It used to be that when a movie went straight to the small screen, it was considered a bomb. These days the opposite may be true—it might be da bomb. In the past few years, more and more high quality films are skipping the Cineplex and seeing limited release in select movie theaters before becoming widely available to stream. Still others, after making the rounds of the festivals, are bypassing the big screen altogether and going straight to an internet streaming platform like Netflix or Amazon. And then there are the “originals”: Streaming services are now going beyond distribution and, like HBO in the past but with far better results, are producing their own movies. In the process, they’re taking creative risks that the big studios would never dream of entertaining.
“Made for TV” has a whole different meaning now. Coming up from Amazon Studios is Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,”a sequel of sorts to his 1976 “The Last Detail,” starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne as three aging Vietnam-era vets (the film will open the New York Film Festival in September). Watch this space!
Here’s a roundup of seven terrific small-screen movies that are streaming now in your living room.
This powerful French film was directed by Houda Benjamina, who was raised in the world she portrays—the banlieues, or slums on the outskirts of Paris where Muslims, Roma, Africans and other marginalized minorities in France scratch out a living. “Divines” describes the lives of three girls—lives that intersect with funny, surprising and eventually tragic consequences. The lead is a fierce, beautiful Roma teenager who’s desperate to escape poverty and who draws her best friend, a sweet, naïve African girl from a deeply religious Muslim background, into quitting school to enter a dangerous life of drug dealing. They clash with the head of the local drug gang, a young woman who rules mercilessly by stamping out her femininity—and her humanity. “Divines” delves deeply into the lives of women with an authenticity rarely seen in film and explores the passionate bond that so many teenage girls form with each other, a bond that can be stronger than any attachment to family or boys. A romantic sub-plot between the lead and a young male dancer is unexpected and charming. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe, where it got a standing ovation. Have a box of tissues ready.
“Beasts of No Nation”
Simultaneously released both in theaters and on Netflix to make it eligible for the Oscars, but dropped by the major theater chains because of its online release, this harrowing film takes place in a nameless West African nation where warring militias invade towns, kill the inhabitants and move on, all in the name of a rebellion whose purpose is never clear. On the way, the soldiers kidnap and indoctrinate young boys whose families have been murdered or exiled and force them into combat. The “commandant” of the band is the charismatic master of menace, Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Luther”) who seduces his child soldiers with a combination of fatherly protectiveness and extreme terror. The relationship between Commandant and the 11-year old boy Ugu, whom he forces to perform horrible atrocities, forms the heart of the film. You’ll need a strong stomach for this one. It doesn’t stint on the graphic violence, but it’s worth seeing if only for the performances by Elba and a remarkable new child actor, Abraham Attah, who convincingly is transformed from an innocent child to a hardened killer almost overnight. “Beasts of No Nation,” which is based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, won won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice International Film Festival.
“Get Me Roger Stone”
Just as horrifying as “Beasts of no Nation,” albeit in a very different way, “Get Me Roger Stone” is a 2017 documentary film about a man who’s played an extraordinarily powerful role in recent American politics. The film, which was written and directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and released on Netflix a month later. A member of the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, Roger Stone is a charming, flamboyant operative, master of disinformation and longtime Trump advisor who convinced Donald Trump that he was presidential material back in the ’80s and groomed him for the role. Through a series of interviews with critics such as writer Jeffrey Toobin, who calls him the “malevolent Forrest Gump, Stone proudly calls himself an “agent provocateur” and brags that his motto is “morality is weakness.” His motto: “morality is weakness.” Wearing a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, he’s the self-proclaimed architect of the dirty tricks school of politics and has tutored a string of Republicans, including Joe McCarthy, Nixon, Ronald Reagan and even Bob Dole; he himself was mentored by the infamous Roy Cohn, Trump’s (and John Gotti’s) lawyer. His “rules” formed the basis of Team Trump’s approach to winning: “Attack, attack, attack. Never defend”; “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack”; “Nothing is on the level.” Be prepared to weep for our country, no matter which party you support.
“The Babushkas of Chernobyl”
After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, an Exclusion Zone around the plant was evacuated, deemed uninhabitable for 200 years. Public access to the zone was blocked because the radiation fallout was so high, and locals were resettled in towns outside. But one group of “Babushkas” (grandmothers in Ukrainian) were among those few who snuck back into the zone illegally and returned to their rustic cottages. They wanted to live out their lives in their own homes and eat from their own land. Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s inspiring documentary, which they made during the 25th anniversary of the reactor explosion, focuses on three Babushkas who, now in their 80s and despite being toothless, stooped and twisted with arthritis—as well as exposed to the earth’s highest ever levels of radiation—grow their own food, chop their own wood, keep their houses in repair and walk for miles to visit and care for each other in their scattered ghost villages. One Babushka grows herbs, another makes moonshine, they all crack jokes. “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” follows their lives and joins them as they scientists and doctors try to account for the fact that they are outliving their counterparts who were evacuated to cities and who died on average ten years earlier, perhaps of despair and sadness. These women claim that they’ve lived through worse than the Chernobyl fallout—the Nazis and Stalin—and were damned if they’d let a little radiation chase them off their land.
Directed by Sian Heder, a writer for the TV series Orange Is the New Black in her first feature film, this moving charmer brings together Ellen Page and Allison Janney (both of “Juno”) and features Tammy Blanchard in a stunning performance as a drunken, sluttish mom. Funny and touching, “Tallulah” tells the story of how a neglected baby forces a trio of emotionally stunted women to get it together. Page plays a young drifter who lives in a camper and kidnaps her babysitting charge because she can’t bear to leave it with its uncaring, drunk mom. Janney, her boyfriend’s mother who has no interest in taking care of anyone, winds up taking care of both the drifter and the baby under the mistaken impression that she’s the grandma. The drunk mom changes her ways when she realizes she’s lost her child. If this sounds a bit like a sentimental Lifetime movie, it isn’t. Well, maybe a little…but the ending is far from predictable, and the acting is superb. s the director explained in an interview with the Huffington Post, “I tend to explore subversive characters that we tend to judge, particularly when it comes to women.”
If you were around in 1964 when the Kitty Genovese murder ruled the news, you’re sure to remember the shocking story: 38 residents of Kew Gardens, Queens saw a woman being stabbed in the street, heard her screams and pleas for help, and ignored them. The case became a sensational indictment of New Yorkers’ apathy as bystanders. Fifty years later Kitty’s brother, Bill Genovese, who was 16 at the time of her death and has been obsessed with her murder ever since, went on a search for the truth. He couldn’t believe that people like him let his sister die. Genovese went back to Kew Gardens and interviewed eye witnesses and neighbors, and even the killer’s son. The truth he discovered is at odds with official accounts: One of the villains in this case was Bill Rosenthal, then editor-in-chief of the New York Times. According to contemporary journalists whom Genovese interviewed, the Times vastly sensationalized the story to sell papers, and many of the details were wrong. No one questioned the paper’s account at the time because, well, it was the New York Times, and the newspaper of record was considered infallible. This eye-opening documentary by James D. Solomon in his directorial debut follows Genovese on his journey of discovery in a case that defined the New York City for half a century. Both the Times and New York Magazine named it one of the best films of 2016, and the film was shoretlisted for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category.
An eccentric group of retirees are about to be booted out of their affordable senior living complex in California because it’s been sold to condo developers. The residents rebel. This is not the adorable “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” bunch of older people. These seniors use profanity, are overtly sexual and shoplift food when they’re broke. The plot, which pits the good guy residents against the bad guy developers, is admittedly hackneyed, but while “silver Skies” is not on par with the other straight-to-small-screen films we’ve featured, its gritty, down-to-earth characterizations of older people are a refreshing departure from the usual cutesiness that afflicts the portrayal of seniors in movies. And the ensemble cast of familiar character actors is a joy, especially because we haven’t seen them onscreen for so long. George Hamilton plays a funny, dapper aging roue with early-onset Alzheimer’s who sometimes thinks he’s Dean Martin; Jack McGee is his tough guy best friend and caretaker; Valerie Perrine reprises the bombshell role she played in many films when she was young and is sexy enough to pull it off now; Barbara Bain and Jack Betts are a loving long-married couple who are still turned on to each other; and Mariette Hartley plays a wealthy widow who tries to rescue her friends by buying the hotel. There’s a shocking scene of elder sexual abuse which may have caused some younger reviewers to pan this film, but it works in the context of the story. “Silver Skies” is the first feature directed by TV director Rosemary Rodriquez. After winning a number of awards at festivals, it had a very limited release before going to video.