Islands In The Stream: Week One
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/24/20 03:27:23
Come here every day for a new streaming pick to help while away the time during this pesky pandemic.
Since we are all pretty much keeping inside to ourselves these days and since my work schedule has been largely wiped clean thanks to the temporary cratering of the film industry, I have elected to try to pass the time and fill the void by offering up viewing recommendations of things currently appearing on various streaming platforms. Instead of just doing a single article with a bunch of suggestions, I am going to be posting a new one each day, adding on to the previous day's entry each morning and then starting anew every week. Since we are all staying indoors, I am going to try to cover the waterfront in terms of the films that I suggest--everything from big hits to cult oddities, titles for the whole family to midnight movie freakouts, Hollywood favorites to notable works from around the globe. There may even be the occasional contributions from friends and colleagues to spice things up a bit.The only thing that they will have in common is that they are all streaming somewhere--in multiple places in some cases--and are worth a look for one reason or another, even if it is only for a single scene or performance. And hey, if you don't like these suggestions, feel free to drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and offer up a few of your own and I might get to them as well at some point.
To kick things off, what could be a better choice than one of the very few films that has the power to delight everyone from the youngest of moviegoers to the most dedicated of auteurists? That would be "Popeye," Robert Altman's spectacularly entertaining 1980 musical adaptation of E.C. Segar's beloved comic strip that was brought to the screen by an eclectic array of talents that included the always-idiosyncratic Altman and much of his road company from that era, screenwriter Jules Feiffer, producer Robert Evans, songs by Harry Nilsson and TV star Robin Williams making his major-league feature film debut in the title role. Although produced for the crassest of commercial reasons (After being unable to acquire the screen rights to the Broadway hit "Annie," Evans decided to do a musical based on a different classic comic strip instead) and suffered a number of production problems involving bad weather, a ballooning budget and drug issues before debuting to confused reviews and box-office returns that caused it to be written off as a flop that killed Altman's career as a studio filmmaker (in fact, it made money but was deemed disappointing because it didn't make as much as "Superman"), its reputation has improved in recent years and with good reason. Although the idea of Altman doing a film like this still sounds bizarre, his filmmaking style proved to be a good match with Segar's equally offbeat source material (which was a lot weirder than the subsequent cartoon series it would inspire) in the way that it emphasized character comedy over wild spectacle. Throw in pitch-perfect performances by Williams and Shelley Duvall, who could not have been a more perfect choice to play Olive Oyl (her rendition of the wistful tune "He Needs Me" is perhaps the musical highlight of the film), startlingly effective production design that genuinely makes you feels as if you are watching a live-action cartoon and a song score that is infectious in the best sense of the word and you have a genuine film classic that may have had a shaky start but which has more than stood the test of time. (Netflix, Amazon Prime.)
"Secrets of the French Police" may only clock in at a remarkably trim 58 minutes but don't be fooled for a second--this pre-Code mystery with horror undertones contains enough plot details for a movie three times as long and every single one of them is as wild as can be. As the film opens, French flower girl Eugenie Doran (Gwill Andre) is kidnapped by the minions of General Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff), a diabolical and power-mad Russian emigre who needs her as part of his dastardly plan--he will kill off the only two people who know her real parentage and then hypnotize her into believing that she is none other than Princess Anastasia, the long-missing sole surviving child of the murdered Czar Nicholas, and present her to the late czar's brother as the real deal. (And you thought that the various screen versions of "Anastasia" were dubious from a historical perspective. . . ) Leading the investigation into Eugenie's disappearance is detective Francois St. Cyr (Frank Morgan), who hits upon the bright idea of employing her boyfriend, Leon (John Warburton) to aid in his inquiries despite being both a notorious pickpocket (though one who only preys on foreigners and leaves his fellow countrymen alone) and the police department's chief suspect in the aforementioned two murders. With its wide array of bizarre incidents, all presented at a breakneck pace by director Edward Sutherland (who would go on to make a number of films with W.C. Fields as well as projects featuring Bing Crosby, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott and Costello), it feels at times as if someone has taken a particularly strange 12-chapter serial and somehow crammed the entire thing into just under an hour--it doesn't make a lick of sense and some of the developments are truly insane (especially the details of a key auto accident) but you can't take your eyes away from it, partly from being swept up in all the lunacy and partly out of curiosity over how much madder it can possibly get. Fun fact, according to the AFI: while investigating the legal ramifications of depicting real-life characters in the story, lawyers for R.K.O. discovered that H. Ashton Wolfe, who supposed based this and other stories that he penned for "American Weekly Sunday Magazine" on his own experiences as an investigator in the Lyons police department, was actually a fraud who was then wanted for swindling in France and England, leading to his character being hastily dropped from the screenplay and replaced with St. Cyr. (TCM through April 13)
While the bigger studios have been delaying the releases of their blockbusters to later and hopefully less contagious dates, smaller distributors have been teaming up with the independent and art house theaters that would have been showing their wares to create online screening opportunities that will allow viewers to buy access to new films that would have been in release at this time through ticket purchases that will also help benefit those now-endangered theaters. Kino Marquee, for example, will begin partnering today with Chicago's beloved Music Box Theatre with virtual screenings of "Bacurau," Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelle's thrilling and corrosive genre hybrid that offers viewers a potent brew of action, gore and incisive social satire that takes dead aim at the current political situation in Brazil while still being broad enough to register with viewers throughout the world. Set in the not-too-distant future in the remote Brazilian village of Bacurau, the film begins as Teresa (Barbara Coen) returns to attend the funeral of her grandmother, the town's beloved matriarch. Over the course of the next few days, strange things begin to occur--a truck delivering much-needed water arrives shot full of holes, the cell phone service is inexplicably jammed and the entire town appears to have been literally wiped off the face of the earth, at least according to GPS. Before long, we discover that the town is being cut off from the rest of the world by a small group of people (led, perhaps inevitably, by Udo Kier) who are planning to storm Bacurau and gun everyone down in cold blood--a job, it seems, that is not that unusual for them. Alas, they have fatally underestimated both the communal nature of the town and the desire of its population to defend its way of life and when they arrive to wreak the expected havoc, they end up meeting a number of increasingly grisly surprises. The filmmakers are clearly fans of John Carpenter--besides the occasional Easter eggs (a song cue here, the name of a building there), the basic plot line suggests a mashup of "Assault on Precinct 13" and "They Live"--but they are confident enough in their own skills to forge their own path rather than simply emulate his work. The film starts slowly but this gives us a chance to settle into the rhythms of the town and to get to know the people (including the town doctor, wonderfully played by Sonia Braga) so that when the mayhem finally does kick in, it actually means something instead of just being an excuse for the second unit to go nuts. When the action does kick in, it is exciting and gruesome in equal measure but it also means something in the way that it symbolically illustrates what can happen when a population is finally pushed too far by an increasingly cruel and unfeeling ruling class and bands together make things right. It is too bad that most people will only get an opportunity to see "Bacurau" at home because this is the kind that would presumably play like gangbusters in a packed theater. However one does see it, however, it is sure to go down as one of the most viscerally exciting and audacious films of the year--the kind of thing that "The Hunt" tried and failed miserably to be. (To purchase a ticket that will be credited to the Music Box, go to kinonow.com/bacurau-music-box-theatre. The site also includes listings of other theaters in other cities that will be participating in the program.)
Almost three decades before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez elected to pay tribute to the bygone grindhouse experience with the ersatz double-feature "Grindhouse," director Stanley Donen and co-writer Larry Gelbart did pretty much the same thing with "Movie Movie" (1978), a mostly forgotten but ridiculously entertaining tribute to the films of the 1930s, specifically the ones cranked out by Warner Brothers. With a cast including the likes of George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Red Buttons, Art Carney, Harry Hamlin, Barry Bostwick, Kathleen Beller and Barbara Harris, the film presents itself as a double bill of programmers from the Warren Brothers studios. First up is "Dynamite Hands," a boxing melodrama in which a law student with a hefty punch (Hamlin) winds up becoming a prizefighter under the tutelage of a crusty-but-honest manager (Scott) in order to raise the money for his kid sister's eye operation, only to fall temporarily under the spell of a flashy gangster (Eli Wallach) and sultry nightclub singer Troubles Moran (Ann Reinking), who almost woos him away from his sweet librarian girlfriend (Van Devere) before he comes to his senses. After a coming attractions preview for the World War I epic "Zero Hour," we get the second feature, "Baxter's Beauties of 1933," a backstage musical in the mode of "42nd Street" in which legendary Broadway producer Spats Baxter (Scott) discovers he has four weeks to live ("Thirty days!" "This is February, Spats") and is determined to put on one final hit show in order to provide for the daughter that he gave up for adoption upstate a couple of decades earlier and whom he has never seen. Helping him in this endeavor are a loyal costume designer nursing a not-so-secret crush (Harris), an ingenue fresh off the bus from the orphanage upstate (Rebecca York) and a goof with a talent for writing tunes (Bostwick). Inevitably, the drunken and generally horrible star (Van Devere) breaks her foot on opening night and I think you can take it from there. The script by Gelbart and Sheldon Keller is genuinely inspired and witty, both in the frequently hilarious dialogue ("One minute you're standing in the wings and the next minute, you're wearing them.") that finds the right balance between parody and homage and in the more subtle, though no less amusing, ways that it emulates the factory-like productions of the era (not only do many of the same actors turn up in both films in similar roles, as the studio stock companies of the day did, some of the same sets, only slightly redressed, appears in both as well), the performances are inspired as well (Scott clearly had a blast while making this film and it shows throughout in one of his lightest and goofiest turns) and Donen's work would prove to be the last true highlight of a career that would begin with the likes of "On the Town" and "Singin in the Rain" and inexplicably end with such duds as "Saturn 3" and the repellent "Blame It on Rio." Aside from a clunky prologue in which George Burns pops up to explain the concept to moviegoers, this is a smart and sweet delight that sadly slipped through the cracks when it came out but proved to be eminently worthy of rediscovery. (Amazon Prime, Shout! Factory)
For reasons that now currently elude me, I did not get a chance to see the new iteration of "The Invisible Man" until the night before it came out--which feels like it was about seven years ago at this point but which was actually more like a month--and at that point, other things began to take precedence and I never got around to formally reviewing it. With its theatrical release prematurely scuttled, it has been quickly rushed to the streaming market and I figured that I would finally say a few public words about it. While I confess that I was not exactly looking forward to seeing it--the prospect of watching an Invisible Man reimagining from the mind of the co-creator of the "Saw" franchise, writer-director Leigh Whannell, did not exactly fill me with anything even remotely resembling glee and memories of that dreadful "Mummy" reboot with Tom Cruise still looming large--I have to admit that I came away from this one fairly impressed. By now, you presumably known the details--Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) manages to stage a daring escape from her abusive and controlling lover, the brilliant-but-sadistic optics researcher Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), but feels as if his presence is still there controlling her even after she gets word that he has committed suicide. The few people she trusts--her sister (Harriet Dyer), a cop friend (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid)--assume that she is going through some form of PTSD but it soon becomes apparent, at least to us, that Adrian has apparently figured out a way to stalk her while remaining out of view in order to continue dominating her as throughly and cruelly as he did when he was alive, comfortable in the fact that no one will ever believe her. To be honest, I am not as completely sold on the film as some of my colleagues have been--while it is uncommonly smart and creepy for most of its first two-thirds (it even figures out a reasonably convincing way of explaining the invisibility gimmick) and mixes together slowly developing sequences of building dread with equally effective shock moments (including one in a seemingly safe restaurant that really deserves to be seen with a crowd), it starts to go off the rails a bit in the final third as the plot implausibilities begin to pile up. (Yes, I realize that one has to be willing to bend a little regarding logic when dealing with an invisible man narrative, but this one comes close to pushing things too far. ) For the most part, however, it is a stylishly-made work (which is even more impressive when you consider its relatively low $7 million dollar budget) that is blessed with yet another powerful Elisabeth Moss performance that finds her perfectly covering all the emotional beats from crushed despair to steely determination without ever stepping wrong for a moment. Over the last few years, she has given one stellar turn after another and this is certainly one of her best to date. That said, here is hoping that someone casts her in a silly knockabout comedy very soon to serve as a change of pace--lord knows she could use it after the wringer she goes through here. (iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play)
In the early days of his film career, Steve Martin made a number of films that skewed the conventions of beloved Hollywood film genres of the Thirties and Forties--"Pennies from Heaven" (1981) examined the dark underpinnings behind the glitzy and heedless musicals that studios cranked out to let audiences escape the traumas of the Depression and "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" (1982) was an affectionate film noir spoof that cleverly inserted him into scenes from classics from the era featuring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck and others. With "All of Me" (1984), he made a film that was not so much a satire of an old genre--in this case, a screwball comedy-fantasy in the mold of the likes of "Topper" (1937) or "Turnabout" (1940)--as it was such an ideal example of that style of filmmaking that it could have easily been made a half-century earlier with nary a change. He plays Roger, a vaguely dissatisfied lawyer who has finally decided to buckle down at work, marry the boss's daughter and put away his dreams of being a musician for good. Then he goes off to handle the estate of wealthy but sickly heiress Edwina (Lily Tomlin), who has devised a plan to cheat death--she has brought in a swami (Richard Libertini) to help transfer her soul into the body of her groundskeeper's sexy daughter (Victoria Tennant), who will be her sole heir, so that she can finally live. Needless to say, complications ensue and when she dies, her soul winds up in Roger's body and since he is still inhabiting it, they are forced to share custody--each one controlling one half--until they can track down the Swami to fix things. Yes, the premise sounds supremely silly but instead of simply going for gags wherever possible as he did in his previous collaborations with Martin (including "The Jerk" and "The Man with Two Brains"), director Carl Reiner takes the approach employed so successfully by "Tootsie" by taking a potentially ludicrous and unlikely concept and approaching it with logic and intelligence and letting the laughs build from there instead of constantly poking you in the ribs with sheer wackiness. The other secret to the success of the film is the considerable comedic chemistry generated by the two stars - an even more impressive achievement when you consider that Tomlin is off the screen for a good portion of the time (we can hear her in Roger's mind and glimpse her reflection when he looks in a mirror). However, Martin's incredible physical performance not only suggests that he really does have two souls inside of him struggling to work in sync but helps to create the odd sensation that Tomlin is a real and palpable presence and not just a disembodied voice. As for Tomlin, she never quite got the credit she was due for her work here but her performance is just as impressive as Martin's - the early scenes with Edwina are wickedly satirical but she slowly transforms her into a more likable and vulnerable person as the story progresses almost entirely through the power of her line readings. Perhaps Martin has made smarter movies throughout his career and perhaps he has even made funnier ones but with the possible exception of his "Cyrano de Bergerac" homage "Roxanne," he has never made one as purely delightful as this one. (HBO GO).
My guess is that most people today who have seen the notoriously trashy Grade-Z classic (for lack of a more appropriate word) "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" (1962) have done so via its use as riff fodder on a fan favorite episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." That was a particularly humorous episode, to be sure, but one really needs to see it without the quips in order to get a full extent of just how utterly bizarre the whole sleazy enterprise truly is. Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is a brilliant surgeon with some radical theories regarding transplants that he has been exploring in the laboratory in the basement of his remote country home. While driving out there one day with his girlfriend, Jan (Virginia Leith), there is a terrible car accident that leaves him relatively unscathed but which neatly decapitates her. Thinking quickly, Bill wraps the head up and runs home, where he hooks it up to some lab machinery and brings it back to life. Jan is not especially thrilled with this arrangement and begs Bill to put her out of her misery but he has a better idea--he will restore her by finding another woman, murdering her and transplanting Jan's head onto her body. Since he is still a man's man, this search for an ideal specimen takes him on a tour of beauty contests and burlesque shows--purely for research--before running into an old girlfriend (Adele Lamont) who is now working as a figure model and decides that she will be perfect. In fact, since she has a body fit for a Russ Meyer film but a comparatively tiny scar on her face from an accident, he naturally assumes he is doing her a favor. As for Jan, she has begun communicating telepathically with the deformed monster that Bill has locked away in a closet, and when she discovers what Bill is planning, she sets in motion a grisly denouement featuring a startling amount of gore for a film of that era. Make no mistake, the film is even trashier than it sounds--director Joseph Green seems far more interested in the peep show aspect (including an extended fight between two strippers that at one point cuts to a picture of some cats, presumably to underscore that a catfight is going on) than in his batshit-crazy pseudo-"Frankenstein" riff--and is never less than resoundingly stupid at its best and icky at its worst. (After watching it, you will definitely want to take several "Silkwood"-style showers.)And yet, while those with some modicum of good taste will want to give it the widest berth possible, those with a fondness for the more sordid side of cinema will have to admit that, unlike most exploitation films of note, this one certainly delivers the goods and then some. Look, I am not going to claim that "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" is some kind of unsung masterpiece because it is the furthest thing from that. However, I think we could all use a little bit of lunatic trash at this point and films do not get more lunatic or trashy than this one. (TCM through April 3.)