Spotlight on Netflix
In my aggressive attempts to see as many films as possible before the end of the calendar year, I've come across quite a few gems that have been recently added to Netflix. There's a treasure trove of goodness available via Netflix streaming, but these three are especially worth your time.
Gimme the Loot
Winner of the Grand Jury prize at last year’s SXSW festival, Adam Leon’s first feature Gimme the Loot tells the story of two young graffiti artists in New York who concoct a scheme to tag (“bomb” in the vernacular of the film) the Mets apple at Citi Field as a response to the actions of a rival tagging gang. Taking place over the course of a two-day heat wave in the grand tradition of Do the Right Thing, our two leads Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sophie (Tashiana Washington) must do what they can to scrape together enough cash to get into Citi Field and gain access to the plum tagging spot, making them legends in the community.
The charm of Gimme the Loot lies in its naturalism. These young actors entirely inhabit their roles, giving the film the same sort of raw casual appeal we’ve seen before in films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker. It’s a slice of life picture with low stakes that leisurely unfolds before you in a breezy 79 minutes. The characters (all the characters, not just the leads) feel so real that you’re immediately drawn into their world, understanding almost instinctively how important it is for Malcolm and Sophie to one-up their rivals. Leon mixes in some romantic intrigue, adding a minor love triangle subplot to spice up the relationships as our heroes hustle their way toward their goal.
Leon uses a sort of documentary/guerilla style to make the streets of New York come alive. The depths Sophie and Malcolm have to go to in order to solidify their street cred paints an incisive picture of modern-day city living below the poverty line. The actors are a joy to watch, and Gimme the Loot is an infectious little picture that even has a little more going on underneath its pleasant surface.
Drug War marks the first action film Hong Kong director Johnnie To shot entirely on mainland China. To has been working doggedly overseas since the early 90’s, having directed dozens of films and produced even more over the time period. The film continues To’s penchant for action and crime pictures, offering up a stylish, suspenseful romp through the drug underworld of China. After an opening scene drug bust, dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is desperate to avoid punishment (we learn early on that China has some pretty intense punishments, of a capital nature, related to drug trafficking), deciding to turn state’s evidence and work alongside police captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) to help take down a large cartel. As one would expect, this is easier said than done.
Choi represents a combustible element here; this is often the case when a criminal becomes a reluctant witness/ally to the police, and To and his writers (Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan and Yu Xi) deftly keep the disparate elements in the air as they infiltrate deeper into the methamphetamine ring. Choi’s allegiances seem to shift with the wind, always looking for a way out of his predicament that involves staying alive for one more day. Whether it is justified or not, Louis Koo instills quite a bit of sympathy into his performance as Choi. He may be a scumbag, but it can be difficult to deny one’s will to live at nearly any cost, and he seems to be legitimately contrite for much of the early movements of the plot.
Sun Honglei is especially wonderful in his own way. We’ve seen the straight-man cop a hundred times before, but Captain Zhang Lei is a bit of a different beast. Yes, he falls into many of the same tropes we’ve seen before in cops vs. traffickers films (the stonefaced hero cop who protects his unit at all costs, always taking the first overnight shift, and the like), but the movie shifts when he has to take the place of a particularly boisterous drug dealer who goes by HaHa, because he has a tendency to laugh randomly and maniacally every few seconds, even in the middle of serious moments. Sun Honglei’s ability to so effortlessly flip flop between his normal stoic demeanor and the HaHa role, who couldn’t possibly be more different, draws you in and astounds. It’s a wonderful performance; even the absurdity of the HaHa persona is played with a certain subtlety that is beyond simple mimickry. He successfully internalizes the difference, not simply shifting roles, but confidently playing what would be expected from the Captain’s interpretation of the role.
Drug War features the litany of car chases, action set pieces and shootouts you would expect from a picture like this, and Johhnie To as a strong style to his camera work and staging that makes these scenes crackle with life. The movements of the characters are grounded in realism (there are no Michael Bay-style supercops or bullet sponges here), and the climactic face-off is the perfect cathartic release for a film that expertly gathers tension over its svelte 105 minute run time. To be fair, it’s not all that much more than a simple genre picture with a bit of a morality tale at its center, but you’d be hard pressed to find a genre film that is executed better than Drug War
In the House
Francois Ozon’s In the House tells the story of Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a French literature secondary school teacher dulled by the lack of inspiration coming from a sea of disinterested students who are unconcerned with reading and writing in the modern world. That is until he comes across a provocative story written by his pupil Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) detailing his strong desire to infiltrate the house of one of his classmates, and potentially become a sort of surrogate family member. The assignment ends with a simple, cryptic “to be continued.” Intrigued by Claude’s unpolished but promising writing, Germain takes him under his wing, encouraging him to continue to write his stories, which Claude insists are based on true events.
The hook for In the House comes in the form of how Ozon chooses to shoot the narration of Claude’s stories. As they are read aloud by Germain or his wife (a measured Kristin Scott Thomas), we see what happens on the page acted out, as Claude slowly (and with an insidious undertone) infiltrates the house of the Raphas (the first name of both father and son), and begins to develop a fixation on the mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner) that soon borders on unhealthy obsession. What makes things interesting is how Claude, and then by extension the film, begins to twist and grow under the tutelage of Germain. It does not take long for Claude to begin to incorporate the notes of criticisms of his work into the stories, which thus transitions into actual filmed scenes, but what isn’t entirely clear is whether he is taking these notes and criticisms with him as he continues to insinuate his way into the real lives of the Rapha family. Indeed, once he starts changing the stories and embellishing, you begin to lose track on what is real or imagined, actual events or fantasy, wish fulfillment or the work of a boy trying to please his teacher.
Following in the grand tradition of films like Adaptation and 8 ½, Ozon plays with our expectations while simultaneously demonstrating the power of the written word to obfuscate what we expect to see or assume we are seeing up on the screen. In many ways, In the House is lovingly vague in its construction, to the point that once it ends you can’t even be sure how much of it actually happened. There is such a sharp distinction between Germain’s world and the lives of the Raphas (even though they are so purposefully intermixed via the intermediary Claude), that by the time the credits roll, you realize that it’s entirely possible almost nothing from Claude’s stories was true, which paints some of Germain’s actions in a completely different light.
I expect to revisit this one. It’s a brain teaser that sneaks up on you and quietly envelops you before you even realize what it’s doing. Buoyed by strong performances from Umhauer, whose voyeuristic tendencies bounce from wanting to jealous, from loving to malicious, and Luchini, the failed writer turned teacher simply looking to find some vicarious thrills out of cultivating a young talent before he finds himself in over his head, Ozon has assembled a marvelous little thriller that will make you reconsider the strength of the written word.