Streaming Bleak This Week, #5: Cash Only on Netflix

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There are few recent non-Tarantino films that draw from such a comprehensive, patchwork assemblage of crime cinema as director Malik Bader’s Cash Only. While I know I’m prone to describing a film as a hybrid of other films (with, of course, the intention of letting you know what you’re in for), one cannot help but cross-compare when it comes to this guttural howl of a movie.

Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so. That hell also includes a scene very reminiscent to one of the more oft-quoted Pulp Fiction set-ups. (And there’s your “if you liked this, you should watch these” paragraph.)

But as the saying goes, I watched it so you don't have to. Seriously. Stay away.

It’s a gas…

Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, however, there is no slick style or tongue-in-cheek humor here. Any jokes are more out of that school of ethnic-enclave street wisdom that made Tony Siragusa one of the more enjoyable parts of 25th Hour, or made MC Slaine look wicked “authenticious” in The Town.

The film begins by introducing us to Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a bald, strapping Albanian-American dude who looks like the lovechild of John Turturro and Juice from Sons of Anarchy. Elvis is a slumlord and single-father. Elvis is also in debt to everyone on both sides of the law in his crooked Detroit hood. (Kudos to this flick for not hitting us over the head with Detroitisms—what’s more important to the film’s identity is that this slum and its grind could exist anywhere.)

Elvis is also dealing with the fact that while burning down his house for insurance money, he forgot to check if his wife was sleeping inside. Thus the single-father thing…

I think it would be a stretch to call Elvis morally ambiguous. He’s generally a good dude with a good heart who just happens to have fucked up his family’s life in an unimaginably horrible way. (Enter Mean Streets Christian morality play.) And now, while dealing with that horror, he’s hit with the double-whammy of having to scam cash out of delinquent tennants so that he can keep both his hide and a roof over his daughter’s head.

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Didn’t Mean Streets already warn us not to play with fire?


The first half of the film is more of a character set up, introducing us to Elvis’ colorful acquaintances. These include a dealer named Kush (played by director Bader) who operates a massive basement growhouse in one of Elvis’ properties. Then there’s his guy the mechanicanother man with one foot in the Old Country and the other still well outside the American Dream. Then there’s the Euro-trash buddy whose fiance Elvis is schtupping on the DL. And then there’s the crazy call girl who Elvis scams for a massive wad of cash after spying on her through these creepy cameras he sets up in his tennants’ homes.

I never said Elvis was on the level.

The second half of the film jumps from a week of these characters dancing around each other in cash grabs to a rapid, 24-hour search for Elvis to come up with 25 Large. Let’s just say that everything is at stake, and if the first half of the film seemed slow, the second pays off big time. There’s also a climax borne straight out of hell, but I’ll leave the particulars of that experience up to the viewer.

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Writer and lead actor Nickola Shreli (LR) channels an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen in Cash Only.

I know that comparing any film to Mean Streets is a major declaration, and I’m not saying Cash Only at all lives up to that standard. But in the same vein that Scorsese went into Harvey Keitel’s hellfire-laced existential battle with Christianity and showed you the world of his nitty gritty neighborhood through a cast of lovable fuck-ups, the young director Bader ventures into very much the same territoryand with quite an effect, thanks in large part to the standout, naturalistic work of his lead.

Remember though… I also compared this to the Pusher Trilogy and A Serbian Film. So yeah, don’t expect a doo-wop ride through the quaint streets of old Little Italy. Because shit gets downright medieval on that ass in Cash Only.

IMDb: 6.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams

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Streaming Bleak This Week, #4: The Invitation on Netflix

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While this blog is a recommendation site and I do believe I’ve done my due diligence in that regard over the past few years, my last three picks in this series were, admittedly, an attempt to come up with worthwhile suggestions that I knew the vast majority of you readers wouldn’t have seen. As such, they weren’t all necessarily as savagely palatable as the typical fodder promoted herein.

They Look Like People, Bob and the Trees and We Are Still Here are all indie movies made on a shoestring budget. I think the most famous actor among all three was Barbara Cramptona name only dedicated horror fans would recognize. That’s not to say I think I fucked upI actually really liked all threebut this weekly pick series is an experiment, and your feedback has been hit or miss on said titles. Which means it’s time to recalibrate the meat grinder.

Back to the ol' drawing board...

Back to the ol’ drawing board…

Moving forward, I’m still going to err on the side of lesser-known titles, but I’ll try to keep in mind that I’m one of the few fuckers who’s exhausted the near entirety of everything bleak and horrific worth watching on Netflix. Point being that a hidden gem to me might justifiably be viewed as nothing more than a shiny pebble to you folks out there who have, ya know, lives.

That is why this week I’m going to offer up a really fucking awesome flick that any suspense-horror fan should be able to get behind. So without further adieu…

The Invitation
Michael Huisman (AKA Daario Naharis) hosts a dinner party from hell in The Invitation
Yep, that’s Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones (played in real life by Michael Huisman). See? This movie is already more relatable and less obscure!

The Invitation starts with a grieving father and his new lady going to a dinner party at the house of his ex-wife and her new feller (Daario Naharas, played by Daario Naharas). Actually you might also recognize the lead dude. It took me awhile to place him. At first I thought it was Tom Hardy from The Revenant reincarnated, but then I realized I knew him from … The O.C.

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Apparently I’m not the first to notice that Bane has a doppelgänger…

That was another life. Moving on.

Anyway, a big group of folks who were tight two years ago get together. It’s an awkward reunion of sorts as no one’s really seen anyone else since the son of O.C. guy and Liv Tyler-lookalike ex-wifey tragically died in a freak pinata accident. (If there are truly 6 million ways to die, that sure is a motherfucker…)

It’s important to note that this is all taking place at a swank and secluded pad in L.A., which becomes a recurring excuse as to why everyone keeps acting so fucking weird. At one point a character even says of the freaky, culty, hippie-dippy hosts, “Yeah, they’re a little weird. But this is L.A. They’re harmless.” Famous last words, punto. Go ask Sharon Tate.

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“No More Parties in L.A.” The one time Kanye gave good life advice…

One thing I love about The Invitation is how its first half is such a meticulous play between ebbing macabre suspense and one man’s struggles with grief, paranoia and anger. It’s like a delicately wired stage play that could easily go the route of heady psychological flick. Actually, unless you’d seen the previews (I hadn’t), this thing could have unfolded down several genre pathways at that midway markall with complete plausability. I even found myself thinking, Shit, I might be in for one of those moody indie dramas about coming to terms with loss and emotions and stuff.

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Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body: Never was self-immolation so hot.

With that in mind, director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Bodystarring Megan Fox and little else) deserves major credit for wielding such multi-layered sleight of hand in such deft fashion. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out exactly what type of film it is, but apropos of my earlier comments, let’s just say that there is nothing unresolved or left to the imagination here.

For comparison’s sake, think of something in the vein of Would Your Rather, Knock Knock and Kidnapped (Secuestrados). Then imagine the grown-folks’ version of Would You Rather, what some elements of Knock Knock would have been like if that movie had a pulse, and what Kidnapped would have been with better direction, a more fully evolved narrative and less torture porn.

All in all, The Invitation serves up the oft-visited “dinner party from hell” subgenre in delectable, ornate and satiating fashion. Look also for a brutally chilling monologue from the great character-actor John Carroll Lynch (who you may remember as Eastman from one of the greatest music videos Walking Dead episodes of all time!).

IMDb: 6.7
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: They Are Still Here

Streaming Bleak This Week, #3: We Are Still Here on Netflix Instant

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If you’re in the mood for a low budget haunting-possession flick that doesn’t suffer from said low budget, Ted Gheoghegan’s We Are Still Here is one of the better recent additions to the Netflix canon. It’s also phenomenally cast, with scream queen Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) and Andrew Sensenig (the weird fucker from Upstream Color) playing a husband and wife who’ve relocated to a rural fixer-upper to start fresh after a family tragedy.

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Marie, Fessenden, Sensenig and Crampton (L to R): a hellishly haunted reunion of b-horror behemoths

Then there’s Lisa Marie as a psychic, hippie friend who comes to visit the couple with her Dude Lebowski-esque husband (Larry Fessenden from Jugfacereuniting with Crampton after he played the sleazy college professor in You’re Next). Add in a creepy local priest and several bumps in the frigid New England night, and a very enjoyable homage to ’70s and ’80s horror ensues. This flick also gets major bonus points for going more the route of old-school special effects in situations where bigger budget films would have lazily turned to CGI.

IMBb: 5.7
GRADE: B

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: Bob and the Trees

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

Streaming Bleak This Week, #1: They Look Like People on Netflix Instant

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Loyal Readers, I have been unfaithful to ye. I must confess that it’s been two months since my last blog post. This sort of slovenly scribing behavior shall not stand. For all you innumerable plebs picketing countless hours outside the gates of Monster at the End of a Dream HQ, your voices have been heard.

The solution? Offer you at least one concise post a week on mostly lesser-known flicks of the darker nature that you can catch via interweb streaming. Between the laundry lists that take me countless man hours to compile, this should at least ease the suffering a bit. Maybe I’ll even rake in more massive contributions like the one I’m still waiting on from that Sudanese prince… Anyway, on to the first edition in this series. But wait, speaking of Sudanese royalty and cinema, how about an intermission before we continue:

Yes, I got the popcorn and I know what else you like. So let me take you to the movies…

They Look Like People
Perry Blackshear’s feature debut They Look Like People is essentially the Millennial’s indie-film answer to John Carpenter’s They Live. Actually, I challenge you to look for a legitimate review of this film that doesn’t use They Live as a parallel. If it weren’t for copyright issues, I bet TLLP would be called They Live 2: When Hipsters Attack.

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They Look like Williamsburg

I digress. This is where I tell you that They Look Like People isin terms of movies I just randomly stumbled onone of my favorite things I’ve watched on Netflix in the last year.

Premise: A paranoid scraggly loner shows up at the doorstep of his cubicle-working high school buddy who has major inferiority complex issues and listens to self-help tapes. Scraggly dude starts getting ominous phone calls from a man telling him things like, “If we do not stop them, they will enslave and butcher every good person left on Earth. You must prepare for the war.” Then self-help tape guy starts dating his really cute boss, and scraggly guy brings everybody in on his secret that an an evil, alien force is overtaking ordinary people.

It’s apparent from the outset that the film’s premise revolves around whether our main man Wyatt is preparing to fight demons or just battling the ones in his head; schizo or undercover doomsday warrior?

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Speaking of great conspiracy theorists in film…

Over the course of the film’s 79 short minutes, this question builds to a massive, swarming crescendo. Some very strong newcomer performances (MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake), a subtle-yet feverishly taut narrative and ace sound-mixing are the key ingredients in a very impressive psychological-suspense debut by Blackshear. If you don’t expect horror or thriller (or much of anything, like myself) and can handle a slow-burn indie psychological-suspense flick, it doesn’t get much better for a shoe-string budget than They Look Like People. You should also check out The Battery (Amazon Prime) if you liked this, and vice versa.

IMDb: 6.1
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams