Welcome to The Penny-Pinching Cinephile, a weekly spotlight of the best free flicks on the web. ‘Cuz sometimes you gotta eat.
1) Out of Sight
Steven Soderbergh’s breakout commercial success, Out of Sight, caps off a run of Elmore Leonard adaptations in the ’90s that included Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. In her best-ever screen role, Jennifer Lopez stars as Karen Sisco, a US Marshal who gets kidnapped by bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) after he breaks out of jail. Foley’s planning an elaborate jewel heist with a rogue’s gallery of felons, including Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn and Don Cheadle, but it seems like Sisco is there to thwart him at every turn. Elmore Leonard’s famously colorful characters and tight plotting is expertly adapted by screenwriter Scott Frank, and for most movies, the entertaining heist yarn would be enough. But Out of Sight isn’t famous for its high-caliber crime story; it’s famous for being hot. Really, really hot. It may seem obvious to say that George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are attractive people, but in this movie, as these characters, they are very, very, very attractive. Illegal levels of attractiveness. The scene where Foley and Sisco, uhm, get to know each other inside the trunk of a car is justly famous. Out of Sight is a sexy crime caper for adults–boy, don’t you wish they made more of those?
Sometimes, surprises come in the most unexpected form. Sean Baker’s 2012 film Starlet is one of the most delightful revelations of recent years. Set in the sunny San Fernando Valley, Dree Hemingway stars as Jane, a young, wannabe actress who strikes up an unusual friendship with her elderly neighbor Sadie (Besedka Johnson). Jane is something of a Southern California stereotype: leggy, blonde, toting around her pet Chihuahua named Starlet, lazing around with her stoner roommates and generally being an airhead. But that’s only at first blush. Starlet is a rich, satisfying film about upending expectations and circumventing stereotypes to reveal the deeper truths beneath the kinds of people society really cares to get to know. In her late 80s, Sadie is the quintessential grumpy old lady: practically a hermit, a “hoarder” whose unkempt front yard elicits the ire of the county officials who deem her pack rat existence a health hazard. Besedka Johnson’s performance is a revelation–she had never acted before, and passed away shortly after the film was released. Baker draws real warmth and humanity out of his actors, without ever delving into predictability or overt sentimentality. His script, along with co-writer Chris Bergoch, is a masterclass in nuanced scene work. Cinematographer Radium Cheung captures the valley’s golden hues and strip mall aesthetic with soft lighting that fits the film’s gentle, uplifting tone.
Before Ira Sachs’ latest film Love is Strange comes out later this summer (our review), check out his critically acclaimed 2012 film Keep the Lights On. Like Love is Strange, Keep the Lights On is a love story between two gay men: Erik (Thure Lindhardt) first meets Paul (Zachary Booth) through a blind-date booty call, and the film charts their tumultuous relationship over the next decade. Like many tragic romances, this one seems doomed from the start. Paul is still closeted, and his ever-present drug use only intensifies over the course of their relationship. Despite his drug use, Paul has a stable job as a corporate lawyer while Erik struggles to make it as a documentary filmmaker. The stakes are pretty low, but Sachs’ film is so finely observed and delicately acted, even the smallest gestures take on dramatic interest. It’s clear the material here is very thinly veiled autobiography, and Sachs films it as someone who has lived these exact moments, imbuing them with unmistakable honesty. Like Andrew Haigh’s film Weekend, Keep the Lights On is one of the best romantic films of the decade–gay or straight–depicting intimacy, sex, jealousy and love with sensuality and authenticity.
John Landis’ The Blues Brothers might hold the world record for most car crashes in a comedy, but it definitely holds the world record for most car crashes in a musical. On paper, the plot of this movie makes very little sense: two men who only wear suits and never take off their sunglasses, neo-Nazis, a grown man named “Duck,” Cab Calloway, a Catholic nun on the verge of eviction, Carrie Fisher with an assault rifle, and the entire Illinois state police department. There’s a lot going on here. The Blues Brothers is admittedly a bit of a mess (the production was famously over budget and fraught with difficulties), but it’s also certifiably genius. The way the chaos builds towards the film’s climax is pure Buster Keaton, with seemingly every uniformed contingent in the Midwest (cops, Nazis, and a country western band) after Jake and Elwood (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd). That this frantic chase culminates with a Steven Spielberg cameo speaks to the endearing weirdness of the movie. Oh, also the music. The music! When you can’t decide whose musical number is better between James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, that’s a good problem to have.
The bar for “quality” in the martial arts film is pretty low. Factors like plot and character development, acting and even believability are generally overlooked in terms of the physical prowess of its stars, the intensity of the fights and the insanity of the action. So when Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais and Welsh director Gareth Evans made The Raid: Redemption in 2011, action film fans were understandably ecstatic. Uwais, who practices pencak silat, is the real deal: less charismatic than Bruce Lee, but far more present onscreen than Tony Jaa; he’s certainly more than capable to anchor the film (and its even more insane sequel; our review). Rama (Uwais) is a rookie cop in crime-ridden Jakarta whose assignment for the day is to raid an apartment building run by a ruthless drug lord. Of course, the raid goes bad and Rama finds himself fighting for his life against a well-armed militia of deadly criminals. Evans knows exactly how to shoot action: set up the camera and let his exceptionally skilled martial artists get to bone-crunchin’. Every new floor of the apartment building brings more intense action set pieces, new enemies and an increasingly mind-boggling array of violence and mayhem. Fans of action cinema will be in heaven. Even snobby cineastes like me will find the filmmaking visceral, breathless, and extremely engaging.
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