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What to Stream This Weekend

Five films that feature language in a starring role.

What to Stream This Weekend

Five films that feature language in a starring role.

Each week, Richard Brody picks a classic film, a modern film, an independent film, a foreign film, and a documentary for online viewing.

Photograph by Kerry Brown/ Sony Pictures Classics/ Everett

“Damsels in Distress”

As an actor, Greta Gerwig started as a great writer, and vice versa—she improvised scintillatingly original dialogue in her earliest skein of movies. That’s why, when she was tapped to star in Whit Stillman’s 2011 comedy “Damsels in Distress,” his return to the directorial fold after more than a decade away, I wondered how this master improviser would handle Stillman’s mercurially literary dialogue, which he hones to the semicolon and the em-dash. The short answer is: with the hotshot aplomb of an athlete spinning basketballs on the fingers of both hands. For that matter, Gerwig is joined in her dialectical deftness by Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Analeigh Tipton, who fill out her quartet of “damsels,” college students bravely trying to bring some style to the school’s slovenly frat life and some sense to its anvil-headed frat boys. Yet the smartest and most sophisticated of the young men in their circle is also the most verbally wily, using his learning and his wit to exert a cruel sexual power. Stillman’s vision of progress by way of women’s ascendancy is no lark—for all its screwball ingenuity, it’s also a grim comedy of frustration on the edge of despair.

Stream “Damsels in Distress” on Amazon, YouTube, and other services.


Photograph by 20th Century Fox / Everett

“People Will Talk”

No director of the classic Hollywood era wrote scripts with the insightful brilliance of Joseph Mankiewicz, whose verbal virtuosity was no mere decorative whimsy but a pressurized venting of souls. That’s why, for all his wide-ranging and gimlet-eyed social observation, he also displays a rarefied metaphysical sensibility, which plays a major role in his aptly titled 1951 comedy, “People Will Talk,” starring Cary Grant as an academic doctor who comes into conflict with his peers over his unorthodox methods and ideas—and over two of his relationships, including one with a patient (Jeanne Crain) who happens to be pregnant. Mankiewicz approaches the subjects of abortion and extramarital sex with an unusual and liberal frankness; a former pre-med student, he looks at the medical profession both as a science and as one of the humanities, and not the least mysterious and uncertain of them. And, even more of an aspiring metaphysician, Mankiewicz creates one of the most awe-inspiring of uncanny cinematic characters, a seeming visitor from the dead (played by Finlay Currie), a cadaver returned to life, whose presence infuses the antic comedy with a shattering, transcendent power. If the movie seems virtually operatic, it’s no accident—the doctor played by Grant is also an amateur orchestra conductor, and “People Will Talk” is filled with the exalted joys of classical music.

Stream “People Will Talk” on Google Play, Amazon, and other services.


Funny Ha Ha

“Funny Ha Ha”

With “Funny Ha Ha,” a new and long-awaited arrival to the realm of streaming, Andrew Bujalski made the film of his generation—or a film of a generation. Shot in 2002 and released in 2005, it’s the work of a then-recent college graduate about a group of recent college graduates, and Bujalski films them—a batch of nonprofessional actors, including himself—with a recessive but discerning aesthetic that opens the space of the movie to their voices, which seemingly yields, but only just so, to their tremulous and tentative steps toward a place in the world and in each other’s lives. Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), newly fired, unrequitedly in love with Alex (Christian Rudder), takes a temp job in an office where she becomes fast friends with Mitchell (Bujalski), her equally young supervisor (and very soon-to-be ex-supervisor). Uneasy new meetings and fumbling reacquaintances at spontaneous parties and dinner gatherings lead to long and whimsical conversations about serious subjects that mirror the rigorous substance of their expensive educations and its scant application in their daily lives. Tiny gestures amplify into vast symbols, small conflicts open existential abysses, and, as time rushes by, it stretches out to be filled. Mitchell, at his first dinner with Marnie, discloses the source of the crisis: “I don’t really watch very much TV.”

Stream “Funny Ha Ha” on YouTube and Google Play.


Photograph by IFC Films / Everett

“Police, Adjective”

Only one of the current crop of new Romanian directors, Corneliu Porumboiu, reworks the very stuff of the cinema, and his 2009 film “Police, Adjective” shows where he finds its essence: in the conflict between word and image, between language and action. This drama is centered on a young plainclothes police detective in the remote provincial town of Vaslui who is ordered to conduct meticulous surveillance and set up a sting operation on a trivial case involving a trio of high-school students who smoke hashish. The kids’ ordinary comings and goings take on an air of macabre mystery that’s rendered all the more perplexing in the detective’s jargon-filled reports. The very meanings of words, the personal implications of grammar and dictionary definitions, come into play comedically, when the detective and his wife, a high-school teacher, debate the literal and literary meanings of a pop song; and earnestly, when the detective asks to be taken off the case as a matter of conscience, and is challenged about the meaning of the term. Like the very title of the film, Porumboiu’s drama captures the vast implications that a part of speech holds for the very course of a person’s life.

Stream “Police, Adjective” on The Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm

“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One”

Genre is useful mainly to marketing departments and awards groups, as seen in the kerfuffle this week about the submission of “Get Out” to the Golden Globes in the category of comedy, to which Jordan Peele himself offered the definitive response on Twitter: “ ‘Get Out’ is a documentary.” The other day, in The New Yorker Movie Club, on Facebook, a member asked about innovative documentaries, and the first one I thought of is William Greaves’s 1968 film “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” which pushes the concept of metafiction past the breaking point. Greaves films himself, his crew, and a cast of actors (rather, several different pairs of actors) performing, in Central Park, a dramatic-romantic scene that he wrote. He’s seen working, successively, with the actors, who are seen in rehearsal, warmup, riff, discussion, and performance—and also dealing with police officers who ask about their location permit, with passersby and gawkers curious about the film shoot, and also with his publicly game but privately dubious crew members, who get together in his absence to film their debate about his methods. It’s one of the most original and daring films about filmmaking ever made.

Stream “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” on The Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.

Video

Greta Gerwig in “Yeast”

Richard Brody on Greta Gerwig's performance in Mary Bronstein's “Yeast,” from 2008.