Film Review: Mudbound (dir by Dee Rees)


In Mudbound, Jonathan Banks plays one of the most hateful characters to ever appear in a motion picture.

We never find out the character’s given name.  Everyone just calls him Pappy.  He’s the patriarch of an unimpressive family, a wannabe king who has no kingdom over which to rule.  Pappy never has a kind word to say to anyone.  He even tends to be brusque with his grandchildren.  When one of his sons returns from serving in World War II, Pappy only wants to know if he got laid in Europe and how many men he killed.  Pappy only killed one man in World War I but he did it face-to-face.  He’s proud of that.

As much as Pappy dislikes the members of his family, it’s nothing compared to how much Pappy hates people who aren’t white.  Pappy is the type to demand that, when he dies, he not buried anywhere near anyone black.  Pappy is also the type who takes it as a personal insult if a black man uses the same door that he uses.  When he sees Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) using the font door of the local grocery store, it doesn’t matter that Ronsel has just returned from serving his country and is still wearing his uniform.  It also doesn’t matter that Ronsel’s mother is helping to raise Pappy’s granddaughters.  What matters is that Ronsel is defying the social norms of 1940s Mississippi and Pappy takes that as a personal insult.

There are six narrators in Mudbound, all of whom tell us their story and share with us their thoughts.  Pappy is not one of those narrators and, for that, I was thankful.  I would have been frightened at the thought of entering his hate-fueled mind.  All we have to do is look into his hateful eyes or listen to his scornful voice and we know what’s going on in Pappy’s head.  He’s a man who has accomplished nothing in his long life, whose only happiness comes from making others miserable, and who fears the change that he secretly knows is coming.  It’s not just hate that makes Pappy demand an apology when Ronsel Jackson uses the front door.  It’s fear.

Mudbound tells the story of two families in Mississippi and the farmland on which they both live and work.  (Early on, when a skull with a bullet hole is discovered, we’re informed that an old slave cemetery is under plowed fields.)  Pappy’s oldest son, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), owns the land.  Desperate for his father’s approval, Henry hopes to succeed as a farmer but he soon proves himself to be rather clueless.  Henry’s wife is Laura (Carey Mulligan).  Laura was a 31 year-old virgin when she met Henry.  She tells us that she married him because she didn’t want to be alone.  She stays with him because she loves their children.

The Jacksons live on Henry’s land.  They’re tenant farmers and Hap (Rob Morgan), the family patriarch, dreams of one day owning his own farm.  While Pappy openly hates the Jacksons, Henry treats them with a patronizing condescension.  (Whereas Pappy knows that he’s hated, Henry actually thinks that the Jacksons look up to him.  There’s not a lot of humor to be found in Mudbound but I couldn’t help but smile at Henry’s cluelessness about how little Hap thought of him.)  Henry and Laura even hire Hap’s wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), to serve as a housekeeper.  Henry and Laura think they’re doing Florence a favor, never considering that they are essentially asking Florence to neglect her own family so that she can take care of their’s.

The Jackson and the McAllans do have one big thing in common.  They both have sons serving in the army.  Ronsel is a sergeant who is both surprised and happy to discover that white Europeans are not the same as white Americans.  Henry’s younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), is a captain in the Air Force.  When the war ends, both Ronsel and Jamie return to their families.  Jamie returns with a severe case of PTSD and a drinking problem.  Having experienced freedom in Europe, Ronsel is angered to return to a country where he is still expected to sit in the back of the bus and cheerfully accept being treated like a second class citizen.

When both of them are caught off guard by the sound of a car backfiring, Ronsel and Jamie immediately recognize each other as returning soldiers.  A friendship develops between them, one that goes against the racist norms of their society.  Violence and tragedy follows.

Mudbound is a Netflix film.  It’s currently getting a one-week theatrical release so that it’ll be Oscar-eligible.  (If it is nominated for best picture — and many think that it may be — it’ll be the first Netflix film to be so honored.)  That said, the majority of the people who see Mudbound will see it via Netflix.  That’s a shame because, visually, Mubound is a film that should be seen on a big screen.  The imagery — the farmland that seems to stretch on forever, the storms that always seem to roll in at the worst possible moment, the scenes of Ronsel and Jamie in Europe — is frequently beautiful and haunting.  (The comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick are justified.)  Even when viewed on a laptop, Mudbound still looks good but I fear that the small screen will rob the film of some of its epic scope.  Since Mudbound is a leisurely paced film, I fear that many members of the Netflix audience are going to be tempted to hit pause and then not return to the film for an hour or two, therefore robbing Mudbound of its cumulative power.

Over the time that I’ve spent writing this review, I’ve come to realize that I actually liked Mudbound a lot more than I originally thought I did.  As opposed to many of the films that I’ve seen this year, I have a feeling that Mudbound is actually going to stick with me.  Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, and Rob Morgan all give wonderful performances, though the cast standout is Jason Mitchell, playing a man who, having tasted freedom, refuses to silently go back to the way things were.

Mudbound is a very good film.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a great film, though many other critics and viewers are.  Director Dee Rees captures some beautiful images and some wonderful performances but the film itself has some pacing problems.  The first part of the film is occasionally too slow while a few of the final scenes felt rushed.  I’ve always felt that it’s a petty even contest between Garrett Hedlund and Aaron Taylor-Johnson for the title of the most boring actor to regularly appear in major motion pictures and, in the role of Jamie, Hedlund does little to change that impression.

But no matter!  Even if it does have flaws, Mudbound is a powerful film and one that I recommend taking the time to watch.

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The Things You Find On Netflix: To The Bone (dir by Marti Noxon)


Way back in January, when I first heard about To The Bone, I had high hopes for it.

After all, To The Bone was the directorial debut of Marti Noxon, who is well-known both for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and for co-creating Unreal.  To The Bone was reportedly based on Noxon’s own struggle with an eating disorder and it was said to feature an outstanding lead performance from Lily Collins as an artist struggling with anorexia.  Even the casting of Keanu Reeves as a doctor sounded intriguing.

And, to me, it didn’t matter that To The Bone got mixed reviews at Sundance.  Who would seriously expect critics, especially male critics, to understand a movie about body issues and eating disorders?  When I heard that To The Bone had been purchased by Netflix, I did sigh a little.  Far too often, Netflix is where good films end up getting lost in a sea of mediocre offering.  But then again, perhaps To The Bone was exactly the type of intimate character study that would actually benefit from being viewed on a small screen.  After all, it’s not a film about a bunch of space lizard attacking the great wall of China.  It’s a film about a young woman struggling with an eating disorder.

When Netflix finally released To The Bone back in July, I was excited.

Then I actually watched the movie.

To The Bone actually gets off to a pretty good start.  The first 20 minutes or so are dedicated to establishing who Ellie (Lily Collins) is.  She’s 20 years old.  She’s smart.  She’s sarcastic.  She’s an artist.  She’s a college dropout who apparently used to have a very popular tumblr that dealt with being thin.  She’s also anorexic and, from the first minute that we see her, Ellie looks like she’s on the verge of death.  (To the film’s credit, it makes clear that there is a huge difference between being naturally thin and being anorexic.  That’s a distinction that is far too often overlooked.)  We meet Ellie’s dysfunctional family: her frustrated stepmother (Carrie Preston), the father who often can’t be bothered, and the half-sister (Liana Liberato) who both loves and resents her.  The relationship between the two sisters is especially well-handled.  Even if it takes a while to get used to Keanu Reeves playing a compassionate but tough-talking doctor, the film still works during his first few scenes.

Then, Ellie joins Reeves’s inpatient program and moved into a house with six other patients and this is where the film started to annoy me.  Ellie is such a well-drawn and well-acted character that it makes it all the more obvious that the rest of the patients are not.  Instead, the rest of the patients are all easily identifiable types.  As soon as they show up on screen, you know everything about them and you know exactly what is going to happen to each and every one of them.  From the minute that Ellie reluctantly steps into that house, To The Bone starts to feel less like an honest look at anorexia and more like a well-meaning and predictable PSA.  One of the patients is pregnant and always talk about how worried she is that her eating disorder is going to lead to her losing the baby.  Can you guess what happens?

And then there’s Luke (Alex Sharp).  Luke is the ballet dancer who is recovering from a knee injury.  As soon as I saw that Luke was the only male in the house, I knew that he was destined to eventually declare his love for Ellie.  But my problem with Luke has less to do with his predictable character arc and more to do with just how annoying a character he is.  Luke is relentlessly upbeat.  Luke constantly tells corny jokes.  Luke just will not stop talking!  When Luke leaves a room, he starts singing a song called Sugar Blues.  When Luke reenters a room, he is still singing Sugar Blues.  SHUT UP, LUKE!

(Whenever Ellie would visit Luke in his room, I would find myself distracted by the posters on his wall.  The majority of them said “Jazz Festival” and featured some saxophone clipart.  As strange as it may sound, it really started to annoy me that there was no date or location listed.  Why would you go through all the trouble of making — or buying, for that matter — a poster for a jazz festival and then not bother to include a date or a location?  That may sound like a minor thing but, as I watched the film, that inauthentic poster came to represent everything that felt inauthentic about Luke as a character.)

I guess the main problem with To The Bone is that it never succeeds in convincing us that the inpatient program is actually going to do any good for Ellie.  It’s not for lack of trying.  However, the scenes in the house are too overwrought and predictably scripted.  There’s a scene where Reeves takes the patients on a field trip and it’s supposed to be inspiring but it doesn’t work because, as a first-time director, Noxon doesn’t trust her material enough to allow us to draw our own conclusions.  Instead, she beats us over the head with her message.  For To The Bone to work, it needed a director like Andrea Arnold, someone who specializes in a naturalistic performances and who is willing to embrace ambiguity and take the time to let a scene play out.  Noxon makes the mistake of not trusting her audience to draw the right conclusion and, as a result, To The Bone goes from being an intriguing character study to being the cinematic equivalent of the last 15 minutes of an episode of Intervention.

Though it all, Lily Collins continues to give a good performance.  Even when she’s forced to deliver some unfortunate dialogue, she’s the best thing about To The Bone.  Unfortunately, the rest of this movie just collapses around her.

Jazz Festival

 

Stranger Things: Season 2 official trailer and poster


Revealed at SDCC today, the official trailer for the much anticipated season 2 of Netflix multiple Emmy* nominated original drama is here! And what a ‘Thriller’ of a trailer it is!

I have watched this trailer multiple times now and still can not get over all of the 1980’s nostalgia in it.

Ghost Busters:

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Dragon’s Lair: 

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Oh, and Upside down Will:

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If you want to watch the ‘Thriller’ of  ‘Stranger Things’ season 2 trailer, you can here:

And the official poster is here:

stranger things season 2 poster

 

Stranger Things returns on Netflix October 27, 2017

*The Emmy’s airs Sunday, Sept. 17 at 8pm ET. on CBS.

The Things You Find on Netflix: Christine (dir by Antonio Campos)


I really regret that I didn’t get a chance to see Christine when it played here last year.  I wanted to but the movie was only in theaters for a week and then it vanished.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Christine didn’t become a blockbuster.  I imagine that most potential viewers were turned off by the fact that 1) it wasn’t a remake of the movie about the killer car and 2) it was based on the true story of a reporter who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television.  I imagine that, to many people, the film sounded like it would be indescribably sad.  It certainly sounded that way to me.  That’s why, when the movie opened at the Dallas Angelika, I said, “I’ll see it next week.”  Of course, by the time “next week” rolled around, the movie was gone.

And that’s a shame.  I just watched Christine on Netflix and I discovered that it was one of the best films of 2016.  Yes, it is a sad film but it’s also a frequently fascinating one.  The movie may tell the story of a tragedy but it’s anchored and enlivened by a brilliant performance from Rebecca Hall.  People who love movies, of course, already know that Rebecca Hall is a brilliant actress but, unfortunately, she rarely gets the roles in the films that she deserves.  As of this writing, her most financially successful film was probably The Town and, in that film, she was pretty much wasted in a nothing role.  She is perfectly cast in Christine, perhaps as perfectly cast as any performer could ever hope to be.

Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, a reporter who was based in Sarasota, Florida.  In 1974, she started a newscast by announcing, “”In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”  She then drew a gun from a shopping bag that was sitting behind the anchor desk.  As thousands watched, she shot herself in the back of the head.

Along with the gun, the shopping bag had contained the homemade puppets that Christine used whenever she volunteered at the local children’s hospital.  On the anchor desk, among her papers, was a news report that she had written the previous night, announcing that “Local news personality Christine Chubbuck” had shot herself on live television and had been taken to the hospital in critical condition.  Christine, who was reportedly frustrated both personally and professionally, was briefly the number one story in the nation.

One of the more interesting things about the suicide of Christine Chubbuck is that it happened in 1974, long before YouTube, Facebook Live, or Twitter.  Chubbuck’s suicide was only aired once and the footage has subsequently vanished.  If Christine Chubbuck, or anyone else, committed suicide on television today, it would immediately be all over the internet.  We would end up seeing, at the very least, clips of it on an almost daily basis.  Sadly, we would see it so much that we would probably become desensitized to it.  Since Christine Chubbuck’s death was recorded but remains unseen, both she and her suicide have achieved an almost mythical quality.  One can look at the details of Christine Chubbuck’s death and see almost anything that they want.

Christine follows the last few months of Chubbuck’s life.  As played by Rebecca Hall, Christine is confident enough that she can imagine interviewing Richard Nixon but insecure enough to obsess over whether she was nodding too much while the imaginary President gave his imaginary answer.  She lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a self-described hippie who keeps making references to a breakdown that Christine had in Boston.  When she complains about the pressure that she’s under to sensationalize the news, her boss dismisses her with “You’re a feminist!”  (He says it like an accusation.)  When she gives in and purchases a police scanner so that she can find the stories that the boss is demanding, she ends up spending most of her night listening to two cops brag about “how far” they got with their girlfriends the night before. When she goes to the doctor to complain about chronic stomach pain, she’s told that she has to have an ovary removed and she’ll probably never be able to conceive.  When she thinks that she finally has a date with the man who she’s been crushing on, she is instead dragged to an empty-headed encounter group.  Her group partner has a slick answer for every problem that Christine has until Christine says that she’s thirty and she’s still a virgin.

“Oh,” her partner replies, flummoxed.

In the film, Christine struggles with both depression and, in my opinion, bipolar disorder as well.  Unfortunately, for her mental well-being, she’s a woman in 1974.  The only thing that the world has to offer her are vapid self-affirmation (“I’m okay, you’re okay!  I’m okay, you’re okay!” one co-worker chants at a particularly dramatic moment) and sexist bosses who dismiss what is clearly a manic episode as either “being moody” or “being difficult.”  Speaking as someone who is very sensitive as to how mental health issues are portrayed onscreen, all I can say is that Christine gets it right.

I’m probably making this film sound like the most depressing movie ever made and it’s definitely not a happy film.  I had tears in my eyes by the end of it.  At the same time, it’s also a compulsively watchable character study.  Rebecca Hall gives such a good and brave performance as Christine that you can’t look away, even when you feel like you should.  Rebecca Hall is also ably supported by Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Morgan Spector, Timothy Simons, and Maria Dizzia, who all play her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes annoyed co-workers.

Now, I do think that I should warn anyone from thinking that Christine is a 100% accurate look at Christine Chubbuck’s life and death.  The film left me so moved that I actually did some research and I came across this article from the Washington Post — Christine Chubbuck: 29, Good-Looking, Educated, A Television Personality. Dead. Live and in Color.  After reading the profile, it was easy to see that the film did take some dramatic license.  However, it was also easy to see that Christine gets the essence of the story right.

If, like me, you missed Christine in the theaters, you can now see it on Netflix.  And you should!

Here’s the Trailer for Marvel’s The Defenders!


Much as how all of the early films in the MCU were leading to the creation of The Avengers, all of Netflix’s Marvel series have been leading up to the creation of The Defenders!

The time has come.

I assume that, while the Avengers are defeating big-budget threats, The Defenders will keep peace on Earth by fighting Sigourney Weaver and ninjas in hallways.

Oh, and Elektra’s back…

Netflix Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000 11.1 “Reptilicus”


I grew up loving Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Since my favorite was always Tom Servo, it never mattered to me whether Joel or Mike was the host.  Even after the show went off the air, it was always nice to know that I could say, “How much Keeffe is in this movie?” and at least one person would know that the correct answer would always be “Miles O’Keeffe.”

When I first heard about the Kickstarter campaign to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000, I was worried.  As someone who owns all of the Rhino DVDs, along with The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Colossal Episode Guide and several VHS copies of the original broadcasts on both Comedy Central and SyFy, I was happy to see that there was still life in the show.  At the same time, I was worried that a possibly inferior reboot might ruin some of my favorite childhood memories.

I just finished watching the first episode of the Netflix MST3K and there is no need for alarm or concern.  My childhood will survive.  While it wasn’t perfect, it was still more than good enough.  It may not have ranked up with the classic episodes of MST3K but it’s at least as good as the one where Pearl forced Mike and the Bots to watch the Russian version of Hamlet.

Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt were great as the new Mads.  I appreciated the return of the invention exchange and that the show still had the same deliberately cheap look that we all know and love from the original.  With Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy all being voiced by new actors, it’s going to take a while to get used to the new crew on the Satellite of Love but, by the end of the episode, both Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn had settled into their roles of Tom and Crow.  Considering that it was his first episode and that it is still strange to see someone other than Joel or Mike hanging out with the bots, Jonah Ray did a commendable job as the new host, bringing a laid back vibe to the role that was very reminiscent of the Joel years.  (That’s not surprising, considering that the revival is largely Joel’s baby.)  Tom being able to fly and Gypsy now being suspended from the ceiling are things that sound like they should not have worked but they did.  My one real complaint is that, without the Netflix captioning, it is often difficult to tell the difference between Jonah’s voice and Tom’s.

The movie was Reptilicus.  As a badly dubbed Danish monster movie, it was the perfect “experiment” with which to start off the new MST3K.  Everyone, even Gypsy, got a few good jokes in at the film’s expense.  Among my favorites:

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and it’s this movie.” — Crow

“Now, you’re Mr. Filing Cabinet.” — Gypsy, after one of the film’s scientists placed his hat on a filing cabinet.

“The Danish Army, cheaper than extras and less busy.” — Tom

“Reptilicus Returns in Reptilicus 2: 2 Fast 2 Danish.” — Jonah

The show’s best joke came during a host segment, when Crow and Tom asked Jonah to explain how every country has a monster “preferably in rap.”  The chorus of “Every country has a monster/They’re afraid of in their nation/Every monster has a country/Yeah, a station they call home” stayed with me long after the song ended.

Finally, I was happy to see the return of viewer mail segment.  It is nice to know that, in 2017, eight year-olds are still drawing pictures of Tom and Crow on the Satellite of Love.

If you are like me and you were worried that a new Mystery Science 3000 would destroy your childhood, don’t worry.  MST3K is back and, so far, it’s pretty good.

 

Here’s the teaser for Mindhunter!


Coming to Netflix in October…

It’s a new show about serial killers and the people who study them, hunt them, and hopefully capture them.   It’ll be like Criminal Minds, though it’ll probably feature more profanity and nudity and less Thomas Gibson-involved physical assaults.

This show was produced by David Fincher so you know every film blogger is going to have to watch at least one episode.