Don't miss the Oscars on Sunday!
This week we start with one of the best films from a late Russian master and end with a French serial celebrating its 100th birthday. In between we have some laughs, some shrieks, and some decent sequels.
In an alternative universe, two of these comic performances would have received Oscar nominations (and there’s a comic take on the Oscar ceremony in one of them). We also have a couple of breakout performances from recent years that could lead in nominations for the actors sometime down the line.
We have a fantasy-adventure from the master of pulp (not Quentin Tarantino) and the alternate-reality adventure of a dinosaur. And, lastly, now that the first hints of spring are here, we have a warm-weather coming-of-age story that might someday become a cult classic for its generation.
It seems the Russian studio MosFilm recently uploaded five of the great master Andrei Tarkovsky’s seven completed feature films, and three of his short films, to YouTube. If you’re new to Tarkovsky, Stalker (1979) is probably the best place to start. This strange and thoughtful sci-fi story is set in The Zone, which is shown in steel-blues and greens, while the “real” world is in sepia-toned black-and-white. The Stalker (Aleksandr Kajdanovsky) is the only one who can navigate The Zone, which appears benign but is supposedly quite dangerous. Landscapes there change, and one can never re-trace one’s steps. He leads a Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) to the center of The Zone, where exists a room with a mystical purpose.
The 163-minute movie can be slow going, and Tarkovsky deliberately tells his story indirectly and elusively, generating a sense of unease and anticipation. But it’s also far more stimulating than lesser sci-fi stories that spell everything out for us. The MosFilm YouTube channel is in Russian, so you’ll need to do some outside searching to find the correct titles. Remember to click the “CC” button to turn on the English subtitles. (You’ll find part 1 here, and Part 2 here.) Here’s a good resource if you’d like to know more about Tarkovsky and his works.
Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015) is a refreshing twist on all those nerdy high-school comedy-adventure stories that used to star John Cusack. Set in a dangerous area of Inglewood, it focuses on three friends, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who play in a band and are obsessed with 1990s hip-hop. Enduring metal detectors and malevolent bullies at school, they all just want to lay low and survive long enough to get to college. Malcolm’s crush on a neighborhood beauty, Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), brings them to a party, which accidentally leaves them with a huge package of drugs; the only way to get rid of it is to sell it.
The movie provides all the fun and laughs that this genre usually promises, in addition to tons of great music by Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and more. But it also raises intriguing questions about race, language, stereotyping and labeling, and gender politics (frequently mistaken for a boy, Diggy is actually a lesbian). As Malcolm, Shameik Moore gives a breakout performance, and is someone to watch for. Forest Whitaker produced and narrates.
Not a great film, and admittedly not even a very good one, but Scooby-Doo (2002) is worth seeing for a few reasons. (Unless you’re not a Scooby-Doo fan, and if you’re not, then… why not?) One reason is that the screenplay was written by James Gunn, who recently directed the hit Guardians of the Galaxy, but who owes his start to the irreverent Troma Studios (home of The Toxic Avenger); his scrappy, outsider’s voice can be easily detected. Another reason is the hilarious bad guy reveal (no spoilers). Yet another reason is Linda Cardellini as Velma, smart and nerdy, but also unexpectedly cute (she gets a makeover in one scene).
And then there’s the pièce de résistance: Matthew Lillard, who—I’m not kidding—deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance as Shaggy. Lillard was so good here, that he won the full-time job of voicing Shaggy in future cartoons (taking over for the late, great Casey Kasem). If you can forgive the bad CGI great dane, the fart jokes, Freddie Prinze Jr. as Fred, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, wasted as a dunderheaded Daphne, this is a fun time.
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (Hulu)
After making their hit Airplane!, the writing/directing trio of Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, attempted a bold experiment: a half-hour TV comedy with similar deadpan humor and no laugh track. Police Squad! (1982) confused nearly everyone and lasted only six episodes. Refusing to let a good thing go to waste, the team and star Leslie Nielsen reunited for the feature film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988).
The humor was a tiny bit broader than before, but it clicked, and Lt. Frank Drebin became someone to root for, no matter how dim he could be. Some suggested Nielsen should get an Oscar nomination (he didn’t) for his sustained comic performance, never letting on that he knew he was being funny. Part of the movie’s appeal is its offbeat casting, from O.J. Simpson as Frank’s injured colleague, Priscilla Presley (Elvis’s widow) as Frank’s love interest, and Ricardo Montalban as the villain. David Zucker, who took over solo directing duties, combined big slapstick moments with weird, one-liners (“Thanks... I just had it stuffed”), as well as some action and romance, and the result is surprisingly winning. And, this time, it caught on with audiences and became one of the 10 highest-grossing films of the year.
Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Insult (Hulu)
I’m not sure why Hulu offers parts 1 and 3, but not part 2 (The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear)—maybe it’s some kind of Naked Gun-like inside joke—but though this third entry is a bit of a step down, it’s still pretty darn funny and worth watching. The beginning, a parody of The Untouchables, and the ending, set at the Academy Awards, are especially worth watching. The story has Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) retired and married to Jane Spencer-Drebin (Priscilla Presley). She wants to have a baby, but Frank isn’t too sure about a life without action. Fortunately, he gets a reprieve: a terrorist (Fred Ward) has threatened to blow up one of the great American institutions (the Oscars). Look for some funny cameos at the ceremony.
David Zucker co-wrote the screenplay without his two former partners (his brother Jerry and their friend Jim Abrahams), and this time left the directing duties to newcomer Peter Segal. Co-stars O.J. Simpson and Anna Nicole Smith received Razzie awards for their “performances.” The movie was released just a few months before Simpson was charged with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (Hulu)
Probably the most acclaimed foreign-language film of its year, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. This is probably because it’s three hours long, and earned an NC-17 rating for explicit sex between two women. Newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos gives a memorable performance as a young woman who becomes aware that she desires female companionship, and specifically the companionship of a mysterious, sexy blue-haired girl called Emma (Léa Seydoux, recently a Bond girl).
The movie threatens at one point to collapse into stereotype, but then it recovers, passing through many years, charting the ups and downs of their relationship. Yet it’s a sensual movie, not just in its depiction of the sex scenes, but also in its depiction of food, friends, and thoughtful discussions. Kechiche cleverly mirrors certain sequences and images (a parade, the color blue, etc.) so that scenes contain extra emotional tones. You might watch it for its steamy scenes, but you’ll stay because it’s an outstanding movie.
The Kings of Summer (Amazon Prime)
The coming-of-age story is a tricky business in Hollywood, mainly because the people who make them can only recall seeing other coming-of-age stories, rather than actually coming of age themselves. Happily, The Kings of Summer (2013) has a unique vibe and feels bracingly fresh. Best pals Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) have become fed up with their parents: Joe’s cynical dad (Nick Offerman) and Patrick’s strange, cheery mom and dad (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson). So they decide to run away into the woods, build their own house, and live like kings.
The very strange, philosophical Biaggio (Moises Arias) joins them. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a veteran of “Funny or Die,” and first-time writer Chris Galletta cook up an appealing blend of characters learning lessons, experiencing setbacks, fighting, and falling in love with girls, without ever going stale. The adult characters are a tad flat, but funny enough that they work; the Biaggio character shouldn’t work, but does. For a generation of kids, this will become a classic they’ll revisit every so often; but trust me, anyone who’s ever been a high-school freshman will like it too.
Solomon Kane (Amazon Prime)
One of the greatest of all pulp writers, Robert E. Howard is revered for the way he introduced a new, hard-hitting style to the page, and the way that he could write just about anything—boxing stories, Westerns, detective stories, adventures, fantasy, tales of horror, and more—so long as it was manly. His most famous creation is Conan the Barbarian, but his Solomon Kane is just as cool, and so is this movie.
Our hero (James Purefoy) starts off as a mercenary, but learns that his soul is damned and so retreats to a monastery and a life of non-violence. Years later, he wanders the land and is attacked by a band of robbers. A kindly family tends his wounds, but then their beautiful daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is kidnapped by demons and monsters. Solomon realizes that he must re-embrace his violent side to save her. (Does any hero in any movie ever get to be non-violent for long?) Director Michael J. Bassett drenches everything in mud and rain and certain scenes are overdone, but then this is pulp; who’s to say how much is too much? On the other hand, Bassett also keeps a light touch and a snappy pace, unlike some of the sluggish Conan movies. Solomon Kane (2012) was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but so far there’s no word about Part 2.
Director James Wan started his career with the torture-porn movie Saw (2004), but then graduated to a genuinely scary horror flick with Insidious (2011). A family moves into a new house only to find that strange things are happening. At first, it’s just noises and things moving around, but then Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma, and his mom (Rose Byrne) begins seeing things. A medium (Lin Shaye) is called in, and it’s decided that dad (Patrick Wilson) must take a trip into the ghostly realm known as The Further to rescue his son.
Essentially, it’s a retread of Poltergeist, but told in a fresh, startling way. (The Further is absolutely terrifying.) Amazingly, Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell forgo the usual batch of jump-scares and obvious gore in favor of unsettling shadows and sounds; they create a true sense of dread and terror. Barbara Hershey co-stars as Dalton’s grandmother. The movie was shot for less than $5 million and grossed nearly $100 million.
Insidious: Chapter 2 (Crackle)
Plotwise, the sequel Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) felt like a bit of a cash-in, simply expanding and repeating the plot of the first movie, but screenwriter Leigh Whannell and James Wan also manage to re-create the same scary atmosphere as the first, and it’s a sublimely spooky experience. It’s as if they resigned themselves to delivering more of the same, but doing it the best they possibly could.
This chapter takes us on a flashback to Patrick Wilson’s character’s childhood, and the first appearance of the supernatural. In the present day, his previous trip into The Further wasn’t quite as complete as we were led to believe, and now a second trip to that creepy place has become necessary. Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey return, as do Angus Sampson and Whannell as Tucker and Specs, the nerdy, tech-savvy ghost-busters who help out. Lin Shaye appears briefly in this chapter as well; the very good third chapter goes into more detail on her Elise Rainier, who is surely one of the best female characters in horror movies.
The Good Dinosaur (Vudu)
It apparently suffered a bit of a troubled production, and no one expected much when Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (2015) received a Thanksgiving release, just half a year after the great Inside Out. But it has been modestly successful—even if it’s technically the lowest-grossing of the sixteen Pixar features to date. Its story is a bit routine, but it features some of the most breathtaking nature animated yet created, with trees and grass and water and clouds that look strikingly realistic.
The main character, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa), is a frightened and uncertain young dinosaur (who screams a little too often for my tastes) living in an alternate reality where dinosaurs did not become extinct. He’s swept away from his family down the river and teams up with a dog-like boy, Spot (voiced, in barks and howls, by Jack Bright), to get back home. The movie’s real appeal is the strange creatures that apparently evolved in this world: snakes with feet, half-loony creatures with birds living on their heads, and cowboy-like dinosaurs that herd “longhorns,” not to mention a psychedelic hallucination sequence when our heroes accidentally eat fermented fruit. This is an odd film, to be sure; but it might be destined for cult status.
Finally, along with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Louis Feuillade’s Judex (1916) is another great movie that celebrates its 100th birthday this year. After his earlier hits Fantômas and Les Vampires, Feuillade was accused of glamorizing crime, and so he responded with this 12-episode serial. This time the main character, Judex (Rene Creste), is a good guy, a kind of early superhero clad in a black cloak and wide-brimmed black hat. His first act is to take down an evil banker whose acts have driven thousands to bankruptcy or suicide (where is this guy when you need him a century later?). He falls in love with the banker’s daughter, but only when she donates her inheritance to charity. Even so, this is no goody-goody show.
The actress Msuidora, who played Irma Vep in Les Vampires, co-stars as the villain, and Feuillade keeps the storytelling spry, with twists and turns coming well into the 5-1/2 hour running time. Robert Israel provides a rousing, epic orchestral score for every minute of the running time.
In case you missed it, here’s our streaming recommendations from last week.