By Emma Bernstein | The Playlist June 21, 2013 at 12:03PM
It's homage week here at The Playlist, and, goodness knows, there's plenty to pay tribute to. "World War Z" opens in theaters today, and you may be in the mood to spend a little extra time with Brad Pitt. We'd like to suggest settling in with one of his oldies-but-goodies. Similarly, with Pixar's "Monsters University" hitting the big screens everywhere, we're offering up several compilations from that studio as a pregame (or to help cure your animation hangover... hair of the dog and all that). The Criterion Collection is expanding its selection on DVD, and we're expanding our section dedicated to the elite distribution label so as to reflect the new releases. And, finally, there's a lesser-known star turn from James Gandolfini to mark the actor's untimely passing and to celebrate his varied and distinguished career. So now, without further ado, here are our streaming selections for the week.
"The Girl" (2012)
What It's About: When she loses her job, Texas divorcee Ashley (Abbie Cornish) enters the family business. Discovering that her father (Will Patton) smuggles illegal aliens into the United States, she decides to become a coyote as well, hoping to make enough money to win back custody of her son. This plan doesn't go quite as expected, however, leaving the neophyte rustler saddled with a young girl (Maritza Santiago Hernandez) who needs to find her family. As the duo travels deep into Mexico, Ashley is forced to face her troubled past while planning for a happier future.
Why You Should Stream It: Certain dubious political and ethical implications aside, the film showcases strong filmmaking and acting alike. Director David Riker, who won Independent Spirit and Gotham awards for his first film, "La Ciudad," maintains a stark yet thoughtful style here, using sound and visual editing to great effect without ever verging into maudlin territory. Our review calls "The Girl" a mannered and in-the-pocket indie drama," adding, "it's a thoughtful and well-intentioned picture that can be objective and also quietly heartbreaking." Cornish is superb as well, giving a subtle but convincing performance in a weighty role. Finally, a very small release (just seven theaters) meant this film was widely overlooked in its big screen debut, and chances are you weren't able to see it.
Where It's Available: Amazon Instant, Cable on Demand, iTunes
"Dark Horse" (2011)
What It's About: 35-year-old Abe (Jordan Gelber) is suffering from an acute case of arrested development. He lives with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow), works for his father, and is relatively friendless. And yet, he remains curiously confident: an unshakeable assurance in being the underdog sanctions his enduring immaturity. That is, until he meets and falls in love with Miranda (Selma Blair) and finds himself ill-equipped to take on the complications of adult life.
Why You Should Stream It: Picking up on the rather mainstream threads of the man-child comedy, "Dark Horse" marks a new direction for director Todd Solondz, whose previous work has been chiefly dark, brooding, and controversial. His trademark squirm factor is certainly still at play here, but the inclusion of romantic comedy tropes and moments of true humor do temper it a bit. Moreover, the genre deconstruction is well done, and, as our review notes, "what 'Dark Horse' has in its favor over similarly-themed pictures is a brutal psychological realism. Solondz takes a premise that could be some kind of Apatowian studio comedy -- overweight man child falls for pixie dream girl -- and really gets into his central character's psyche." There is a welcome dose of insightful skepticism in this film that its studio counterparts are too often lacking.
Where It's Available: Amazon Instant, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, VUDU
"Johnny Suede" (1991)
What It's About: House painter and aspiring rock star Johnny Suede (Brad Pitt) plans to be the next Ricky Nelson. He's got the pompadour, the suit, and the swagger, and he's fallen hard for the well-connected Darlette (Alison Moir), who promises an entre into the music industry. Her sudden departure leaves him crushed, until the more grounded Yvonne (Catherine Keener) comes into his life to explain the finer details. Samuel L. Jackson and Nick Cave also make appearances.
Why You Should Stream It: In an interesting coincidence, the lead actor's history with the film spells what would have been a dream come true for his character. The virtually unknown Pitt was plucked from obscurity and forced on producers by writer-director Tom DiCillo, who was certain the actor was Suede. Likewise, an executive from Miramax was so convinced of Pitt's star potential after seeing the film at the Locarno International Film Festival (where it would go on to win Best Picture) that he persuaded Harvey Weinstein to purchase it, sight unseen. Shot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this surrealist black comedy channels the rock-and-roll-inspired punk attitude of 1980s New York while sporting early performances from a handful of now established stars. And, really, that hairdo is totally enough of a reason for us.
Where It's Available: Hulu, Netflix
"Pixar Short Films Collection" (2007 and 2012)
What It's About: This two-part compilation presents all of Pixar's animated shorts from 1986 to 2012, plus a brief documentary on the company's beginnings, four extra shorts produced exclusively for "Sesame Street," and a number of student films from the studio's major directors. Highlights include "Luxo, Jr.," "Knick Knack," "Geri's Game," "For The Birds," "Day & Night," "Presto," "La Luna," and "Hawaiian Vacation."
Why You Should Stream It: They're short! They're collected in two convenient anthologies! They're from Pixar!
Where It's Available: Amazon Instant (Vol. 1 / Vol. 2), iTunes (Vol. 1 / Vol. 2), VUDU
"Romance & Cigarettes" (2005)
What It's About: Queens-based ironworker Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) and seamstress Kitty Kane (Susan Sarandon) have been married for years and, frankly, Nick's getting kind of bored. He loves his wife, but with encouragement from his buddy, Angelo (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Murder decides to pursue an affair with Tula (Kate Winslet), a lingerie salesgirl who adds the missing spice back into the mix. But when Kitty discovers her husband's infidelity and kicks him out of their house, he must decide which woman, and which version of his own life, he can't survive without. Bobby Cannavale, Eddie Izzard, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro, and Christopher Walken co-star.
Why You Should Stream It: First of all, it's a regular "Sopranos" cast reunion, which is never a bad thing. Secondly, written and directed by John Turturro, "Romance & Cigarettes" is a rather unusual film, and in the best way. It carves a path through multiple genres with winning ease and is full of sharp, smart, wicked dialogue delivered by a bevy of very strong performers. And just in case you aren't intrigued yet, this film is also a musical. And yes, that means exactly what you think it does: to further explain their welling emotion, the characters periodically burst into song. Gandolfini sings Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love"! Walken performs "Delilah" by Tom Jones! Oh my.
Where It's Available: Amazon Instant, iTunes, VUDU
For even more Gandolfini, watch "Killing Them Softly," "Not Fade Away," "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Mighty," and "In the Loop," also all available to stream. And check out our feature of his 5 Most Memorable Performances.
Our Picks from the Criterion Collection
"Stromboli" (1950) and "Journey to Italy" (1954)
What They're About: Directed by Roberto Rossellini and starring Ingrid Bergman, these films are classic milestones in Italian cinema. In "Stromboli," an interned Lithuanian woman (Bergman) escapes imprisonment when she marries an Italian POW (Mario Vitale). The two withdraw to his home, a volcanic island as intimidating and unfriendly to the displaced bride as the local residents. "Journey to Italy" sees Bergman as an Englishwoman who travels to Naples with her husband (George Sanders) to sell a recently inherited property. Their personalities already at odds, the trip only serves to antagonize the couple more, and the misunderstandings and jealousy begin to mount.
Why You Should Stream Them: The infamy of Rossellini and Bergman’s personal relationship at times outshined the cinematic masterworks yielded by their professional collaboration, and here that success is on full display. As a prime example of Italian neorealism, "Stromboli" uses documentary footage and nonprofessional actors to authentically reproduce this island life. Although "Journey to Italy" was considered a box office failure, contemporary critic François Truffaut decreed it "the first modern film." Its significance has been proven over time, with filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese continuing to highlight its influence on their work. A three-film collection of the Rossellini-Bergman collaborations was announced this week as part of Criterion's September release schedule. The DVD anthology includes these two films plus "Europe '51" (which is not available to stream) and will be available for purchase beginning September 24. So now you can get a head start!
Where They're Available: Hulu (Stromboli / Journey to Italy)
Also Available to Stream
Despite not making our top five picks, the following films are certainly still worthy of your movie-loving attention, and are newly available via various streaming services. Links to our reviews are provided where available.
"Almost in Love"
"Beauty is Embarrassing"
"Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey"
"Escape from L.A."
"The Iran Job"
"Jack the Giant Slayer"
"The Last Exorcism Part II"
"Love Me or Leave Me"