Welcome to the Home Page's new weekly column, the Stream Team.
Every Thursday, Home Page Assistant Editor Cory Woodroof will regale you with three recommended films to stream on various platforms available to you at the click of a button (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, etc.).
If you've got any suggestions or questions, don't be afraid to toss 'em in the can and email Cory at [email protected].
Knives Out (available on Amazon Prime)
Rian Johnson has fancied himself the master of subversion, and his 2019 ballyhooed whodunnit Knives Out became one of the new genre films of the last 10 years to register both critical/Oscar love and shocking returns at the box office. Having seen it a handful of times by now, I'm still caught off-guard by how it all ties itself together, how the chess board moves in clockwork fashion for Johnson's ultimate surprise.
The film, funny enough, isn't as much a murder mystery as it is a study in rampant entitlement, in how a bunch of bumbling trust fund babies struggle to break out of their own vices and biases when confronted with a chance to do better for themselves and their family. Daniel Craig's feisty Southern sleuth Benoit Blanc nearly steals the show, but it's Ana de Armas' honorable nurse Marta who Johnson uses as a stand-in for the human decency that only hard work and practiced empathy can buy.
You'll have a ball untangling the messy cobwebs Johnson lays out for the rancid relatives of now-dead mystery novelist Harland Thrombey, but don't miss the real mystery being solved here. While you're destined to discover the fate of poor Thrombey in due time, Johnson also seeks to suss out human virtue (or lack thereof) in crisis and what makes it tick. Who did it becomes less important than who couldn't possibly have done it, and having such a wide pool in the family Thrombey qualify for the former winds up being Johnson's greatest feat in this macabre marvel of a film. It was one of 2019's best films, if only for the way it studies classicism in the genre that has always leaned on the lifestyles of the rich and the famous to mount its greatest mysteries.
Bad Education (HBO)
One of 2020's de-facto accomplishments for film (in a year, mind you, that's not had a lot of them), Bad Education creeps along calmly and unassumingly at first, circling around the tale of how a New Jersey school superintendent (Hugh Jackman, perhaps never better) has transformed his district into one of the best in the state.
Jackman's straight-laced official of platitudes and pats-on-the-head seems like he's barely got a scuff on him, but if history has taught us anything, it's that while you may not see it on the clothes, it's never a bad idea to check what's stuffed in the mattress. The film is built on a bedrock of corruption of many kinds, the kind that seem to have such disregard for the rules and people impacted and the kind that sprouts from self-deniability, when justification for crime winds up being more damning than the crime itself.
When one of the superintendent's colleagues is found misappropriating an unholy amount of money, she's reprimanded and it's stuffed under the rug (this is based in part on a real-life scandal, we should note). The problems will eventually spill over into Jackman's lap, with a determined high school journalist hot on the trail to see where the breadcrumbs take her.
Cory Finley's second feature as a silent whirlwind of study, one that peels back Jackman's school official piece by piece until what you see is not all that uncommon with what we usually find when people in power get caught red-handed. Rather than play it straight, though, Finlay, time after time, tries to muddy the waters with how we see those who are guilty of unspeakably awful crimes for their positions, and shows just how easy it is to sink into the quicksand of wrongdoing when you continue to allow yourself to just, every now and then, dip your toes into its pool.
Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but piecemeal wrongdoing will fill you up for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serve you corruption for dessert. Bad Education is riveting and unforgiving, with Jackson letting every theme and character development run all over him with stoicism and faulty defense. It's a 2020 film in many ways, if only because misdeeds always sting worse when they're written off by those in charge.
Pixar has never struggled to get those tear ducts working on a P90x training circuit, and its latest stands tall with all the other Pixar films that refused to leave your emotions be.
The film's plot, a story about two elven brothers who try to complete a mythic quest to bring their deceased father back to life for a single day with the help of a magic staff, feels specifically designed to make you watery, and it certainly accomplishes that feat by film's end, a few times over. The story is directly tied to director Dan Scanlon's past, and he made the film as a tribute to his older brother. You can't underscore here that this one might make you boo-hoo as hard as you did during the first 10 minutes of Up. This is Pixar emotion cranked up to 11.
But as Scanlon did with Monsters University, he crafts a wonderfully droll world out of something fantastical, replete with sight gags galore. His vision of a mystical Lord of the Rings-like universe isn't all that much different from what you'd find outside. Seeing a mermaid sit in a kiddie pool outside while soaking in rays and scrolling through a smartphone is one thing, but seeing magical unicorns reduced to street rat hissing is another. Scanlon has a wicked sense of humor, and his version happily ever after is part of the draw here.
Did we mention that the brothers are half-successful (forgive the pun), with a conjuring of their father's bottom half (legs and feet) with them on the quest to finish the upper half? That alone is worth its gold in comedic potential.
While Onward might not be one of Pixar's towering achievements, it'll still tug at your heartstrings like the best of them. It's still the best animated film of 2020 thus far and a sprightly journey worth embarking on with your bored-to-tears-in-quarantine family.