You’re back to work after the holiday break, it’s still chilly outside, and there are some new movies you’re thinking of seeing: Anomalisa, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight, et al. But rather than venturing outside, why not stay home and get ready for your big-screen experiences with a little streaming?
Before you see Anomalisa, check out Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation for an early look into his unique world. Before you seeThe Hateful Eight, take a look at Kurt Russell as another grizzled Western character in Bone Tomahawk, or Quentin Tarantino’s debut film,Reservoir Dogs. And before you see The Big Short, learn a little more about the financial crisis with Inside Job and Margin Call.
Or, if that’s too much work, relax with a good-bad movie (Catwoman), some entertaining kids’ movies (SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water or Pooh’s Heffalump Movie), a fun action film (The Rundown) or crime film (52 Pick-Up), a classic (The Big Heat), or an import (Ten). Enjoy!
OK, bear with me here. Yes, Catwoman (2004) is one of the most hated movies in recent years; its director’s name is “Pitof” for heaven’s sake. But if Showgirls can get a second chance at cult status, why not this one? Unlike the lumbering, junky Van Helsing from the same year, Catwoman is clean and lithe; it’s absolutely ridiculous, of course, but its bad choices have the potential to keep you entertained, and laughing.
Halle Berry does the best she can, and looks amazing, in her Catwoman suit (fighting in high heels). Sharon Stone is the campy villainess, running an evil cosmetics (!) company, Benjamin Bratt is a detective who thinks Catwoman is a murderess, and Alex Borstein is the feline heroine’s best pal. The movie won four Raspberry (“Razzie”) awards, and Ms. Berry had the class to show up and receive hers in person.
Pooh's Heffalump Movie (Netflix)
When Pooh’s Heffalump Movie (2005) came along, it really rankled the die-hard A.A. Milne fans; you couldn’t show the Heffalump! He was supposed to be fictitious! However, in this movie, little Roo (voiced by Nikita Hopkins) heads into the woods and meets the actual Heffalump, known as “Lumpy” (voiced by Kyle Stanger); the newcomer quickly justifies his presence with his sweet English accent and contagious laugh. Meanwhile the rest of the gang gets separated and lost while on an “expotition,” and Roo must convince everyone that Lumpy means them no harm.
Disney gave this a refreshingly low-key treatment, sending a G-rated, 68-minute movie out into theaters, designed to give very young viewers an old-fashioned entertainment. It’s faithful to the clever wordplay of the books, and pays homage to the 1960s Disney cartoons: Jim Cummings returns as the dual voice of Pooh and Tigger. It was followed by the direct-to-video Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween Movie (2005).
The Rundown (Netflix)
Before he reverted back to “Dwayne Johnson,” he was a wrestler known as The Rock, and The Rundown (2003) was his first attempt—after being in costume in The Scorpion King—at becoming a cinematic action hero. Director Peter Berg tapped into his natural humor and warmth and gave him a role as Beck, a reluctant “retrieval expert,” or a fancy debt collector (he’d rather open a restaurant).
Eventually he ends up in the jungle looking for a golden idol. Rosario Dawson is the pretty girl and Christopher Walken is the loony villain, and everything would be fine if Seann William Scott, as Beck’s latest target-turned-unwilling partner, weren’t so annoyingly over-the-top. Scott has been funny in other films, but here he’s meant to be aggravating, the opposite of The Rock. If you can forgive him, or focus on the movie’s many good aspects, then this is a fun slice of action entertainment.
SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Hulu)
Surely one of the weirdest kids’ movies ever made, SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015) goes to some peculiar extremes, including a climactic, live-action superhero sequence. But audiences and critics both liked it, and it might just be one of those rare kids’ movies that becomes a cult item for older viewers.
In the story, the secret recipe for Krabby Patties suddenly disappears, and SpongeBob SquarePants (voiced by Tom Kenny) teams up with villain Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence) and travels through time to get it back, while Bikini Bottom turns into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Antonio Banderas plays a live-action pirate, and there are some gulls who just want to sing.
In spite of all the strangeness, the movie captures the unique humorous rhythms of the show and manages to keep it seeming fresh, despite the fact that this little sponge has been on TV since 1999 and the previous movie—The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie—came out 11 years before.
52 Pick-Up (Hulu)
Produced by the infamous Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, who were the subjects of two documentaries in 2015, 52 Pick-Up (1986) was one of their smarter projects, assembling a talented team and winding up with a stylish and entertaining crime drama. None other than Elmore Leonard wrote the screenplay, based on his own 1974 novel, and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was hired to direct. Roy Scheider stars as Harry Mitchell, a married, successful industrialist who is caught cheating with a younger woman (Kelly Preston) just as his (Ann-Margaret) has thrown her hat into the political ring. A little blackmail and murder later, Harry decides to shake down the bad guys himself.
The casting is terrific from top to bottom: John Glover is the smarmy, preppy mastermind, Clarence Williams III (from TV’s The Mod Squad) is the silent, murderous one, and Robert Trebor as the nervous, sweaty one. Pop star Vanity plays a stripper, and, for some reason, several porn stars of the era (Ron Jeremy, Amber Lynn, and others) can be glimpsed at a party.
If you're thinking of seeing Charlie Kaufman's extraordinary new Anomalisa, you should go back and see his hilarious, tricky, and insanely brilliant Adaptation (2002). Nicolas Cage plays a schlubby, balding screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (the real Kaufman is thin and has a full head of hair), and also plays his more confident, outgoing twin brother Donald. (Charlie and the fictitious "Donald" are credited with the screenplay, and "Donald" even earned an Oscar nomination!)
Charlie has been hired to adapt Susan Orlean's real-life book "The Orchid Thief" into a movie, but has become stuck. Meryl Streep is outstanding as Orlean, and Chris Cooper won an Oscar for his immersive performance as the subject of her book, John Laroche. Everything comes down to a note-perfect parody of a "standard" Hollywood ending. The great Spike Jonze directs with a heartfelt, playful tone, and includes references to his and Kaufman's earlier Being John Malkovich.
The Big Heat (Crackle)
For a blast from the past, you could do much worse than Fritz Lang’s masterpiece The Big Heat (1953), widely regarded as his best American film. Lang began working in Germany, during the silent era, creating immense, impressionistic works like the famous Metropolis; fearing the discovery of his Jewish heritage during the rise of the Nazi party, he fled the country and wound up in Hollywood. There he was relegated to smaller-budget films, but he made the best of it, and imbued them all with a crackling, sinister paranoia and a singluar cruelty.
In The Big Heat, Glenn Ford stars as a good cop who begins investigating some local gangsters. Poking his nose too far, he suffers a terrible family tragedy and subsequently seeks his revenge. Lee Marvin co-stars as brutal thug Vince Stone, forever infamous for throwing hot coffee into the face of his girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame).
Inside Job (Crackle)
If you’re thinking of seeing the new The Big Short, you might want to bone up with this Oscar-winning documentary by Charles Ferguson ( No End in Sight), the first major cinematic attempt to explain what caused the financial crisis of 2008. Matt Damon’s narration and helpful charts and graphs help outline the sneaky, underhanded way a few financial firms changed the way they did business so that a few could become obscenely, stinking rich while the rest of America grew poorer.
The movie digs deep and discovers that it all began back in the 1980s when President Reagan began deregulating banks, allowing them to make riskier and higher-paying investments, especially in housing and real estate. It gets worse, and their actions affect everyone in the industrial world; very simply, everyone needs to see this movie. The Big Short makes the issue entertaining, but Inside Job (2010) is the real scoop. The former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (pictured), who apparently tried to stop it all, is among the interviewees.
Margin Call (Amazon Prime)
J.C. Chandor’s remarkable debut, Margin Call (2011), is another essential companion piece to The Big Short, helping fill out the exceedingly complex big picture of the 2008 financial crisis. A Wall Street firm goes through a round of layoffs, and one of the newly unemployed (Stanley Tucci) shares a secret with another broker, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto); the risky portfolios the company has been dealing with have grown totally unstable, and a huge crash is imminent. A few whispered conversations later, and the firm has called an emergency midnight meeting to make the horrible decision: should they protect the public interest, or save their jobs?
Chandor’s Oscar-nominated screenplay is dialog-heavy and largely takes place on one set, but it has subtle and clever cinematic touches that bring it beyond the theatrical. A large cast of amazing actors turned out for this, and many are at their very best, especially Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and Demi Moore also star.
Bone Tomahawk (Amazon Prime)
If you’re planning on seeing The Hateful Eight, then you might want to catch another recent Kurt Russell Western, Bone Tomahawk (2015); the two movies make a good, bloody double-feature. When their sacred burial ground is disturbed, a race of murderous indigenous people kidnap a lady doctor (Lili Simmons); her husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), despite his injured leg, goes out after her. Accompanying him are Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), assistant deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and a well-spoken gunman (Matthew Fox).
The journey is hard, and Arthur’s leg gives them plenty of trouble, but it’s nothing compared to what they’ll find when they reach their eerie, deadly destination. David Arquette and Sid Haig co-star as a pair of troublemakers, with Haig doing his best Slim Pickens. (Jenkins also appears to be channeling Walter Brennan.) S. Craig Zahler writes and directs with a measure of black humor, as well as an unflinching taste for the horrific.
Reservoir Dogs (MUBI)
Quentin Tarantino’s own senses-shattering debut is available on MUBI. With a MUBI membership ($5 monthly or a yearly payment of $40), viewers have at their disposal a great new movie every day, each of which remain online for 30 days (the movie of the day is free to non-subscribers for one day only). Reservoir Dogs (1992) was posted on January 1, so check it out before January 30!
The movie, of course, tells about a failed jewelry heist, after which four survivors (Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi) assemble at their warehouse hideout to try and figure out what happened. An intricate series of flashbacks and spiky, crafty dialogue keeps it from feeling too set-bound, not to mention the sheer, unhinged enthusiasm for “B” movies and moviemaking.
It includes the opening breakfast scene with discussions of Madonna and tipping, as well as the infamous “ear” scene (which shows less than you may remember). Tarantino and Edward Bunker co-star as the ill-fated fifth and sixth members of the team, with Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, and the voice of Steven Wright as a radio DJ.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the cinema of Iran became among the most interesting in the world. Despite strict censorship, filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami were making truly extraordinary, poetic films; they were shown around the world and started to earn accolades and awards in the West. Eventually, Kiarostami had discovered video as a cheaper and quicker way to make films, and hit upon the idea of Ten (2002). He mounted two small cameras on the dashboard of a car, one pointed at its beautiful driver (Mania Akbari), and the other at the passenger seat.
The movie takes place in ten sequences as she drives her son, her sister, and others to various destinations. The drama unfolds in conversations, revealing hidden strengths and regrets in subtle ways. For those familiar with Kiarostami’s best work (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, etc.) the movie is missing his beautiful use of landscape, but Ten is more about a kind of inner landscape, and one just as powerful.