Swashbucklers and sex dolls, streaming this week

This week brings masterpieces, movie stars, romance, drugs, pirates, and zombies—all the major pillars of entertainment.

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It's showtime!

Streaming movies this week range from great masterpieces and legendary stars to grungy, bottom-rung flicks full of drugs, zombies, and cool music.

Speaking of zombies, we have an original streaming zombie movie as well as a surprisingly different take on the genre that fell through the cracks. We have a music-filled crime classic from Jamaica, and a documentary about one of Jamaica's most popular exports.

Classics from Kubrick and Bertolucci are here, and legendary swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks is represented in two movies: one of his own classics, and as a supporting character in Chaplin, where he's played by Kevin Kline.

Finally, for the romantic in all of us, we have a story about a bridesmaid in love with the groom, and a story about a man in love with a sex doll; neither of them turn out quite the way you'd expect, demonstrating the power of storytelling.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (Netflix)


If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, you should make it a top priority. Don’t consider it homework, or a duty to art and culture; do it because the movie is amazing. Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story, it has several chapters. In the opening sequence, primitive, unevolved apes discover weapons, and find a huge, rectangular, black “monolith.” Then, in the future, we meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), and we learn about a second monolith on the moon. Months later, a mission has been launched, headed by astronauts Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). Their onboard computer, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) goes haywire, Bowman travels through a bizarre wormhole of light, and then we get a truly mysterious, wondrous ending.

The movie is filled with deep thoughts and puzzles to be solved, as well as groundbreaking, Oscar-winning visuals that have gone largely unmatched in the years since (there’s a reason Gravity was compared to this movie). Director Stanley Kubrick keeps the tone feeling strange and distant; even the humans in the movie seem slightly less than human (perhaps they’re missing something?). As with most of Kubrick’s movies, critics panned it upon its original release, and only time has turned it into a classic. Some may argue that it’s meant to be a big screen experience, and while that’s true, it also plays beautifully on a decent TV screen. Either way, it’s now considered one of the 10 best films of all time.

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Chaplin (Netflix)


Directed by Richard Attenborough, who won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982), Chaplin (1992) is, truthfully, a fairly typical biopic, full of highlights, and a little too many details. But the centerpiece performance by Robert Downey Jr. is so soulful and so brilliant, his generosity onscreen reflecting on all the cast members, that it’s very much worth seeing. It’s especially significant given that Charles Chaplin is unequivocally one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and that his work isn’t quite as well known as it should be. Downey received an Oscar nomination (losing to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman) for his performance as the great comedian. 

After surviving a childhood spent in vaudeville, as well as a mother who struggled with sanity, Chaplin rose through the movie industry, becoming the biggest and most highly-paid star of his day. He made a string of masterworks that still dazzle, but also struggled with love and acceptance in his private life. The great cast includes Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett, Marisa Tomei as Mabel Normand, Geraldine Chaplin as Charlie’s mom (her own grandmother), Paul Rhys as Charlie’s half-brother Sydney, Moira Kelly as Charlie’s last wife Oona, Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard, Anthony Hopkins as a fictional book editor, plus Nancy Travis, Penelope Ann Miller, Milla Jovovich, James Woods, etc. John Barry’s score received an Oscar nomination, as did the art direction/set decoration. William Goldman contributed to the screenplay.

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Lars and the Real Girl (Hulu)


The setup for Lars and the Real Girl (2007) sounds dubious: a socially awkward man falls in love with a sex doll. But the actual movie, directed by Craig Gillespie, is really a touching comedy-drama, careful not to ridicule its emotionally searching, yearning characters. Ryan Gosling stars—fresh from his first Oscar nomination in Half Nelson—as Lars, a withdrawn young man whose mother died in childbirth, and who avoids intimacy. He lives in a converted garage near his brother (Paul Schneider) and his brother’s pregnant wife (Emily Mortimer). They are forever inviting him to dinner, but the emotional contact is too much for him.

When he shows up with “Bianca,” the doll—whom Lars treats as a real person—his family is unsure of what to do. A clever doctor (Patricia Clarkson) pretends to see Bianca but really takes the opportunity to talk to Lars; she convinces everyone to treat Bianca as real. And the situation grows more and more complex. Gillespie creates a winner by focusing on small moments and gestures, rather than any kind of grand slapstick plot or comic payoffs. It also avoids any kind of embarrassed or lowbrow humor surrounding the sex doll. It simply holds its course and remains genuine and heartfelt. Nancy Oliver’s original screenplay received an Oscar nomination, but lost to Diablo Cody’s Juno.

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My Best Friend's Wedding (Hulu)


This may look like a typical Julia Roberts romantic comedy, but My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) is a little extra; the great film critic Andrew Sarris even named it one of the three best films of the year. Its setup involves four people. Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts) is a New York food critic whose best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) informs her that he is getting married. She’s instantly jealous, and decides that she wants Michael for herself. It gets worse when she meets the fiancee, Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), and she simply couldn’t be lovelier or more charming.

At one point Julianne tries to win Michael back with some typical duplicitous behavior, including the invention of a fictitious fiance of her own, her gay editor George (Rupert Everett), who agrees to the ruse, hoping for some fun. But even this “lie” plot doesn’t derail the film; there’s no ridiculous stand-off, nothing is forced, and even the ending feels natural and joyous. Australian P. J. Hogan directs, bringing actress Rachel Griffiths with him from their previous film, Muriel’s Wedding. The always memorable M. Emmet Walsh co-stars as Michael’s father. Oscar-winner Ron Bass (Rain Man) wrote the screenplay. It was one of Roberts’ all-time biggest hits, which is saying something.

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Dead Rising: Watchtower (Crackle)


Crackle recently announced a sequel to this 2015 zombie movie, so I thought I’d check out the original for you. If you’re a zombie fan and have seen more than a few walking dead movies, there’s nothing particularly new here, and, at 118 minutes, Dead Rising: Watchtower (2015) does run a little too long. (It’s also based on a video game, which always raises red flags.) However, it has an unquenchably chipper “B” movie spirit, and—unlike many of the lazier zombie efforts out there—this one pays solid tribute to the master, George A. Romero.

Like Romero, it has a little something to say about the goings-on of the world, specifically the way a government is capable of using fear as an excuse for exerting control. In this zombie world, those bitten can stave off zombiedom by taking a drug called Zombrex. Jesse Metcalfe stars as Chase, a reporter, who, along with his photographer (Keegan Connor Tracy) stumble upon the story: The latest batch of Zombrex isn’t working. They are separated as the city is quarantined and the military, led by General Lyons (Dennis Haysbert), swoops in to bomb. To survive, Chase teams up with grieving mother Maggie (Virginia Madsen) and sexy, badass Crystal (Meghan Ory), who holds the key to the whole conspiracy. A gang of bikers causes more problems, and zombie survivor/bestselling author Frank West (Rob Riggle) provides a cynical commentary on TV.

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Maggie (Hulu & Amazon Prime)


This zombie film was one of the most unexpected items to come along in the horror genre in quite some time. It alienated many hardcore zombie/gore fans, but its tender, heartfelt approach was quite surprising and refreshing, and it featured one of the finest performances Arnold Schwarzenegger ever gave. As Maggie (2015) begins, Wade (Schwarzenegger) dutifully searches a gray, post-apocalyptic landscape for his missing daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin). He finds her, bitten by a zombie. He’s supposed to take her to the mysterious, dreadful government quarantine center, but chooses to take her home instead.

There, Maggie simply spends time with her friends, her mother (Joely Richardson), and her father, slowly saying goodbye, as the zombie symptoms eventually manifest themselves. For his part, Wade knows he has a terrible duty: Once she turns, it’s his job to send her to a better place. The Terminator and Little Miss Sunshine have some wonderful scenes together, as when Wade shows her his flower garden, the little colored blossoms attempting to burst out from the gray. This is a zombie movie in which life and death actually mean something. First-time director Henry Hobson had been a title designer for movies, video games, and the Oscar telecast.

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Last Tango in Paris (TubiTV)


When this movie originally screened at the New York Film Festival, the legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote one of the most breathless reviews of all time, proclaiming its premiere as a date that “should become a landmark in movie history” and that “the movie breakthrough has finally come.” Whether she was right is still up for debate, but Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) is most certainly an exceptional movie, bold and powerful. While Marlon Brando was already considered one of the greatest screen actors ever (if not the greatest), he gave arguably his finest, most emotionally raw performance in this (and that’s including The Godfather, made the same year).

He plays Paul, a burnt-out, middle-aged American in Paris mourning the loss of his wife (who committed suicide). While wandering the streets, he meets 20 year-old Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who is looking for a flat to rent. They begin an anonymous, frank sexual relationship (everyone remembers the “butter” scene), which begins to clash with Jeanne’s “real” life; she is acting in a kind of “cinema-verite” (i.e. realistic) movie, directed by another lover, Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Bertolucci plays with themes of reality and fantasy, knowledge and mystery, and brilliantly lands somewhere in-between. Both Bertolucci and Brando received Oscar nominations.

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The Invitation (Vudu)


Director Karyn Kusama returns to the power of her debut film Girlfight with The Invitation (2016), a brand-new thriller with horror overtones that is currently playing in theaters as well as VOD. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) drives silently with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) through the Hollywood hills, bound for some mysterious gathering. A sense of foreboding rises when they accidentally hit a coyote along the way. The dinner party consists mainly of old friends, plus the crazy-looking Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and the tough-looking Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch).

After some time, we intuit through naturalistic conversations that the hostess, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) was once married to Will, and that they once had a child. Eden has been gone, disappeared, and this party is the first time she and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) have seen these friends in two years. Eden and David describe some time spent in Mexico, and Will begins to suspect that something rather odd, and potentially sinister, is afoot. But he can’t quite prove his hunch. Kusama uses the physical space of the house, as well as the evening lighting, to brilliantly spooky effect, while concentrating on excellent, low-key performances.

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Senna (Hoopla)


Director Asif Kapadia recently won an Oscar for his documentary Amy (2015)—about the life and career of the late pop star Amy Winehouse—and now fans can go back and see his previous film, the equally good Senna (2010). Ayrton Senna (1960-1994) was a Brazilian, a three-time Formula One champ, and widely regarded as one of the greatest racecar drivers of all time (the greatest, according to the movie). He was fiercely devoted to his homeland, where he was a huge star to the working class, and he had a fascinating friendship/rivalry with another driver, Frenchman Alain Prost.

What makes Senna unusual is that Kapadia doesn’t use modern-day, talking-head interviews. Someone as famous as Senna was on camera quite frequently, and Kapadia constructs his movie entirely out of archival footage. He lets Senna do his own talking, and his own driving. The movie is actually rather exciting and has the potential to create new racing fans; it goes a little into the details of the sport of racing, explaining the complex situation involving the layout of a track that led to Senna’s suspension in 1989. All in all, Senna is an unforgettable, charismatic figure that easily carries his own movie. The film is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.

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The Harder They Come (Fandor)


Perhaps better known for its soundtrack album than for the actual film itself, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1973) is a classic cult film in its own right, and still arguably the most famous movie ever exported from Jamaica. Reggae star Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivanhoe Martin, a naïve young man from the country who heads to the city with aspirations of becoming a recording star. He is immediately robbed, and subsequently goes to work for a local preacher. He falls in love with the preacher’s daughter, and makes his first record (singing, “Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky...”). Unfortunately, he’s paid only a pittance for it, and he turns to a life of crime.

Though Henzell gives his story a classic arc, he presents the movie in vivid, ragged realism, with energetic, nimble camerawork and cutting, sticking to the hardcore streets and never betraying his roots. While the movie is terrific fun (and was a midnight cult classic in the 1970s), the real draw is the amazing music; the soundtrack album was most Americans’ first introduction to reggae. Cliff sings the title track, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” and the moving “Many Rivers to Cross.” Henzell only directed one other film, the little-seen No Place Like Home (2006), and died shortly thereafter. Fandor presents a high-def transfer of the film, with English subtitles to help with the thick Jamaican accents.

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The Black Pirate (Fandor)


Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were huge stars in the 1920s, but just as huge was Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks, a dazzlingly athletic swashbuckler who performed his own stunts on film. But more than that, he always looked like he was having an amazing time; the pure, unbridled joy he seemingly took in his movie roles remains (sadly) unequalled today. He was also a clever businessman, producing and sometimes writing (without credit) his movie spectaculars. After playing Zorro, Robin Hood, the Thief of Bagdad, and one of the Three Musketeers, he made The Black Pirate (1926), a two-strip Technicolor extravaganza that, at the time, was probably unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Don’t let the age of this movie fool you; it’s still loads of fun. Fairbanks plays a man whose ship is attacked and sunk by pirates. Vowing revenge, he disguises himself as the fearsome black pirate of the title and infiltrates their number, impressing them with his fighting and looting skills. Eventually he falls for a captive woman (Billie Dove), which proves to be his undoing. Unfortunately, Fairbanks never quite topped this one, the very fine The Iron Mask (1929) notwithstanding, and the sound era proved his undoing (he was one of those actors who just couldn’t quite adjust to talking on film). He retired in 1934 and died five years later.

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Grass (iTunes)


Within a certain subculture, Ron Mann’s documentary Grass (1999) has a devoted cult following equal to the notorious Reefer Madness (1936), the difference being that, rather than spreading hysteria, Mann has tried to tell something closer to the truth. Of course, Mann’s documentary is now 17 years old, and not exactly up-to-date, but many of its themes—such as the futility of the ongoing “war against drugs”—are still relevant. Mann uses plenty of archival footage to trace the history of marijuana, first brought to the United States in the early part of the 20th century by Mexican laborers, who enjoyed smoking in their leisure time. Fearing the influence of these foreigners, racist laws were drawn up to try to control the substance—laws that still persist.

Happily, Mann—whose other documentaries cover topics like comic books and “The Twist”—isn’t angry or preachy here. He adopts a lightweight, playful, humorous tone, earning laughs with wonderfully naïve old clips, in addition to cooler, hipper footage of Robert Mitchum and Cheech and Chong, and juicing up the proceedings with some great music (including, yes, some reggae classics like Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It”). Woody Harrelson—a longtime advocate for the legalization of pot—provides some sobering narration. Grass is currently available as a special 99-cent rental on iTunes, along with several other docs.

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