Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale might seem too frighteningly post-apocalyptic —and too relevant—to watch, but I checked out the first few episodes, and it’s positively gripping. Still, if that’s not your cup of tea, there are 11 other worthy streaming choices here, including plenty of laughter—from stand-up to sit-down comedians—plus some singing (heavy metal), and dancing (penguins).
There’s also a weird 1970s detective and a deranged 1990s baseball fan, crazy killer toys, and crazy killer monkeys. Or, if your taste runs a little toward the daring, there’s a renowned Stanley Kubrick war movie and an amazing French film about a man who writes an entire book using only his eye to communicate. Finally, there’s a classic swashbuckling action movie that’s so spectacular, it gives today’s blockbusters a run for their (considerable) money.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (Netflix)
Though a million things like it spill across YouTube today, there was only one original. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the kind of show that die-hard fans would record on VHS tapes, trade, and show at parties. The idea was simple: A man (at first creator Joel Hodgson, then, later, Mike Nelson) is trapped on a satellite, held prisoner by mad scientists, and forced to watch bad movies. As the movies show, he and his two robots, Crow and Tom Servo (voiced by various actors), appear in silhouette at the bottom of the screen, sitting among a row of seats, and make funny comments over the soundtracks. Now, thanks to fan furor and crowdfunding, Netflix has launched 12 brand-new 90-minute episodes, entitled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (2017).
Writer, comedian, and podcaster Jonah Ray takes the lead role, dreamgirl Felicia Day plays the head villainess, and Patton Oswalt is her henchman. Aside from a new widescreen-TV look and a few other updates (Servo can now fly inside the screening room, and a third robot, Gypsy, also makes appearances), the show is largely the same, and just as funny. As always, it has the power to knock you off guard with a silly comment, and then keep you off-balance as it bombards you with more silliness; you can sometimes laugh for minutes on end. The first movie, Reptilicus (1961)—from Denmark—is tragically awful, with many of the watchers’ barbs leveled at a doofus lab assistant. Stick around for a catchy rap song, “Every Country Has a Monster.” Sci-fi veterans Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray also appear in the first episode. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Netflix)
This documentary starts off almost like a parody, then becomes something more psychological, and finishes up as unexpectedly moving. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009) tells the story of Canadian metal band Anvil, which was formed by childhood friends Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow (singer and guitarist) and Robb Reiner (drums), both in their 50s here. In the 1980s, they played alongside hot acts like the Scorpions and Whitesnake, and their speedy riffs are said to have inspired Metallica and Megadeth, but as all those other bands went on to fame, selling millions of albums, Anvil languished in relative obscurity. The documentary meets them as they record their 13th album, This Is Thirteen, and go on a rather pathetic tour.
Lips and Reiner fight and make up several times, but Lips remains full of hope and rock ‘n’ roll dreams, even as he goes to work at his day job as a delivery man. As directed by fan Sacha Gervasi, the movie has eerie parallels to This Is Spinal Tap, beginning with the fact that Robb Reiner’s name is only one letter off from Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner, and culminating in a real-life trip to Stonehenge. But it also moves into Metallica: Some Kind of Monster territory before it eventually, touchingly, ends up as its own special thing. Since the success of this documentary, the band has been able to keep going, releasing a few more albums and taking their deserved place as a cult band. Lemmy from Motorhead, Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses, and Lars Ulrich from Metallica all make appearances. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Louis C.K. 2017 (Netflix)
Comedian Louis C.K., who famously started as a writer for others before taking up the microphone, is at the top of his game in this brilliant, masterful 75-minute comedy special, a Netflix original. Taking the stage amidst applause, he opens with, “Thank you. Thank you. Here’s what I think about abortion.” This line of thinking leads to suicide. “The whole world is made of people who didn’t kill themselves today,” he says. But somehow, as aggressive as this may seem, as potentially incendiary and controversial, Louis C.K. manages to find some kind of logical, reasonable middle road between extremes, and by the end of any given segment, viewers will be nodding as much as laughing.
The comedian himself directs the new special, with very few frills. He’s on a dark stage with a few orange-colored dotted lights behind him. He wears a nice suit, and his performance is expertly modulated, ranging from grins, authoritative speaking, character voices, and sound effects (the sound of a garbage bag taped to a car window is choice). The material goes on to cover some of his more familiar topics, including being a father, relationships with women, etc., as well as religion (Jesus gets some time in the spotlight), hotel rooms, email fights, winding up with, of course, penises. But in-between, as with all the great comedy shows, he lets on just a little bit more of who he really is behind the act. [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Netflix)
This movie sounded like something to stay far away from. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) is a “based on a true story,” “disease of the week” movie about a man suffering from a debilitating stroke who can only move his left eye; it’s in French, and directed by an American with two other fairly dull films under his belt. Yet director (and noted artist) Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) somehow magically made it into one of the best films of its year, and a movie to be remembered. Mathieu Amalric plays a very chic fashion magazine editor, living life on the fast track. After his stroke, he is almost totally paralyzed, able to move only his left eye. This is the story of how he managed to write a book; that book was then adapted into this movie.
Screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and Schnabel stage large portions of the film from the main character’s point of view; his eye tracks around the room, he blinks and we can hear his thoughts. (This first-person point-of-view cinema has been tried many times, but rarely as successfully as here.) The main character has a wonderful sense of humor, and his thoughts—which others in the room cannot hear—are comically juxtaposed with what he sees. The movie provides relief in the form of “regular” flashbacks, the most moving of which has Max von Sydow as the hero’s father. The film also features half a dozen astoundingly gorgeous actresses who spend most of the running time gazing lovingly into the camera; it’s hard not to be swept away.
Happy Feet (Netflix)
Many folks agree that Australian director George Miller deserved to win the Best Director Academy Award for his Mad Max: Fury Road, but even though he didn’t, he at least has one on his mantle for Best Animated Feature, for Happy Feet (2006). His is an odd career, ranging from those ultra-violent, dystopian action films to creative family fare like the Babe films and this wonderful dancing-penguin film, but all the films come with a passion for movement that is exciting. In Happy Feet, two Emperor penguins, Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman) fall in love and Mumble (voiced as a baby by E.G. Daily and later by Elijah Wood) is born.
But while most penguins find their “heart song,” and practice their singing, Mumble’s only talent lies in his tap-dancing (Savion Glover was motion captured to provide Mumble’s footwork). This could have led to the typical “be yourself” plotline, but instead, Mumble goes on a journey of adventure and terror, accompanied by Miller’s extraordinarily smooth and thrilling camerawork, soaring through the air or sliding through the water. It’s a movie that revels in the craft of storytelling as well as expression, and it’s irresistible. Robin Williams provides two voices and Brittany Murphy sings and voices Mumble’s love interest, Gloria. The late, great Prince allowed his song “Kiss” to be used and also composed a new song for the film, “The Song of the Heart.” A sequel, Happy Feet Two, followed in 2011, but although it was almost as good, it was received with disdain.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
As with so many shows and movies released in the past few months, The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) probably began production before the election, and whatever post-apocalyptic, dystopian mood the country is in now, the show’s bleak vision of a dark future is only a coincidence, and not necessarily prophetic. What promises to be a 12-episode series (with potentially more episodes in the future?) is based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood. As of this writing, four episodes are available, with new ones released every Wednesday. The story focuses on Offred (Elisabeth Moss), formerly named June in simpler times. After some kind of epidemic that leaves most of the world’s women infertile, only a few women, the “handmaids,” remain that are able to have children.
The wealthy of the world get the privilege of keeping them as something like slaves. The handmaids run errands and occasionally are forced to have sex with the men of the house. When children are born, they immediately go to the rich men’s wives. Writer Bruce Miller and director Reed Morano supply plentiful flashbacks to show how things slowly went wrong, and how things progressed to this point. Meanwhile, Offred meets another handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who has some radical ideas, although they must be careful. At the same time, her master (Joseph Fiennes) has made strange, forbidden advances toward her (he invites her to his private office for a game of Scrabble). It’s grim stuff, to be sure, but with a powerful, gripping, immediate quality. Ann Dowd may be up for awards for her evil portrayal of a handmaid “instructor.”
Monkey Shines (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
Pittsburgher George A. Romero is known for making the zombie genre what it is today, starting with his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and encompassing a cycle of six films to date. But horror is an odd genre. If a filmmaker makes a success, fans don’t want to see anything non-horror from them. But if even a horror movie strays too far from the original formula, it can induce outright scorn. Case in point: Romero’s Monkey Shines (1988)—subtitled “An Experiment in Fear”—is one of his best films, but, since it’s not a zombie film, it rarely gets the credit it deserves.
Law student Allan (Jason Beghe) is a quadriplegic, due to a recent accident. His best friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) has been experimenting, injecting human brain tissue into monkeys, and he decides to train the smartest of the bunch, Ella, as a helper for Allan. Unfortunately, Allan and Ella become very attached to one another and she begins acting out Allan’s innermost desires, usually having something to do with competitive or troublesome females. Janine Turner, Christine Forrest, Joyce Van Patten, and Kate McNeil all become potential targets for Ella’s fangs. In one striking shot, Allan bites through his own lip and Ella licks the blood off. I could have done without the silly epilogue, and the movie doesn’t really have any bone-chilling scares, but Romero’s camera is always in the most potent place, and it’s a tense, clever nail-biter nonetheless.
Small Soldiers (Hulu/Amazon Prime) [4 stars]
This is yet another tragically misunderstood movie from that great American satirist Joe Dante (Gremlins), whose films usually employ cartoons and science fiction to explore (and parody) the most childish, destructive attributes of human nature. The great American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a famous 3,700-word essay comparing two “war” films, Small Soldiers and Saving Private Ryan, both released in July of 1998, finding the former to be a masterpiece and the latter to be a work of “hypocrisy.” Whether he was right or not, Small Soldiers (1998) is certainly a brilliant film, very much worth re-examining. In it, a weapons manufacturing company merges with a toy company, and the CEO (Denis Leary) orders a new line of “smart” toys that can interact with children.
The results are the Commando Elite, led by Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), and the alien Gorgonites, led by Archer (voiced by Frank Langella). Ironically, it turns out that the soldiers are the evil, destructive ones, and the aliens are peaceful and gentle. It’s up to human teens Alan (Gregory Smith) and Christy (Kirsten Dunst) to save the day from the unrelenting, over-the-top, comical chaos that ensues. The late, great Phil Hartman co-stars as Christy’s dad, and, as is the case in nearly all of Dante’s films, B-movie actor Dick Miller appears. Cast members from The Dirty Dozen play members of the Commandos, while cast members from This Is Spinal Tap play Gorgonites.
The Fan (Crackle)
During his lifetime, and up until his tragic suicide in 2012, director Tony Scott collected mostly bad reviews for his 17 features, but in hindsight, many of them are worthy of second looks. At the time, they may have seemed dull-witted and wasteful, but now they lean more toward highly stylized and unpretentious fun. Set in San Francisco, his baseball movie The Fan (1996) received some of his most scathing notices, with critics complaining about the finale, a ball game played in the dark and pouring rain. Yet Robert De Niro effectively revisits the psychopathic stalker roles he perfected in The King of Comedy and Cape Fear, and Wesley Snipes is good as Bobby Rayburn, a $40 million star player newly traded to the SF Giants, and grappling with a mix of cocksure confidence and self-doubt.
De Niro is Gil Renard, a knife salesman who is on the verge of losing his job. At the same time he makes one mistake too many and his ex-wife won’t let him see his son anymore. All he has left is his love of the Giants. When Rayburn goes into a hitting slump, Gil murders fellow player Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro) so that Rayburn can get his lucky number 11 back. Then, when Gil feels he doesn’t get the proper gratitude, he kidnaps Rayburn’s son. His ransom? Rayburn must hit a home run. Then the rain comes. Scott directs with his usual penchant for darkness interrupted by slats of glowing, streaming light. If you can forgive the illogic of it all, it’s tense fun, with some beautiful baseball footage (bonus if you’re a Giants fan). Ellen Barkin is a tough radio DJ who can talk baseball harder than most men, and John Leguizamo is Rayburn’s slick manager. Look fast for Jack Black as a radio technician.
Full Metal Jacket (Crackle)
One of Stanley Kubrick’s most troublesome movies, Full Metal Jacket (1987) caused one of the most memorable fights between film critics Siskel & Ebert on their TV show. Part of the problem is that the film is presented in two distinct halves. Everyone agreed on the power and greatness of the first half, in which Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) trains a bunch of new Marine recruits. The most difficult recruit is the slightly slow, overweight Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom the sergeant nicknames “Gomer Pyle.” Weeks of hounding and abuse cause Pyle to snap, grab a rifle, and begin firing. Many critics compared the sequence to Kubrick’s previous film The Shining, especially the terrifying images of D’Onofrio performing the “Kubrick stare.”
Then, the film’s second half finds the rest of the soldiers, including Private “Joker” (Matthew Modine), in Vietnam. Shot in England, these sequences are markedly different, and weirdly artificial. Of course, authenticity was the benchmark in 1987, given that Oliver Stone’s Platoon had recently won several Oscars, and many other Vietnam films were swarming around, trying to do the same, but this does not necessarily mean that authenticity was the only approach. Taking another look at what Kubrick was up to, examining these dehumanized soldiers, and the crazy juxtapositions that come with war, Full Metal Jacket emerges as a much smarter, more rigorously artistic film than many people initially thought.
The Long Goodbye (TubiTV)
After making his rambunctious smash hit M*A*S*H, which blew apart the war film and a few other genres besides, director Robert Altman was one of the kings of the 1970s. Rather than try to repeat his success, he kept experimenting, exploring new genres, new ideas, and even attempting once to film a dream he had. One of his best and most influential films of the period was The Long Goodbye (1973); Quentin Tarantino is among its many fans. Loosely adapted from a 1953 Raymond Chandler novel, it takes the legendary Philip Marlowe detective character and turns him inside out, placing him in a film that’s both a deconstruction of the crime genre as well as a gripping new kind of crime film.
Set in the 1970s, among hippies, nudists, and pot-smokers, the story starts in a familiar fashion, with an old friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), in trouble and asking Marlowe (Elliott Gould) for a ride. Then, after going to jail for a little while (the film has fun with the fingerprint ink) and trying to feed his fastidious cat, he is hired to find the drunken, Hemingway-like writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden). And, of course, there may be a connection between Wade and Lennox. Nina van Pallandt plays Wade’s wife, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has an early role as a hired thug. Gould gives a strange, terrific performance as Marlowe, very unlike Humphrey Bogart, shabby and sleepy and mumbling most of the time. The great sci-fi/Western writer Leigh Brackett is credited with the screenplay, and John Williams created the clever, teasing score, which repeats the same themes in different musical genres.
The Thief of Bagdad (Fandor)
The season of the big, spectacular, dazzling summer blockbuster movie adventures is nearly here (a couple are already in theaters), so how about a look back at one of the most spectacular and dazzling of all movie adventures? Directed by Raoul Walsh and designed by William Cameron Menzies, The Thief of Bagdad (1924) never fails to impress me. This silent-era classic, not to be confused with the full-color 1940 version, features the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks at his very best. He was one of those guys that did his own stunts, and could he leap and climb! And he could do it with a smile, with a sense of sheer exuberance and joy. Jackie Chan owes him a debt of gratitude, and Chan would be the first to admit it.
Fairbanks plays the thief, Ahmed, who cheerfully snatches whatever he needs from around the city. On a lark, he decides to steal the hand of the princess (Julanne Johnston), away from legitimate suitors, but falls in love with her, and she with him. So she sends the suitors out to procure rare, magical objects, and the one with the best wins. The $2 million film—an astonishing sum at the time—brings in huge sets and massive spaces, both horizontal and vertical, in which the star can frolic; he finally seems to have enough room to stretch out. The visual effects, including a magic carpet, a floating rope, a cloak of invisibility, and a dragon, are still wonderfully imaginative. Anna May Wong, whom many say is the first Asian-American film star, has a scene-stealing early role as a slinky, sexy handmaiden. Fandor presents Kino’s restored version, running a full 2 hours and 31 minutes and including a fine orchestral score.