In this occasional column, Michael Atkinson tells about the best movies you can stream right now over the web. Act fast, because these movies tend to come and go from the web.
When Raul Ruiz died, he was on the verge of finishing preproduction on another Portuguese historical epic, a Napoleonic-era weave like the grand hyper-narrative quilt of Mysteries of Lisbon (Hulu), but set intractably amid the wandering and flux of 19th-century warfare. The film was shot and finished by Ruiz’s widow, Valeria Sarmiento, who’d also been Ruiz’s editor since the ’70s (and written and directed scads of her own films as well). In any case, the finished mastodon, cut down from a Portuguese miniseries, could not find release in the English-speaking world — despite a cast that includes Isabelle Huppert, John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli, and Chiara Mastroianni — which is mind-boggling, given the post-infantile existence of something like The Hobbit: The Battle of Turning a Single 10-Page Chapter Into 1 Billion Shiny New Dollars.
Ah, well: Netflix has Lines of Wellington streaming, and so one of this year’s most densely textured and thoughtful releases is sent out without any ado or proper reviews, and remains ineligible for official notice or awards of any kind.
Thick and busy and bursting with character, the film plunges into a forgotten historical moment — the Peninsula War, in which a Western European coalition fought Napoleon for the Iberian plot, and in which a line of British-conceived forts protected Lisbon from the cataract of French forces. Beginning with the French defeat in 1810 at Serra do Buçaco, the history is confidently dabbed in and clear, despite a dizzying array of alliances, betrayals, national ambivalences, and turnabouts. Mostly we follow the multinational regiment led by the suave Major Jonathan Foster (Marcello Urgeghe) and splenetic Sergeant Chico Xavier (Nuno Lopes) as they keep one day ahead of the French, trailing behind them a parade of refugees that includes a young and nervy Brit nympho-aristo (Jemima West); a traumatized widow of a young soldier (Victória Guerra); a romantic teacher/scholar (Alfonso Pimentel) hunting for his not-so-lost wife; a robust and practical prostitute (Soraia Chaves); and so on.
The weave is complicated by the generals — Malkovich’s Wellington is distracted by his portraits, commissioned from frustrated artiste Vincent Perez, while Melvil Poupaud’s General Massena confronts an eccentric Portuguese family (Piccoli, Deneuve, Huppert) seemingly entertained by the invasion — and Ruiz also intercuts the journey of young lieutenant Alencar (Carloto Cotta), whom we first meet as a head-shot near-corpse, but who escapes from the French and encounters a surreal body-strewn landscape (evoking 18th-century painting in every frame) populated by guerrillas, deserters, Poles, spies, megalomanic militia-leading priests, and Marisa Paredes as a stubborn widow holed up in her estate and willing to fend off the French by herself.
There’s more, and Sarmiento’s mise-en-scène — constantly roving and only glimpsing dozens of side stories and period details — takes its time and yet economically conjures a three-dimensional world in which sometimes we only need register a moment of a dramatic eruption or a poetic detail to understand the story. In the meantime, the onslaught of the “Jacobins” is seen with the gimlet eye it requires — too often, the slaughter at Napoleon’s hands has been depicted as heroic, a canard Ruiz, Sarmiento, and screenwriter Carlos Saboga have no truck with. Here, summary execution, even off-handedly of horses and infants, is de rigueur.
Of the many reasons an unlikely film might actually get released on disc nowadays, the kitsch-jerk bad-is-good reflex is obviously responsible for Film Chest’s new DVD edition of Ray Kellogg’s infamous dirtbagger The Killer Shrews (1959). Somehow, in a broadcast-TV youth that never missed an issue of The Monster Times (whose first-ever “Worst” issue, in 1974, included Shrews in its seminal 100 Worst Movies list), I never laid eyes on Kellogg’s penniless, Texas-shot “regional” indie until now, and I’m delighted to report that it’s one of those genre films — nominally hapless and hilariously inept, it also occupies your head and your mood like a bad dream. It hardly matters, with Kellogg (a veteran F/X whiz) and untold legions before him, that cheap sets and barren locations and stilted dialogue add up to an almost Beckettian nightmare; here, the vibe is almost early David Lynch, lost in the gray purgatory of wintertime Texas brushland and in a closed house as grime-walled and comfortless as a jail cell. A number of often drunk characters (a scientist, a pilot, a German woman, etc.; Sidney Lumet’s father, Baruch, plays the old scientist in charge) are trapped behind walls on a remote island — outside, giant lab-experiment shrews roam, eating everything and looking for ways in. That’s it.
The shrews are merely dogs with fake added fur and ungainly fangs, but we barely see them, and when we do they’re simply wrong — top-heavy, shaggy, but moving fast and in packs, formidable and wild enough to suggest some unknown thing you might see moving through the Texas lowland wilderness, catching up to you before you can find a road or house. The shrews serve as a muscular and upsetting metaphor for the backbiting human hatred going on inside, culminating as it does with more than one character, good and bad, simply throwing their nemesis to the mouths outside. It could be an off-off play, post–Theater of the Absurd and pre-apocalypse. Chortle if you can at the painful line readings, and then feel the smile die as this very simple piece of psychotronica generates a cloud of oppressive moodiness that could numb any ironic-hipster defense.
As a tonic, on Hulu, in its vast vault of as-yet-undisced Japanese classics in the Criterion sidebar, you can find Yasujiro Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), unavailable in any other form in the States (Watch here). A cross-purposes marriage rondo that may have been Ozu’s homage to Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, the film rakes smug Japanese bourgeois in the postwar era over the coals, but of course leavens the meal with ambivalence and understanding and gray regions of doubt, all of which somehow turns social critique into something pre-modern, and primordial. The ending reaches an awkward state of happy/sad we may feel within our rights to disbelieve, but the master’s steady gaze alone can absolve us from cynicism.