Reel Streaming: A Back-to-the-Future Quintet
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 40
By Laurence Lerman
“Free your mind and the films will follow.” That was the quiet inner mantra I would repeat to myself a year ago as the pandemic was kindling into summer. That was when all the movie theaters were closed, my wife and I were locked down and I had opened myself up to stream-of-conscious curating that I’ve championed in this column for the past 15 months.
Today, with so many new films now available—both in the theaters and as digital release premieres—my streaming of movies old and new has become less impulsive and random. I tried to remedy that this week as I filled my streaming schedule with films that I’d never seen (or maybe had only once but didn’t remember) or ones that had just came to mind minutes prior to pressing the Play button. Impulsive and random.
By week’s end, I had taken in a nicely varied quintet: First off, a small period thriller based on a lesser-known novel by the volatile author Patricia Highsmith, followed later that evening by a contemporary dark comedy from the Netherlands that was released stateside several months back. The next day, I took a dive into the past to check out a Technicolor musical bio-pic from the Fifties featuring one of Hollywood’s most unique talents, and then traveled back to the future (in this case, the Eighties) for a Hollywood franchise superstar looking to flex his thespian muscles. For my fifth, I took a chance on a just-released film that unspooled like an old-time monster movie with a modern-day twist.
I’d actually never heard of 2014’s The Two Faces of January, a British production based on Highsmith’s l964 novel of the same name and directed by Hossein Amini. Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst star as a glamorous couple travelling around Greece in the early Sixties, where they meet a young American, played by Oscar Isaac, who hustles tourists by taking them on private tours of the ruins. Turns out that Viggo is a hustler in his own right, a boozing one, who messed with the wrong mark several weeks earlier, now resulting in a dead detective in his hotel room. Oscar is around to help him out with the body, and so is Kirsten, but things quickly begin to get tricky and dangerous.
A handsome-looking, sexually-tinged slow-boiler with a game cast, January is worth a look-see, though it’s not in the ballpark of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) or Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Hollywood’s finest Highsmith adaptations. That said, it definitely holds its own against other lower-key Highsmith-sourced films, like Claude Chabrol’s 1987 The Cry of the Owl or Roger Spottiswoode’s Ripley Under Ground (2005).
Being a columnist, I got an initial kick out of Dutch filmmaker Ivo van Aart’s dark comedy, The Columnist, which concerns an opinionated editorialist Bond-ishly named Femke Boot (Katja Herbers), whose growing anger at the nasty comments she receives on social media platforms drives her to gorily kill her trollers.
The Columnist is more social satire than slasher cinema, even as Femke’s methods of taking out her prey grow increasingly elaborate and her bloodthirstiness and writing become ever more impassioned. The film’s central themes— the limits of free speech, the horrors of online trolling—are clear, but the message does get a bit diluted by the film’s more graphic elements and a couple of distracting subplots. By the end, the satirical irony of a strong, creative woman—a journalist—taking virtual violence to its physical extremes loses its initial punch. And why doesn’t Femke simply stop reading her trollers’ comments?
That said, star Katja Herbers, who’s in every scene, makes The Columnist worth the watch. The Dutch actress, whose English-language projects include TV’s Westworld, The Leftovers and the little-seen WGN series Manhattan, is ready for everything her perceived enemies throw at her.
Esther Williams is another performer who knows how to hold her own, particularly when it comes to synchronized swimming and diving in the series of MGM “aquamusicals” she starred in during the Forties and early Fifties. The aquabelle’s highly stylized swimming scenes were the centerpieces of her fantastical, frequently tropical-themed movies, which carried monikers like On an Island with You (1948) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949). Esther’s most acclaimed film, though, was actually a musical drama (and a biographical one, at that): 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid.
Loosely based on the life of famed Australian aquatic star Annette Kellerman, Million Dollar Mermaid provides Esther the perfect showcase for her skill set, both in and out of the water. Esther’s surprisingly confident dramatics come in the form of her romances with an American theatrical promoter (Victor Mature) and the manager of the New York Hippodrome (David Brian). Of course, that’s outshined by the film’s water ballets, one of which required Esther to dive from a 50-foot tower while wearing a metal crown. That ended up breaking the star’s neck and putting her in a body cast for six months before shooting could resume. Blame the injury on the film's excessive choreographer Busby Berkeley, creator of those irresistible kaleidoscopic overhead shots.
There’s water, water, everywhere, but not a song or dance in sight in 1986’s The Mosquito Coast, directed by Peter Weir and adapted from Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel. It centers on a brilliant but stubborn patriarch, Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), who leads his family to what he believes will be a happier and simpler life in the jungles of Central America. It proves to be far from simple when they arrive and build their home (several of them) as the family slowly discovers, while Allie grows increasing unpredictable and aggressive.
The Mosquito Coast offers some stunning location work (it was shot in Belize) and lush cinematography by the great John Seale. Ford, breaking out of his then-confining work life as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, is fine and focused in his portrayal of an erratic genius on the edge. Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as his concerned wife and son are also outstanding.
Interestingly, a recently broadcast TV miniseries by the same name, inspired by Theroux’s book (and starring his nephew Justin Theroux), takes a different approach to the tale, shaping the narrative more into an adventure/thriller yarn than a dramatic tale of displaced Americans.
The newest film of the bunch, which was just released to theaters last week and is set for its streaming debut on July 2, is Werewolves Within, a comedy-horror whodunit cocktail that’s one of the most goofy and likable movies of the year (so far).
It stars Veep breakout star Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub (Lily of the popular AT&T commercials) as an affable park ranger and a plucky postal worker who lead the small Northeastern town of Beaverfield’s eccentric residents when they find themselves trapped inside a local inn during a power outage. In addition to everyone turning against each other due to claustrophobia and the differing opinions on the proposed development of a gas pipeline running through town, a doozie of a problem comes in the form of a mysterious creature who begins picking off townies one by one, Agatha Christie-style.
Based on the video game of the same name, director Josh Ruben’s sophomore feature offers lots of sly laughs alongside some inventive, limb-ripping scares. The horror and humor play off each other well, as do Richardson and Vayntrub and familiar-faced locals Michaela Watkins, Glenn Fleshler and Michael Chernus. Even the inevitable climactic face-off delivers smartly on both the gore and giggles fronts.
In a recent interview, self-proclaimed lover of horror films Ruben declared, “Nothing scares me more than people.” That’s a thought that wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place by all of us when boxed into tight quarters at the height of the pandemic. But now it just makes for a good riff in a well-crafted and enjoyable film. And it’s only one of the literally hundreds of studio, independent and foreign offerings that will land on streaming platforms and movie theaters over the next four months.
Take a break from the multi-part programming and prestige mini-series. Mare of Easttown, Lupin and The Queen’s Gambit, be damned!
It’s summertime. Watch a movie.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.