Streaming Surprises, Volume 22

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.

“Meru” (2015)
Just two months ago, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin received Oscars for their 2018 documentary film “Free Solo,” the story of Alex Honnold and his historic free-solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Exhilarated by this film, I decided to check out the director duo’s 2015 climbing doc, “Meru.” This documentary follows three climbers— Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk— as they attempt to climb the never-before ascended “Shark’s Fin” route on Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas. Persistency is the theme of the film as the climbers attempt the ascent not once, but twice, with some major events happening along the course of a three-year period. Principal photography is done by two of the climbers, Jimmy and Conrad, so the tension, fear, and excitement that the climbers experience feels palpable. The men are honest and motivated, and the documentary does a great job of helping you see why people do seemingly crazy things in search of a thrill like no other. “Meru” keeps you wondering if their story will have a happy ending, or if the Shark’s Fin peak will remain untouched by climbers forever.
Submitted by Sirley Carballo. Streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.

“Happy as Lazzaro” (2018)
Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher won The Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014 for her film “The Wonders.” In her latest, “Happy as Lazzaro,” she gives us two skillfully wrought stories— one, a realistic tale taken directly from a 1980s Italian scandal; and the other, a folk tale imbued with magical realism and powerful symbolism. In the isolated village of Inviolata, sharecropping peasants, who are unaware of their plight, are exploited by the “Queen of Tobacco.” Amongst them we find Lazzaro, whose angelic face could have been lifted from a Renaissance portrait. Lazzaro is kind and good, and the villagers take advantage of what they believe is his simple nature. In the second half of the film, a narrator tells us the story of an old wolf and a saint who talks to animals. We shift settings and find ourselves in the city, a toxic environment, where the exploitation of Lazzaro’s goodness continues. Is he naïve or simply unable to comprehend evil? The answer to that question is left to the viewer. The ending is equal parts heartbreaking and magical, and it is ever so beautiful.
Submitted by Cindy Peters Duzi. Streaming on Netflix.

“Phoenix” (2014)
How do people process ultimate betrayal and the devastation of war? These are just two of the themes filmmaker Christian Petzold examines in his unpredictable noir thriller, “Phoenix.”  In our heroine Nelly’s case, a large dose of denial and wishful thinking are helpful antidotes. It is 1945, and Nelly has survived Auschwitz but has been disfigured by gunshot wounds. Her friend Lene is taking her to consult with a plastic surgeon for facial reconstruction. The surgeon tells her he cannot replicate her appearance before her injuries, but Nelly chooses not to believe him. After sufficient recovery from surgery, Nelly wants to search for her husband Johnny, a jazz pianist before the war. Lene discourages her, letting Nelly know that Johnny had been taken in for questioning by the SS. He was released two days later, on the very day Nelly was transported to Auschwitz. Lene is convinced Johnny betrayed Nelly, but Nelly refuses to believe it. When Nelly does find Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her as his wife. But she looks similar enough that Johnny realizes he can groom her to impersonate his dead wife and collect her sizable inheritance—which they will split. And Nelly, for her part, is so desperate for the return of her former life, that she goes along with his plan. Petzold has the audience participating in the same wishful thinking that Nelly does: If we want something badly enough, will it come true?
Submitted by Linda Knight. Streaming on Amazon and MUBI.