Not Safe for Homework is a bi-monthly pop culture column from someone who spends far too much time on Netflix. If you’re looking for film and TV recommendations, look no further. But be warned: once you get hooked, your homework is collateral.
A movie’s promo campaign can make or break its box office success. Unfortunately, some films, for one reason or another, are released with almost no press. The good ones often go unseen until they hit the internet, and even then, sometimes looks can be deceiving. Here’s a few killer films that aren’t what they may seem.
Most people I’ve mentioned this movie to immediately ask, “Oh, that’s that vampire movie, right?” and that seems reasonable: you combine Mia Wasikowska’s haunting pale face/dark hair look with the title Stoker and your mind jumps to Bram Stoker to Dracula to vampires.
There are absolutely no vampires.
If anything, Stoker is a coming-of-age story. For a young serial killer.
On her eighteenth birthday, India Stoker (Wasikowska) meets her mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) for the first time at her father’s funeral. Charlie quickly charms her cold, unstable mother (Nicole Kidman) into letting him stay at their estate for some time, and despite her initial misgivings, India forms a strange bond with him. As they grow closer, a darkness in her, once tempered by her father’s mentorship, rises to the surface.
Inspired by Hitchcock, director Chan-Wook Park’s (Oldboy) classic, clean aesthetic creates a timeless sense of foreboding. The tension stays high and the visuals are strange and often moving. With a soundtrack by Philip Glass and Clint Mansell, the film will drag you into its enigmatic atmosphere. The sensation of appreciating the aesthetics and also being completely disturbed by the content made my skin crawl in a weird/great way.
If that’s not enough, watch for some local flavor — the movie was filmed in both Nashville and Murfreesboro. Even more strangely, the script was penned by Wentworth Miller, star of Prison Break, and was on that year’s list of best unproduced screenplays. It’s freaky, that’s for sure, and completely worth two hours of your time.
This one’s a tricky one. I honestly thought it looked terribly boring at first glance, but a friend bugged me about it until I gave in, and I’m glad I did.
The basic set-up of the plot is that there’s a sudden ice age and the only people who survive it are those who manage to board this train that loops around the globe on a closed track for all of time. Seventeen years after the train starts moving, a rigid caste-like system is in place, with the poorest in the tail section and the rich in the luxurious front section. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) leads the tail section in a revolution to seize control of the front of the train.
That sounds like a lot, but if you let yourself go with it, it’ll be worth the ride.
Now, I thought, “Dirty people on a post-apocalypse train? Not for me,” but it’s a bit more complicated than that. For one, the story is an allegory. The train is a metaphor for the self-sustaining ecosystem of capitalism. While the film tries to distract you from that with a mystery of what’s in the strange “protein blocks” the tail sectioners are forced to eat and the question of why their children are periodically taken from them, there’s a very carefully-constructed allegory underneath it all.
That said, the film isn’t in any way a dry socio-political commentary. It’s shocking, it’s outright disgusting and terrifying at times, and features some incredible fight choreography. Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris and John Hurt all give moving performances, as do some of the talent we might not be as familiar with, like Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko.
The production itself was French-Korean, which is part of the reason it took over a year to hit American theaters for even a limited release. Director Joon-ho Bong (Mother, The Host) actually pretended not to understand English to avoid making certain cuts that the Weinstein Company demanded he make so that American audiences could “understand better.”
I’d recommend watching it if only because a rich white guy says you’re too dumb to get it. But besides that, visually, it’s incredible and horrifying and very well-composed. It might also be one of my favorites.
THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008)
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that this is my all-time favorite movie and has been for years. I firmly believe that one of the great cinematic injustices is that The Brothers Bloom never made it to most theaters.
Now, I generally snooze through heist movies and con man movies, but this is the great exception to that rule. Brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are con men in the fantastical sense, traveling the world and conning interesting characters out of their money. When Bloom, the younger of the two, decides to leave their adventurous life behind, Stephen convinces him to do one last con. Their mark is Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a rich eccentric who’s almost never interacted with the outside world since childhood. Penelope is drawn to their life of intrigue and follows them across the world, and in the meantime, Bloom begins to have doubts about their charade as they develop feelings for each other.
“My brother writes cons the way dead Russians write novels,” Bloom says of Stephen, “with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism.” The movie folds together much the same way, with each and every line foreshadowing the end, some so deeply that it’s not until the second viewing that they hit you. The Brothers Bloom lends itself well to being watched multiple times, and fans of Wes Anderson or The Princess Bride will love it. But don’t write it off as a “chick flick” because while it’s technically a romance, that’s in the grand, traditional sense rather than they typical rom-com formula.
If you need any convincing, the film’s written and directed by Rian Johnson, who directed Breaking Bad episodes “Fly” and “Ozymandias,” as well as the neo-noir thriller Brick. It’s fun and emotional and so beautifully tied together.