Streaming Surprises, Volume 26

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.

Brimstone & Glory (2017)

Submitted by Linda Garcia. Streaming on Kanopy.

Every year, Tultepec, Mexico hosts the National Pyrotechnic Festival, a 10-day celebration to honor San Juan de Dios, considered the patron saint of fireworks makers. Preparation for the festival, along with two main events — the “castles of fire” and the parade of “bulls” — are highlighted in Viktor Jakovleski’s debut documentary, “Brimstone & Glory.” At 67 minutes, the documentary is short and slowly paced. Interviews are brief and brought in as voice-overs. The only narration comes from a pre-teen boy, an ambivalent disciple in a family of fireworks makers. The film is quiet and understated; the camera moves over scenes of people of all ages assembling fireworks. There are teenagers handling combustible chemicals in buildings marked with warnings of “hazardous materials,” an old man putting together pieces of fireworks with fingerless hands, and a young man using his lit cigarette to light a fuse. With a soft touch, Jakovleski shows the deep hold this work has on the community as well as the harm it has caused. And yet there is revelry: shirtless young men and boys in hoodies dance under flying sparks, running toward flame and smoke with excitement and wonder in their eyes, couples take selfies, and mothers watch with their children in tow. The filmmaker’s camera work gives explosives an otherworldly quality. There is something celestial about them in “Brimstone & Glory.” When you’re watching the startling brightness of the explosions, the slow rain of falling embers, and smoke fading into darkness, you can see why the event inspires reverence.

“Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back” (1967)

Submitted by Jefferson Beavers. Streaming on Kanopy.

A photographer friend recently recommended to me the new Netflix film on Bob Dylan, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” made by the great director Martin Scorsese. In preparation to see this new “alchemic mix of fact and fantasy,” I thought I’d better start with a movie about Bob Dylan made more than 50 years earlier by another legendary director, D.A. Pennebaker, called “Dont Look Back.” For those not familiar with his work, Pennebaker — who passed away Aug. 1 at the age of 94, after directing 60 feature films and video shorts in a career spanning from 1953 to 2016 — was a master of “cinéma vérité,” a direct and often narration-less style of observational filmmaking. His fly-on-the-wall documentation of Dylan’s three-week 1965 British tour feels like a pulsing, breathing cinematic record of the very moments that Dylan was transforming from a beloved and socially conscious folk singer into a full-fledged international rock star and countercultural icon. Of course, the film includes stunning high-quality live performance footage of Dylan in mostly small venues that’s irreplaceable, a signature of Pennebaker’s later music documentaries on the Monterey Pop Festival, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and many more musicians as well. But Pennebaker’s great achievement in “Dont Look Back” is that he captures a glorious portrait of an artist as a young man, a precise portrait of Dylan that vividly captures the heady, breathless, arrogant, and vital energies of the moment.

“To Dust” (2018)

Submitted by Cassandra R. McGuire. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

What happens after you die? It’s a question that we have each thought about at least once, and we may have been comforted by the answers we’ve found, whether they be from religion or from YouTube personality Caitlin Doughty, a.k.a. “Ask a Mortician.” But for Shmuel, a devout Hasidic Jew and the protagonist of “To Dust” — the feature debut of director Shawn Synder — the question of what happens after death haunts him. Shmuel’s beloved wife has just passed away from a grueling cancer, and afterward Shmuel is plagued by a nightmare about her decaying big toe. Shmuel is convinced that a portion of her soul is still in her body and she will not be able to rest until she returns “to the dust.” The thought of her continued soul suffering as she suffered in life and the thought of being tormented by nightmares of her body parts rotting in succession is overwhelming to Shmuel, so he sets out to find answers. He first goes to his religious leaders who offer their condolences and reiterate generalities. Dissatisfied, Shmuel enlists the help of a local community college biology professor, Albert, played by Matthew Broderick, and together they go on a journey to observe the various stages of decomposition. What ensues is a lot funnier than what you’re probably thinking. The irreverent comedy and friendship between Shmuel and Albert buoys the dark subject matter and the film remains uplifting while still being strange and serious. Ultimately, what happens to your physical body as it decays is less significant than the memory of you that your loved ones carry and the way your absence might change the world around you.