With all the festivities going down in December, it always takes a while for the new year to actually kick in. Well, this past week was a rude reminder that 2017 is officially here:
Republicans worked their tails off after midnight to start repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Jeff Sessions’ attorney general confirmation hearing began. Sessions once reportedly joked that he thought the KKK were “OK” until he learned that they smoked pot.
And then there was Trump being Trump. After an unsubstantiated document was leaked claiming the PEOTUS had hired prostitutes to perform “golden showers” in front of him, he went on a rampage, calling out CNN reporter Jim Acosta as “fake news” while conveniently sidestepping allegations that Russia might have compromising material on him. (He also weaseled out of his ridiculous promise that Mexico would pay for that Wall and took a shot at Meryl Streep after she criticized him during her Golden Globes speech.) And Trump is still a week away from being sworn in. Yeah, it’s only gonna get worse before it gets any better. But at least there are always movies to take our minds off all this crap.
Warning: May contain spoilers.
Under the Shadow (2016)
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi
Director: Babak Anvari
Genre: Suspense, Drama, Horror
Summary: A mother and child in war-torn Iran are targeted by evil forces.
The psychological horror film Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War that lasted most of the 1980s, which means there’s already a certain amount of terror built into the action as the constant threat of buildings exploding all around the city affects the lives of people like Shideh (Rashidi), her doctor husband (Naderi), and young daughter Dorsa (Manshadi). The anxiety is heightened after Shideh and Dorsa are left alone at home and are besieged by what neighbors believe are djinn, supernatural spirits that will haunt you wherever you go once they have taken a personal belonging of yours. When Dorsa’s beloved rag doll goes missing, it becomes imperative that they find it before they can evacuate their crumbling apartment.
This atmospheric ghost story relies on the time-proven fear of the unknown. It’s not always what we see that scares us, it’s what we don’t see. But, as the title suggests, it’s also an allegory about women living under the shadow of oppressive rule. Everything from pursuing a career to driving a car seems to be under scrutiny. Even personal matters like owning a VCR and a dubbed copy of a Jane Fonda workout tape can be considered offenses. In one telling scene, Shideh is running down the street scared out of her mind only to be stopped by local cops for not being properly covered in public.
Yet, even with the running social commentary, the film doesn’t sacrifice the scary moments to make its points. It’s done subtly, and our focus is kept on the sinister things lurking just around the corner.
Miss Sharon Jones! (2015)
Starring: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Director: Barbara Kopple
Genre: Music, Documentary
Summary: The acclaimed singer battles cancer before the release of a new album and tour.
In an age where shows like American Idol and The Voice have driven the idea of overnight success, the career of the talented and hard-working Sharon Jones is a testament to what the American Dream used to stand for before turning into an empty desire for riches and celebrity. Jones spent decades performing music, including stints in wedding bands, but was never able to secure a record deal as a solo artist because she didn’t have the so-called “right look.” So, she took other jobs, including working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island. She didn’t get put on until the age of 40. Later, teamed up with the Dap-Kings, her immensely strong voice and energetic stage presence earned the soul, funk, and R&B singer a loyal worldwide fan base.
Then, in 2013, Jones was diagnosed with cancer. While most of this documentary is about her dealing with surgeries and chemotherapy, it also shows the difficult situation the singer finds herself in struggling to get healthy and having to return as soon as possible in order for her band to be able to earn income.
While we’re given some joyous moments, including Jones catching the holy spirit in church, the film was completed before the announcement that her illness had come back. Jones died late last year. She was 60, leaving behind a musical legacy that will be cherished. Sadly, as we can see here, she was a woman who had much more left to give.
A True Story (2013)
Starring: Cameron Fife, Tyler McGee, Katrina Bowden
Director: Malcolm Goodwin
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Summary: Two aspiring screenwriters have their friendship tested while trying to make it in Hollywood.
Here’s one of those shoestring-budget movies that seems destined to get lost in the shuffle, just sitting there waiting to get discovered on Netflix or in the bargain DVD bin. Actually, Mike (Fife) and Matt (McGee), the two leads in this underdog tale, are likewise trying to get discovered. They’ve spent years writing a script and are barely scraping by. Things get complicated when Mike’s ex-girlfriend Deanna (Bowden) comes into the picture around the time when the duo’s luck seems to be changing.
Films about trying to make it in Hollywood can sometimes get too insidery. Fortunately, there’s enough of an everyman angle to A True Story that should appeal to those who could care less about “Hollyweird.” One of the clever things the film manages to pull off is how it gets meta without overdoing it: Mike and Matt’s script they’ve been working on and trying to sell is, in essence, the movie that we are watching on screen.
While some might find the main characters a bit abrasive, the supporting actors are all rather impressive. Director Goodwin portrays an ambitious assistant to the scene-stealing megalomaniac producer Richard Simpkins (Jon Gries, perhaps better known as Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico). Most surprising is Bowden, who shows a range not seen during her time playing Cerie on 30 Rock. Her character type is one we’ve seen many times before, but she finds numerous ways to break through the clichés.
Way of the Dragon (1972)
Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Chuck Norris
Director: Bruce Lee
Genre: Martial Arts, Action, Comedy
Summary: A Chinese hero is called to Italy to protect relatives’ restaurant from a gang that wants to take it over.
When does a movie that starts off with shots completely out of focus still come recommended? When it ends with a showdown between icons Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, that’s when. When you have that kind of climax, it’s not hard to forgive a few amateurish mistakes.
Luckily, most of the early flaws don’t occur again and things vastly improve once the ass-kicking commences. Lee, who wrote, directed, and produced the picture, stars as a yokel with crazy martial arts skills who arrives in Rome to help family members and ends up struggling more with unfamiliar Western ways than with pesky bad guys. As great as he is in action scenes, Lee’s aim is telling an entertaining story with plenty of comedic moments. Even during the battle between Lee and Norris, which takes place in the Roman Colosseum, the only spectator for the epic fight is a feral kitten.
Way of the Dragon was initially called Return of the Dragon in the U.S. to make it seem like a sequel to the hugely popular Enter the Dragon, but it was actually made beforehand. It’s crude around the edges, but Lee’s masterful fighting techniques and charisma shine through. (The Netflix copy is beat-up and dubbed, yet that only adds to the charm.) It’s a shame that Bruce Lee died so young. It seemed like the best was yet to come.
The Suicide Theory (2015)
Starring: Steve Mouzakis, Leon Cain
Director: Dru Brown
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Summary: A troubled artist hires a hitman to assist him with a complicated suicide.
When Percival (Cain), an anguished man who desperately wants to die, and Steven (Mouzakis), an angry bloke who kills people for a living, meet to discuss plans to put Percival out of his misery, it’s what one could call a cold-blooded business transaction. Steven has no problem “solving” his client’s “problem” for a large sum of cash. Percival, however, warns Steven that the job won’t be so easy. Steven soon finds out what he means.
The Suicide Theory has an intriguing premise going for it, and at its center poses the age-old question: Are people’s lives determined by fate or free will? But what really puts it over the top is the manner in which it adds on layers, whether it’s Steven’s odd behavior at home or learning more about Percival’s private life. You’re hit with a series of situations, some of them vicious and some of them perplexing. By the time you process what’s been going on, the film has long snagged you in its web.
It helps that Steven and Percival are fascinating characters. It’s apparent that these two have been trapped in their own tormented bubbles for some time now without anybody to talk to. Both of their lives have been shattered, but what they don’t realize is that they might be able to put back the pieces for each other. It just won’t be simple.