Party like it's yo birthday
There's a lot to celebrate in the latest cadre of newcomers to the streaming scene.
John Hughes' classic Sixteen Candles is a good place to start, and a fine way to relive your youth.
If you want slapstick, there's a Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson vehicle that offers up some rollicking comedy-Western fun, along with Chan's signature jaw-dropping choreography. Or have yourself a good laugh over the anti-superhero Deadpool, whose director bucked conventional wisdom with this movie's R-rating, and consequently struck box-office gold
Also on tap are the directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh; a highly underrated movie about the personal tragedies of the 2008 financial collapse; and a send-up of horror and sci-fi flicks that predates the Scream movies by several years.
Indeed, there are 12 movies in all, covering a range of genres. Don't put off for tomorrow what you can stream today!
To Catch a Thief (Netflix)
It’s too bad there aren’t more Alfred Hitchcock films on Netflix; this is the only one, along with the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but at least To Catch a Thief (1955) is a good one for Hitchcock beginners. Set and shot in the French Riviera, and starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, there’s so much beautiful scenery that the plot is almost incidental. Grant plays a famous cat burglar, John Robie, who is supposedly retired. He meets the lovely Frances Stevens (Kelly), just before her jewels are stolen. Robie insists he didn’t do it, and enlists her help to catch the real thief and clear his name.
Screenwriter John Michael Hayes had previously written Rear Window and would work with the Master of Suspense twice more after this, including the great black comedy The Trouble with Harry later the same year. But unlike Rear Window, this movie is more pure, lightweight entertainment than anything profound or any kind of groundbreaking exercise in style. Robert Burks’ gorgeous color cinematography won an Oscar, and Edith Head’s costumes and the art direction were nominated. Hitch and Grant worked together four times overall; their next, and last together, was North by Northwest.
Shanghai Knights (Netflix)
The enormity of Jackie Chan’s stardom in Hong Kong cannot be underestimated, but he has always had a hard time breaking through in America. There were several attempts to English-dub some of his Hong Kong films, some animated cartoons and feature films, and the ultra-successful pairing with yappy Chris Tucker in three annoying Rush Hour films. But for my money, the two comedy-Westerns he made with the down-home oddball Owen Wilson were his most satisfying forays into Hollywood. This sequel even slightly outgrossed the original Shanghai Noon (2000); it’s anyone’s guess why a trilogy was never completed.
In Shanghai Knights (2003), Chon Wang (Chan) and his sister (Fann Wong) wish to avenge their father’s murder and recover a stolen seal that the family has guarded for generations. It has fallen into the hands of British bad-boy Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), who strikes a deal with kung-fu master Wu Yip (Donnie Yen); if Wu Yip kills all Rathbone’s predecessors to the throne, he gets the seal. Meanwhile, Chan and Wilson head to London, where Chan gets the opportunity to pay tribute to some of his heroes: Gene Kelly in a Singin’ in the Rain-inspired fight scene, and Harold Lloyd in a Safety Last-inspired fight scene. Meanwhile, a very young Charlie Chaplin (Aaron Johnson) runs around, picking pockets. The direction, by David Dobkin is bright and clean, with a solid mixture of comedy and action, resulting in a lightweight but satisfying time-passer.
Sixteen Candles (Netflix)
After establishing himself as a comedy screenwriter—on National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom, and others—John Hughes made his directorial debut with Sixteen Candles (1984), and won a new legion of fans. His brand of teen comedy managed to tap into something honest in audiences; his movies spoke to them in ways that other movies had failed. Perhaps they emulated the way teens felt alienated and outcast, even surrounded by friends and peers, or the way they felt uncertain, while projecting certainty. Or maybe it’s just because the buffoonish, incompetent grown-ups in these movies made teens laugh.
In this one, Samantha (Molly Ringwald) falls in love with older boy Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), while the school geek (Anthony Michael Hall) attempts to find female companionship any way he can. The movie veers into ridiculousness more often than in Hughes’ later efforts, but it somehow remains sweet and funny, the Asian stereotype of “Long Duk Dong” (Gedde Watanabe) notwithstanding. John Cusack and Joan Cusack both appear in early roles as nerds (Joan wearing an elaborate and horrible neck brace), and Brian Doyle-Murray plays a reverend.
Sex, Lies and Videotape (Amazon Prime)
While still in his 20s, Steven Soderbergh wrote this screenplay, and made his feature directorial debut, quickly and cheaply, but with an impressive level of artistry. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)—sometimes, for some reason, written out all in lowercase—won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and when it opened in theaters (fairly close to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) it contributed to a general and growing excitement over independent film, and the bright future it promised. Nowadays, the 1980s look of the film is impossible to ignore, and it doesn’t feel as timeless as it once might have.
Regardless, the brilliant, bold screenplay focuses on four characters. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is more worried about garbage than sex with her husband, John (Peter Gallagher). John, on the other hand, is sleeping with Ann’s sexy sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). An old friend of John’s, Graham (James Spader), comes to town, wearing black shirts and carrying an outsider air. Graham and Ann strike up a friendship, and he admits that he likes to videotape women talking about their sexual fantasies, and that he can only get off by watching the tapes. This leads to a rather stunning turnaround. Soderbergh impressively balances the ensemble cast, and stages, lights, and shoots like a pro. His screenplay received an Oscar nomination (as did Lee’s), but both lost to Dead Poets Society.
99 Homes (Amazon Prime)
One of last year’s most criminally underrated movies, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes (2015) took a more personal, more heartbreaking look at the real estate crisis than The Big Short ever did. Andrew Garfield stars—and proves himself, post-Spider-Man, a most appealing leading man—as Dennis Nash, a carpenter who works hard but has trouble hanging onto jobs in the bitter market of 2008. A single father, he not only takes care of his son (Noah Lomax), but also his mother (Laura Dern). When the bank threatens to take their house, he fights and loses.
Impressed by his moxie, the slick, no-nonsense broker (Michael Shannon) gives him a job, helping foreclose on other people’s homes. The money starts rolling in, but Dennis finds himself in a crisis of conscience. Bahrani doesn’t shy away from the dirty details of this business, throwing the elderly into the street, etc., and all the frustration and anger that goes with it. But Shannon gives a magnetic, frightening performance as the devil who makes a deal (it’s a fascinating melding of modern and classical storytelling). Shannon won many awards and was initially a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, but the Academy instead nominated Christian Bale for The Big Short. And so this essential movie remains largely unseen. See it now.
Like Someone in Love (Hulu)
This won’t be for everyone’s tastes, but for me—and hopefully others, too—it’s one of the best films made this decade. It’s from the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, but leaving his home country and working in Tokyo, shooting in Japanese. (His previous movie was made in Italy, and another earlier movie paid tribute to the Japanese master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.) Even so, the storytelling resembles some of Kiarostami’s earlier films: patient, observant, meditative, and without a concrete conclusion.
A young woman, Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who may be working as a prostitute, keeps getting calls from her jealous boyfriend (Ryo Kase), demanding proof of her whereabouts. She also gets calls from her mother, in town for a single day and wanting to share a meal with Akiko. Instead, she has been assigned to visit a retired professor, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). Eventually, the characters meet, and an abrupt, surprising conclusion follows. Kiarostami’s filmmaking often highlights long conversations, but their beautiful, mysterious framing had me pondering the story’s deeper, more universal meanings.
After the success of his ultra-low-budget El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez made the jump to the big time; his first project was a sequel with a much bigger budget, in English, with a movie star taking over the lead role. How much more Hollywood can you get? But even though Desperado (1995) feels a little too heavy on the explosions and a little too light on story, Rodriguez did not lose his sense of personality, and his sense of fun. Antonio Banderas is the black-clad mariachi, who no longer plays guitar, but carries lots of guns instead. He goes after a ruthless drug lord, seeking revenge for the death of his girlfriend.
Salma Hayek made her English-speaking debut as the proprietress of a bookstore who agrees to help the mariachi; she was not soon forgotten after this. Cheech Marin plays a grumpy bartender, Steve Buscemi is a barfly and Quentin Tarantino is a man who tells a joke. (Tarantino and Rodriguez had recently become friends on the film festival circuit.) Danny Trejo also appears, as does the original “el mariachi,” Carlos Gallardo. Los Lobos provides the music, and future Oscar-winner Guillermo Navarro was the cinematographer. Eight years later, Rodriguez completed the trilogy with Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Night of the Creeps (Crackle)
Well before Scream and other “meta-movies,” Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps (1986) paid cheerful tongue-in-cheek homage to old horror and sci-fi movies. It begins in the 1950s, just like one of those drive-in movies like The Blob or It Came from Outer Space. Some cheesy-looking aliens lose an “experiment” out the escape hatch, and it heads for Earth, where it takes over the body of a college teen. Decades later, the infected teen is still on ice at the college. Two young nerds, hoping to pledge a fraternity, accidentally free it.
It turns out that the real problem is skittering, slug-like parasites that take over people’s brains and turn them into zombies. It’s up to nerdy Chris Romero (Jason Lively), his best friend, disabled J.C. (Steve Marshall), cutie Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow), and Police detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) to save the day. The movie’s refreshingly practical, latex effects are still loads of fun, and Dekker keeps the tone light, with lots of dumb, funny one-liners. Most of the characters are named after horror filmmakers (note the Romero and the Cronenberg), with Carpenter, Hooper, Landis, Raimi, Miner, and others coming up. The college is named for the granddaddy of them all: Corman. Dekker himself remains a minor cult favorite for this and his other films and screenplays (House, The Monster Squad, Robocop 3, etc.).
Making a comedy about cancer seems like a truly horrible idea, never mind that, more frequently than not, watching movies about cancer is already pretty unpleasant. But 50/50 (2011) works amazingly, incredibly well; it’s funny, honest, and moving. It’s based on the experiences of Will Reiser, a producer for TV and a friend of Seth Rogen and writer/producer Evan Goldberg, who encouraged him to put everything on paper. His finished screenplay won multiple awards, but just failed to nab an Oscar nomination. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a Seattle radio journalist who lives a happily careful life. When he comes down with cancer, everything changes.
His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) remains by his side, but also tries to use the disease to pick up on girls. His girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) faces a crisis of conscience (and a tough decision). And he develops a complex relationship with a dingy, cute therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). The movie is full of the kinds of dumb, awkward moves that might happen in real life—the kinds that earn our sympathy. But overall, this movie conjures genuine laughs and tears. It’s interesting that director Jonathan Levine is better known for making movies in the horror genre; maybe that experience made him more capable of approaching this material without squeamishness.
After making Irma Vep together in 1996, director Olivier Assayas and star Maggie Cheung married, and then divorced not long after. A few years later, they teamed up again to make Clean (2004), and the difference between the two films could not be greater. Irma Vep was a quirky, clever movie about movies, and Clean is about life. Cheung plays a junkie, Emily, who is involved with rock star Lee Hauser (played by James Johnston, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). They have a son, who is currently looked after by Lee’s parents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). One night, after a fight, Emily goes out to do some heroin in her car and when she returns, Lee is dead of an overdose.
She does some jail time, and when she emerges, she decides to try to earn the right to become a mother again. This is far from a typical “disease-of-the-week” movie about an addict trying to become clean; it’s more about the emotions of the situation than the details. Assayas focuses on a man-made world of things and technology, with a dream-pop music score that allows for reflection. Meanwhile, Cheung gives a performance so powerful that she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. (It’s a long way from the “cute girlfriend” roles she used to play.) But it should be mentioned that Nolte is also superb, giving the tenderest performance of his career.
Millennium Mambo (Fandor/MUBI)
In the 1960s, cineastes knew all about the greatest filmmakers in the world: Godard, Kurosawa, and Bergman were household names. In the 1990s, things had changed. Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien was widely considered among the world’s best, but by 2001, not one of his films had been distributed in the United States (despite showings of his films selling out at film festivals). Then, by chance, the beautiful star of Hou’s Millennium Mambo (2001), Shu Qi, appeared in the hit action film The Transporter in 2002. Following that, small distributor Palm Pictures picked up Millennium Mambo for release in 2004. It remains the easiest of his titles to find, but it still requires the kind of patience that viewers in the 1960s once had.
Vicky (Shu Qi) lives with an immature boyfriend, who is jealous when she’s not around but pays little attention to her when she is there. She leaves him and winds up with a thuggish type—different, but not much better. The movie opens with Vicky on a kind of covered, lighted walkway, stretching her arms and flipping her hair. Her story is narrated from 10 years in the future; is this the happy woman she will become? Either way, Hou’s film looks at both the small details of Vicky’s life—long, slow takes shot by the great Mark Lee Ping-bing—as well as the overall, bigger picture. It’s a masterpiece of drifting beauty.
Currently the year’s box office champion, Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016) changed the gameplan by going whole-hog for an “R” rating, in a time when company policies state that superhero movies shall always be PG-13. And the moviegoers responded with their wallets. Ryan Reynolds had previously been Green Lantern (in a dull PG-13 movie) and originated the Deadpool character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (also a dull PG-13 movie), but in this new movie, he was allowed to go wild, using the full force of his physicality and humor. Nothing is held back. The movie is funny and irreverent and gleeful, even as bad guys die and property is destroyed. (The effect is quite a bit different than in the somber, sluggish monstrosity Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.)
Rather than trying to save the world, Deadpool tells a simple revenge story, with a love story intertwined. The hero can no longer be with his beloved (Morena Baccarin) after a supposed experimental cancer treatment, given by Ajax (Ed Skrein), leaves him with a mangled face. It’s easy to get behind the character’s sense of justice. Above all, the movie is very clever, from its crazy title sequence to its “breaking the fourth wall” moments, and tons of fun. Two X-Men, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and a young student with an incredible superhero name (Brianna Hildebrand), show up to help. T.J. Miller round things out with some occasional improvised humor.
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