‘Damsels in Distress,’ ‘Bernie’ and More Streaming Gems

Atypical star vehicles, ensemble indies, high-powered genre pictures and gripping historical documentaries are among the highlights of this month’s offbeat picks.

By Jason Bailey

‘Damsels in Distress’ (2012)

Stream it on Hulu.

Eleven years ago, the “Barbie” mastermind Greta Gerwig was known not as the director behind a billion-dollar blockbuster, but as one of the most charismatic actresses on the indie film scene. Her talents are nicely showcased in this sharp-witted, frequently quotable comedy of manners and satire of campus life. The writer and director is Whit Stillman, who helped define smart, talky ’90s indies with his triple play of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco”; this, his first feature in 13 years, was a welcome return to form. Gerwig is at her complicated best as Violet, who helps her friends (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore and Lio Tipton, all memorable) navigate the unfortunate men of the fictional Seven Oaks College; Adam Brody is likably squirrelly as the campus cad.

‘The Seagull’ (2018)

Stream it on Max.

Gerwig’s frequent leading lady Saoirse Ronan is one of the many familiar faces in the ensemble cast of this well-crafted adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s theatrical classic. Brian Dennehy, Billy Howle, Elisabeth Moss and Corey Stoll also appear, as residents and visitors of a picturesque country estate outside Moscow, though Annette Bening shines brightest in the showcase role of Irina Arkadina, the comically vain and heartbreakingly complicated diva of the Russian stage. The director Michael Mayer works a bit to hard to jazz up the text with showy camera movements and excessive coverage, but those momentary distractions can’t detract from the fine acting on display here.

‘Non-Stop’ (2014)

Stream it on Netflix.

Liam Neeson’s third act as a hero of pulpy action pictures has seen its ups (“The Grey”) and its downs (the “Taken” sequel of your choosing), but this tightly-wound potboiler is one of the genuine highlights. He stars as Bill Marks, an ex-cop-turned-air-marshal battling a mysterious killer who’s bumping off the passengers — one every twenty minutes — of an international flight. The director Jaume Collet-Serra takes the right approach to this somewhat silly premise, crafting the picture as a cross between Agatha Christie, “Airport” and “Speed,” and the ensemble cast (which includes Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache and Shea Whigham) helps keep this wild flight on course.

‘Drug War’ (2013)

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

The celebrated Hong Kong action auteur Johnnie To (“Election,” “Triad Election,” “Breaking News”) brought his decades of film craft to bear in this fast-paced, furiously entertaining crime epic. There are characters galore and subplots aplenty (as is To’s custom), but the underlying premise is simple: a bad guy (Louis Koo’s ruthless drug kingpin), a good guy (Sun Honglei’s dedicated undercover cop) and a pursuit. To’s breathless set pieces are as relentless as ever, but the picture is about more than mere action; he gives dimension to what could have been cartoon characters, and surveys the human consequences of the titular conflict.

‘Bernie’ (2012)

Stream it on Hulu.

The true story of how a beloved East Texas mortician murdered a wealthy widow could’ve made for a probing character study (or, perhaps, a tacky Netflix true crime docuseries). Instead, the director and co-writer Richard Linklater achieves a delicate and precise mixture of dark comedy and small-town portraiture, thanks in no small part to a cast that includes Jack Black (Linklater’s “School of Rock” star) as the mortician, Matthew McConaughey (Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” star) as the district attorney who prosecutes him and the great Shirley MacLaine as the victim, a characterization she pitches somewhere between Ouiser from “Steel Magnolias” and Beelzebub.

‘A Hologram for the King’ (2016)

Stream it on Max.

Tom Hanks movies were still an event in 2016, yet few paid much attention to this light yet lofty adaptation of Dave Eggers’s novel. Perhaps it was just a bit too odd, too steeped in the hands-off style and indie sensibility of its director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), but it’s an undiscovered gem of Hanks’s late period. He stars as Alan Clay, a recently divorced and undeniably desperate American consultant in Saudi Arabia for what is intended to be a brief sales pitch to the Saudi government. But days pass as he waits for his audience with the Saudi king, resulting in an unexpectedly effective combination of insightful character study and “Waiting for Godot”-inspired absurdism.

‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ (2017)

Stream it on Netflix.

Few film stars of the 1930s were as shimmeringly seductive as the Viennese vamp first called Hedy Kiesler, and first known for her then-shocking in-the-buff turn in the 1933 Czech import “Ecstasy.” But this is no mere tale of Old Hollywood stardom. Lamarr lived an eventful and exciting life, of sin and scandal and, most notably, invention — particularly her development of a communication system that formed the foundation of modern Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. She was a woman more dynamic and complex than any of the characters she played, and Alexandra Dean’s documentary tells her story with excitement, verve and plentiful (not to mention well-earned) sympathy.

‘Radio Unnameable’ (2012)

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

For decades, Bob Fass was a comforting voice for nocturnal New Yorkers — the overnight host on WBAI-FM, an early developer and practitioner of “free-form radio,” opening his phone lines and airwaves to an assortment of searching callers and outlaw entertainers. Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson’s affectionate documentary tells the story of Foss’s show and his life (to the limited extent that they were separate at all), via a riveting collection of archival audio recordings, photographs, films and memories, from his early searching days to the loosely organized and occasionally out-of-control gatherings of what he called his “cabal” of loyal listeners. On Fass’s show, insomniacs and night workers and eccentrics found not only a megaphone, but a community; Lovelace and Wolfson’s film gently draws the line to contemporary high-tech counterparts, while still longing for the idealism and possibility of the past.

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