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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Ben Is Back,’ ‘Censor’ and more

Julia Roberts in “Ben Is Back”

By Jason Bailey

This month’s off-the-grid streaming recommendations are not for the squeamish, rife with unsettling horror, exploitation and crime films. But if your tastes run a bit milder, we also have a pair of insightful dramas and a marvelous documentary about true movie magic.

‘Girl in the Picture’ (2022)

We’ve seen no shortage of true-crime documentaries and docuseries over the past few years, and this one begins very much in the typical mold; it tells the twisty tale of Tonya Hughes, an exotic dancer who was killed in a hit-and-run in 1990 and whose son was kidnapped by his father (and, possibly, her murderer) four years later. There are multiple mysteries at play — who she was, who he was and what they were to each other — and the narrative takes turns both jaw-dropping and stomach-churning, reminiscent of director Skye Borgman’s earlier film “Abducted in Plain Sight.” But Borgman refuses to rob the story’s victims or survivors of their humanity, and the closing passages are heartbreaking, powerful and emotionally overwhelming.

Stream it on Netflix.

‘Hobo With a Shotgun’ (2011)

Jason Eisener’s exploitation riff took an unusually circuitous route to the silver screen: It was originally devised solely as a fake trailer for a contest related to the release of the 2007 film “Grindhouse” — which featured several similarly fictitious previews — and screened with that film in some Canadian markets. Eisener used that exposure to expand it into a feature-length action movie, in which a taciturn drifter (Rutger Hauer) takes down the criminal underworld of Hope Town. As with 2010’s “Machete,” also spun off from a “Grindhouse” trailer, “Hobo” occasionally feels like a three-minute joke stretched to roughly 90 minutes. But it gets the details of such productions just right, and the fully committed lead performance by the late, great Hauer lends the picture a genuine sense of weight and pathos.

Stream it on Hulu.

‘Man From Reno’ (2015)

This ingeniously plotted neo-noir thriller from co-writer and director Dave Boyle tells two seemingly unrelated stories, as a Japanese crime novelist (Ayako Fujitani) visits San Francisco and finds herself drawn into the kind of intrigue she usually just writes about, while a small-town sheriff (Pepe Serna) investigates the strange disappearance of a man he accidentally hits with his cruiser. Of course, as any mystery reader can tell you, their paths are bound to cross, and Boyle both leans into our expectations and subverts them with his clever culture clash setup.

Stream it on Amazon.

‘The Sacrament’ (2014)

Fans of horror filmmaker Ti West are eating well this year, with the director following up the chiller “X” with a fall release for its prequel, “Pearl.” New admirers might want to catch up with his earlier work, including this contemporary re-imagining of the massacre at Jonestown. The Jim Jones figure at its center is known simply as Father, and played by character actor Gene Jones with a chilling combination of folksiness and menace; he’s surrounded by a fine cast of indie regulars, including Amy Seimetz as a member of the mysterious Eden Parish community, Kentucker Audley as the brother who tries to rescue her, and A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg as a pair of Vice journalists unprepared for the horrors they’ll document.

Stream it on Amazon.

‘Censor’ (2021)

This unnerving horror thriller draws its inspiration from the stringent censorship of horror films in Thatcher-era Britain, resulting in a number of banned titles known as “video nasties.” Niamh Algar stars as Enid, one of the censors responsible for reviewing and slicing up those gory movies, who finds her work disrupting her life in unexpected and disturbing ways. Algar is a sympathetic yet unpredictable protagonist, and Prano Bailey-Bond’s expert direction masterfully replicates the look and feel of those stomach-churning productions.

Stream it on Hulu.

‘Ben Is Back’ (2018)

Julia Roberts plays so few major roles in feature films anymore — her past two leads were in limited series — that it’s somewhat surprising this one came and went with so little fanfare. She’s in top form as the mother of a troubled young man (Lucas Hedges) home for the holidays during his umpteenth stint in rehab. Writer-director Peter Hedges’ sensitive screenplay drops us into the middle of this potential familial disaster, and much of what we understand about these conflicts is conveyed by Roberts’ keenly tuned work — the way she reacts to seemingly harmless chitchat, or how her interactions with her son convey a long history of betrayals and exaggerations. It’s an excellent performance, and a well-made drama to boot.

Stream it on Netflix.

‘Viva’ (2016)

Jesús (Héctor Medina) is a would-be drag performer, biding his time doing hair for the queens of the nightclub where he works; Ángel (Jorge Perugorría) is his estranged father, an ex-con and unrepentant homophobe. The arc of their relationship, as mapped out in this Cuban-set drama from Irish director Paddy Breathnach, is not hard to predict from those bare character descriptions. But the strength of “Viva” is its playing (both Medina and Perugorría create rich and fully formed characters with complexities beyond their loglines) and in its attention to detail. By the story’s conclusion, we feel as if we know this club, this world and the people who inhabit it.

Stream it on Hulu.

‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’ (2019)

Even the most savvy of moviegoers would typically be at a loss to explain the hows and whys of movie sound, much less be knowledgeable about its history. This delightfully geeky documentary from director Midge Costin does both — delving into not only how movie sound developed as an art, but why it’s so impactful in classics from “The Godfather” to “The Matrix.” Marquee directors such as David Lynch and Steven Spielberg add their 2 cents, although audiophiles will be most delighted to hear from Walter Murch, the “Apocalypse Now” editor who is as close to a rock star as you’ll find in the field.

Stream it on Amazon.

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