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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Annihilation,’ ‘Support the Girls’ and more streaming gems

Natalie Portman in “Annihilation.”

By Jason Bailey

This month’s rundown of off-the-radar picks on your subscription streaming services includes indies of all stripes, plus three documentary explorations of our changing media landscape.

‘Annihilation’ (2018)

You’d think that a science-fiction adventure featuring the “Star Wars” alums Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac, as well as Portman’s “Thor” co-star Tessa Thompson, would have been a giant hit. But Paramount Pictures seemed baffled by how to market a sci-fi picture about ideas and creeping dread (rather then lasers and intergalactic dogfights), dumping it onto Netflix overseas and into theaters with a shrug in the United States. They fear what they don’t understand; writer and director Alex Garland, adapting the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, crafts a thrilling yet thoughtful combination of head trip and hero’s journey that owes more to Andrei Tarkovsky than George Lucas. Stream it on Netflix.

‘On the Count of Three’ (2022)

The feature directorial debut of stand-up comic and sitcom star Jerrod Carmichael was one of many films all but disappeared by the pandemic; it premiered at the 2021, online-only edition of the Sundance Film Festival before quietly landing on Hulu more than a year later. But there’s much to recommend in “On the Count of Three,” the story of two longtime friends (played by Carmichael and Christopher Abbott) who vow to aid each other in ending their lives after a long day of cleaning up unfinished business. Its chief virtue is its leading actors — Abbott has been doing modest but devastating work on the indie scene for years, and Carmichael matches his co-star’s intensity and anguish — while Carmichael shows a sure hand for navigating the tonal shifts of Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch’s tricky screenplay. Stream it on Hulu.

‘White Bird in a Blizzard’ (2014)

The films of director Gregg Araki have been so (rightly) celebrated in recent years for their wild stylistic choices and unapologetic queer themes that it’s tempting to overlook his more tempered, mainstream affairs. But this combination of sun-baked noir, coming-of-age drama and Sirkian melodrama remains one of his most fascinating concoctions. Shailene Woodley turns in one of her finest performances to date as young Kat, whose mother, Eve (Eva Green, vamping marvelously), disappears under mysterious circumstances. Kat tries to figure out what happened, but “White Bird” is less a detective story than an exploration of the tricky landscape of young adulthood, dramatized with a weary verisimilitude. Stream it on Max.

‘Violet & Daisy’ (2013)

This tale of two teenage girl assassins (Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan) from writer and director Geoffrey Fletcher (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Precious”) suffers a bit from post-Tarantino preciousness. The MVP here is James Gandolfini, who co-stars as their would-be target, and plays the character with the weary melancholy of a man who knows his days are numbered, and has accepted it. He plays it as dry comedy, with just a touch of doomed inevitability, and that’s the right choice; the genuine tenderness and trust in his scenes with Ronan are a nice plus. “Violet & Daisy” hit theaters just 12 days before Gandolfini’s untimely death, and it serves as a poignant reminder of the wide range of roles he had yet to play. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

‘Slow West’ (2015)

Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Oscar-nominated turn in “The Power of the Dog” was not the actor’s first go-round in the Wild West; six years earlier, he co-starred with Michael Fassbender in this eccentric and affecting oater from writer and director John Maclean. Smit-McPhee plays Jay, a teenage Scottish immigrant traveling the West in search of his sweetheart from back home, with Fassbender as Silas, a frontiersman who takes the innocent and clueless Jay under his wing. MacLean creates a credibly dangerous world of threats both natural and seemingly supernatural (Ben Mendelsohn, stealing the show as a menacing bounty hunter). Stream it on Max.

‘Support the Girls’ (2018)

Writer and director Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha Ha,” “Computer Chess”) creates what looks, on its shiny surface, like a sunny workplace comedy along the lines of “Working …” or the Chotchkie’s scenes in “Office Space.” But he’s up to something much slyer, a smart examination of class and gender politics in one of their most pointed playgrounds: a Hooters-style sports bar and grill, where customers leer at scantily clad servers while the manager, Lisa (Regina Hall), tries to keep temperatures cool (and maintain her own sanity). It’s a wise, winning comedy, with a particularly sparkling supporting turn by Haley Lu Richardson, a “White Lotus” favorite. Stream it on Hulu.

‘Voyeur’ (2017)

The strange, twisted tale of motel owner Gerald Foos (who claimed to have spied on his customers for decades) and superstar journalist Gay Talese (who wrote about Foos in a controversial New Yorker article and book) is detailed by directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury in this riveting documentary. Voyeurism aside, the most compelling passages are less about what Foos did than how Talese’s seemingly sturdy news judgment failed him so spectacularly. Ultimately, “Voyeur” is less a character study than a prescient examination of a faltering media landscape, where a story that’s too good to be true is too often told anyway. Stream it on Netflix.

‘VHS Massacre’ (2016) / ‘VHS Massacre Too’ (2020)

Kenneth Powell and Thomas Edward Seymour’s first documentary on, per the secondary title, “Cult Films and the Decline of Physical Media” is a bit too ambitious for its slender 72-minute running time, attempting to follow too many strands and chase too many gimmicks. But the most direct material, on the logistics of the video business — from its golden age to this waning period — is invaluable, as Seymour seemed to realize when solo-directing the more successful follow-up, a straight-ahead history of exploitation films, their exhibition and the kind of oddities we’ve lost in this all-streaming, all-the-time era. The sequel is the better film, but both are informative and enlightening, with copious commentary from the people who make these movies, and those who love them. Stream parts one and two on Amazon Prime Video.

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