May 18, 2013, 7:25 AM — This week I take a peek at Hulu Plus, another paid online streaming service that charges $8 a month for access to new and old TV shows, but also a decent collection of movies--ranging from extremely highbrow to extremely lowbrow. A huge bonus is that service hosts many movies from the Criterion Collection, which is perhaps the most respected of all American DVD and Blu-ray distributors. Like Netflix, Hulu's content depends on complex contracts with various studios, and sometimes videos will "expire." But for now I'll be concentrating on several titles from its "new" list, starting with some cult favorites.
The middle part of Korean director Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance Trilogy" is also the most loved; a proposed American remake has been buzzed about for years (currently, it's in Spike Lee's hands). Oldboy (2003) concerns a man (Choi Min-sik) who is captured and imprisoned for many years without explanation. When he's finally released, he begins to work out what happened. Actor Choi undergoes a striking transformation, from a paunchy softie in a business suit to a lean, haunted, animal-like entity. In one striking scene, he fights off dozens of bad guys in a single sustained shot, tracking back and forth in a long hallway. But the ending of this revenge tale is the most memorable of all.
The Evil Dead
Hopefully the new remake will inspire gorehounds to seek out Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead (1983), which is one of the most innovative of all American independent debut films. Bruce Campbell stars in the ultimate "cabin in the woods" film, wherein a bunch of pals find their existence turned upside down during a visit to a spooky cabin. This time, it's "the book of the dead" that unleashes an evil force upon them. Raimi pours imagination and energy into every frame, pushing the boundaries of horror and gore--as well as gory comedy--to new heights.
Writer/director Shane Carruth made an audacious debut with the brainy, 77-minute time travel movie, Primer (2004). While working on a new refrigeration system, two young scientists (at top) accidentally discover time travel. They begin spending their days moving back and forth through time, one day at a time, gambling on the stock market, and trying not to run into their doppelgangers or cause any ripples in the space-time continuum. But things begin to get more than a little confusing--and then there are the side effects. Despite the voluminous amount of dialogue, and even without any action or visual effects, the movie has a dreamy, fluid feel that's enticing. Several viewings are recommended. Carruth himself plays one of the scientists.
Though not a genre movie, Steve McQueen's Hunger (2008) is an equally intelligent and mesmerizing independent wonder. Instead of time travel, its subject is real-life Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). In 1981, Sands leads a hunger strike against the horrible conditions in Maze prison in Northern Ireland, which are indeed truly horrible. McQueen stages much of the movie without dialogue, excepting a powerful, almost totally dialogue-driven, 20-minute sequence in which Sands relates his plan to Father Moran (Liam Cunningham). Hunger is a powerful, brutal film that totally subverts the usual Hollywood attempts at biography.
The Exploding Girl
Zoe Kazan--the granddaughter of filmmaker Elia Kazan--is not classically beautiful, but she has a heart-shaped presence that makes her endearing and adorable. She stars in the much sweeter low-budget indie The Exploding Girl (2010) as Ivy, a college girl who occasionally suffers from seizures, on summer break in New York City. Her friend Al (Mark Rendall) crashes on her couch after discovering that his parents have rented out his room. These two lazily--yet impatiently--fill the summer days, sometimes directly saying what's on their minds, but often just talking about anything. Writer/director Bradley Rust Gray adopts a distant directing approach, often filming in long shots or around obstacles, as if accidentally eavesdropping on the scene. Eventually Ivy comes to "explode," but it's watching her not explode that makes the film work.
Back in the 1960s, a movie about a flawed female protagonist was a much bigger deal, as with the British hit Darling (1965) that won an Oscar for its star Julie Christie. She plays Diana, a small-time model who leaves her husband for a fling with a journalist (Dirk Bogarde). From there, she jumps to a powerful ad executive (Laurence Harvey), and eventually to a prince. Throughout, she finds that all the luxury in the world doesn't provide happiness. Oscar-winning screenwriter Frederic Raphael and director John Schlesinger create a beautiful black-and-white world that must have seemed glamorous once, but now seems strangely empty; it's a fascinating relic of its time. The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and won a third Oscar for Best Costume Design.
Marriage Italian Style
Sophia Loren was another larger-than-life international female star, earning an Oscar nomination for her ferocious performance as Filumena Marturano in Marriage Italian Style (1964). Pitched as a comedy, it's really more of a soapy drama, played out over the course of decades. Loren plays a prostitute who becomes the servant of a gentleman, Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni). After years of dedication, he decides to marry a younger woman, and Filumena takes drastic steps to get him to marry her instead. Director Vittorio de Sica was one of the founders of Italian Neo-Realism, but in later years, he made big budget entertainments like this, working with Loren many times. One of their best films, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (1963), is also available on Hulu Plus.
40 Days and 40 Nights
Not everything on Hulu Plus is high art. Shot mainly in San Francisco, 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002) was lambasted by critics, but it's really a darkly funny look at sex, a taboo topic that most writers were probably eager to avoid. Directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers), the movie takes a simple, ridiculous premise--ladies' man Matt (Josh Hartnett) gives up sex (and masturbation) for lent--and runs with it. Lehmann understands that by avoiding sex, it simply starts coming up everywhere; Hartnett responds with a kind of pale, twitchy edginess, as if he's ready to explode. Of course, the movie turns romantic when Matt meets the girl of his dreams (Shannyn Sossamon), but until then it's hilarious, titillating, and revealing.
Hot Shots! Part Deux
In 1980, three funny guys, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker created one of the funniest movies ever, Airplane!, by combining a spoof with ultra-deadpan humor. Thirteen years later, their reign reached its last gasp. Now, movies like Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) were not quite so deadpan and were getting dumber, but they were still funny. In the latter, Charlie Sheen returns as Topper Harley, who has moved from parodying Tom Cruise in Top Gun to parodying Rambo. His mission is to go into Iraq to rescue a whole bunch of people, including previous rescue missions.
The Jackie Robinson Story
Finally, here's a low-effort, low-budget charmer. Now that 42 has become a hit, fans may want to go back and watch the earlier The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). It's very cheap-looking, takes great liberties with the facts, and crams the entire story into a scant 76 minutes, but it has something that no other Jackie Robinson movie has: Jackie Robinson playing himself. Ruby Dee (Do the Right Thing, American Gangster) plays Jackie's wife. Hulu Plus has this movie available both in its original black-and-white, as well as colorized.