Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (Netflix)
I’m two more episodes into this very satisfying reboot of the cult classic, and still having a ball. In The Time Travelers (1964), a group of scientists and one doofus lab technician create a time portal to a future wasteland, populated by weird aliens and strange experiments. It’s pretty dull, and perfect fodder for our guys, Jonah (Jonah Ray), Crow (Hampton Yount), and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), to rip it up. They especially let the lab tech guy, “Danny,” who was clearly intended as a kind of lame comedy relief, have it. Avalanche (1978) is something else, though. It’s a much higher-profile movie, with actual stars—Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow, and Robert Forster—and produced by Roger Corman.
It’s a flat, derivative movie, punctuated only by the terrible visual effects, but this episode is unique for two reasons. One is that the movie itself contains nudity, and the way the crew handles it is inspired. The robots fly two remote-control drones across the screen, precisely blocking the potentially offensive regions. (I’m assuming they produced the show with regular broadcast television in mind, hoping to keep it all kid-friendly). Then, Neil Patrick Harris guest stars, playing a magician conducting a long-distance relationship with the evil, but beautiful Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day). They have a fantastic musical number about the many upsides of never actually being in the same room with one another. Onward! [Note: Netflix offers this title for download and offline streaming on mobile devices.]
Blue Velvet (Hulu & Amazon Prime)
David Lynch is back in the spotlight with his newly rebooted Twin Peaks TV series, and at the same time Hulu and Amazon Prime are offering one of his most celebrated movies, Blue Velvet (1986). It’s certainly a movie of its time, but as a descent into the dark soul of white, suburban America, it’s rather unprecedented, and still powerful. Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, a clean-cut college kid who returns to his hometown, Lumberton, after his father suffers a heart attack. Walking home from the hospital, he discovers a severed ear in a vacant lot. He takes it to the police, and reconnects with the police detective’s pretty daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). She tells him about a mysterious woman, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who may be involved in something shady.
With Sandy’s help, Jeffrey breaks into Dorothy’s apartment, and winds up deep in trouble, involved with a sinister, sadistic man named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped Dorothy’s child. Dean Stockwell as Ben, a strange friend of Frank’s who does a lip-sync to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Lynch is one of a very few filmmakers that understands the slippery, sinking logic of nightmares and can effectively translate them to the screen, using primal, spooky imagery, sound, and other techniques. This is a masterpiece. Dennis Hopper received an Oscar nomination that year, but for Hoosiers and not Blue Velvet (I think his expletive-laden dialogue would not have made for good Oscar show viewing). Lynch, however, received a Best Director nomination, for the correct film.
The Girl with All the Gifts (Amazon Prime)
Based on a novel by Mike Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (2017) is a different kind of zombie movie, trying out a few fresh ideas and, like the best zombie movies, staying rooted in human concerns. The movie unravels its dystopian future slowly, introducing small details a little at a time rather than large chunks of exposition. Sennia Nanua stars as the “girl with all the gifts,” Melanie. She’s a zombie and craves human flesh, but like several other children, she can walk and talk and operate as a human. She and her fellow child-zombies are chained to desks and given lessons by teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton), while scientist Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) searches for a cure.
Of course, as with most other zombie films that begin with a supposedly “contained” situation, there’s a breach, and suddenly military types Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) and soldier Kieran (Fisayo Akinade) are helping Melanie, Helen, and Caroline escape cross-country, seeking shelter and safety. Director Colm McCarthy (a veteran of TV’s Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Peaky Blinders) creates a memorable world here, from the gray, cavernous, prison-like military complex, to the outer world, overgrown and crumbling, with the zombie virus growing in creepy spores. Not to mention the hungry zombies lurking everywhere. Young Sennia Nanua’s performance is key; she’s wise and polite, and singlehandedly raises the question of what it really means to be human.
Magnolia (Amazon Prime)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are growing ever-more important and ever more ponderous, and it seems unlikely that he will ever recapture the majesty of this incredible, humanistic, century-ending epic; Magnolia (1999) is beautifully sustained, with sharply-drawn characters, and yet its worldview is cosmic, and nearly lunatic. A narrator (Ricky Jay) begins the three-hour-plus film by describing several astounding coincidences before we meet the characters. Philip Baker Hall plays the host of a kids’ TV quiz show, and William H. Macy plays a grown-up former contestant. Jason Robards plays a man dying of cancer, Julianne Moore plays his younger wife, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the male nurse looking after him.
John C. Reilly plays a cop investigating a possible murder and falling for Melora Walters. Then, there’s TV motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who does an uncomfortably revealing sit-down interview with a reporter. Things progress, with the characters discovering things about each other before something truly astonishing happens. Anderson was only 29 when he made it, and it shows the skill of a much more seasoned filmmaker. It was released in December of 1999, and not many folks knew quite what to make of it right away, especially given its enigmatic title and poster. However, it did earn three Oscar nominations, one for Aimee Mann’s song “Save Me” (actually used in the film for a specific reason), one for Cruise as Best Supporting Actor, and one for Anderson’s screenplay.