If you enjoyed my profile of Fandor earlier this week, you should definitely stream the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, currently available on Netflix. It’s not only a moving portrait of a passionate man, but it’s also a movie lover’s movie, filled with praises and pans. It’s hard to watch and not get excited about the possibilities of movies in general.
Also streaming this week, we have a series of cinematic entertainments consisting of that most basic of visual themes: crime or violence. In many cases, these criminals and loonies therein are such fun to watch that we almost don’t want them to get caught. In other movies, we get heroes, and in still others, we get people who are simply brave enough to try to find a connection with another person in their crazy, mixed-up worlds. Finally, see below for more details about an exciting new streaming service, TubiTV.com.
New on Netflix
The moving documentary Life Itself (2014) tells the story of the passionate, intelligent, and fair-minded film critic Roger Ebert, who died in 2013. The movie tells all about his long, Pulitzer Prize-winning career at the Chicago Sun-Times, and his popular TV show with Gene Siskel, whom he loved like a brother and fought with just as intensely. It tells about his journalistic skills, his love of movies, his early bout with alcoholism, and the romance he found in his 50s with his wife Chaz.
Director Steve James, the man behind one of Ebert’s favorite movies, Hoop Dreams, begins the film with footage of Ebert in the hospital, in what turned out to be the final months of his life. When Siskel died in 1999, he had kept his sickness a secret, and Ebert vowed not to do the same. So everything is open and on the table here. Some of it is not so pretty, some of it is beautiful, but all of it is life.
While D.W. Griffith is routinely credited as the father of American film, the French filmmaker Louis Feuillade was equally as influential, and what’s more, his century-old films are still extremely entertaining. Whereas Griffith perfected the art of cross-cutting to generate suspense, Feuillade mastered the art of long-form storytelling, building a deep, sustained, complex tale over the course of several hours. Though he made hundreds of films, he’s best known for his lengthy crime films Les Vampires (1915), Judex (1916), Tih Minh (1918), and especially his breakthrough Fantomas (1913).
Running about five and a half hours, Fantomas is notable for having a bad guy as its main character. Fantomas (René Navarre) has no conscience and no moral compass; the movie very simply marvels at the skillful ways he pulls of his various crimes. A policeman (Edmund Breon) and a newspaperman (Georges Melchior) are the “good guys,” who work to take down the bandit. Netflix presents the movie just as Feuillade presented them, in five “episodes” that run between 54 and 90 minutes each.
Some crime films don’t really attempt to be much more than an entertaining “B” movie, which is the case with Best Seller (1987). Brian Dennehy plays a big city cop who, after surviving an armed robbery of the police evidence room, publishes a best-selling crime novel. While struggling to write a follow-up, he’s approached by the incredibly charming, snaky Cleve (James Woods). Cleve claims to have been a hired killer for a huge corporate bigwig, and offers to give Dennis all the dirt he needs for new book. Of course, this gets them into no end of trouble.
Screenwriter Larry Cohen was already a legendary “B” movie director with things like Black Caesar (1973), It’s Alive (1974), and The Stuff (1984) on his resume, while director John Flynn had made the drive-in classic Rolling Thunder (1977). Together they concentrate on character interactions, shootouts, and chases, with things like plot and motivation taking a back seat. The slick, 1980s design does the rest. Ben E. King sings a particularly cheesy end-credits theme song.
Rules of Engagement
At one point, director William Friedkin was the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood, having won a bunch of Oscars for The French Connection, and directing one of the highest-grossing films of all time with The Exorcist. After that, there was no place to go but down, and he has spent the subsequent years making terrific films that rarely get noticed. As with his best films, Rules of Engagement (2000) has a studied realism, a knowledge of the way things work, but also one eye on the idea that not everything is always as it seems.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a U.S. Marine who is court-martialed after a mission in Yemen, and Tommy Lee Jones plays the Marine lawyer hired to defend him. The best scenes take place in the courtroom, with crackling cross-examinations and deceptions, though the battlefield scenes in Yemen are equally explosive. The movie occasionally veers off course for some character development and subplot, but the majority of it stays on track, and both Jones and Jackson are absolutely magnetic.
Must-watch movies on Hulu Plus
If you know anything about movies, you’ve heard about this milestone. And if you are any kind of film buff, you’ve seen it. Either way, the magnificently restored, remastered Criterion version streaming on Hulu Plus is not to missed. A masterpiece in every way, Akira Kurosawa’s three hour and 26 minute Seven Samurai (1954) tells the story of a small farming community that is frequently raided by evil brigands; the farmers get the idea to hire a group of samurai (or, specifically, masterless samurai called “ronin”) to defend them, but can offer no more payment than a bit of rice.
The movie introduced the concept of samurai warriors to the West and showed them in a strikingly graceful light; it focused on humanity as well as action, and both aspects have a profoundly poetic quality. (Stick around until the awesome, rainy, muddy final battle.) It was a huge success, and made a star out of Toshiro Mifune, who played the appealingly loose-cannon member of the group. The great actor Takashi Shimura (Godzilla, Ikiru) also had one of his best roles. It has inspired generations of filmmakers, as well as the Western remake The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Amazing on Amazon Prime
For a little while (until he started making movies with his wife Madonna), it looked as if Englishman Guy Ritchie were going to follow in Quentin Tarantino’s footsteps with his fresh, funny, inventive crime films: the low-budget debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the bigger-budgeted follow-up Snatch (2000). Moving at a lickety-split speed, and with a wisecracking attitude, the movie zigzags through several somewhat connected denizens of the underworld, hitmen, criminals, thieves, gamblers, and boxers.
The cast is clearly having a ridiculous amount of fun, and each greedily attacks his zingy dialogue, including Benicio Del Toro, Vinnie Jones, and Stephen Graham. Dennis Farina is arguably the funniest, as an American jewel dealer, and Jason Statham became a star with his gruff line readings as Turkish, a boxing promoter. But Brad Pitt undoubtedly steals the picture as the explosive no-gloves boxer Mickey, who speaks with such a thick accent that he’s completely, hilariously unintelligible. There’s just no telling what Pitt will do in this role, and he’s mesmerizing.
Very good on Vudu
Brad Pitt returns as a seasoned tank commander in this tight, muscular WWII movie, which is—refreshingly—based on an original screenplay and not on an “important” true story. Fury (2014) takes place at the tail end of the war, with American tanks roaming through the German countryside, barely hanging on until victory is declared. A rookie, Norman (Logan Lerman), is ordered to join the crew and must face the hard realities of war, while learning to fit in with his resentful colleagues.
Director David Ayer, who made the highly detailed cop drama End of Watch, does an impressive job of conveying the inner workings of the tank, the space, the rhythms, and the process of operating it, without any exposition. The battle sequences are clear, and the relationships between the characters, depicted in blunt shorthand, are quite strong. Michael Pena, Shia LaBeouf, and Jon Bernthal are all excellent as the remaining tank crew.
Catch this on Crackle
Safety Not Guaranteed
Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed (2013) is a rare science fiction movie that focuses on characters, relationships, and humor with the gimmick of time travel—is it real?—saved for the end. Derek Connolly’s screenplay is based on an actual newspaper ad, in which a man sought a time-traveling partner (“safety not guaranteed”). A reporter for a Seattle magazine, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson), and two interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), discover the author of the ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and Darius tries to get close to him to find out what’s really going on.
Director Colin Trevorrow keeps things light and funny, while unexpectedly burrowing into the characters’ innermost hearts. The result is an absolute delight, both funny and touching. Based on the strength of this film, Trevorrow landed a job directing the upcoming Jurassic World.
Introducing Tubi TV
The Loved Ones
Our final movie of the week comes courtesy of a new service called Tubi TV, which claims “the largest collection of free streaming television and movies” and recently closed a deal with Paramount Pictures to add 50 movies from their vaults to its library. Like Crackle, Tubi TV is completely free. Our first pick from this service is an Australian horror film that, like Safety Not Guaranteed, is quickly becoming a cult item. Sean Byrne’s crazed horror film The Loved Ones (2012) manages a perfect balance of humanity, dark, dry humor, and bloody terror.
Things are finally looking up for Brent (Xavier Samuel), and he has a date to the prom with a girl who loves him. But when shy Lola (Robin McLeavy) also asks him, and he is forced to turn her down, all hell breaks loose. Ms. McLeavy is a true find, managing to use her eyes and body to convey coyness, shyness, sultriness, and downright insanity. In a somewhat related subplot, Brent’s best pal goes on a date of his own, with equally bizarre consequences.