Spring is arriving, so it seems fitting that several of this week’s streaming selections take the action outdoors, whether it’s telling the story of a couple sisters turned wannabee train robbers, or following a college baseball team in the last few days of summer, or exploring a black family living in the Louisiana Bayou.
Some movies ask you to ponder heavy subjects, like assisted suicide or children’s fear of abandonment. And some on this list are just plain goofy.
If you were heading into the weekend without any firm plans, consider the matter closed.
Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (Netflix)
Netflix continues its Sundance spree, snapping up this unusual, amusing little crime film/family story and giving it an exclusive release. In Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (2017), older sister Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) is the top student in her miserable little high school, and while making money selling essays and test answers to fellow students, she prepares to head off to college with a well-earned scholarship. Unfortunately her mother (Danielle Nicolet) suddenly snaps inside a consumer electronics store, smashes a TV, and goes to prison. Deidra finds herself supporting her younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow) and their action-figure-loving younger brother (Lance Gray).
Thanks to an idea from their estranged, dim, lazy, but good-hearted father (David Sullivan), Deidra decides to rob the train that rolls past their ratty backyard, and sell the goods for money. Deidra secretly keeps some of the money for her college fund, while Laney has trouble at school, as she’s unexpectedly entered into a beauty pageant against her self-absorbed best friend. Tim Blake Nelson is hilariously mean and petty as a railroad detective, and Missi Pyle is her usual chirpy, funny self as a teacher. Director Sydney Freeland can’t help giving this the “indie cutes,” but it’s certainly refreshing to see a movie about smart women and mixed-race couples that doesn’t even need to acknowledge these things. It’s a zippy, appealingly off-kilter comedy that offers a pleasant evening’s entertainment. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Million Dollar Baby (Netflix)
Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) quietly opened at the tail-end of its year with a minimum of hype, quickly astonished critics, and impressed Oscar voters enough that they passed over the favorite, Sideways, and awarded it with Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor. Its great trick is that it manages to tackle a controversial topic, whether a person should have the right to be taken off life support—essentially assisted suicide—under certain circumstances. But it does this swiftly, and without hemming and hawing, well after the characters have punched their way into our hearts.
Up to then, it tells the story of a tough, determined female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, who won her second Oscar), who asks to train with the crusty veteran Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Frankie runs his gym with ex-boxer Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), with whom he shares a warm bond, but a regretful past. Maggie has a meteoric rise, until something goes horribly wrong. Freeman narrates, giving the movie a classically masculine dime-store, pulp-fiction feel, and Eastwood directs with brisk simplicity, recalling old masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann; his most no-frills work results in some of the most powerful moments. In addition to its four Oscars, it received three other nominations, an acting nod for Eastwood, one for Paul Haggis’s adapted screenplay, and one for Joel Cox’s crisp editing.
Pete’s Dragon (Netflix)
Walt Disney Studios is currently enjoying a new round of successes, adapting old animated features into new, updated, part-live-action, part-computer-animation remakes. Already Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and the current Beauty and the Beast are huge hits, but somehow, this delightful re-tread of a bizarre 1970s film didn’t catch on. As directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Pete’s Dragon (2016) has a gentle, lyrical feel; it focuses on wonder and discovery in an age when most children’s films focus on noise, flashy color, and fast movement. After a car crash, a young boy is left stranded in the woods; he is saved by Elliot, a friendly dragon, with great big front paws like cuddly bean-bag chairs.
A few years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been raised apart from any humans; one day he spies a forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), and before long, he has been “rescued.” But Grace’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, a lumber man, Gavin (Karl Urban), has seen the dragon and sets out to capture it. Wes Bentley plays Grace’s fiance, and Robert Redford plays a delightful old codger who claims to have once seen the dragon himself and regales the town’s children with stories of his encounter. The final escape/chase feels more enchanting than it does frantic or hyperactive. Whatever the reason for this movie’s under-performing, now is the perfect time to give it another chance.
Though Henry Selick was the actual director of the movie called Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), he—understandably—never received the credit he deserved. On the other hand, Coraline (2009) is unmistakably his, and it could well be the best animated feature made in the past decade. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s children’s book, Coraline is an incredible stop-motion animation that delves right into some of childhood’s darkest fears, the kind that most movies avoid. The main character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) moves with her parents to a weird new building; while her mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) and father (voiced by John Hodgman) are busy and paying no attention to her, Coraline goes exploring.
She meets some weird neighbors, the weird kid Wybie (voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.), and an even weirder cat. She also finds a little door, which leads to an alternate universe. There, her mother and father are kind and generous and much cooler than her real parents, except that they have buttons for eyes. And they want her to join them. The images of the button eyes and the idea of false parents, abandoned children, etc., are right out of primal nightmares, and the movie handles them exactly right. The animation was designed for 3D, but rather than popping out of the screen, the images were designed to sink in, for a creepier effect. This was the first feature from the amazing Laika Studios (ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings). [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]