Here are a cross-section of a number of mildly-to-solidly recommended films recently made available on Canadian Netflix. (You can click on the movie titles to read my original reviews where I’ve written them in the past.)
Death Note (2017)
I was a big fan of Adam Wingard’s The Guest (found elsewhere on this month’s list), bit not being a serious horror aficionado I’ve missed his other films, and I know his reboot of the Blair Witch franchise didn’t get a lot of love. Death Note, which adapts a Japanese manga, anime, and live action franchise, is extraordinarily silly, but it’s also sleazy fun. Of note to Haligonians, Hobo With A Shotgun director Jason Eisener shot second unit on this film.
A Seattle teenager (Nat Wolff), son of a cop (Shea Whigham), receives a notebook full of rules—it literally drops from the sky—and he quickly learns it allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it. He knows this because a sea-urchin demon with the voice of Willem Dafoe—a good choice—fills him in. Instead of just eliminating his least favourite bully—though he starts there—he shares his find with a classmate (Margaret Qualley), and together they decide to try to make the world a better place, correcting injustice with creative, at-a-distance assassinations. A vengeful spirit is blamed: Kira. But a dogged, idiocyncratic investigator, L (Lakeith Stanfield), is on the case, too.
This is one of those movies where the magic ticket—the notebook—is so full of rules for the power it offers the plot can keep adjusting, and twisting, as it goes along, making for some convenient and ridiculous storytelling. But there’s no doubt it entertains. It’s gorgeously shot, well acted, and with a great score that leans heavily on the ’80s electronica—credit Atticus Ross of The Social Network OST fame for the beeps and boops—plus we get a show-stopping Point Break-esque foot-chase sequence in the third act. It doesn’t amount to much, but you could do a lot worse than choose Death Note for your midnight viewing.
The City Of Tiny Lights (2016)
Riz Ahmed is Tommy Akhtar, London private investigator complete with crummy office, frosted glass, and cigarettes. Hired by a sex worker (The Good Wife‘s Cush Jumbo) to find one of her friends, he butts heads with various levels of law enforcement and, naturally, uncovers a deadly conspiracy that leads back to his own community. All this as he reconnects with an old flame (Billie Piper) with whom he shares a youthful tragedy. I’m a big fan of the London Noir, and there’s a lot of gritty, neon-lit style and location work to enjoy here, especially in the company of Ahmed, who shines throughout.
But there isn’t much in the script that doesn’t feel like a retread of any number of better films going back to 1947, from the stock characters and intermittent voice-over to the not-very-well-hidden agendas, though the multi-cultural intrigue of immigrant London brings something fresh. Its interest really depends on how much patience you manage for the slow-moving incident, greasy streets, and a raft of neighbourhood accents.
Rules Don’t Apply (2016)
Warren Beatty’s reputation would lead you to believe he’s become kind of a Howard Hughes-esque character—he hasn’t acted in a feature film since the mostly forgotten Town & Country from 2001, and hasn’t directed anything since Bulworth from 1998. That makes his return as a writer-director in Rules Don’t Apply kind of an event, though it came and went in cinemas without much approbation.
Finally catching up with it on Netflix and I find it’s neither fish nor fowl, an odd story of a girl from Virginia, Marla (Lily Collins), who moves to Hollywood to be a contract player for studio honcho Hughes (Beatty), who assigns a driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), to be her chaperone. Marla and Frank are both church-going believers, with Frank engaged to his childhood sweetheart, but naturally Marla and Frank are attracted to each other. So you’ve got their romance sharing space and time with the Hughes (sub-?) plot of him flying (and sometimes crashing) planes and arguing with investors and government panels concerned about both his work and mental health as he exercises his eccentricities and avoids seeing people in person. Both threads are diverting, and there’s some joy to be had with all the creative ways Beatty chooses to keep his face in shadow, but somehow, despite the fact Hughes is the antagonist and clearly mentally ill, the film still feels like some kind of twisted vanity project. (That might also be because he successfully woos the virginal Marla—Beatty was 78 and Collins was 26 when the movie was shot, and the fact both characters are supposed to be younger than the actors’ ages doesn’t help much—after she has a bottle of champagne. It’s just the worst.)
But I can’t deny the craft on display here—the street scenes of Los Angeles circa 1964 are totally convincing, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel makes everything look gorgeous—or that Collins and Ehrenreich on their own are winning. This is a film that says much more about Beatty and where he is as a filmmaker and a person than it could ever say about Hughes.
Personal Shopper (2017)
One of the year’s most compelling and mysterious films, I’ve written about it more than once. I’m happy to see it up on Netflix so more viewers can encounter it—the kind of movie that would’ve made Kristen Stewart a star if she wasn’t one already. Olivier Assayas puts her front and centre, an assistant to a moody fashion plate by day and a supernatural investigator by night, hoping to connect with her recently deceased twin. Then, about halfway in, the film becomes a suspense thriller worthy of Hitchcock. Playing in genre rather than committing is usually the kiss of death, but here it’s a delight, and with Stewart’s natural magnetism and mannered restlessness keeping us engaged.
Love & Mercy (2014)
The cliches of the biopic makes for too many dull features, but Love & Mercy undercuts those with an impressive double act: Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) as a young man, fighting for his creative voice in the Beach Boys, and as a middle-aged man (John Cusack) in the 1980s, under the controlling influence of a Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and possibly finding love for the first time in years with Elizabeth Banks. Though the two leads’ acting style are quite different, this diptych provides a real sense of the man’s life, how his vulnerabilities take from him his gift of making music.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
This picture requires a real leap of faith, but there are rewards if you can do it. The crux is that politician Matt Damon and dancer Emily Blunt can’t be together because of reasons, and the hidden bureaucracy of fate with its cabal of shadowy men insists on it, so Matt and Emily work hard to overcome these mysterious rules, opening New York up as a city with a lot of strange, dimensional doors. It makes about as much sense as Vanilla Sky or Winter’s Tale or Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them or any peculiar, Manhattan-set cinematic fantasy, but with Matt and Emily front and centre you know there’s pleasure just watching them run.
Stealing Beauty (1996)
Has ever a filmmaker adored his lead the way Bernardo Bertolucci does Liv Tyler? The daughter of Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler was still a teenager when she made this film, which is all about her wrists and thighs and neck and burgeoning sexuality in scenic Italy. Stories about what happened on the set of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris more than 20 years before this might sour any sensual appreciation of what’s going on here, but there’s no denying this is a gorgeous vision. Would make a lovely double bill with the forthcoming Call Me By Your Name.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland’s debut feature as writer-director, which he’ll have to work hard to top. Alicia Vikander is Ava, who may be an artificial intelligence, and Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb has been brought in by her creator, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan, to run a personalized variation of the Turing Test. All this happens in Nathan’s gorgeous retreat/laboratory, shot at a hotel in rural Norway. Beautifully constructed, Ex Machina stands with Blade Runner, Her, and the recent HBO series Westworld as some of the most credible takes on what AI might look like in our near future. The message is: Don’t underestimate the machines. Garland will team up again with Oscar Isaac in the science fiction fantasy Annihilation due in February 2018.
The Founder (2016)
It came and went in cinemas during the prestige drama season last year, but is worth a look. It tells the story of a fast talking salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) who partnered with the brothers who started McDonald’s (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) to bring their fast food product to America and the world. If your politics lean to the right, you might see this story as triumphant, how a capitalist achieved the American dream at the expense of the short-sighted. If you tend to the left, Kroc is a villain, exploiting the naiveté of the restaurateurs. This could be an allegory for all that’s wrong with the United States right now, as the home of corporate greed. That it allows both interpretations—though I’d wager I know where the filmmakers stand—is an impressive balancing act.
The Guest (2014)
Dan Stevens’ profile has gone way up in North America since the release of this film, largely thanks to the cult Marvel series Legion. His role in The Guest, which I first caught at the Atlantic Film Festival three years ago, is a real treat—he plays a war vet who turns up and ingratiates himself with the family of a dead soldier who he claims was a friend. Naturally, he has another agenda. This is a playful throwback to John Carpenter creepy thrillers of the 1980s, complete with an excellent electronic score and story beats that cross over into horror, while never taking its tongue out of its cheek. Check those jarring sound cues—hard to take any of that seriously.
The Man From UNCLE (2015)
The first thing Guy Richie did right in his adaptation of the 1960s TV series is set it back in the 1960s, making for some terrific sets and costumes—a “stylegasm,” I called it at the time. The second thing was hiring the white-hot Alicia Vikander, on her way to earning an Academy Award for other work but just getting recognized in Hollywood as its newest It Girl. Unfortunately, Richie also chose Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill as the male leads, who aside from being very pretty have very little chemistry, weight, or the roguish charm required in this kind of movie. It’s a shame, but Richie’s turbo-charged direction and fashion sense make the picture mostly fun anyway, and Hugh Grant almost steals it in support.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
I remember reading the reviews that insisted these two white comedians—John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd—had no business performing with the likes of Cab Calloway, James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Steve Cropper. I can understand that argument, but for a white kid like me who had no exposure to blues or R&B before the movie, it was a revelation. I know that soundtrack backwards and forwards. The Blues Brothers has aged well, counting among its many joys what Carrie Fisher brings to the movie as the Mystery Woman. She went on the record as saying John Belushi was a better kisser than Harrison Ford.
Easy A (2010)
The moment when Emma Stone became a full-fledged star in the perfect vehicle for her talents—a laugh-out-loud teen movie where she shines thanks to a gawky physicality and a razor-sharp wit. Her Olive is a clean-cut good girl who embraces her inner Hester Prynne, which gets her all kind of attention from both boys in school and adults in her life, including her parents (the amazing Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci). Stone is a 21st Century Myrna Loy, and I hope she gets to do more of this charming, funny work. Her next film is Battle Of The Sexes, opening in the next few weeks.
Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Barton Fink (1991)
The Coen Brothers may never better this run of feature films, their second, third, and fourth, and that’s saying something from the filmmakers behind Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men. Effortless handling of genre—broad, redneck comedy, period noir, and period suspense, respectively—distinct, unforgettable characters and hilarious dialogue. Each of these films is entirely different from the other, yet unmistakably Coenesque.
Miller’s Crossing is probably my favourite, starring the peerless Albert Finney, but watch all three in a day and be flattened by the Minnesotan brothers’ peculiar genius.