Let the music play! Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz begins streaming on Netflix this week, with an impressive array of performers and songs, full of exuberance and joy. That sets the tone for the rest of this week’s streaming movies, all lightweight or lighthearted entertainments. In some cases, acclaimed actors set aside their dramas for a shot at comedy. Some movies are comedies that use their situations to get a closer look at families and connections. Still others are dizzy, crazy cult classics with endless invention that inspires an endless number of smiles. Leave the heavy lifting for this week and enjoy.
The best new movies on Netflix
The Last Waltz
Martin Scorsese set out to reinvent the concert film with The Last Waltz (1978), and he succeeded. It’s a document of the Thanksgiving Day, 1976, farewell performance of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel), with a stageful of guests, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Staples, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, and Neil Young.
Scorsese apparently developed a 300-page shooting script so that he could compose his shots and edit on the beats of the songs. But despite such rigorous preparation, the music itself soars, with so many breathtaking moments, including the bare-stage rendition of “The Weight,” Young’s performance of “Helpless” with Mitchell sneaking in to help, and the final, all-star "I Shall Be Released."
After a handful of brilliant, under-the-radar performances (Freeway, Twilight, Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions, Election, American Psycho, and so on.), Reese Witherspoon could have done anything. Yet somehow she chose this vacuous, barely credible comedy about an airhead, Elle Woods, who attends Harvard to get a law degree in the hopes of winning back her boyfriend. She, of course, meets someone better (Luke Wilson).
The movie is a big nothing, but Witherspoon singlehandedly saves it with her incredible comic spark and bright presence. In one scene, someone gives her a spritz of perfume and she twists her neck in a most enchanting way to catch every drop. Wilson also helps with his aw-shucks everyman who wins Elle’s heart. It’s best to avoid the offensive sequel, also streaming on Netflix.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
It’s a trifle, but an enjoyable one. Based on a memoir by Terry Ryan and adapted and directed by Jane Anderson, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) tells the story of the author’s innovative and tireless mother. Stuck with a drunk, depressed husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson) who is forever spending the family’s savings, Evelyn (Julianne Moore) begins earning some extra income and keeping things afloat by entering poetry and jingle contests and winning free shopping sprees.
There’s not much variety to the story; every time something bad happens, Evelyn simply wins another prize, yet it has an undeniable sparkle. The movie suffered from bad timing, since this was yet another 1950s housewife role for Moore, after winning acclaim for Far from Heaven and The Hours in 2002, but she does yet another remarkable job. Harrelson has the tougher role, and attempts to inject some humanity into his suffering father character, while young Ellary Porterfield gives a magnetic presence to the author as a teenager.
Newly available on Amazon Prime
The Puffy Chair
The Duplass brothers made their debut on this wonderful American indie road movie, with Jay directing and Mark starring and producing and both writing the screenplay (although improvisation was allowed and encouraged). Josh (Mark Duplass) purchases a replica of an old puffy chair that their father once enjoyed; he plans a road trip to pick it up and to deliver it to the father for his birthday. His girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) comes along. Their relationship has reached an impasse; she is ready for a bigger commitment, and he is not. Josh’s freaky, sweet-tempered brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) also invites himself, adding to the tension.
Director Jay focuses less on plot or symbolism—the puffy chair itself is nothing more than a puffy chair—than he does on characters and interactions; he holds shots long enough to wring truth from awkward conversations. But the movie is also very funny and highly entertaining.
Big Trouble in Little China
This insane, unhinged adventure comedy has rightly earned a place as a cult classic, and in a perfect world, it would actually be required viewing. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) was directed by John Carpenter, who was perhaps better known for his horror movies (Halloween) and sci-fi movies (Escape from New York, Starman). He likely blindsided genre fans with this movie’s outrageous humor, and it was a flop.
It’s something like a mashup of a Western, an Indiana Jones flick, and a martial arts film, with wizardry, prophecies, and curses. Star Kurt Russell deliberately does a sendup of John Wayne, with a slow, bragging drawl, and Dennis Dun is his scrappy sidekick, Wang Chi. The plot has something to do with Wang Chi’s kidnapped girlfriend, who is to be used in some kind of ritual, but the movie is a steady stream of exotic sets, crazy jokes, fights, and fun visual effects. Kim Cattrall, James Hong, and Victor Wong co-star. The great screenwriter W. D. Richter did the final polish on the script.
Happening now on Hulu Plus
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Hong Kong director Tsui Hark helped revitalize the Hong Kong film industry in the 1980s and remains one of the finest and most prolific action directors in the world. His Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) was one of his biggest films, and a winner of six Hong Kong Film awards, including Best Director.
Andy Lau stars as the title hero, who was based on a real-life 18th-century person, and who was immortalized in pulp detective novels. During the construction of a giant-sized Buddha temple, a worker suddenly bursts into flame and disintegrates. Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau, also an award-winner for her performance) decides to enlist the imprisoned, outcast Detective Dee to solve the case. Tsui isn’t particularly suited to building the suspense of the mystery story, but with the help of fight choreographer Sammo Hung, the movie’s smooth, dazzling action sequences make it worth seeing. Li Bingbing and Tony Leung Ka-fai co-star. Hulu presents the movie in its original Mandarin with English subtitles.
Brand new on Vudu
Paddington (2015) was originally slated for a Christmas release and was held back until January, which is what usually happens to unwanted, doomed films. That, accompanied by a slapstick-laden trailer, made the movie look like a sure-fire dud. But critics weighed in that, a few slapstick scenes aside, it’s mostly a delightful movie about kindness and politeness, with a very sweet, lovable bear of a main character (voiced by Ben Whishaw).
Based on the children’s books first published in 1958, it tells the story of a talking bear who leaves his home in Peru to find the English explorer who first found his parents and introduced them to the wonders of orange marmalade. Instead he finds the Browns (Hugh Bonneville and a delightful Sally Hawkins) and their children, Judy and Jonathan, and discovers the meaning of family. Nicole Kidman sinks her teeth into the villain role (a taxidermist), and Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon provide additional voices.
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At the tail end of his career, the celebrated actor Marlon Brando gave some of his most relaxed and entertaining performances in movies like Don Juan DeMarco and The Score, and especially The Freshman (1990). He plays Carmine Sabatini, a New York businessman with mafia ties, who looks and sounds a great deal like Vito Corelone in The Godfather (1972). The movie—and Brando—have a great deal of fun with this notion, referencing the Godfather films, but with Sabatini himself seeming blissfully unaware.
Matthew Broderick plays the hero, a NYU film student who very much appreciates the connection. He is given a job running errands for Sabatini, notably transporting an endangered Komodo dragon. Things get even weirder when Sabatini’s daughter (Penelope Ann Miller) begins flirting with him. Bergman’s screenplay becomes a little too routine, but the characters are too much fun to pass up. Bruno Kirby (who was also in the original The Godfather Part II) co-stars, along with Frank Whaley, Jon Polito, BD Wong, and Maximilian Schell.
Fabulous on Fandor
Outside of Sergio Leone’s excellent films, Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) is probably the best, and the best-known, of the genre known as the Spaghetti Western. Like Leone, Corbucci had an impressive style, but Corbucci was more vicious, with a stronger stomach for violence. This is the infamous film in which a man is forced to eat his own ear. Django opens with our hero (played by Franco Nero) dragging a coffin behind him while trudging through the West. He rescues a woman from Mexican bandits, and then finds himself in the middle of war with a huge pile of gold at stake. It’s grim and spare, but never heavy; it’s punchy.
Several sequels followed, most of them unofficial. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to it with his Django Unchained , and Nero has a cameo in that film, in the famous “the D is silent” exchange.