The long and short of it
This week Netflix debuts one of this year’s Oscar-nominated animated short films, though it’s sure to have a life well beyond awards season. Meanwhile, Fandor offers up a classic short film from the 1940s. Who says long movies are better? Certainly Straight Outta Compton (now on Vudu) could have been shorter, although what’s there is still very much worth seeing.
Then there’s Red Riding Trilogy, available on Hulu, a film that runs more than six hours and doesn’t seem to waste a moment. Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (catch it on Crackle) is less than 90 minutes, while fun, feels stretched thin in places.
In the end, whether a movie is 14 minutes or six hours, the showbiz rule has always been “always leave ‘em wanting more!” Happily, quite a few of this weeks’ other movies, ranging from comedies to horror films, from imports to domestic, feel just about right: neither too long nor too short.
World of Tomorrow/It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Netflix)
In a bit of exciting news this week, Don Hertzfeldt’s extraordinary, newly Oscar-nominated animated short film World of Tomorrow (2015) has been made available for streaming on Netflix. It features two of Hertzfeldt’s traditional, simple, stick-like characters, but occupying a truly astounding, disturbing, and hilarious version of the future.
Little Emily (voiced by carefree Winona Mae) receives a visit from her third-generation clone and learns what the future will be like. Hertzfeldt’s use of sound, space, color, and movement is truly amazing, and seems to have come from some painfully primal place.
If you like the short, be sure to check out Hertzfeldt’s 62-minute masterpiece, It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), comprised of three earlier short films edited together into a ming-boggling feature. It tells the story of Bill (who wears a hat throughout, to separate him from the others), who struggles with love, illness, death, and (again), the future. It’s an epic, a visual wonder, and darkly funny. This time, Hertzfeldt himself narrates.
Hyde Park on Hudson (Netflix)
In 2012, Daniel Day-Lewis won every award under the sun for playing a former U.S. president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. But for my money, Bill Murray was just as good playing another former U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012). Rather than disappearing into the role however, Murray brought his Bill Murray-ness to it, finding ways to incorporate the comedian’s command of a room and his inner sadness.
The movie takes place over a weekend, during an auspicious visit by the queen and king of England (that’s King “Bertie,” made famous by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech). In one great scene, Bertie and FDR talk about life and their supposed deficiencies (the king’s stutter and the president’s polio). It’s all viewed through the eyes of FDR’s distant cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), with whom he has a sweet, tender (possibly sexual) extramarital relationship. Linney also gives a terrific performance, looking at the president with awe, and showing the slightest hint of disappointment when he isn’t able to bestow his attentions on her.Roger Michell directs, focusing on longing rather than payoff, with an appealingly gentle touch.
Red Riding Trilogy (Hulu)
Fans of true-crime TV should get a look at this trilogy, which aired on TV in England and was released theatrically in the U.S. in 2010. Based on the books by David Peace, the movies follow cops and reporters mixed up in various crimes and corruption over different time periods, all in connection with the notorious Yorkshire Ripper.
Directed by Julian Jarrold, Red Riding: 1974 stars Andrew Garfield as a reporter investigating the murders, but snooping in all the wrong places. James Marsh’s Red Riding: 1980 stars Paddy Considine as a cop assigned to catch the killer, but dealing with heavy personal troubles. Anand Tucker’s Red Riding: 1983 ties up several loose ends, with David Morrissey reprising his character from the previous two movies; everything hinges on cracking one, final, unsolved murder.
The stories are complex and there are lots of characters, but watching the entire six-hour bundle quickly becomes an addicting and rewarding experience. Writer Tony Grisoni holds it all together, credited with all three screenplays.
You Kill Me (2007) (Hulu)
Director John Dahl has lately worked mainly in television, but at the beginning of his career, he was an astute maker of smart films noir; he made crime films that somehow creeped inside the genre, rather than externally paying tribute to it. You Kill Me (2007) was the last of his feature films before the small screen beckoned, and it’s the lightest of the batch.
Ben Kingsley stars as hitman Frank Falenczyk, working for the Polish mob in Buffalo; he’s so drunk on a job that he passes out and lets his quarry (Dennis Farina) get away. His boss sends him to San Francisco to find treatment; he gets a helpful sponsor (Luke Wilson) and meets a sassy saleswoman (Téa Leoni), but eventually his past catches up to him.
Of course, stories about troubled hitmen were everywhere at this time, but Dahl keeps things feeling fresh. Kingsley plays this totally deadpan, keeping his expressions locked up, which plays perfectly against the ridiculousness of the rest of the story. In a way, Dahl may have been paying tribute to the City by the Bay, whose Roxie Cinema was responsible for kick-starting his career with their long-running engagement of his early film Red Rock West.
The Company (Crackle)
Impressively, actress Neve Campbell, who was perhaps best known for her roles on Party of Five and in the Scream movies, co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in The Company (2003), drawing upon her early ballet training. The movie is centered around Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet; Campbell plays a dancer named Ry who performs a stunningly beautiful interpretation of “My Funny Valentine” and spends her winter holidays with a cook (James Franco) from a nearby restaurant.
The 78 year-old master director Robert Altman uses his legendary wandering camera to focus on the ensemble, following some of the other dancers in the company, as well as the company’s eccentric manager Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell). It’s one of the quietest, loveliest movies Altman ever made, but it failed to find much of an audience when it was originally released. I’m not really a ballet fan and I love it. It deserves to be re-discovered.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Crackle)
Diehard Steve Martin fans remember when he incorporated a little bit of wonderful strangeness into his act, rather than just daffy slapstick. For his third big-screen starring role in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), he and co-writer/director Carl Reiner came up with an inventive idea: Martin plays 1940s-era detective Rigby Reardon, whose scenes are shot and edited in such a way that he interacts with legendary stars in their old movies; for example, Humphrey Bogart footage is used in such a way that he now plays Rigby’s mentor.
The finished product probably isn’t as brilliant as it might have been (critics at the time accused it of being a “one-joke” movie) but I like it. It’s plenty amusing and entertaining, especially for fans of classic crime flicks. Rachel Ward plays the femme fatale, and Reiner appears as Field Marshall VonKluck. Michael Chapman provides the black-and-white cinematography. This was the final film for both the legendary composer Miklós Rózsa and the legendary costume designer Edith Head.
1408 (Amazon Prime)
Stephen King’s stories and novels have been turned into dozens of movies, some of them excellent, some of them awful, but 1408 (2007) flat-out scared me more than any other King movie since The Shining. John Cusack stars, in an excellent performance, as Mike Enslin, a writer who investigates supposedly haunted buildings. Having recently lost his daughter, he seeks any kind of sign of the supernatural, but doesn’t truly believe he’ll find it.
After receiving an anonymous postcard (not a good sign), he visits the Dolphin Hotel in New York and checks into the forbidden room 1408. The hotel manager (Samuel J. Jackson) tries to talk him out of it; those who have survived the room at all have not lasted more than an hour inside of it. But Mike forges ahead, and what he finds in the room chills his soul—and ours. Mary McCormack and Tony Shalhoub co-star. Swedish director Mikael Håfström had been an Oscar-nominee for his foreign language film Evil (2003). Two cuts of the film were released on DVD, but Amazon Prime offers the theatrical cut.
Goodnight Mommy (Amazon Prime)
To put it politely, Goodnight Mommy (2015) is one messed up movie. Halfway between a horror film and a psychological thriller, it was somehow Austria’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars, but did not receive a nomination. In any case, the National Board of Review chose it as one of the year’s top 5 imports.
It concerns 10-year-old identical twins Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), whose mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home after some kind of facial reconstruction surgery. Her head is in bandages, and after she exhibits some strange behavior, the boys decide that she isn’t really their mother, but, rather, some kind of impostor. They desperately want her to prove herself, but all the evidence she submits is alarmingly ambiguous. Eventually the boys resort to drastic measures (and I mean drastic).
The movie has a mind-twisting climax that will have you wanting to go back and check again to make sure you saw it right. However, animal lovers are warned to think twice before proceeding. The writing/directing duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala make their feature filmmaking debut with this.
Straight Outta Compton (Vudu)
Like the Sex Pistols and Joy Division, N.W.A. was a musical act that burned very brightly and for a very short time. Their song “F—- tha Police” actually scared people back in 1988; when was the last time music was truly frightening? While about two-thirds of F. Gary Gray’s biopic Straight Outta Compton (2015) captures that energy, it’s unfortunate that it goes on too long and never seems to know where and when to stop.
In the 1980s, Compton residents Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s real-life son), DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) come together to change music with a vision of street life, their by turns angry and funny album Straight Outta Compton. Under the care of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti, also in the Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy the same year!), the group begins to fight and break up, going on to solo careers, more troubles, and even death. (Rest in peace, Eric.) Young versions of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur are portrayed by Keith Stanfield and Marcc Rose respectively.
The Virgin Suicides (TubiTV)
By the year 2000, Sofia Coppola had tried her hand at fashion and other things, but was mainly known (and rather unfairly criticized) for her performance in her father’s The Godfather Part III. But then she stepped behind the camera for a most assured feature writing and directing debut with The Virgin Suicides (2000), based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel. She effortlessly established her own voice and her own style: wispy, gentle, dreamy, with an almost impossibly delicate sense of wonder and sadness.
Kirsten Dunst plays one of five beautiful blonde girls, living in a suburban home, each of whom commit suicide over the course of a year. The story is told from the point of view of some neighborhood boys, with Giovanni Ribisi as their spokesman, mesmerized by the girls, but totally unable to approach or understand them. It plays a little like a normal high-school movie, with attempts to sneak out and hook up with boys, but Coppola keeps things rooted in emotions and tragic missed connections. James Woods and Kathleen turner play the girls’ slightly damaged, controlling parents, and Josh Hartnett is very funny as the high-school stud Trip Fontaine. The French band Air contributes the achingly beautiful music score.
German director Christian Petzold made one of 2015’s most acclaimed movies with Phoenix. If you saw that and liked it, then here is his previous film, Barbara (2012), which is just as good, and features the same stars, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. In the 1980s, an East German doctor, Barbara (Hoss), finds herself banished to a small hospital in the country. She dreams of escaping the country, but must remain on her guard. (Hoss’s hard, beautiful face seems zipped up here.) Nonetheless, she finds herself drawn to a male doctor, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has also been banished, and they bond over certain patients.
Barbara’s story comes to a head in a fairly traditional way, but Petzold tends to slow things down and explore the moods between the plot points. And, as with Phoenix, rather than focusing coldly on the horrors of history, the director implies it through the ways that it emotionally affects his characters.
Meshes of the Afternoon (Fandor)
Just as I started with a short film, I’ll now end with one. Newly added to Fandor, Maya Deren’s 14-minute Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is considered one of the great shorts of all time, not to mention one of the best experimental films and a pioneering film by a female director. Though plotless, the beautiful Deren appears as a woman who falls asleep and then (possibly?) dreams about a cloaked figure, a key, a knife, and a flower. Though it has been analyzed and discussed at great length over the years, it’s very simply one of the best—and trippiest—cinematic representations of dream logic, and the way dreams move, as experienced from a single point of view. (It’s also considered, in some circles, a film noir.)
David Lynch is a huge fan; I’ve noticed homages to Deren in his Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. Deren went on to make more films, and Fandor also offers an excellent feature-length documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2003), with more information and clips.
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