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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

‘Stoker,’ ‘Synchronic’ and More Hidden Streaming Gems

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This month, tucked away in the quiet corners of your subscription streaming services, you’ll find a trio of modest sci-fi indies, a handful of powerful character dramas, a smart and savvy rom-com, and a pair of thoughtful documentaries on entertainment figures of both the mainstream and the fringe.

Stream it on Hulu.

There is a scene midway through Harry MacQueen’s marvelous drama, in which Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a novelist, begins to give a big speech at a gathering of family and friends. But Tusker has early-onset dementia, and he cannot get through it — so he hands the speech to Sam (Colin Firth), his partner of decades, to read for him. Firth attempts to read his partner’s words without choking up, and Tucci listens with a mixture of shame and conviviality. The entire film has that kind of power, as its stars, who do some of the best acting of the year, convey the running jokes and sly little jabs of a long, comfortable, lived-in relationship, and show how they must summon up all of its accumulated emotion to make it through the toughest trial of their lives.

The great South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“The Handmaiden,” “Oldboy”) crafts an exhilarating riff on Hitchcock’s classic “Shadow of a Doubt” with this story of a young woman (here played by Mia Wasikowska) and her mysterious, and perhaps murderous, “Uncle Charlie” (Matthew Goode). But Park isn’t content with empty homage; he and the screenwriter Wentworth Miller can take their story to places Hitchcock, in his era, could not, and they do so gleefully and unapologetically. Park’s direction is stunning, honing in on details, textures and moods, keeping the viewer unbalanced with bizarre compositions and left-field dark comedy, and his entire cast (which also includes Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver and Dermot Mulroney) is superb.

Stream it on Netflix.

The writing and directing team Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl mine a working class sci-fi groove, reminiscent of “Alien” and “Moon,” in this story of a father (Jay Duplass) and daughter (Sophie Thatcher), prospectors for hire on a gem-mining mission on a distant moon. The filmmakers neatly fold in Western and action elements, as the duo encounters a verbose outlaw (Pedro Pascal) and wind up fighting not only for their job, but their lives. Caldwell and Earl use their modest budget ingeniously, creating a convincing, otherworldly environment, while Pascal’s “Mandalorian” fans should enjoy the film’s similarly freewheeling fusion of genres and influences.

Frank Langella is at his absolute best — wry, funny, cranky and compelling — as a retired jewel thief who puts together one last score with an unexpected accomplice: the robot companion who’s intended to take care of him in his golden years. Peter Sarsgaard voices “Robot,” and it says much about the skill of both actors that we not only believe the relationship, but root for it. The director Jake Schreier and the screenwriter Christopher Ford create a believable (slightly) futuristic setting, working through the slight tweaks to current technology that would make Frank’s “butler” not only possible, but ideal for the task at hand.

Stream it on Netflix.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the filmmakers behind the brainteasers “The Endless” and “Spring,” tell the story of two New Orleans EMT drivers (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) sniffing out the source of a dangerous synthetic drug. At least, that’s what it seems to be about; the script takes a hard turn in another, unexpected direction just past the halfway mark, into territory best left unspoiled. Crackerjack work from a sturdy ensemble cast, but the standout is “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” star Mackie, who does some of his best work to date as a man with nothing left to lose.

Stream it on Amazon.

Snowy, mournful and frequently bleak, this introspective action-tinged drama from the director Daniel Nettheim stars Willem Dafoe (in yet another powerhouse performance) as a mercenary who is hired by a mysterious client to track and kill the Tasmanian tiger — long thought extinct, and valuable in ways he may not fully understand. What could’ve been a mindless thriller or a clumsily earnest environmental exposé instead plays as a thoughtful meditation on nature and our place in it. And it’s a first-rate character study, brought to life by a stirring actor whose work here, even in lengthy scenes of totally silent preparation and execution, is never less than fascinating.

Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.

Stream it on HBO Max.

Jennifer Westfeldt’s comedy-drama was marketed as something of a companion piece to the previous year’s “Bridesmaids,” mostly since the films shared four key cast members (Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd and Jon Hamm). But that was about all they had in common, and “Friends” suffered in comparison — unfairly, as Westfeldt (who writes, directs and stars) is quite a different filmmaker, and “Friends with Kids” is a much more direct and intimate examination of maturity, relationships and the quest for happiness. Westfeldt and Adam Scott are Harry and Sally-style best friends who decide to have a child without getting romantic; complications, as you might imagine, ensue. But Westfeldt’s wise script avoids the easy outs, while displaying a keen ear for character-driving dialogue.

Stream it on Hulu.

The penultimate feature film of the acclaimed director Abbas Kiarostami was a notable departure in setting, marking only the second time he made a film entirely outside of Iran, this time working with a Japanese cast in Tokyo. But his mesmerizing style is as present as ever in this modest but moving story of three people — a young sex worker, her oblivious boyfriend, and the old man who begins as her client, but becomes more of a confidante. Kiarostami lets his scenes unfold with a dreamlike delicacy, yet his touch is precise; it’s the kind of film that sneaks up on you, casting a spell that isn’t clear until it comes to its shattering conclusion.

Stream it on Amazon.

In 1999, Whitney Houston went on a world tour, accompanied by her husband Bobby Brown, her best friend (and onetime romantic partner) Robyn Crawford and a documentary crew that was given total access to her, onstage and off. That footage never saw the light of day — until the director Nick Broomfield coupled it with additional archival footage and contemporary interviews, in an attempt to puzzle out why happiness so evaded Houston that she turned for refuge to the drugs that eventually took her life. The result of this marriage of materials is an unflinching portrait of addiction and codependence, by turns heart-wrenching and insightful.

Stream it on Amazon.

In 1979, the filmmaker Trent Harris met a strange guy named “Groovin’ Gary,” switched his video camera on, and turned their conversation into a short film called “The Beaver Kid.” Two years later, he reenacted that conversation with an unknown young actor named Sean Penn to make another short film; four years later, he did it again with another then-unknown actor, Crispin Glover. Harris’s “Beaver Trilogy” became an underground sensation, one of the first of what we now call “viral videos,” and this smart, funny and knowing documentary from the director Brad Besser not only tells that story, but also explores how these strange little short films changed the lives of those who made them. Bill Hader narrates.

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