These days too many movies neglect the importance of how they look, the overall aesthetic. Some movies adopt a thick, gray visual scheme, while others are merely flat-looking. Sloppy, tangled, indecipherable hand-held camera work is also a trend, as are movies smothered in sludgy, smeary digital effects.
Happily, several new movies streaming this week have great visuals at the fore, and feature specific, highly skilled, highly pleasing cinematic imagery. Two of them are shot in black-and-white, yet succeed in being totally distinct. One is dreamy, the other nightmarish. Three others are set largely outdoors and make beautiful, dramatic use of their earthy exteriors.
Two are horror films that use bright colors and imaginative set design to convey their unholy chills. Two sci-fi movies provide uncharacteristically vibrant designs, suggesting the positive possibilities of exploring space. Finally, we have three lightweight comedies that focus on brightness and color to lift the mood. Whatever your preferred genre, there’s a good-looking movie here that’s sure to please.
New to Netflix
Cemetery of Splendor
This new movie is only for the most adventurous moviegoers and die-hard cineastes, the ones who regularly dip into the works of Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Alain Resnais, and Robert Bresson. It comes from Thai-born and Chicago-educated filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (you can call him “Joe”). Weerasethakul’s poetic, dreamy films are frequently set in beautiful, realistic settings, with surreal things going on; people sometimes change into other things, or see ghosts, or experience other weird phenomena. Cemetery of Splendor (2016) takes place in a rural hospital (actually converted schoolhouse), where soldiers suffer from some kind of mysterious sleeping sickness. As part of some kind of experimental technique, their beds are surrounded by glowing rods that slowly change color, casting moody glows on everything.
With its lack of a basic, traditional narrative, the movie mainly focuses on volunteer Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas Widner), who—with one leg shorter than the other—walks on crutches. She bonds with one sleeping soldier, Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who is momentarily roused when she bathes him. A medium, Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), is able to translate the soldiers’ thoughts, and she becomes the vehicle for a bizarre, touching conversation between Jenjira and Itt, as they wander around the cemetery that surrounds the hospital (complete with strange statues that sometimes come to life). The movie constantly tickles the brain, but is also a respite for the senses. Danny Glover is credited as a co-producer.
If, like me, you’re enjoying Netflix’s series Stranger Things, you may want to watch some of the vintage 1980s fare that likely inspired it, such as Steven Spielberg’s massive hitE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or especially Joe Dante’s underrated Explorers (1985). In it, three boys—played by Jason Presson, and two stars in the making, Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix—dream up a way to build a spaceship and launch it into outer space, looking for exotic aliens, but finding something weirdly different.
Dante made it a year after his own massive hit, the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, and it didn’t quite catch on. Nonetheless, Explorers was apparently taken from Dante before he could complete it to his satisfaction, and it was initially unsuccessful, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a fan favorite. A die-hard fan of old sci-fi movies and cartoons, Dante often pays tribute to them in his films; this movie features more than one reference to The War of the Worlds. But he’s also a master satirist, mixing up the genres with his own wily sense of humor, to say a little something about the human condition. Explorerscan leave you feeling uplifted and bemused at the same time.
Argentinian filmmaker Juan Jose Campanella won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his grownup thriller The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), and then decided to follow it up with this animated kids’ film, the most expensive movie yet produced in his home country.Underdogs (2013) was a huge success at home, and then the Weinsteins picked it up for American release and promptly sat on it for several years. It was finally released to streaming and direct-to-video this month. As expensive as it was for Argentina, the computer animation has nothing on Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, and the figures and backgrounds sometimes look a bit too dark, crude, and unfinished. The dubbing seems a bit rushed, and the mouth movements often don’t match the dialogue.
Yet it’s still a fairly charming, kid-friendly film with some decent laughs and some slick, colorful soccer action. It focuses on skinny Jake, who loves the foosball table as much as he loves the pretty Laura. He beats the town bully, Ace, at a game. Ace disappears and re-emerges, years later, as a soccer champ. He threatens to destroy the town unless Jake beats him in a real, grown-up game of soccer, on real grass. Fortunately, Jake’s foosball players magically come to life and lend him a hand. Ariana Grande, Rupert Grint, Katie Holmes, Nicholas Hoult, and John Leguizamo provide voices in this version; the Weinsteins cut it down to 85 minutes, from its original 106.
The first Blade (1998) movie was based on a comic book and came out as a fun, pulpy B-movie about a half-vampire, half-human (Wesley Snipes) who hunts vampires. Then, the great Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone) made his Hollywood debut with the sequel. Blade II (2002) might have been just a throwaway, but Del Toro infused it with his vivid, highly personal style and made it into an eccentric work of art. It features Del Toro’s personal obsessions with gears, clockwork, and underground labyrinths.
Snipes returns as Blade, who, this time, faces an even more dangerous race of super-monsters, the “reapers,” who prey on ordinary vampires as well as humans. He must join forces with a renegade pack of vampires, the “Bloodpack,” to stop them. Kris Kristofferson returns as rumble-voiced Abraham Whistler, Blade’s human weapon-maker. Del Toro regular Ron Perlman joins the cast as one of the Bloodpack. Martial arts star Donnie Yen also stars, and choreographed the fight scenes. Unfortunately, no such chances were taken on the next movie, Blade: Trinity (2004), which ought to be avoided.
Now on Hulu/Amazon Prime
Don’t Look Now
Englishman Nicolas Roeg began as a cinematographer in the 1960s, bringing beautifully ghoulish colors and refractions to a new kind of cinema. In the 1970s, he turned director with a series of strange, seriously offbeat films, including Don’t Look Now (1973), a spooky, chilling horror film. Based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier—whose work also provided the basis for Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds—the movie tells the story of a married couple, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie), staying in Venice when their young daughter dies in a freak accident.
Not long after, they encounter a pair of sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be able to see the young girl’s spirit. The distraught Laura is intrigued, but John wants no part of it, despite the fact that he has begun seeing things himself. The movie is famous for one of the most erotic and controversial sex scenes ever filmed; both Christie and Sutherland have been asked to address it countless times since. Despite its horror pedigree and titillating content, the movie is still widely regarded as one of the best British films ever made, and is definitely one of the best movies of its era.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
With a brand-new Star Trek in theaters bringing a return to the chemistry among the original seven characters, fans may want to look back at some of the other good entries in this sometimes spotty, 13-film series. The final film featuring the original cast, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) was certainly a highlight. Directed by Nicholas Meyer—who also helmed the fan favorite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—the camerawork and pacing is exceptionally smooth, bringing out warmth and suspense from all angles.
The movie is basically a murder mystery. After an attempted (and failed) peace-brokering dinner with the Klingons, someone assassinates the Klingon chancellor (David Warner), and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are arrested and imprisoned on a frozen death planet. It’s up to Spock (Leonard Nimoy, who also contributed to the film’s story) to solve the mystery before his colleagues meet their untimely demise. Model (and the late David Bowie’s wife) Iman plays an alien who helps our heroes, Kim Cattrall is a Vulcan crew member, and Christopher Plummer is a Klingon general. Look fast for Christian Slater—whose mother was the casting director—in a cameo.
Z for Zachariah
I’ve lost count how many end-of-the-world movies have been released in the last few years, but Z for Zachariah (2015) is one of the more down-to-earth ones. There are no bad guys trying to take over, and no aliens, explosions, or zombies. Directed by Craig Zobel, of the controversial Compliance (2012), this is a three-character piece, focusing just as much on their personalities and relationships as it does on their survival techniques. Margot Robbie stars as a pretty farmer, Ann, who has survived some kind of nuclear destruction, hunting, growing her own food, and drawing her water from a well.
A man wearing a radiation suit, Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), stumbles onto her land; she nurses him back to health, and they begin to fall in love. Fortunately, he’s a skilled engineer and helps her build things—including a water wheel—to ensure their survival through the winter. But then a blue-eyed, smooth talking stranger (Chris Pine) shows up and completes a volatile triangle. Zobel coaxes subtle performances from each actor, playing down movie star looks and hinting at hidden depths within. It’s based on a 1974 novel by Robert C. O’Brien (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH).
Catch it on Crackle
Josie and the Pussycats
Though it was mostly loathed in its day, Josie and the Pussycats (2001) is one of the funniest rock ‘n’ roll comedies ever made, and a pretty clever satire besides. It only gets more and more relevant as time goes on, and I suspect that it has begun to develop a small following now. Based on comics and a cartoon series, the movie focuses on a girl band, who plays wondrously catchy pop-punk in the style of Green Day or Blink-182. Consisting of Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Valerie (Rosario Dawson), and Melody (Tara Reid), they are unfortunately relegated to playing bowling alleys for pennies and dreaming of success.
Weirdly, they receive a sudden record contract, from evil corporate thugs (deliciously hammy Alan Cumming and Parker Posey); the catch is that, unbeknownst to the band, there are hidden advertising messages in their music, and there is a plan to drive the three friends apart and make Josie the star. The movie was criticized for using real products and brands in its spoof of product placement, but, to be honest, it wouldn’t have worked quite so well with fake brands. As it is, it’s a relentless, hilarious satire of consumerist capitalism, complete with a brilliantly horrible “boy band,” called “Du Jour.”
Tune in to TubiTV
The Night of the Hunter
A failure in its day, and still not as well known as it should be, The Night of the Hunter(1955) is an American masterpiece, and nothing else quite like it has ever been made. It was the directorial debut and the only film ever made by the Oscar-winning, scenery-chewing English actor Charles Laughton. Former film critic James Agee was hired to write the screenplay, adapting a novel by Davis Grubb, and Stanley Cortez provided the luminous, dreamlike black-and-white cinematography, certainly among the finest in film history.
Robert Mitchum stars in probably his best role as a sinister, murderous preacher, Reverend Powell, who believes he has God on his side, and has tattooed “LOVE” and “HATE” on the knuckles of his hands. He learns of a hidden treasure from a condemned cellmate. Powell seduces the dead man’s widow (Shelley Winters), and begins terrorizing her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who know the treasure’s location. Legendary silent star Lillian Gish (The Birth of a Nation) plays a shotgun-toting old woman who tries to help the children. The film emphasizes a distinct non-realism, like a horrible fairy tale, but it’s as magical as it is terrifying. The movie is free to view (no membership required) on TubiTV, with ads.
Find it on Fandor
Wendy and Lucy
One of the most fiercely independent filmmakers in America, not to mention one of the most notable female filmmakers, Kelly Reichardt makes the kinds of films she wants to make, which are generally not box office bonanzas. They are small-scale, intimate, and driven by troubled, fascinating characters. Wendy and Lucy (2008) is one of her better-attended films, perhaps thanks to the presence of the fine actress Michelle Williams, who had recently received her first Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain (she has been nominated twice more since). Normally, Williams is cast for her beauty, but Reichardt uses her as a soulful human being, Wendy, who wears the most shapeless, unflattering clothes and hair imaginable. She’s magnificent.
Wendy is a nomad, living out of her car with her dog Lucy, and making her way to Alaska for a potential job. Her car breaks down in Oregon, and while shoplifting some dog food, she’s caught and Lucy disappears. The rest of the film is simply about Wendy trying to get her car fixed and trying to find her dog. It may sound like nothing much, but it’s a rich, patchwork tapestry of poetic moments, with waiting, searching, dealing with bad luck, and taking care of things like eating and sleeping. Essentially, it’s about moving through time, living, and caring. The creepy actor/director Larry Fessenden plays a scary homeless guy who stumbles upon Wendy in the woods.
View it on Vudu
Elvis & Nixon
Based on one of the most lightweight movie ideas imaginable, Elvis & Nixon (2016) is almost a novelty item. Not to mention that neither Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon seem particularly well-suited to their roles. But somehow, the gentle, earnest, and humorous approach taken by writers Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, that Cary Elwes) and director Liza Johnson comes together in a diverting, pleasant way. In real life, a 1970 photograph of the U.S. President and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has become the most requested in the National Archives. This movie tells the story of what might have happened that day.
Elvis decides he wants to be an agent-at-large for the Narcotics Bureau, complete with a badge, so he writes a letter to Nixon and drops it at the front gate of the White House. After the manipulations of Elvis’s pals (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville) and Nixon’s aides (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters), Nixon reluctantly agrees to meet. Weirdly, the two men have more in common than anyone could have guessed, making that bizarre meeting a little less bizarre and more human. Even at 86 minutes, the movie still feels a bit padded, and it was a mistake to give the bland actor Pettyfer his own subplot, but overall, this is a delightful little treat.
Now on Shudder
Spending most of his career on low-budget horror films, the Italian filmmaker Mario Bava was nonetheless one of the greatest stylists and one of the most intuitive directors in history. Like the aforementioned Nicolas Roeg, he began as a cinematographer, learning how to light and move the camera before making his directing debut with this exceptional horror film. Based, more or less, on a Nikolai Gogol story, and originally titled La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan), Black Sunday (1960) tells the story of a 17th century witch (beautiful cult star Barbara Steele) who is sentenced to death, and a mask of spikes is hammered into her face.
Two centuries later, two travelers (Andrea Checchi and John Richardson) accidentally revive her, and then meet the beautiful Katia (Steele again), who lives in a creepy castle nearby. The plot, which eventually involves blood-drinking vampires as much as it does witches, isn’t exactly air-tight, but Bava’s incredible black-and-white moods and rhythms more than make up for it; many images from this film are not easy to forget. Shudder—and, for that matter, TubiTV and Fandor—is offering the film in its English-language version, which is slightly different from Bava’s cut and contains a musical score by Les Baxter.