Now Streaming: Reading, writing, and talking pictures
[Streaming movies and TV shows—on services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Instant Videos—are ephemeral: Here one day, gone the next. The purpose of the Now Streaming series is to alert you to what movies and shows are new to streaming, what you might want to watch before it disappears, and other treasures that are worth checking out.]
Like Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Kenneth Branagh before him, Ralph Fiennes (above) has directed his own lead performance in a Shakespeare movie. But unlike the others, he has dug deep into the Shakespeare canon to come up with one of the more obscure titles, Coriolanus (2011), about an ousted war hero who joins forces with his greatest enemy to get revenge on Rome. And to go one further, Fiennes has adapted it to modern dress and a wartime setting, and included audacious touches such as CNN-like news broadcasters reading Shakespeare’s narration on the air. Even the risky casting of Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius works. (The only thing that doesn’t work is Fiennes’ choice of shaky-cam cinematography.) Best of all is Vanessa Redgrave, who gives one of her all-time finest performances in the role of Coriolanus’ manipulative mother. Jessica Chastain and Brian Cox also star. Coriolanus was ignored by the Oscars and at the box office, but it’s worth discovering.
Shakespeare nuts should also see Kenneth Branagh’s audacious debut, Henry V (1989), made when he was just 29 (and partly financed by the sales of his autobiography!). In England, Laurence Oliver’s 1944 version was considered the definitive screen version, and many were aghast that anyone would ever even attempt a remake. But Branagh pulled it off spectacularly, earning Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor. His muddy, bloody “once more unto the breach, dear friends!” is every bit as rousing as Olivier’s.
Tape (expiring 10/13)
Adapting plays to the big screen is an old practice, going back to the days before movies could even talk. Richard Linklater attempted one of the more claustrophobic ones with Tape (2001), based on a play by Stephen Belber. It concerns three old high school friends (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman) who meet up in a hotel room, where their past collides with their present. Linklater used two digital cameras to shoot the entire thing on one set, with only the three actors.
Though Bus Stop (1956) is somewhat focused in one place, director Joshua Logan opened up William Inge’s play into a much larger experience, using widescreen, full-color cinematography, outdoor scenes, and other locations. Marilyn Monroe gives a mature performance as Cherie, a saloon singer who dreams of going to Hollywood. But a young, brash rodeo star, Bo Decker (Don Murray, who received an Oscar nomination), falls in love with her and tries to force his way into her affections. The material is somewhat disturbing, but it contains many inspired moments. The film became a favorite of Jean-Luc Godard and the French film critics at Cahiers du Cinema.
Sometimes movies focus less on writing and more on writers, though Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) is also based on a play (by Doug Wright). It tells the story of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), who is in prison but keeps writing and publishing his scandalous, sexy tracts, thanks to help from a sympathetic Abbe (Joaquin Phoenix) and a virginal laundress (Kate Winslet). Kaufman is one of the few grown-up directors who doesn’t shy away from the subject of sex. He’s also fond of writers: He has also made movies about Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway.
Though Mickey Rourke had memorably played the Charles Bukowski-like Hank Chinaski in Barfly (1987), actor Matt Dillon and director Bent Hamer revived him for the amusing Factotum (2005), based on Bukowski’s 1975 novel. Playing like a series of short stories, it takes place early in the writer’s career, wherein a series of odd jobs, meetings with other misfits, and lots of booze, fuels the writer’s imagination and provides fodder for future stories.
The Secret of Kells (expiring 10/4)
The gorgeous animated The Secret of Kells (2009), from Ireland, celebrates the pleasures of books. Its hero, the young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), escapes the protective castle walls of his home to venture into the woods to find special berries to make ink. There, a beautiful fairy finds him and helps him out. With a striking sense of shapes, patterns, light, shadow, silence and sound, this was a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature in a year packed with strong, better-known contenders
Another animated feature about the power of storytelling, Gulliver’s Travels (1939) came from the studio of Max and Dave Fleischer, who, at one time, were serious competitors of Walt Disney’s. They were late getting into feature films, however, and their experiments—with a unique depth perspective, and with tracing live actors to represent humans—didn’t quite work as well as Disney’s smooth artwork. Yet this movie still has its beauties, as well as a memorable story.
Black Sunday (coming 10/15)
Sometimes filmmakers must use pure style to overcome a not-so-great story. Italian director Mario Bava was perhaps the greatest at this, using an amazing array of props and sets, as well as bold colors and stark shadows, to suggest his story’s emotions. Black Sunday (1960) is one of his best films. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, it’s about a couple of travelers who stumble upon a resurrected witch, as well as her modern-day double (both played by the sexy Barbara Steele). Though Bava was best known for his use of color, this one is one of his rare, moody black-and-white outings.
Intruders (coming 10/15)
Even today, horror directors are still employing style to overcome a lack of substance. Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo created Intruders (2012), a strange hybrid of realistic horror and supernatural horror, about two children, one in England and one in Spain, who both encounter a spooky creature known as “Hollow Face.” It may not make perfect sense, but the mood is undeniably spooky.