Recently I was given the chance to dive into Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray box set for the Stray Cat Rock series. It’s a strange series -- sometimes a Stray Cat Rock film is a gritty crime drama, other times it’s a youth comedy. One film deals with the subject of racism, another film has a dude dying from sexual excitement while using a jackhammer. The Stray Cat Rock series is part Nikkatsu action movie, part Easy Rider, part counterculture comedy, and 100% 1970s. Until now, only the third film in the series was available on DVD in the US. For fans of Japanese cinema, the set is a must-see. I go into the Blu-rays features and review the five individual films in my new feature ‘A Look Inside: Arrow Video’s Stray Cat Rock Collection’ over at CityOnFire. Check it out.
Black Mass – I went and saw Black Mass the other day. Pretty good. Not great but definitely a film worth checking out, mainly for Johnny Depp’s masterful performance. Remember when we looked forward to the next Johnny Depp movie? He’s a great actor – even in the bad movies, I dare you to say that he’s phoning it in – but I haven’t enjoyed many of his movies in recent years. Too much Disney and Tim Burton, not enough challenging roles. Black Mass is a step in the right direction as he shakes off the goofiness and enters the shoes of the monster known as Whitey Bulger. Joel Edgerton’s contributions to the film also deserve mention, here playing an FBI agent who’s forgotten himself as he tries to make Bulger into a credible FBI informant. Solid film. Just not sure it’s gonna stick in the viewer’s consciousness for long the way our best crime pics do.
Camp X-Ray – I’ve never seen Twilight but what other Kristen Stewart films I’d seen in the past suggested that she was a mediocre actress at best. Well, she’s gotten better. I thought she was impressive in Still Alice playing Julianne Moore’s daughter. Moore is brilliant in the film (finally winning her first Oscar for the role), so it’d be easy to outshine every other performer. And while I really gotta think about who else was in the movie, I remember Kristen Stewart’s performance right away, so that’s something. Stewart’s performance as the lead character in Camp X-Ray is her best work yet. Camp X-Ray is a quiet, understated look at the relationship between the guards and the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The work for the guards alternates between tedium and soul crushing morality questions. Stewart’s soldier befriends a difficult inmate played by A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi, who’s also quite good. Instead of looking at the bigger picture, writer/director Peter Sattler keeps his primary focus on these two individuals, and I think it makes for a better, more personal film. Camp X-Ray is one of the best films of the year.
Good Kill—We have strong opinions about drones. Even if you’re for drones in combat zones, I bet you still find the technology frightening on at least some level. Good Kill is Andrew Niccol’s drama about a pilot that’s been grounded, turned into a drone pilot half a world away from where the action is, and the man is slowly crumbling away under the pressure of depression and guilt. Ethan Hawke is really good in the starring role and supporting cast members Zoe Kravitz, January Jones, and Bruce Greenwood also do good work. Like Camp X-Ray, another film that asks difficult questions about the war on terror, Good Kill is a character drama at heart. Unlike Camp X-Ray, I think Good Kill would’ve benefited from a broader scope, attempted to say more, do more, GO THERE. Limited in scope and in answers, Good Kill is not the definitive film about drone warfare, but at least it’s asking some questions. Worth seeing.
Unfriended—This shouldn’t have been any good. Yet, somehow, it is. Unfriended is a horror film that takes place entirely online, in Skype chats, on Facebook, YouTube, etc. It’s a story about the victim of cyber bullying coming back as a ghost to haunt her tormentors. I don’t use half the websites featured in the movie – Unfriended is likely to play better to a teen audience, I think – but I admired its craft. Sometimes restrictions encourage a storyteller to mine his/her concept for all its worth and that’s just what writer Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze do here. It’s never exactly haunting but there’s a surprising amount of creepy fun to be had.
The Voices—This is a DARK comedy. Like pitch black, stumbling around in the shadows, bumping your knee on the coffee table, cursing as you trip over your talking dog, accidentally stabbing your girlfriend to death kinda dark comedy. Ryan Reynolds gives the best performance of his career as nice guy madman Jerry, who lives with his talking dog, evil cat, and the friendly head in the fridge. Definitely not for everyone. It took me some time to warm up to The Voice’s peculiar charms. By the time it reached the credits I considered myself a fan of the film.
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