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I won't classify them as underrated simply because, by-and-large, those who have seen them love them. The problem is that not enough people have seen them.
Heartwrenching yet hopeful, messy yet beautiful... Just like a real relationship
Charlie Kaufmann is perhaps the most sophisticated screenwriter (whose films get made) in Hollywood. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a testament to his ability. The writing is multi-layered, the characters flawed but incredibly relatable. Jim Carrey's performance is spectacular, as are the performances of the supporting cast. It is a testament to the writing, acting, and direction, that so much power can be put into the simplest of exchanges. Never before have I felt such an rush of emotion from the word "okay."
The film as a whole is a work of art that reaches down into your core. It carries an emotional weight that few films dare to explore, but it succeeds admirably. If I had to gripe about one thing, it would be that the score is occasionally jarring and discordant in places where it clashes with the tone of the scene and feels forced and out of place. This seems to be an intentional artistic choice, but all it did for me was break the suspension of disbelief. That being said, when the score did match the tone of the scene, which was more often than not, the contrast made it all the more powerful.
The film is a truly honest look at relationships, exploring exactly why we keep on trying to make them work despite all the pain that they can cause when they end. It follows all the ups and downs, all the joy and all the heartbreak, really mimicking a true relationship in tone and structure. It feels messy and out-of-control, it makes you laugh and cry, the two main characters both do and say things that you cannot abide, and yet you still root for them every step of the way. Relationships are like that; they aren't neat, they aren't all sunshine and rainbows, people say things they don't mean, and their endings leave us confused and distraught. However, as the saying goes, "it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all." Despite all the pain and heartbreak, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tells us (and shows us) that love truly is worth it in the end.
The American (2010)
Another victim of poor marketing
For the longest time, The American collected dust on the tail end of my Netflix queue. The film was marketed as an action thriller of the James Bond variety. It looked to be fun, mindless excitement, full of sex and violence. It wasn't anything of the sort.
What I got was a slow-burning character study wrapped in the guise of a spy movie. The film is a far cry from the loud, balls-to-the-wall action that we have become accustomed to expect from the genre. Instead, it is quiet and introspective, beautiful and touching, with an almost hypnotic pace that transfixes the viewer from the first frame until the credits roll.
The action scenes that we do see are not loud, expensive set pieces, but quiet, tense affairs. They are masterfully executed, and despite their understated nature, they will leave you with your heart racing.
The entire film is undercut by a deep, desperate loneliness. We see a man dwarfed by the landscape around him, isolated and alone. The plot is nothing new: the classic "last job" storyline. The magic of this film comes in its execution. Clooney's performance, like the film itself, is transfixing; he is restrained yet powerful, exploring the depths of love and loneliness with a subtlety and sophistication that I did not know he was capable of. His turn as this film's hero, a laconic hit-man who has tired of his life of danger and intrigue, is one of if not the best performance of his career.
In the end, although this film was widely panned as 'boring' or 'too slow,' that was mostly a product of expectation rather than any flaws in the film itself. The American is breathtaking visually, musically, and emotionally, and overall it is a brilliant piece of cinema. Time will be kind to it, and I like to think it will one day get the attention it deserves.
Luke Cage (2016)
Decent, but ultimately disappointing
After two excellent contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had high hopes for Netflix's Luke Cage. However, while the cinematography and score were predictably strong, the rest of the show fell mostly flat. The writing in particular feels uneven. Parts of it were excellent, while the rest was downright bad. The dialogue, especially, was often contrived and melodramatic, and you could see how the performances suffered despite committed performances from a clearly very talented cast.
There were, however, several bright spots. In particular, the exploration of Harlem's culture and its inhabitants' struggles was fascinating and easily the show's best aspect. Additionally, Cottonmouth made for an excellent, multilayered villain. Diamondback's character, on the other hand, is contrived and boring, and his underlying motivations were downright cringe-worthy. Luke Cage, our hero is fascinating for the first couple of episodes, as a stoic "man of mystery." However, as the truth about him is slowly revealed, you begin to wish that the mystery had remained, as it makes for a far more interesting character. The show follows a similar trajectory. Like its titular character, it starts off strong, but as it progresses, it loses a lot of the complexity that made it interesting. The lessening of the characters' moral ambiguity towards the end, in particular, is one of the show's biggest flaws.
What is most frustrating is the thought of what Luke Cage could have been. Neither of Netflix's other shows captured such a vibrant, yet charged culture as Luke Cage does with Harlem. The cinematography is also arguably superior to either of the shows predecessors, elevated by a couple of symbolic flourishes that we didn't see in Daredevil or Jessica Jones. The groundwork was laid for a spectacular show. However, good stories are ultimately built upon their characters, and while both of Netflix's other installments in the MCU are centered on compelling and multilayered heroes and villains, Luke Cage simply cannot measure up in this category. It's main characters are far less interesting than even the supporting cast in the other shows. In the end, setting and production value are but side-notes without interesting plot or characters. If you don't care what is going to happen to the characters, then the aesthetic appeal is beside the point. Luke Cage is a disappointment.
Stranger Things (2016)
Pure entertainment at its best
Stranger Things was an absolute blast to watch. As we have come to expect from Netflix, the production side of things was spotless. The show is visually stunning, the score is compelling, and the performances are excellent across the board. However, the writing does suffer from an over-abundance of cliché. Of course, Stranger Things is, at its core, a callback to the classic monster movies of the 80s meaning that much of this cliché is not only forgivable, but even adds to the overall atmosphere of the show.
My main problem with this is that the characters were only barely interesting enough to keep me invested in their stories. Again, much of this was intentional, but I feel that it was a bit overdone on the character side of things. We have all seen the alcoholic, loner, cop with a tragic past, the attractive, straight-laced young girl that yearns to break out of her shell despite the protestations of her more sensible friend, and the frustrated kid that sees what is going on, but is ignored by the adults so he takes things into his own hands. With all the other clichés - those of plot, visuals, and music - Netflix used them, but added a layer of production value that elevated them to the next level. However, with character, they are more-or-less tired old reruns of characters we have all seen a thousand times.
That being said, Stranger Things is definitely worth the watch. For the most part, it rides the line between familiarity and mystery, and, for all my griping about the characters, I did care enough that I never lost interest in their fates. Were they complex and compelling? No. However, they were good enough. Besides, Stranger Things' calling card is not the writing or the characters. It is not a moving drama or a character study, it is a nostalgic revitalization of an out-dated genre. On this front, the show succeeds admirably. It will not challenge you, nor will it leave you with any lingering emotion, but it does provide 8 hours of some of the most beautiful, thrilling, and binge-able television in recent memory.
Black Mirror (2011)
Utterly disturbing in the best possible way
The double entendre that is Black Mirror's name summarizes the show perfectly. The first interpretation is that the show looks inwards, at the darker aspects of humanity and society. This is done through the theme of technology, hence the second meaning. The black mirror is the screen that rules our lives.
Each self-contained episode is brilliantly crafted and produced. The stories are compelling and the acting is phenomenal. This show is not for those looking exclusively for entertainment, as the episodes leave you with a distinctly empty feeling. Although this is obviously the intent, one cannot help but wonder at the creators' bleak outlook on the world. The presence of bestiality in the first episode could very well deter some viewers, but I would remind them that the show is Twilight Zone-esque in structure as well as theme. The episodes may be watched in any order, as they are all completely independent of one another. The second episode in particular is storytelling of the highest form.
Black Mirror is disturbing in the best possible way. It unflinchingly explores the issues of society through deeply intimate stories and characters and their interactions with technology. Let me be clear, it will not leave you feeling fulfilled. Watching it was an exhausting experience that shook me deeply. The thought provoking subject matter combine with powerful, desolate stories and excellent performances to create one of the most unique and brilliant shows that I have seen. It not only holds the viewer's attention while it plays, it enthralls your thoughts long after the credits roll.