Streaming Surprises, Volume 19

Our “Streaming Surprises” series calls attention to good movies new and old that our board members are watching. Titles are available from various streaming services.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018)
The latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen is a series of Western vignettes written by the filmmaker brothers and influenced by legends, tropes, and other writers such as Jack London and Stewart Edward White. I had just finished watching another Coen brothers film, “Fargo,” when I saw their new work pop up on Netflix. “Ballad” falls short of the consistency of a classic like “Fargo” but it holds true to its theme, both clownish and profound. I felt reminded of the times I watched the TV show “Bonanza” with my grandfather: feeling at times bored, amazed, and vengeful. After I finished “Ballad,” I felt compelled to continue the theme and watched “Tombstone.” Although, I think “Ravenous” (on Netflix) or the excellent “Meek’s Cutoff” (on Hulu) would make for a better double-feature. As for the plots of the six vignettes, I don’t want to give too much away — the shock of their reveals and twists are their greatest assets — except to say they each contain what you would want and expect in a good Western: larger than life characters, swift action, and achingly beautiful scenery. Lastly, for my tastes, you could rightfully skip Chapter 3 and be better off.
Submitted by Cassandra R. McGuire. Available on Netflix.

“Private Life” (2018)
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star in the Tamara Jenkins comedic drama about a 40-something married couple in the middle of a long, tormenting struggle to conceive. Rachel and Richard have been trying to get pregnant for so long, it has become their entire lives. When the next step of IVF is going to cost them $10,000, Richard asks his step-brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) to step in. Charlie is happy to help Rachel and Richard, while his wife, Cynthia (a terrific Molly Shannon), thinks they need to stop enabling their wild “fantasy” of conceiving. “They’re like fertility junkies!” Things get tense between the couples, especially when Cynthia’s daughter, also Charlie’s stepdaughter, Sadie (Kayli Carter) crashes with Rachel and Richard in Manhattan after dropping out of college. For Sadie, an aspiring writer, it’s an inspiration to stay in the city with her “art mom and art dad,” — Richard, a former theatre director, and Rachel, a playwright and novelist. For Rachel and Richard, it’s maybe their best possible option for an egg donor. Throughout this film, there’s a lot of awkwardness, a lot of very real and intimate moments. This is a finely written, directed and beautifully acted family drama with some unexpected twists and a perfect ending. Kathryn Hahn is a highlight, in what might be her best performance. Molly Shannon, Paul Giamatti and Kayli Carter also shine. For writer and director Tamara Jenkins, this is her first directorial effort since 2007’s “The Savages” which earned her an Oscar-nomination for her screenplay. Her writing credits also include co-writing this year’s delightful “Juliet, Naked.”
Submitted by Justus Bier-Stanberry. Available on Netflix.

“Roma” (2018)
Critic Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post says of filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s latest movie: “No, the movie ‘Roma’ isn’t as good as you’ve heard. It’s even better.” It is difficult to avoid use of the words “masterful” and “masterpiece” in describing “Roma,” writer-director-cinematographer Cuarón’s ode to a year in his childhood in Roma, a middle-class suburb of Mexico City. The central figure is the household’s maid, Cleo, an indigenous young Mixteca woman. Cleo cooks and cleans and follows orders — but she is the unmistakable emotional center of the household, waking the children in the morning and tucking them in at night. When Cleo becomes pregnant and the father disappears, Mrs. Sofi, the children’s mother, takes her to the hospital for diagnosis and follow-up care. Cuarón’s movie is spare and beautiful. He paints his story in black and white on a grand, large-format 65mm digital canvas, capturing the characters moving about their routines and interacting with one another and in the world. In one scene, we see a student demonstration turn violent. Cuarón knows stating the reason for the protest isn’t necessary. We don’t need that background to understand the emotions of the students, their strength. Cuarón trusts his mastery of cinema, and he trusts his audience to understand.
Submitted by Linda Knight. Available on Netflix.