BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Me and the wife haven’t looked back after getting rid of the digital cable a year or so ago, what with the ubiquity of DVDs and our entertainment energies drifting towards the internet, television programming has begun to seem superfluous. While killing time with Google’s video search engine recently I was surprised to see that there is a poor man’s “On Demand” function on-line as well.
On the Google.com homepage you’ll need to go to the upper left-hand corner and click on “more,” then “advanced search” and from there I chose to search for videos with durations of no less than 20 minutes. From there I was able to begin browsing through the wide array of feature films that are quickly accessible on-line. Now I know computer savvy teens have been trading films on file-sharing services for years now, but since YouTube other sites have begun using their streaming video concept, allowing films to start in just two clicks.
Of course it doesn’t beat going to the movies and its jittery compression puts it somewhere below DVD quality, but if you’re stuck somewhere with your laptop and wi-fi, it takes no time now to fire up a movie. Here’s ten worthwhile and unusual films that are currently “free rentals” for the taking, mostly items in the public domain. And don’t think small, remember hit that full-frame button to get the most bang for your buck.
Maybe the most thrilling find was to John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, which is unavailable on DVD. Huston was still directing timeless cinema in the 1970s (the beaten boxer classic Fat City, The Man Who Would Be King) and Wise Blood may be his best of the decade. Brad Dourif is a disillusioned soldier who tours the grotesque South as the blasphemous Preacher Hazel Motes with his Church Without Christ. Time has been kind to the film, you can find its echoes in HBO’s Carnivale and its cast of character actors (Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty and the always freaky William Hickey) rarely have material this rich. How weird that screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald went on to write Mel’s Passion of the Christ.
It’s never been easier to watch Todd Haynes’ debut Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Haynes’ received some of the best reviews of his career for his recent fractured Dylan biopic I’m Not There and it’s surprising how many of that films themes are traceable back to Superstar. Oh yeah, the whole cast is Barbie dolls and its has been banned forever, since Richard Carpenter isn’t as mellow as he sounds when you mess with his little sister.
It seems like every major political documentary of recent years is easily streamable on the net, although the journalistic timeliness has dimmed the punch of many. However Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight is as shocking and as timely as ever, it’s a startling critique of how the military steers U.S. politics and is loaded with the type of info you’ll get few other places. John McCain’s is a front and center talking head here (did you know his father and grandfather were the first father/son four-star generals?) giving the film new relevancy.
The decline of the record industry is mused over by a bunch of record store clerks in Final Days of Full Circle Records. The modest little low-budget doc profiles Blackwood New Jersey’s independent store (once my college hang-out) during their going out of business sale. Most the film takes place after hours, while the store’s owners give a shell-shocked account of how they could go slowly grow their yearly profits to a sharp bust in a few years. A picture of the industry in a nutshell.
Dead-serious mockumentary about the aftermath of a nuclear detonation, The War Game is shot in black and white newsreel stock and shows the populace with a mix of panic and business as usual. Banned by the BBC, British filmmaker Peter Watkins’ 1965 film won the Best Documentary Oscar despite not being a documentary.
Another British rarity, who knew there was a 1954 TV version of Orwell’s totalitarian treatise 1984, starring Hammer film actor Peter Cushing? The tight TV budget makes it resemble an early Doctor Who episode yet the smart script (by Quatermass‘ Nigel Neale) does stick closer to the book than any of the other film adaptations.
Everybody thinks they can smell a hit but I would have thought that Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood was far more likely to be resurrected as a musical than Little Shop of Horrors. Both were written by Charles Griffith and were shot back-to-back with much of the same cast and crew, but Bucket’s beatnik cafe thriller is wittier and it has more beatniks. They’re scratching their beards and wondering how the cafe’s meek busboy makes such life-like statues. The proto-hippies are poked fun at incessantly but that creepy opening fake-“Howl” poem spooked the bejesus out of my when I was a kid. Locals will remember this one as a Dr. Shock favorite.
A few years back Quentin Tarentino made a big announcement that has discovered a new American auteur, the low-budget director of Roy Rogers’ vehicles, William Witney. Witney directed some of the punchiest movie serials (The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Jungle Girl) and he ended his career with this very eccentric blaxploitation film Darktown Strutters. Like a smart-assed Sid and Marty Kroft show, three females cycle riders blow into town looking to save a brother. There’s a Colonel Sanders’ look-alike who cloning blacks to increase his franchise and an appearance by The Dramatics, who sing while locked down in a cave.
Not a proper film, but a TV production of the mid sixties flop musical It’s A Bird It’s A Plane, It’s Superman. It’s got songs from Annie‘s Charles Strouse yet just about everything is wrong here, starting with the show’s desire to go on the cheap by only licensing the characters of Lois and Clark. It tries to sell vaudeville corn as camp yet for musical fans there is a sick thrill watching a play sink like a stone on opening/closing night. With Loretta “Hot Lips” Swit!
Ending on a note of genius, I’ve been kicking myself for a decade for missing a one night screening of this documentary on Welles’ unfinished work. Produced in France, Orson Welles – One Man Band is filled with footage from his unfinished later work including a sex scene set in a moving car from The Other Side of The Wind that is a stunning updating of his visual style. Talk of his late years often emphasize his failure to complete his work although Welles still seems playful and full of life, whether he’s doing magic or reading big chunks of Moby Dick to the camera.