Baseball season is here, and for a warmup, we have a terrific streaming baseball documentary (one of my new favorites). Speaking of documentaries, we also have streaming films about kestrels and the star of an old Winnebago industrial film.
Then we have a fake documentary—or mockumentary—about a dog show, as well as a straight-ahead, silly comedy to get us in the mood for hot weather. We also have some action and horror films to get the blood pumping, including a grisly Western, an Oscar-winning war film, and a biopic about an international terrorist.
If you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned cry or cheer (or both), we have a cult classic that has now become a classic classic. Included in the mix are two Stephen King movies, two Kurt Russell movies, and two from French director Olivier Assayas, one of which can’t really be categorized, except by saying: You just have to see it.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Netflix)
To celebrate the opening of a new baseball season, here’s a Netflix Original documentary that tells a strange and wonderful story about a game that has generated its share of strange and wonderful stories. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014) tells the story of how character actor and baseball fan Bing Russell, after spent 13 seasons playing Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza (as well as other film and TV work), found his true calling: When Portland’s lackluster ballteam leaves town in the early 1970s, Russell moves there and forms his own club, totally independent of the majors (and the only independent team at the time).
The Mavericks consisted of guys who loved to play ball but for some reason couldn’t make—or were evicted from—the majors. (Former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton was one of the team's biggest names.) Their love of the game and their general freedom and fun-loving attitude made them a nearly unstoppable force, and a huge financial draw for their town. But of course, it was not to last. Amazingly, Bing (who died in 2003, but is shown here in plenty of archival footage) was the father of actor Kurt Russell, who played briefly for the Mavs and is interviewed here at length. Oscar-nominated writer/director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) is also here; he was their batboy. And, to add another strange twist, one of the players went on to invent “Big League Chew” bubble gum. If you’re a baseball fan, you shouldn’t miss this, and if you’re not, it may make you one.
Wet Hot American Summer (Netflix/Crackle)
Recently, Richard Linklater’s excellent new Everybody Wants Some!!—which is set in the last days of the summer of 1980—opened in theaters, and many people compared it to Wet Hot American Summer (2001), which takes place on the last day of summer camp, 1981. Linklater’s movie is far better, but this one is just silly enough to have become a cult classic on its own. Not to mention that virtually everyone in it has gone on to stardom. Wet Hot is set up as a kind of spoof of summer camp movies like Meatballs, wherein counselors try to sleep with one another, and sometimes help out the more socially awkward kids, all in the name of a feel-good ending.
Paul Rudd is the cocky jerk Andy, who gets all the ladies he wants, but doesn’t wish to be suffocated (his love affairs generally last an afternoon). Ken Marino pretends he’s a stud, but he’s really a virgin; Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper are in charge of theater; Molly Shannon moans about her divorce to some kids; and head counselor Janeane Garofalo nurses a crush on scientist David Hyde Pierce. Michael Showalter has two roles, as a sci-fi nerd and (in age makeup) as terrible comedian Alan Shemper. Weirdly, Netflix rolled the dice on a 2015 TV series, a prequel set on the first day of camp in the same year, casting the same actors, who were now 15 years older. The show slyly acknowledged the 40-somethings playing decades-younger characters and joked about it. But the film remains the favorite.
The Shawshank Redemption (Netflix)
In 1994, Tim Robbins appeared in four movies, all of which sported awkward titles: I.Q., Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear), The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Shawshank Redemption. None of them did particularly well—presumably, because average moviegoers had no idea what any of those movies might be about. (Sadly, this includes I.Q.) But by the end of the year, The Shawshank Redemption had picked up enough traction to be nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. It lost all of them (while Forrest Gump won six awards). Later, after the invention of the Internet Movie Database, and its user-generated Top 250 Films list, The Shawshank Redemption started showing up at the top of the list, suggesting that viewers had finally caught up with it. It’s now a bona-fide cult classic, as well as a classic-classic.
Based on a Stephen King novella, it’s a long movie (142 minutes), and an inspiring tale, warm and beautiful and heartfelt, if also a little heavy. Robbins plays banker Andy Dufresne, convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He befriends “Red” (Morgan Freeman, the real star of the movie, who received an Oscar nomination), and learns to use his financial skills to navigate prison life. He also cooks up an escape plan, with the aid of a Rita Hayworth poster, somehow keeping his dignity intact for his entire stay. Writer/director Frank Darabont had written screenplays for horror sequels and remakes (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Blob, and The Fly II), and this elevated him to the “A” list. He’s now known as the developer of The Walking Dead for TV.
Best in Show (Netflix)
After turning in a work of genius with This Is Spinal Tap (1984), writer and actor Christopher Guest decided to continue in the “fake documentary” format, making the small-time theater-troupe movie Waiting for Guffman (1996), the folk music send-up A Mighty Wind (2003), and this, for my money, the best of the three. Best in Show (2000) charts the progress of a batch of kooky dog owners as they prepare for the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia. They are: Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara (and their Norwich Terrier), Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock (and their Weimaraner), Jennifer Coolidge (and her Standard Poodle), John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean (and their Shih Tzu), and Guest with his bloodhound.
Usually Guest’s movies can run out of steam by the time they hit their third act, but Best in Show has a secret weapon at its disposal: Fred Willard. Willard plays halfwit commentator Buck Laughlin at the show itself, alongside his English straight man Jim Piddock. Buck’s line readings are so in-the-moment and so cheerfully clueless (“To think that in some countries these dogs are eaten!”), that they supercharge the final half-hour of the movie, inspiring much rolling in the aisles. Some pundits even tried to lobby for him for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, which, of course, did not happen.
If you’re feeling bold, and if the 5 1/2-hour story of an international terrorist sounds up your alley, look no further than Olivier Assayas’s Carlos (2010). Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez—who has gone on to appear in many Hollywood movies as of late—stars as the title character, otherwise known as “The Jackal.” Over the course of 20 years, he tries to fight capitalism with his terrorist acts, beginning with an assassination attempt in London in 1974 and ending with his 1994 arrest. His most infamous act was a 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna, in which several people were killed. French director Assayas uses the massive running time to pack in details, with dozens of screen titles telling who people are, what year it is, and where things are. Some of these details flit by and others become important later on, so viewers feel the need to take notes. The medium-speed pace is also a little troubling, as the movie is too slow to get the adrenaline going, but too fast to really dig deep into the character. However, at the center of it all, Ramirez gives an incredible performance, aging over 20 years, and Assayas’ film is ambitious in a way that few other films ever are.
The Dead Zone (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
Like Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, John Carpenter, and Stanley Kubrick, the great director David Cronenberg took a crack at filming a Stephen King novel (see also The Shawshank Redemption). His The Dead Zone (1983) stars Christopher Walken in one of the actor’s best leading performances. He plays schoolteacher Johnny Smith, who is happily in love with Sarah (Brooke Adams). After a nasty car crash, Johnny falls into a coma and wakes up five years later. Not only is Sarah married to another man, but Johnny finds he has a new kind of psychic ability; he can see the future of anyone he touches.
He tries to retreat into a life of quiet, but terrifying visions of an up-and-coming politician (Martin Sheen) begin to haunt him, and he decides to take action. This is a solid piece of genre work, entertaining and highly effective. Though Cronenberg has mostly played by his own rules throughout his career, it was one of his few “jobs-for-hire” in Hollywood. Oddly, it was also his most acclaimed movie at the time, the one most embraced by the mainstream. His more personal “body horror” films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, etc.) were probably too dark and gory for most, although they are now viewed as masterpieces of their genre.
Carlito's Way (Crackle)
Ten years after Scarface (1983), director Brian De Palma made another epic, two-hour-plus crime drama with a scenery-chewing Al Pacino in the lead role. The reactions to it fell into two camps: 1) it was too much like Scarface, or 2) it was not enough like Scarface. Either way, nobody seemed to like it much. But in hindsight, Carlito’s Way (1993) has emerged as one of De Palma’s more classically expert films, and a gripping character study.
Pacino plays the title character, who is paroled after serving five years of a 30-year sentence. With his girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), he simply wants to get out of the life of crime and move to the Bahamas. But he owes his freedom, and feels loyal, to his slick, shyster lawyer Kleinfeld (an incredible Sean Penn), whose descent into cocaine threatens to drag Carlito down. De Palma uses his usual paranoid, voyeuristic filmmaking methods here, but subtler than usual—except for a spectacular cat-and-mouse showdown in the final stretch. The prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema chose it as one of the three best films of the 1990s. David Koepp wrote the screenplay, adapting two novels by New York City judge Edwin Torres.
The Hurt Locker (TubiTV)
It won six Oscars (and received nine nominations in all), but The Hurt Locker (2009) is still an under-appreciated and misunderstood masterpiece. First off, it’s arguably the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time. Second, veterans of the Iraq war chimed in about the movie’s supposed factual flaws—note that, aside from the fact that screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded in Iraq, the movie never claims to be a factual representation of anything. The greatness of Kathryn Bigelow’s film is that, of the innumerable films that have been made about Iraq, it’s the only one that doesn’t have a hand-wringing message about how terrible war is.
Rather, it bravely and astoundingly acknowledges that war is simultaneously repellent and alluring. (If it wasn’t, no one would ever go to war.) Jeremy Renner gives a great performance as Sergeant First Class William James, whose job it is to dispose of explosives. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty co-star, with appearances by Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, and Evangeline Lilly. Bigelow’s brilliant, meticulous direction captures both the thrill and the exhaustion (especially the heat) of this job through several great, memorable set-pieces. Previously known for making muscular, action-oriented genre flicks (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, etc.), Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, and deservedly so.
Kestrel's Eye (Fandor)
A few years after this film's release, a documentary called Winged Migration earned lots of attention (and an Oscar nomination), but I found it manipulative and hokey; I far preferred the earlier, Swedish documentary Kestrel’s Eye (1998). Directed by Mikael Kristersson, this movie uses hidden cameras to observe the kestrels (which are like small falcons) making their home on the roof of a church—as opposed to the staged scenes of Winged Migration. Over the course of Kestrel’s Eye, we are simply treated to an entire mating cycle. The movie does not have any narration or titles. There’s no plot or message.
Everything that can be learned from it must be observed. Microphones record the birds’ sounds, but their exact meaning is up for interpretation. There are moments of great drama as the birds hunt for food and protect their eggs. But more remarkably, Kristersson’s roof-mounted cameras capture the random activities of the people below as well. The birds and the camera seem momentarily amused by the ground-level activities, and the humans never look up. Everyone just goes about doing whatever they do. It’s a beautiful, meditative movie, for bird lovers, or for anyone who occasionally thinks about flying.
Irma Vep (Fandor)
Like many other French filmmakers before him, Olivier Assayas (see also Carlos) began as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema magazine, absorbing everything he could by watching films before becoming a director. Irma Vep (1996) may be his best movie, and the one that has the most profound things to say about cinema. Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung, best known at the time for co-starring in Jackie Chan action films, plays herself. She takes the role of thief “Irma Vep” in a remake of the classic silent-era adventure serial Les Vampires. (Maggie in her leather body suit alone makes this worth seeing.)
René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud, the star of many of Francois Truffaut’s films, and a lynchpin of French film history) plays the director, who casts Maggie. There’s a huge language barrier, and Maggie frequently doesn’t know what’s going on. All around her are crushes, flirtations, intrigue, bickering, and ego clashes. Clueless journalists visit the set for aggravating interviews. Eventually film and reality starts to intermingle, and the entire thing begins to dissolve from a straight-ahead narrative into something more boldly experimental.
The Hateful Eight (Vudu)
At the end of 2015, two epic Westerns opened in theaters. One of them was ponderous and bloated and went on to win a handful of Oscars. The other one—Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015)—was, simply, a great deal more fun. In retrospect, it’s a much better movie, too, and one that will be worth viewing again. During a snowstorm, eight souls wind up taking shelter in Minnie’s Haberdashery. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, see also The Battered Bastards of Baseball) has captured Daisy Domergue (Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh) and intends to collect the bounty on her, but worries that some of the other characters in the room will get the jump on him.
There is something afoot, and eventually Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) becomes the unexpected man in charge. Tarantino drives his narrative largely with his playful, musical dialogue, while the howling of the snowstorm and Ennio Morricone’s glorious, king-sized musical score (which finally won an Oscar for the 87-year-old legend) provide backdrops. But Tarantino also knows how to use silences, rhythm, timing, and ingenious staging in his storytelling. It may take several viewings to fully appreciate this simple story in its epic length, but it will be fun trying. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, and Demián Bichir also star. Vudu offers the 168-minute version of the film, minus the overture and intermission that played in theaters.
Winnebago Man (iTunes)
The funny and bizarre documentary Winnebago Man (2010) is currently available as a special 99 cent rental on iTunes, along with several other docs. In the 1980s, a man named Jack Rebney made an industrial film for the Winnebago company. A tape of outtakes, featuring amazing, amusing, profanity-filled tirades, was assembled and began to circulate. Years later, it continued to be a viral phenomenon on YouTube. (You can see it here.)
In his documentary, filmmaker Ben Steinbauer analyzes Rebney’s peculiar fame (or infamy) and then decides to go looking for him. The task is more difficult than expected, given that Rebney has disappeared into a cabin in the woods of Northern California. What he discovers when he finally meets Rebney is totally unexpected. At first, Rebney tries to play it cool for the cameras, but eventually he warms to Steinbauer. As with the best documentarians, Steinbauer avoids making fun of this man, and instead tries to find what makes him tick. The documentary’s showbiz-related finale, shot at the (sadly) now-defunct Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco, is weirdly touching.
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