The long holiday weekend may be over, but there's still plenty of summer left. Here's a highly recommended hodgepodge of Hollywood blockbusters, thrill rides, animations, documentaries, independent movies, and--finally--silent comedies available streaming on Netflix and Hulu Plus. Most of them have a summery feel, except for two documentaries about snow and ice--which may sound quite lovely if you're feeling overheated. Enjoy!
Writer/director Joss Whedon was given the difficult task of taking several superheroes, who had been developed and cast in other movies by other directors, and making a cohesive new movie out of them. And he pulled it off like gangbusters. The Avengers (2012) plays to the strengths of all these characters and actors--Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye--and creates a truly balanced and emotionally effective ensemble piece. Moreover, he conjures up some extraordinarily well-crafted and exciting action sequences, ultimately making most other superhero movies look bad (Hellboy being one exception).
The conjunction of Mike Mignola's comic book hero, director Guillermo Del Toro, and actor Ron Perlman seemed to have been one of those perfect occurrences in nature. Hellboy (2004) managed to be a thrilling superhero movie, but also displayed Del Toro's signature fascinations with creatures, clockwork, and mazes. It tells Hellboy's long origin story--emerging as a kind of demon who is raised by the good guys and trained to be a kind of monster fighter--and features some fairly bland bad guys, but Hellboy himself is more than enough to carry the movie; his cranky personality and his penchant for muttering when called into action makes him highly appealing. "We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects," one character says.Hellboy proves that.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
One of the greatest movies of all time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was an astonishing wonder of visual effects and movie magic, mixing animated cartoons with live action like no one had ever seen before. But at the same time, it was a sly, canny commentary on detective movies and the movies themselves, as well as the city of Hollywood; it's one of the greatest Los Angeles movies ever made. It's funny, daring, and exhilarating--and a mix of feel-good and cautionary tale--all at the same time. Robert Zemeckis directed, with Steven Spielberg producing. Bob Hoskins should have won an Oscar for his lead performance as drunken detective Eddie Valiant.
The Adventures of Tintin
While Spielberg only produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he eventually directed his own animated movie, The Adventures of Tintin (2011), based on the series of comics Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi--aka Hergé. Tintin is a young journalist (voiced by Jamie Bell), whose adventures take him all over the world, and usually result in daring chases and escapes. Like Spielberg's best movies, this one is also a pure boy's adventure story, but this time the veteran filmmaker used the animation format to reinvent himself, coming up with extraordinary transitions between scenes and generally taking advantage of the non-reality of things. Spielberg's War Horse was released the same month, and received more accolades, but Tintin is the real treasure.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Speaking of traveling all over the world, Werner Herzog has done just that in pursuit of his many fascinating documentary subjects. This time, however, he stayed home. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) came from four hours of footage, shot by a filmmaker named Dmitry Vasyukov, that serendipitously dropped in Herzog's lap. Herzog edited it down to 90 minutes and narrated it, and came up with this compelling study of trappers in the Taiga region of Siberia, who spend all winter out in the frozen woods. As always, Herzog treats the characters with admiration, curiosity, and awe, and it rubs off on his audience.
Jeff Orlowski's documentary also takes place in the snowy outdoors, but with much more alarming results. National Geographic photographer James Balog was once a skeptic in regard to theories of the world's climate crisis, until he decided to photograph various glaciers using time-lapse. What he discovered--and what he shows here--was that these glaciers are melting much faster than anyone had imagined, and that the crisis is a reality. Watching the 76-minute Chasing Ice (2012) is a small effort in exchange for information that could affect us all. Scarlett Johansson does her bit by singing the haunting song over the end credits (a song that was nominated for an Oscar).
Now we move over to Hulu Plus, and a pair of independent firecrackers. Director Matthew Bright took the popular fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood" and turned it into the twisted, sexy, lurid cult classic Freeway (1996). Reese Witherspoon stars as the Red Riding Hood character, a trashy, illiterate teen who tries to get to her grandmother's trailer after her parents are arrested for prostitution and drugs. Along the way, she meets the shady Bob Wovlerton (Kiefer Sutherland). Brooke Shields is amazing as Bob's wife. This movie is filled with that kind of Pulp Fiction energy that so many movies of the mid-1990s tried to rip off but so few managed to generate afresh. Bright later directed the biopic Ted Bundy (2002), about the real-life serial killer.
Another great American indie, Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (2005) tells the story of two boys who were sexually abused by their baseball coach, shaping them both in very different and horrific ways. One grows up into the nerdy, withdrawn Brian (Brady Corbet), who believes in alien abductions, and the other becomes the New York City hustler Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Eventually they meet for the first time in years. Araki could have assaulted his viewers with this material, making it an unpleasant and intense experience, but instead it's an unexpectedly moving and lovely drama, with moments of profound beauty and empathy. It was Gordon-Levitt's first great, grown-up performance after a career as a child actor.
We'll leave off with a couple of terrific American comedies from the silent era. First up is the exhilarating Safety Last! (1923), which is forever connected to that iconic photograph of its star, Harold Lloyd, hanging from the hands of a large clock at the edge of a building. In the movie, Harold works as a clerk in a department store and cooks up an idea to hire a "human fly" to climb the building as a publicity stunt. Unfortunately, thanks to an incident with a cop, the human fly can't do the job and Harold himself must take over. The joke is that, Harold must climb only "one more floor," where the real human fly will meet him and take over, but each time, something else goes hilariously wrong. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor are the credited directors of this classic, but Lloyd was clearly in charge.
The summery Speedy (1928) was Lloyd's final silent film, though it's perhaps more notable for an onscreen appearance of baseball legend Babe Ruth. Lloyd plays the title character, a baseball-obsessed ne'er-do-well who can't seem to hang onto a job, though his girl, Jane (Ann Christy), loves him anyway. The plot has him trying to save Jane's grandfather's horse-drawn trolley car, though there are long, carefree segments not connected to anything, such as a crazy day at Coney Island. Director Ted Wilde received an Oscar nomination for Best Comedy Director, a category that, sadly, didn't last long.