Amazon Prime subscribers are undoubtedly licking their chops while they await the Rings Of Power series, which premieres September 1 and sets off a mythological tete-a-tete this fall with House Of The Dragon over on HBO. The Lord Of The Rings series gives Prime has a pretty strong base of programming for the next couple of months, and now the service is surrounding its fancy new show with movies designed to keep audiences tuned in once they’re done watching episodes about elves and dwarves. Toward that end, Prime has lined up plenty of complimentary film content for September, including the full set of Middle-earth movies, a lot of solid horror films, and much more.
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Horror novelist Grady Hendrix has been building steam for a few years now through funny yet creepy books with some of the best titles ever: How To Sell A Haunted House, The Final Girl Support Group, The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires, Horrorstör (funny when you find out it’s based in a store which is a thinly veiled Ikea)—and this month’s straight-to-Amazon film My Best Friend’s Exorcism. The trailer shows us an ’80s throwback with nods to Heathers, Jawbreaker, and maybe a dash of Jennifer’s Body. The film stars Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade and this year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) as Abby, a diligent student who adores her best friend Gretchen (Lights Out’s Amiah Miller). After an ill-advised nighttime swim in a supposedly haunted lake, Gretchen starts acting weird and, as you may guess from the title, becomes possessed. Horror-comedy isn’t the easiest subgenre to pull off, but veteran genre TV director Damon Thomas (Killing Eve) may have the chops to make it work.
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Amazon ain’t dumb: concurrent with The Rings Of Power, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (in fact, the entire “Hobbit Trilogy” as well as the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy) will be streaming on Prime all month long. Clearly Amazon is hoping for an all-new Lord Of The Rings fanhood explosion, so why not start at the beginning, cinematically speaking? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey got kind of a mixed reception when it came out in 2012. Diehard fans remained gaga for Peter Jackson’s astute and respectful adaptations while more casual fans found it to be overkill. There was also that whole high frame rate issue (the first film in wide release to be shot and projected at 48 frames per second) that made the film look kind of gauzy. But, as is often the case, time has proven The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be a solid entry in the six (count ‘em, SIX!) Peter Jackson Lord Of The Rings films that defined a filmgoing moment in time. In a B- review for The A.V. Club, Tasha Robinson said it “recaptures the Rings movies’ breadth, detail, and staggering sense of beauty.”
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After decades of quality work, Jeff Bridges finally got his Best Actor Oscar for his outstanding performance as Otis “Bad” Blake in 2009’s Crazy Heart. Bridges’ performance as Blake, a hard-living country singer entering his final phase, was supported by a pretty great cast including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duval and Collin Ferrell. Even though he’s a washed up, alcoholic has-been, Blake maintains a certain charm, managing to enter into a relationship with single mom Jean (Gyllenhaal) before once again spiraling into a bottle. Can she save him, or better yet, can he save himself? In a New York Times review praising Bridges’ performance, A.O. Scott said, “There is a playboy’s charm and an old-fashioned Southern courtliness half-hidden behind the weariness, the anger at squandered possibilities, the flabby gut and the unkempt beard.”
5 / 17
In 2003, Chris Kentis’ low-budget oceanic survival movie Open Water caused quite the stir at Sundance. Made for a scant $120,000 by Kentis and his wife Laura Lau (who also produced), the film sold to Lionsgate for a cool $2.5 million after its premiere. The basic premise is that a busy couple seek to reconnect on a scuba diving vacation. On day two of the trip, they dive into the sea but when they surface, they realize their boat has left accidentally forgotten them. Survival quickly becomes the goal as sharks begin to circle. The film spawned a franchise full of mixed-bag results but what the original showed is that if you have some good actors, and a unique angle and tell your story well, you can really make a tight, low-budget film. In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “I would call the film a Blair Witch Project on the high seas, but that hardly does justice to Kentis’s originality and ingenuity.”
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If you want a great example of a directorial career that’s all over the place, look no further than Darren Aronofsky. The man behind such great (and challenging) films as Pi (1998), Requiem For A Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010), has made some films that were a little too weird for even his biggest fans. Nothing could prepare filmgoers for the sheer unpredictability of Aronofsky’s most recent film Mother! To get into the most insane moments of the film would be way too spoilery, but it tells the tale of a strange couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) who show up at the home of another couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) and kind of move in. Is Mother! ripe with allegory, or is it just weird for the sake of weird? Find out for yourself, you won’t be sorry! In his review of the film for The A.V. Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said “It’s almost unbelievable that something this narratively arty is being released as a mainstream horror movie.”
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While perhaps not in the upper echelon of his work, Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight (1996) is pretty damn good. If nothing else, it provides an early look at arguably the best American filmmaker working today, allowing us to see the nascent seeds of ideas that grew with his filmography. Starting with the well-received 1993 short Cigarettes And Coffee, starring the great Philip Baker Hall, Anderson built enough buzz to get funding for the film Sidney (which is what Anderson wanted to call Hard Eight), attracting John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson in key roles. Not too shabby! The film remains a solid and entertaining indie treat. In a look back at the film in 2015, The A.V. Club’s Chuck Bowen nails the PTA thesis, at least the early one, writing that his “movies are about makeshift families, composed of people estranged from their homes for reasons pertaining to their eccentricity, otherness, or feelings of self-loathing.”
8 / 17
Those who paid attention to the stellar genre-bending films coming out of South Korea before Parasite put a mainstream spotlight on the country were simply blown away by Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 stunner I Saw The Devil. A truly outstanding morality tale couched in crime and horror, the film’s plot is based around an elite special agent (Lee Byung-hun) seeking revenge on a psychopathic serial killer (Choi Min-sik) who murdered his pregnant fiancée. Classic tropes of the pursuer becoming as obsessed and murderous as his prey are also in play, but what makes the film masterful is the way Kim brings them to the screen in new ways. The film is also bloody and hyper-violent, which is either a warning or an invitation. In a B+ review of the film for The A.V. Club, Scott Tobias said it’s “a nasty piece of work, extreme even by the hair-raising standards of extreme Asian cinema” but also praised Kim’s penchant for dark comedy and examining the nature of good versus evil.
9 / 17
If you recently adored Ti West’s outstanding X and can’t wait to see its prequel Pearl on September 16, look to his 2013 nail-biter The Sacrament. Easily West’s most accessible horror film, it’s a low budget affair shot as a pseudo-documentary, a gimmick that works well in this case. Patrick (Kentucker Audley) hasn’t heard from his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) much since she joined a group of, um, religious folks in a commune called Eden Parish. Seeking to reconnect with his sister and also possibly expose a religious cult, Patrick teams up with a group of filmmakers (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) to fly to the Parish to see what’s up. Their arrival coincides with a seasonal ceremony led by a kindly older gentleman who goes by “Father” (an excellent Gene Jones). Since this is a horror movie, things go south pretty quickly and only get weirder from there. In her review for Screen Crush, Britt Hayes said, “It’s certainly all very grim and tragic, but West pulls back just enough before it becomes hopelessly nihilistic. The story is sad enough on its own without the director playing a merciless, exploitative god.”
10 / 17
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) is a perfect movie. Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, an FBI cadet who earns the opportunity to interview convicted cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) for help to track down a serial killer who skins his victims, thus earning him the nickname “Buffalo Bill.” One of the few horror films to ever win a Best Picture Oscar, it also ran the categories with Screenplay (Ted Talley off the book by Thomas Harris), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins) and Best Actress (Foster). In a 2007 review of the film’s collector’s edition release for The A.V. Club, Scott Tobias notes Demme’s characteristics as a filmmaker, saying, “empathy, particularly with regard to women, is what makes the film so enduring.”
11 / 17
There are countless pairings of a director and actor that always seem to click, and a great example of this is Denzel Washington and Spike Lee. In He Got Game, Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a man spending life in prison for the murder of his wife. His son, Jesus Shuttlesworth, is one of the highest-rated high school NBA prospects ever, and the governor offers to commute Jake’s sentence if he can convince his son to play for the governor’s alma mater. The basic plot is a bit of a stretch, but it perfectly suits Lee’s point of view on politics and race in America. Starring as Jesus, Ray Allen himself was a highly recruited basketball player before Lee chose him to act, and he and Washington play perfectly off each other even as the film meanders over into other, less interesting subplots. In a 3½-out-of-four star review, Roger Ebert proclaimed the film “Lee’s best film since Malcolm X.”
12 / 17
Boy, the 1980s sure loved Vietnam movies, a trend that makes sense since the Vietnam War had recently “ended.” But many of them revisited—or rewrote—the way that America undertook and unceremoniously exited the war. Uncommon Valor (1983) is a jingoistic, hoo-rah actioner in which retired Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) assembles a team of fellow vets to go into the country 10 years after the end of the war to find his missing son. The cast includes Fred Willard, Randall “Tex” Cobb and Reb Scott, each of whom has a name like “Wrecker,” Sailor” and “Blaster;” if you remove the easy veil of cynicism, you’ll find Uncommon Valor a fun flashback that’s heavy on the sentimentality of “what could have been.” In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin said “Action fans may well find Uncommon Valor enjoyably familiar, but for others it will smack of war movie deja-vu, despite the new angle provided by its concern for American soldiers missing in action in Vietnam.”
13 / 17
Based on a terrifying 2014 Austrian film of the same name, Goodnight Mommy follows twin boys who return home after a horrific accident has caused their mother to have her face and head completely wrapped in bandages. She is also acting kind of strange, which eventually leads the boys to believe that this woman is not their mother but an imposter. From there, the boys use a variety of horrible, torturous techniques to get this woman to tell them “the truth,” but while indeed the mom (now played by Naomi Watts) does seem odd, she’s also chasing and torturing her sons around the house, a new development from the original film. Of course, this could just be trailer trickery, but it will be interesting to see if the American filmmakers (director Matt Sobel working off a script from Kyle Warren) stay true to the original or shake it up for the sake of American audiences.
14 / 17
If you are not a fan of the films of Michael Bay, there’s probably little that can be said to sway you. However, if you’re ambivalent about the master of flashy montage and the king of modern machismo, then you’re going to want to check out his 2022 release Ambulance. It seems like fans of Bay didn’t really take to this film as it hit screens in mid-spring and promptly flamed out, which is odd as the trailer promised a thrilling heist starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) as Danny, a go-getter when it comes to making (or stealing) money who is approached by his brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, 2021’s Candyman) with a serious need for fast cash. Danny’s plan involves a bank robbery for about 30 times the amount Will needs, but for reasons of family dynamics and financial need, Will reluctantly agrees. After all, it’s an easy gig … until it isn’t. Ambulance features all the brightly lit, slick montages and cacophonous car chases you’d expect from a Michael Bay joint, but there also seems to be a human angle which is something Bay is definitely not known for. The A.V. Club’s Todd Gilchrist got exactly what was going on in Ambulance noted the film “is boilerplate Michael Bay, a thrill ride full of muscle and testosterone and style.”
15 / 17
The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension really should be elevated out of the “cult” category, as it’s so much more than just an odd obscurity. Starring Peter Weller as the eponymous rock star, physicist, test pilot, and neurosurgeon (all things that he will need to utilize in the film), Buckaroo Banzai must form a team to help defeat the Red Lectroids from Planet 10 before they invade Earth. The film is a sheer delight and stars not only Weller but also Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown, and Yakov Smirnoff, just to name a few. While the special effects aren’t too special by today’s standards, the film has a feel of handmade art, constructed with care by people doing the best they can with a smallish budget. Fans of Buckaroo Banzai (including Wes Anderson, who flat out stole the film’s closing credits for a similar sequence in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou) are still hoping for the hopeless: the much-rumored sequel Buckaroo Banzai Against The World Crime League, which was teased at the end of the film. In a 2002 The A.V. Club review of a special edition DVD, Noel Murray said, “Buckaroo Banzai assumes an attitude of poise and purpose in an otherwise awkward universe.”
16 / 17
Following on the heels of his excellent film Dog Soldiers (2002), director Neil Marshall gobsmacked genre fans with this claustrophobic and terrifying masterpiece The Descent. Written and directed by Marshall, the film’s simple premise involves a group of women who embark on a cave diving expedition after one of their friends loses her family in a horrible accident. While the group aren’t new to spelunking, they are unfamiliar with the nest of freakish humanoid creatures they encounter, even as they unearth past secrets that risk taking on an almost scarier reality than the creatures they’re facing. The Descent is a solid genre film that, while best seen with a group of people, will certainly also play well alone in your house on TV. In his review for The A.V. Club, Scott Tobias said “As a piece of horror craftsmanship, there were few films in the ’00s that maintained such a high level intensity while also delivering shock after shock after shock.”
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