There have always been films that come and go, vanished from collective memory shortly after their release. Most deserve to fade away. But a few are worth our time—if we’re able to find them. Welcome back to our weekly Netflix guide, where we spotlight the cinematic gems big and obscure to make your weekend slightly more entertaining.
In the 2015 film Last Knights, proud swordsmen of an ancient civilization must protect their realm from invasion. Yet their greatest challenge will be facing political turmoil that threatens their way of life. The only solution will be for thousands to fight until the brutal end. Don’t remember the film? You’re not alone. Even though the feature had a few big names like Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen, it came and went in the blink of an eye.
This week, we’ll take a closer look at Last Knights and revisit a forgotten ‘80s Cold War flick. Also on the roster is Sucker, a relatively obscure foreign import about the lives of con artists, plus Heaven Knows What, a semi-autobiographical indie about drug addicts that was well-received by critics but deserved a larger audience. For those looking for a chill night in, here’s some of the best of what’s streaming this weekend.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
Last Knights (2015)
Starring: Clive Owen, Morgan Freeman, Aksel Hennie
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
Genre: Adventure, Action, Drama, Historical
Last Knights is a classic samurai movie in every way. The tale told here—a banished warrior clan seeking vengeance on an evil lord—is obviously nothing new, and neither are the recurring themes of honor and duty. But even a predictable movie can still bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus, especially with a master thespian like Morgan Freeman in it.
In one of the film’s best scenes, the iconic actor delivers a defiant speech against corruption in a way only someone who’s voice is so mighty he once played God can do. Aksel Hennie also excels as a cowardly-yet-dastardly villain you love to hate. (He not only acts like a dickhead, he literally looks like one with his weird-ass haircut.)
Even with a trite and distracting plot twist late in the game, Last Knights is nowhere near as bad as the dismal scores of 14% on Rotten Tomatoes and 27% on Metacritic would suggest. Convincingly recreating bygone eras requires a certain tender-loving-care, and the film certainly does not look cheap. While it’s true that something feels off (is it the unexplained cultural blending, or that the all-black warrior costumes look too clean and modern, perhaps?), Last Knights works fine as a popcorn movie to get you through a low-key weekend night.
Heaven Knows What (2014)
Starring: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
There will always be disagreements on whether or not films like The Basketball Diaries (1995) and Trainspotting (1996) glamorize hard drugs, regardless of the artists’ intentions. When you have popular pretty boy actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ewan McGregor slumming it up in cool and stylized movies it’s bound to leave an impression about addiction that doesn’t fully translate to real life. In Heaven Knows What, however, addiction is portrayed in an honest and stark manner, focusing on the banal and gory over being chic or digestible for a wide audience.
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Based on Arielle Holmes’ experiences as a homeless heroin addict in New York City, Heaven Knows What is a fly on the wall account of ordinary people under the control of a heartless master. Through fluid camerawork that avoids the dreaded “shaky cam” effect, we get down in the gutter with these junkies, feeling a real sense of their shitty, dead-end lives, where average days are spent begging for change on the streets, eating 65-cent sliders at White Castle, stealing from bodgas, scoring fixes, and repeating.
The actors may not look like movie stars, and that’s because most of them aren’t. One of the leads, the gifted and highly-convincing Buddy Duress, even gave his first interview about the movie while locked up in Rikers. And the notorious underground rapper Necro fits right in as a gentle bottom-feeder amongst the outcasts. And Ariel Pink’s hypnotic synth score echoes the anxiety-ridden fugue state each junkie lives in.
Heaven Knows What is one of the most authentic portrayals of addiction in recent memory, and interestingly it was released in theater (in a limited run) exactly 20 years after Larry Clark’s New York City drug classic Kids.
The Manhattan Project (1986)
Starring: Christopher Collet, John Lithgow, Cynthia Nixon
Director: Marshall Brickman
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Thriller
The 1980s were full of anxiety. As the Cold War continued, there was the everyday fear of being microwaved to a crisp by Soviet nukes. For many Americans, the 1983 TV movie The Day After must have been super scary for its time, as it depicted the devastation of a nuclear explosion on US soil.
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The movie stars Christopher Collet as a high school genius who builds his own weapon of mass destruction for a big league science fair. He claims the stunt is to warn the unsuspecting citizens of Ithaca, NY about the secret radioactive project in their backyard, but one can see he’s just mad that the scientist (John Lithgow) in charge of the lab recently started dating his mom.
There are a few ways to enjoy The Manhattan Project. For one, you can appreciate its nicely-crafted filmmaking, as well as its whimsical approach to really dark subject matter. You’d expect a movie about nuclear bombs to have a warm glow, just not this type of warm glow. As a result, the humor sometimes feels less like satire and more like something laughably dated. Either way, you’ll get a chuckle out of it. And what better time to revitalize some Cold War anxiety than today?
Starring: John Luc, Timothy Spall, Lily Sullivan
Director: Ben Chessell
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Crime
Movies about con men tend to be intriguing because con men are, more or less, magicians with criminal tendencies. It’s fascinating watching them pull off cleverly planned scams using nothing more than the power of illusion, whether it be sleight of hand, misdirection, or some other devious method. And because they are anti-heroes, we end up rooting for them, even more so when their stories are told with a bit of humor, as was the case in such stand-out films as The Sting (1973) and Catch Me If You Can (2002). That’s not to say that Sucker is anywhere near the level of those movies, but as a small, charming production it’s bound to cast its spell on audiences looking for an easy-going good time.
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In Sucker, Lawrence is a kind student who’s also not above cheating on tests and engaging in not-so-legal extracurricular activities. When he runs into a seasoned grifter (Timothy Spall), he jumps at the opportunity to be taken under his wing. Once they hit the road, Lawrence develops a thing for the third member of the trio, the attractive but troubled Sarah (Lily Sullivan).
It’s best not to reveal too much more, although it bears mentioning that the filmmakers hedge their bets with an ending that tries to cover too many bases. Fortunately, it doesn’t ruin the movie, which scores extra points for resisting the urge to run with a typical “young love” subplot.
Starring: Maiara Walsh, Danny Trejo, Tony Todd
Director: Bryan Bockbrader
Genre: Thriller, Comedy, B-Movie
If you like extremely violent and bloody movies that go above and beyond their minuscule budgets—and that can mix in some (sick) humor with ease—then this mean little flick about an abduction for ransom gone wrong will be right up your alley.
As the title alludes, the majority of the action in VANish is confined to the inside of a white passenger vehicle driven by a dude named Jack (Austin Abke), the ringleader of a sinister plot that also involves his short-tempered half-brother Max (writer/director Bryan Bockbrader) as well as Shane (Adam Guthrie), a war buddy who is a bit on the slow side. The three bickering criminals have kidnapped a young woman (Maiara Walsh), who despite being at the mercy of hoodlums, is not shy about speaking her mind. Some will find the dialogue to be second-rate Tarantino (or maybe even a slight spoof), but please don’t let that scare you away.
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VANish is a surprisingly good modern exploitation movie with a few shocks up its sleeve. It never feels trapped by the gimmick of the car setting as it zooms by full speed ahead (the running time is like an hour and 15 minutes max). You do, however, have to wait a while for the anticipated cameos by Tony Todd (Candyman) and Danny Trejo (Machete). But when they finally do show up, watch out. They make every minute count.