Well, friends, spring is in the air (occasional lingering thundersnow aside), and Easter weekend is upon us, which could mean several things for you: participation in some sort of egg hunt, consumption of massive quantities of chocolate and sugar, a biannual visit to some sort of house of worship. Or it might just mean hanging out on the couch/in bed all weekend like it’s any other weekend. Your Flavorwire can’t help much with the first batch of items, but if you’re vegging out this holiday weekend, we’ve got a handful of noteworthy titles that have arrived (either for the first time, or for a return stint) over the past couple of weeks over at Netflix. Click through, fill your queue, and clear a day or two.
Flavorwire favorite Brie Larson is just plain marvelous, transforming from an unknowable puzzle to a character of astonishing openness and vulnerability, in this indie drama from director Destin Cretton. The setting is a foster care facility for teens, a wellspring of high drama and emotional intensity; it’s the kind of place where anyone can lose their grip at any time (including the staff). Cretton’s direction is personal and close (he worked at a similar facility himself), sometimes uncomfortably so, and he coaxes rich, nuanced performances out of his excellent cast.
Jason Osder’s gripping documentary offers no narration and no current interviews, relying solely on archival footage to present his minute-by-minute tick-tock of the May 1985 standoff between the city of Philadelphia and the radical group MOVE. It culminated in the Philadelphia Police Department, with the approval of the mayor and district attorney, firebombing MOVE’s residential headquarters, killing 11 people and burning 61 homes in the process. It was, in retrospect, a kind of proto-Waco — law enforcement action against an arguably cult-like group with disturbing tendencies, but a response way out of proportion to the situation at hand. By letting the images and participants speak for themselves, Osder tells the story in a clear, fair, straightforward manner, and the results are powerful, thought-provoking, and infuriating.
Writer/director Hannah Fidell tells the story of a high school teacher in the midst of a sexual affair with one of her students, but don’t let that eyebrow-raising logline fool you. A Teacher is less an exploitative excuse for May-December voyeurism or “hot for teacher” fantasy than a thoughtful, modest character study — and a showcase for a terrific young actress named Lindsay Burdge. Fidell’s unblinking gaze conveys the dynamics of the relationship masterfully; the sex we see is adequate but not exceptional, indicating that both are more turned on by the affair’s taboo nature than by some kind of unstoppable electricity between them. And it’s interesting to note how the relationship brings her down to his level instead of vice versa (sexting, jealousy, school dances, and sneaking around). Fidell knows we’re waiting for them to step in it, and much of the film’s narrative power comes from how the filmmaker pokes at that expectation.
Travis Matthews and James Franco’s documentary/fiction hybrid comes advertised as an “imagining” of the 40 explicit minutes cut from William Friedkin’s controversial gay serial killer thriller Cruising, but that’s a bit of a bait and switch; though there is some re-staged/re-imagined footage (and some of it is graphic), it’s nowhere near the 40 minutes we’re led to expect. Instead, most of Interior‘s running time is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of that re-creation, in a pseudo-documentary style, with ever-expanding questions of the degree to which it has all been scripted. A little bit of that goes a long way, and it puts stress on our trust of the filmmakers, but this is nowhere near the insufferable navel-gaze of Franco’s last faux-doc, the already-forgotten Francophrenia. And there are some genuine and provocative conversations here about sex on screen (both straight and gay), and how we relate to it.
Now that everyone loves the Fargo TV series, can we start talking about other Coen movies that are ripe for television adaptation? I, for one, would never miss an episode of a vintage Hollywood satire (think a West Coast Mad Men, 30 years earlier) wherein earnest, socially conscious playwright Barton Fink has to sell his soul to the studios every week, and occasionally encounters drunken heroes and bellowing neighbors and early sniffs of Nazi penetration. Would you? (Point is, if you haven’t, watch the movie. It’s one of the Coens’ weirdest, and that’s saying something.)
God knows which version they’ve got up (there’s like 23 of them), but in contrast to another iconic sci-fi film from 1977, every variation to Steven Spielberg’s classic does, at the very least, something interesting. Spielberg’s look at an encounter with alien life lays much of the groundwork for E.T. five years later, but fuses that wonder with a ground-level, Jaws sensibility, thanks in no small part to another wonderful Richard Dreyfuss performance. The Devil’s Tower climax remains a jaw-dropper.
Michael Mann’s 2001 Muhammad Ali biopic was met with weirdly mixed reviews, and it broke Will Smith’s box-office winning streak, but time has been kind: it shows Mann mid-stream in his transition to a more intimate, digital-heavy filmmaking; the cast (particularly Smith and Jamie Foxx, in one of his first serious roles) is, to a person, excellent; and Mann’s decision to focus on a key period in the champ’s life (1964-1974) allows greater depth than a sweeping, all-in narrative would have. And all of those elements aside, its ten-minute opening sequence — a combination of biographical background, training montage, and Sam Cooke performance — is simply electrifying.
A Fistful of Dollars gets love as the groundbreaker, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly as the epic, but your film editor has always had a soft spot for the middle picture in Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, which finds the filmmaker and the actor stretching their legs a bit and really starting to explore the kind of places a Spaghetti Western could go. It’s dark and grimy, yet wickedly entertaining (and not without its fair share of deadpan humor), and the action sequences maintain their considerable kick.
Campbell Scott turns in the best performance you’ve never seen in this 2002 comedy/drama from writer/director Dylan Kidd. Scott plays Roger Swanson, a swaggering ladies man and business type whose 16-year-old nephew (Jesse Eisenberg, in his film debut) comes to town for a visit, so of course Uncle Roger takes the kid out cruising for sex. It’s a darkly funny journey into the Manhattan night, and Scott is a marvel, deftly crafting his detailed portrait of a man who thinks fast, talks fast, and almost believes his own bullshit.
Fusing the story and sensuality of Norman Jewison’s 1968 original with a To Catch A Thief-style Hitchcockian elegance, director John McTiernan (Die Hard) re-imagines corporate titan and gentleman thief Thomas Crown as an art enthusiast rather than a bank robber, and amps up the considerable sexual tension with thicker psychological subtext (some of it thanks to Faye Dunaway, the original film’s leading lady, this time playing our protagonist’s dry-witted therapist). Plus, he ends it with one of the great caper climaxes in all of film, a beautifully prepared, marvelously executed “reverse-heist,” deliciously decked out in snazzy editing, slick photography, and sounds of Nina Simone warbling “Sinnerman.”
Director Alan Parker (Fame) helms this bizarre, twisty, moodily effective mash-up of neo-noir and supernatural thriller. Mickey Rourke plays a lowdown private detective (is there any other kind?) who takes on a seemingly innocent job for a rather sinister client (Robert De Niro, engaging in a bit of scenery chewing). But the simple missing-person case takes him down a dark path, leading to voodoo rituals, grisly murders, a naked Lisa Bonet, and the Devil himself. It’s a nutso movie, but damned if you can take your eyes off it.
These first five Rocky movies (the sixth, Rocky Balboa, is owned by a different studio) pop on and off Netflix Instant fairly frequently, but they’re worth revisiting in light of the surprisingly wonderful new Broadway musical. They’re rather peculiar to watch back-to-back; in spite of the fact that they’re the work of only two directors, the style and voice of the pictures varies wildly from one to the next. That may be part of why they’re so valuable — not as great cinema (though some of them are), but as a cultural artifacts. Few (if any) motion picture series so thoroughly encapsulates where conventional Hollywood picture-making was when each film was released; we can view the first Rocky as a perfect representation of the kind of quiet, personal cinema that was all the rage in 1976, just as Rocky IV is exactly the kind of glossy, soundtrack-driven, empty-headed bullshit that we all wanted to stick in our eye-holes in 1985. Each movie pretty much tells you everything you need to know about where we were as a movie-going populace at the time it came out — for better or for worse. The best, obviously, is in the initial outing, which features a remarkable (Oscar-nominated) performance by Stallone and reflects the style and tone of the character-driven dramas so often seen in the mid-1970s — movies like Fat City, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Mean Streets, from which director John G. Avildsen lifts much of the picture’s decaying urban aesthetic. If you’re looking for pure corn, though, go with Rocky IV, a 90-minute music video where Rocky wins the Cold War. By this point, the series is so reliant on montages that it actually features, at around the halfway point, a montage of clips from all of the movies, including the one we’re in the middle of.
As we gear up for the long-awaited fourth season of Louie, Netflix has just brought back his finest hour of stand-up, an uproarious 2008 exploration of language, health, race, women, and 9/11. But his best material — and that which would redefine his onstage persona — is the middle slab about fatherhood, wherein he finds a perfect mixture of wonder and bitterness at his kids and their bullshit. Louie had been doing standup since the 1980s, with much of his early material within the realm of oddball surrealism, but his true gifts became apparent when he got awkwardly personal, a style that would translate to Louie (which debuted two years later).