By now, the news has spread far and wide that the first six Star Wars films are available for digital rental and download, and Vudu has them (see below). But other films with passionate fan bases are also available this week. We have the return to form of an octogenarian filmmaker, a magnificent debut horror film, and a “steampunk” classic from two former animators.
We have action heroes pushing the envelope, an action spoof with big laughs, and a so-bad-it’s-good biopic with unintentional laughs. Whatever you choose this week, these movies can elicit strong reactions.
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Goodbye to Language
The legendary French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, whose debut feature Breathless startled the world in 1960, returned in 2014 with the brilliant, masterful, baffling, maddening Goodbye to Language. It was a critical smash, and even won the Best Picture prize from the National Society of Film Critics, beating out Boyhood and Birdman.
It’s like a crazy, beautiful notebook, full of potent, prickly ideas, butting heads, interrupting one another, trailing off, and perhaps returning later. It touches on themes like technology and books, relationships, dogs, the Apache, Mary Shelley, nature, and (in a way) language. The editing is abrupt and shocking, often with loud, punctuating noises. Text flashes across the screen that seems profound, perplexing, and contradictory. And it’s all over in a head-spinning 70 minutes.
In theaters, the movie was shown in 3D, and Godard used the format to make further commentary; the movie has been subtly shifted to a 2D presentation for home video and streaming, but the overall impact shouldn’t be lessened by much.
One of the most acclaimed horror movies of recent years, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) features a supernatural monster, but is always rooted in its characters and in its dark, human emotions. In truth, the movie is somewhat based on an unspoken fear of parenthood. Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband to an accident on the day their son was born. Now Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is six, and giving his mother a hard time. He prepares homemade weapons to use against the monsters he sees in his room, and she can barely get any sleep.
A strange pop-up book appears on his bookshelf, and its pages become more sinister and threatening as the story goes on. Amelia tries to destroy it, but it keeps reappearing, with new and more horrific pages added. The story warns that “you can’t get rid of the babadook,” and the shadowy creature begins appearing, wreaking havoc. Kent’s clever setups and sharp cuts help establish a kind of off-kilter panic; this movie is as smart as it is scary.
Director/writer Edgar Wright, writer/actor Simon Pegg, and actor Nick Frost recently completed what became known as the “Cornetto trilogy” or the “blood and ice cream” trilogy; Hot Fuzz (2007) is the second of these. Compared with Shaun of the Dead (2004) and The World’s End (2013), it’s probably the one that’s least in touch with its characters, but that doesn’t stop it from being hysterically funny and slam-bang exciting.
Parodying the plot of The Wicker Man, Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a rule-following young cop who is relocated to a small village. He meets his ne’er-do-well new partner Danny Butterman (Frost), begins investigating a series of “accidental deaths” and stumbles across an evil conspiracy. The filmmakers studied an endless array of cop movies from which to pilfer ideas, and their enthusiasm clearly shows. A key scene shows the two heroes bonding over a DVD double bill of Point Break and Bad Boys II. Everything builds up to a series of shootouts and explosions that would make Jerry Bruckheimer blush.
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One of the most successful and famous of vigilante thrillers, Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) helped to catapult longtime character actor Charles Bronson into A-list stardom. Bronson was in his 50s here, playing Paul Kersey, a New York liberal whose wife is murdered and whose daughter is raped and left catatonic. Unable to cope, he slowly grapples with the idea of revenge, has an uneasy start, and eventually becomes a legendary anti-hero, taking out muggers and rapists throughout the city.
Winner, who worked with Bronson on six films, directs with a lean, effective energy, and the movie is capable of carrying away any type of audience, no matter its political allegiance. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock provided the score. Look fast for upcoming stars Denzel Washington and Jeff Goldblum. Future Saturday Night Live star Christopher Guest plays a cop. Four sequels followed, all with Bronson reprising his role. (Death Wish II, from 1982, is also available on Amazon Prime.)
The daughter of legendary star Joan Crawford, Christina Crawford, wrote a 1978 autobiography about her life with her apparently psychotic, abusive, and monstrous mother. Frank Perry directed the movie version, Mommie Dearest (1981), which was originally intended to be serious. But audiences reacted with laughter to the over-the-top, hysterical performances—and also unexpectedly sided with the Crawford character over the daughter character—and the movie became a camp/cult classic.
Faye Dunaway is hardly to blame, and gives an entirely convincing performance as Joan; she received notices from both the National Society of Film Critics and the Razzie awards. The movie received eight Razzies in all, including Worst Picture, but it’s certainly a prime example of the “so-bad-it’s-good” genre. The line of dialogue “No wire hangers, ever!” has lived on in the cultural zeitgeist.
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The City of Lost Children
Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro were animators before they turned to making feature films with Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), both dark fantasies that took place in imaginative worlds other than our own. In the latter, a mad scientist kidnaps children in order to steal their dreams. A former circus strongman (Ron Perlman) and a little girl (Judith Vittet) set out to rescue one particular boy (Joseph Lucien).
The cartoonish angles, amazing set design, and wickedly gleeful tone suggest that anything could happen, wonderful or cruel; it’s much too dark for young children. But the use of antique-looking machines, arranged in new and unexpected ways, has caused it to be adopted as a “steampunk” movie. Terry Gilliam was a fan, and his breathless blurb was used in the movie’s advertising. HuluPlus offers the original French-language version, with English subtitles.
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Working from a Philip K. Dick short story, director Paul Verhoeven’s inventive ideas might have turned his sci-fi hit Total Recall (1990) into a classic along the lines of Blade Runner. But it was also modified to fit the screen persona of star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and hence it became a chance for audiences to hoot and holler and cheer as Schwarzenegger pounded the stuffing out of the bad guys. So the movie is an uneasy mix of highbrow and lowbrow, but the story is strong enough to carry the day.
In the future, Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, who has mysterious dreams about Mars and a woman he has never met. He discovers a company that can implant the memories of a vacation, and he decides to “visit” Mars, but the process unlocks something in his brain and causes no end of trouble. Verhoeven’s movie operates on layers and layers of reality and unreality, and fans will have a fun time deciding what actually happened and what was only a dream. Sharon Stone is terrific as Quaid’s wife. A quickly-forgotten remake followed in 2012.
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As you may have heard by now, the six Star Wars films are now available for digital download, and Vudu has them. A recent article suggested that, rather than watching them in the order creator George Lucas has intended—i.e., beginning with the clunky, badly written The Phantom Menace (1999)—that newbies could start with the classic Star Wars (a.k.a. Episode IV - A New Hope) (1977). Then, they could move on to the great The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which is arguably the best and most colorful of the series, with its “surprise” twist. From there, viewers can create their own “flashback,” consisting of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005), and, finally, finish things off with the triumphant conclusion, Return of the Jedi (1983).
Thus, it becomes clear that this story isn’t about Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, but is really about the entire life’s journey of Darth Vader (a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker), starting with his childhood, his departure from the path of good, and his eventual triumph in the final moment. Together these films have earned more than $4 billion in worldwide box-office revenue, received 22 Oscar nominations and won 10 Oscars.