Without actors, it would just be a lot of scenery
A most recognizable star reprises his most famous character for the first time in decades, in a Netflix original feature film. Meanwhile, many other familiar faces grace the small screen in this week's spate of streaming movies. Al Pacino delights in one of his most iconic and quotable roles, Johnny Depp impresses in one of his most mysterious, and Meg Ryan boldly holds her own in a role intended for Nicole Kidman.
Legends from France and England are also represented, as well as a handful of up-and-coming stars. Some actors were more or less plucked from the street to appear in their first films, and one in particular is actually a real-life person whose story is hard to believe.
Finally, we have a big movie with a message that needs to be heard, and famous actors deliberately taking smaller roles (and even cameos) in order to let the story itself do the talking.
Pee-wee's Big Holiday (Netflix)
Paul Reubens is now 63 years old. His TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran from 1986 to 1990, and his two feature films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (directed by Tim Burton) and Big Top Pee-wee, were released in 1985 and 1988, respectively. Since then, he has played Pee-wee Herman a few times on TV and on stage and in cameos, but it has been a long time since Pee-wee had any kind of long-form program. For the new feature Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016), a Netflix original that premiered March 18, Reubens required some makeup and digital magic to appear as the ageless character. His voice is no longer as flexible as it once was (he can’t do the laugh anymore), but otherwise, Pee-wee is back!
He’s a strange soul, good-hearted, but very weird, and certainly capable of selfishness, self-pity, and cowardice. But when he’s good, he’s very good: an admirable, kind-hearted fellow. Living in his small town of Fairville, having never been anywhere else, he—weirdly—befriends actor Joe Manganiello, who walks into the diner where Pee-wee works. Joe invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in New York, and encourages Pee-wee to take a road trip to get there. Of course, he meets all kinds of oddballs, some of them very funny, and others just a tad questionable (such as a farmer with nine chubby daughters, and a group of quasi-stereotypical hairdressers). The movie seems to strain a bit to achieve its 90 minutes, but many of the scenes are delightful, and fans will be happy. (Non-fans, however, needn’t bother.)
It’s hard to believe that a three-hour gangster film with a barking, howling Al Pacino at its center wasn’t better appreciated in its own time. Scarface (1983) is certainly the kind of thing that would receive Oscar consideration now. But in 1983, though it was a mild box-office success, it was criticized for being over-the-top, too bloody, with too much colorful language, and without much content. It was also a remake, of a 1932 Howard Hawks film, which irked some critics. Additionally, Brian De Palma was hardly an acclaimed filmmaker, better known for obsessive, voyeuristic peeks into worlds of sex and violence.
In the years since, this has become a cult favorite, has inspired numerous hip-hop artists and songs, and has proved to be a fount of classic quotes. Pacino plays Tony Montana, a Cuban thug who comes to America, starts at the bottom, and finds that he can get to the top by selling cocaine. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays his sister and Michelle Pfeiffer plays his girl, and both of them inspire jealous rages in Tony. He eventually samples too much of his own product and goes completely nuts; the final shootout is a visual homage to the end of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957). Scarface is an oversized masterpiece, painted in exuberant swaths of cocaine white and blood red, and a supreme act of hubris by De Palma and writer Oliver Stone that matches its legendary lead character.
Dear White People (Hulu)
Not since Do the Right Thing has an American comedy been so astute, so clever, and so perceptive in discussing race, or, more accurately, human beings with different identities. Justin Simien’s Dear White People (2014) is set at the fictional, prestigious, and largely white Winchester University. Among the many characters, we have Sam White (the terrific Tessa Thompson, also in Creed), who runs a radio show satirizing the behavior of whites, and who unexpectedly wins an election to become the head of the campus’s only all-black house, Armstrong/Parker. She ousts Troy (Brandon P Bell), who is miserable as he tries to please his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a shy, gay student with a giant afro who begins writing an article on black culture at the school, and Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris, also in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq), wears a long weave.
The rich dialogue is heavy with jokes, themes, ideas, pet peeves, and all kinds of other stuff about what people are supposed to be angry about, how people are supposed to behave, and, underneath it all, a few suggestions about who people actually are. The movie doesn’t pretend to know any of the answers to any of this stuff, and often doesn’t even pinpoint any specific problems, but it has quite a bit of prickly, intelligent fun trying.
The Ninth Gate (Hulu)
Roman Polanski is one of those filmmakers who has a hard time living up to his heyday movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, especially given his troubled history since then. And certainly The Ninth Gate (1999) has its problems, especially during its final stretch. It will never be considered one of the director’s masterpieces, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a look, especially for the way Polanski handles the sinister, quietly slithering mystery that lurks throughout this story.
Actually, it sounds great right from the description. Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, who has a dream job: He’s a kind of detective searching for extremely rare books. So the first part of the movie takes place in musty, ancient libraries full of whispered secrets as collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires Corso to find two satanic texts, one in Portugal, and the other in Paris. Other forces are after the same books, and for a while there are some great paranoid visuals before things turn into a chase and a weird, climactic ritual. But even those are absurd enough that they may be good for some entertainment value. Lena Olin and Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner co-star.
In the Cut (Crackle)
New Zealander Jane Campion was one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world in the 1990s, giving the world An Angel at My Table and The Piano. But when In the Cut (2003) opened, barely anyone knew what to make of it—and they still don’t. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery, and anyone that expects the movie to follow some kind of conventional murder mystery guidelines will be disappointed. But if you decide that you’re going to watch an intense, passion-filled, psychosexual drama about hunters and the hunted, about restraint and release, then this is your movie.
Meg Ryan stars (in a role originally intended for Nicole Kidman) as Frannie, a New York City English teacher who is unsatisfied and longs for sexual experiences. A murder in her neighborhood brings around a cop (Mark Ruffalo), about whom she begins fantasizing. And sex and danger become ever more closely intertwined. If nothing else, Ryan turns in her boldest work here, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is equally outstanding as Frannie’s promiscuous half-sister. (Crackle seems to be offering the full-length, 119-minute uncut version, rather than the edited version that opened in U.S. theaters.)
If you’re gearing up for baseball season, it’s a good time to check out one of the best, and least-known baseball movies of recent years. Sugar (2008) tells the story of Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a first-class pitcher from the Dominican Republic who gets a shot at joining a Kansas City minor league team. The setup is familiar, and it’s safe to assume that Miguel will face both bigotry and a potential romance with a pretty American girl Anne (Ellary Porterfield).
However, co-writers and co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) stick to their usual method of avoiding cliches, turning the corner just before they happen, and instead following the organic arcs of the characters. The movie doesn’t quite include the Rocky finale that you might expect, but its ending is just as satisfying, exploring its own version of the American Dream in a totally different way. Soto gives a fine performance in his acting debut.
'71 (Hulu, Amazon Prime)
This refreshingly basic, full-blooded thriller takes place during the “Troubles” in Ireland in 1971. It’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going on in the background: I think we have the Protestants battling the Catholics, plus the IRA and various other factions involved, but the movie itself is startlingly simple. In ’71 (2015), English actor Jack O’Connell (who, to me, looks a lot like Anton Yelchin) stars as Gary Hook, a British soldier stationed in Ireland. A spineless commanding officer sends Hook’s unit into the powder-keg center of it all without riot gear, and all hell breaks loose.
A kid steals a gun, there’s a chase, and a shooting, and suddenly Hook finds himself lost and alone in hostile territory. It’s getting dark, and he has no idea where to turn or who to trust. Hook acts as our anchor, and our guide through the story, and we navigate the confusion alongside him. Director Yann Demange tackles the film with the old-fashioned gusto of someone like Samuel Fuller or Don Siegel, making a hardcore adventure-war yarn for action junkies the world over.
The Rules of Attraction (Amazon Prime)
Roger Avary won an Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction, and so when he adapted Bret Easton Ellis’s novel The Rules of Attraction—closely following the success of the movie American Psycho—it seemed like a great idea. Yet even though it somehow met with less-than-stellar reviews and box-office, I like its brand of sexy subversion. The Rules of Attraction (2002) takes place at a fictitious New Hampshire college, where several students try to have sex, or use sex as power plays.
The virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) is the centerpiece character, who becomes interested in the cocksure drug dealer Sean Bateman (James van der Beek); his character is indeed the brother of serial killer Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Sean is also coveted by Paul (Ian Somerhalder), who hopes Sean might be gay. Then there’s Lara (Jessica Biel), who just likes to sleep around. Avary inventively uses flashbacks, split-screen, and various other time manipulations to bring these edgy characters to life. Faye Dunaway, Eric Stoltz (also in Pulp Fiction), Fred Savage, Kate Bosworth, and Jay Baruchel also appear.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (TubiTV)
Errol Morris made one of his most audacious, fascinating, terrifying, and unforgettable documentaries with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999). The main subject, Leuchter, could even have been part of Morris’s previous doc, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, except that his story is so much more bizarre. As we meet Leuchter, we learn that he manufactures equipment for executions. For example, he invented a more humane electric chair, and has moved on to lethal injection machines. Interviewed on camera with a thick Boston accent, Leuchter is almost funny.
But then comes the film’s one-two punch. Leuchter is hired by an arrested neo-Nazi to travel to Auschwitz to use his expertise in executions to prove there was no Holocaust; Leuchter sees himself as a hero, trying to save the guy’s life, and performing illegal and highly questionable “tests” to come to his conclusion. Even as Morris interviews Leuchter, using his patented direct-camera techniques, the subject believes he’s right. This is not only an extraordinary document about one person and an extraordinary document about a moment in history, it’s also a film that forces us to question our own views of what’s right and wrong. How are we to know when hubris or other factors get in the way of our beliefs?
The king and queen of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, star in this wry comedy, that's also timely, even though it’s loosely based on a play from the 1970s. Deneueve plays Suzanne the "potiche" (trophy wife) of the title, the daughter of a successful umbrella-factory founder, and wife of the bullying Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). Pujol has taken over the factory, ruling through fear, sleeping with secretaries, and causing morale to plummet. When a strike occurs, Pujol collapses and goes to the hospital. So Suzanne takes over, and—not surprisingly—does a wonderful job.
Depardieu plays a union leader who once had a fling with Suzanne, and still has feelings for her. (Even in their 60s, they have undeniable chemistry, with her crystalline beauty and his teddy-bear charm.) Things are complicated by the presence of Suzanne’s grown children, one liberal, one conservative, and by Pujol’s current mistress/secretary. The writer/director is Francois Ozon, a playfully twisted filmmaker who previously directed Deneuve in the colorful, cheerfully dark musical 8 Women. He keeps up a sparkly mood here, using the colored umbrellas as decoration, but never lets go of his wicked sensibility.
Only his second non-Monty Python film, the visionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam had much trouble getting his masterful black comedy Brazil (1985) even released; and, of course, it was largely misunderstood and ignored in its own day, but has become recognized as a masterpiece of its time. Living in a densely detailed future of tall buildings and narrow spaces, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a clerk who pushes reams of paperwork for a corporation so big and soulless that no one even knows what’s going on. A printing error sets off a chain reaction of bizarre and incredible events, leading Sam to literally meet the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), as well as a renegade repairman (Robert De Niro) who fixes things under the radar and off the books.
Switching from fantasy and dream sequences to a dark version of reality, the movie is constantly mind-blowing; virtually no rules apply. And, of course, viewers can expect smatterings of Python-like humor here and there; Pythoner Michael Palin co-stars, as do Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, and others. Playwright Tom Stoppard co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Brazil is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details. They offer the most readily available version, the 132-minute theatrical cut.
The Big Short (Vudu)
Adam McKay, the director of five very funny and successful Will Ferrell comedies, earned Oscar nominations for writing and directing The Big Short (2015), a rare honor for someone in the humor biz. Additionally, this dense, complex, and often confusing comedy-drama actually made a tidy profit, and people seem to like it. That’s good, because it attempts to explain what caused the 2008 market crash, using celebrity cameos and diagrams to describe the shaky real estate investments that were being made to earn huge profits for bankers, which eventually reached a breaking point. And it also points out that these villains were never punished, and that the whole thing could happen again.
The movie focuses on several characters, the most prominent of whom are played by Christian Bale (Oscar-nominated), Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt. All of them, and others, discover this financial fault line about to collapse and try to make money from it, and although motivations and conclusions eventually become unclear in the sea of exposition, the movie contains an unflappable energy, a kind of restless, nervous twitching that can feel exciting as well as overwhelming. Margot Robbie and others appear in much-discussed cameos. It’s recommended that, for further research, viewers check out the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job as well as the feature dramas Margin Call and 99 Homes.