The Post’s critics highlight original movies that are being streamed and made available on demand. Here are this week’s picks.
AZIZ ANSARI: BURIED ALIVE
With the proliferation of on-demand platforms, it’s becoming increasingly common for entertainment content, especially stand-up comedy, to appear there first, sometimes to the exclusion of cable, its traditional home. Netflix’s latest contribution to this category is “Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive,” which shows the actor and comedian (“Parks and Recreation”) in strong form.
Recorded in April at Philadelphia’s Merriam Theater, “Buried Alive” begins with Ansari, who turned 30 this year, expressing astonishment and dismay at the number of friends in his millennial cohort who have decided to marry, settle down and have kids. Unlike comic Mike Birbiglia’s recent, similarly themed “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” another Netflix exclusive, Ansari’s act is less narratively coherent, going off on frequent tangents about, say, ghosts or child molestation.
It’s an entertaining hour and 20 minutes.
The molestation material, which imagines a tongue-tied sexual predator working up the nerve to approach a prepubescent — and, we are assured, preternaturally cute — school-age Ansari is, improbably, among the show’s funniest segments. It is also, by far, the furthest Ansari goes into tasteless territory. “If there’s anyone here from the paper,” the comedian cracks, “feel free to quote that bit in your article.”
Even when taboo or topical, Ansari’s writing is as smart and sharp as his charcoal gray three-piece suit. He’s never angry, preferring to skewer buffoons — say, young men in backwards ball caps and button-down shirts — with enough genial wit that his thinly veiled sense of superiority never comes across as mean-spirited.
Although he works in a plug for marriage equality — the South Carolina-born man acknowledging his regret at giving up eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches in protest of company president Dan Cathy’s opposition to same-sex marriage — he does so without being preachy.
The biggest surprise? Ansari turns out to be a gifted improvisor, interacting to great comic effect with audience members that he cajoles into revealing personal tales involving a marriage proposal and sexting.
The title “Buried Alive” seems to refer to two things. Most literally, it’s an allusion to repressed childhood memories. But it also suggests the fears of a young man facing the avalanche of responsibilities that come with adulthood.
As an artist, Ansari is also on the brink of growing up. As that happens, one can expect to see him both deepen and sharpen his social critique. -- M.O.
Unrated. Contains obscenity and sexual content. 79 minutes. Available via Netflix.
SIDE BY SIDE
Okay, so “Man of Tai Chi” is just so-so. Keanu Reeves should forever be in our cool book for at least one film he helped shepherd to the screen. “Side by Side,” a documentary about the history of photochemical film and the recent switch to digital cinematography and exhibition, is required viewing by anyone who cares about movies. Engrossing, smart and surprisingly dynamic, this lucid documentary serves both as a primer on film technology and an impassioned plea for enlightenment on the part of an audience that’s grown increasingly complacent and passive.
Working with director Christopher Kenneally, Reeves serves as on-screen Sherpa through what started as flickering images in magic lanterns, nickelodeons and penny arcades and has become the purview of bits, bytes and pixels. Interviewing such directors as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher, as well as such cinematographers as Bradford Young, Michael Ballhaus and Wally Pfister, Reeves cogently lays out the financial, methodological and aesthetic implications of the digital shift, from its impact on-screen performance (Robert Downey Jr. famously left bottles of urine around the “Zodiac” set in protest to the endless takes digital allows) to the more ineffable psychology of light and motion. Pfister and his frequent collaborator, director Christopher Nolan, are the most vocal holdouts among filmmakers who have either taken up digital in enthusiastic embrace (Fincher, Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh), and those whose approach has been reluctant or at least cautious.
“Side by Side” was made in 2011 and it already seems a little bit obsolete: The digital takeover seems all but complete, with more and more theaters going all digital, and more than a few independent movie houses shuttering because they can’t afford the transition.
Reeves and his team toe a careful line between applauding technology that has democratized cinema and bemoaning the inevitable losses that such progress entails. “Side by Side” may be platform neutral, but it’s never agnostic when it comes to the awesome power of film to transport people sitting together in a dark room. -- A.H.
Unrated. Contains brief profanity. 99 minutes. Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, Netflix and Hulu.
“Sal,” James Franco’s biopic about Academy Award-nominated “Rebel Without a Cause” actor Sal Mineo, follows a similar template to “Fruitvale Station,” the moving film about an unarmed Oakland man who was shot to death by a police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009. Both center on characters at a crossroads and recount the events on the day the man met a violent end. But where each moment in “Fruitvale” efficiently fills in the portrait of its flawed protagonist, the quotidian scenes leading up to the sad conclusion of “Sal” don’t amount to much. It feels like Franco sacrificed meaning for reality.
Sal (impressively portrayed by Val Lauren) was stabbed to death on Feb. 12, 1976. It had been more than two decades since the actor starred opposite James Dean, and the intervening years hadn’t proven especially advantageous. But things might have been turning around for Sal. He spends much of the movie trying to get friends to see his next play, “P.S. Your Cat is Dead!” (“you’ll love it,” he promises again and again), and working on a script for a movie he’s been greenlit to direct.
The rest of the biopic consists of Sal driving around, showering a friend’s dog with affection, grunting through a workout, getting a massage and having a number of phone conversations during which the audience hears only Sal’s side of the discussion. It all moves rather slowly.
Franco favors tight shots, zooming in on just a portion of Lauren’s face as he talks, even when others are in the room. The effect is claustrophobic and, worse, distancing, which seems like a strange choice for a movie that purports to be a tribute. Mineo was among the first actors to admit he was gay, but Franco offers no evidence of his trailblazing. If he really wants us to pause and remember the man, he should at least find a way to weave in Mineo’s accomplishments. -- S.M.
Unrated. Contains language and explicit discussions about sex. 85 minutes. Available via iTunes, on-demand cable and Amazon Instant.
PREVIOUSLY: 'The Castle Project,' 'Visioneers,' ' La Source'