The San Juan Daily Star
‘Spin Me Round,’ ‘Small Town Crime’ and more streaming gems
By Jason Bailey
This month’s recommended viewing includes a pair of unconventional rom-coms, genre titles with a lot on their minds and two must-see docs for music lovers.
‘Spin Me Round’ (2022)
Director Jeff Baena and actor Alison Brie first teamed for his 2016 film “Joshy,” and she’s been in every film he’s made since — not only starring in but co-writing his two most recent, “Horse Girl” (2020) and this slightly demented rom-com riff. Brie stars as Amber, the manager of the Bakersfield franchise of an Olive Garden-style chain restaurant called Tuscan Grove, who is offered the chance to spend a week at the chain’s training institute in Italy. She takes the leap, clutching an “Eat, Pray, Love” paperback, her imagination full of romantic visions that are, to put it mildly, not to be met. Brie is as starry-eyed and sympathetic as ever, and she and Baena’s stock company of players — including Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen and Baena’s off-screen partner Aubrey Plaza — are reliably uproarious. Stream it on Hulu.
‘The Art of Self-Defense’ (2019)
Alessandro Nivola is a charmingly roguish object of desire for Brie in “Spin Me Round”; he similarly subverts a familiar type in his memorable supporting role in this pitch-black comedy-drama from writer and director Riley Stearns. Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as a nebbish weakling who decides to become a “real man” by learning karate. Nivola is the sensei of the local dojo whose cool demeanor and words of wisdom soon give way to a broad parody of toxic masculinity. Stream it on HBO Max.
‘The DUFF’ (2015)
This high school comedy adheres strictly to the formulations of the genre — the characters, qualities and outcomes haven’t changed much since the John Hughes era that director Ari Sandel so clearly seeks to emulate. What makes “The DUFF” special is the rare leading performance by Mae Whitman, the wonderful young actor from the TV shows “Parenthood” and “Good Girls,” who is cast, rather bafflingly, in the title role — an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” (Whitman is neither, but she wears overalls, which is apparently close enough.) Her on-screen charisma is so effortless, her comic timing so sharp, that she elevates the material by her mere presence and investment. Stream it on Netflix.
‘Small Town Crime’ (2018)
John Hawkes is a similar classification of actor to Whitman — usually lighting up a handful of scenes in juicy supporting roles, but rarely given the chance to take the spotlight. This tart little crime thriller gives him that opportunity, with a showy role as a boozy former cop who stumbles into a possible crime (and a shot at redemption). None of this is breaking new ground, but writer-directors (and brothers) Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms play it all out with affection and respect for the genre, and stack an impressive cast of first-rate supporting players (including Anthony Anderson, Clifton Collins Jr., Robert Forster and Octavia Spencer) for Hawkes to bounce his hard-boiled dialogue off. Stream it on HBO Max.
The great Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who astonished us with the colorful pageantry of films like “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” went in an altogether opposite direction for this thrilling martial-arts epic, creating (with impressive effort by cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and production designer Ma Kwong Wing) what amounts to a black-and-white world, shot in color. The effect is stunning, emphasizing the beauty of Xiaoding’s compositions and the elegance of the fight choreography and battle scenes. Such tales as this, of historical romance and underdog rebellion, have been done so often that it would be easy to merely replicate works of the past. Bravo to Zhang for finding a whole new way to see (and to make us see) this story. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.
Sara (Laura Galán) is the town butcher’s daughter and a teen outcast, brutally bullied (terrorized, really) by her vile classmates for her weight — hence the title, their cruel nickname for her. Their taunting is so merciless, in fact, that the viewer has a hard time judging Sara when the tables turn and she chooses not to save her tormentors from a fate worse than death. Deeply twisted but undeniably compelling, the story by writer and director Carlota Pereda goes so wild by the homestretch, you can’t imagine where she could possibly end up (and then she goes further). It’s a gnarly little item, with a monster of a performance by Spanish star Galán. Stream it on Hulu.
‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story’ (2017)
This history of Bad Boy Records (and, by extension, profile of its founder and frontman, Sean Combs) doesn’t probe or prod too provocatively — this is an authorized production, after all, presenting the label’s hip-hop groundbreakers and the mogul behind it in the most desirable light. But as a music showcase it’s hard to beat, as director Daniel Kaufman focuses on two 2016 Bad Boy reunion concerts to highlight both big hits and old beefs. Stream it on Netflix.
‘The Wrecking Crew’ (2015)
The great hits of 1960s rock acts like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees and Sonny & Cher were often not played by those bands at all — the tracks were provided, often at the behest of super-producers like Phil Spector, by a top-notch group of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Denny Tedesco, the son of one of those players, directed this affectionate documentary tribute, which details how this band of gunslingers came together, how they came to dominate the West Coast music scene and why so many of them were content to stay in the shadows, even while topping the charts. Testimonials from the likes of Brian Wilson and Cher are effusive, but the real juice comes from the surviving members, who talk shop and dish dirt like they were just in the studio last week. Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.