With theaters closed and major releases postponed, streaming and video-on-demand movies have become the new norm in this world of shelter-in-place. Fortunately, that’s not all bad news.
While many of us miss the communal, immersed-in-darkness big-screen experience, four new VOD releases offer pleasures, shocks and strange beauty of their own.
Jonathan Jakubowicz’s “Resistance” tells the story of famous French-born mime Marcel Marceau (Jesse Eisenberg), who became a hero of World War II, rescuing dozens of Jewish orphans from the Nazis.
The first half contains many old, familiar beats of so many biopics, but the film settles in and confidently becomes a gloriously old-fashioned good-vs.-evil entertainment.
It even opens and closes with a rousing, flashback-introducing speech from Gen. Patton (Ed Harris) himself!
Marcel is a scene-stealer, effortlessly winning the heart of the girl he loves (Clémence Poésy, best known as Fleur Delacour in the “Harry Potter” movies), and fooling the sadistic villain, infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer).
In one lovely sequence, Marcel calms a room full of rambunctious children with a bit of mime, pretending to flutter away when they blow on him, like a candle flame.
Eisenberg clearly put in a hefty amount of work to simply be able to copy in a few scenes what Marceau spent a lifetime mastering.
His deft, poetic performance recalls Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Chaplin” (especially because this Marceau is definitely inspired by Chaplin’s cinematic mime).
“Resistance” is hardly a typical A-to-Z biopic. It’s a magnificent, heroic fiction, designed more to inspire than educate. Facts have been cheerfully bent to serve the story; for example, in real-life, Marcel would have been around 16 at the start of the war, and Eisenberg is in his mid-30s.
Director Jakubowicz (“Secuestro Express,” “Hands of Stone”) goes big, providing several sweeping, gliding tracking shots, deep-focused and highlighting rich, detailed set designs, whether in a swanky hotel or an underground hideout.
Surely, “Resistance” would have been better served on the big screen, but even at home, it provides big smiles and bittersweet heartstring tugs.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Ed Harris
Written and directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Running time: 2 hours
Eisenberg also appears in another new movie, in a performance opposite in body and in soul.
In “Vivarium,” he is Tom, a professional gardener, a guy’s guy, coupled with schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots). Unmarried, they are comfortable enough in their relationship that they have begun to look for a house.
A supremely strange real estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), takes them to Yonder, a new development, where each house is exactly alike, painted in an unnatural, plastic-y shade of green.
They politely look around a sterile, soulless house. Suddenly, Martin vanishes. They drive around trying to find the development’s exit, but can’t find one. They run out of gas right in front of their unit, and go inside.
The next day, they try again to escape and fail. It’s best to stop describing here, as “Vivarium” is true nightmare fuel, designed and directed by Lorcan Finnegan, to sicken with its icky color scheme and queasy atmosphere. But it’s also impossible to stop watching.
Characters mention how food has no taste, nothing has a smell, and all feels plastic and fake. Even the sky is eerily manufactured.
Recalling the 1964 “Stopover in a Quiet Town” episode of “The Twilight Zone” (though most modern viewers may not know it), “Vivarium” has its own demented twists.
Though it may not be the best selection as everyone is stuck inside, it is recommended to bolder viewers.
Starring: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Aris
Written by: Garret Shanley
Directed by: Lorcan Finnegan
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ “Bacurau,” from Brazil, is even stranger, if such a thing is possible. It’s available for $12 at https://kinonow.com/bacurau-roxie-theater as part of the new Kino Marquee; those who pay to access it are supporting the Roxie Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse in The City.
“Bacurau” is supposedly set in the future, as Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her small village of Bacurau for her mother’s funeral, driving past an overturned truck and several coffins spilled all over the road.
The woman’s mother was the village matriarch, and her death causes sadness among all. The town doctor (Sonia Braga, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) gets hysterical and makes a scene during the procession.
Following that, the town seems to have disappeared from the map. Cell phone service has ceased. A corrupt politician, responsible for damming the community’s water supply, shows up. A truck full of water arrives riddled with bullet holes. A drone flies overhead.
Then, a group of Americans, led by Michael (Udo Kier), show up, armed and ready to storm the village.
Kier’s presence indicates that we’re leaning more toward a cult classic than an Oscar nominee for Best International Film. “Bacurau” is definitely weird, a quasi-Western mashed up with psychedelic sci-fi and political satire.
Director Filho (“Aquarius,” “Neighboring Sounds”) teams up with his former production designer Dornelles behind the camera, and the result is a long, unwieldy film, and one that likely will lose Western viewers at various points.
At the same time, its lunatic courage and maniac spirit, striking widescreen colors and composition and parade of incredible images make it worth a look.
Starring: Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Sonia Braga, Udo Kier
Written and directed by: Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Finally, we return home and to the present with “Banana Split,” a plucky, funny coming-of-age story about an unlikely friendship between two teen girls.
In the simple story, brunette misfit April (Hannah Marks) is a high school senior who has been in a passionate relationship for two years with handsome, long-haired goofball Nick (Dylan Sprouse). He looks like Thor, but has a genuine love for silly pop music, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in particular.
Unfortunately, they break up, and it’s not long before Nick is dating the blond, confident Clara (Liana Liberato).
When April goes to a party where Clara and Nick also are in attendance, the girls attempt a kind of showdown, looking for closure. Instead, they instantly click, connecting as best friends.
They begin a secret summer friendship, unbeknownst to Nick, though Nick’s awkward, ginger-haired best friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts) — who introduced Clara to Nick — is miserably let in on the deception.
Cinematographer (“Your Sister’s Sister,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”) Benjamin Kasulke makes his feature directing debut here, finding a warm, laid-back flow, de-emphasizing the “lie plot” and embracing giddy “friendship-building” montages.
“Banana Split” isn’t as consistently sharp and funny as, say, the similarly female-driven “Booksmart,” but it’s just as likable.
The real find here is Marks, who not only stars, but co-wrote the screenplay with her regular collaborator Joey Power (their previous film was “After Everything”).
She has a wonderful, powerful presence, her huge, dark eyes incapable of relaying anything false; she recalls the potency of a young Barbra “hello gorgeous” Streisand. She’s a huge reason the film works as well as it does.
If nothing else, a viewing of “Banana Split” will provide bragging rights when Marks becomes a bigger star.
Hopefully that will happen someday when cinemas are open again and things are not so scary. Until then, here’s hoping this humble guide helps to entertain and pass the time.
Starring: Hannah Marks, Liana Liberato, Dylan Sprouse, Luke Spencer Roberts
Written by: Hannah Marks, Joey Power
Directed by: Benjamin Kasulke
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes