From writers to fighters, in this week's streaming movies
Two of last year’s best movies—neither of which were nominated for a single Oscar—are now available for streaming: One is a small movie from Iran that can be described as a true act of rebellion, and another is a celebration of a great conversation between two writers.
Writers also appear in two other movies, the story of a famous author learning about love before she can write about it, and a pulp fiction writer in the Old West learning how to bend the truth to make it more exciting.
Speaking of exciting, we have a selection of action movies from several different countries, all of which take an unusual approach to the usual shoot-em-up. In one, a hitman takes time off to learn how to dance. In another, a rookie cop searches for his lost gun on a sweltering day.
Wrapping up, we have three low-budget treats: a debut horror film from the grindhouse days, full of sex and gore, but deceptively brilliant; a low-budget 1940s film noir with unique cinematography; and a cult item from the 1980s, aimed at those seeking “something different.”
Jafar Panahi's Taxi (Netflix)
This one requires a little backstory. Cinema in Iran has a rich history, and, despite heavy government censorship, the country has produced an incredible output of beautiful films, and even experienced its own “New Wave” in the 1990s. Filmmaker Jafar Panahi got his start during that time, making excellent films like The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), and Offside (2006). Then he was arrested for creating anti-government propaganda, served some jail time (a petition of international filmmakers helped get him released), and was slapped with a 20-year ban on making films. This has not stopped him from making a series of secret films, with small video cameras and small crews.
In Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015), he poses as a cab driver, driving around the streets of Tehran, filming from what appears to be a single dashboard-mounted camera. His passengers run the gamut, from a bootleg movie seller to his own niece. Throughout, Panahi draws parallels between crime (or fear) and movies, which, in his case makes sense since making movies is a crime. But Panahi seems in a more hopeful mood here, not angry or upset, perhaps having found a new kind of freedom. In any case, this movie is a true act of cinematic rebellion. Out of necessity, there are no credits on the film, which is presented in Persian with English subtitles.
One of the few Best Picture Oscar winners that actually was the best picture of its year (and also one of the best Westerns ever made), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) is well worth seeing again and again. David Webb Peoples wrote it back in the 1970s, and Eastwood wisely (and astoundingly) waited for decades until he felt he was old enough to play the role. Given that Eastwood himself is an icon of the genre (in a league with John Wayne), the movie brilliantly serves as an examination of violence and the way that stories are told about violence.
His character, William Munny, is a walking example of an outlaw legend, followed around by an eager kid (Jaimz Woolvett); his illusion is shattered when one killing takes place in an outhouse. In other scenes, a writer of pulp fiction novels (Saul Rubinek) follows around gunslinger English Bob (Richard Harris), recording his embellished exploits. Gene Hackman won an Oscar as a small town sheriff, and Morgan Freeman is excellent as Munny’s partner, Ned Logan. Anna Levine adds a layer of soul as the prostitute whose cut-up face is the catalyst for all the bloodshed. Eastwood won a Best Director Oscar, and Joel Cox won for Best Editing; the film received nine nominations in all.
Becoming Jane (Netflix)
With all of Jane Austen’s novels already adapted for the big and small screens, what was left other than a fictional, romantic biopic? After all, it's an interesting question: How could Austen have written so beautifully about love if she had never experienced it? So Jane (Anne Hathaway) experiences a very Austen-eqsue romantic triangle, between herself, the passionate, penniless rogue Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), and the stable, responsible Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox).
Normally, these kinds of things are slanted in an obvious way, with filmmakers paying more attention to the situation than to the characters, but in this movie, Jane and Tom are nicely matched, both smart and passionate, and poor Wisley, normally a dull cuckold, actually seems like a decent enough guy. Becoming Jane (2007) is fairly lightweight—neither as prestigious as the actual Austen adaptations, nor as Miramax-y as the similar Shakespeare in Love—but still wonderfully smart and romantic. Director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) carelessly uses some jarring hand-held shots, annoying given the period setting, and Austen fans will pick up on more than non-fans will, but otherwise, it’s an appealing, solid offering.
The great Canadian director David Cronenberg has a birthday in March, so I’d like to celebrate it by recommending Shivers (1975), his first official feature, not counting his college films. Cronenberg made a career out of “body horror” films in the 1970s and 1980s, though in more recent years, he has taken his favorite theme, the human body, and all of the various ways it can be invaded or altered, and moved it into new directions, into other kinds of drama. Shivers (also called They Came from Within or The Parasite Murders) is pure grindhouse, very low-budget, and filled with gore and nudity, but it’s an astounding debut, with Cronenberg’s themes already fully realized.
It’s set in a “modern” high-rise apartment building with all the amenities, where a scientist is developing a kind of parasite that is supposed to help with organ transplants, but really transforms its victims into sex-crazed maniacs that run rampant throughout the complex. At first the disease is spread through sexual contact (a film ahead of its time?) but it quickly turns into a mad, bloody, hide-and-chase, with the soulless building serving as a polar opposite to the chaos going on inside. Cult legends Lynn Lowry and Barbara Steele co-star.
Stray Dog (Hulu)
Also in March, the late Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa will have a birthday (his 106th), so I want to go back to one of his first great films, Stray Dog (1949), made just prior to the time that the United States opened the floodgates to Japanese cinema. Had it come just a bit later, it might have been considered a masterpiece to stand alongside Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. Toshiro Mifune stars, in the third of his 16 collaborations with Kurosawa, as a modern-day Tokyo rookie cop. (Fans used to seeing him in samurai garb will have to get used to the street clothes.)
On a sweltering hot day, sleep-deprived and riding on a train, he loses his gun, and spends the rest of the tension-filled movie trying to find it. His state of mind becomes more and more unhinged as the firearm’s new holder goes on a killing spree. In later films, Mifune was a ball of prowling, stomping energy, but here his energy is held in rigid check; he’s as unsure of himself as he is confident in later films. (This movie is proof of his acting caliber.) Kurosawa’s use of rhythm, space, and weather is already exceptional.
The Raid: Redemption (Crackle)
Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais had an infinitesimal part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and now you can see him in a leading role in the incredibly brilliant genre film The Raid: Redemption (2011). Directed by Gareth Evans—who was born in Wales and makes movies in Indonesia—the movie is (like Shivers) set almost entirely in a 15-story apartment building, this one made of concrete and covered with graffiti. Uwais plays a member of a special forces unit whose job it is to infiltrate the building and extract a notorious crime lord from the top floor. Each floor is more dangerous than the one below, and the only exit is at the bottom.
Of course, the alarm is sounded, and Uwais must rely on his skills to survive an attacking hoard of bad guys in the narrow hallways and get out alive. Everything comes down to a brutal final battle in a windowless concrete room with the aptly named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). The “Redemption” part of the title was totally arbitrary, since the title “The Raid” by itself was not available in the U.S. The same idea was used the following year in the sci-fi action movie Dredd (2012). The equally terrific The Raid 2 (2014) followed.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Crackle)
I know this sounds strange, but this third sequel, coming 20 years after Universal Soldier (1992), is actually amazingly good, and really interesting. I understand if fans balk at it, given that the original stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, hardly appear in it, and never together. But director John Hyams—son of veteran Peter Hyams—introduces a very peculiar style, somewhat nightmarish and off-balance, as if David Lynch collided with a truckload of martial arts brawlers. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) employs lengthy, wide, clear shots, curious sound cues, and shocking, dreamlike imagery to create a much more vivid action movie than we’re used to seeing.
The star of this one is Scott Adkins, whose wife and child are suddenly killed; the bad guy appears to be Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Later, he wakes up from a coma, meets Sarah (Mariah Bonner), and tries to figure out what’s going on while fighting all kinds of bad guys. Meanwhile, it appears that Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) may be training a new army of “unisols.” Proof that I’m not crazy: When the movie came out, the Village Voice ran a story called “John Hyams Is the Best Action Director Working Today.”
The End of the Tour (Amazon Prime)
One of the best movies of last year, James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour (2015) may appeal only to journalists or lovers of books and literature. Or it may appeal to anyone who loves fascinating characters and good conversation. In any case, it features a brilliant screenplay, some subtle directing choices, and two extremely strong lead performances, all of which deserved—and did not receive—some kind of year-end accolades. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, who learns of the death of author David Foster Wallace in 2008.
He remembers back to a five-day interview the two did together in 1996 during the last days of Wallace’s book tour with the game-changing, 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest. The conversation beautifully switches between business and pleasure as the men form a near-friendship and Lipsky tries to find interesting angles for his article. As Wallace, Jason Segel gives a tremendous performance, successfully negotiating the tricky terrain of the author’s brain, contemplating the lowbrow with a highbrow sensibility. Joan Cusack is hilarious in her few scenes as Wallace’s driver. In real-life, Lipsky never published the article, instead turning it into a book in 2010.
Raw Deal (Amazon Prime)
Anyone who loves film noir ought to see this low-budget masterpiece, one of six films that feature the magical collaboration of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton. Mann was one of the finest directors of men’s action films ever to work in Hollywood, and with him, Alton—presumably to save money—created a high-contrast style, wherein the blacks were extra black and the whites were extra white, deliberately clashing with, and enhancing, the film’s realistic storytelling. Their film Raw Deal (1948) is one of the all-time best, most brutal of noirs. Dennis O’Keefe plays a man who has gone to prison and is broken out by his girlfriend (Claire Trevor). A social worker (Marsha Hunt) becomes involved, creating a love triangle, and eventually there’s a showdown with a nasty gangster (Raymond Burr) who has an evil master plan. Scenes are set in fog and fire, and Burr’s character throws a flaming dessert in a woman’s face. It all happens in only 79 minutes. O’Keefe played a good guy in Mann and Alton’s previous film, T-Men (1947). Their other titles are He Walked by Night (1948), Border Incident (1949), Reign of Terror (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950). All are worth seeking out.
Assassination Tango (TubiTV)
Robert Duvall was just past 70 when he made Assassination Tango (2003), his third feature film as director. While younger directors are praised for copying the gritty filmmaking style of the 1970s, Duvall was actually there, and applies that style to this unique, interesting film that few saw, and that was underrated by those who did. It tells the story of a hitman, John (Duvall), who is hired to assassinate a murderous general in Argentina; when the job goes haywire, he finds himself stuck there with nothing to do.
Wandering around, he discovers the tango and begins taking lessons from the beautiful Manuela (Luciana Pedraza). But of course, the other shoe drops, and John finds that his life is in danger. Duvall’s direction is exploratory and patient, taking time to find character nuances rather than building suspense or staging action. In real life, Duvall is an avid tango fanatic and loves dancing; he married Ms. Pedraza not long after the release of this film. Francis Ford Coppola (who worked with Duvall a few times) was an executive producer.
Ip Man (Hoopla)
Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen can currently be seen in both Ip Man 3 and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, and here he is at his best, in the first Ip Man (2008). Set in the 1930s, it tells the amazing story of the modest, real-life Wing Chun master who would go on to train Bruce Lee. In the city of Foshan, he bests all challengers with no boasting or ego, but everything changes when the Japanese invade, forcing our hero and his family out of their home. Eventually he learns to use his skills to his advantage and survive.
Actor Yen previously played largely stoic characters, but he warms up just a smidgeon here, investing some welcome emotion in his character. Director Wilson Yip presides over an excellent period design, shooting wide and clear to capture the beauty of the martial arts movements. Another Hong Kong action star, Sammo Hung, choreographed the fights for this one, and went on to play a supporting role in Ip Man 2. This movie is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
Forbidden Zone (Fandor)
This bizarre cult film is more or less a mixture of just about every other cult film ever made, in addition to underground comix, old cartoons, and experimental music videos. It was made by members of a theater-of-the-absurd troupe, including musician Danny Elfman (of the band Oingo Boingo and later a successful movie composer); Elfman’s brother, director Richard; and co-writer Matthew Bright. In Forbidden Zone (1980), a woman called either “Susan” or “Frenchy” accidentally enters the Sixth Dimension; her family tries to rescue her, but not before she helps to defeat the evil queen (Susan Tyrrell, an Oscar nominee for John Huston’s Fat City), and marries the dwarf king (Herve Villachaize).
The Sixth Dimension looks a lot like our third one, except it has a frog in a tuxedo, a human chandelier, a topless princess, a headless boy, and babbling twins, plus animated sequences. The highlight is the music, which sounds a lot like Oingo Boingo; Danny Elfman appears as Satan and sings a twisted rendition of “Minnie the Moocher.” Distributors tried it as a midnight movie, and then as a normal summer movie, but it didn’t catch on until the advent of home video. Then and now, it’s definitely for viewers who are looking for “something different.” Bright went on to direct another cult film, Freeway (1996).