Three of my movie recommendations this time around are about thinking: There’s an aging detective trying to recover the memory of his last case, a wife who discovers the true nature of her relationship after repeatedly lying to him, and a group of smart people who sit around drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and talking about life. Since we’re in the midst of the Olympic Games, I’d also encourage you to catch T-Rex, a documentary that’s not about a terrible lizard, but a terrific female middleweight boxer named Claressa Shields.
Other new and notable movies this week involve physical activities of their characters and subjects, whether it’s making punk music or folk music, shooting an erotic movie, exploring a terrifying underworld, or defending yourself with a machete. Sometimes the act of escaping can be physical, with the fear of getting caught increasing the adrenaline flow. Characters this week escape from a tyrannical dystopian future and with a stolen baby. Another character tries to escape the rut he’s in by doing the right thing in court.
If you’re caught up in Olympics fever, you won’t want to miss this documentary, which made its debut at the 2015 South by Southwest festival and has since become more timely. It tells the story of Flint, Michigan, boxer Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, who began boxing at age 11. She qualified for the 2012 Olympics, and was among the first to compete as a middleweight in the female boxing category. After defeating the Russian champ who was nearly twice her age, Shields took home the gold medal. But, as directed by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper, T-Rex (2016) is no ordinary reach-for-the-stars sports film.
Its main focus is on Shields and her trainer, Jason Crutchfield, both hoping for her victory to carry them away from struggle and misery and into some kind of better life. This depends on an endorsement deal that never comes. Filmmakers Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper depict the stress and disappointments of this situation with remarkable subtlety. A scene of gold medalist Shields and her mother haggling over a water bill is dripping with sad irony as well as hard truth. But as the film ends, Shields is hopeful for the 2016 Olympics, which is now here. The film is available on Netflix, as well as a free stream on PBS.
This recent Netflix original film falls into the old “weepie/women’s picture” category, but it stays stubbornly rooted in characters and moments. It never goes over the top into goopy sentimentality, and if any tears are produced, they are earned. Ellen Page stars in a very strong performance as the title character, a crafty homeless waif living in the back of a truck with her boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit). They scrounge for food or steal it, and they have been happy, until Nico decides to leave. Tallulah sneaks into a hotel to pick at the food left in the hallway, and is mistaken for a hotel babysitter by the rich, pathetic Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard).
Carolyn has come to New York to have an affair, but has brought her young daughter Madison along, with no idea how to care for her. Tallulah decides to steal the child, and, with nowhere else to go, turns to Nico’s uptight mom, Margo (a great Allison Janney), claiming that the child is her granddaughter. Tallulah (2016) is the feature directing debut of Sian Heder, who based it on a short film and also writes for Orange Is the New Black. It’s an assured work, allowing for moments of pure character development and lovely flights of fancy. Zachary Quinto of Star Trek appears in a small role as the new boyfriend of Margo’s ex-husband.
The Verdict (Netflix)
For 50 years, from 1957 to 2007, Sidney Lumet was one of Hollywood’s most dependable directors, working with most of the big stars of that time, turning out many high-quality, minor classics. His tough, big-city style usually involved men who had somehow lost their way. The Verdict (1982) stands as a perfect example of Lumet’s skill, and it’s one of his best films. Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, a burned-out, alcoholic lawyer, who spends his days playing pinball in a bar and occasionally crashing funerals to hand out his business card.
A former partner (Jack Warden) throws him an open-and-shut case that could re-ignite his career: A Catholic hospital neglected a pregnant woman by giving her the wrong type of anesthetic. But rather than accepting a settlement, Frank has a sudden burst of conscience and decides to take the case to court. Charlotte Rampling plays the girl who shows up to help with Frank’s salvation; it’s not a strong role, but Rampling brings gravity to it. The always classy James Mason plays the opposing lawyer, complete with an army of legal assistants. None other than David Mamet wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Barry Reed. The movie received five Oscar nominations, for Lumet, Newman, Mason, Mamet, and for Best Picture, but lost most of them to Gandhi.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Netflix)
It’s likely that the title turned off (no pun intended) or frightened away many viewers and critics at the time, but Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) is, surprisingly, a candidate for Kevin Smith’s best film, and easily the equal of Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. It does have its fair share of rude humor and nudity, of course, but it’s also genuinely emotional and mature in the way that it deals with sex and love. It focuses on lifelong platonic friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (a great Elizabeth Banks, allowed to be loopy and funny). They attend a high school reunion and run into a former bully (Brandon Routh), who is now dating a gay porn star (Justin Long).
When their finances dwindle to a dangerous low, Zack and Miri are inspired to make their own porn movie to raise some quick cash. They hire a crew, including producer Delaney (Craig Robinson), cameraman Deacon (Jeff Anderson, no relation to me), and onscreen talent Lester (Jason Mewes), Bubbles (former porn star Traci Lords) and Stacey (current porn star Katie Morgan), while Jenkins (legendary horror make-up and effects man Tom Savini) rents them a space. The result is occasionally crude, but often sweetly funny, embracing the awkwardness that emerges from this decidedly non-sexy film shoot.
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (Hulu)
At some point soon, TCM and the Criterion Collection will be launching their own subscription-based streaming service, FilmStruck. This leaves us to assume that the great Criterion titles currently on Hulu will be leaving in the next month or so. Now is a great time to catch up with some of those masterpieces, especially titles like Yasujiro Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), which is not yet available on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. The Japanese-born Ozu was known for his simple, tranquil style, filming his characters from straight angles, often from a sitting position, and breaking up dialogue scenes with frames of trains passing or clotheslines blowing in the breeze. He was frequently concerned with the passing on of knowledge from one generation to another, and the problems inherent in this passing.
The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice came between Ozu’s two best-known, best-loved films, Late Spring and Tokyo Story, and it shows the filmmaker at a high point. A wife, Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), becomes bored with her husband, Mokichi Satake (Shin Saburi), and lies to him to take a weekend getaway with some girlfriends. Meanwhile, their niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), is of marrying age, and is pressured into accepting an arranged marriage. After this setup, Ozu avoids hysterics, and simply lets life rhythms flow, creating a work of cinematic poetry that is as intellectually satisfying as it is peaceful and soulful.
Mr. Holmes (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
Speaking of quiet movies, Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes (2015) is just about as far away as one can get from Guy Ritchie’s explosion-filled Sherlock Holmes movies of 2009-2011, and, actually, quite a bit different from the excellent BBC TV series Sherlock as well. The great Ian McKellen—who really deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance—stars as an older, retired, forgetful Sherlock, living by the seaside and tending bees. A grumpy housekeeper (an equally terrific Laura Linney) helps out, and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) takes an interest in the old detective (McKellen was aged to 93 with superb makeup).
Holmes travels to Japan to obtain some “prickly ash,” which is said to jog the memory. He is haunted by his final case, and struggles to remember it as it really happened, not as Dr. Watson wrote it down. Director Condon, teaming with McKellen for the first time since their outstanding Gods and Monsters (1998), sprinkles the thoughtful, low-key movie with flashbacks and memories and uncertainties, revealing slow connections every so often, and leading up to a touching revelation. Many viewers will be disappointed that it’s not a mystery like the Arthur Conan Doyle tales, but it’s deep and satisfying in many other ways. In a clever touch, Nicholas Rowe, the star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), plays a fictional Holmes onscreen in a movie house.
Coffee and Cigarettes (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
One of the coolest directors of all time, New Yorker Jim Jarmusch took what amounts to a break from his feature films and assembled this collection of eleven short films, three of them made earlier in his career and eight of them brand new in 2003. Shot in black-and-white, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) consists of cool people—mainly actors, rock stars, and artists—sitting around, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking. Just like most real-life cafe conversations, some of the talk is funny, and some of it is silly, while some of it is profound and some of it goes nowhere. Often there are disagreements and conflicts. For some it can be a snooze-worthy affair, but the overall effect can also be something like a Zen state.
The earliest short, from 1986, features Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. The 1989 short stars Steve Buscemi and Spike Lee’s siblings Joie and Cinqué Lee, and the 1993 short stars Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. The new segments feature international stars Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé, double Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett giving a tricky performance playing twins, Jack and Meg White of the now-defunct band The White Stripes (“So Jack... you gonna tell me about your Tesla Coil?”), English actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan (drinking tea), and, oddly, RZA and GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan chatting with Bill Murray! Gorgeous artist Renée French also appears in a segment.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Amazon Prime)
For their sixteenth movie, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen echoed their previous films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man, but came up with one of their most nuanced and grounded works. Oscar Isaac (now famous for his role as Poe Dameron in Star Wars) plays the title character, an exasperated, angry folk singer in 1961 who used to be part of a duo and now ekes out a living at little clubs, while crashing on the couches of fans and friends. These are running out, however: Jean (Carey Mulligan) in particular is furious at him for getting her pregnant.
He accepts a session job on a novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and takes a road trip with a nasty jazz musician (John Goodman) and his silent driver (Garrett Hedlund) in search of a career-saving job. Meanwhile, he’s stuck with a cat he was supposed to be watching (long story). Davis has a difficult time selling his music because it’s not easily boxed in or defined; it’s sad and angry and beautiful, which is much like this movie. A key scene is Davis’s audition, singing a powerful tune called “The Death of Queen Jane” (Isaac did his masterful own singing), met with a diffusing response. Not everyone knew what to make of the film in the fall of 2013, but after a couple of viewings and in retrospect, it could be one of the Coens’ finest achievements. Justin Timberlake also sings a few tunes (including the aforementioned novelty song), and Adam Driver—another Star Wars actor—and F. Murray Abraham co-star.
One of the best parts of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s ambitious three hour-plus Grindhouse (2007) was Rodriguez’s fake trailer for a movie called Machete, starring Danny Trejo. It looked like a movie I’d actually want to see, and so it was a great joy that a real movie actually came out a few years later. The plot is a pretty simple betrayal; humble, but tough day laborer Machete (Trejo) accepts a job assassinating an anti-immigration senator (Robert De Niro), but is set up. On the run from just about everyone in sight, he is eventually aided by a pretty immigration agent (Jessica Alba) and an underground revolutionary leader (Michelle Rodriguez).