My Black History Month and Oscar Post rolled into one: 13th

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Frankly, I don’t care much about the Oscars, especially in years where it seems voters have lost their mind over a film I don’t care to rush to the theater to see (La La Land) and which can’t be that great (just like I can’t get over the perfectly OK Chicago being considered the Best of that year, just because it was a musical). The Oscars lost a lot of credibility over the years, and they seem to be trying to make it up with this year’s non-musical nominations. In any case, I’m always curious about the documentaries that are nominated. A few years ago, all five nominations were on Netflix, so I was able to see all the documentaries before the ceremony. This year, I’ve only seen two, but I can’t imagine any of the other nominees being better than the two I have seen. In fact, these two documentaries might be my number 1 and 2 of 2016’s best films. One of them is a Netflix documentary, 13th, a most timely film that should be watched tonight, even if you have plans. Cancel them. Watch 13th instead.

You may have seen the most recent episode of Blackish, where Junior schools his dad with some docuknowledge. Of course, Junior has been watching documentaries, 13th in particular. This film, directed by Ava DuVernay, chronicles the history of the 13th amendment, that abolished slavery, yet created a loophole at the same time. The text of the amendment is as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except as a punishment for crime. The film shows how those words allowed a system of slavery to evolve into the mass incarceration we have today. The labeling of a large group of people who have been through the justice system as “criminals” and “super predators” continues to this day to allow so many people to be dismissed as something lesser than. More often than not, those people are people of color, especially African-American men. One of the facts that you’ll likely hear someone somewhere repeat is the fact that 1 in 17 white men at some point in their life spend some time being incarcerated. That number for African-American men: 1 in 3.

Don’t think that this is just a one-sided documentary. DuVernay interviews several conservative figures, including Newt Gingrich. Gingrich actually comes across as sensible and fair. He quite correctly laments how the “war on drugs” played out, saying that the harsher punishments for crack (aka a “black man’s drug”) versus those of cocaine (aka a “white man’s drug”) was a huge mistake. Other conservative voices in the film don’t go as far in admitting past mistakes, but there’s nothing in the editing or the way they are shown that demeans them or their point of view. If anything, she lets their words speak for themselves.

But this film definitely doesn’t let people off the hook. Of course, Nixon and his “war on crime” is a big culprit in the increasing prison population during the ’70’s. Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and Clinton’s extension of that war also greatly increased incarceration in America. While this may not be news to many of us, DuVernay finds shocking examples of officials from the Nixon and Reagan administrations explicitly stating that their policies were purposefully meant to decimate the African American community. It’s not just some abstract economic theory whose unintended consequences negatively affected minorities- these people knew what they were doing in targeting those people who weren’t part of their voting base.

13th at times seems to meander and wander. I thought often that it was going off on a tangent. But each time, DuVernay ties it back to the main theme of the film, showing how seemingly different issues are all part of the same problem. It’s like reading a masterfully written essay that covers a wide range of topics, but argues passionately for its position. Although this film was made before the election, it features the words of the Donald juxtaposed with imagery of the abuse of African Americans in the south in the 1960’s. “The Good Old Days” don’t look so good to me, Donald. Have no doubt, 13th seems to have been made in response to problems that don’t seem to be going away. It’s a must see.

The other documentary I’ve seen from this year’s Oscar nominees is OJ: Made in America.

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I’d have a hard time choosing 13th over this film. But to be fair, they are really two different types of experiences. If DuVernay hadn’t chosen to limit herself to 1hr and 40 minutes, she might have had the chance to go deeper into her subject. They are really two different types of movies. In fact, I would say Made in America is really trying to have it both ways: It’s a television documentary that is also a limited series. At nearly 8 hours long, it’s a major accomplishment. Through one person, the director is able to expand the story to be about our country and its various lingering issues of race, celebrity, economic differences, and the justice system. If you have cable, it’s available on ESPN streaming.

There’s a third nomination, I Am Not Your Negrobased on James Baldwin’s writing, that touches on issues of race. What I fear is that these three films will split the votes of those that care about serious, topical documentaries that will challenge and educate you. I predict the win will go Life, Animated a film about a kid who learns to communicate with the world through his love of Disney. Sorry, not good enough for me this year, but that film is available on Amazon Prime.

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: After watching 13th, be sure to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with DuVernay that is also showing on Netflix.

If you still have DVDs delivered from Netflix, put Free Angela and All Political Prisoners in your queue. Angela Davis is one of the many people interviewed in 13th, and her story is a fascinating one on its own terms. Although the documentary wasn’t perfect, and left some questions unanswered, it’s an interesting piece of American History that you may not know about. It’s like the story behind Hidden Figures – why did I never learn about this in school?

RATINGS:

13th: Netflix: 5 out of 5                      IMDB: 10 out of 10

O.J.: Made in America:                          IMDB 10 out of 10

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners: IMDB: 8 out of 10

 

Black Mirror: Seasons 1 and 2 Review

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Well, it seems I’ve let another month go by without reviewing (or watching) much of anything. I’ve been able to catch a few movies in the theater. ( Skip Silencea real slog of a movie that misses the point of its source material, and somehow transforms a mere 191 page novel into 2 hours and 41 minutes of cinematic dramamine; a mild recommendation for 20th Century Women ). We’ve had a busy life this New Year, so finding time at home for a movie has been a challenge. But with the current dearth of broadcast television shows that we like to watch (most of which are on FX and aren’t currently showing), we’ve found time to finally watch a TV show that I’ve had a lot of interest in for years- Black Mirror.

I know that there’s probably been a lot written about this show, which I have purposefully avoided so I could go into the viewing experience without any preconceptions. About the only preconception I had going in is that this was supposed to some kind of modern The Twilight Zone. Not quite, but it’s unsettling in what it reveals about human nature, much in the same way as that classic series was at its best.

If you feel like you have accomplished something after watching a season of a TV series, then this is the series for you. Season 1 and 2 total only 7 episodes (and with Season 3 thrown in, which I haven’t finished, only 13 episodes). So you can impress all your friends with how you watched the whole series in one weekend. They don’t need to know that it’s only half as much time and pain as watching a full season of What’s Happening Now?

I would seriously consider skipping some episodes, unless you’re a completist like me. Anyways, here’s a quick review of each episode of Season 1 and 2 (links are to Wikipedia, if want to read a synopsis of each episode).

SEASON 1 

EPISODE 1: “The National Anthem

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Absolutely offal. I mean, awful. Yeah, I went there with my choice of the pic for this episode. I usually shy away from spoilers, but this will all be spoilers, so skip this if you don’t want to know about this episode. I seriously consider not watching anymore after this one. One of the worst TV episodes of all time. And it’s not just because the Prime Minister of England is “forced” to fuck a pig live on television so that a member of the royal family is spared by her kidnappers. Yeah, that’s gross, but nothing, NOTHING about what happens in this episode is realistic, or reveals much about our nature as humans to revel in someone else’s humiliation, and our nature to forgive and forget. But that’s exactly what this episode thinks it’s doing. I don’t buy that any P.M. would feel they would have to do this. I also don’t believe that when the finger of the young female royal is delivered to the police to show that the kidnapper is serious about his/her threat to kill the royal, that no one would notice that it looks nothing like a female’s finger. Did she have man hands? How would a middle aged man’s finger pass for a young female’s finger? Fucking stupid. Also, terrorist threat or not, I don’t think a whole nation would stop and watch anyone fuck a pig. I also didn’t understand the reaction of the PM’s wife in the aftermath. Or what the supposed “artist” was trying to say or show anyone with this stunt. In fact, the only behavior that makes sense is the pig’s. GRADE: F- (for F this episode)

EPISODE 2: “Fifteen Million Merits

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A little better, but not by much. The idea is good, and the eventual result of the story is interesting, but it takes way too long to get to its point. There are also some storylines or characters that seemingly have no point. Running at 62 minutes, it could have easily been 45 minutes or less. GRADE: C- (skip it)

EPISODE 3: “The Entire History of You

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If it wasn’t for this episode, I might have given up on this series. While not quite dependent on a twist like The Twilight Zone, this does have somewhat of a twist by showing no matter what technology can do, it can’t overcome basic human nature and our flaws. Unlike the first episode of this series, where no one in it behaves like any human I know, the characters  are completely believable. The stakes seem real, and the story takes no giant leaps in logic to make its point. You should start the series with this episode. GRADE: A+

SEASON 2

EPISODE 1: “Be Right Back

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Pretty good episode. I enjoyed seeing Hailey Atwell and Domnhall Gleeson in this. This is more of a sad episode. I can say that I can totally see someone in Atwell’s position making these choices in her grief. It also introduces a theme that recurs throughout Black Mirror– where is the line between human and artificial intelligence? That is to say, even without a physical body, is any thing that is conscious of its existence in the same way we are any different than us? Do they deserve to be treated equally? Are they equally deserving of our mercy (or punishment)? GRADE: A –

Episode 2: “White Bear

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Another great episode. This episode features a twist that turns the mystery at the center of the story in a scathing criticism of western society’s thirst for Old Testament-style punishment, and the desensitized, yet voyeuristic society that gets some fleeting satisfaction in watching that justice play out on their smart phones.

GRADE: A

EPISODE 3: “The Waldo Moment

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The other episode that blows chunks. If it wasn’t for the parallels between Waldo and Trump, there wouldn’t be much that is interesting or believable in this episode. Like “The National Anthem,” the people in this episode don’t behave like anyone I know. And like that episode, “Waldo” paints the average Englishman as gullible, dumb, and easily amused by annoying cartoon characters. I could say the same thing about Trump voters, but I still think most people were not just voting for him because they were entertained, but because they weren’t informed or voted out of fear, putting their blinders on. The conversation where the CIA operative shows interest in exporting Waldo is eerie in its prescience regarding recent political outcomes. But it’s not enough to make this episode watchable or believable. While the aforementioned CIA conversation is probably meant to explain the ending, the ending still doesn’t quite make sense to me. GRADE: D (for as Dumb as Donald)

2014 Special: “White Christmas

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I’m actually in awe of this episode. Jon Hamm’s great, it works even several themes that are part of previous episodes, and different storylines that build and complement each other. I could tell you more, but if you had to only watch one episode of this series, this is it. GRADE: A++

Season 3 review to come soon.

Minimalism: A Documentary (good New Year’s Resolution Ideas for everyone)

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Happy New Year, everyone! Today’s review is of a movie that I actually watched right before Christmas on Netflix. I felt that it would’ve been the perfect antidote to the excess of that holiday. Unfortunately, the excess of that holiday kept me from getting to this blog. But in the spirit of making resolutions, and offering ideas for people looking for resolutions (realistic resolutions: you may say you want to spend more time at the gym, but do you really want to? Do you really want to spend more time on a bench with anonymous sweat? NO! You don’t! Sorry, getting off topic and making up your mind for you), I recommend giving Minimalism: A Documentary about The Important Things (2016) a try.

In fitting with minimalism, this documentary is only 1 hr 19 minutes. It just scratches the surface of a “movement” that decries materialism in favor of less possessions and more life experience. So it’s somewhat odd that perhaps too much time is spent following two former materialists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ray Nicodemus, as they go on tour promoting their book about minimalism. Of course, it would be more minimalist to just hand out free flyers to people instead of going on and on for a whole book, but hey, even minimalists need to make a living. Despite my snark, these guys are sincere, have good insights into what made them unfulfilled in their professional life, and they meet interesting people along the way. However, they seem to be less interesting than a lot of the other people in the movie who get much less screen time. For example, people familiar with Dan Harris and his book 10 Percent Happier will enjoy hearing about his experiences with mindfulness, but won’t hear anything new of course. I can’t expect the film to delve into the details that a book does, but you feel like they barely scratch the surface when it comes to the connection between minimalism and mindfulness. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, also gets too little screen time.

Of course, a documentary about minimalism would have to touch on the tiny house movement. If you watch HGTV or DIY channels, you can’t go too long without seeing shows like “Tiny House Hunters” (not good, really. too often hipsters settle for a camper or what is basically just a small apartment). One of the better Tiny House shows is on the DiY channel. I think it’s called “Tiny House, Big Living” but it deals more with the design and building of tiny homes, and it’s inspiring to see the innovative designs that are aesthetically pleasing, yet functional for a tiny space. I bring this up because this movie does touch on the tiny house movement in relation to minimalism, and I think it does an adequate job of explaining what that’s about very succinctly. However, there is an apartment design in New York that is shown ever so briefly, where you see the same space being transformed into a dining room, a bedroom, a living room, and how what is also a closet can be turned into a guest room. Yet there is zero follow up on this design- it’s shown and then the director moves on. I actually think this could be more revolutionary than tiny houses, because having a multifunctional space in an apartment is easier than buying a tiny house, and then finding land to put the tiny house  on (which is not an option for many urban Californians like me).

Somehow this documentary still worked for me, perhaps because of its weakness. By touching the surface only, it feels like a briskly-paced, yet not hyperkinetic, film. I supposed you could go to the website at https://minimalismfilm.com/ and purchase bonus interviews to get more in depth. There’s also a female professor (unfortunately I can’t remember her name) who probably has the best insights of anyone in this film, and also the best one-liner about how kids are inundated with commercials these days that are trying to convince them they need to buy “crap.” As she says this, we’re shown several toy commercials in rapid succession, most all of it stuff I’ve never seen before. I wondered if my Transformers and Star Wars toys were also crap when I was a kid. At least there was some kind of “story” to the commercials that sucked 5-year old Aaron into convincing his parents to GET THEM ALL! Anyhow, her take on how we are not really true “materialistic” people in the sense that we don’t really value the material at all, we value what it symbolizes, is just one of the little moments in this documentary that should make you think, and should make you want to take steps to simplify your life by getting rid of stuff you don’t need or value.

Unless of course you enjoy “crap” as much as the next person. But according to Nicodemus and Milburn, your book collection is okay if it brings you joy. Just don’t overdo it. Luckily, streaming does provide us with the ability to ditch the DVD collection (DVD’s? What are those?) somewhat. You should check this documentary out rather than watching more Fuller House.

IMDB rating: 7 out of 10

My First Amazon Prime Review: 3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy (2015)

I’ve been contemplating changing the name and the focus of this blog so that I can include other streaming options. Currently, besides Netflix, I only subscribe to Amazon Prime. Hulu seems to be more for TV series viewing, and their selection of movies seems to be largely the same as Prime’s. If anyone has Hulu, I’d be interested in hearing if my impression is wrong. But I think two streaming services are good for now.

The pros of Amazon Prime:

  • Free shipping: This has nothing to do with movies of course, but if buy a lot from Amazon anyways, I question why you wouldn’t just sign up for this service. It pays for itself in just a few months in our household.
  • Movies that disappear from Netflix often end up here. They also have the option to buy or rent movies, so if you’ve cut the cord, you might like having that option.

Cons:

  • I have yet to have enough interest in their TV Shows to watch one (although there are some that seem interesting, there aren’t any that I felt compelled to watch right away, like Netflix’s Stranger Things and Making a MurdererThat may change soon, if I ever get some free time.
  • At least on my Blu Ray player, which is how I access the service, the way they organize their categories is sub-standard compared to Netflix, and makes the service seem more limited than it is. Amazon really seems to make sure that you know that you can watch Interstellar  for free, as it shows up in several “recommended” categories. But Obvious Childwhich IS a Prime title, shows up nowhere, not even in the comedy category. You have to search for it specifically by its title, which I did a week ago only because I remember it was on Prime months ago and I never got around to watching it. That’s why if you use Prime, I suggest making use of the Watch List, so that if you see something that interests you, it’s not lost forever if you forget about. But then the watchlist makes it clear that just like Netflix, titles are removed from Prime (such as Under the Skin and A Royal Affairboth of which I wanted to watch but now you have to buy or rent)
  • At the current moment, Amazon Prime has a weak selection of documentaries, which led us to watch the Documentary Short 3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy

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Viewers are sure to be engrossed by this documentary detailing the horrific case of one Dr. Gosnell. The documentary does an excellent job of keeping you in suspense during the first half of the film, methodically doling out details to keep you wondering what exactly made this abortion clinic stand out from others. Quite early on, the filmmaker speaks with Dr. Gosnell on the phone, and he explains who he is, and why, despite his Christian beliefs, he believes his actions are defensible based on his interpretation of the bible.

As we learn more about what Dr. Gosnell actually did, we find there is a huge disconnect between what he was accused of and what he felt was permissible as a “Christian” to do when it comes to terminating a pregnancy. The documentary’s huge first failing is to not ask him about these contradictions. SPOILER: It would seem obvious if you manage to talk to him on the phone, you would ask him what medical necessity required him to keep the feet of fetuses/babies in jars. And that’s just the most obvious question they could have asked him.

The other huge problem with this film made me question the motive for this film. The end of the film expands the scope to include gross misconduct at a Planned Parenthood in Delaware. While at first I was willing to go with this direction, it became problematic. They interview several nurses who worked at this Planned Parenthood, who say they are pro-choice. Fine. Perhaps the filmmaker’s point was that refusing to oversee abortion clinics can lead to problems even at a well established and funded facility such as Planned Parenthood, and not just a gross “hole in the wall” abortion clinic such as Gosnell’s. But the actions at this Planned Parenthood, while despicable, do not come close to the actions of the psychotic butcher at 3801 Lancaster. It also creates somewhat of a false equivalency, as if all abortion clinics are just looking to cut corners and do as many abortions as quickly as possible. And then it mentions how Planned Parenthood is fighting legislation that would force them to have the same standards as a hospital in states such as Virginia and Texas, as if the whole organization was trying to shirk their responsibilities as a provider of medical services. Anyone who does a cursory investigation into the Texas legislation will find that there is much more to the legislation than just keeping the clinic sanitary. (I believe there was an informative 60 Minutes piece about this law). The law is so restrictive that you couldn’t possibly operate a clinic outside of a hospital setting (and guess what, you can’t perform abortions at a hospital in Texas). To misrepresent the Texas legislation in this manner makes one question the filmmaker’s intent. If you want to make a pro-life film, that’s fine. Just be honest and upfront about the film you’re making.

If you want a lighter-hearted look at this issue, check out Obvious Childwhich I recommend. Or, if you want to really make the most of your Prime membership, and don’t like anything the least bit controversial, check out Happy Gilmore.

IMDB Rating for 3801 Lancaster: 5 out of 10

And you thought your Thanksgiving Dinner was bad… The Invitation (2016)

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So you just spent your holiday dodging conversations with family members that are Trump supporters, or maybe you went down that dark road of arguing over whether a fact is a fact or not. Or maybe Adele saved the day for you. In any case, I can’t imagine your dinner being any worse than the dinner party featured in The Invitation (2016).

I know this is not exactly the newest release on Netflix. But the fact that Netflix has this is a major coup. We (my wife and I) couldn’t quite make it to see this in the theater when it was here in February. Like many films that we want to see, it was only in the theater for a week, surely replaced by some garbage like Baby Geniuses 2 or its equivalent. Note to theater owners: people older than 17 have a life and they often have to plan to see a movie. If said movie is gone, these people will not necessarily go see whatever is there.

Anyhow, when this came on Netflix a few months ago, we watched it and were floored by how good it was. It was the best thing we’d seen on Netflix since The Babadook (2014), and it was a similar type of movie, one that director Karyn Kusama describes as “emotional horror” in this excellent and insightful interview.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was answering one of those Craigslist ads looking for people to be on a panel. I had done these before. One time about 2 weeks before it came out, we gave our opinions on about 10 different trailers for Anchorman 2. This was probably going to be for something similar, as it asked me what my favorite film of the year was. Wow, I had a hard time answering that at first, because I thought of things I had seen in the theater. Although I had seen some pretty decent films in the theater ( Midnight Special, for example), there was nothing I was blown away by. Then I remembered seeing The Invitation, and that it was by far the best movie I had seen this year. Despite all the promising looking films coming out before the end of this year, I suspect it will remain my favorite. (Moonlight is great, but not quite complete for me. Haven’t seen many other Oscar contenders yet).

Please read the interview with Emily Gaudette. Although Kusama has done some mediocre films, she really understands and appreciates film as an art. It shows in this film from the first scene, when the protagonist, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), comes across a dying animal in the road on the way to the dinner party. Without telling us anything specific about the plot of the film, it tells us everything we need to know about the emotional landscape of the film. This will be a dark, ugly night where death will have to be confronted.

Will is going to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new, somewhat odd in an “off” way boyfriend played by Game of Thrones alum Michiel Huisman. Some of their mutual friends are there as well, and it’s clear that it’s been some time since they’ve seen Will. It’s also clear that he and his wife share an emotional trauma. It’s this emotional trauma that grounds the “horror” in the film, and makes it so believable.

I had no problem very early on guessing where this film was going. People have criticized this film for being slow, perhaps for that reason. They may also find it slow because some people equate horror with slasher films and cheap scares like something jump out at you in the dark. If that’s you, The Invitation is probably not for you. But despite my knowing exactly where I thought the film was going (and I ended up being right), I was thoroughly engaged in the film, and cared about what happened to the people whose lives were obviously in danger.

What makes this film brilliant, in my opinion, is that even though you think you know where it’s going, you still are seeing the action somewhat through the viewpoint of Will. And Will is damaged enough so that as the film progresses, you actually start to doubt your conclusions, much like Will does. It’s this tension that keeps you on edge, and makes the ultimate outcome that much more horrifying. It’s the same kind of tension and paranoia that makes Rosemary’s Baby the best horror film ever (in my opinion).

I’ve also heard some complaining about the very, very end, after the action at the dinner party is resolved, and there is an indication of how the events we’ve seen relate to the world outside. I loved this ending, and given the setting of being in the hills above Los Angeles, it makes perfect sense. But of course I can’t discuss that too much without giving it away for people who haven’t seen it.

I highly recommend The Invitation.

Netflix Rating: 5 out of 5

IMDB rating: 10 out of 10

What’s Streaming in November

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Here’s a link to what’s coming to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu in November. I’ve never watched the show, but I’m sure Gilmore Girls is probably the most anticipated of the bunch. There’s been enough coverage of The Crown to be called “buzz” but I can’t get into most things about British royalty. The offerings from Amazon Prime and Hulu as far as movies go seem to be on the stale side. I’m looking forward to Boyhood to being on Netflix, and I’m sure many people would enjoy The Jungle Book (2016) also on Netflix (I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for the film, despite its largely positive reviews. As far as this list from CNN goes, it looks like Netflix is surprisingly the definite winner.

 

 

Foxy Knoxy Rox Docs!

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My apologies for such an awful title for this post. But if you’ve seen Amanda Knox (2016) on Netflix, which a lot of people probably have, it fits right in with all the ludicrous tabloid coverage of her trial. We finally got around to watching this last night. It’s a solid doc that follows the format of The Fog of War (2003), where the principals just tell their story, and there is no narration (just occasionally a question asked offscreen). Actually, it even seems like they might have used the same set for the interviews.

Anyways, as this news story unfolded, I casually followed itbut never really learned about the details until viewing this documentary. I just remembered something not adding up about the supposed story of her being a sex-crazed killer. This film, compared to the epic length Making a Murderer (2015) feels like True Crime Cliff Notes. Yet unlike almost every episode of Dateline, I didn’t have any lingering or unanswered questions, excluding the usual “How could anyone believe that?” or “How could they be so careless?” etc. I felt I understood basically what happened, when it happened, how it happened, etc. You know, the basics of reporting.

The basics of reporting seemed to escape Nick Pisa, the British journalist who comes across as much as a villain (to me) as does the lead prosecutor, Giulano Mignini, whose wild fantasies created this nightmare for Knox and her Italian boyfriend (of just 5 days!) Raffaele Sollecito. Anyone who has watched Making a Murderer or similar true crime/innocent man falsely convicted docs or dramas should expect a villainous lead prosecutor. But really, if you call yourself a “journalist,” and invoke the names of Woodward and Bernstein early on in this film, you should do more than just regurgitate whatever the prosecution feeds you,  and then printing it as the unvarnished truth. Even a non-journalist should have had questions about why Knox would want to kill a roommate she’s lived with for only 2 weeks (I’ve had bad roommates before, but come on), or why a boyfriend of only 5 days would be so willing to murder for her. But Pisa and the media get a pass, because according to Pisa, if he didn’t print it, then someone else would get “the scoop.” But I still don’t understand how printing allegations made by prosecutors means you have to present it as truth. It’s called critical thinking, Pisa. Anyhow, he’s a tool. And for those who think this is a British tabloid problem, news in the US (and probably everywhere) works the same way. Prosecutors call up a reporter, feed them their version of what happened, and it goes to print. “Journalist” has a story without having to leave his desk.

As I was writing this, I’m reading a lot of anti-Knox threads on IMDB. Also, there are complaints about this being one-sided. Well, yeah, it’s called Amanda Knox after all. But also, if half of your movie is spent letting the lead prosecutor explain himself, is it one-sided? I just don’t understand how people think these days. I guess if you watched Making a Murderer (2015) and still thought he was guilty, don’t watch this. Sure, both Steve Avery and Amanda Knox behaved in an odd manner, but that isn’t evidence in and of itself. If you already know everything about this case, this probably won’t break new ground for you (You’ll probably feel like I did with The Beatles: Eight Days A Week). I wish it had explored more about Amanda Knox, both past and present, but I got the sense that despite being interviewed for the film, she values her privacy.

For what it does in just 90 minutes, I give it the following ratings:

Netflix: 4 stars (out of 5)

IMDB: 7 out of 10

Horror Genre Review: ABSENTIA (2011)

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There’s been a couple of predominant movements in the horror genre over the last decade. The first, starting with the overhyped and underwhelming The Blair Witch Project (1999), attempts to create immediacy and authenticity through handheld cams and “found footage.”  This subgenre picked up some steam with Paranormal Activity (2007), but it appears to be dying out for now.  Perhaps audiences realize that shaky cams and cheap scares don’t make up for a dumb plot and severe problems with the logic of the found footage (See my review of Apollo 18).

The other direction horror has gone concentrates on ideas that will scare you.  The producers of Paranormal Activity (the folks at Blumhouse Productions) have also teamed up to create a good number of these films, including Insidious (2011),  Sinister (2012) ,  Dark Skies (2013), and the recently released Oculus (2014), which is directed by Absentia‘s Mike Flanagan.

Absentia (2011) only had a budget of $70,000.  I’m not sure who would have seen this movie before it was on Netflix, but I’m glad that Mike Flanagan was rewarded by being given more to work with on Oculus.  But Absentia is more than just an audition tape.  It actually feels like the synthesis of the two movements–the low budget actually doesn’t hinder the look of the film at all; it gives the immediacy and intimacy the found footage films want to create, but it also has a really intriguing and scary idea that drives the film forward.  Yes, the suburban setting with the cookie-cutter apartment screams, “We couldn’t afford a filming permit in Los Angeles!” (Who can?), but it also makes you feel like this could really happen and is really happening.  Plus, that tunnel is one of the scariest tunnels I’ve seen in a movie, right up there with the underpass in Irreversible (2002).

I’ll leave you with the synopsis on IMDb.  There are a lot of horror movies on Netflix you’ve never heard of–this one is worth your time.

IMDb Synopsis:

Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years. Her younger sister Callie comes to live with her as the pressure mounts to finally declare him ‘dead in absentia.’ As Tricia sifts through the wreckage and tries to move on with her life, Callie finds herself drawn to an ominous tunnel near the house. As she begins to link it to other mysterious disappearances, it becomes clear that Daniel’s presumed death might be anything but ‘natural.’ The ancient force at work in the tunnel might have set its sights on Callie and Tricia … and Daniel might be suffering a fate far worse than death in its grasp (Written by Mike Flanagan).

Netflix rating: 4 stars

IMDb rating: 7 out of 10

Review of INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED

Instructions Not Included

Last fall, I was stunned to hear that a movie I had never heard of (and I’ve heard of almost every movie that gets a theatrical release) had become the highest grossing Spanish-language film in the U.S. I remember thinking that I probably wasn’t part of the target audience and/or the marketing team gave up on English speakers wanting to see Instructions Not IncludedI got the impression that it must have been second-rate, kind of like those faith-based movies that have plagued the theaters lately (You know, the ones where people who don’t believe in God are stupidheads), where only the converted need to see them.  Additionally, it was categorized as a “comedy” in something I read.  Being in Spanish, images of all the bad Spanish-language TV I’ve watched, with all the midget and strippers dancing together and all that, came to mind.  So I quickly forgot about the film.

Months later, several people recommended Instructions Not Included to my wife.  At the time and when we got around to watching it, it was only on disc.  Now that it’s on streaming, you should check it out as well.

Instructions Not Included tells the story of Valentin Bravo, Acapulco’s local playboy whose amorous ways meet an end when a former fling named Julie leaves him with a baby girl.  Valentin goes to L.A. to find Julie to give back the baby, Maggie.  When a movie director witnesses Valentin saving Maggie in a spectacular fashion, he hires him as a stuntman.  Unable to locate Julie, Valentin settles down in L.A. with Maggie and becomes an unlikely father figure.

There’s much more to the movie than that (which makes it sound like One Man and a Baby), but if you read my reviews before, I don’t like spoilers, especially when it comes to comedies (To this day, I don’t know if I was underwhelmed by There’s Something About Mary because of the hype or because an obnoxious co-worker of mine decided to tell everyone about the best parts/gags).  This is more of a melodramedy, sweet-natured in the way comedies of the 30s and 40s were.  There’s some sadness to it, some laughs, someone making it “big” in Hollywood, and the cinematography makes everything look so clean (In the Acapulco scenes, the sun seems brighter than anywhere else on the planet).  Eugenio Derbez deserves his role.  He carries the film and hits all the right notes.  Loreto Peralta as his daughter, Maggie is actually very good in her role.  She’s not too cutesy or “precious.”  She’s just a likable kid.

As for the ending, I felt I should have seen it coming.  But it’s the sign of a good film that I was wrapped up in the story and cared enough about the characters I wasn’t trying to figure out what would happen next.  I recommend seeing Instructions Not Included.

IMDb rating: 7 out of 10

Netflix rating: 4 out of 5