Ready for their close-ups
This week, we get streaming movies that explore actors’ faces, whether it’s that of a deaf woman assaulted by a killer, a brave warrior tried for her beliefs, or a young filmmaker making a video diary while trapped in the woods (and resulting in one of the most famous close-ups of the 1990s).
Legendary actors are showcased in roles that give them plenty of time and space to emote, from Al Pacino performing Shakespeare, to Marilyn Monroe playing a demented babysitter and Michael Caine as a reclusive composer.
Indeed, this week's movies make it clear that an expression conveys as much or more than the spoken word.
Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2016) premiered at South by Southwest in March, Netflix purchased the distribution rights, and now, less than a month later, it's been released as a streaming movie. Salem-born Flanagan previously directed the excellent Oculus, which is, for my money, one of the best horror films of the past decade, and he has two others scheduled for release this year. Hush is of the familiar, self-explanatory “home invasion” subgenre, but with a few twists. One is that the lead character is deaf (almost unique, except that Michael Apted made a 1994 “home invasion” movie with a blind woman, called Blink). The other is that the masked invader eventually removes his mask, and the effect is unexpectedly chilling.
Kate Siegel co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Maddie, a successful author, who has chosen to live in a remote house, adorned with lots of windows and surrounded by woods, to work on her new book. She tries (and fails) to cook dinner, chats with a neighbor (who is trying to learn sign language, although Maddie reads lips), and then holes up for the night. In a shocking scene, the intruder commits a murder right up next to a window without Maddie noticing, and then stalks Maddie, seemingly just for the fun of it. Admittedly, Flanagan occasionally relies on genre staples, but for the most part he creates a tense and effectively gripping tale. Most surprising is John Gallagher Jr.—mainly known for portraying lovably bearded, soft-bellied dorks in The Newsroom, Short Term 12, and 10 Cloverfield Lane—as the terrifyingly lean, cool killer.
Looking for Richard (Netflix)
For viewers who find Shakespeare too intimidating, Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard (1995) is a perfect place to start. In preparing for a performance of Richard III, Pacino decides to look into the play’s history, trying to find out what it all means, and how Shakespeare shaped the story. Adopting the point of view of a total amateur, starting from scratch, he interviews several Shakespearian actors (Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones, and Kevin Kline) and scholars, as well as “ordinary” people on the street.
Then, overlapped with these documentary sections, we get Pacino’s filmed production, with himself as a twisted, growling Richard, and also featuring Kevin Spacey as Buckingham, Winona Ryder as Lady Anne, and Alec Baldwin as Clarence. Obviously, it’s not the complete text (there’s not enough time), but the collection of “greatest hits” is enough to inspire a happy appreciation of the play; Pacino is a terrific teacher. Less than a year earlier, Ian McKellen’s filmed version of Richard III hit theaters, giving viewers a fascinating comparison between two different interpretations. For the record, Laurence Olivier also directed and starred in a good version in 1955.
Don't Bother to Knock (Netflix)
Marilyn Monroe is as famous as they come, but I don’t think very many people considered her a great actress, let alone one of the greatest screen actresses of her era. Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) was her first leading role after a series of potent performances in smaller roles (she was a natural scene-stealer). She wanted something to sink her teeth into, so she chose the role of unhinged babysitter Nell Forbes. It didn’t exactly earn her an Oscar nomination, but after appearing in this and four other movies in 1952 (including Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night), she was a leading lady from then on.
Recommended by her uncle (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a hotel elevator operator, Nell lands the job of watching after a young girl in one of the rooms. After the girl goes to sleep, she invites the handsome Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) over, but her increasingly weird behavior begins to sound alarm bells. Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle co-star as the girl’s parents, and Anne Bancroft makes her film-acting debut as a singer who also has eyes for Jed. It was directed by Roy Ward Baker, an unexceptional but reliable maker of genre films, and he gives it a terse, B-movie spirit, shot in tight black-and-white and edited down to a pulse-quickening 76 minutes.
The Blair Witch Project (Hulu)
In its day, this movie was a huge, much written-about hit, and it has inspired a legion of hand-held, “found-footage” horror films that persist to this day. But Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) is still a scary and inventive story about spooky stuff lurking in the dark. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams play “themselves,” a trio of filmmakers heading out to the backwoods of Maryland to make a documentary about the infamous “Blair Witch.” They are armed with some reels of black-and-white film, with which they hope to film the actual documentary, as well as some cheaper video, with which to chronicle their journey and their discoveries.
Unfortunately they get lost in the woods and can’t seem to find any landmarks. Sticks are mysteriously moved around, and other sinister signs of a malevolent presence turn up. Part of the movie’s legend is that many people believed that what they were watching was real, though it’s certainly not. Truthfully, the movie is made more in the tradition of Val Lewton’s 1940s B-movie classics, wherein the horror is more suggested than actually seen, and our imaginations provide chills far more powerful than any camera lens could. A universally loathed sequel was made and forgotten, while this original is still spoken of in whispers.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Hulu)
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one of the supreme achievements in all of cinema, one of the few truly transcendent experiences a person can have in front of a movie screen. Apparently based on the transcripts of Jeanne d’Arc’s actual trial, the movie was filmed on a massive, expensive set, and yet takes place almost exclusively in close-ups. It ignores all the usual rules of filmmaking: Very few of the shots match, and actors were not given makeup (moles, warts, and pores are all visible). Yet, perhaps thanks to the astonishing lead performance by Maria Falconetti, or the ethereal cinematography by Rudolph Maté, the experience is truly transporting. We feel the oppression surrounding Jean, and we feel her spiritual foundation as she beautifully answers each and every small-minded question and accusation hurled her way.
Film critic Pauline Kael stated that Falconetti’s performance was perhaps the finest in the history of cinema. The legendary actor and theater director Antonin Artaud as well as up-and-coming French movie star Michel Simon can be glimpsed in small roles. The movie was thought lost—destroyed in a fire—until (incredibly) an intact copy was discovered in 1981 in the closet of an asylum in Oslo, Norway. Sadly, though many music scores have been used to accompany the film, notably the beautiful “Voices of Light” score on the Criterion DVD release, Hulu has failed to provide any music at all for their streaming presentation. Perhaps clever viewers can think of their own music to play along (Bach? The Beach Boys? Black Sabbath?).
Crystal Fairy (Hulu)
This is a truly odd movie that just kind of happened out of nowhere, and I have hope that someday it will become a cult classic of some kind. Chilean director Sebastián Silva had an arthouse hit with his movie The Maid back in 2009, and the American actor Michael Cera saw it and enjoyed it. Silva and Cera got together in Chile to make a thriller called Magic, Magic but funding fell through. So, while waiting, Silva quickly thought back to another story he had in the back of his head, and he and Cera put together Crystal Fairy (sometimes known by its full name: Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus) and shot it in 13 days.
Cera plays Jamie, an annoying American tourist traveling through South America with three local brothers (played by Silvas brothers). Their goal is to find a special cactus, which, when cooked, provides a specific kind of special drug trip. Jamie is anxious and impatient to take the drug, while his companions don't mind enjoying the moment. Into this mix comes the weird, sexy Crystal Fairy (child actress Gaby Hoffmann), with her long hair and unshaven armpits. Both Jamie and Crystal can come across as annoying at first, but with its laid-back, road-trip attitude and sunny, open-air atmosphere, the movie challenges us to find the good in everyone. (Oh, and Magic, Magic was eventually made, too.)
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Crackle)
Of all the movies inspired by (i.e. ripped off from) Quentin Tarantino in the 1990s—and there were a lot—Guy Ritchie’s debut feature is one of the most lively and enjoyable. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) features a playfully clever, twisty plot, following four Londoners (Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, and Jason Statham) who enter a high-stakes poker game, lose, and find themselves in debt to vicious gangsters. Overhearing their neighbors, they decide to steal a cache of drugs to help solve the problem. Of course, everything goes south, and only dumb luck can save the day.
Ritchie jumps with glee into the pulp fiction world of crime and drugs, gambling, sex, and hired thugs. The film’s camerawork and editing is, even on a low budget, amazingly smooth, fluid, and kinetic, matching its snappy, slang-filled dialogue. It also showcased Ritchie as a director who loves colorful performers; it was the first film for Vinnie Jones, who went on to become a dependable character actor, as well as for Jason Statham, who went on to growling, muscular stardom. Producer Matthew Vaughn likewise went on to bigger things, directing his own action and superhero blockbusters.
The Arrival (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
These days, reliable makers of consistently good “B” movies are few and far between, but one name keeps coming up: director David Twohy. Though he’s best known for his “Riddick” movies with Vin Diesel, this early effort is—despite a generic title and the irrepressible Charlie Sheen in the lead—surprisingly good. Sheen plays astronomer Zane Zaminsky, who is monitoring deep space noise in his lab. Just when he thinks he’s found something rather alarming, he is suddenly fired and his partner (Richard Schiff) winds up dead.
With the help of a plucky kid (Tony T. Johnson) and an environmental scientist (Lindsay Crouse), Zane tries to find out what’s really going on. The Arrival (1996) is like a classic 1950s sci-fi matinee movie, complete with a cautionary message subtly buried within the action. Twohy treats it with just the right touch, and even when the movie gets dumb, the characters remain smart and the surprises are actually surprising. Ron Silver co-stars as Zane’s suspicious boss, and Teri Polo plays Zane’s perpetually exasperated wife. Incidentally, Polo and Schiff were both later cast on TV’s The West Wing.
Gremlins (Amazon Prime)
Speaking of 1950s sci-fi matinees, filmmaker Joe Dante grew up on those kinds of movies and remains a go-to expert in that field. His own incredible, unsung career consists of genre films of all kinds, usually with cleverly subversive themes of mob mentality and the ways that group behavior can turn sour and evil. Gremlins (1984) was one of his best films, and—thanks to production by Steven Spielberg—a smash hit. Inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys a mysterious creature called a “mogwai” for his son Billy (Zach Galligan) for Christmas. Everyone remembers the three rules (don’t expose him to bright light, don’t get him wet, and do not feed him after midnight), which are quickly broken.
The resulting mischief and chaos begins to destroy the town, though Billy still has time for a romance with Kate (Phoebe Cates), whose “Santa Claus” speech has haunted children and horrified parents ever since. Perhaps the movie’s most seminal moment, the one closest to Dante’s heart, comes when the gremlins wreak havoc in a movie theater while Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs serenely plays on the screen. Howie Mandel provided the voice of the adorable “Gizmo,” while Frank Welker gave voices to the more malevolent “Stripe.” Corey Feldman, Keye Luke, Judge Reinhold, and Dick Miller co-star as humans, with cartoon legend Chuck Jones in a small role. Chris Columbus wrote the screenplay and Jerry Goldsmith composed the unforgettable score.
Holy Motors (TubiTV)
Leos Carax is one of the most acclaimed, and one of the most bizarre, filmmakers to ever emerge from France. But as strange as his films are, they’re often primal and beautiful in unexpected ways. He works sporadically, and Holy Motors (2012) is only his fifth (and most recent) feature film in a career spanning more than 30 years. It stars his most frequent leading man, the animal-like, gravel-faced Denis Lavant, in an extraordinary role. He’s “Mr. Oscar,” a mysterious man whose job seems to be riding around in the back of a limo, changing costumes and makeup for various appointments.
He appears as an old lady beggar, a gangster, and a dying old man. He wears a mo-cap suit for some kind of sexual acrobatic video performance. He also appears as the vile creature known as “Merde,” who made a previous appearance in Carax’s episode of the anthology film Tokyo! (2009); with fire-red hair and a creepy, milky-white eye, it lives in the sewers and emerges to kidnap a model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot. In a more touching scene, he meets a woman (Kylie Minogue) and shares a song with her. By the end of this long day, the movie allows us to ponder about the nature of identity and performance. What kind of faces do each of us put on to go about our day? No one, not even talking cars, knows the answer.
The Trial (Fandor)
Orson Welles is known for making one of the greatest films of all time (Citizen Kane), and then immediately going into a career tailspin; what isn’t known is that he continued to make awe-inspiring films for as long as he could find people to finance them. In this case, producer Alexander Salkind (who would later be known for Superman) put up the cash for this adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel; even though most of Welles’ films had troubled production histories, The Trial (1962) was one of the smoother ones, and Welles himself was said to have been happy with the result.
One of the highest plateaus movies can reach is effectively recreating that undefinable human dream logic within the cinematic frame; it has only been accomplished a few times in history, and with its odd angles and strange movements, The Trial is definitely one of them. Anthony Perkins stars as Josef K., a man who is suddenly accused of some unnamed crime. Everywhere he goes, people look at him sideways, and there are vague threats, with no proof, details, or explanations forthcoming. Welles co-stars as a law advocate, with Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Akim Tamiroff, and Elsa Martinelli in small roles. It was filmed in France, Italy, and Croatia.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for paying homage (i.e. ripping off) Federico Fellini in The Great Beauty. But, as far as Fellini knockoffs go, it was quite beautiful, and now Sorrentino brings that visual style to the English-language Youth (2015). It takes place at a resort in the Swiss alps. There, a famed composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is enjoying his retirement when an emissary of the queen arrives to try to convince him to play his best-known works, the “Simple Songs,” at the palace. (One of the songs received an Oscar nomination.) For reasons of his own, he refuses.
Meanwhile, his daughter (Rachel Weisz) is with him, recovering from a nasty breakup; filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is working on what he hopes will be his greatest picture, and actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) is just seemingly getting some rest. This is a movie of stillness, wherein the shots simply absorb the beautiful scenery, rather than attempting flash or dazzle. The long, deep moments allow for many of these actors, including Jane Fonda in a small, crucial role, to shine brighter than they have in a while. The main drawback is that it’s not quite as profound as it seems to think it is, but the presence of Madalina Diana Ghenea as “Miss Universe” makes it all worthwhile.