Streaming Roundup: 10 movies you should be watching on Amazon Prime
There’s more choices than ever on streaming services. That means there are a ton of great options, but it can also be tough to sift through. Here’s what you should be watching on Amazon Prime.
Beatriz at Dinner
Movies, at their best, should say something about the world we live in. Often this takes place in heightened situations or other-worldly metaphor. It’s what makes movies so exciting, but it can also lead to us overlook the stories of the small moments that fill our lives. Beatriz at Dinner, in telling the story of two people from different backgrounds who disagree, makes a compelling case that we should stop overlooking such smaller things.
At 82 minutes, Beatriz at Dinner is a quick watch, but director Miguel Arteta (whose previous film Cedar Rapids I also adore) packs a lot in. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic medicine practitioner, performing various alternative medicine therapies for her clients. When her car breaks down at the house of a very wealthy client named Kathy (Connie Britton), Kathy invites Beatriz to stay for the dinner party she is hosting that evening.
Guiltily, Beatriz accepts, and initially tries to lie low. She stands by passively as Kathy’s friends babble over vacation homes and celebrity gossip, completely nice but totally vapid. In these scenes Beatriz at Dinner feels like a spiritual sibling to Get Out, gazing the sheltered perspective of moneyed whiteness through the lens of an underprivileged outsider. Eventually Beatriz clashes with Doug (John Lithgow), a wealthy real estate tycoon and Kathy’s husband’s boss (in many ways, Doug is a transparent stand-in for Donald Trump).
The exchanges between Doug and Beatriz are the meat of the movie, and the tensions and all too recognizable. Doug asks Beatriz where she’s really from; he mistakes her for part of the wait staff; he patronizes her belief in spirituality in favor of an undying faith in capitalism. If the exchanges only consisted of clichéd perspective differences, the film could have fallen flat. But Arteta allows Doug and Beatriz to naturally come to represent not just clashing personalities, but to serve as stand-ins for the conversations we’re not having, and how unbridgeable that gap in worldview has become.
Doug and Beatriz disagree on many things, but what stood out to me most was the gap between Beatriz’s sense of wonder and Doug’s complete moral nihilism. When Doug deadpans that Beatriz’s job is a big responsibility, she responds “Yeah,” in a tone of absolute conviction, as if she couldn’t even hear the sarcasm (Hayek is an absolute reckoning in this movie; she is a national treasure, and a totally underutilized actress).
Beatriz pleads with Doug to try healing something; he tells her that the world is dying, and she might as well enjoy it while she can. Earlier in the day, we learn that someone killed Beatriz’s pet goat. At the end of the day, in reference to Doug, she proclaims: “That man killed my goat.” It’s the line of the movie, and the one that best sums up their exchanges. She knows, of course, that he’s not literally the man that killed her goat. But he’s the type of man that hurts her and everyone else all the same.
Arteta provides no easy answers by the film’s conclusion. There is no reconciliation between Doug and Beatriz. Her mantra might be necessary if we want to sustain the planet or find any sort of common understanding, but Doug has money and power. All she can do is escape.
Beatriz at Dinner: 3.5 stars
The Wizard of Oz
How do you describe a movie as big as The Wizard of Oz? It almost feels like words cannot do it service. I don’t need to describe its plot; you know what it’s about.
The Wizard of Oz is pure magic, visually groundbreaking, and endlessly satisfying. If we remember any movie in 500 years it’s going to be this one, because the metaphor is so malleable, in a way that feels biblical.
For a movie this big, then, I must turn to the biggest of critics, Roger Ebert, to lay out its greatness:
“[The Wizard of Oz touches] on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own.
[It] has a wonderful surface of comedy and music, special effects and excitement, but we still watch it six decades later because its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them and then reassures them."
The Wizard of Oz: 4 stars
Dirty Dancing tells the story of Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey), a teen who spends the summer with her family at a resort in the Catskills and quickly falls in love with Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a suave dance instructor at the resort. One of my favorite things about 80s teen-coms is how they capture the inescapable pubescent feeling that the small things (a fight with your parents, a summer fling) have cosmic importance. Dirty Dancing captures this feeling better than most.
The scene where Baby leaves the tame dance lessons of her family behind and discovers the sweaty, raucous dance hall for the counselors captures this sensation most clearly. In essence, all Baby has discovered is a bunch of sweaty teens/twenty-somethings drinking and dancing in an old cabin. But to her, it’s a world unlike anything she’s seen before. Grey is wonderful, and manages to emanate a sense of both naive curiosity and calm confidence in this film. The shot below of Baby walking into the dance hall is reminiscent of Dorothy walking into the colorized Oz, just with a lot more hormones.
Dirty Dancing also deserves credit for taking on a very accepting view of abortion as a major part of the plot in 1987. There was the potential for Johnny Castle to just serve as a Male Savior, but his humility and self-doubt, and Baby’s own self-agency, make him more protective than problematic.
Also: this film highlighted for me just how much I love the X-Ray tool on Amazon Prime, which gives you information about the actors on screen as well as general movie trivia when you tap the screen or move your mouse. Did you know Swayze had to convince Grey to do the movie because she didn’t like him on the set of Red Dawn? Did you know the famous scene where they are dance-crawling towards each other wasn’t even meant to be in the movie? I love X-Ray.
Dirty Dancing: 3.5 stars
Good Time feels a lot like well-crafted Dog Day Afternoon fan fiction, and I mean that as a compliment. It certainly shares much of the same DNA as the 1975 Pacino classic about a bank robbery turned hostage situation turned total fiasco. In Good Time, the bank robbery is already over by the opening moments; Connie (Robert Pattinson) gets away, while his mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) gets caught and transported to a hospital due to injuries he sustained during his attempted escape from the police. The rest of the movie finds Connie trying to free his brother that night.
Connie is decidedly not a professional. He crafts his plans on-the-fly, but still manages to hold an air of absolute self-confidence. He’s the kind of guy who can fail to rob a bank, fail to break his brother out of the hospital, and fail to execute a backup plan, and still call someone else a fuck-up. The role was written for Pattinson specifically in mind, and he turns in a brooding, callous, and sympathetic performance.
Good Time was a breakthrough last year for directors Benny and Josh Safdie, and the film is a visual delight. Their style combines the fluorescent glory of a Nicolas Winding Refn film with the grungy, down-on-their-luck outsider roughness of Scorsese. Good Time doesn’t quite reach the heights of either of those two filmmakers, but it announces the Safdie brothers as filmmakers to look out for. Their technique is more than just visual: the glossy, grungy mess of a night Connie has feels like it is saying something about the state of America. I’m not quite sure what, but I know I can’t wait to see the Safdies’ next effort.
Good Time: 3 stars
Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature film, would make a strangely suitable companion for a double feature with Get Out. The film follows a punk band on tour called The Ain’t Rights. The band is so strapped for cash they routinely siphon gas from other cars, and their financial desperation leads them to take a gig performing at a secluded venue in the Pacific Northwest populated by white supremacists. The show itself goes fine, but when the band sees something they shouldn’t in the dressing room, they are forced to fight their way out against the white supremacists who won’t let them leave the venue.
There’s nothing haunted, supernatural, or sci-fi about the situation the band find themselves in, but make no mistake: Green Room has the feel of a horror genre flick. Like Get Out, the terror our heroes are trying to escape are identified by their violent commitment to whiteness. Unlike Get Out, our heroes are white, and the result is a sobering take on what happens when we endorse white supremacy through inaction. The Ain’t Rights knew who they were playing for but chose to go through with the show, and Saulnier uses the horror as a parable for how violence begets greater violence.
Saulnier imbues the film with more unyielding tension than nearly any film I’ve ever seen, full stop. It’s a quiet beginning that morphs into a wild finish. Viewers should know that Green Room is gruesomely violent, but the way Saulnier uses violence is almost the opposite of a Tarantino film. In Tarantino movies violence is bloody, but playful and nihilistic. In Green Room the violence is always grim, and brings a very real pain to the screen. This pain is made especially tangible in the excellent performance by Anton Yelchin, in his last filmed performance before his tragic death at the age of 27.
Saulnier’s next effort, Hold the Dark, debuts later this year, and it’s one of the films I’m most excited for in 2018. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Jeffrey Wright, and Riley Keough, one of my favorite rising actresses, the film tells the story of a writer hired to find a missing boy in the Alaskan wilderness, supposedly taken by a pack of wolves. All I needed to be excited for this one was Saulnier + Alaskan wilderness; everything else is an added bonus.
Green Room: 3.5 stars
Director Denis Villeneuve is a master of telling the story of an individual whose actions drive consequences of a situation far bigger than themselves. In Sicario, Emily Blunt's ambitious FBI agent gets in over her head trying to contain a U.S.-Mexico drug war. In Blade Runner 2049, Ryan Gosling's lowly blade runner discovers a deeply held secret. And in Arrival, a linguist (Amy Adams) is recruited to communicate with an alien life form that has all of Earth in disarray.
What makes Arrival stand a step above Sicario and Blade Runner 2049 (two excellent films) is the extent to which the implications of the overall situation mirror, and deepen, the ramifications for the individual. How this comes together I won't say; Villeneuve pulls off one of the most mystifying turns in a movie I've ever seen. It's not merely rewarding in the shockingness of it, though: the symbiosis of Adams's character arc and what she discovers from the aliens is truly beautiful.
Sweeping aerial shots are a signature of Villenueve’s, as is the careful, patient attention he pays to the nuances of his characters' faces. Of course, that requires talented actors, and Adams and Renner are up for the challenge. But this is a film in which the characters are less of a focus than the larger thematic elements. Oftentimes, that strategy can be overly spelled out (i.e., any scene with Jared Leto in Blade Runner 2049). Here it's quieter, and more satisfying for it.
Arrival: 4 stars
Logan Lucky, from director Steven Soderbergh, follows two bungling brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) as they attempt to rob a NASCAR race in North Carolina. Soderbergh directed Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen, three sleek, well-oiled heist films. Think of Logan Lucky as the anti-Ocean’s. While Danny Ocean is cunning and smooth, the Logan brothers have no idea what they’re doing. Everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. And that’s what makes it so much fun.
Also, in the midst of all this, we get perhaps the most emotionally satisfying scene in any 2017 release, and one of my favorite music moments.
Logan Lucky: 3 stars
Moonlight is a heartache of a film, and it’s stunning for the way it lends transformative power to the small moments in life. Chiron, a sexually stifled black kid living in impoverished Miami, has his identity forged in schoolyard scuffles and swimming lessons, and the episodic nature of his growth supplies every moment in the film with a palpable gravitas. The deep emotional impact of Chiron’s loneliness stems from this arc: the characters are the sum of their experiences, no matter how much they try to start over, and those experiences are largely outside of their control.
The characters that intermittently express love for Chiron enhance the impact of this lack of control by offering a glimpse of the relationships he could have had under alternate circumstances. In the film’s second act, when Chiron professes that “I cry so much sometimes I feel like I’m just gonna turn into drops,” his friend Kevin is empathetic, but the harsh reality of their social atmosphere soon tears them apart.
In terms of movies’ ability to expose structures of racism and injustice, this radical emotionality feels, to me, much more effective than something like Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Viewers can readily find alternative reasons the prison population has spiked than the ones Ava Duvernay’s documentary puts forth, but it’s damn near impossible not to empathize with Chiron’s struggles.
The film’s importance also stems from its portrayal of the fluidity of identity. Everyone in this film is confused, and even the figures who guide Chiron are still figuring themselves out as well. Few films are able to depict their characters not as “good” or “bad” but as troubled humans just as lost as the rest of us, and that’s where Moonlight shines. I find it funny that critics have called Moonlight the movie of our time, because its portrait of the ambiguity of identity feels particularly eternal.
Of course, the subject matter is of particular salience to modern times. To have a film centered on a black, gay romance garner such high praise is somewhat astonishing, and director Barry Jenkins handles the material with a nimble hand. His camera pays delicate attention to how characters’ bodies interact with their identities, and moves in and out of focus alongside the characters’ sense of self.
Moonlight: 4 stars
The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon opens on a shot of Elle Fanning drenched in blood, motionless, sprawled out on a sofa. Were most films to open like this, it would be (pretty reasonably) assumed that the character is dead. But that's not what the first shot in this film suggests. Why? It's a consequence of the film's colorful, gaudy panache: nothing that gorgeous and manufactured could possibly be real.
It, of course, turns out not to be real: Fanning’s Jesse is an up-and-coming model in the middle of a photoshoot. Jesse is new to the modeling scene, and as she climbs through the ranks, she encounters animosity among others in the industry. Think Drive meets Mean Girls.
People often criticize films (and director Nicolas Winding Refn’s films in particular) for being style over substance. This criticism is invariably misguided, because with the direction of a skillful filmmaker, style *is* substance. That opening shot is indicative of the level Refn is operating on: his splashy style isn't there merely to look nice, but reinforce the film's exploration of beauty and what it means to be truly seen.
The Neon Demon: 3.5 stars
American Honey is a film less interested in critiquing its characters' aimlessness than a broader look at how these character's ambitions or unique traits dissolve in the face of ruthless capitalism. The film follows a group of outcasts traveling the country in a van selling magazine subscriptions, and not thinking too much about tomorrow. For that reason, I didn't totally mind the lack of character development; the movie's sense of detachment served it well. There are a number of moments that would fit into other wanderlust, On The Road-esque sagas: driving montages backed by indie ballads and mood lighting, for example. But Director Andrea Arnold always pulls us out of that romanticization quickly, putting the characters right back to work. Stellar performances from Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf hold it all down.
American Honey: 3.5 stars