As kids, summer did not begin on the official first day of summer. Summer began when school let out and we were suddenly free to go to the movies. Those movies seemed bigger, more exciting, more adventurous, with bigger laughs, and bigger heroes.
This week in new and notable streaming movies, we have three of the biggest dinosaur movies ever made; you can watch them in a long triple-feature on a hot summer day.
The spirits of the dead haunt the living in a new collection of Poe classics; and an English criminal investigates the death of his daughter in sunny Los Angeles.
Also in sunny Los Angeles, a surf-rock musician creates his masterpiece, and a Hollywood“fixer” tries to make sure things at a movie studio run smoothly. In Paris, a writer discovers a passageway to the Jazz Age. In the Amazon, a conquistador seeks the lost city of gold.
Finally, we have two real-life heroes. One recently left us, but changed everything when he was here. The other is impossibly young, and looks ready to change a great deal more.
The best of what’s new on Netflix
Edgar Allan Poe stories have been adapted to movies since the movies began, and now comes Extraordinary Tales (2013), an animated collection of five horrifying yarns. (It’s more or less aimed at kids, although the fifth segment contains some inappropriate material, and it is pretty unsettling overall.) Directed by Raul Garcia, an animator on many 1990s Disney features, each segment has its own visual style, and its own great voice actors. The only major complaint would be the bizarre, ridiculous wraparound sequences, where Poe (appearing as a Raven) has a graveyard discussion with Death; their dialogue is pointless and repetitive.
But the stories are legendary. The late Christopher Lee narrates The Fall of the House of Usher, a great, old recording of Bela Lugosi is used for The Tell-Tale Heart, Julian Sands lends his pipes to The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Guillermo del Toro gives a passionate read of The Pit and the Pendulum, and Roger Corman—who, of course, directed his own series of great Poe films—provides a voice for The Masque of the Red Death. Some of the shorts look like creepy video games, one of them resembles the stark black-and-white of Sin City, and another looks like an old four-color comic book. The stories are far from unabridged, but the style saves the day.
Jurassic Park Trilogy
What’s summer without a Steven Spielberg adventure? Netflix has added the original Jurassic Park trilogy (sorry, but last year’s huge hit Jurassic World isn’t included) for the month of June, so viewers can get a dose of dinosaurs, jeeps, and jungles big enough to last until September. Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park (1993) was one of those blockbusters that prized effects and action over character and story, but it still packed a wallop thanks to the maestro’s crisp, spirited filmmaking and many memorable sequences.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) is more of a clear cash-in, with Michael Crichton even writing a second book upon which to base the second movie, but even if it’s just going through the motions, it still contains at least one truly great set-piece, an RV dangling from a cliff, and one great line, spoken by Jeff Goldblum: “That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.” (Either way, these two movies allowed Spielberg to make Schindler’s List and Amistad, so that’s a good trade.) Finally, former visual effects man Joe Johnston took over for Jurassic Park III (2001), and thanks to some spiky scriptwork by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and Johnston’s touch for lighthearted adventure, the third movie finishes as brisk, though mostly forgettable, entertainment (and, happily, a great deal shorter than any other movie in the series).
Not many comic book/superhero movies are entrusted to filmmakers with personal visions (studios prefer things to be controlled and standardized), but Hellboy (2004), based on Mike Mignola’s amazing comic series, was a perfect fit for director Guillermo Del Toro and his frequent star Ron Perlman. The title character is a demon, summoned by bad guys to destroy the earth. But the good guys intervene, and raise the creature, who grows up to be Hellboy. A gruff, but dedicated fellow, he keeps his horns trimmed short and sports a huge, mallet-sized right fist. He also loves cigars and kittens. As part of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, he’s kind of a ghostbuster, stopping paranormal and otherworldly creatures from wreaking havoc.
The drawback of this film is that the main villains are pretty dull; they’re the type that rant about taking over the world but have no actual personality. But the good parts burst with life, imagination, and humor. Del Toro’s distinctive vision is here, with his penchant for twirling gears, labyrinths, and ancient structures hammered with rain. William Hurt plays the professor in charge, Hellboy’s father figure, and Jeffrey Tambor plays the bureaucrat who worries about costs. Selma Blair plays another hero, Liz, a “firestarter” and the object of Hellboy’s affections. Doug Jones embodies and David Hyde Pierce voices an underwater creature named “Abe Sapien.” Rupert Evans plays a rookie FBI man, a nifty screenwriter’s trick to introduce us (along with him) to the characters and situations.
New to Hulu/Amazon Prime
Midnight in Paris
Regardless of anyone’s opinion of Woody Allen’s personal life, his work still speaks for itself, and this delightful vacation-spot movie became an unexpected late-career hit for him. Midnight in Paris (2011) is currently the highest-grossing film of his career, and earned him his third Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (after Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters). After refusing to leave New York for decades, Allen had begun to explore other cities and to find more peaceful resignation in his stories. In this one, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a successful screenwriter, now struggling with a novel. He and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) are gearing up for a Paris wedding. Once in the City of Lights, however, Gil wants to explore, while Inez just wants to go shopping.
Before long, Gil finds himself magically transported, via a beautiful old car, to the Jazz Age, where F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and other great artists roam. He also finds himself falling in love with Picasso’s girlfriend (Marion Cotillard). But what Gil learns there is wonderfully surprising. There have been many actors trying out the “Woody Allen character,” but Wilson is superb, combining the neuroses with his own personal laid-back, easygoing drawl, and coming up with a most appealing character. The movie is a celebration, with beautiful sights and music, and without even bothering to explain the supernatural/fantasy elements; they just are.
Love & Mercy
Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (2015) is surely one of the best music biopics ever made, focusing on Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson during two key periods of his life. In the mid-1960s, Brian (Paul Dano) realizes that he no longer wants to tour with the band and would rather stay home and work on the next album; he has lots of great ideas. That work turns into Pet Sounds, which is widely considered today to be the best rock album ever recorded. However, ironically, when Brian tries to play it for others, it is frequently met with scorn, and when released, it’s not a hit.
In the 1980s, Wilson (John Cusack), is not working much and is under the care of the controlling, maniacal Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). While shopping for a new car, Wilson meets the beautiful Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) and falls in love. After realizing the true horror of Wilson’s situation, she begins to fight for his freedom. Many complained that while Dano was perfectly cast, Cusack didn’t really look the part. However, both are great performances, and both beautifully capture Wilson’s essence. Unlike many biopics, the movie revels in moments and sensations—rather than skipping to highlights—and creates a vivid musical soundscape to illustrate Wilson’s tortured genius. Director Pohlad previously produced the music biopic The Runaways and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman contributed to the somewhat similar, and equally great Bob Dylan film I’m Not There.
Now on Hulu
He Named Me Malala
Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim—who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth (2006)—tells the story of the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai. Raised in Pakistan under Taliban rule, Malala was encouraged by her father to keep a journal and a blog and to value education. When she was about 15, the Taliban boarded her school bus and opened fire; she was hit but survived, though the nerves in her face were affected. She escaped with her family to England—the Taliban has threatened to kill them all if they return—and she now speaks openly throughout the world about the necessity of education for women. Her autobiography, published in 2013, has become a best-seller.
Malala is a powerful, sympathetic speaker, but she’s also a teenage girl, who is slightly amused/embarrassed by her fame, and is concerned with fitting in, making friends, and perhaps even finding a boyfriend. She has a normal relationship with her family, teasing her brothers, being teased back, etc. But Guggenheim has his work cut out for him. Some have accused He Named Me Malala (2015) of being somewhat soft as it respectfully tries to find out what makes this girl, both special and ordinary, tick. It may not be entirely successful in creating an exact portrait, but either way it’s a powerful and moving one.
Catch this on Crackle
After making his directing debut with the touchy-feely comedy The Best Man, Spike Lee’s cousin Malcolm D. Lee went for an all-out, raucous, yet surprisingly smart laugh-fest, Undercover Brother (2002). Spoofing the blaxploitation movement of the 1970s, as well as just about any other cultural phenomenon that wasn’t nailed down, the movie begins with an evil plan by The Man (Robert Trumbull) to sell fried chicken laced with a mind-control drug in order to keep African-Americans from rising to power.
Our hero, Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is called in to help. He is aided by Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), and the “token” white intern Lance (Neil Patrick Harris). Unfortunately, Undercover Brother is temporarily brainwashed by the cunning and beautiful White She-Devil (Denise Richards). Chris Kattan co-stars as a white lackey, Billy Dee Williams—once a star of blaxploitation films himself—plays a Colin Powell-like general, and James Brown appears as himself. Listen for a Snoop Dogg tune, as well as many other funky (and/or funny) songs on the soundtrack. Screenwriter John Ridley went on to win an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave!
Tune in to TubiTV
One of the very best of the vintage blaxploitation movies, Foxy Brown (1974) had the voluptuous, electric star Pam Grier working for the fourth and final time with director Jack Hill (their previous films had been The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and Coffy). The poster reads “Don’t mess aroun’ with Foxy Brown! She’s the meanest chick in town! She’s brown sugar and spice but if you don’t treat her nice she’ll put you on ice!” Like Coffy, this is a revenge story; in fact, it was originally intended as a sequel, but the studio balked and Hill was forced to change it at the last minute. It was produced quickly and cheaply, released on a double-bill with another blaxploitation feature, Truck Turner, and was a success.
Foxy’s no-good drug-dealing brother (Antonio Fargas, best known as “Huggy Bear” on TV’s Starsky & Hutch), in fear of his life, rats out Foxy’s boyfriend, a government agent. When the boyfriend is killed Foxy disguises herself as a prostitute (with a Jamaican accent) to infiltrate the bad guys’ camp. She winds up tangling with a nasty “madame” called Miss Katherine (Kathryn Loder) and eventually proves herself a badass supreme. Another regular Hill cast member, the freaky-looking Sid Haig, co-stars as a thug. Willie Hutch composed the great, funky score. Decades later, Quentin Tarantino would pay homage to these films and cast Grier in his acclaimed Jackie Brown.
After working together on the ill-fated Kafka (1991), director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs re-teamed for this unusual, yet amazing crime film. It’s meant to recall the French and British New Wave movements of the 1960s, and uses scenes of a young Terence Stamp in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) for flashbacks. Stamp stars as the title character, named Wilson, a criminal newly released from jail who travels to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter. He meets Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) and Eduardo (Luis Guzman), who both knew the daughter when she was alive. He also meets a sleazy music producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), who likes to keep a harem of young girls hanging around.