Sometimes, really good movies slip through the cracks. They’re either not marketed well, or not marketed at all, or they’re so odd that no one’s quite sure what to make of them. You think they sound interesting initially, and put them on your Netflix queue, and then months past and they show up in your mailbox, and you think: huh.
So here are three movies Netflix sent me recently that are at least interesting, even kind of good, maybe. Not great movies by any means, but better than you think.
Side Effects. Stephen Soderburgh directed it, cast includes Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum. And Rooney Mara. Big name cast, A-list director. Who, by the way, announced that he was done with movie making, that this would be his last film. 84 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. And then it came out last February and completely bombed.
Why to see it: Okay, back in 1996, Richard Gere starred in a movie called Primal Fear. Gere played an amoral yuppie sleazebag (love it when an actor stretches himself), lawyer, defending a sweet, innocent choirboy of a kid who, evidence suggests, may have killed a priest. The kid was played by a young actor none of us had heard of yet, Ed Norton. The kid, turned out, had been abused by the priest, and suffered from multiple personality disorder (which I think now is called disassciative personality disorder), and so Gere gets him off–he’s found not guilty by reason of insanity. Then, it turns out, the kid was just faking mental illness so he could get away with murder. It was a neatly constructed thriller, with an amazing performance by Norton–he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it. And great work by him has followed, film after film.
Okay, well, Side Effects is basically the same movie, only with a woman instead of a guy. Rooney Mara fakes mental illness so she can get away with murdering her husband–Jude Law is the psychiatrist who treats her, but eventually figures out what she’s up to. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a rival psychiatrist who is Rooney Mara’s accomplice/lover. (Channing Tatum is the poor lug of a husband/murder victim).
Except Side Effects is much better than Primal Fear. Jude Law’s terrific. Rooney Mara’s amazing. And Soderburgh builds suspense masterfully. You’re never quite sure what’s going on, and the revelations at the end are both plausible and surprising. If you want to see a really neat psychological thriller, with some tremendous acting, check this out. I think one problem with it is that it creeped people out. We’d like to believe that depression can be dealt with medically–we’re uncomfortable with a movie that says that meds don’t always work, and that people can just fake depression. Well, why not build a thriller on an uncomfortable premise?
Erased. Stars Aaron Eckhardt and absolutely no one else you’ve ever heard of. Directed by Philipp Stolzl, a German mostly known for a Rammstein documentary. Shot in Belgium, with what appears to be mostly Belgian money and crew.
Why to see it: you know the Taken movies? Those ridiculous Liam Neeson things, where he’s trying to rescue a kidnapped daughter, which he accomplishes by wiping out whole squadrons of swarthy child traffickers? Well, in many respects, this is like a Taken movie, but much much better.
The Taken movies are idiotic fun, but require of the audience a kind of disbelief-suspending credulity that might otherwise be employed sending cash to Nigerian princes. Erased, on the other hand, is sort of vaguely plausible. Eckhardt plays a former CIA operative, retired, who gets a job as security consultant for an American corporation with a big office in Belgium. Then, one day, he goes to work, and everyone’s gone–I mean, offices, technology, people, they’ve all disappeared. He talks to representatives of the company, and they’ve never heard of him. Then he learns that all his co-workers showed up at the local morgue on the same day, dead from ‘natural causes.’ And so he and his teenaged daughter (a terrific kid actor named Liana Liberato) have to evade, and eventually turn the tables on various baddies.
In the Taken movies, Liam Neeson dispatches the baddies without breaking a sweat, pretty much. In Erased, Aaron Eckhardt has to really fight, nearly loses, gets hurt, gets injured, as does the daughter. And the plot, though of course preposterous, is a more plausible kind of preposterous. I mean, of course we can poke holes in the plot of any action movie. But we should have to work at it a little. I found it a genuinely suspenseful thriller, well directed and well acted.
Solomon Kane. This is not that movie in which Orson Welles says ‘Rosebud’ right before he dies. No, this is marketed as an sword-and-sorcery action movie, credited, in fact, to Robert E. Howard, who wrote the Conan books. Released in 2009, but only in film festivals, finally made it here in 2012, which gives you some idea how much the studios believed in it. Directed by someone named Michael J. Bassett. Stars James Purefoy. Filmed in the Czech Republic, mostly French financing.
Why to see it: Okay, it’s a seriously weird film, and mostly a terrible film. I still think it’s worth watching. It’s so amazingly medievally and Catholic.
It’s sort of a movie in three parts. Part One: Solomon Kane is a soldier of fortune in Elizabethan England, who turns to piracy. He’s an unstoppable killing machine, vicious and conscienceless. But he’s got a cross tattooed on his back, which means that Satan can’t quite seem to claim him. When he takes his weird haunted castle, kills everyone in it, a demon is about to claim him, but . . . doesn’t. And Kane barely escapes with his life.
Part Two, he becomes a monk, renounces violence. But the other monks kick him out of their monastery, saying God commands them to. God has another path for him, they say. He joins a Puritan family, then stands by, horrified, as they’re beset by witches, and also demonic soldiers commanded by the witches. Too late, Kane renounces his peaceful oath, and fights back, but his Puritan friends are mostly dead, except for their teenaged daughter, who is kidnapped.
Part Three, he goes on a quest to rescue the kidnapped daughter, not because he has any romantic interest there, but because she’s loved by God, because she’s a virgin. He’s serving God, you see. And serves God by killing piles of bad guys, demons, witches, you name it. He reverts to ‘killing machine’ mode, only this time in the service of God, because, you know, the Christian God is all about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, but sometimes adroit swordplay can be useful too. And God finally forgives him. I think.
Here’s what it reminds me of: back when I used to be a professor, I taught theatre history, and when we got to the Spanish Golden Age, I’d teach Lope de Vega and especially Calderon. Pedro Calderon de la Barca, very important playwright–I’d have ’em read his play Life is a Dream, which is a great play, well worth reading. But in his day, the main thing Calderon was known for were his autos sacramentales, religious allegory plays intended for Church festivals. And for grad students, I’d have them read Calderon’s Devotion to the Cross. The main character is a brigand and pirate who can’t be killed, a rapist and murderer, but nonetheless loved by God because he is devoted to crosses. Has a cross tattoo, wears crosses on his clothes. And although he’s a ferocious violent killer, he’s saved by God at the end. Early 16th century Catholicism, man; you weren’t saved by your deeds, because mankind was incapable of good, at all, ever. You were saved by outward devotion to the sacraments of the Church. Devotion to the Cross reads to us as a reductio ad absurdam mockery of a crazy theology. But that’s probably not what Calderon meant by it. He meant it as a serious exploration of deep theology.
So conflate Devotion to the Cross with our own culture’s equally screwy action movie take on heroism–the hero is the guy who can shoot straight–and you get Solomon Kane. Oh, and it’s also a movie that says that the biggest problem in the sixteenth century is that they didn’t burn enough witches. It’s supposedly set in Elizabethan England, but there’s no sense of Protestant/Catholic tensions–it’s pure Evil opposed by sword wielding Good. Crazy darn movie, but I was fascinated. How often do you see movies based on obscure Calderon autos?
A lot of movies get released (sometimes in that late January/early February dumping ground) and fail, and should. But sometimes pretty good movies come and go without attracting much attention. If you’re a movie fan, you can find some hidden gems. Thanks to Netflix (and similar services), they’re now easy to find, easy to access. And isn’t that a good thing?