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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Sandra Bullock lends her supreme talents to a Netflix movie that’s become a media sensation—even though Bird Box features a bunch of overused horror gimmicks mashed into one, messy entity.

Malorie (Bullock) is a gloomy painter (they show Bullock only painting the black background to make it look authentic), going through the motions and dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), takes Malorie to the doctor for a checkup—shortly after seeing a strange report on TV about masses of people killing themselves in Russia.

While visiting with the doc (Parminder Nagra), all hell starts to break loose in the hospital and, especially, on the streets. It appears as if people are seeing some sort of entity and deciding it’s far too much for them to handle, so they kill themselves in creative ways (stepping in front of buses, bashing their heads into windows, walking into fires, etc.). Malorie manages to navigate through a hellish urban landscape before winding up trapped in a house with a few others.

Up until this point, the film looks promising. The street-suicide scenes are genuinely scary, and flash-forward scenes show Malorie trying to find some sort of safe haven with two children while they all wears blindfolds to avoid seeing the killer vision. Those scenes work OK, although they are a play on last summer’s A Quiet Place, with characters prohibited from seeing rather than making noise.

Alas, the movie hits a total dead end once Malorie goes in that house. It’s pretty much the same scenario as that remake of Dawn of the Dead, right down to the pregnant women and shopping scenes.

John Malkovich is one of the house survivors, and he’s just doing a variation on his usual John Malkovich thing. After witnessing the death of his wife, he gets Malkovich angry, yelling at Malorie in that deliberate, pause between the words kind of way. (“You … are the reason … she … is dead!”) The average male would be curled up in a fetal position bawling his eyes out after witnessing such a thing, but Malkovich just gets pissed, Malkovich-style. I was laughing, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the desired reaction from filmmaker Susanne Bier.

As for the other survivors, there’s a young punk, a female cop, another pregnant woman, an older mom type and a Malorie love interest. While Bullock is trading lines with most of these folks, it’s clear they are obviously outmatched, especially in some of the moments that seem more improvised. They shouldn’t be in the same room with Bullock, who is top-notch despite the hackneyed scripting.

The title of the film refers to a shoebox Malorie keeps birds in as a monster alarm. This makes no sense: It’s established that if you are outside, and you look, you will inevitably see “the monster” that will make you off yourself. Why put a bunch of birds through hell? There’s no escaping the monster, who inevitably shows up within seconds of you opening your eyes. A bird chirping is just incidental.

The scenes with Bullock and the children on the river, while not all that original, are nonetheless, riveting and tense. Much of this is due to the excellent child actors; their characters are simply named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards). The expressions they make while Malorie lectures them on how one stupid move could kill them are heartbreaking.

There is one thing totally amazing about Bird Box: BD Wong, who plays one of the house survivors, is 58 years old. The man looks like he’s 35! As for the movie itself, I credit Netflix for doing a great job of hyping it and Bullock for acting her ass off—even when the material drifts into dreck.

Bird Box is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Netflix is on fire, with the arrival of the extremely popular (if not that great) Bird Box, and Bandersnatch, this strange little curio from the makers of the anthology series Black Mirror.

Some kids of the 1980s might remember an arcade game called Dragon’s Lair, where you made choices for the game’s protagonist, and different scenarios played out. Bandersnatch is similar, but the different plot threads are wildly varying, with most of them being quite well written and entertaining.

Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) plays Stefan, a video-game creator who pitches an idea for a game, Bandersnatch. He winds up working for a company (or maybe he doesn’t, depending on your choices) making the game, and what happens while he’s working is up to you. Choices appear on the bottom of the screen, and you get to pick the scenarios.

There are about five hours of material in all, and the movie has its share of nastiness and gore, so you might not want to play with the kids. It’s not mind-blowing stuff, but it is surprisingly effective given its gimmick. I thought it was fun.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Imagine you’re a young filmmaker. You write, plan and shoot an entire movie—and then someone you trust takes all of the footage and completely disappears.

That’s the real story of the documentary Shirkers, which was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, before being picked up by Netflix and released on the streaming service. It will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 4, 5 and 12.

In 1992, a Singapore teenager obsessed with cinema, Sandi Tan, gathered her friends and set out to make a film she’d written called Shirkers. Georges Cardona, an American living in Singapore, was Tan’s film teacher and the director of the film. When the film was finished, Cardona vanished.

Years later, after Cardona’s death, the film canisters were found and returned to Tan, but without the audio tracks. The documentary starts off as an unsolved mystery, as Tan explains the story, shows scenes from the film, and sets out on a quest to try to understand Cardona’s life and what really happened.

During a phone interview with Tan, who now lives in Los Angeles, she acknowledged that her story is rather strange.

“I’ve lived with it for so long that it’s been a big part of my life,” Tan said. “It’s the secret I’ve had to suppress for so many years that belief is not even part of it. … It seems like a story that’s stranger than fiction.”

Singapore has a notoriously authoritarian government, and Tan said there wasn’t an outlet for independent filmmakers back when she shot Shirkers.

“We were really the only people making an independent film, which is why it was such a revolutionary act,” she said. “… It’s a huge chunk of history that was stolen along with it, along with our dreams. … We just did it without any support or permission. We just shot it.”

Tan at the time was a punk-rocker and artist who found a way to get her hands on material that inspired her.

“I was part of the whole mail-art thing where you’d send your collages and zines to people around the world, trading with them, and you could make mixtapes and send them to another friend somewhere else,” she said. “My cousin in Florida was sending me videotapes of movies I wanted; I’d send her homemade T-shirts as trade. It was our version of the internet. My cousin would rent movies from Blockbuster and copy them onto a VHS tape—things like Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona. I was really into David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. I was also obsessed with Tim Burton. I loved Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table; that was a very inspiring film for me.”

The original Shirkers has never been released; the only parts ever publicly shown are the scenes included in the documentary. The fact that the audio has never been found presents a challenge.

“We could put together a silent version of the film in a creative way, but with creative sound,” Tan said. “I’m not sure about dubbing, which is kind of tacky. I really think it could work as a silent movie with subtitles with creative sound and music. A lot of people want to see the original film, and I’m sure there’s some way we could get that done someday.”

She remembered the first time she watched the footage after it was found and returned to her.

“The strange thing is it was exactly the way I remembered it,” she said. “I was very relieved that I wasn’t imagining all this stuff. All the colors, all the locations, the expressions on people’s faces and everything was exactly as it was in my head, but I had no proof of it, and couldn’t tell anyone.

“When I saw the footage in Burbank with someone who was seeing it for the first time and had no idea what the story was, his jaw just dropped. I knew we had something that was extraordinary and a story that had to be told.”

Tan did not have kind things to say about Georges Cardona.

“His way of being creative is to take away the dreams of other people,” she said. “If other people were able to do things, he would help them realize their dreams and take them away. He’s a very fascinating figure, because we have a lot of (his type in) the film and entertainment industry—people who want to create, but create loss and destruction so they are remembered in some way.”

After the loss of the original Shirkers, Tan said she learned some valuable lessons.

“I have never lost my will and desire to be a filmmaker,” she said. “I really rediscovered my confidence and voice with the help of the technology that’s available. You can do amazing things, and it’s liberating and empowering to realize you’re not the sorceress’ apprentice; you’re now the sorcerer.”

Shirkers will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 1:45 p.m., Friday, Jan. 4, at the Annenberg Theater, 101 N. Museum Drive; 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 5, at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Road; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road. Tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org.

Published in Previews and Features

Five years after his Oscar-winning Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón returns with a decidedly different film in Roma. On a smaller—but no less effective—scale, Roma is a moving tribute to the female servant Cuarón grew up with during the early 1970s in the Mexico City suburb of Roma.

Cuarón, who claims 90 percent of the movie is based on his childhood memories, tells the story from the female servant’s point of view. Renamed Cleo and played by Yalitza Aparicio in an astonishing, heartbreaking performance, Cleo is the glue holding the family together as their philandering patriarch, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), abandons them.

The remaining family consists of four children, mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and grandmother Teresa (Verónica Garcia). They rely heavily upon Cleo, who responds with a dedicated, steadfast grace—no matter how tense the situation gets.

The situation worsens when Cleo becomes pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts-obsessed, criminally selfish man who should have the first letter of his name replaced with a “V.” Fermin is so despicable that he makes Antonio look like an absolute sweetheart.

So Cleo and Sofia are left alone. Sofia’s personal matters always happen in the background; we only get brief snippets of conversations and occurrences that allow Cleo and the family to know the father is not coming back. The abandonment of Cleo by Fermin, however, is handled in a far more blunt, and repeatedly awful, way.

Sofia has a few moments when she almost unravels, lashing out at her children and Cleo. She has a kind heart, but the pressure is almost too much to take, and it shows. On the contrary, Cleo goes through it all without becoming a burden on anyone. She carries her baby full-term, tending to the family’s children and supporting Sofia. Cleo rarely shares her personal feelings—but she does speak out in a few choice moments. Those moments are devastating.

The movie covers about a year in the life of the family, and it’s a slow build. Filmed in black and white, its every shot is a beautiful thing—which is amazing considering that Cuarón acted as his own cinematographer for the first time on a feature film.

Much of the movie happens in slow pans. It isn’t very wordy, and it adheres to a certain level of reality that could be taken as mundane at times. It’s daringly simple and somehow majestic at the same time. There are some grand-scale moments; a sequence depicting a violent student uprising is visceral and taut, while a near tragic-event on a beach is frighteningly real and fills the screen. Yet most of the movie is made up of little moments that string a life together—a dog hopping up on a dress, a kid asking for Twinkies, a car rubbing alongside the car port’s walls because it’s too damned wide, etc. Halfway into the movie, you’ll feel as if you’ve been living with this family.

Aparicio’s performance is truly remarkable. She’s in nearly every scene; she gives us one of the year’s most memorable characters—and somehow, this is the only IMDb credit she has. She will break your heart. When she tries to sit down for a second to watch a TV show, when she faces a troublesome birth on her own, when she’s yelled at for missing a few of her daily tasks … I repeat: Aparicio will break your heart.

Roma continues what it is turning out to be a breakthrough year for Netflix, which has given the movie a limited big-screen release before making it available for streaming. This and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Coen brothers are proof that the service has become a giant purveyor of original cinema goodness.

Roma is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It premieres on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 14.

Published in Reviews

Kurt Russell might be the best Santa Claus ever in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, a inconsistent but ultimately enjoyable movie that is sure to make it into a lot of holiday-movie rotations for those of us who like Christmas movies with a little edge.

Kate (the adorable Darby Camp) is dealing with the loss of her father, a struggling mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her jerk brother, Teddy (Judah Lewis), during the holidays. She makes Santa a request video—and then accidentally stumbles upon the big guy himself as he drops by.

Russell is a comic gem here, bemoaning the way cola ads portray him as fat (the guy is in great shape) while embodying the joy and eternally happy spirit of the legend. While the movie drifts a bit in the middle—including some unfortunate, cutesy CGI elves—Russell keeps the whole thing movie forward with the power of his unique and totally new Santa.

The movie is a treat in the end, and Russell takes the big man to all new levels.

The Christmas Chronicles is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Netflix is becoming a haven for the very best directors. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will debut on the streaming service on Dec. 14 after a very brief theatrical run. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Soderbergh all have had, or will have, projects with Netflix.

The true stunner is that Joel and Ethan Coen also teamed up with Netflix for their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is a six-part Western anthology that fits snugly in their repertoire, which includes No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. The movie’s arrival on Netflix, after a one-week theatrical run, establishes Netflix as a true original-film force.

The film opens with a story about the title character (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who is frighteningly adept with his gun, casually killing many in the segment’s few minutes. The musical ending tells us we are in true Coen territory—where weird, beautiful things can happen.

The other shorts involve an unlucky bank robber (James Franco), a sad and greedy show-runner (Liam Neeson), a wily prospector (Tom Waits), an unfortunate cross-country traveler (Zoe Kazan) and a creepy stagecoach. All of the segments are good enough that they could be expanded into stand-alone films, and all of them successfully convey the overall theme—that the old West was a tricky, dark place.

For any Coen fans concerned that this represents anything less than their usual brilliance because it’s a streaming/TV affair: Fret not. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will go down as one of the year’s best movies, as their films often do. It’s also a nice companion piece to their other fine Western, their remake of True Grit.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I binge watched the 10-episode, 10-hour series The Haunting of Hill House in a day on Netflix—and I wanted more.

So, yeah, it’s good.

Based, very loosely, on the Shirley Jackson novel, it tells the story of a family living in a creepy house while the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) renovate it for the purpose of flipping it for profit. Things begin to go badly in a haunting kind of way, and events occur that have ramifications throughout the years.

The show covers two time periods, one in which Thomas (who is beyond excellent) plays the young dad, and Timothy Hutton (also excellent) plays him two decades later. The cast is stellar across the board, with the likes of Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Elizabeth Reaser playing the adult versions of the siblings, and Paxton Singleton, Lulu Wilson and Violet McGraw playing them as children.

There are lots of ghosts in the show, and some of them are truly terrifying, including a tall, levitating ghost that guides himself by tapping a cane on the floor. The show is as much a family drama as a horror show, pulling off both genres efficiently.

The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as, well, a kindergarten teacher who discovers one of her students (Parker Sevak) is quite the poet. She covets the boy’s talent to a point that becomes … well, unhealthy.

The movie, a remake of a French film, gives the talented Gyllenhaal yet another terrific showcase; her teacher is a most complicated character who is guilty of numerous crimes … yet you can’t help but feel for her. Tired of her life, she becomes obsessed with the boy, utilizes his poetry in a bad way, and gets herself in a whole world of trouble. Gyllenhaal pulls off a marvel of a performance, making a despicable person undeniably sympathetic.

This is yet another great offering from Netflix; The Kindergarten Teacher is a theater-caliber movie getting released on the streaming platform with only a limited theatrical release. This is the sort of movie that used to only play art houses; now you can watch it at home the week it’s released.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Maniac is yet another Netflix series that plays like a long—but really good—movie.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone reteam (after Superbad) as two mentally exhausted individuals who volunteer for pharmaceutical experiments that involve a lot more than simply taking pills.

The premise—which allows for their characters to essentially share dreams—places them inside different fantasy scenarios involving different people. Lemurs, Long Island, shootouts, odd dancing, seances, hawks and more play into those scenarios, all directed engagingly by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The different dreams have different styles—but Fukunaga keeps it all under control.

Stone is the true shining star here, especially in a sequence that places her in a Lord of the Rings-type setting, one that her character’s true self can’t really stand. Hill plays his Owen as morose for much of the running time, which is necessary given Owen’s state, but he does get a decent amount of opportunities to go crazy when his character morphs into different people.

Justin Theroux is fantastic as a pathetic doctor, as is Sally Field as his famous mother. In fact, Field has some of the series’ best moments—no surprise, given that she is the legendary Sally Field.

If you are looking to binge, Maniac is a fine choice.

Maniac is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Over Labor Day weekend, I binge-watched Ozark, a show about a Chicago family whose financial-expert patriarch, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), made the unfortunate decision to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. He eventually winds up in the Ozarks with his family, where he finds ways to launder more money through the lakeside businesses he gobbles up.

The first season worked just fine. Bateman himself directed a couple of episodes that I found to be generally gripping, and Laura Linney had some great moments as Wendy Byrde, mother and wife. Julia Garner was very good as Ruth, a local looking to ride Marty’s fake wealth into a better life.

As for the just-released second season … I am four episodes in so far, and it stinks.

It’s all about the Byrdes being stuck in the Ozarks and trying to manipulate their various schemes, with the first few episodes trying too hard to explain what happened in Season 1. It’s a show in which it seems like the writers are desperately worried about reminding viewers about all the past details. Hey, let it fly; we’ll figure it out.

The first season focused on criminal activity in the small territory. The second goes into state government and political intrigue as the Byrdes try to build a casino. The dialogue gets dumber and dumber as the show wears on, and it becomes a slog.

I don’t like what I’m seeing. Ruth has become nothing but annoying; Marty and Wendy are just running around over-explaining why they are bad; and Trevor Long’s increased screen time as Ruth’s disgusting dad is unwelcome.

I hope things get better in the final six episodes of Season 2, If they do not, Ozark will have been better off as a limited series rather than a continuing entity. It’s stretching its premise to extremes that are not at all entertaining.

Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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