Viddy this horrorshow sinny
Some movies are cult classics, like a certain 1970s’ depiction of a violence-ridden future, or a creepy, claustrophobic 1990s’ sci-fi flick that opens in a cube. Some films are simply well-made and worth seeing over again, like a 1980s’ epic about the space program or a summer blockbuster that takes place on Air Force One.
A movie can make us laugh uproariously, whether it’s made by a bunch of loony Englishmen, or a wry, witty redhead with glasses.
Or, a movie can be a critically panned flop that, for whatever reason, actually deserves more credit than it received. In any case, all of these movies and more are available streaming this week, which is a perfect way to either re-capture memories, or discover them for the first time.
A Clockwork Orange (Netflix)
I’ve seen this movie many times and it affects me very differently each time, depending on where I am in my life. Sometimes it strikes me as a gleefully vicious comedy, and other times it seems ruthless and cruel. It has been considered a sleazy cult flick and midnight movie, and it has been considered a masterpiece of cinema. It received four Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Screenplay), but did not win any of them. Coming as it does from director Stanley Kubrick, who was among the best there ever was, it’s actually all of these things and more.
Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1971) is something of a cautionary tale. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a band of thugs (“droogs”) who like to beat up people and rape women. Betrayed by his brothers and arrested, Alex is subjected to an experimental drug that makes him abhor violence. But the treatment has unexpected side effects. Kubrick’s presentation is futuristic and bleak, yet colorful, with bizarre sets and costumes and an eerie sound design. It’s constantly mesmerizing and frightening and thought-provoking. It’s about the individual in a society governed by rules, and it’s about drastic measures taken to protect “freedom,” but it’s also about the rule of the “likable” character in Hollywood movies. It’s worth seeing many times.
The Right Stuff (Netflix)
Released in 1983, Philip Kaufman’s brilliant and exhilarating The Right Stuff (1983) is sometimes considered one of the last films of the Hollywood of the 1970s. Adapted from the nonfiction book by Tom Wolfe, on the surface, it’s a biographical history of humans conquering nature, from the first breaking of the sound barrier to visiting outer space. It can seem chest-thumpingly patriotic, but it’s also playful and subtly subversive. Unfortunately, it was released just months after Return of the Jedi, and audiences very much preferred escapist fantasy to thought-provoking realism, and The Right Stuff proved an expensive flop.
Nonetheless, Siskel & Ebert chose it as one of the best films of its decade, and it received eight Oscar nominations and won four (Best Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Score). Kaufman cleverly shot it in locations near his home in San Francisco, effectively disguising the Bay Area as other parts of the world. It runs a daunting 190 minutes, but it’s very easy to get swept away by this, one of the greatest of all American epics. Confusingly, Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn plays Alan Shepard, and Ed Harris plays John Glenn (too many similar names). Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and Barbara Hershey also star.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hulu)
In the 1980s, teens knew that the movies of John Hughes were different from the usual slop. Some critics complained that they offered up fantasy versions of how teens saw themselves, while providing slow-witted, easily ridiculed versions of grownups. But seen generations later, and as part of Hughes’ total output, it’s easier to see that he actually played on genuine teen fears and desires, more closely than anyone else ever had. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) may be his crowning achievement, starring Matthew Broderick as the teen we’d all like to have been, and Alan Ruck as the teen we probably actually were.
Ferris (Broderick) decides that life is too short and this day is too beautiful to waste on school. So he cooks up an elaborate, fake, stay-at-home sickness, rallies together his best pals Cameron (Ruck) and Sloane (Mia Sara) and spends a wonderful day, laughably jam-packed with activities that would more likely fill several days. Even though rules are broken, and there are prices to pay, it’s a day worth remembering. Jeffrey Jones is the ineffectual school principal, Jennifer Gray is Ferris’ angry sister, and Ben Stein is the droning teacher (“Bueller... Bueller... Bueller...”), while Charlie Sheen has a memorable scene as a glaring punk in a police station.
Sólo con tu pareja (Hulu)
In the past decade or so, Mexico has been the source of an incredible wellspring of cinematic talent, with Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón at the forefront. Cuarón had a Spanish-language hit in 2002 with Y Tu Mamá También, directed the best of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), then the mind-blowing futuristic sci-fi tale Children of Men (2006), and capped it all off with a Best Director Oscar for the unforgettable Gravity (2013). Now fans can go back and check out his debut feature, made in Mexico.
Sólo con tu pareja (1991)—the American title is Love in the Time of Hysteria—is a kind of boldly colorful sex farce about an ad writer, Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), whose latest job is, appropriately enough, to come up with a slogan for canned chilis. He seduces a nurse, and, on the same evening, his female boss stops by for a roll in the hay. He races back and forth between beds, but the catch is that, on the way, he falls in love with a third woman in the center apartment across the way, flight attendant Clarisa Negrete (Claudia Ramírez). Usually this kind of thing is delivered with unsubtle hammer blows, but Cuarón’s touch is already warm and sensual. He begins his career-long method of using physical space to explore sexuality, spirituality, and all the stuff it means to be human.
Air Force One (Crackle)
Wolfgang Petersen’s summertime hit Air Force One (1997) recently hit the news when a certain presidential hopeful named it as featuring his favorite onscreen president (the star of the movie, Harrison Ford, responded with his own opinion). Regardless of who likes it and why, it’s a slick, adrenaline-pumping popcorn muncher, and a very pleasant afternoon-killer. Ford plays President James Marshall, who is riding on the title presidential plane when terrorists, led by Ivan Korshunov (a great, scenery-chewing Gary Oldman), hijack it. But as with similar titles like Die Hard and Under Siege, the bad guys underestimate how resourceful and how well-trained our hero is, and he’s able to hide out and pick off the bad guys, little by little.
The movie is notable for featuring a female vice president (Glenn Close), who takes charge of the situation from the ground. William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, and Philip Baker Hall are also on board. Petersen keeps the suspense grinding effectively, even if the movie goes on a bit too long and goes a bit over the top in the final stretch. The movie received two Oscar nominations, for Best Sound and Best Editing. And it gave, and still gives, Americans a pretty decent fantasy about how potentially cool a president could be.
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Crackle)
This, the last official feature-length Monty Python movie, is fairly disjointed, taking advantage of the “meaning of life” theme to tell just about any story, and any joke, under the sun, no matter how distantly it's connected to whatever came before it. But it’s also notable for a rather astonishing sequence directed by Terry Gilliam, who was just branching out on his own as a filmmaker. Entitled The Crimson Permanent Assurance, it runs 17 minutes and depicts the story of a financial firm whose building turns into a pirate ship as they go raiding and pillaging.
Otherwise, the movie has many other hilarious, or at least memorable moments, including the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number, as well as the show-stopping “Mr. Creosote” segment. Creosote (played by director Terry Jones) is a hugely overweight restaurant patron who eats a massive amount of food. The waiter offers him a thin mint (“it’s wafer thin”). Creosote declines, but the waiter insists, and it all leads up to the greatest vomiting scene ever filmed. When I first saw it as a kid, I laughed so hard I thought I would pass out from lack of air. It goes without saying that, in addition to Jones and Gilliam, the rest of the team is here: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin. They all share writing credits.
Bananas (Hulu & Amazon Prime)
Apparently, when Woody Allen directed his first movie, Take the Money and Run (1969), he really didn’t know what he was doing. By the time he did Bananas (1971), he seemed to have learned quickly. Though it’s slapstick and not as overtly lovely as his later films, and it has a few dropped gags, it’s largely well-constructed and expertly timed. Allen plays Fielding Mellish, a regular guy who tries to impress a girl (Louise Lasser) by becoming involved with a revolution in San Marcos. After few misunderstandings, he becomes president there.
It ends with Fielding getting the girl and legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell providing commentary for their wedding night activities. Of course, its main attribute is the funny dialogue (“It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham”), as Allen’s strength was never really in physical comedy. No matter what you might think of this legendary filmmaker after his later-life troubles, this early film shows him at the very beginning, full of energy and ready to make us laugh.
Cube (Hulu & Amazon Prime)
This freaky sci-fi film will haunt your nightmares for years to come. Directed by Canadian Vincenzo Natali, it begins as a character awakens in a small room, a cube. It has doors, but they only lead to other, equal-sized cubes. The man meets other victims, and no one knows how they got there, or what’s going on. They try to make a plan, to travel in a specific direction, but it’s easy to get lost. People get thirsty, and hungry, and tempers flare. And eventually, the scope of what’s happening to them becomes a little clearer.
Cube (1997) is sometimes not easy to watch; it has an astringent quality, but this is partly due to the sickening tension that the film builds up as it goes. Critics at the time were split, with a few good reviews, and some bad ones (including mine), but fans knew what they had here and they turned it into a cult classic. Two sequels were made, and a remake is apparently in the works. Some of the actors (Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, etc.) continued in sci-fi, and Natali went on to direct the intriguing Splice (2009). Truth be told, though I only saw it once, I have never forgotten Cube and I still think about it today, nearly 20 years later.
This one is going to require a disclaimer. Twisted (2004) has one of the lowest scores in the history of Rotten Tomatoes, sporting a 1 percent, with only two positive reviews and 133 negative ones. I wrote one of the positive ones, and I still think the movie is worth defending. It helps if you consider it sort of like a late-night movie, a film noir that’s not classically brilliant, but whose mood and atmosphere can captivate you.
It’s directed by the great Bay Area filmmaker Philip Kaufman (see The Right Stuff), and, unlike so many other films shot in San Francisco, Kaufman actually knows the lay of the land. He does pay tribute to some of his favorite haunts (Tosca Cafe, Red’s Java House, etc.), but otherwise, he conjures up the perfect alleyways and other locations for his criminal tale. The other reason that the film was probably hated is that it explores the dark sexuality of its female hero (in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June, and Quills, Kaufman has never shied away from sex); Jessica Shepard (Ashley Judd) is a good cop, but in her off hours, she likes rough sex with anonymous men. After one such encounter, during which she blacked out, her lover winds up murdered. Did she do it? Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Garcia, and David Strathairn co-star.
This was the movie that Orson Welles spent years making, and spent much of his own money to complete; he would stop production for weeks or months to act in some other production and raise more cash. It was shot on different continents, and the end result definitely looks like a low-budget movie, especially because of the post-synced sound, but for all that, Othello (1952) is still a masterpiece, and it won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Welles plays the title character, the Moor who is married to Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), but begins to doubt her fidelity (the “green-eyed monster”) when the villain Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) suggests that she’s having an affair with Cassio (Michael Laurence)—all leading up to a tragic murder. (“He loved not wisely but too well.”) Welles’ turns in one of the screen’s all-time great Shakespeare adaptations with his uncanny use of space and angles, making visuals as much as performance to help suggest the themes of betrayal and jealousy. When costumes for one scene failed to arrive, Welles simply changed the setting to a bathhouse, with the actors wearing towels; it worked beautifully. Welles’s subsequent Shakespeare movie, Chimes at Midnight, is currently touring the country in a new restoration.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Hoopla)
This Turkish drama by acclaimed director Nuri Bilge Ceylan runs nearly three hours, but is instantly absorbing and not easy to let go of. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) takes place over the course of one long night. A group of police and detectives, other professionals, and two murder suspects drive around the hills outside of town, searching for a buried corpse. The suspects claim that they can’t remember the exact location of the body, and they keep trying new places with landmarks that look the same.
All the while, the men begin to discuss little things, the small details of life, and the conversation grows more and more toward the bigger picture, about existence itself, and even death. Eventually the men stop for food, the body is found, and, as dawn breaks, it is prepared for an autopsy. Ceylan’s sustained use of light and sound, of active dialogue and passive visuals, makes for a riveting experience: a murder story in which the murder is the least important element. The film is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015) was one of the most highly praised movies of the year and earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and yet it’s still one of the year’s most under-appreciated movies. To be honest, I wasn’t too excited to see it, thinking that it was going to be a goopy period romance with all the usual creaky cliches. But instead, it turns out to be a remarkably restrained, subtle movie that tunes in to feeling and character rather than hysterical plot turns.
It’s a truly beautiful movie, telling the story of an Irish woman, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who is given the opportunity to live and work in New York in the 1950s. She goes through periods of uncertainty and homesickness, until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian baseball fan who is totally smitten and sweeps her off her feet. She faces a challenge when a tragedy brings her home to Ireland and a local boy (Domhnall Gleeson) is also smitten with her. But the movie handles all these things gorgeously, with wisdom, rather than melodrama. Ronan earned a Best Actress nomination, as did the terrific screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby, but certainly the score by Michael Brook, and the supporting performance by Julie Walters, at least, deserve notice as well.