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Hidden Netflix Gems – Bringing Out the Dead

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Today’s entry is a hidden gem not only in the catalogue of Netflix, but also in that of beloved director Martin Scorsese, one of several underrated masterpieces so often overshadowed by more well-known ones like Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Along with films like The King of Comedy and After Hours, Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead has been unjustly overlooked for the most part, and deserves more recognition than it has gotten. Sure, you could dismiss it as simply “Ambulance Driver” for its similarity to Scorsese’s breakthrough masterpiece, Taxi Driver, as well as the fact that both films were written by frequent collaborator Paul Schrader, but there is more to it than that. I’m certainly not saying it’s better than Taxi Driver, but it’s certainly different enough to warrant appraisal on its own merits.

The film follows three days in the life of constantly working New York City paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), who is so exhausted and depressed that he has begun to hallucinate. His most frequently recurring vision is of a young woman named Rose (Cynthia Roman), who he failed to save from a fatal overdose. Throughout the three days in which we witness his life, Frank is teamed with three different partners, each of whom seem to reflect different aspects of his personality and his viewpoint toward his job. Larry (John Goodman) does his best to not take his work home with him, looking at his work as simply a job by which he refuses to let himself be haunted. Marcus (Ving Rhames) is the polar opposite of Larry, a Christian who views his job as working the miracles of the lord, bringing the dead back to life. Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore) represents pure, unchained id, a man who encourages Frank to release his own demons through naked aggression aimed at the patients he is meant to be helping.

Along the way, Frank saves an old man named Mr. Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson), who is ultimately so far gone that he spends his recovery in an intensive care unit, repeatedly flatlining and being revived again. His former junkie daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), forms a tenuous bond with Frank, and the two of them find some hope for redemption in each other, though without the expected romantic subplot that would have undoubtedly been exploited in a lesser film. Though Arquette’s performance feels oddly flat and this is not Scorsese’s best film, it is also far from his worst, which makes it vastly superior to the average movie. Bringing Out the Dead is a fascinating look at a profession that is oddly underrepresented in the movies, and the depths of the human soul that profession must regularly plumb.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Goon

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am not particularly interested in professional sports, generally ignoring all games except the occasional Olympics or Super Bowl viewing, but every year or so there is a sports movie that comes along and deeply and unexpectedly resonates with me. Four years ago, there was Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler, a beautiful, heartbreaking film that was easily among my favorite films of 2008; the following year, there was Big Fan, written and directed by The Wrestler writer, Robert D. Siegel. This year, the unexpected sports movie that finds a place in my heart is Michael Dowse‘s Goon, a movie about hockey that mostly ignores the game itself in favor of the fights that so often break out on the ice.

Seann William Scott delivers his best performance yet as Doug Glatt, a sweet, lovable Canadian bar bouncer who is troubled by the fact that he doesn’t have a “thing” that defines him. His father (Eugene Levy) and brother, Ira (David Paetkau), are both doctors, and his best friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel, who co-wrote the film with frequent Seth Rogen collaborator Evan Goldberg), has a public access show about hockey, but Doug feels aimless, searching for his life’s real purpose. That changes one night at a hockey game, when he knocks out a player who climbs into the stands to beat up Pat, who has instigated the fight by being his usual loudmouth self. The fight in the stands garners more attention and applause than the game itself, and Doug soon finds himself recruited as an enforcer for a local minor league hockey team.

As an enforcer, Doug’s job is to injure successful players from other teams, as well as to protect his own teammates by beating up the other teams’ enforcers. It is the sense of being a protector of his team that resonates with Doug and makes him feel like he’s found his calling. It also helps him to earn the love of Eva (Alison Pill), a woman he meets one night in a bar when he knocks out an obnoxious drunk who is hitting on her, and the friendship of his team’s star player, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin). Ultimately, though, what the film is building to is a showdown between Doug and his idol, Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber), a brutal enforcer from the majors who has been demoted for his unsportsmanlike conduct. Though Goon follows the expected beats of a classic sports movie, its formulaic nature does not detract from its quality, and by the time Doug “The Thug” Glatt inevitably faces off against his rival, Scott’s charismatic performance and the film’s surprising likability should have even the most ambivalent viewer ready to cheer.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Everything Must Go

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Hollywood has a rich history of well-known comic actors taking on more serious and weighty roles, from Robin Williams to Ben Stiller to Jim Carrey, and now Will Ferrell, in what is probably his very best performance to date. Everything Must Go bears a strong resemblance to Stiller’s work in Noah Baumbach‘s Greenberg, or Adam Sandler‘s in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Punch-Drunk Love, in its portrayal of a flawed but basically good-hearted man going through difficult times and coming out better for it. The difference between Ferrell and Sandler, of course, is that Ferrell’s comedies generally don’t suck.

Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic who loses his job at the beginning of the film and, after an ill-advised revenge against his boss, Gary (Glenn Howerton), returns home to discover that his wife has left him. Not only that, she has locked him out of the house, frozen their joint bank account, and left all of his possessions out on the front lawn. Nick is understandably upset, and reacts in the defeated way that has apparently become his life’s standard recourse: he buys a lot of beer and camps out in his La-Z-Boy on the lawn for the night. In the morning, having exhausted his beer supply and unable to find his car keys, he borrows a bicycle from his twelve-year-old neighbor, Kenny Loftus (Christopher Jordan Wallace), and heads down to the convenience store for more beer while Kenny keeps an eye on his stuff.

Nick also befriends his new neighbor, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a beautiful young photographer who has just moved by herself from New York, where her husband is wrapping things up at his company, planning to join her in Arizona as soon as possible. There are hints that their marriage is on the rocks, as when she tells Nick early on that her husband wants to name their unborn baby (with whom she is currently pregnant) Jack, after himself, a practice she thinks is “kind of ridiculous.” I found this especially ironic knowing that the excellent young actor who plays Kenny is in fact the son of the other Christopher Wallace, best known as The Notorious B.I.G. We also meet Nick’s friend and former Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Frank Garcia (Michael Pena), when he rescues Nick from arrest by virtue of the fact that Frank is himself a higher-ranking officer than the ones sent to Nick’s house on a complaint from his neighbors.

Frank allows Nick to remain living on his lawn for the next few days under the pretense that he is holding a yard sale; after that, if Nick can’t get himself together, Frank will have no choice but to take him to jail. Clearly, this is not a plot-driven film, but that is not to say it isn’t a very well-structured one; the yard sale provides the forward thrust for Nick’s attempt to get his life back on track, and subtle details pay off in unexpected ways throughout. It is to the great credit of first-time writer-director Dan Rush that the film never takes the easy or expected routes, and it also takes its time in developing its characters and their relationships, all of which are nuanced and believable. The approach is well-suited to the author of its source material, the great Raymond Carver, and the film finds a perfect balance between poignancy and humor, both of which are equally effective when employed.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – The House of Yes

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The term “dark comedy” often seems overused, as relatively few films really strike the balance between truly dark and truly funny, tending instead to fall more on one side or the other. One film that really deserves the title, however, is Mark Waters‘ 1997 adaptation of Wendy MacLeod‘s play, The House of Yes. Blending sharp, clever dialogue and a wonderfully unhinged lead performance by Parker Posey with exceptionally disturbing subject matter and boldly unlikable characters, The House of Yes has to be one of the darkest comedies ever made. At the same time, though, it is strikingly funny.

Posey is “Jackie-O” Pascal, a disturbed young woman with a lifelong obsession over Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, especially, the JFK assassination. As a child, she once dressed as her namesake for Halloween, complete with fake blood and “brains” made from macaroni. She also has an unhealthy fixation on her twin brother, Marty (Josh Hamilton), with whom she shares a far too close relationship, even for twins. Their mother (Genevieve Bujold), upon meeting Marty’s fiancée, Lesly (Tori Spelling), tells her, “Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb.” This casual admission of such an unsettling fact to a relative stranger gives the viewer a pretty strong idea of how this unbalanced family came to be the way they are.

Jackie and Marty’s younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), has his share of problems as well, chief among them being his strong desire for the sort of bond shared by the twins. Feeling left out, he makes clumsy advances toward Lesly, heightening her understandable discomfort as she is basically stranded with her bizarre new family during a hurricane. The film’s single location and relatively few characters, as well as its reliance on dialogue and performance above all, make its origins as a stage play obvious, but that doesn’t really hurt its impact. The oddly claustrophobic nature of the single location only adds to the tension of the situation as poor Lesly, who is clearly Marty’s futile attempt to escape from his insane family, struggles to cope with the extreme dysfunction all around her. Of course, Marty can never really escape from the madness of his family, since he himself is such an integral part of it, and the conclusion of The House of Yes is in keeping with the rest of it: relentlessly dark, and at the same time, disturbingly funny.

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Red State

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

I am always excited to see my favorite filmmakers stretch beyond what they normally produce and explore other genres. For that reason, I applaud Kevin Smith for stepping away from the talky, visually underwhelming comedies for which he is known with his latest film, Red State, a nasty, tense, visceral thriller that, while satirical and occasionally funny, is miles away from a comedy.

Red State is a cinematic middle finger to the vicious, hateful Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, an organization best known for the highly tasteful and respectable practice of protesting funerals in order to garner controversy. Though Phelps is eventually mentioned by name in the film’s narrative, his overt fictional surrogate is one Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a malevolent, fire-and-brimstone preacher who looks a bit like a more diminutive Kris Kristofferson with eyeglasses. Cooper and his followers regularly hold demonstrations in which they hold up signs offering such charming sentiments as “Anal Penetration = Eternal Damnation.”

As the film begins, it tricks the audience into expecting the kind of lame teen sex comedy that detractors of Smith’s Mallrats or Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back might expect from him. High school students Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) receive an invitation for group sex from a mysterious woman Jarod met on a sex chat site. Being the horny teen boys that they are, they borrow a car from Travis’s parents and head out to the trailer home of the woman, whose name just so happens to be Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). Of course, Cooper is a common name and the boys are way too horny to think twice about it, nor do they seem disturbed by her insistence that they chug a couple of beers before getting down to the “devil’s business,” so of course they are quickly drugged into unconsciousness and wake up in a world of horror. The boys soon find out the hard way that the Coopers hate not only homosexuals, but any type of “deviant” sexuality or immorality, which includes teen boys curious about group sex with an older woman.

One of the things that works so well about Smith veering so sharply away from the type of film for which he is known is how unpredictable the film quickly becomes. We assume from the start of the film that Travis is the main protagonist, but quickly find that no one is safe in this nasty, uncompromising movie. Likewise, ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) doesn’t show up until the beginning of the film’s second act, at which point he becomes the main protagonist. Goodman is excellent in the film, but the true star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Parks as Abin. He manages to be hateful enough to boil the viewer’s blood while simultaneously displaying the kind of natural charisma that makes his followers’ hero-worship all too believable.

Throughout his career, Smith has been criticized for a lack of visual style as a director, and he seems to have taken this particular criticism to heart. In some of his later period films, he seems to have been actively trying to step up to this challenge, but this is the first film I’ve seen from him that really knocks the visual style out of the park. This is easily my favorite Smith film since Chasing Amy, a film that Smith claims he made for his gay brother to make up for a shortage of gay characters in romantic comedies, and that same sympathy for issues of civil rights for homosexuals is at the heart of this one. Part torture-porn, part action movie and part satire, Red State is a very mature work for Smith, a film that shows his tremendous growth as a writer and filmmaker without being pretentious about it.

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