Netflix Oddities with Cemetery of Splendor and The Invitation

It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.

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What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor?  I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading

My Most Memorable Dining Experiences

Are you a foodie? Do you believe that fine dining is an art form? Are some of your most treasured memories of being in a certain place at a certain time with your favorite people having that special meal? Well, I would answer a resounding yes to all three questions, and here I share with you some of my most memorable dining experiences eating my way through cities abroad and my own backyard of Philadelphia.

The Best Italian Restaurants…Where You Least Expect Them:

  • Il Piccolino – Paris, France (8th arrondissment). Ah, Paris, it truly is a movable feast. But who knew, on our last night in the city (in September of 2015) the month before our wedding (we honeymooned before, because that’s how we roll), desperate for something other than the overload of French food we had been eating, and upon the recommendation from the concierge at our hotel (who secured a last minute reservation), we would stumble into the best Italian restaurant we ever experienced? There were probably about ten tables inside (all reserved) and a kitchen in full view (that looked like a kitchen in somebody’s house). From the little old man who provided colorful service, to the fresh veggies they walked across the street to the market to procure as you ordered them, to the hand-made sage ravioli with truffle oil drizzle, to the cutesy-translated deserts “in their honey shirts” – this was quite possibly the best dining experience of our lives.

Il Piccolino Paris Food 04

  • Zeppoli’s – Collingswood, New Jersey, USA. Less than a mile from our new house is this gem of “a hole in the wall” we indulged in just last week after a multitude of rave reviews from friends and coworkers. There’s maybe a dozen tables inside. Reservations must be made weeks in advance. Upon entering it’s all a bit gentrified-rustic-hipster-is-this-a-dump-or-is-this-chic and unassuming. But WOW! The food (which is Sicilian and far removed from the typical Italian fare you find In NJ-PA-NY) was out of this world and full of flavors my taste buds didn’t know existed. The service was both casual and spot-on where the highly competent wait staff tag-teams the tables and walks around as if they are serving family at their house – never missing a beat or a half-filled water-glass. The chef offers up complimentary after dinner drinks (while the place is otherwise BYOB).

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  • Trattoria Toto da Lucia – Amsterdam, Netherlands (near Vondel Park).  Was the food here really that good?  I don’t know.  It was my last night in the city (in October of 2013), this was right around the corner from my friend’s flat off the Overtoom. The atmosphere was comforting. The wine was flowing. The conversation was bountiful. The food was fresh and made from scratch. I think I had a risotto? It’s a place where I’ll never forget the feeling…of being happy where I was in life at that moment…wrapping up my first trip to Europe, sharing my experiences and my hopes for a travel-filled future with a good friend, and feeling like the world was now my oyster.

Continue reading

Our Kind of Traitor is Our Kind of Movie

Our Kind of Traitor

In Marrakech, a British couple on the skids looking to reignite their stagnant marriage (an always slightly slimy but marginally honorable Ewan McGregor, the professor, and a delightful Naomie Harris, the barrister) accidentally befriend a bawdy yet charming Russian mobster (a smashingly good Stellan Skarsgard) and his brood of children in peril.  Wouldn’t you know it that Russian guy is looking to have help delivering a secret bank file to MI6 and get safe passage for his family on the eve of a shady financial deal his boss would kill people to cover up.  Once back in London, one British spy (Damien Lewis, nicely against type as the buttoned-up good guy) makes it his mission to use this information to bring down a certain MP (Jeremy Northam) involved in the corruption.

Susanna White’s jazzed up version of a John le Carre film adaptation is far better and more enjoyable than the ho-hum reviews and the movie’s own slickly off-putting first twenty minutes would have you believe.   Continue reading

Woman vs. Shark in The Shallows

The Shallows

The Shallows could be easily dismissed as a guilty pleasure if it weren’t so competently constructed and self-serious.

Nancy (a believable and shockingly likable Blake Lively) is a med-student at a cross-roads in life wondering if she will or won’t become a doctor?  She’s also still emotionally scarred by her mother’s cancer-related death. Therefore, she does some soul-searching in Mexico where she successfully finds a secret cove and beautiful beach where her mother spent some time shortly after learning she was pregnant with Nancy.  There she takes to the surf and stays out in the shallow waters just a little bit too long…accidentally stumbling upon one insatiable shark’s feeding spot.

It’s not often you get such depth in a character leading a monster movie.  So when things get silly and over-the-top (especially in the deliciously inane third act), the viewer is invested enough in Nancy to not give a damn about how patently ridiculous her tete-a-tete with one nasty shark gets.  I imagine some animal rights activists will not be happy with the unfair portrayal of sharks…though seaguls (in the form of Nancy’s injured companion “Steve”) certainly get a nice image make-over here. Continue reading

The Spin’s Top 40 Sci-fi Films of All Time

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Well, those ever-expanding genre polls over at Wonders in the Dark continue…and next on their docket is the Top Sci-fi films.  Below is the list I submitted, and in the coming weeks and months they will be unveiling their list after all the votes are tabulated.  I went with a fairly liberal definition for sci-fi, hence some genre-bending monster and horror films made the cut (but alas, no Leprechaun in Space!).  Also making the cut are films like Being John Malkovich, as I saw in the film a “scientific” explanation for how people were able to enter the head of John Malkovich…an unnerving “fiction” for sure!

Sci-fi films from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (along with Universal Monster movies from the 30’s) ruled my childhood as they were shown in endless loops on local television on the weekends…so there are many sentimental favorites here.  The list topper, from one Stanley Kubrick, should come as no surprise for my readers, as it is also a film I routinely name in my revolving Top Five Films of All Time.  Coming in at number 2, might surprise some, as it’s also a Universal Monster classic…James Whale’s Frankenstein, a great film based on Mary Shelley’s trailblazing sci-fi-by-way-of-parental-wish-fulfillment-nightmare gothic novel.

The best science fiction films typically tap into some disturbed psychology and common fears…hence its natural and seamless blend with horror (see Alien).  Satire, both gentle and militant, mixed with science fiction can also be potent (see the works of Jonze and Verhoeven and Miller).  At its most noble, science fiction allows us to dream bigger dreams (see the best of Spielberg and Nolan).

I’ll let the rest of the list below speak for itself – links provided to more detailed write-ups and reviews of applicable films provided by clicking the title. Continue reading

Well, He’s No Solomon…in Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship

Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella.  Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship.  The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.

As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles.  The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures.  Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading

We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things in Midnight Special

Midnight Special

*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

“We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things”

It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government.  They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.

Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take.  The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon.  Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen).  In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious?  Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny).  Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things.  This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.

In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears.  Continue reading

I Spy in the Sky an Eye on the Moral Ambiguity of Modern Warfare

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*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

How quickly can things escalate?  How much bureaucratic red-tape, coordination with allies and “referring-up” (where the political ramifications are cynically weighed with the moral implications) needs to happen before a decision can be made?  What is the human price of preemptive strikes against known terrorists?  These are the questions weighing heavily in the razor-sharp new thriller, Eye in the Sky.

Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who commands a drone squad surveying Kenya and other spots in the horn of Africa, wakes up one day to find three of the top ten terrorists on the East African most wanted list have gathered in a suburban home in the middle of a militia occupied neighborhood.  The original orders from higher up (led by a Alan Rickman in one of his final roles) were to survey and capture (one of the terrorists is a British citizen), but that’s too dangerous with the militiamen around.  When a bug-drone confirms they are preparing suicide vests inside, Powell pounds the drums to kill.  But when an innocent girl selling bread in the market area outside the house enters the kill zone, things get even more complicated and everyone (and I mean everyone…at one point the British Foreign Minister is rung-up while he’s on the toilet with food poisoning in Singapore) must weigh in before the strike can be executed. Continue reading

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is Everything that is Wrong with Modern Shakespeare Adaptations

Macbeth

In an unnamed tented wilderness (seriously, you could’ve convinced me these people were living in Mongolian yurts) some psycho (Michael Fassbender – all grit and style, no substance) starts killing people to become king while his libidinous, depressed wife (Marion Cotillard – wasted) pines for their beautiful Guns-N-Roses music-video-style-photographed dead child (buried…or burned…in the opening scene).  Eventually the action moves to some moodily lit chapels and castles where I finally realized the growling and whispering actors were speaking with Scottish accents (except Marion Cottilard – who spoke with….a….what the eff accent?)

Macbeth is allegedly an adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play and I had no idea what was going on most of the time.  Kurzel’s adaptation (which incidentally has some 1980’s big-hair metal band meets Game of Thrones style cinematography from the otherwise talented Adam Arkapaw that could fool someone into thinking they are watching something dreadfully artsy) is completely incompetent.  For the most part, the film is slavish to Shakespeare’s language (when it’s not cutting key lines), which seems like a good idea (umm, considering Shakespeare’s dialogue is like the best dialogue ever written in the English language) except for the fact it is spoken by otherwise award-caliber thespians with absolutely no sense of feeling or nuance or wit or…well…anything. Continue reading

Harrowing Wave almost Washes away Cliches

The Wave

It could really happen, the news clips prefacing the movie tell us.  Fjords are dangerous places, and if a mountain just up and decides to slip into one, as it does in Geiranger, Norway in Roar Uthaug’s slickly produced Bolgen (aka The Wave), there are gonna be a lotta people running for higher ground.

The Wave is a better than average disaster flick that balks at the over-the-top cartoonishness of its American brethren like 2012 (still one of my favorite comedies) and the recent San Andreas (which I was able to watch entirely in French on a plane from Paris last fall and didn’t need one bit of comprehensible dialogue to know what was happening – ironically, I’m told, which is the exact same experience as watching it in my native English).  There’s no Rock here, except for the rock slide that causes the catastrophic lake tsunami, which is rendered with truly spectacular special effects that rival the superior work done in The Impossible. Continue reading