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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The third season is the best yet for Netflix’s Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s throwback series.

Much of the action, including a showdown with the Mind Flayer monster from the Upside Down, takes place in the Starcourt Mall, a mighty authentic wonder of art direction. (Sam Goody and Ground Round make notable appearances.)

Of course, the Russians now play a prominent part as Hopper (David Harbour) tries to protect his adopted daughter, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), from the Reds, demons—and, most notoriously, her new boyfriend, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who likes to kiss way too much. Steve (Joe Keery) has his best season yet, working in an ice cream store with new cast member and major standout Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) as his co-scooper.

The special effects this time around are top-notch, with more nice nods to John Carpenter, Stephen King and The Blob. Harbour gets a little goofier in this season, and it’s a lot of fun watching his Hopper trying to date Joyce (Winona Ryder).

The finale provides some major cliffhangers for the inevitable Season 4, which could actually wind up in a completely different series. It’s good to see the show make a comeback after a middling Season 2. It’s a total blast, and it features a nice ode to The Neverending Story.

The third season of Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Bob Dylan peaked, in my opinion, during that strange time in the mid-1970s when he hit the road with a traveling circus of his music/poetry friends, covered his face with white makeup and delivered some of the rawest, most-straightforward rocking performances of his career. Thankfully, that’s the focus of Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix.

Martin Scorsese, for the second time, has made a documentary focusing on the musical icon, combining archive concert footage with interviews (most notably a new chat with Dylan himself) to tell the story of the most-interesting tour of the man’s career. Dylan had just finished touring stadiums with The Band, and wanted to play more-intimate venues. So he did, and he brought the likes of Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez along with him.

The concert footage shows Dylan focused, driving and sometimes very funny as he delivers new music along with his already-classic songbook. New songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” destroy alongside transformed versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” While watching these concert moments, it becomes immediately clear that anybody who was present for the shows was witnessing vital music history.

The interviews flesh out the “story” in what amounts to another triumph for Scorsese, who has given himself a nice side gig doing rock documentaries.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Well … this oddity came out of nowhere.

Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cronies recently dropped The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience on Netflix. This nutty 27-minute “musical poem” chronicles the late ’80s insanity that was the Bash Brothers—the steroid-enriched combo of Oakland Athletics baseball players Jose Canseco (Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Akiva Schaffer).

The short film chronicles their rise and fall, taking a hilariously esoteric deep dive into psyches that were apparently a lot more complicated than their athletic exteriors revealed. The Lonely Island guys grew up in the Bay Area, so this is something that is close to home for them. It’s also an inspired and unexpected choice upon which to base a half-hour music video.

Musical group Haim shows up with Maya Rudolph to do an ass-shaking routine that reminds of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” while Sterling K. Brown makes an appearance as, yes, Sia. This is actually as visually impressive as it is musically, in line with the Lonely Island’s hilarious Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

The highlight actually comes during the credits, when Jorma Taccone shows up as a dorky, singing Joe Montana, another Bay Area sports legend. Popstar didn’t get any traction in theaters (although it deserved it), so maybe the shorter format will catch fire on Netflix, and we will get a bunch of these. That would be nice.

The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is now streaming on Netflix

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Joe Berlinger is no stranger to dark subjects. He directed the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a movie that arguably helped release three innocent men from prison. Earlier this year, he directed Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part documentary series on the infamous serial killer.

Now comes this, a narrative film about Bundy’s life, focusing on the years in which he was killing women while having a relationship with Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), a single parent he met in a bar.

Zac Efron steps into the role of Bundy in a way that is downright frightening. If you mess with Efron’s hair a bit, he’s a dead-ringer for Bundy, but his work here goes well beyond physical resemblance. There was plenty of footage of Bundy for Efron to study (his murder trial was televised, a first in American history), and Efron definitely captures Bundy’s creepy, deceptive charisma.

Berlinger’s film focuses on the charms that fooled many who knew Bundy; he was a mostly affable, cheerful guy in the public eye. There was something supremely evil boiling behind his movie-star eyes, though, and Berlinger mostly avoids his depraved deeds in favor of examining his life away from the murders. It’s a risky approach—Berlinger could have been accused of romanticizing Bundy with the casting of Efron and the lack of carnage in the movie—but it mostly works. This movie is far from romantic, and those watching it probably know what a sick man Bundy was. This is a horror story, but one that favors creeping terror over massive bloodletting.

Berlinger covered the details of Bundy’s crimes (using Bundy’s own words) in the documentary. This film is something different, and it’s mostly successful at showing the public another frightening side of Bundy, thanks to Efron’s strong work.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson star in Netflix film The Highwaymen as Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, two former Texas marshals who come out of retirement to help hunt the infamous Bonnie and Clyde.

John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) directs from a script by John Fusco that’s a road movie, more or less, as Hamer and Gault deal with each other’s aging foibles while they hunt down two of the most notorious criminals in American history. As road movies go, it’s pretty good, with Costner playing the crustier guy to Harrelson’s quirkier guy.

The movie stands as a decent companion piece to the ’67 Arthur Penn classic Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. In fact, I watched that one directly after this, and they fit together quite nicely.

Bonnie and Clyde make brief but memorable appearances here, with Costner and Harrelson getting the vast majority of screen time.

At the time of the hunt, the FBI and many lawmen were trying to find Bonnie and Clyde, without success. Hamer and Gault make for an interesting story about how sometimes, you just need to go old school.

The Highwaymen is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

If you are looking for a good, standard action-thriller to put into your Netflix queue, Triple Frontier is a safe bet. Maybe it’s too safe, in fact, but regardless, after a one-week theatrical release, the movie is now available for streaming.

The latest from the streaming giant sends the likes of Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal and Charlie Hunnam into the jungle to rob a South American drug lord’s house of millions of dollars.

Former special-forces operative Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac) has become bored to death as a military adviser to police making drug busts. During a particularly bloody mission, he overhears a captured dealer divulge the location of a drug lord’s personal home, where he keeps all of his money. Pope gets to thinking and then calls upon some of his former Special Ops buds to pay the kingpin a house call and relieve him of some of his dirty money. The catch: The mission will be off the books, of course, and totally illegal.

After years of military service with nothing to show for it, Pope and his buddies Redfly (Affleck), Ironhead (Hunnam), Ben (Hedlund) and Catfish (Pascal) are looking for a little payback. Tom “Redfly” Davis is the most reluctant at first, but a divorce and child-support payments prompt him to eventually go all-in.

The first stage of the mission has the men attempting what is supposed to be a quick, easy theft of the money while most of the family is at church, and the drug lord is left behind. This gives director J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year, All Is Lost) an opportunity to present an effectively chilling heist inside a jungle mansion. Of course, things don’t exactly go according to plan.

The next stage has the boys getting into some skirmishes in the jungle and in a small village; again, things aren’t going as easily as Pope proposed in his initial plans. The third stage has the men moving hundreds of pounds of money toward and eventually through the Andes—first on mules and then on their backs, as they try their darndest to salvage the mission’s booty.

All three stages are well-done, although there are not many surprises. Triple Frontier doesn’t rack up points for originality, but it does score with the casting, with all five main leads making solid contributions. They are all good enough to distract you from the fact that the movie itself is almost completely devoid of originality.

That’s OK. Sometimes a great cast and some decent firefights are all you need to quench your action-thriller thirst; in that sense, Triple Frontier hits the marks.

Also, it’s fun to watch this movie if you pretend that Affleck’s character is actually a retired Batman who has come upon hard financial times and is forced to sell condos for a living. I admit that this notion was playing in my head, especially in the moments when Redfly (That could be a bat’s nickname!) gets all dark and brooding.

Of the performances, Isaac’s is the most memorable—no big surprise, considering he’s easily the best actor in the bunch. Pascal is good as the down-on-his-luck pilot who needs some scratch to offset the legal cost of his latest blunder. Hedlund offers some decent comic relief as the angriest and most impatient of the group.

The movie does boast one sequence—a helicopter flight over mountains that is in danger of crashing due the large quantity of cash dangling from its bottom—that is a truly original moment. Otherwise, Triple Frontier is the sort of film like the ones Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger used to turn out. While that’s not high praise, it’s hardly a condemnation. There’s a time and a place for a good junk-food movie—and Netflix knows it.

Triple Frontier is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in Reviews

I was a little kid when I first heard the words “Ted Bundy.” My dad was watching a news report about him on TV—something about the college students he murdered in Florida—and Dad simply couldn’t believe the guy escaped from custody and committed those crimes.

Even knowing the story of Bundy going into Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, it’s mind-boggling what this jackass got away with during his crime spree, and director Joe Berlinger touches upon much of it with his solid, four-part documentary. The series is anchored by Bundy’s own words, recorded by a crafty journalist as he sat on death row awaiting his fate.

This is just part one of Berlinger’s examination of the serial killer; he just wrapped a bio pic on the guy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy and slated to be released later this year.

The documentary aspires to be the definitive look at the madness this asshole brought upon the world, and it succeeds. It’s not a fun time by any means, but it does the job of informing viewers about the madness and sickness that was Bundy.

Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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

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