Like most weeks heading towards a major holiday, these last few days were either spent running around getting things done or were the perfect excuse to take it easy if possible—maybe leave work a few hours early or push back a non-urgent deadline. After all, way too many Americans feel stressed at their jobs and don’t even take advantage of vacation days because they’re too busy trying to get ahead.
Well, we here at MERRY JANE hope everybody enjoyed the nice break that Thanksgiving brings and that things didn’t get too stressful for those responsible for preparing a huge dinner. Hopefully, no real serious family drama popped off while talking politics at the dinner table. If recently reported trends are any indication, a lot of you were quite relaxed for the big meal, so chances are everything was chill.
To continue that vibe, it’s time once again to dig into some movie recommendations for your next viewing experience. But as you kick back, head to the kitchen for leftovers or decide to brave a few hours looking for Black Friday deals, let’s not forget this country’s real natives, some of whom are out there standing up for what’s right.
He Never Died (2015)
Starring: Henry Rollins, Kate Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey, Steven Ogg
Director: Jason Krawczyk
Genre: Horror, Drama, Comedy
Summary: A man with secret past tries to live under the radar, but criminals are about to bring out the worst in him.
Jack (Rollins) is a loner who’s stuck in a routine most would find boring. He hits the same diner on the regular, likes to play bingo, and makes arrangements to buy black market human blood. OK, so that last detail isn’t exactly ordinary, but neither is this cool independent flick that goes along quietly before exploding with bone-snapping, shape-shifting action.
With a title like He Never Died, it’s impossible to keep the supernatural background of Rollins’ character secret (the reveals-way-too-freaking-much trailer doesn’t help either). Still, that shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of a story that mixes low-key humor with the macabre and is presented with the look and feel of a graphic novel. (Ogg, who is famous amongst gamers for being the voice of seedy-ass Trevor in the GTA V video game, is a memorable villain who seems like he’s been ripped from the pages of a sinister comic book.)
Due to extraordinary circumstances, Jack is trapped in a world he no longer wants to belong to and where joy has little chance of creeping in. But, as he’ll discover, there’s always a ray of hope as long as family and the prospect of love exist.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016)
Starring: Norman Lear, John Amos, Rob Reiner
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Summary: A revealing look at the life of the television writer/producer who challenged what you could show on prime time.
Ever since he turned 90, people come to Norman Lear for wisdom, not because he’s gotten smarter, but because there’s this notion that old people are wise. So says the television legend, somewhat self-deprecatingly, early on in this engaging documentary. Lear, now 94, is being modest. He knows a little something about dishing out some wisdom.
Back in the ’70s, the millions of Americans watching his groundbreaking TV shows, like All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Maude (just to name a few), didn’t just laugh, they also gained valuable perspectives on everything from bigotry, to the struggles of black families, to hot-button topics like abortion. This was true reality TV. By exploring what he calls “the foolishness of the human condition,” he was able, for a half-hour at least, to bridge the gap between people of all backgrounds and tried to find some common ground.
This king of sitcoms was also game to fighting censorship and taking on Jerry Falwell and the right-wing Christian coalition the Moral Majority. While there’s a lot about Lear’s career that isn’t covered, Just Another Version of You does provide insight into his deep-seeded issues with his father and doesn’t shy away from some of his own faults.
Starring: Michael Nardelli, Allegra Masters, Lawrence Kao, Jordi Vilasuso
Directors: Aaron Hann, Mario Miscione
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Summary: Fifty people wake up in a strange, dark chamber and soon learn they must make the hardest decisions in their lives.
It’s a nightmare scenario: People of different ethnic heritages, social standing, and political persuasions suddenly pitted against each other in a cruel game of elimination orchestrated by unseen forces. Constructed along the lines of what could be the plot of a lost Twilight Zone episode, Circle is a sharply-crafted nail-biter that keeps viewers consistently guessing who’s next to go.
Even though all the action takes place in one room, the movie never feels stifled. Instead, the tension keeps growing, much like the divide we face in our present-day nation. In this worthy low-budget gem, we see a group, composed mostly of strangers, thinking out loud, assigning value to other people’s lives as well as to their own. Although perhaps it’s not the film’s intention, it does offer the opportunity to ponder what exactly it is about humans that makes us think we’re superior or more important than other people we don’t even know.
Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Jerome Holder, Pauline Collins
Director: John Goldschmidt
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Summary: An elderly Jewish baker hires a young African Muslim, who introduces a special ingredient to the shop’s baked goods.
It’s not often that a movie dealing with marijuana can be described as “wholesome,” particularly since there’s a tradition of weed comedies that go back to Cheech & Chong, in which raunchy jokes win out. That’s not to say that Dough, which is about a bakery owner who unwittingly sells products made out of pot—and, unfortunately, didn’t have the option of being called Half Baked—is 100 percent family-friendly. It contains some violence connected to the unnecessary criminalization of a plant known for medicinal and practical uses. But, for the most part, the film is promoting good ol’ fashioned common decency.
Admittedly, Dough might get a little bit gooey, but its call for religious tolerance seems as timely as ever. Plus, there’s also the chance to see Pryce, also known as the High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, ingest an insane amount of hash brownies. So many, in fact, that it would probably have caused him to let Cersei Lannister go and he’d be the one walking naked down the streets of King’s Landing bugging out. (No, but seriously, don’t ever eat that many edibles in one sitting. In the movie, he just gets super chill, but you won’t be.)
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate
Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush
Genre: Animation, Comedy
Summary: A bunny cop from a small town sets out to solve a mystery in the big city.
If you have kids, chances are you’ve probably already seen Zootopia. For those who haven’t, it follows one important guideline that many of the big animated films incorporate: a script that will appeal to adults as much kids. So, the old heads will most likely get a kick out of the way the movie parodies a famous scene from The Godfather, or how it makes allusions to Breaking Bad. And everybody—young and old—will appreciate Tommy Chong’s excellent cameo as the voice of a far-out yak. (All the animals not only have their own developed personalities, they are impressively designed as well.)
The well-made, tidily-scripted movie has also got a lot of the classic tropes of yesteryear: a country girl moving to the big city, a plot straight out of ’40s noir, and themes touching on social issues. Yes, Zootopia preaches against prejudice and sexism, and encourages people to fight stereotypes. It also extols the virtues of working hard and says you can be anything you want to be if you try hard enough. There will be some people out there who won’t like the “social justice warrior” agenda being pushed to children. But judging by our current political climate, it’s the thick-headed adults more than the kids who need to hear those messages.