I began this new year by realizing with renewed clarity that Netflix and other streaming services are a godsend for the movie fan, so I resolved to take full advantage. I decided to watch movies that I feel are holes in my repertoire, finally get around to watching some of the Netflix originals I’ve had on my list for months (since I’ve been enjoying so much of the social media content they’ve generated), and to give a chance to films and film genres that I have written off as “not for me.” I decided that I should give film noir and westerns — arenas of moviemaking that I’ve never cared for and have mostly avoided — a more open-minded and even-handed review.
So, with that very broad range of movie-related New Year’s resolutions, I began this January to wade through the options available on streaming services and my TCM-stocked DVR. Here’s what I’ve watched.
Like everyone else, apparently, I watched the Netflix original suspense thriller that sent the interwebs into a tizzy. Based on the novel by Josh Malerman, this movie’s cast was reason enough for me to be interested. Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes (*ahem*), Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Lil Rel Howery, and Tom Hollander, among other character actors, give stellar performances in this film about the appearance of unknown (and unseen by us) entities that make people commit suicide upon the merest glance.
The suspense in this film is intense and effective. Sandra Bullock has become the queen of brilliant (virtually) solo performances, considering her other incredible work in Gravity, where she had almost no co-stars for most of the film. She has several scenes in Bird Box where she is alone or the only adult, and her ability to create tension and pathos on her own is incredible.
Lots of people felt a bit let down by the hype around the movie, which is understandable since the vast majority of its publicity came via social media and non-stop memes (which were, incidentally, hilarious), and by the lack of backstory about the “creatures” and their reasons for coming to earth. I actually liked the lack of detail on what the creatures were and what they wanted — they show up, take over, and the characters either adapted or died. It throws you as a viewer right into the heart of the action and raises the stakes. Overall, Bird Box was effective and interesting, and a good example of the film quality new studios are capable of.
I watched this movie a long time ago without any real understanding of the context and true story behind the plot, so I took advantage of its placement in the Netflix selection.
By far the best and most memorable part of the film, for me, is John Turturro as Herbie Stempel, the legitimate game show champion unseated by the producers to place Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) in the spotlight. Stempel is nerdy and (*gasp*) Jewish, while van Doren is the handsome Golden Boy from an elite family.
The production secrets and various degrees of sleaziness that went on behind the scenes in the making of these hit TV shows are fascinating to watch. Redford, tapping into his All the President’s Men memories, seems very at home in making a film about a public fraud that America watched slowly unravel.
This movie gives a compelling, if complex, story of the battle of an underdog and the set-ups of the entertainment industry. It’s got great performances all around and gives real insight into film and TV production and the clash of business — for lack of a better words — ethics and creativity.
Touch of Evil
Starting off my resolution to get more into film noir, at least in terms of exposure and knowledge of the genre, was the 1958 Orson Welles film, Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston plays a Mexican-born police officer named Mike Vargas who’s trying to go on his honeymoon with new bride, Susan (Janet Leigh). Almost immediately, the Vargases are caught up in the corruption of the local police force.
The film is beautifully atmospheric and sinister, with great secondary performances and appearances by Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor. I enjoyed the way Welles tackled corrupt police forces and how much he clearly enjoyed playing the sublimely villainous police captain, Hank Quinlan.
Aspects of the film are certainly dated and pretty damn uncomfortable, if predictable for the time — specifically, the racial coding. Heston and Dietrich are both in brownface and the ever-present threat of Vargas’s wife Susan, a white woman, being sexually assaulted by Mexican men is a bit of a distraction. All this is tempered, however, by the brilliant performance by Welles and the commentary on abuses of power, specifically the use of drug paranoia to justify unethical police practices.
With all the beautiful noir-esque cinematics and Welles’ signature touches, Touch of Evil definitely stands up as an intense crime thriller, and it contains one of the most gripping opening sequences of any film I’ve seen.
The Departed has been on my list of To Watches for a LONG time, and I finally got around to it this month. I loved this movie — I’d say it was easily my favorite of the films I viewed in January.
The plot revolves around two police officers (one more “official” than the other) working on and/or with an Irish gang kingpin, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a new police academy graduate whose motivations within the department quickly become suspicious. Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an academy drop-out who goes undercover and begins working with Costello, trying to be of use to the department in spite of his questionable police record as a civilian.
Full of twists and turns and fantastic performances, this movie provides some pretty delightful confusion as to who counts as a good guy. Damon’s performance, in particular, is a fantastic departure (heh-heh) from his normal leading man roles. Vera Farmiga gives a nice turn as Madolyn, a counselor working with the police department who finds herself in between Colin’s and Billy’s conflicting efforts.
Scorcese does a fantastic job with realism — making it effective without venturing into torture porn territory. I found myself deeply invested in these characters — on behalf of some and on behalf of the destruction of others. Like Touch of Evil, there is plenty of commentary on police corruption, fantastic suspense, and some gorgeous modern noir techniques, especially vivid in a chase scene through the streets and alleys of Boston.
No Country for Old Men
This movie was easily the most intense of my January views. I’m a long-time Coen Brothers fan, and this film shows their astounding ability to capture and use location and landscape.
Javier Bardem gives an Oscar-winning performance as Anton Chigurh, one of the most disturbing villains I’ve encountered on the screen. He’s a sociopathic killer hunting Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who came across the carnage of drug deal gone wrong and stole the briefcase of money left at the scene. As Moss goes on the run and Chigurh gives chase, killing anyone in his way, Texas policeman Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) begins an investigation that makes him question how much time he ought to spend in the grim world of the two fugitives.
The film won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and it is relentless in its suspense and grit. I can’t say No Country for Old Men my favorite of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, because I’m partial to their specific brand of humor (of which there is none in this film). But it is certainly one of the most cinematically impressive and memorable.
Mudbound was the last film I watched in January. It’s a well-acted and interesting dual perspective of life during WWII in rural Mississippi for a white family and a Black family.
Henry McAllan moves his family out to a farm (with no input from his wife Laura) in the early 40s, and their struggles to farm the land and make a living intertwine with the Jacksons, a Black family living on the same land. (The cinematography of the rural South is very effective, and will be particularly evocative for viewers like me who are from the countryside of the Southeast.)
Most characters get some degree of self-narration, and the differences (and some similarities) between the two women in the film are especially interesting. Honest, grim, and in many ways brutal, Mudbound shows the tolls of war, poverty, and racism in 1940s America.
Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her brother-in-law Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) are the only two white characters that generate any degree of real empathy in me, being the frequently dismissed wife and war veteran, respectively. Jonathan Banks is convincingly loathsome as the Klansman father of the McAllan boys, and his elder son, Henry (Jason Clarke), is hardworking, but consistently racist and casually chauvinistic to his wife.
The Jacksons are much more compelling, constantly having to add the McAllans’ troubles to their own while trying to survive the war, the violent racism around them, and the low income life that the farm provides. Mary J. Blige is especially effective as Florence, the matriarch who essentially bears the burdens of two families.
The movie offers an interesting exposé of Black-white relations, including the dangers and limitations of would-be interracial friendships. There’s some disturbing racial violence and grizzly war realism, but the ending is relatively hopeful, and there’s some serious satisfaction to be had in the ending of a certain patriarch.
So! That was my cinematic January. I still plan on delving more into film noirs and westerns to see what I may have been missing, and continuing to view movies that I feel are gaps in my movie-viewing experience.
Also!!! It’s now February, which means it’s time for Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar! I hope to find some major movie achievements that I’ve yet to see and talk about them endlessly.
A belated Happy New Year to all the movie lovers out there (and the rest of y’all, too, I guess). Go watch sum’n!