Malcolm X (Crackle)
When I first saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), I had just finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and felt that Denzel Washington was not quite right for the role; with his dazzling smile, he seemed too kind, too charming, and not quite a powerful leader. But when I saw it again, I saw more of what Washington had actually accomplished in his Oscar-nominated performance, and I understood the greatness of the movie. Lee’s direction is flashy, but at the same time, it’s epic and personal, intimate and spectacular. It’s a masterful meeting of a great storyteller and a great story. It follows Malcom from his early days as a carefree youngster (the movie starts with a primary-colored dance number!), embarking on a life of crime, marrying a white woman, and going to jail.
He begins following the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.), marries Betty (Angela Bassett), and realizes the error of his ways. He converts to Sunni Islam, and makes his journey to Mecca, where he realizes that all people have the same capacity for empathy and tolerance, and the same right of equality. Lee’s 200-minute production cannily uses archival footage and music of the period, all edited in a glorious, kinetic, powerful tapestry. It’s helpful to remember that Lee had to fight for the opportunity to even make this; it was originally assigned to a white director. Hence, it has become an important part of cinema history, as well as a part of history itself. It is essential viewing. Predictably, it was overlooked at the Oscars, with just a nomination for Washington, and a second one for Best Costume Design.
The Falcon and the Snowman (TubiTV) [4 stars]
This underrated thriller from the 1980s has become weirdly relevant again. Past Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) crafted a true story about two all-American guys, Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee, who met as altar boys and began selling secrets to the Russians. The filmmakers take their time, focusing on small details and moments rather than large sweeps of time, and manage to thoughtfully capture just how these ordinary guys might have slowly gone bad.
Timothy Hutton plays Boyce, who enjoys falconry—hence the “falcon”—and who lands a job in civilian defense thanks to his father. Sean Penn gives an astonishing performance as Lee, whose pinched, squealing delivery barely hides his insecurities behind a fake swagger. He’s called the “snowman” because he’s a ratty drug dealer who likes to partake of his own product; he’s also the one who does the legwork, making contacts at the Russian embassy in Mexico. It’s an uncommonly smart and suspenseful movie that never resorts to dumb action sequences. Jazz man Pat Metheny composed the score, and David Bowie recorded the great theme song, “This Is Not America.”
Old Joy (Fandor)
Kelly Reichardt is not only one of America’s best female directors currently working, but also one of its best directors, of any gender. After making the micro-budget, barely seen debut River of Grass, she set her sights a bit higher with the marvelous Old Joy (2006). It tells the story of two 30-somethings who go on a camping trip in the Oregon woods, heading for a hidden hot springs. The bearded, paunchy, free spirit Kurt (musician Will Oldham) invites his old pal, Mark (Daniel London), hoping for some fun, but also hoping to rekindle their sputtering friendship. (The title refers to a Chinese proverb that states: “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”)
This all sounds like the makings of a typical, feel-good indie (with some warm, alt-rock tunes on the soundtrack), but Reichardt is much better than that, and her film is far more profound. Her camera spends time lingering, catching seemingly unimportant details—long shots looking out onto nature from the confines of the car window, or an abandoned couch littering the campsite—but they somehow add up to something more. Her characters communicate realistically, awkwardly, although moments of truth cannot fail to come out on their own. The hot springs provides a surprising, mature, and satisfying conclusion, a rumination on friendship and life that says more than most films even dare.
Doctor Strange (Vudu)
The 14th (!) film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe/Avengers series, Doctor Strange (2016) raises some interesting questions. Its director, Scott Derrickson, has only previously made horror films, and none of them very interesting; how can he make the jump to a big-budgeted superhero spectacular like this one, and how can it be so good? How does this series in particular maintain such high quality of character and entertainment when they are coming out so fast? Who is really in charge here? (If the answer is “Joss Whedon,” then I guess the mystery is cleared up.)
In any case, the much-loved Benedict Cumberbatch makes a great Doctor Strange, bringing tons of charm and humor to his role as an arrogant surgeon who, seeking a way to mend his injured hands, stumbles upon Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and changes his life. There are plenty of fights and explosions (perhaps too many?), but the movie also looks amazing, with astounding set and costume designs and tumbling, twirling visual effects, as well as silliness and humility. This is the kind of mystic thing that, if it had been presented seriously, could have been a disastrous bore. But as it is, it’s colorful, refreshing fun. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Benjamin Bratt co-star.