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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Miles Ahead,’ ‘The Exiles’ and more streaming gems

Don Cheadle in “Miles Ahead.”

By Jason Bailey

Inventive riffs on the biopic, the movie musical, the classic Western and the celebrity bio-documentary are among the highlights of this month’s roundup of under-the-radar streaming movies.

‘Miles Ahead’ (2016)

Viewers hoping for a traditional music-legend biopic in the style of “Walk the Line” or “Ray” will likely be baffled by this portrait of Miles Davis from Don Cheadle, who directs, co-writes and stars as the jazz great. Cheadle eschews the cradle-to-grave approach typical of such endeavors, instead building his narrative around a tall tale of Davis and a music journalist (Ewan McGregor) attempting to recover stolen tapes of his latest album. This mostly fictional fabrication gives Cheadle the leeway to create a playful, unpredictable and unexpected work — a cinematic reflection of the music that made him famous. Emayatzy Corinealdi is heart-wrenching as Davis’ wife Frances, while LaKeith Stanfield and Michael Stuhlbarg stand out in memorable supporting roles. (Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.)

‘The Lure’ (2017)

Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska made her feature directing debut with this exhilaratingly odd mashup of cabaret musical, sex comedy and folk horror tale. Michalina Olszanska and Marta Mazurek are Gold and Silver, a pair of mermaid sisters who leave their comfortable undersea homes in pursuit of a handsome human (shades of “The Little Mermaid”), and end up bumping and grinding at a seedy nightclub. Smoczynska takes this literal fish-out-of-water tale and spices it up with unexpected genre flourishes; it’s the kind of movie where, if you’re not enjoying yourself, you merely have to wait a few scenes for it to become something else entirely. (Stream it on Max.)

‘St. Vincent’ (2014)

The gruff but lovable geezer, the harried and hardworking single mom, the hooker with the heart of gold — the character types on display in Theodore Melfi’s comedy-drama are, to put it charitably, well-worn. Yet they’re written with such sensitivity and played with such nuance by Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts that the amiable viewer won’t much mind; in fact, these overly familiar characters, and the stock situations Melfi writes them into, allow these actors to give them a good, old-fashioned, movie-star spit shine. All three pros are in fine form, with McCarthy particularly good in a lived-in, semi-dramatic turn that predicts her affecting work in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” But the standout is young Jaeden Martell, charismatic and charming as the kid who brings them all together. (Stream it on Netflix.)

‘The Old Way’ (2023)

So much of today’s B-movie output consists of Xeroxed action movies and unimaginative horror that it’s easy to forget how the Western was once a key corner of that world. This revenge melodrama from director Brett Donowho serves as a reminder of the genre’s vitality, even on a low budget. Though burdened by a thin script and a distractingly contemporary look, the picture’s flaws are handily outweighed by the presence of Nicolas Cage in the leading role — shockingly, his first turn in an oater in a 100-plus film career. He brings a hard-fought gravitas to this old gunslinger character, his familiar face sharpened by weary eyes and deeply set lines reminiscent of old-school Western stars like Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy. (Stream it on Hulu.)

‘Run All Night’ (2015)

This Liam Neeson vehicle was released the year after “John Wick,” and feels, in retrospect, like the first of that film’s many imitators, with Neeson as a former Mob enforcer who puts his own life in jeopardy when he kills his boss’s trigger-happy son. Whatever its origins, this is one of Neeson’s better late-period action efforts, thanks to a stellar supporting cast (including Vincent D’Onofrio, Ed Harris, Bruce McGill, Lois Smith plus a “John Wick: Chapter 2” co-star, Common) and a tightly focused Neeson performance; he has one especially good scene at the hospital bed of his dying mother, wearing the face of a man who knows how much he’s let her down. (Stream it on Max.)

‘The Exiles’ (2023)

Christine Choy, the initial subject of this documentary from directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein, is such a compelling, colorful character — a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, no nonsense local legend — that one could watch a film merely of her telling stories and barking complaints. But Columbus and Klein are up to much more than that. “The Exiles” details how fellow documentarian Choy spent much of the summer of 1989 interviewing “political exiles” from China’s Tiananmen Square protests (and subsequent massacre) and attending their stateside events. Decades later, she rediscovers that footage and sets about reconnecting with her subjects, a process that results in poignant reflection and righteous indignation over how their cause was adopted but eventually discarded by the U.S. government. (Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.)

‘Call Me Kate’ (2022)

Netflix is notoriously reluctant to license films from Hollywood’s golden era (frankly, it can be hard to find much of anything from the 20th century in general). But they will offer up the occasional documentary study of cinema history, such as “Five Came Back,” “Is That Black Enough for You?!?,” and this recent British documentary valentine to the one and only Katharine Hepburn. Writer and director Lorna Tucker draws from rare archival audio and home movies, elegantly assembling a portrait that both celebrates and demystifies her considerable legend. Intimate and unapologetic, it leaves the viewer with a keener understanding of Hepburn — the person and the persona. (Stream it on Netflix.)

‘Tim’s Vermeer’ (2014)

The current hullabaloo over artificial intelligence and visual art makes this a fine time to revisit this provocative and pointed documentary, written by magicians and self-appointed debunkers Penn and Teller, narrated by the former and directed by the latter. They detail the efforts of inventor Tim Jenison to both investigate and replicate the methodology of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, whose photorealistic paintings have impressed admirers and challenged skeptics for years. Assembled with the pair’s usual and potent mixture of cynicism and curiosity, it’s a compelling journey into the past with implications for the future. (Stream it on Hulu.)

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