Where to begin
The latest crop of entertainment to enter the stream, so to speak, will have you feeling dizzy with options.
Should you start with the new Netflix original series by Ricky Gervais, which comments (with characteristic satire and bite) on the medias’ role in war? Or watch Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame break from his role as Jesse Pinkman in a moving story about small town life?
Or you can begin with the 1998 movie Pleasantville, a visual-effects-laden comedy-drama that Siskel and Ebert (when still a team) praised as one of that year’s best.
Other options include an up-and-coming Johnny Depp playing a quirky character (natch) in a quirky love story; the must-see Ghostworld, which manages to be both cynical and endearing; and the Coen brothers’ crime-meets-dark-comedy Fargo, which had the rare distinction of being an instant classic.
Or partake of cinema's more distant past with an excellent example of the “film noir” genre or a movie that clearly demonstrates what made Louise Brooks a star of the silent era.
And finally, if you're one of the rare few who hasn’t yet seen J.J. Abrams Star Wars installment, or your hankering to see it again (and again, and again), now's your chance.
Special Correspondents (Netflix)
This Netflix original comedy by Ricky Gervais has been absolutely slammed by the critics, even more so than the far worse The Invention of Lying. It’s a kind of soft satire on the creation of war by the media, not unlike Wag the Dog (1997) or War, Inc. (2008). While it’s not exactly savage or brilliant, it has a few easy laughs, as well as a sampling of Gervais’ wicked humor that made The Office and Extras favorites. Aside from writing and directing, Gervais stars as Ian Finch, a sound engineer for a New York radio station, married to the selfish, greedy Eleanor (Vera Farmiga). While her husband is off working, she sleeps with the star on-air journalist, Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana).
The two men are tapped to go to Ecuador to cover an uprising, but Ian accidentally loses their plane tickets and passports, so they decide to hide out above a restaurant and create fake reports. To cover their story, they pretend to have been taken hostage. This results, of course, in their actually being taken hostage. The movie’s most vicious satire comes when Eleanor establishes a fund to raise money for her husband’s ransom, and spins that into a whole career (a hit song, a perfume line, etc.). Bana brings a cocky humor to the movie that’s often missing from his serious roles, and America Ferrera and Raul Castillo are hilarious as the cheerfully dim restaurant owners, in on the plan. Kelly Macdonald is the cute co-worker who appreciates Ian. Kevin Pollak and Benjamin Bratt also star.
Everybody knows Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, but few people know the interesting films he has chosen since the show wrapped. In Hellion (2013) he plays a deeply flawed character, Hollis Wilson, who lives in a blue collar Texas town, is dealing with the recent death of his wife, and handling it poorly. Rather than raising his sons, 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins) and 10 year-old brother Wes (Deke Garner), he has been drinking a bit too much, and spending time fixing up a beach house that was supposed to have been a family getaway.
Meanwhile, the boys have been getting into trouble lately, and this last time, Wes tagged along with Jacob. The authorities take the younger boy away and place him with Hollis’s sister-in-law, Pam (Juliette Lewis), who is not particularly interested in giving him back. Written and directed by Kat Candler, the movie is exceptionally bold in the way that it presents its imperfect characters and refuses to judge them. Rather, the movie coaxes genuine empathy; it’s hard not to be moved by their pain and love. Candler’s storytelling is more mood-based than logic-based, but she has a sure touch for small town life, with its rundown buildings and vacant lots, angry music, and precious few outlets for lost young men.
Screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Dave) made his directing debut with this high-concept, visual effects-laden comedy-drama that still somehow embraced human values (not dissimilar to The Truman Show from earlier the same year). Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon star as brother and sister who obtain a magic remote control from a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts!) and wind up inside a classic 1950s TV show called “Pleasantville.” Everything is even in black-and-white. They are mistaken for regular characters “Bud” and “Sue” and, for a while, they try not to make any waves.
It’s not long before “Sue” breaks character and introduces sex into the lives of the innocents, and, slowly, as they begin to discover what life is really like, things begin turning to color. But what does it all mean? Pleasantville (1998) is one of those rare movies that takes its idea and runs with it in every conceivable way; the result is constantly refreshing and surprising. William H. Macy, Joan Allen, and Jeff Daniels are terrific in supporting roles, and it was the final role for the great character actor J.T. Walsh. In their last year on TV together, Siskel and Ebert both chose it as one of the year’s 10 best films. It received three Oscar nominations, for Art Direction, Costume Design, and Randy Newman’s score.
Benny and Joon (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
This is one of those movies that writers call “quirky” and audiences find “cute,” but in spite of these trappings, Benny and Joon (1993) actually finds a human center, and taps into a genuine sense of longing. The title characters are brother and sister, played by Aidan Quinn and Mary Stuart Masterson. Benny more or less takes care of the mentally disabled Joon (short for “Juniper”) after the unexpected death of their parents. The very strange, illiterate Sam (Johnny Depp) ends up becoming their housekeeper, and though Benny isn’t so sure about him, he allows Sam to stay since he’s the only one not alarmed by Joon’s behavior.
Before long, Sam and Joon develop a touchingly innocent love affair, much to the shock of everyone around them. Depp was on a roll when he made this, and was just beginning to convince critics that he could really act. Here, his Sam is a movie buff who patterns his everyday behavior after the great silent movie clowns Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd; the actor pulls off some applause-worthy visual gags. Masterson, meanwhile, held her own by painting many of her character’s paintings. The movie was also known for re-popularizing the 1989 song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers. William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and Oliver Platt co-star. Jeremiah S. Chechik directed.
Ghost World (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
A masterpiece from Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World (2001) was his feature filmmaking debut after the great documentary Crumb (1995) and his debut documentary Louie Bluie (1985). Zwigoff and Dan Clowes adapted Clowes’ comic book, freely expanding the characters and situations in a personal way, reflecting Zwigoff’s sensibilities as well as Clowes’. (Even though it’s a fiction film, it has a great deal in common with Crumb.) It’s a cynical movie, but doesn’t rest on cynicism. It’s brave enough to explore what might be lurking underneath cynicism, finding loneliness, restlessness, and other all-too human attributes.
Thora Birch and 16-year-old Scarlett Johansson star as Enid and Rebecca, best friends who have just graduated high school, coasting on a trail of withering commentary about everything around them. Eschewing college, they agree to get jobs and an apartment together, but Enid must make up for a flunked art class. She also becomes involved with the source of a practical joke, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a shy collector of old 78 records. The movie’s flat, suburban landscape contains many layers, from the pair of pants (“still there”), to Illeana Douglas’ short-sighted art teacher, who prefers art with a message to anything personal. Ironically, the movie received only one Oscar nomination, for its screenplay, and lost to a more “messagy” movie, A Beautiful Mind.
It never quite reaches the heights of Hitchcock, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christie, and I’ve heard reports that many viewers were able to deduce the ending, but nonetheless Identity (2003) is a crafty, entertaining, and overall well-made thriller. It’s set on a dark and stormy night, where flooded roads prevent motorists from passing through. A lonely roadside motel begins to collect random travelers: the weary, burned-out chauffeur with a past (John Cusack), his movie actress passenger (Rebecca DeMornay), a cop (Ray Liotta) transporting a killer (Jake Busey), a high-priced call girl (Amanda Peet), a young married couple (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), etc. The desk clerk (John Hawkes) gamely checks them all in, but what do they have in common?
A killer strikes, leaving room keys—counting down from 10—by the corpses. Some of the travelers take charge, trying to figure out what’s going on, but the answer is not so simple. James Mangold, a fairly reliable director who works across genres (he has made music films, Westerns, romantic comedies, sci-fi, superhero movies, etc.), establishes a thick, spooky atmosphere and gets fine performances from his cast, even if he relies a bit too often on jump-scares. Michael Cooney’s screenplay passes the test: At the end, if you look back over the entire story, everything clicks into place. Alfred Molina and Pruitt Taylor Vince also appear.
If you have been enjoying, like I have, the new TV series based on this 20-year-old classic, it may be time for another look at the original Fargo (1996). When Siskel and Ebert reviewed it on their TV show in March of that year, they both declared that it was a great film and predicted that they wouldn’t see anything better for the rest of the year. (They were right; in December, they both chose it as the year’s best.) Many other critics concurred (although the Oscars chose the more Oscar-friendly The English Patient). This kind of instant-classic status doesn’t occur often, and usually doesn’t stick, but in this case, it did. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo is a magical combination of twisty crime film and grisly dark comedy, but also with unforgettable characters that face anguish and doubt on their snowy roads through life.
Frances McDormand won an Oscar as Margie Gunderson, pregnant police chief of Brainerd, who investigates a murder by the side of the road. It’s vaguely connected to car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, who received an Oscar nomination, but lost to Cuba Gooding Jr.), who has cooked up a half-baked kidnapping/ransom plan to raise some quick cash. Two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) prove to be his undoing. The Oscar-winning original screenplay (which was jokingly called a “true story”) is insidiously clever, pausing here and there for surprisingly touching moments (Jerry scraping the ice from his car window, Margie’s lunch with Mike, Margie’s husband rising early to “fix some eggs”). It’s a great film.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ new dystopian-future movie The Lobster (starring Colin Farrell) is currently making the rounds, and so I recommend going back and checking out his breakthrough movie, the very weird Dogtooth (2009), which, astoundingly, received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. As it begins, a young woman is led, blindfolded, into a secluded house, nestled away behind a high wall. There, she has impersonal sex with a young man. Afterward, she speaks to the man’s two sisters, which turns out to be something she was not supposed to do. It turns out that the young man and his sisters are part of a bizarre experiment. They are being raised in total isolation from the outside world.
No music, movies, or comic books are allowed. Even labels and brand names are scrubbed and removed from packages before food is brought into the house. Certain words have been transposed to other objects to deflect their real meaning (a saltshaker is now a “phone”). But the son has begun to have sexual urges, so the girl has been brought in, and it’s her accidental discussions that plants the seed of dissent, leading to an outrageous conclusion. Lanthimos’s directorial style is extremely deadpan and clinical, with wide shots and careful compositions, as if observing ants under a microscope. But Dogtooth is fascinating and not easily forgotten. (Presented in Greek with English subtitles.)
Diary of a Lost Girl (Fandor)
This recently restored and remastered silent-era film helps demonstrate why Louise Brooks is one of the most alluring and memorable of all cinema stars, even eight decades after her final film appearance. In 1928, Brooks famously ditched her Hollywood contract, sick of working for small potatoes, and departed for Germany for a pair of lead roles in films by the celebrated G.W. Pabst. Pandora’s Box came first, and is better-known, but Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) is easily its equal. Based on a popular, controversial German novel by Margarete Bohme, it’s a soap opera that does not let its heroine off easy.
Thymian (Brooks) is impregnated by her father’s assistant, winds up in a sadistic home for girls, working as a prostitute, and trapped in a loveless marriage, while all around her people are committing suicide, or otherwise trying to live through copious amounts of misery. Pabst was brilliant at this stuff, giving the material just the right sting, without making it seem crushingly oppressive. But it’s Brooks that sells it all with her potency; she was powerfully physical, sexual, on screen in a way that few others ever were. She became the private, individual companion of every soul that ever saw this movie. The beautiful piano score that accompanies the film is by Javier Pérez de Aspeitia.
One of the greatest examples of that genre known as “film noir,” Detour (1945) is also one of the great, wretched, low-budget B movies, shot for something less than $100,000. Tom Neal stars as Al, a down-and-out New York nightclub piano player who decides to join his girlfriend in Hollywood and starts hitching his way there. A man gives him a ride, but when the man suddenly dies, Al decides to steal his identity, rather than try to convince the police what really happened. He picks up a woman, the nasty, hard-edged Vera (Ann Savage), who knows about the dead man. She blackmails him into trying to collect the dead man’s inheritance, while Al desperately looks for a way out of this predicament.
Detour is compact, vicious, and claustrophobic... even the exteriors in an open convertible have a trapped feel. Martin Goldsmith’s shooting script was actually A-movie length, but director Edgar G. Ulmer and his team edited the movie down to the tight, teeth-gnashing 65-minutes the movie is today. Ulmer was a master of the B movie, working in gutter genres and excelling at working fast and cheap, while still instilling a strong sense of personality into his finished works. Many of his films are worth seeing, but this is his masterpiece, chosen for the Library of Congress’s National Film Archive in 1992. It’s in the public domain, and viewable for free at Archive.org.
After Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Joss Whedon created the amazing TV series Firefly, which was a little like a space Western, with outlaws, lyrical dialogue, and aliens. But though Whedon’s fans loved it, the network mishandled it, and it was prematurely canceled. A few years later, Whedon was given a chance to follow it up with the big screen Serenity (2005), his feature directing debut. This one brings on a new bad guy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is determined to get his hands on River (Summer Glau), an innocent girl who has been turned into a deadly weapon.
Trying to protect her is the captain of Serenity, Mal (Nathan Fillion), and his stalwart crew: Zoe (Gina Torres), Wash (Alan Tudyk), Inara (Morena Baccarin), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the charmingly childlike Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the fusspot doctor Simon (Sean Maher), and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). Not surprisingly, Whedon’s screenplay is excellent, but he also proves a natural director, shooting clear breezy action, never letting things get too bogged down or serious, and adding a subtle emotional weight to the comical byplay of his lovable characters. Sadly, like the show, this movie—for whatever reason—didn’t really catch on during its theatrical run. But, also like the show, it has had a second life as a cult classic at home. The film is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Vudu)
Maybe you’ve heard of this one, which has quietly gone on to replace Avatar as the highest grossing movie in U.S. history (not adjusted for inflation). Perhaps unwisely, J.J. Abrams was hired to direct, and perhaps unwisely, he fired original writer Michael Arndt. But, wisely, he also hired veteran Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan. Also wisely, he took a respectful, humble approach and toned down on all that annoying stuff he pulled on the Star Trek reboots. The result, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a hugely entertaining, highly enjoyable movie, the kind that makes you say, “They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill are all back, more or less, but Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are the heroes of a new generation, along with the cute robot BB8. The tantrum-throwing Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the new bad guy. Abrams mirrors settings and ideas from the original three (1977-1983) films, and his story doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, but the movie brings back the wonder and charm that were blatantly missing from Lucas’ 1999-2005 prequels. In short, the characters are characters again. Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels return as Chewbacca and C-3PO, and Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow co-star, either in person, or in the form of digital characters. Look out for more Star Wars.