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After splashy premieres at the Cannes, Toronto and New York Film Festivals — plus a cast boasting Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Emma Thompson — this week’s highest profile movie is coming Friday to a Roku box or laptop near you. OK, so writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is getting a token release in a handful of theaters to qualify for end-of-the-year awards consideration, but 99 percent of the film’s audience will wind up watching it on Netflix, part of the streaming service’s increasingly ambitious bid to become a full-scale movie studio.
Netflix Original Films have so far been a mixed blessing for movie buffs. On one hand, they’re producing and purchasing the kind of pictures that probably wouldn’t otherwise find a foothold in our beleaguered arthouse market. (Who else would have been crazy enough to back Bong Joon-ho’s nutzoid anti-capitalism opus “Okja,” which starred Tilda Swinton and a giant pig?) But the company’s mysterious algorithm can also make these movies awfully difficult to find, and without the promotional blitz that accompanies a theatrical release it’s easy for films to slip by unnoticed in the mountain of content that comes up on your home screen. Part of my job is keeping track of these things and even I’m caught off-guard sometimes by what’s suddenly available.
Over the past month, Netflix has quietly dropped a wildly varied slate of original productions that includes the cozy Jane Fonda and Robert Redford reunion “Our Souls At Night,” a grisly adaptation of Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game” and “First They Killed My Father,” an altogether astonishing Cambodian war drama directed by Angelina Jolie. That’s a lot of star power for an upstart studio, and it’s a list of films refreshingly aimed at adults.
'The Meyerowitz Stories'
Of these four, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” feels the most familiar, a quippy retread of filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s breakthrough hit “The Squid and the Whale” spliced together with the Salinger-esque sibling squabbles of his occasional collaborator Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Dustin Hoffman gives a majestically unpleasant performance as an insufferable sculptor who never quite made it in the art world, passive-aggressively taking out his frustrations on the hapless adult children from his first marriage (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) while doting on a successful son (Ben Stiller) from his second.
When the old man falls ill, his kids have to set aside their simmering resentments, which goes about as well as you can probably imagine. Baumbach’s got a real gift for barbed dialogue and his abrupt editing cuts off a lot of these spleens mid-vent. There are enough acerbic one-liners for at least two movies, but it’s the inarticulate Sandler (of all people) who supplies the picture’s soul. Every seven years or so, this incredibly gifted and extraordinarily lazy performer reminds us of his immense talent, here slouching his way through the picture in cargo shorts, forcing smiles under a cloud of defeat. When the zingers land he makes you feel where they hit.
'Our Souls At Night'
Exactly half a century after first appearing together in “Barefoot in the Park,” Robert Redford and Jane Fonda have reunited for the sweetly unassuming “Our Souls At Night.” (A terrible title way too ostentatious for this modest little movie, it also sounds filthy when said aloud with a British accent.) Redford stars as a straight-arrow widower who gets a surprise visit from a lonely neighbor played by Fonda, asking if he might want to spend the night. Not for sex mind you, just companionship. She finds it difficult falling asleep alone, and he must admit that he misses waking up next to a friendly face.
The pleasure of the picture is in watching their arrangement tentatively blossom into something more, and the straightforward, unfussy performances by two seasoned pros who know better than to push too hard. It’s a quiet film, respectful of the characters’ slightly stuffy Midwestern manners. I could have done without the pesky plot machinations provided by Fonda’s estranged son (Matthias Schoenaerts), as director Ritesh Batra fares best when he hangs back and just observes the stars growing closer. A beauty of a scene finds Fonda silently unbuckling her seatbelt and sliding over to lean on Redford’s shoulder as he drives, their wonderfully weathered faces saying more than these characters ever could put into words.
“Gerald’s Game,” on the other hand, is a movie scared of such silences, which is odd considering its concept. Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel, the film stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood as a long-married couple on a weekend getaway at a secluded country cottage where they try to spice up their love life with a little BDSM roleplay. Next thing you know, she’s handcuffed to the bedposts and he’s dead on the floor from a Viagra-induced heart attack. Oh, and there’s also a mean old stray dog that’s found its way into the house, hankering for a meaty meal.
Gugino — a terrific actress who never quite landed the breakout role she deserves — is excellent here, conveying the character’s terror but also enough backbone and resourcefulness that we can believe she’ll find a way out of this predicament. Unfortunately, director Mike Flanagan doesn’t leave any room for dread, gussying up the proceedings with constant visits from chatty ghosts and other apparitions along with frequent flashbacks to the character’s abusive father (a chilling Henry Thomas, upsetting our “E.T.” memories). “Gerald’s Game” is too full of busywork to ever get around to dramatizing the horror of being trapped, helpless and alone, which I thought was supposed to be the whole point.
'First They Killed My Father'
Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” begins with a shot of our child protagonist (Sareum Srey Moch) reflected in a television screen broadcasting the evacuation of Phnom Penh, the camera soon drifting along with her point of view to those same helicopters arriving just outside the window. Based on a memoir by Loung Ung, who was just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, this extraordinary film is told entirely through the eyes of a child. (Ung co-wrote the screenplay with Jolie.) The camera seldom strays from what she can see or hear — a historical tragedy viewed from four feet off the ground by a character who doesn’t quite grasp what’s happening.
It’s this bold stylistic gamble that makes “First They Killed My Father” such an overwhelmingly empathetic experience. We’re thrown into volatile situations that are only half-understood, freed from the overarching historical baggage we can’t help but bring to so many war movies, and left instead to simply feel this one on a moment-to-moment basis. Jolie previously bludgeoned viewers with brutality in her adaptation of “Unbroken,” but this film is far more understated and humane. Her earlier directorial efforts showed promise, but here’s where Jolie’s formidable visual skills and enormous compassion finally come together. It's one of the best movies of the year, regardless of what kind of screen you’re watching it on.