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

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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

Netflix Classic Review: Buñuel’s TRISTANA

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Luis Buñuel shares the distinction of having only one title on Netflix Streaming with Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes) and Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove).  Some time ago, Un Chien Andalou (1929), Buñuel’s groundbreaking short featuring a young Salvador Dali, was available, but no longer.  Tristana (1970) is far from his best work, but deserves a viewing from those who enjoy his more celebrated movies such as Belle du Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie  (1972).

Unlike the more famous Buñuel selections I mentioned, Tristana is a relatively straightforward melodrama that features very little of Buñuel’s surrealistic tendencies (Surrealistic Tendencies sounds like the name of a bad ’80s punk band).  Fernando Rey plays Don Lope, the guardian of the much younger Tristana, played by DeNeuve.  Also being a lecherousold man, he soon wants to be more than her guardian.  They become lovers as well, but Lope maintains his philosophy that, as a free man (free of religion), he is still free to love others.  Soon that belief is challenged when Tristana meets someone else she loves as well.  Lope is not a hypocrite and allows her to leave.  However, their love still lingers, and Tristana’s subsequent illness brings them back together after a number of years.  Watch the movie to find out who she chooses.

Tristana struck me as being simultaneously ahead of its time, yet also feeling dated.  Rey as the main character gives a convincing performance as a forward-thinking atheist/socialist (Given that this was made during the Franco regime, this was truly a daring philosophy for any character to espouse).  Yet, at the same time, he often talks of women as if they are nothing more than sex objects and lower than men.  I would like to give Buñuel the benefit of the doubt and say that this contrast between being enlightened and being Neanderthal was intentional, but the film is 45 years old now, so I can’t be sure.  Tristana does become a complete person to him towards the end of the film, through challenging his beliefs and standing up for herself.  But the misogynistic overtones of some of the earlier conversations, coupled with the disturbing age difference between the two, don’t quite redeem Don Lope in my eyes.

As for Catherine DeNeuve, she like in Belle du Jour, plays an “ice queen” with an ever increasing amount of willpower.  The character is well-written but remains enigmatic throughout the film.  She remains an object of men’s desire, a beautiful woman whom men can project their fantasies upon, even as she asserts herself as an adult.  One thing I didn’t like about her is that she uses her illness as a way to test which suitor really loves her.  In my opinion, this undermined the idea of her becoming an independent person, and came off more like a schoolgirl pitting two schoolboys against each other to win her affections.  As for DeNeuve’s acting, it is really hard to judge, as her part was dubbed over in Spanish.  I realize that many movies of this time, especially Spaghetti westerns, had actors speak in their native tongue, and then had another actor dubbed in the language of the movie later.  But for Tristana, it detracted from DeNeuve’s performance.

Tristana shouldn’t be considered a classic by any means, but it held my interest.  While not pushing many boundaries, it still is an intelligent and thoughtful piece of film from a treasured director.  I’m not sure if viewing this would convince Netflix to stream more of his films.  But do yourself a favor, and if you watch this, put his other films in your queue.

My Netflix rating: 3 out of 5

My IMDB rating: 7 out of 10

Fire with Fire Review: 9,941 Portuguese people can’t be wrong

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So after watching so many movies that demand your attention, and make you think, I thought I’d watch a movie that would let me turn off my brain. I made a good choice. I also discovered that my instant queue is full. I guess there is a limit, it is 500 movies. I had to make room for something that might be good, so rather than just deleting a title from my queue, I chose the road of the true sadomasochist and looked for something awful.

Fire with Fire (2012) is one of those films that doesn’t captivate you with how terrible it is. You just slowly lose interest, get distracted by other things, including all the actors in this film that have been in much better, every once in awhile checking in to see what’s going on with the movie. It stars Josh Duhamel, which is the movie’s first problem. He brings out as much emotion in a character as a Ken Doll does. On the other hand, the first CLUE that this movie will be bad is that it stars Bruce Willis, yet it received no theatrical release here. However, IMDB will tell you that there were 9,941 admissions in Portugal (which surely was just to fulfill some clause in a contract that the movie must have a theatrical release).

Yet, I still had hopes for the film. It starts with Duhamel witnessing a double homicide hate crime committed by an overweight Vincent D’Onofrio as the leader of an Aryan brotherhood. He looks and dresses more like an accountant, but OK. Duhamel escapes the scene. We then are treated to a tight close up of the Long Beach Police Department building. “Hey, I live in Long Beach!” I thought. “Maybe I’ll see some places I recognize!” I am first treated to some laughable scenes where we meet Willis as a police detective who has been wanting to catch D’Onofrio on previous charges but couldn’t make them stick. If you know the LBPD, this should make you laugh, as Willis takes his role too seriously in this film to be a LBPD detective. D’Onofrio discovers Duhamel’s identity (who is a firefighter, so that’s why it’s called FIRE WITH FIRE, get it? Get it?), and Duhamel has to enter the witness protection program.

We then end up in New Orleans. “Hey, I’m wearing a New Orleans shirt!” I thought. “And I’m living in Long Beach!” I thought. How exciting! It’s like I was in the movie itself. Duhamel has somehow hooked up with Rosario Dawson during the course of the opening credits, and they trade lame anecdotes about how it is to be a firefighter versus her being a police officer. They are attacked by D’Onofrio’s hired henchman, Dawson gets shot in the head, but somehow is OK. Duhamel then decides the only way to be safe is to go back to Long Beach and confront D’Onofrio.

We then are told that Duhamel is at 14th Street and Cherry in Long Beach, which looks like this, but looks like someplace else in the movie. Having been to New Orleans, I suspect that Duhamel is still in New Orleans, and looking at the filming locations, I’m right, as there was only one location listed on IMDB. So Duhamel is terribly lost and has not left New Orleans at all, but everyone in the film humors him and tells him he’s in Long Beach. But seriously, name dropping Long Beach more than any film I’ve seen recently doesn’t help if I know it’s not Long Beach, THE LBC! So I’m looking up the filming location while watching the movie of course, and slowly lose interest in what is a lame vigilante film (thus the FIRE WITH FIRE title having another layer to it. Get it? Get it?), and get distracted by other shiny things on the internet.

There isn’t much else to say about the film. Things happen, none of them memorable or executed particularly well. I already have said that Duhamel doesn’t have the chops to carry a film, so at least he’s starring in a film that wouldn’t have been any good in the first place. Willis is collecting a paycheck. Dawson does her job and looks good doing it. Vinny Jones is in the film to make sure it sucks. There are other recognizable people that you could look up and wonder why they are bothering to do this film. I would guess it’s because 50 Cent produced the film, and he payin’ more den fitty cent to be in his movie. Mr. 50 also has a cameo role in the film.

So why am I blogging about this? One reason could be that I generally give good reviews to everything here, but that’s more a function of having decent taste than thinking that every movie is good. I guess partly because I don’t want to look like a movie snob as well, with a lot of documentaries and heady stuff. I’m not above watching a brainless well-done action flick. But this is not the film you’re looking for.

IMDB rating: 3 out of 10 stars

Netflix rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Review: Oscar Documentary Challenge Entry #1- Cutie and the Boxer

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I have watched the first of the four Academy Award nominated documentaries available on Netflix streaming (see my previous post). Cutie and the Boxer tells the story of the Bronx-based Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara, and his long-suffering wife, Noriko, who is an artist in her own right. I watched it first because it’s the shortest of the five nominated documentaries, clocking in at 82 minutes. It’s a fairly interesting and well done documentary, but left me wanting a bit more.

It’s a bit difficult for me to discuss films without feeling I’m spoiling the experience for someone who has yet to watch it. At 82 minutes then, I can’t make this review that long. I can say that it’s a pleasure to watch documentaries these days and not feel like your watching an inferior film when it comes to picture quality and cinematography. This film looks great, with director Zachary Heinzerling taking small snippets of the film to show the surrounding city. Shots of the nearby bridge are reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Technology is a good thing when a huge budget is not needed to make a movie look pleasing to the eye.

Getting back to the story, Ushio is “the” artist in the family, the one that has received the most attention. But frankly, he’s a bit of a mess. The series of paintings he’s getting attention for at the beginning of the film to me are nothing more than a gimmick- he uses boxing gloves covered with paint and punches a large canvas. His agent describes them as “visceral” and “without thought,” to which I say “Yeah, so?” I’m not sure what he is trying to say with those paintings, and it looks like Ushio doesn’t either. I did like his sculptures, which he seems to treat as an afterthought, or as a way to get some cash to pay their past due rent. It’s scary how he shoves them into a suitcase on a trip to Japan. Later on, he tries to branch out and do a different kind of painting. As a viewer of the movie, (and if you’re not completely unfamiliar with what makes “good” art), his wife Noriko summed up my thought on this particular attempt: “This is not very good,” she tells him.

His wife, “Cutie,” has the soul of an artist, yet has put herself and her ambitions on the backburner for most of their relationship. Ushio is like an artist who never really matures and grows, but the real treat of the movie is watching Cutie’s artwork come to life. Whereas even Ushio’s best work in my opinion never really makes you feel something, Cutie’s artwork has a real heart and soul to it. She is the star of the film.

As far as a criticism goes for the documentary itself, I don’t feel it showed enough of her artwork, and because the couple are very Japanese, a lot of things are left unsaid, and I wanted to feel things a little bit more from someone. The only source of feeling and emotion in the film came from Noriko’s artwork, which there is not enough of, as I said before. And frankly, I’m not sure why there isn’t more of her artwork in the film. Had she just started doing the work that was shown? Who knows? Another underdeveloped part of the film revolves around their son. You get enough of him and about him to get a sense of who he is and what his issues are (he too is an artist, and probably makes the father the third best artist in the family), but you don’t really hear anything from him.

So, my IMDB rating would be 7 out of 10, Netflix rating 3 out of 5. So out of two films nominated in this category, 20 Feet from Stardom is still my choice for Best Documentary of 2013.

Review of Oscar Nominated The Hunt (Jagten) now on Streaming

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One might think that Netflix may not be that useful for the home viewer to make their own decision about who the winner should be. Netflix would seem even less useful, as a lot of nominees, if they are not still in the theaters, are only available on DVD. There is however one category where you can use Netflix streaming (almost) exclusively to decide what the best film is (more on that later this week). Jagten (The Hunt) (2012), now on streaming, has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. (The 2012 date can seem confusing, but I guess it qualifies for the Oscars because the 2012 is from a festival, and it was released in Denmark in January 2013).

Thomas Vinterberg wrote and directed this film. You may know him from writing and directing the Dogma film Festen (1998), which was criminally ignored by the Oscars that year, but received plenty of other awards and recognition. It also has earned its place at #222 on IMDB’s Top 250. Jagten is like a companion piece to Festen, looking at the flip side of sexual abuse, and how it affects someone who is falsely accused. VInterberg masterfully portrayed the hurt and suffering of a sordid and scandalous family secret in Festen; you felt the protagonist’s pain, delighted in the cathartic pleasure of bringing the evil in the family out into the light, and were shocked by the stubbornness of the family to see the truth. It presented the epitome of a family gathering gone wrong; we’ve all experienced an uncomfortable dinner, but not quite like that.

Jagten (The Hunt) taps into similar emotions just as effectively. People are just as stubborn as in Festen, and as ugly. Mads Mikkelsen (who seems to be in almost every other foreign movie on Netflix streaming) is perfect in the lead role, and I was also impressed by Lasse Fogelstrom, his son who believes his father is innocent. Jagten is a film to be experienced like Festen, so I won’t spend too much time discussing plot points. The synopsis on IMDB tells you all you need to know so I include it here: “A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son’s custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie.” Just like Vinterberg’s previous masterpiece, the lie revolves around child abuse. Although this film covers some of the same emotional terrain as Prisoners (2013), it is not ambiguous in the innocence or guilt of the accused, and while Prisoners indulged in the vigilante impulse in order to question it, Jagten leaves no question about the barbarity and ugliness when a town lets emotion blind them to reason and rationality.

You will be angry, but largely sympathetic to most of the characters (the accuser’s father, for example). The ending of the film at first seem to not fit the rest of the film, and be uncharacteristic of VInterberg, and frankly unrealistic. But the last minute is perfect, and tempers the hopefulness that precedes it with a large dose of reality- that once allegations are out there, they never really disappear.

My IMDB Rating: 9/10

My Netflix Rating: 5 out of 5 stars