Each month, The Retro Set Staff will select a small handful of films available to stream on a variety of services, including: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Warner Archive, and more. These are films we believe should be added to your watchlist. This month, we’ve selected a trio of lesser-known films from directors Jim Jarmusch, Stanley Donen, and Rian Johnson.
Wade’s Pick: Dead Man (1995), streaming on Netflix
An oft overlooked gem by Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is like a Coen Brothers/David Lynch mash-up. Odd is a standard adjective for describing a Jarmusch film, but this western is just that, even for Jarmusch. The director, who previously to this film, reveled in chronicling the moments “between” the real story beats, decided to tell a tale of an eastern dandy, prophetically named William Blake, who makes a series of mistakes starting with taking an accounting job across the country in a frontier town named Machine. He arrives several months after being offered the job, and finds no employment available. In fact, he’s chased out of the office by the rifle toting “Head Man” (one of Robert Mitchum’s last performances). Falling on worse than hard times, he spends his last coins on a tiny bottle of hooch and takes a prostitute home, only to be discovered in bed by her beau, a wild and woolly looking Gabriel Byrne, and accidentally shoots the gunman dead . From there, wounded by an errant bullet that pierced the prostitute’s heart and went through to our “hero,” Blake now has a bounty on his head (it seems Byrne was the son of Robert Mitchum) and becomes an unwilling desperado.
Through the whole proceedings, Blake is ever-so-slowly dying from the gunshot wound, and rescued by a scene stealing Gary Farmer as Native American “Nobody.” Educated by the white man, Nobody is well-versed in the classics, and takes Blake’s name to heart, believing he is the reincarnation of the poet William Blake, and throughout their misadventures, (almost cannibalized by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Mad Men‘s Jared Harris — over a decade before he’d play Lane Pryce), Depp gains almost mythic status.
This is one of the many odd indie films that used to be “business as usual” for Depp, and he’s perfect as the complete “blank slate” that everyone else ascribes some deeper meaning to. Funny, weird, stark and symbolic, Dead Man was revisionist before either Tarantino or the Coens dipped their toe into westerns.
Jill’s Pick: The Grass is Greener (1961), streaming on Amazon (free for Prime Members)
Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr starred in three films together. First was the dreadful 1953 comedy Dream Wife, which was so godawful, in fact, that Grant announced his retirement shortly thereafter (he would later be lured out of retirement in 1955 to star in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief ). Next, the three-hanky An Affair to Remember (1957), a shot-for-shot remake of Love Story (1939), both directed by Leo McCarey. Their final film together was Stanley Donen’s The Grass is Greener (1960). Although An Affair to Remember is the most popular of their collaborations, the very quirky, very British The Grass is Greener is arguably the pair’s best film. In other words: An Affair to Remember is extremely overrated. Actually, it’s downright terrible. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Grant and Kerr are Victor and Hillary Ryall, nobility who reside in one of Britain’s many stately homes. Despite the prestigious titles of Earl and Countess (or “Lady”), the Ryalls are struggling financially. During the tourist season, the Ryalls open their home to the paying public, save for modest living quarters that are off-limits. During a guided tour of the home, a brash, yet charming and incredibly handsome Charles Delacro (Robert Mitchum) “mistakenly” enters the Ryall’s private residence. Charles and Lady Ryall engage in a tense, flirtatious conversation. Charles reveals to Hillary that he is a millionaire oil tycoon. It’s clearly obvious that Hillary finds him attractive, both physically and financially; the thought of no longer being concerned with money, or obnoxious tourists, affects her ability to reason and threatens the commitment to her husband. Victor enters the room, interrupting Hillary and Charles’s conversation. He immediately senses the sexual tension between his wife and Charles, but remains calm and pleasant toward them both. Victor invites Charles back to their home for a weekend getaway, both testing his wife’s fidelity and proving to her that he’s not jealous of Charles’s wealth. Victor also invites family friend, and his ex-girlfriend, Hattie Durant (Jean Simmons), a flamboyant, fashion-forward, drunken heiress. Hattie’s blunt, yet lovable attitude is very much needed for what promises to be an awkward weekend.
Through a series of events, many of which are quite humorous, Hillary finds herself in London engaged in a steamy affair with Charles. In an attempt to hide her affair from Victor, Hillary concocts a number of elaborate stories explaining her whereabouts. Victor isn’t buying it, but he never lets Hillary know that he’s on to her. Although he would much rather she remain faithful, Victor is confident that Hillary will come to her senses and return to him, more in love than ever.
The Grass is Greener is a delightful film. It’s funny and romantic, with just the right amount of sentimentality. There is incredible chemistry between the four leads, and it makes you wish they had the opportunity to work together more. This film not only marks the final collaboration between Grant and Kerr, but also between Kerr and Mitchum (previously starred together in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison  and The Sundowners ), and Grant and director Stanley Donen. Following the release of their first film Kiss Them for Me, Grant and Donen formed Grandon Productions, and together they produced both Indiscreet (another “affair” movie and staff favorite here at The Retro Set) and The Grass is Greener. Their collaborations were some of the most unique and sophisticated in Grant’s long, successful career. By the time Donen made The Grass is Greener, he perfected the use of clever set pieces, split screens, and double entendres to work around the restrictions imposed by the censors. He handles the sensitive topic of adultery with such grace, sophistication, and humor that viewers, and censors, simply forget the film’s characters are behaving badly.
Carley’s Pick: The Brothers Bloom (2008), streaming on Amazon Video and Vudu
This capriciously offbeat sophomore offering from director Rian Johnson starts off in the tradition of good old-fashioned Hollywood screwball comedies.
Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom has charm and charisma and plenty of promise with its premise. Two brothers who have spent their lives telling stories as con-men are in pursuit of two very different endings: the elder (Mark Ruffalo in search of the perfect con) and the younger (Adrien Brody) in search of a life free of his brother’s scripted bondage, eager for a life “unscripted.” Toss in a highly eccentric heiress (the excellent Rachel Weisz) as their final mark for their ‘One Last Con,’ and a mysteriously sexy assistant known appropriately as Bang Bang (a suffocatingly sexy Runko Kikuchi) and you’ve got a recipe ripe for some terrifically quirky cinema.
And for the most part, Brothers Bloom is indeed a sassy, smart, screwball of yesteryear–unpretentious, sweet and delightfully outrageous. That is … until the final act. The problem is that Johnson doesn’t stick with his own formula and allows the film to convolute itself into an anti-climactic melange of plot hoops and hurtles that are meant to be clever, but by the limping third act, end up robbing the film of the magic it was oh-so close to conjuring. Instead of actually fulfilling the oh-my-God-this-is-awesome momentum set up right from the opening sequence (a delightful 5 minute short film in its own right) by hunkering down and making the story, ultimately, work, he relies almost entirely on smoke and mirrors: throwing whiz-bang-eveything-but-the-kitchen-sink-razzle-dazzle to keep us distracted. Which is supremely disappointing because right up until the final 30 minutes, Johnson has us– we are so right here with him. Unfortunately, though, we do see through the dazzle dazzle and are left, ultimately, disappointed. (Johnson’s next films, 500 Days of Summer and Looper, however, are another story.)
Aside from all this? Bloom is one hell of a magical mystery tour through Euoropean splendor and is highly recommended for the delightful, old fashioned chemistry and its shamelessly indulgent Euro-cool style. Just remember: there IS a such thing as too much of a good thing.