omnipotent and beyond his control. When the switch turns for that guy, we want to know what unfolds. After all, you recognize him, don’t you?

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Quentin Tarantino has made a career of dusting off forgotten pop hits and pairing them with film sequences that, in some parallel universe, they were no doubt recorded for. This brand of audiovisual synergy is a formula that most likely has Lars Von Trier and adherents of the Dogme movement screaming, “Go make a fucking music video, already!”

My two cents would be that a great scene paired with a great song is simply a way of elevating the artform and increasing its potency, thus further satisfying the beholder. Consider the scene a drug like ecstasy, and consider the song as getting head. They’re both dandy on their own, but when you’re rolling, are you really gonna turn down that added stimulation? It’s called a heightened fucking experience, amigo.

What does this have to do with Blue Ruin, one might ask? Well, alongside that Dwight Twilley song in You’re Next, I’d argue that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s use of Little Willie John’s “No Regrets” is among this year’s best audiovisual sequences. Maybe you should watch the movie yourself and then listen to the song, but since I’ve spent this much time waxing poetic, here’s some aural ecstasy (sans oral ecstasy):

To avoid spoilers, I won’t address why this song works so beautifully in Blue Ruin. So let’s start from the top. The film opens by introducing a skittish, hobo-bearded fellow who breaks into homes to take baths, eats leftovers out of trash bins near the Delaware shore and “lives” out of his car. I say “lives,” because it’s clear from the get-go that Dwight (Macon Blair) is more dwelling in the shadow of some dark past than actually spending any time interacting with the present. As he tells his sister in an early scene with very sparse dialogue, “I’m not used to talking this much.” To be fair, if there’s anything Wayne’s World taught us, it’s that there’s not a whole lot to be said about The Diamond State…

We soon find out what dark secret Dwight is dwelling on and, of course, facing it head-on is his only means of moving forward, regardless of the bloodshed involved. Suffice it to say that Saulnier wastes no time in getting the mayhem underway.

What’s refreshing about this revenge tale is that it doesn’t merely settle for the template set by great films like Deliverance or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, wherein the meek man becomes the he-man. The transformation in Dwight is more subtle, and often a product of dumb luck rather than heroics (look for a great side role from Devin Ratray as a gun-loving, metalhead survivalist).

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Blue Ruin, aka that movie where Nathan Lane goes apeshit.

When the buckets of blood have finally washed away, Blue Ruin is a bittersweet symphony about loss and redemption via vigilante justice. It also has a wonderfully grim sense of humor, specifically when that Little Willie John song comes into play.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.1  

God Bless America

God Bless America

There will be blood, and lots of it.

 Consider writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s maniacally dark God Bless America as a hybrid of Ned Judge’s Idiocracy and the 1970 hippie slaughter-fest Joe (no, not David Gordon Green’s mesmerizing Nicolas Cage flick, which we’ll discuss soon enough). Then throw in a healthy dose of Taxi Driver for good measure.

But wait, did you say “writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait”? Yes, the voice behind the foul-mouthed sock puppet who cleared the road for Triumph, the Insult  Comic Dog is indeed behind the lens here. And Goldthwait’s prior reputation is by no means a discredit. The film relies heavily on a brilliant sense of black humor, used to riff on pretty much everything that is wrong with modern American vanity and pop culture.

We learn early on that Frank (Joel Murray) is a guy who’s simply fed up with the lack of decency in modern society. His voice first pops up as his his whitetrash neighbors are yelling through the walls about a Michael Jackson story they’re watching on a shitty news channel. “I hate my neighbors. The constant cacophony of stupidity that pours from their apartment is absolutely soul-crushing.”

Thus begins the first in a whirlwind of cynically brilliant monologues from Joel Murray, one of those character actors who you’ll probably recognize (his turn as the barstool mailman Freddie Jackson in Shameless was one of the best parts of that show). Murray’s work is by far the crowning achievement of this movie. He channels both the wry, deadpan self-deprecation that his older brother—yeah, Bill muthafuckin’ Murray—finessed in Rushmore and the moral outrage of Peter Finch in Network.

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“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not keeping up with the Kardashians anymore!”

His disgust with everything from American Idol judges laughing at mentally challenged contestants to gay-bashing right-wingers finally comes to a breaking point when his pathetic life hits rock bottom. First, he’s fired from work on sexual harassment charges for sending flowers to a sick coworker. (And this might sound grandiose, but I’d argue that Goldthwait’s hyperbole here is a vital riff on the personal insensitivity in modern work environments.) Then his schmuck of a doctor tells him he has a brain tumor.

After a twist of fate rules out suicide, Frank goes on a killing spree with a hit list of pretty much any person who is “unkind or indecent.” And you side with the guy because at heart, he’s a teddy bear who cares about the goodness in people, and just happens to wield an AK-47. (Apropos of my note on Eastwood, Frank actually is a gun-savvy war vet, but that doesn’t really matter—it’s a comedy, and he certainly fits the mold of Joe Citizen.)

The only thing that irks me about this movie is that it does have a touch of Diablo Cody-esque, nagging self-awareness. I bring this up because Frank’s annoying sidekick, Roxy, is used more as platform to convey Goldthwait’s strong opinions than as an actual character (see: every character ever written by Diablo Cody). This shtick would get unbearable if it weren’t for the fact that, unlike Hollywood’s favorite no-talent ass-clown of a screenwriter, Goldthwait is not trying to show off how ironically cool his personal opinions are. Instead, he’s using this tool to outline the hideous, vain minutiae that, when compacted, is the face of our warped society.

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Diablo Cody, aka the worst thing to happen to keyboards since Chuck Palahniuk and Tucker Max.

I did almost punch the screen when Roxy went off on a tangent about why Alice Cooper was the god of everything (like Ellen Page vocally jerking off to Daria Argento via Diablo Cody), but Frank saves the day just in time:

Frank: “Are you ADD, Juno?”

And Roxy redeems herself with this: “That’s who we should kill next. Fucking Diablo Cody. She’s the only stripper who suffers from too much self esteem.”

This tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that’s aware of its self-awareness is the only part of God Bless America that really doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps Goldthwait is trying to tear down a horrible mechanism with the very same tools it was built with … but that might be reaching. And I really can’t stand Roxy’s character. This said, I’m hard-pressed to think of a better take on the most trashy and heartless elements of our modern society, and aided by Murray’s stellar performance, Goldthwait delivers a film that is as vicariously thrilling and hilarious as it is sociopolitically relevant.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.3  

-Sam Adams