Movie fans, rejoice!
This week brings a surfeit of options for movie lovers. Serious cinephiles will appreciate the work of well-known movie-making masters, both foreign and domestic—from Robert Altman, to Christopher Nolan, to Akira Kurosawa, to Claire Denis (perhaps one of the best filmmakers in the world), and others.
Mixed in are some less-high-brow romps—one of which is best described as "excellent," another gave a now-famous B-movie director his start, and a third has earned a real cult following over the years.
On top of all that, you can see the work for which Leonardo DiCaprio finally won a Best Actor Oscar.
All that, and more. So grab your popcorn and get watching.
The Overnighters (Netflix)
San Francisco-based filmmaker Jesse Moss is about to premiere his new documentary, The Bandit, at the SF International Film Festival, and his previous film, the remarkable, shattering The Overnighters (2014) is available streaming on Netflix. When the town of Williston, North Dakota, experiences an oil boom, many out-of-work men from all over the country (and some from all over the world) flock there in search of jobs. But they are also in need of homes, so Pastor Jay Reinke opens the doors of the Concordia Lutheran Church for the men to sleep on floors, benches, or in whatever space available.
While this may seem like a wonderful, humanitarian thing, the locals don’t like all the strangers in town and begin to fear for their safety. Moreover, some of the people looking for shelter are registered sex offenders, and Pastor Reinke doesn’t have it in his heart to turn them away. Meanwhile, Reinke’s family life begins to suffer. Finally, he reveals his own dark secret that could lead to his downfall. Moss films in a cinema verite style, interviewing some of the men in their success and failure, as well as capturing arguments, tense moments (a scary-looking hillbilly woman comes after Reinke with a rifle), and confessions. Moss gives viewers plenty to chew on here, and lets us know that these stories, and others like them, continue.
3 Women (Netflix)
Robert Altman began the 1970s already in his 40s, with a big hit, M*A*S*H. In that decade, under those circumstances, he was given an incredible amount of freedom, and he spent the next several years making the most unusual, sometimes amazing, sometimes brilliant, sometimes beautiful films. 3 Women (1977) is one of the beautiful ones, and also one of the most difficult to explain. Altman himself said that it had been inspired by a dream.
Shelley Duvall stars as Millie, a chatty nurse at an old folks’ health spa. When a soft-spoken, childlike new employee, Pinky (Sissy Spacek), arrives, Millie trains her for the job and becomes her roommate. After an argument, Pinky tries to commit suicide but winds up in a coma; when she wakes, she seems like a totally different person. The third woman is a mysterious pregnant artist (Janice Rule), who occupies the story’s edges. The health spa, a nearby Western bar and shooting range, and Millie’s weird, yellow apartment are all spaces that add to the story’s elusive quality; it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going on here in a literal sense, but the movie’s emotional impact is beyond measure. It will have you pondering its mysteries forever after.
Big Trouble in Little China (Netflix)
If John Carpenter can be described as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, then it makes sense that Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is one of the best films ever made. OK, perhaps that’s going a little too far, but when it comes to sheer fun, it’s hard to beat this kooky, colorful science-fiction adventure-comedy with splashes of kung-fu, cowboys, and comic books. Indeed, the movie seems to be everywhere nowadays, in midnight screenings and cult-movie revivals. Plenty of people out there love it, and maybe more fans are on the way.
Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a swaggering truck driver who talks with a cartoonish John Wayne drawl. During a stopover in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he becomes involved with an ancient warlord, a ritual involving a girl with green eyes, some monsters, and a daring rescue. Dennis Dun plays Jack’s stalwart pal, who, unlike Jack, can actually fight. Kim Cattrall plays the love interest, while character actors James Hong and Victor Wong are especially memorable. The great W. D. Richter worked on the screenplay, and Carpenter himself provided the movie’s nifty synthesizer-laden, rock-‘n’-roll score. It was a financial flop upon its initial release, but has by now been vindicated.
This breakthrough feature from Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni was booed at Cannes, but was so awe-inspiring to critics in 1960 that, just two years later, it was voted the second best film ever made in the Sight & Sound poll. It was one of those titles that, if you cared anything about film, you needed to see, as sure as you needed to breathe. L’Avventura (1960) left post-war Italian “neo-realism” completely behind with its large, perfectly composed frames that emphasized emptiness, longing, and searching.
Antonioni’s muse, the beautiful Monica Vitti (known for her opaque gaze), plays Claudia, who goes on a weekend cruise aboard a yacht with her friend Anna (Lea Massari), and Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). They pause near an island, swim, talk, and take naps, and, when they’re ready to go, Anna has disappeared. Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the film looking for her, but they wind up having an affair together and eventually the looking itself becomes their very existence. Each black-and-white shot visually accompanies what seemingly does not happen with the characters, who don’t know what they want and can’t communicate this condition. Even after all the dust has settled, it’s still one of the great films. Hulu presents L’Avventura in Italian with English subtitles.
High and Low (Hulu)
Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and his frequent star Toshiro Mifune are known in the west, justifiably so, for their great, exciting samurai films. So fans may be a little shocked to see Mifune wearing a suit in this crackerjack crime procedural with a real emotional wallop. Mifune plays wealthy a businessman, Gondo, who wants to manufacture cheap shoes for bigger profits, rather than well-made shoes. He gets a call that his son has been kidnapped, but he quickly discovers that the villains have accidentally taken the son of his chauffeur. So Gondo must decide whether to pay the ransom for his employee.
Shot in black-and-white widescreen (and presented in Japanese with English subtitles), High and Low (1963) takes its time over the course of two hours and 23 minutes, but it allows for the police detective characters to discover and examine minute details and clues, building the solution to the crime in small, suspenseful bits and pieces. Add that to the hot-button moral conundrum (i.e. doing the right thing vs. remaining rich), and you have a masterpiece. It’s based on an American novel, King’s Ransom by Ed McBain. The same year, McBain, aka Evan Hunter, wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds. How’s that for a double feature?
El Mariachi (Crackle)
Texas filmmaker Robert Rodriguez famously made his debut feature El Mariachi (1993) for a mere $7,000, though Columbia Pictures probably polished it up a bit before giving it a celebrated theatrical release. Rodriguez originally intended it for the Mexican home video market, and as a calling card that might lead to bigger things. But it’s actually a fast-paced, very entertaining movie in its own right, a “B” movie in the best sense. The plot concerns a good-hearted young mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) who, dressed all in black and carrying a guitar case, is mistaken for a vicious criminal (one who carries guns in his case).
It’s a flimsy plot, but it leads to a ton of great fights, chases, and escapes. Rodriguez was a natural-born director of action, keeping his camerawork fluid, clear, and, smooth, and creating a kinetic flow (a sharp contrast to most of the shaky-cam stuff that was popular then and still goes on today). It definitely led to bigger jobs for Rodriguez, including two sequels (Antonio Banderas took over as the mariachi, while Gallardo had a much smaller role). Rodriguez generously gave away all his low-budget filmmaking secrets, and probably inspired a generation of low-budget filmmakers, in an informative book and on a laserdisc/DVD commentary track. The movie is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.
Insomnia (Amazon Prime)
If you read about movies on the Internet, you might have heard that Christopher Nolan—the maker of three Batman movies—is an artist whose talent can only be compared to Leonardo da Vinci or Ludwig van Beethoven. That’s not quite the case, although in spite of everything, he has made some pretty good movies. Insomnia (2002), a remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 Norwegian film, is one of them. Al Pacino stars as Will Dormer, a cop called to Alaska to help out on a murder case. His partner (Martin Donovan) comes along. After an accident on the job, and coupled with a pending internal affairs investigation back home, Dormer finds he has some things to hide.
He begins to become increasingly unhinged, not helped by the perpetual daylight of the northern summer, which renders him unable to sleep. Hilary Swank co-stars as a local cop who idolizes Dormer, and Robin Williams is a writer who seems to be the prime suspect. Nolan guides all of these actors to excellent performances (it was Pacino’s best in years), and uses the “midnight sun” idea to brilliant atmospheric effect. The film is a bit more straightforward and workmanlike than his previous, tricky Memento, the script falls back on a few overly familiar ideas, and Swank’s character is generally underwritten, but overall it’s a crisp, effective thriller.
The Descent (TubiTV, Hulu, Amazon Prime)
One of the best horror films of the past decade or so, The Descent (2006) is a genuinely scary item, taking the concept of darkness and expanding it to terrifying new depths. A group of six girls (Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, MyAnna Buring, Saskia Mulder, and Nora-Jane Noone) go spelunking in a mysterious, unmapped, unmarked cave near the Appalachian Mountains. The friends have a shaky history, and there are some issues to be worked through, which causes tension. Also causing tension is a strange and possibly dangerous presence already in the cave.
English director Neil Marshall frames the underground chambers in penetrating, inky blackness, with only wobbling blobs of light in the center of the frame reassuring us that anyone is there. It’s a strangely vivid, overpowering experience that can make you feel like you’re along for the ride. An unrated version features a darker, scarier ending, but—sadly—the version that is available on Hulu, Amazon Prime, and TubiTV is the sightly shorter U.S. theatrical release. A sequel was made by another director.
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (TubiTV)
Both the original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and the sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) are available on TubiTV, and both are recommended as (ahem) “excellent” examples of cheerful, deceptively wise dimwit comedy, but I want to focus on the slightly more underrated sequel. After the time-traveling events of the first movie, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are rehearsing with their band, the Wyld Stallyns, when they are killed and replaced with robots. In Hell, they decide to try to get back to earth by challenging Death (William Sadler) to a game. But rather than chess (this is not Ingmar Bergman), the games consist of Battleship, Clue, and Twister.
Written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and directed by Pete Hewitt, the movie just gets weirder and funnier as it goes, but it’s all so amiable, you might not even notice just how surreal things are. George Carlin reprises his role as the time-traveling Rufus, Pam Grier appears as the organizer of the Battle of the Bands contest, and voice master Frank Welker (of Scooby-Doo and Transformers) provides voices. Members of bands like Primus, Faith No More, and Linkin Park have cameos, and Megadeth recorded a new song for the soundtrack. Its original title was Bill & Ted Go to Hell. Apparently, a third movie is being considered, which would not be bogus.
35 Shots of Rum (Fandor)
Currently, one of the best filmmakers in the world is Claire Denis, a Parisian who was raised in colonial French Africa. She worked as an assistant for directors like Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders before launching her own career. Her movies are generally shot on location, with lengthy takes, and a soft, exploratory, poetic tone. Sometimes her stories are a bit challenging and free-flowing, but 35 Shots of Rum (2008) is more of a traditional narrative and perhaps a good place to start. It focuses on a group of mostly non-white friends, relations, colleagues, lovers, and ex-lovers in Paris.
Lionel (Alex Descas, a veteran of other Denis films) is a train engineer and lives with his beautiful, grown daughter Jo (Mati Diop). They don’t talk much, but they share a tender, loving relationship, full of hugs and kisses on the cheek. As the film begins, they each coincidentally buy a rice cooker, which becomes subtly symbolic. We meet some other characters as well, but the film does not overtly introduce them; we simply pick things up as we go along. With images of trains and the story of the father and daughter, the movie resembles something that might have been made by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and worthy of his greatness. The movie is in French, with English subtitles.
Here’s a movie that failed miserably at the box office and split critics right down the middle (Rotten Tomatoes sports an even-steven 50 percent). It’s not easy to explain, and probably harder to market, but it’s a film full of riches, ideas, and emotions that make it worth a first (and definitely a second) look. Edward Norton stars as “Stone,” a hardcore prisoner with cornrowed hair who speaks in a tough street rasp. He’s cracking up in jail and will do just about anything—including calling his beautiful wife (Milla Jovovich) and asking her for special favors—to get out. He begins meeting with parole officer Jack (Robert De Niro), a rigid Christian who tries to determine if Stone is worthy of release.
Stone discovers a pamphlet that tells about a religion based on listening, on finding God in the sounds all around. He begins to find peace, which clashes with Jack’s more traditional religion (Jack listens to chatty Christian radio, the opposite of the quietness of Stone’s beliefs). Director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil) digs deep into this material, coming up with many fascinating themes and juxtapositions of humanity and spirituality, cleansing and decaying. The three stars turn in great performances, especially Jovovich, who really deserved more notice for this. Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) provided the highly textured cinematography, and Angus MacLachlan (Junebug) wrote the screenplay. The film is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
The Revenant (Vudu)
As shot by the genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant (2015) is frequently impressive, especially for the first 45 minutes. Like the award-winning work he did on Gravity and Birdman, not to mention films like Children of Men and The Tree of Life, Lubezki develops an intimate relationship with the environment around him, creating a kind of immersive, fully dimensional technique with dazzling long, traveling shots. An attack by American Indians and the already-famous bear-mauling scenes will have you ducking behind the couch. However, the movie as a whole is far from a masterpiece.
While Lubezki is in top form, and so is actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who won an Oscar for a physically grueling, draining performance, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu takes a slight, simple revenge Western story that was perhaps better suited for a 90 minute movie and inflates it to a padded, puffed-up 2 hours, 36 minutes. Not even this grandiose presentation could cover up numerous cliches in the final stretches. (Iñárritu also won a Best Director Oscar that should have gone to George Miller, whose Mad Max: Fury Road was better constructed, more entertaining, and cleverer.) But at the end of the day, it has many fans, and it’s worth checking out mainly for certain early stretches, for Lubezki’s work, and for DiCaprio.