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Stream This: 'Actress' is a rich, outside-the-box documentary

And the Criterion Collection has now made available Jean Renoir's great short film "A Day in the Country."

‘Actress’
Netflix Instant

Documentary for some may be a form of journalism — films of pure information, with people in the know looking into the camera and offering basic intel. You won’t learn much from “Actress,” Robert Greene’s remarkable documentary profile of Brandy Burre. But that’s a great thing; documentaries should be thought of as a more diverse lot. You might recognize Burre from a stint on season two of “The Wire.” (She was Tommy Carcetti’s crafty campaign manager Theresa D’Agostino.) During shooting she got pregnant, then retired from acting to become a stay-at-home mom. When “Actress” catches up with her she’s thinking of getting back in the game but acutely aware producers aren’t crazy about employing middle-aged women.

Right from the start it’s not clear how much what’s true, especially as things with her then-partner, who mostly skulks through shots, take a sudden turn south. But it’s not a puzzle film. It’s Greene’s view of Burre’s view of herself. She’s even introduced rehearsing her introduction, saying the same thing multiple times as though to get it right. Sometimes Greene films her in beautifully designed shots that call to mind Douglas Sirk films, where women battle with the oppressiveness of their surroundings. It’s partly truth, partly fiction, and what’s moving about “Actress” — apart from Burre’s endearing humor and never-wavering commitment to an experimental film that pries into trying times — is the way it captures how we all erect versions of ourselves, and not just to others.

‘A Day in the Country’
Hulu (and new to Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD)

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Jean Renoir’s 1936 short is one of cinema’s succinct masterpieces, so it’s surprising to learn it probably shouldn’t exist at all. For instance, Renoir, due to commitments, was forced to abandon it before he was done shooting and even forgot it existed. Instead it was cobbled together without him a decade after it was shot. You’d never know it, and perhaps its unusually chaotic birth is responsible for its simple and quietly complex power. What starts as a picnic romp, making fine use of Renoir’s gifts for filming group activity, gradually turns into a suddenly profound look at regret. It concerns a fond memory that doesn’t seem meaningful until it’s gone, much like the film itself.

‘The Big Lebowski’
Netflix Instant

The Coen brothers’ predictably unpredictable follow-up to the Oscar-gobbling “Fargo” is one of the great cases of a film rediscovered on home video, when people could endlessly, endlessly rewatch it. So if you can’t find your scratched-up DVD from the year 2000, you can abide with the version (in high-def!) that now streams — and perhaps note that it’s more than a batch of quotables and weed jokes. Indeed, it’s one of the better Raymond Chandler-style mystery films of the modern era.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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