People are such fascinating creatures
This week brings a round of streaming movies that run the gamut of genres—the sports story, the documentary, the superhero tale (albeit told with a twist), a German Expressionist film even, as well as a movie that was filmed in one, long, continuous take (incredible!).
What's more, these movies highlight the wide range of the human experience. We have stories of marriages dissolving and coming back together, of the friendship between boy and dog, as well as the friendship between a girl and some bank robbers. There are stories of doppelgängers and monsters and somnambulists, and stories of characters buried alive, and of unhinged superheroes and obsessed billionaires.
Yes, all that—and more! So grab some popcorn and revel in the creativity and breadth of being that define the human experience.
Victoria is about to have the worst, but probably most memorable, night of her life in this German movie, shot in one astounding, unbroken, 134-minute take. She’s a lonely young girl (Laia Costa) from Madrid, working in a Berlin cafe, and recovering from her broken dream of being a concert pianist. In a nightclub, she runs into smooth-talking Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his three pals. They all spend some time drinking and talking, until the men are suddenly called away for some mysterious job; but it’s a four-man job and one of their number is too drunk to help. So Victoria goes. Bad choice.
Director Sebastian Schipper apparently had an edited version ready to go as a backup plan, and it took three tries, but Victoria (2015) was actually shot in one long take, with no tricks. The director manages lovely, subtle shifts in tone to create an infectious rhythm. The camerawork is hand-held and could make viewers a little queasy, and—given that the story takes place in the wee hours of the night and morning—it’s often a little too dark, but it’s still surprising and exhilarating, a late-night adrenaline surge.
David Cronenberg was once known as a grindhouse-era auteur of truly unique body-horror movies and cult classics before receiving some acclaim for his crime films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. But since then, he has been criminally underrated, especially for this complex adaptation of an even more complex Don DeLillo novel. In Cosmopolis (2012), a 28-year-old multibillionaire (Robert Pattinson) climbs in his limo, beginning a day-long odyssey through clogged city streets to get a haircut.
He meets with several people, discussing business, having sex, eating, and even facing off with a man who wants to kill him. Characters talk intelligently about all these topics as the city slips silently by through the windows, but Cronenberg constantly crosses beautiful ideas and rational thoughts with the organic, crude wants and needs of the body (one character calls it the “beauty of the lopsided”). In other words, not even several billion dollars can stop a person from being human. The passengers in this intelligent, subversive journey of life include Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Durand, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti.
Finding Vivian Maier (Netflix)
They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2013) proves it. The story begins with co-director John Maloof, whose family business is in auctions and estate sales. Looking for historical photos of Chicago, he bid sight-unseen on a box. Inside it were the remarkable photographs of Vivian Maier, an unknown amateur who died in 2009. Even to untrained eyes, her work is extraordinary.
The documentary charts Maloof’s efforts to find out who she was, and to get the photos seen by the public. She was a pathological packrat, leaving behind countless receipts and documents, but was also a chronic liar, working as a nanny—amazingly, one of her employers was Phil Donahue!— and possibly using fake names and even fake accents. Shy and reclusive, she was probably not a nice person, but her photographs speak for themselves (they can be seen here and here). In a couple more interesting twists, comedian Jeff Garlin executive produced the documentary, and Maloof’s co-director Charlie Siskel is the son of the late film critic Gene Siskel.
Before directing the massive superhero hit Guardians of the Galaxy, writer/director James Gunn made this bizarre, extremely dark R-rated superhero-centric flick, closer in spirit to Taxi Driver than Superman. After losing his wife (Liv Tyler) to a sleazy nightclub owner (Kevin Bacon), greasy-spoon cook Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) receives a spiritual sign from above and believes he is meant to become a superhero. While researching the idea, a comic book store clerk, Libby (Ellen Page), becomes fascinated with his quest and joins him: They become The Crimson Bolt and Boltie.
With no real powers to speak of, both characters find that their costumes free them from normal societal conventions, and they are able to unleash brutal, nasty violence on criminals, as well as play out their own most demented, primal urges. These heroes get hurt and their encounters with criminals are as awkward as they are heroic. It’s almost as if the movie itself was wearing a mask and, as a result, found its true self revealed. Nathan Fillion co-stars as “The Holy Avenger,” a strange TV superhero on an all-religious channel.
Journey to Italy (Hulu)
This Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release has finally made its way to Hulu! According to legend, Ingrid Bergman saw some of Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s post-war “Neo-Realist” films and wrote to him, offering her services, should he ever need an actress. He took her up on it, and though they were both already married to other people, they fell in love and caused an international scandal. (Isabella Rossellini was one of their children.) While together, they made five feature films and one short, and Journey to Italy (1953) is considered the finest of the bunch. The French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema called it “the first modern film,” and it’s hard to dispute that. With this, it feels like the movies finally got down to business.
Bergman and George Sanders play a married couple visiting Italy after the death of an uncle to see their inheritance, a beautiful villa, and possibly sell it. Their communication is limited to comments and bickering; they can’t speak honestly. As the movie begins, he sleeps as she drives, and even after he wakes, he can’t manage to say anything. As the couple kills time, visiting the sights or interacting with locals, Rossellini includes centuries of Italian history to throw perspective on their troubled relationship. It culminates in an unforgettable, poetic moment of bittersweet, beautiful triumph.
The Damned United (Crackle)
If you’re an American and unaware that “football” in every other part of the world is actually soccer, then you might want to skip The Damned United (2009). But if you love soccer or simply enjoy a good sports movie, then don’t miss it. The great Michael Sheen and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan team up again after their successful films The Queen and Frost/Nixon, with future Oscar winning director Tom Hooper at the helm. Sheen plays Brian Clough, a superstar coach from the lower ranks, who takes over the winning team Leeds United as a way to exact his revenge over a rival, Don Revie (Colm Meaney).
Based on a true story and taking place in the years up to and including the 1974 season, The Damned United is atypical of this genre, in that it isn’t necessarily about victory; Clough is blinded by his personal ambition and fails to see what’s best for his team. Hooper uses his usual widescreen, off-kilter angles to illustrate the story’s inner stress. Timothy Spall is extraordinary as Clough’s assistant who doesn’t share his sense of vengeance; Martin Compston plays footballer John O’Hare, and Jim Broadbent plays the owner of Clough’s previous, winning team.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Amazon Prime)
A 96-year-old German Expressionist masterpiece, and, some say, the first real horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) still has a creepy, hypnotic power. The doctor (Werner Krauss) works at a carnival, where he showcases his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Cesare predicts the imminent death of one patron, who subsequently dies. More strange things happen, including the kidnapping of the beautiful Jane (Lil Dagover), and the unsettling climax takes place in an asylum.
The production is notable for its astounding sets, constructed at odd angles and made to look as if they were capturing and reflecting light in unreal ways. It’s all meant to feel nightmarish, and insane. The future Pulitzer Prize-winning poet/biographer Carl Sandburg, then working as a film critic, called it “the most important and the most original photoplay” and “the craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house.” Robert Wiene directed it, replacing early choice Fritz Lang.
(Note: there are several links to this movie. Please use this one.)
Ryan Reynolds is currently enjoying the limelight with his hit Deadpool, but he has never been better than in Rodrigo Cortes’ intense Buried (2010). It’s essentially a one-man show, with Paul Conroy (Reynolds), a non-military contractor working as a truck driver in Iraq. He wakes up inside a coffin, buried underground, apparently somewhere in the desert. He has been given a cell phone, a flashlight, and a couple of glow sticks, and he begins calling anyone he can think of to help (never mind that he probably wouldn’t get great reception). Stephen Tobolowsky and Samantha Mathis are among the actors who provide phone voices.
Meanwhile, Paul battles cave-ins, snake attacks, a diminishing air supply, and a general, cold-sweat panic as his situation becomes alternately hopeful and hopeless. Cortes and Chris Sparling construct a brilliant screenplay with three acts that ebb and flow, without ever leaving this single set, and Reynolds was deserving of an Oscar nomination. Interestingly, the similar, less gutsy, but more Oscar-friendly 127 Hours was released at the same time, and actually did earn a nomination for its trapped hero, played by James Franco. Buried is being offered by TubiTV as part of their “Not on Netflix” category.
The Deserted Station (Fandor)
Iranian cinema has recently earned some attention with Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winner A Separation, but the country’s greatest filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, remains somewhat unknown. For The Deserted Station (2002), Kiarostami gave a hand to filmmaker Alireza Raisian, providing an original story, and a nice, recognizable screen credit. Like many Kiarostami stories, it’s a simple one, but rich and subtle, with many themes swirling just below the still surface.
A couple—a photographer husband (Nezam Manouchehri) and a schoolteacher wife (Leila Hatami)—are traveling cross-country to Tehran, when their car breaks down. The nearest town is nearly deserted, with only one man on the premises. The man can fix the car, but the wife—who has recently quit her job for an unexplained reason—must take over teaching the class in the meantime. During their short stay, the couple learns all about the little village, as well as a few things about death and life. It’s a beautiful film, flying below the radar, but worth discovering.
The Peanuts Movie (Vudu)
The first big-screen Snoopy movie since Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (1980), The Peanuts Movie (2015) was, of course, made without input from creator Charles M. Schulz, who died in 2000. (The screenplay was co-written by Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan.) But aside from what must have been a nerve-wracking attempt to get everything just right, including the effort of converting the traditional 2D cartoons to 3D computer animation, the new movie has a gentle, warmly humorous spirit.
Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) spends an entire school year pining for the Little Red Haired Girl, attempting to get her to notice him. Meanwhile, Snoopy battles the Red Baron and tries to rescue a girl dog called Fifi. Essentially, it takes the “you’re a good man, Charlie Brown” concept and runs with it, celebrating goodness and kindness in a heartwarming way. The jokes slyly reference the old cartoons and TV specials, and sometimes venture into new territory (though without any 21st century references or technology). Essentially, it’s all good and no grief.
Surely one of the most deranged, mind-bogglingly bizarre horror movies ever made is Andrzej Zulawski's cult classic Possession (1981). So there’s this husband and wife, Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani), who fight. The wife disappears. She might be having an affair. The husband finds that their son’s teacher (also played by Adjani) is a dead ringer for his wife. A private detective is hired. A second apartment is discovered, and inside it is... well... a kind of... thing.
Zulawski, who passed away just last month at the age of 75, directs with a deceptive quality; things seem normal until they suddenly don’t. It’s a lurching feeling, like a waking hallucination. Although barely anyone knew quite what to make of it when it was first shown, Adjani at least won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. MUBI subscribers will have access to the movie for 30 days after its posting on March 12, 2016. It’s a hard movie to find, particularly in its uncut, 123-minute version, so don’t let this chance slip by!
Buckaroo Banzai (Hoopla)
Another movie that throws in absolutely everything, including the kitchen sink with the pipes still attached, its full title is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). It’s a comedy, a Western, an action movie, a sci-fi movie, a romance, and a few other things. The hero, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), is a test pilot, a surgeon, and, in his spare time, a rock star. The insane Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) helps unleash a race of aliens, and Banzai and his team must stop them, more or less. There’s also a girl, Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), for good measure.
Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown, and other familiar faces turn up. It was one of only two directorial efforts by the cult-favorite screenwriter W.D. “Rick” Richter (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Big Trouble in Little China, etc.) It was a flop; a sequel was promised, but never made. Even so, it inspired one of the all-time greatest movie lines: “No matter where you go, there you are,” which is still true today. Buckaroo Banzai is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details. (Enjoy the widescreen version! For years, fans only had access to the panned-and-scanned VHS tape.)