The Keepers: More Brave Filmmaking from Netflix

I used to look down on true crime stories as they seemed sensationalistic and lacking of any real respect for the victims and their families. They seemed like nothing more than tasteless entertainment. That changed for me with the Netflix produced Making a Murderer which was created by filmmakers who seemed genuinely concerned with injustice in the American legal system. The public responded by binge watching the series and since its release it has arguably had a real impact on the much maligned system. After the success of Making a Murderer it was hard to imagine that Netflix would wait very long before delving back into the realm of true crime. I can say quite honestly that The Keepers has all the well-meaning and quality of Making a Murderer (in fact, maybe a little bit more of both).

We’re in a really interesting time for documentary filmmakers. For a genre that has prided itself on making unbiased/non-intrusive/non-manipulative storytelling, we are certainly seeing a lot of filmic devices being used by documentarians these days. The Keepers uses music, camera work, and the opinion of those behind the camera to great emotional effect for the viewer. These techniques used to be viewed as cheating in the documentary world, but I think viewers are better amateur psychologists these days, and are better able to understand our own biases and influences. With our phones we are also all amateur moviemakers and have used some of these techniques ourselves. And with so much of our entertainment being one blurry mess of fiction and reality, I think it’s only fair that documentarians be allowed to reach out of their usual bag of tools and embrace techniques normally reserved by Hollywood for theatrical fare.

The Keepers also has a cast of incredible characters, some will feel very real to the viewer, while others (Bud Roemer comes to mind) will feel like they were yanked out of of a Hollywood classic. The story is deftly presented by the filmmakers and unfolds more interestingly than most contemporary fictional works.

Finally, I feel like I learned more about life, death, and everything in between from The Keepers than I have from recent fictional dramas. When dealing with real people, and real injustice, it’s hard not to moved, to learn, to change – and that’s what filmmaking is supposed to do for us. Sure, entertainment is great, but I want to come out of a viewing experience a different person, not completely changed, just privy to a different perspective on life than my own. Judging by the initial reception of The Keepers it seems like others would agree with me. Maybe that’s why Netflix is keeping their viewing numbers so close to their chest. Maybe we’re looking for a different type of entertainment and they’ve plugged into it while the competition stays with the tried and true formula.

It feels like the search for justice has gone mainstream. What a welcome development.

Netflix: The Relic Review (Dustin SanVido)

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The Relic (1997)

Starring Penelope Ann Miller, Tom Sizemore, Linda Hunt and James Whitmore

Directed by Peter Hyams

Continuing the addition of Entertainment Maven’s foray into the world of online film streaming, I found myself on the Netflix main page for around 25 minutes last evening. The problem I’ve always had with selecting films to watch in a platform such as Netflix is the pool of content is so large my indecisiveness gets the better of me and often I end up perusing spoilerishly written synopses for the majority of the evening that ruin the film and disengage my interest from title to title. Thankfully I wasn’t alone and a friend was more than willing to point out a little ditty I watched as a young boy that stood out to me at the time, Peter Hyam’s sci-fi horror hybrid The Relic. I remember The Relic as an amalgamation of elements lifted from titles like Aliens, T2: Judgment Day and Predator to name a few obvious comparisons. Even as a young boy unfazed by brutal and grotesque cinematic violence and gore, I remember The Relic standing out and leaving quite an impression on the 11 year old version of myself, an impression that’s left a lasting comparative resonance towards similar films within the genre. I decided to revisit The Relic once again so I could draw a few conclusions as to what element/s had left such an impression on me or at a very minimum how it compares to recent special effects-driven films. After viewing it again, I was surprised to find myself just as entertained as I was as a boy, all-the-while acknowledging The Relic’s dated effects and criminally ludicrous logic.

The Relic begins as we see an Anthropologist named  Prof. John Whitney somewhere in the Brazilian Rainforest studying an ancient tribe of unknown descent. The tribesmen offer the Professor a drink made from some jungle leaves, causing him to experience hallucinations while a tribesman lunges around him in a threatening costume.

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We then move along to the Chicago Museum of Natural History where final preparations have begun for the grand opening of a new superstition-themed exhibit which is scheduled for a Grand Opening Gala to be attended by the Mayor and his political friends.  It’s here we meet Dr. Margo Green(Penelope Ann Miller), an evolutionary biologist fighting to keep her department staff employed by competing for a needed grant against a snooty, venal colleague(Chi Moui Lo). Working alongside Green is Dr. Albert Frock (James Whitmore), her mentor and confidante who theorizes the existence of periodic leaps in evolutionary bio-science resulting in mutation, a theory that is as foreboding as is interesting. Hmm… I wonder if the abomination Dr. Frock theorizes will make an appearance?

At the same time we meet Lt. Vincent D’agousta (Tom Sizemore) as he’s called in to investigate an abandoned cargo ship that’s been towed into the Chicago Harbor under suspicion of a drug-related hijacking. Once D’agousta discovers the remains of the crew on-board, he begins to theorize a much more sinister force is at work while his colleagues dismiss the grotesque killings as a cartel execution. After a vicious attack on staff and visitors at the museum that matches the rampage of the cargo ship, Lt. D’agousta connects the two investigations due to a shared missing organ and tries to have the aforementioned gala postponed, his concerns being dismissed by the political grandstanding of the Mayor and his police connections . While Lt. D’agousta sees this as a psychotic man on some form of drug-related killing spree, conveniently after the gala begins the real perpetrator makes it’s horrifyingly grotesque presence felt.

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From here on out the audience is treated to a fun and highly entertaining thrill ride as the titular monster wrecks havoc on any characters that cross its path. It’s this stretch in the narrative where  The Relic is at its best – the satisfying manner in which the beast kills its prey and the karmic moments when any and all characters who’ve slighted our protagonists meet their end in brutally entertaining fashion.

The Relic also stands above similarly-themed films thanks in large part to its exceptional sound department, which for me was the stand-out of the film. Genre films that try to spook and scare its audience in today’s era often neglect the sound design in favor of relying on a sharp musical notation coupled with jump-editing that results in the appearance of amateurish, lazy work. The best creature features almost always have a great sound department that understands the benefits of establishing a consistent mood and tone through the use of sound design and mixing. Knowing when to lower and raise a film’s score and effects to drive a scene in the narrative often make or break movies like this. When it works it can effectively manipulate your senses: the hairs on your body rise and you’ve been pulled deeper into the story. The Relic uses this practice to perfection, beginning in the opening scene and credits and really hits its stride during the creature’s first attack. The score is muted and the audience hears the creature for the first time. It’s a terrifying moment and the suspense built in that scene raises tension and sustains that feeling the rest of the movie.

It’s worth noting Stan Winston and his team provided the creature designs and effects, and regardless of the fact the effects look exceedingly dated, the work still holds up. This isn’t just a testament to the impact Stan Winston made during his life on the industry; there is far more influential work on his part from other features to solidify that claim, but it’s further evidence that having a strong sound department as a backbone can distract from the weaker links in the overall product. The  design of the creature is also original and fiercely intimidating making its kills far more perverse and distinctive than formulaic.

Now about those weaker links I mentioned above. It must be said that while The Relic is a highly entertaining horror/sci-fi hybrid, it does have its flaws which begin with its acting. The characters in the film are one note cut-outs who don’t contribute any arc or growth to drive the narrative or provide any semblance of humanism. It’s clearly defined in the first act the characters that inhabit this world are meant to react to the actions presented by the narrative, and answer promptly when called upon to the slaughter. Frankly, and especially after revisiting the film, I get a feeling that the majority of the top-billed actors probably weren’t the first choices for the project. You know, something like “Nicolas Cage and Shakespeare” or two other things that just don’t seem right together. There’s no stand-outs  worth mentioning, but this isn’t really a bad thing. It allows the viewer a chance to switch the logical side of their brain off and just enjoy it, yet doesn’t outright neglect the audience’s intelligence like so many films in this genre do today.

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The only other glaring problem with The Relic are the many, many, many, logic issues I drew up while watching the film a second time. The boat clearly identified as a Brazilian cargo ship in the opening moments, travelling from Brazil, is entirely populated with a crew of Spanish workers, including the ship Captain debating its contents, who is speaking Spanish! When the police happen upon the creature’s lair, it contains many carcasses and human remains that couldn’t have reached that state of decomposition in such a little amount of time. The police are aware someone is ripping people apart in the sub-levels of a museum and send TWO officers with flashlights into the area to perform a search…TWO! And concerning the organ the creature feasts on inside the human brain: without spoiling some great effects-driven moments, the gland inside the brain that controls the production of human hormones is just that, a controller. The creature’s need to feed on this organ to obtain sustenance is akin to a person waking up in the morning with a hangover and migraine, and foregoing the aspirin to consume the plastic bottle instead. It’s ludicrous, but ultimately forgivable. The rest of the logic issues can be easily dismissed as a product of its time. It was 1996 and communications technology wasn’t what it is today. I implore you to revisit old titles from the mid Nineties and back, and try not to yell at the screen when doing so. It’s much harder than you’d think!

All in all, The Relic is a fantastically executed horror film that’s plot holes can be viewed from space but is highly enjoyable throughout thanks in large part to the superb technical work and sense of fun that permeates throughout. The Relic is a prime example of the kind of films that we never get to see today. Hollywood has become an economically and franchise-driven industry that studios and financiers are no longer willing to invest in original material, only in built-in properties and director-driven films. The Relic is a product of its time, an era wherein directors were given the artistic freedom to realize their vision as they see fit in order to entertain the audience they were aiming for. It’s successful in all of the above and I highly recommend any fans of the genre give this a try.

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Dark Skies Review (Robert Harding)

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Dark Skies (2013)

Starring Keri Russell, Jake Brennan, Josh Hamilton

Directed by Scott Stewart

It is often said that what you can’t see is scarier than that which you can.  That thinking something might be lurking in the shadows brings about more fear than actually seeing the monster itself. Dark Skies takes this concept in hand and much like a ghost story attempts to craft a sci-fi film with horror elements.

The film revolves around the Barret family. They seem like your everyday normal suburban family. They aren’t without their problems but like most families, they’re dealing with them.  Unfortunately, as life becomes more and more stressful a series of disturbing events begins to escalate the tension. Are they the brunt of some juvenile pranks and a few  coincidental events or is there something more to what’s going on?

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Because the film concentrates on creating fear in order to entertain it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t do the best of jobs. Either the filmmakers weren’t skilled in creating tension and delivering scares or they were trying to make a film for a younger audience and toned down the horror on purpose.  Unfortunately I don’t think the later is the case as all the advertisements seem to point to a genuinely scary movie (which Dark Skies truly isn’t). Between the editing, music, directing, writing and camera work, the film has the right ideas but constantly fails to deliver. Sometimes the shot is ended too early or lasts too long. Other times it is framed improperly so as to fail to create the necessary tension. And it’s clear that they didn’t know how to create false scares or use them properly. Luckily the look of the aliens themselves is rather spooky so the CG work managed to succeed where the regular tricks of the trade failed.

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On the plus side, the film excels in creating a sense of lack of control. Thanks to some great performances from the actors you truly get a sense that they’ve lost all control of the situation. In fact, it is so well portrayed that the audience can easily emphasize and feel a little antsy themselves. There was more than a few times that I wanted to lash out at someone on screen for one reason or another.  At first, the characters are at a loss to explain what is happening to them and will latch on to any plausible explanation possible. When the plausibles don’t add up, they can’t bring themselves to believe in the unthinkable. Then, when they’ve finally come to terms with the implausible, they realise they are practically helpless. It is this constant sense of the unknown combined with the regular mysterious events and the film’s use of sound that help drive home this unnerving sense of helplessness.

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Dark Skies puts a lot of effort into building a frightening tale of alien abduction but doesn’t quite manage to create the scares necessary to elevate it beyond a mere encounter of the dull kind. Younger audiences might find that they manage to get something from the film as a good portion of the horror tropes used and the alien back stories might seem fresh and new to them. Hardcore horror fans would be better off steering clear as not only will they not likely get anything new from the film’s story but they’ll likely find the attempts at creating fear ineffective and possibly even boring.

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A Good Day to Die Hard Review (Robert Harding)

A Good Day to Die Hard Poster

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

Starring Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Directed by John Moore

A Good Day to Die Hard marks the 5th installment, yes I said 5th, in the Die Hard franchise. Bruce Willis reprises his role as John McClane with Mary Elizabeth Winstead coming back in a small role as his daughter Lucy. Then there’s new cast member Jai Courtney who is playing the role of Jack McClane ie. John McClane’s son.

Having reconciled his relationship with his daughter in Die Hard 4, John McClane has apparently been searching for his son.  He manages to find him in Russia and quickly boards a flight from New York. He eventually finds out that Jack is an undercover CIA operative working to prevent a nuclear-weapons heist. Of course now the two McClanes must team-up against underworld forces.

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Much like Live Free or Die Hard, this film deals with reconciliation between John McClane and one of his children. While his relationship with his daughter was saved because she simply “needed her daddy”, this film tends to do a better job of portraying the father and son relationship and its bond. Sure it’s cliche and predictable but at least it makes sense and you can see the progression throughout the film.

Unfortunately, fans of the Die Hard franchise looking for classic John McClane might be a little disappointed. In previous films it has always been John McClane, guy in the wrong place and the wrong time, against a mad man (and his team). There is a back and forth almost comedic relationship between our hero and his new found enemy. This is severely missing from this new film. Not only is John not the only good guy but there are several bad guys.  Missing is the typical cat and mouse game with witty banter only to be replaced by a certain foreign hybrid. And the classic lines you come to expect from a Die Hard film seem forced and out of place.

Those out there who are just looking for a good action film should be warned. Die Hard has many many flaws that don’t take a vast knowledge of film to notice. The most obvious would be the absolutely terrible dialogue.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this film generated some fun drinking games. How many times does McClane say he’s on vacation again? Less obvious is some really bad editing.  This is the kind of editing that has people saying stuff but you never find out to whom or why. Seems the film is more concerned with creating hectic jump cuts and less with letting the viewer know what’s going on.

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A Good Day to Die Hard does have some good big budget action sequences.  There is a fantastic car chase sequence and plenty of gun play but unless that’s all you care about, the film will seem quite hollow in comparison to the rest of the franchise. In fact, with all the poor pieces of filmmaking, the film might not only feel hollow but might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.  I’m not saying you should avoid the film but I do think you should know what your getting into before you decide to shill out your hard earned money.

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Side Effects Review (Dustin SanVido)

Side Effects Poster

Side Effects (2013)

Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum

Written by Scott Burns

Music by Tomas Newman

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh has been one of the most, if not the most prolific director of the last two decades. Although I’m not a particularly big fan of his work there is no debate as to the fact he is one of the most driven filmmakers in Hollywood. He’s successfully walked a fine line between appeasing general audiences with such mainstream fare as the Ocean’s trilogy, Magic Mike and Contagion while also pushing his independent artistic envelope with experimental works such as Bubble, Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh recently stated his intention to retire from filmmaking after his latest works, his Liberace biopic for HBO “Behind the Candelabra” and the pharmaceutical thriller Side Effects.  With Side Effects being Soderbergh’s supposed swansong, he has crafted an engaging dramatic mystery that wears its Hitchcockian-inspired visuals and narrative proudly on its sleeve while also reminding the audience that few filmmakers today can make psychological thrillers as effective as he can.

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It’s difficult to talk about the narrative in Side Effects without spoiling the many twists and turns found within so I will attempt to be brief. The film begins as Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a four year sentence for insider trading. Upon his release, Emily begins suffering from depression and begins treatment from Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who introduces Emily to a series of prescription drugs to cope with her illness. As Emily’s world begins to unravel from within, Dr. Banks prescribes a new drug after consulting with Emily’s prior doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) which leads to unexpected side effects that will change the lives of all involved.

Side Effects never reveals what film it’s trying to be until the last act. Is it a medical/crime drama, a moody character piece, or weighty message drama that screams Pharma-companies are bad? The answer is none of the above, which may lead some viewers to wrongly interpret Side Effects as a muddled who-dun-it that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I believe this was Soderbergh’s intention as he didn’t want to make a simple mystery film, but one that lets the viewer experience the narrative as his protagonist does. Disguising the film thematically allowed him to surprise the audience with many shocking moments that seemingly come out of left field but ultimately link up to create a taut and effective mystery thriller.

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As with his previous works, Soderbergh gets every ounce of talent out of the actors involved, with Jude Law being the most effective. His Dr. Banks is a character that you would find in the kind of films Soderbergh is emulating. At first he is merely a supporting character who eventually discovers things are not entirely as they seem. Law is convincing and has no trouble changing gears between accentuating the performances of his co-stars to outright grabbing the focus of the film in the second act as his professional and personal life begin to crumble. Rooney Mara once again demonstrates why she was chosen to Americanize the character of Lizbeth Salendar in the remake of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Her ability to transition seamlessly from emotion to emotion in the same scene is a rare talent that is used effectively in her dramatic moments with Tatum and Law. That being said, Tatum and Zeta-Jones are fine in their respective roles and make the most of what is called for, but since Side Effects is centrally focused on Emily and Dr. Banks, the secondary roles are by nature forgettable.

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Like his previous works, there is an intentional plainness to the look of Side Effects with the exception of a few visual cues that harken back to the old noir films of the 50’s and 60’s. This is ever present in the beginning as a slow moving pan through a condo instantly establishes atmospheric tension that remains for nearly the film’s entire running time. Unbeknownst to most casual viewers is the fact that Steven Soderbergh shoots and edits his own films under a pair of pseudonyms, which is of course why his features all have a distinct feel. Also, the minimalist approach taken by Thomas Newman’s score effectively maintains the visual rhythm without taking attention away from the narrative or performances.

Side Effects is an effective mystery that slowly pulls its viewer in and rewards their patience and should be a delight for Hitchcock fans and lovers of old crime/noir stories. It’s fair to say that Soderbergh has made superior films, but should not be a deterrent to seeing Side Effects. If anything, you may be watching a masterful filmmaker engage your cinematic intelligence for one last time.

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