This month’s off-the-grid recommendations at your subscription streaming services run the gamut from a tender coming-of-age story to a pair of pitch-black comedies to an unexpectedly affectionate action picture, plus three documentaries concerning influential artistes of fashion, music and sleaze.
‘The Beta Test’ (2021)
The writer, director and actor Jim Cummings established his onscreen persona (a fumbling, insecure but ultimately big-hearted Everyman) in his breakthrough film “Thunder Road,” and moved the character into genre territory in “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.” For this third feature — working this time with PJ McCabe, his co-writer and co-director — Cummings takes that character into a decidedly darker direction, playing a hotshot Hollywood agent whose career (and impending nuptials) are put into jeopardy when someone makes him a sexual offer he can’t refuse. Cummings and McCabe slip into darker corners than you might expect, yet the comic and thriller aspects commingle with ease, and the results are thrillingly unpredictable.
This Canadian coming-of-age drama about the perils of growing up gay was released around the same time as “Moonlight,” and was certainly overshadowed in comparison. But “Closet Monster” is firmly its own thing — an earnest, lived-in portrait of the very real stigmas and fears of being a queer kid, and the kinds of adolescent insecurities that manifest as a result. Connor Jessup is quietly affecting as Oscar, a teenager trying desperately to shake the psychic scars inflicted by his homophobic dad (a chilling Aaron Abrams) after his parents’ divorce. The writer-director Stephen Dunn was only 26 when the film had its debut, and his proximity to youth is a real virtue. This is a filmmaker who remembers the electricity of a first kiss, the fumbling of a first sexual encounter and the satisfaction of breaking free from toxic influences.
Before “The Queen’s Gambit” made her a star, Anya Taylor-Joy fronted this delectably dark comedy from the writer and director Cory Finley (who would follow it up with the similarly merciless “Bad Education”). Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke (“Sound of Metal”) play childhood friends, reunited in young adulthood, whose wistful, wishful conversations about murdering one’s stepfather veer into non-hypothetical territory. Taylor-Joy and Cooke are a delight to watch, their two-scenes a cascade of dry wit and deadpan underplaying, and Finley’s stylish direction pinpoints the right combination of dry humor and to-the-rafters theatrics.
You’ve seen plenty of Victorian-era serio-comic dramas, many featuring much of this prestige cast, which includes Hugh Dancy, Rupert Everett, Felicity Jones, Gemma Jones and Jonathan Pryce. But this is no starchy tale of class conflict or simmering romance — no, this is the story of how Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy), while pursuing treatments for “hysteria” (the female orgasm), invented the vibrator. The director Tanya Wexler and her stiff-upper-lip cast clearly get a kick out of their randy subject matter and adjust their playing accordingly, while Maggie Gyllenhaal delights as a proto-feminist who seizes on this development and the power it contains.
‘Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning’ (2012)
The first-person-POV dramatization of a brutal home invasion that opens this bruising action picture is so visceral and upsetting, it feels more like the kickoff to a Gaspar Noé button-pusher than the third sequel to a ’90s shoot-‘em-up. From there, the director John Hyams rarely lets up; he’s less interested in cheap thrills or fan service than in nightmare imagery and haunting portraiture of overwhelming grief. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, series regulars, are on hand, but the focus is on a new protagonist (played by the direct-to-video action favorite Scott Adkins), whom Hyams follows on a neon-soaked, strobe-lit plunge into death and despair. The fight scenes deliver a no-punches-pulled intensity, with a darkness that borders on nihilism, turning this would-be throwaway into an interrogation of what we want — and expect — from action movies.
When the journalist and stylist André Leon Talley died this year, accolades poured in from some of the most influential figures in the fashion world. Those not quite in the know couldn’t ask for a better summary of his life and achievements than this energetic and entertaining documentary from the director Kate Novack. Talley’s story is a fascinating one, of a poor kid from the segregated South who used fashion magazines as a form of fantasy and escape, and went on to fill those pages with his distinctive words and inimitable style. The archival footage is delightful and the interviews with his contemporaries are insightful, but Talley’s own commentary is the real draw — he is, as he always was, trenchant, funny and fabulous.
‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World’ (2017)
The genealogy of rock music has always been of keen interest to historians and performers, who’ve tended to agree on the influence of gospel, blues, soul and country styles on the formative early recordings of the 1950s. This documentary by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana shines a light on a less-acknowledged source: North American Indigenous musicians. Exploring both the music itself and the trials and triumphs of several of its practitioners, “Rumble” is a welcome round of archaeology and an overdue bit of credit — and the music is, unsurprisingly, wonderful.
When it aired in the late 1980s — for only two seasons — “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” was condemned in all corners as lowest common denominator television, a “talk show” that used its “Oprah”-style panel format primarily to provoke, and to provide fodder for its trash-talking, chain-smoking host. This thoughtful and well-assembled documentary snapshot of that host, and of the pop culture ubiquity he briefly enjoyed, was released at a time when the show’s influence on subsequent “end of civilization” fare like “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Maury” was clear; from our vantage point, we can also see how it both affected and represented the slowly turning tides of confrontational political discourse.