Worthy free flicks starring (among others) Jamie Lee Curtis, Marlon Brando, and Florence Pugh.
Tom Neal in Detour (Photo: Criterion)
(Prime Cuts is a regular column that suggests worthy movies presently available for Amazon Prime subscribers to watch for free.)
DETOUR (1945). Considering the popularity of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), it’s surprising no one has thought to coin the term NCU. That would of course stand for the Noir Cinematic Universe, as those fatalistic films from the 1940s and ‘50s always seemed to be set in their own surreal and shadowy realm, far away from any place where a person could experience happiness, satisfaction, or even a ray of sunshine. Produced by a Poverty Row studio but shot by director Edgar G. Ulmer to look like a million bucks, Detour is one of the most dour, dank and despairing of all film noir offerings, with Tom Neal playing one of the genre’s most hapless saps and Ann Savage one of its fiercest femme fatales. Hitchhiking from NYC to LA to be reunited with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), nightclub pianist Al Roberts (Neal) gets picked up by a rambunctious blowhard (Edmund MacDonald) who suddenly drops dead due to poor health. In a panic, Al disposes of the body and takes over the man’s identity, a decision that proves disastrous after he meets Vera (Savage), a blackmailing shrew who proceeds to make his life a living hell. Ulmer never falters in his distinctive shot selections, and Savage is utterly mesmerizing as the poisonous Vera. As for Neal, he was apparently as sour a person in real life as the character he plays here: He physically abused his first wife, placed actor Franchot Tone in the hospital after a jealous rage over their mutual girlfriend Barbara Payton, and fatally shot his third wife in the back of her head, subsequently serving a six-year prison stint for involuntary manslaughter.
FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019). One need not be a wrestling fan to enjoy this crowd-pleaser that’s sure to entertain even those who just always assumed that Hogan was the surname of The Incredible Hulk rather than a lord-of-the-rings superstar in his own right. Turning to both real life and a 2012 documentary for his source material, writer-director Stephen Merchant examines the odyssey of Saraya Bevis (Little Women Oscar nominee Florence Pugh), who hails from a family jam-packed with wrestlers. Under the proud tutelage of their parents Patrick (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey), Saraya, calling herself “Paige” in the ring, and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden), known as “Zac Zodiac,” devote their lives to landing a tryout with the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). They succeed, but after carefully screening all the applicants, only Paige is chosen by the trainer-scout (Vince Vaughn) to continue the path to possible WWE stardom. Among those sent packing is Zac, who must return to their home in England while Paige heads to Florida for further tryouts. Co-produced by Dwayne Johnson (who also appears as himself), Fighting with My Family is full of rowdy humor (much provided by a garrulous Frost) and introspective moments (most provided by a perfectly cast Pugh), but what elevates the movie’s game is its willingness to also follow Zac as he copes with crushing disappointment. If Paige’s journey infuses the piece with spirit, Zac’s ordeal provides it with poignancy, and the resultant tag team of emotions makes it easy to cheer for this family and this film.
THE FOG (1980). John Carpenter wouldn’t direct his horror masterpiece for another couple of years — sorry, fans of 1978’s Halloween, but 1982’s The Thing is the real career pinnacle — yet The Fog is right in line with the types of films he made before his professional fall from grace. It’s unpretentious genre fun, stylishly assembled and populated with colorful characters. Set in the coastal California town of Bodega Bay, it concerns a curse wherein a group of murderous ghosts have returned after a 100-year slumber seeking revenge for a grave injustice. The script by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill is unique in that it features two heroines who never meet: Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s then-wife), a local DJ who’s able to keep track of the menacing fog from her radio-station perch atop the Bodega Bay lighthouse, and Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), a traveler who hitches a ride from local Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) and foolishly decides to stick around. For a relatively low-budget feature, the movie looks great, thanks to director of photography Dean Cundey’s widescreen lensing, Tommy Lee Wallace’s atmospheric production design, and the groovy visual effects. Film buffs will appreciate the sight of Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh sharing screen time together, as well as the number of in-jokes dotted throughout (The Abominable Dr. Phibes and The Birds are but two of the titles that receive subtle shout-outs).
ONE-EYED JACKS (1961). Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, and The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling were all involved in the making of this offbeat Western, but you won’t find their names anywhere in the credits: Serling and Peckinpah both penned early drafts of the script, while Kubrick was signed as director before eventually being fired by the studio. Kubrick’s replacement was Marlon Brando, the film’s star, and it proved to be the only time the actor would occupy the director’s chair. It’s an impressive job on his part, even if his inexperience combined with his attention to minute detail resulted in a film that was plagued by shooting delays and an expanding budget. Brando plays Rio, a bank robber who spends five years in a Mexican prison after his partner and mentor, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), runs out on him following a heist. After successfully breaking out of jail, he begins his hunt for Dad, eventually learning that the former outlaw has gone clean and now serves as sheriff of a small town. The duplicity of Malden’s character foreshadows the similarly sadistic lawman played by Gene Hackman in 1992’s Unforgiven, while Brando brings Method moodiness to the standard Western protagonist. (Also, it’s nice to see Brando and Malden reunited after their ’50s classics A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront.) The ending could be stronger, but everything else works just fine, and Charles Lang deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his gorgeous color cinematography.
A PRIVATE WAR (2018). International intrigue was the order of the day for Rosamund Pike in 2018, as the Gone Girl actress spent the year appearing in the politically charged dramas Beirut, 7 Days in Entebbe, and A Private War. Her meatiest role in the trio can be found in the last-named, a dramatization that examines the dangerous calling of real-life journalist Marie Colvin. Employing a Vanity Fair article (“Marie Colvin’s Private War,” by Marie Brenner) as its source, the film follows Colvin, an American working for the U.K.’s The Sunday Times, as she covers deadly and destructive skirmishes in such global hot spots as Sri Lanka (where she lost an eye and thereafter chose to wear an eyepatch) and Syria (where she lost her life in 2012). Pike is excellent as Colvin, presented here as a fearless humanist who ventures into areas where no sane human would dare trespass. Tom Hollander and Jamie Dornan are effective as, respectively, Sean Ryan, Colvin’s Times editor, and Paul Conroy, a brave photojournalist who becomes her friend and ally (both are real-life figures), while Stanley Tucci adds a splash of romance as Tony Shaw, her playful millionaire boyfriend (a fictional creation). The project’s sense of realism is enhanced by the participation of director Matthew Heineman, a documentarian (the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land) making his feature-film debut.
UNITED 93 (2006). A superb motion picture about a terrorist attack on the United States, United 93 makes for appropriate viewing following the January 6 assault on the Capitol by a group of domestic terrorists operating at the direction of a soulless authoritarian. It’s hard to imagine a less sensationalized 9/11 film than this riveting docudrama focusing on the morning when all hell broke loose in the US — and specifically zooming in on the tragic yet inspiring saga of the one hijacked plane which did not reach its intended target. Perhaps it was imperative that an outsider tell this story, and that’s what we get with writer-director Paul Greengrass. A British filmmaker who achieved similar verisimilitude with 2002’s Bloody Sunday (about the 1972 massacre of Irish civilians by English troops), Greengrass repeatedly refuses to take the bait of making a picture that can be tagged as exploitative, propagandistic or too political. Yet his restraint can only shelter us for so long; ultimately, there’s no defense against our own humanity. I imagine it’s impossible to watch United 93 and not be brought to tears on several occasions. United 93 earned deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Film Editing.