The long Memorial Day weekend is upon us, and you know what that means: cookouts, quickie getaways, watching some sort of organized sporting events on television (I think, maybe?). But the shut-ins among us — and your film editor would include himself firmly among that camp — will probably want to simply spend one more day doing what we do every weekend: queuing up a bunch of flicks online, surrounding ourselves with non-perishable food items, and locking the doors. Here are some of the recent(ish) streaming releases worth your Memorial Day weekend time; simply click the title to stream them right now.
Joss Whedon modernizes the dress, cranks up the slapstick, and fills his cast with regulars and friends who give Shakespeare’s dialogue a distinctively screwball snap. His reimagining of the Bard’s classic is respectful but not reverential; he makes this very old play feel very fresh and new, finding laughs in the pauses and pain buried in the subtext. And he fills the edges of the frames with goofy business and throwaway gags, investing the entire affair with the feel of a party that won’t end. We’re all invited, though, which is much of the picture’s charm — it’s loose, enjoyable, and sparkling, a movie that lives for the sound of clinking wine glasses and musical patter.
On first glance, director Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy follow-up looks like quite the change of pace: set in Toyko and eschewing a Lost in Translation-style surrogate protagonist, the Iranian writer/director focuses squarely on a young Japanese escort and an old Japanese professor. And I do mean squarely, but that’s where the stylistic similarities occur — once again, the film is played out primarily in a series of thoughtful two-handed dialogue scenes, this time with a third party (the young woman’s jealous yet clueless fiancé) complicating matters. Kiarostami is a filmmaker who leaves in a lot of things that other films take out, but he offsets the possibilities for indulgence by leaving a great deal unsaid and presumed. The result is a film that is sensuous but not lurid, heartbreaking but not depressing, and modest yet mesmerizing.
Two of your favorite people, Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, team up for this cheery, energetic, screwball-style comedy from director Bharat Nalluri. McDormand plays an English governess who cons her way into a job working for a flitty American actress (Adams) who’s juggling multiple lovers; Lee Pace and Ciaran Hinds provide able support. It’s a soufflé of a movie, forgotten as soon as it’s digested, but it’s mighty tasty on the way down.
In 1981, Richard Pryor returned to the stage to perform his first major comedy shows following a notorious 1980 incident where he set himself on fire while freebasing (which he first said was an accident, and later admitted was a suicide attempt). The mood at the beginning of the performance is tricky — the audience is all too aware of Pryor’s vulnerability, and he’s all too aware of their awareness. But as Pryor regains his confidence before our very eyes, it becomes a virtuoso performance: funny, wise, and (in the remarkable closing passages about his injury and recovery) remarkably candid and revealing.
Your average documentary tends not to open with the subject threatening to “fucking put you in hospital” and attacking the filmmaker with a cane, but Beware of Mr. Baker is not your average documentary. Jay Bulger tracked down Ginger Baker, the notorious Cream and Blind Faith drummer, in South Africa, where decades of hard living have left him penniless and bitter; in interviews, he mostly flips off the director and mocks him (“Go on with the interview, stop trying to be an intellectual dickhead”). But he’s a perversely mesmerizing figure, his tales of reckless rock ‘n’ roll dramatized with killer music, crackerjack archival footage, and animations that portray Baker as a wide-eyed, redheaded madman. It’s sad and thrilling at the same time, an absorbing portrait of the last of a dying breed.
The life of Muhammad Ali is certainly not one that lacks documentation; you can trace the bulk of his career through the scores of documentary films that have taken him as their subject. Bill Siegel’s new portrait is less concerned with him as a fighter than as a political figure, focusing primarily on Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam and his refusal to fight in Vietnam, which led to a three-and-a-half year battle and exile from the ring. As straight biography, it’s pretty familiar (and was, coincidentally, recently retold from the Supreme Court POV in the HBO movie Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight); the film’s value is in the detail paid to Ali’s development as a political thinker and provocateur, via copious (and often tense) clips from speaking engagements and television appearances. Ali was a great fighter, but he was also a fascinating man, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali pays him the compliment of viewing his life as a continuing philosophical evolution.
An engrossing documentary that takes an objective look at a stomach-churning subject. Director Roger Ross Williams efficiently contextualizes the movement of American evangelicals to sway the entire country of Uganda to their faith before moving, roughly a third of the way in, to the film’s real topic: the country’s persecution of its gay citizens, culminating in the notorious “kill the gays” bill. The film’s access is remarkable, particularly to the Christian missionaries on the ground; the fair-minded filmmaker highlights that these are often not bad people, not really, but they’re part of a larger movement that is very scary indeed.
This well-crafted look at George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is part biography, part behind-the-scenes feature, and part sociological study. Director Rob Kuhns thankfully spends plenty of time exploring Night in its most compelling form: as a metaphor and commentary on then-current events. Because those current events have now become history, the filmmaker and his interview subjects provide extensive context for the film — the things we take for granted now, but which made it so revolutionary at that particular moment. As with many groundbreaking films, much of what it does has been so often duplicated that it’s become hard to appreciate the source, and one of the finest qualities of Birth of the Living Dead is how expertly it positions the picture back within that frame.
Though a friend and collaborator of Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, and the rest of the 1970’s “New Hollywood” era auteurs, John Milius never achieved their level of success — he was one of the best writers in the business, yet legendary for his grizzled, gun-toting, off- (and, sometimes, on-) set antics. Those make for some great stories, and all are told in Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s fine documentary. Its third-act conclusions are a little wobbly (the idea that Milius’ conservative politics got him blackballed in ‘80s Hollywood is a little hard to swallow, considering this was the age of Stallone and Schwarzenegger), but the emotional arc is unexpectedly affecting, and the film is, overall, a real treat for cinephiles.
Neither are new to streaming, but with the new Godzilla stomping his way through multiplexes, it’s a good time to revisit the original beast, in both forms: Ishirô Honda’s 1954 Gojira (streaming on Hulu Plus), which placed the monster attack within a dark-edged story of nuclear aftermath, and the 1956 Americanized take Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (via Netflix), which jettisons most of the sociopolitical commentary and awkwardly inserts Raymond Burr as our Anglo-Saxon eyes and ears. Watching the films together is a fascinating study in bowdlerization; Honda’s original remains a blunt and effective monster flick.