This week’s collection of streaming movies now available online will have you appreciating the breadth of craft that goes into this wholly entertaining artform
The importance of a strong screenplay, for instance, is made evident in two clever time-travels films: Uncertainty and Timecrimes. Well-written dialogue delights in the classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the inimitable Pulp Fiction. A famous screenwriter himself makes for compelling source material in Trumbo, earning actor Bryan Cranston his first Oscar nomination.
Indeed, there’s a whole host of notable performances on display this week’s movies—from Marilyn Monroe to Johnny Depp to a still-formidable 70-something Robert Mitchum to John Cazale, who impressed in every role of his too-short life, as you will see in a documentary about the actor.
Or take pleasure in Jim Henson’s multi-faceted mastery in The Muppet Movie; Jim Jarmusch’s uniquely bizarre vision in Dead Men; or the spectacle that is Conan the Barbarian. Note, too, the amazing music soundtracks in all three of these movies.
We could go on, but you get the picture. Plus, our words can’t compare to the experience of actually watching these flicks. So get to it.
The Fundamentals of Caring (Netflix)
This new Netflix original movie doesn’t really break any boundaries; it’s a road movie about a young man with muscular dystrophy and a middle-aged man who is looking for meaning in his life. It even has a sassy runaway girl who joins them. But somehow, perhaps because of the casting, or perhaps because of the gentle touch by director Rob Burnett (a former writer for David Letterman), The Fundamentals of Caring (2016) comes across as likably warm and funny. Ben (Paul Rudd) is in the middle of a divorce after a terrible tragedy. Trevor (Craig Roberts, from Submarine) is 18 years old, in a wheelchair, and has developed an acerbic, and disagreeably limited, outlook on life. He has his safe routines and hates to break them.
So, of course, Ben takes Trevor on the road to see things like the World’s Largest Pit and the World’s Largest Cow. Along the way they meet said sassy runaway, Dot (Selena Gomez), who shakes things up a bit, as well as the pregnant Peaches (Megan Ferguson), who, it goes without saying, will go into labor at the least convenient time. It all sounds very dismally routine, but the movie skillfully avoids anything syrupy or maudlin and benefits from the lighthearted, almost cuddly ride, not to mention some lovely on-the-road scenery. It helps that both Rudd and Roberts are at the top of their game. It’s worth a watch, but stock up on Slim Jims first.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Netflix)
One of the greatest of all Hollywood directors, Howard Hawks was known for his ability to take on many different genres (westerns, screwball comedies, detective stories, gangster stories, historical epics, etc.) and to tell his stories with a remarkable sense of clarity and fluidity. They always had an emotional impact, were always based on Hawks’s personal codes of honor and camaraderie, and had an equal fondness for women and men.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) was his only musical (and he reportedly had help on some of the singing/dancing parts, including the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”) but it’s a full-color, full-blooded event, full of zany life and clever ideas. Movie goddesses Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell star as blonde Lorelei and brunette Dorothy, boarding an ocean liner and looking for love: Lorelei with someone rich and Dorothy with someone good-looking. And, of course, nothing goes as expected. The best dialogue exchange goes thusly: “Suppose the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Which one of them do you save from drowning?” “Those girls couldn’t drown.” Charles Coburn is terrific as a dopey diamond mine magnate.
The sadly unsung writing/directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, The Deep End, Bee Season, and What Maisie Knew) routinely turn in smart, nuanced independent dramas, the kind I always wish would get made more often. Their Uncertainty (2008) was barely even released, and was inspired by all those “alternate reality” movies of the late 1990s, things like Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors. The few who saw it didn’t seem to care for it much, but it’s undeniably interesting, and with some fine performances.
A New York couple, Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins), are hanging out on the Brooklyn Bridge on the Fourth of July. They’re supposed to go to Kate’s family party, but they’re also wondering what might happen if they do something spontaneous instead. They flip a coin, and the movie follows both paths. On the way to the party, they find a stray dog, and then the party turns into a drama of unspoken tensions and secrets. In the other story, they skip the party, catch a cab and find a forgotten cell phone. Trying to return it to its owner, they find themselves embroiled in an adrenaline-fueled thriller involving the Russian mafia! The bizarre, totally mismatched cross between the two storytelling styles is the key to this, a kind of commentary on storytelling itself, and Gordon-Levitt and Collins are up for the challenge. Olivia Thirlby also stars.
Pulp Fiction (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
By now, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) has taken its place among the Great American Movies, which means that it could be considered something more like a classroom assignment than an actual entertainment. And, in truth, it certainly is one of the most entertaining of all great movies. It’s also, if any movie ever was, worthy of multiple viewings. In telling these stories of killers, thieves, gangsters, molls, boxers, and drug-dealers, the movie is exceedingly clever about what it shows as well as what it does not show.
Tarantino—and, let’s not forget, co-writer Roger Avary—deliberately, incredibly, take every story into totally unexpected directions. They set up stories that may seem familiar, but veer into detours, perpendicular threads, and even mess with time itself. In the bigger picture, it also serves as a commentary, a critique, on the nature of moviemaking and storytelling; it’s as smart and self-aware as it is primal and enthralling. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson earned Oscar nominations as a pair of hitmen, Uma Thurman was also nominated as the girlfriend of a mob boss (Ving Rhames), and Bruce Willis is a boxer who is never seen in the ring. Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Frank Whaley, Rosanna Arquette, Eric Stoltz, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Maria de Medeiros, Peter Greene, Harvey Keitel, Julia Sweeney, and Tarantino himself co-star.
Trumbo (Amazon Prime)
This biopic celebrates the life of Dalton Trumbo, who was—and still is, in some quarters—considered the greatest Hollywood screenwriter of all time, having written things like Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and Exodus. He was also one of the “Hollywood Ten,” persecuted and imprisoned for his beliefs during the Communist Scare of the 1950s. The movie can’t escape the all-too-typical biopic formula, hitting highlights and missing out on nuance, but it benefits from three unique elements. First, it’s helmed by a comedy director, Jay Roach, best known for the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies. As such, it has a lighter—and less self-important—touch.
Second, it features a powerhouse performance by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. And third, the screenplay by John McNamara is filled with wonderfully zippy, snappy dialogue, much of it given to Cranston, but a large portion allotted to John Goodman as the sleazy Frank King, a B-movie producer who employs Trumbo during his blacklist period. So, yes, the movie is quite funny, but it’s also a powerful reminder of what can happen if fear gets in the way of freedom. Diane Lane co-stars as Trumbo’s wife and Elle Fanning as his daughter. Michael Stuhlbarg is actor Edward G. Robinson, Helen Mirren is a flat-out evil gossip-columnist Hedda Hopper, and Alan Tudyk is screenwriter (and “front”) Ian McLellan Hunter. Louis C.K. also stars.
Dead Man (Amazon Prime)
Jim Jarmusch’s bizarre, black-and-white “acid” Western Dead Man (1995) was one of the most unique movies of the 1990s, so unlike anything else that it was largely ignored when Miramax quietly released it in theaters in 1996. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake (he shares the same name as the 18th century English poet); he’s an accountant traveling by train to the frontier town of Machine for a job. When he gets there, no job exists. He ends up shot after an altercation in a bar. The bullet is lodged next to his heart, cannot be removed, and Blake’s time is limited. An American Indian called “Nobody” (Gary Farmer) finds him and—believing him to be the reincarnated poet—decides to take him to the ocean so that his spirit can find peace.
At the same time, Blake is wanted, hunted by the law and various bounty hunters. Their journey is deadpan and surreal, including a “vision quest” for Blake, and populated by an amazing cast of weirdos and misfits (Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Lance Henriksen, Billy Bob Thorton, and a 70-something Robert Mitchum, still commanding the screen). Robby Muller’s black-and-white cinematography is a thing of glory, emphasizing grit and grime and hopelessness; it’s an unromanticized vision of the West. Neil Young’s rough, wailing guitar score completes the feeling of discomfort, letting us know every step of the way that this is not a typically fluffy, cuddly hero’s journey. It was a flop, but many came to its defense, and more continue to discover its worth.
Conan the Barbarian (Crackle)
Two of Hollywood’s looniest and most provocative filmmakers, writer Oliver Stone and writer/director John Milius, teamed up to adapt pulp writer Robert E. Howard’s red-blooded stories to the big screen for the first time. In Conan the Barbarian (1982), Conan’s parents are murdered and he is enslaved, chained to the Wheel of Pain. He pushes it in circles for years until he grows huge muscles and looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He escapes, teams up with Subotai the Mongol (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria, Queen of the Thieves (Sandahl Bergman), the latter of whom wears skimpy outfits and big boots. After some time spent stealing, drinking, and (ahem) in the bedroom, he sets off, seeking revenge against the one who killed his parents, Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).
Glazed with a legendary, heroic score by Basil Poledouris, the movie looks like it was carved out with clubs and axes and broadswords. It’s brutal and heavy and dreary and more than a bit self-important, and at least one critic in writing about it referenced Leni Riefenstahl. But it’s also a primal, adolescent fantasy, and it somehow manages to capture the spirit of the stories and manages, here and there, to be fun. Max von Sydow co-stars as the king. A much more lighthearted, breezy sequel, Richard Fleischer’s Conan the Destroyer (1984)—which received a PG rating to this one’s R rating—is also available on Crackle. Both are recommended far more highly than the wretched 2011 version.
The Red Violin (TubiTV)
This small-scale epic crosses 300 years and several continents and languages to tell the beautiful, heartfelt story of the title musical instrument, said to be the most acoustically perfect thing ever created. Created in tragedy, and carrying the spirit of its creator’s dead wife, the violin travels through Italy, England, China, and Canada, passing through the hands of various owners and musicians, until it winds up at an auction in the late 1990s. There, Samuel L. Jackson plays expert Charles Morritz who wants the very special violin for himself; also at the auction are several other players connected to its long history.
Of course, the violin is only the catalyst, and the movie is actually about the people, troubled, proud, humble, passionate, and otherwise. It’s all quite exciting, even if it dips into conventional plot turns from time to time. Carlo Cecchi plays the builder of the instrument, and Jean-Luc Bideau, Jason Flemyng, Greta Scacchi, and Sylvia Chang all come into contact with it. Co-writer Don McKellar and writer/director Francois Girard (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould) created their movie in impressive, intricate, craftsmanlike detail (at the same time as they both worked on McKellar’s directorial effort, Last Night). The Red Violin (1998) won an Oscar for Best Score.
I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (Fandor)
With the recent passing of director Michael Cimino, it’s time to revisit the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009). It begins with a photo of the cast of The Godfather being shown to average moviegoers; they are able to identify most of the actors in the photo except for John Cazale, who played Fredo Corleone. Regardless, Cazale was one of the most respected actors of his generation. By the time he died of cancer in 1978 at age 42, he had appeared in only five films, and all five of them had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. They were The Godfather (1972), Dog Day Afternoon (1973), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978).