Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February Expiration Watch: Whittling Away

"I am not an animal! I am...
...an old movie on Netflix!"
I'm going to keep it short this month, as it's more of the same old story, i.e., Netflix is taking yet another chunk out of its back catalog, erasing nearly 20 more pre-1982 titles. Among those are such all-time greats as The Elephant Man (1980), The Graduate (1967), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Old Yeller (1957), Ordinary People (1980), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Das Boot (1981). At this rate, I hate to imagine what will be left of legitimate classics by year's end.

That's not even taking into account expiring second-tier pics like Adios, Sabata (1971), Hatari! (1962), Thief (1981), This Property Is Condemned (1966), and Will Penny (1968). Granted, there should be a few pre-1982 additions arriving in March, but at this point I count only two: Taxi Driver and 3 Days of the Condor. Of course, if you're a fan of upcoming TV shows like A Different World or the recently added Robocop remake, then no worries, right? (Note: heavy sarcasm. Do not ingest if on a low-calorie diet.)

If we look at more recent decades' titles, the picture isn't much rosier. The 1980s fare the best, with the most notable deletions being Ridley Scott's underrated Black Rain (1989), the B-grade John Hughes flick Pretty in Pink (1986), kiddie fave Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), and Terry Gilliam's hot mess, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New in February: Taking It Slow

This has definitely been one of the slower months I've seen in terms of new releases. More than a third of the new titles were returning ones, while, with the exception of Houseboat (1958), there were no classics added in February, not even with 1980 as a cutoff. For comparison, this time last year Netflix added 10 classic titles, including an excellent group of 1970s films. Given all the recent deletions of older catalog titles—both feature films and BBC shows—that's not a good sign, and seems to further cement Instant's continuing emphasis on original content and new TV shows.

But let's look at the good news: among those TV shows are the second season of Bates Motel (2014), the full 2010-2013 run of the sexy/violent Spartacus, and the first five—some would say best—seasons of all-time classic M*A*S*H (comprising the years 1972 to 1978). The latter is a pretty nice coup, I must say, since it's been a long, long time since a lot of us have had the chance to revisit that landmark show. For those who have never seen it, I'm happy to report it still holds up in most ways—as long as you can get past some of the first season's casual sexism (a holdover from the original movie) and learn to ignore the superfluous laugh track CBS forced on the show's creators (to make sure audiences knew it was, you know, a comedy). No telling if Netflix will add the remaining six seasons, the last three of which are a bit spotty, but for now these episodes from the Frank Burns era should keep fans of the 4077th giggling through their surgical masks.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January Expiration Watch: Not So Bad (if you don't count the BBC)

For a lot of you, this month's expiration story boils down to only one headline: All Those BBC Titles—Gone!

But wrenching as that is, it's become something of an old story already, and now that many of us have had time to work our way through shock, denial, and into acceptance (sort of), there's another story being told this month—one that's peculiar and a bit less devastating. It's the tale of 52 notable, non-BBC titles leaving the service by the 1st of February, a full 31 of which arrived within the last three months—suggesting a chronic case of premature (ahem) expiration on the part of Netflix.

But here's the good news: the bulk of those recent additions aren't exactly what you'd call masterpieces, while the rest seem to pop off and on Instant with the regularity of blinking neon in an old film noir. Here's what we're looking at, broken down by month:

Arrived in November

Batman Returns (1992)
Babes in Toyland (1961)
Breakheart Pass (1975)
The 'Burbs (1989)
The Crimson Cult (1968)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Hiding Out (1987)
Kingpin (1996)
Live Nude Girls (1995)
Phase IV (1974) - Reviewed
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Trading Mom (1994)

Monday, January 19, 2015

BBC Fallout: What's Staying, What's Going

(1/30 update: If you need more time to finish bingeing some of the expiring titles, turns out a lot of them are on Amazon Prime—but only for another two weeks! Perfect time for that free trial, maybe?)

My, my. Who knew there would be such a media firestorm surrounding those BBC titles marked to expire from Netflix Instant? I was pretty surprised to see a record number of news sites citing this blog as a source, resulting in a record number of hits—numbers which continue to boggle (thank you all).

But here's the thing: even with all the attention this story received, so many news sites got—and continue to get—their facts wrong. In one story after another I've read that "all" of the BBC titles were on the chopping block. Or, if not all, then shows like The Office and Sherlock were among them (which they never were). I've also seen claims that the mass expiration was "rumored"—which was pretty rich considering Netflix itself was responsible for slapping on all those expiration labels. And now that a good chunk of the most popular series have been renewed, I'm seeing stories claim that "all" or "most" of the titles have been renewed and, Whew! we needn't have been so worried after all, it's just business as usual, move along, nothing to see here, etc.

Well, I hate to stick my thumb in the (black) pudding, but that's just not the case. As you can see from the lists below, 24 titles were renewed, while another 52 are still marked for 2/1 (actually 1/31) departures. Granted, many of those staying are among the most popular and headline-worthy (hello, Dr. Who and Top Gear), but there are equally important series still getting the axe, among them such stalwarts as Fawlty Towers, Coupling, Black Adder, Red Dwarf, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and not one but two Diana Rigg miniseries.

Is it possible Netflix will still renew some or all of these shows in the months to come? We can certainly hope. But for now, they're wearing the scarlet letter E. So I'll leave it to the Anglophiles and the nature- and history buffs to sift through the list and decide which are worth bingeing into the wee hours of January's remaining days. All I can say is: Godspeed. And I do mean 'speed'...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Those (Possibly) Expiring BBC Titles

(1/16 update: Many of these titles have now been renewed, including all of Dr. Who. See next post for the full rundown.)

There's been a lot of buzz in the last 24 hours regarding the large block of BBC shows scheduled to expire from Netflix Instant on the 31st (and which have been listed here for over a week). Sources as diverse as The Huffington Post, CNN, MTV News, and Vulture have all referenced this site's expiration list, which has been awesome, but it's also led to some minor confusion. So, to address any questions some of you might have:

If you don't see it listed, it's probably safe

Not every streaming BBC show is marked to expire. Programs such as Sherlock, Doc Martin, Merlin, and Ripper Street, for example, look to be safe (for now). If there's a specific title you're worried about that you don't see here, just search for it on Netflix's website, then hover your cursor over the thumbnail like so:


See that availability date? It will also be listed on the show's main info page, down on the right beneath Streaming Details:


If there's no availability date, then you're okay (again—for now!). As longtime readers know, this isn't always a foolproof test, since Netflix can be cagey about revealing such dates. But for this block of shows (and TV series in general), it's usually accurate. (Movies, of course, are another matter...)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

January 2015: The New & the Notable

Well, the end of December certainly was brutal. I don't know about you, but I'm still feeling a sharp ringing behind the ears from so many sacked titles. And if this month's upcoming losses are to be believed, the carnage is far from over. (Don't you dare take away my Coupling and Fawlty Towers! Or BBC faves like Dr. Who and Luther and Top Gear and...)

So, has Netflix decided to atone for these accumulating sins by rolling out an irresistible roster of January movies and series? Not so much. I mean, yes, there are good—and even great—titles that showed up this month. But fully a third of those were returning after a brief absence, so we've not only encountered most of them in the past year, but in all probability they'll pull another vanishing act in 3-6 months.


Not that I'll ever argue with returning titles The Apartment, Chinatown, Marathon Man, or Sunset Boulevard. Those should form a permanent foundation beneath the service—an impregnable Wall of Classics (if you'll forgive the mixed architecture)—especially paired with newcomers The French ConnectionFantasia, Marty, the original Robocop, Moonstruck, Mystic River, and Swingers. But considering the damage done to Netflix's pre-1982 catalog in the past couple of months, it's going to take a heck of a lot more to restore my confidence in the service's ability to maintain a respectable mix of both classics and newer titles.

In the meantime, here's the breakdown of what's queue-worthy:

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

It was a pretty eventful year on Netflix Instant and here at What's On NETFLIX Now?, with lots of good movies coming and going (many of them more than once). For less thorough readers and those who only discovered the blog in recent months, I thought it would be fun to recount some of 2014's highlights, not only to give an idea of what you missed but to show what's still available to explore—both on Netflix and on the backpages of this site. I'll also try to provide some insight into what's ahead in 2015 (depressing though it may seem)...

Altman's 3 Women
JANUARY 2014 saw an impressive influx of new titles following a pretty dismal December, including rarities like Robert Altman's 3 Women and indispensable classics like Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—both of which have unfortunately expired (although I'm happy to report that the latter will be returning in January 2015). Standalone reviews covered an obscure, oddly charming 1972 comedy, The Public Eye, from director Carol Reed, and Megan Griffith's effective, low-key thriller, Abduction of Eden, loosely based on the true story of a woman kidnapped into a human trafficking ring.

FEBRUARY marked the site's first significant bump in readership following a highly ranked post on Reddit, with monthly hits more than tripling. This prompted a look back on the blog's philosophy and some of what had come before (a post I may need to revisit myself, since I feel I may be wandering a bit from my original purpose). The month was also notable for an influx of excellent 1970s flicks, four of which received short reviews, although three of those later expired—as is so often the case on Netflix these days. Another film, 1974's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, merited its own full review, mainly because I've always had a soft spot for car chase movies of the early 1970s. February also saw the passing of writer/director Harold Ramis, a true mensch of 1980s and '90s comedy, along with the loss of a number of notable French films, including two starring French heartthrobs Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. One of those, 1962's A Woman Is a Woman, represented Jean-Luc Godard's lone entry on Netflix.

Friday, December 19, 2014

December Expiration Watch: A Great Sucking Sound

There's no getting around it: things this month look grim. I can barely keep up with all the new titles being added daily to the 12/31 body count. Of course, you could argue that it's the end of the year and things looked bad last year, too. You'd only be partly right. Over 60 expiring titles made the list then—a big number, for sure, but one that was mostly offset by a strong January and the eventual return of 15 of those titles.

But this year is undeniably worse. Over 120 titles are on the list this time—including nearly double the number of pre-1970 classics—plus 14 Woody Allen films (essentially wiping out the director's streaming catalog). Sure, Netflix could add an equivalent number of worthy films in the new year, but based on past experience, the paltry mix announced so far, and the company's increasing emphasis on original TV series over classic movies, I'm not getting my hopes up.

Some other interesting numbers: of the 120+ titles about to expire, 25 arrived in October (i.e., had three-month contracts), half of which were Allen films. Another 17 showed up in January, suggesting one-year contracts that are now ending. These were predominantly 1970s and Roger Corman flicks, so with any luck they'll be renewed in the coming year.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Finding Perfection: THE CONFORMIST

I admit to having little objectivity when it comes to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist. To me it's always been one of those textbook films, right up there with Citizen Kane and Breathless in terms of cinematic achievement. That may be in part due to being introduced to it in a college directing class, where its scenes were dissected and held up as exemplars of filmmaking artistry. In the years after film school I even became mildly obsessed with it, treasuring my VHS copy of the laser disc (this was the '80s) and regularly studying that dubbed, cropped presentation with the fervid eyes of an acolyte.


After a recent viewing on Netflix (yes, I also own the DVD), I still think The Conformist is pretty amazing. And while its ambiguities, classical pacing, and nonlinear plot may not be for everyone, the gorgeous, expressionist imagery (courtesy of Vittorio Storaro), beautifully shot actresses—in their beautifully made clothes—combined with Georges Delerue's sweeping score make it a treat for the eyes and ears, even if you're not always sure what's going on.

Friday, December 5, 2014

New in December: Cinematic Holiday Treats

December's incoming titles make for a satisfying mix of the new and returning, with a number of genuine standouts that haven't been seen on Netflix (or not seen for a long time, anyway). Directors such as David Fincher, Michael Mann, Peter Weir, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Cameron Crowe, and Robert Rossen are represented, as is a certain superspy by the name of Bond, James Bond.

Add in a dash of Paul Newman, a pinch of Will Smith, and a spoonful or two of Jim Carrey, David Bowie, and James Caan, with a garnish of Jo(h)ns—Wayne, Travolta, and Voight—and you've got some tasty treats of cinematic goodness. Where are the women, you ask? Good question. Among the better titles, there's Jodie Foster, Jennifer Connelly, and Charlize Theron, but most of the films with strong female leads fall decidedly in the crappy category (yes, Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Shelly Long, I'm talkin' to you).

The Thoroughbreds

Almost Famous
An ode to 1970s rock and roll, Cameron Crowe's autobiographical Almost Famous (2000) is the writer-director's most personal film, even beyond its status as a fictionalized account of Crowe's early years as a teen rock journalist for Rolling Stone. While (convincingly) portraying a very specific time and place in his young existence—life on the road with a Led Zeppelin-like rock band—Almost Famous is also a kind of looking glass into everything Crowe was to do as a filmmaker in the years to come, shining a light into the soul of a man whose sentiments and musical taste would enrich such films as Fast Times at Ridgmont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and even the underrated Elizabethtown.

The film abounds with humor, charm, and Crowe's distinctive sense of humanity, not to mention a killer classic rock soundtrack (authentically enhanced by Nancy Wilson's era-appropriate originals) and a cast to die for—starting with the young Patrick Fugit, whose ingenuous performance holds its own with those of Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. That's to say nothing of Kate Hudson's luminous turn as Penny Lane, still considered her defining performance (even after so many bad rom-coms), or the very funny Jason Lee as the fictional band Stillwater's insecure frontman. If this theatrical version of Almost Famous feels slightly lumpy and truncated (the longer, "Bootleg" cut provides some needed breathing room), there's no denying the film's warm, beating, nostalgic heart.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November Expiration Watch: Give and Take (but Mostly Take)

Quite the list of casualties this month. Perhaps making up for its largesse at the beginning of November, Netflix is taking away a big chunk of its recent gains, especially titles that arrived in June and September. Notable June entries now expiring include Five Easy Pieces (1970), Funny Lady (1975), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), as well as those infamous big-budget flops, 1941 (1979) and Ishtar (1987), which are more entertaining than their reputations might suggest (see my reviews here.)

For some reason, the sci-fi and horror titles from June and September are getting especially hard hit, with toe tags now written up for Event Horizon (1997), Invaders from Mars (1986), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Audrey Rose (1977), The Believers (1987), Monkey Shines (1988), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and Mission Impossible III (2006). RoboCop 2 (1990), which only arrived this month, is also getting the bounce. And then there's 1984's The Philadelphia Experiment, which has been around for a while but otherwise deserves mention in the sci-fi category (and expires a day earlier than the others, on the 29th). Granted, most of this group doesn't rate more than 3 or so stars—and they're all fairly well-worn—but still, could it hurt to let them stick around for fans of these genres?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Expiration Watch: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

It wouldn't be surprising if the first thing that came to mind upon hearing the words "classic movie" was 1944's Double Indemnity. After all, it's black-and-white, it features major movie stars from the 1930s and 1940s (Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck), and one minor star (Fred MacMurray) who would go on to greater fame in the 1960s (in family films and on TV's My Three Sons). It also happens to be fairly seminal, considered by many to be the first true film noir. But probably the most important factor in Double Indemnity's status as an all-time classic is that it was directed by the incomparable Billy Wilder.

A lot has been written about Wilder (including on this blog, here and here), but as classic film buffs know, it's with good reason. Wilder's consistency, wit, and dry-eyed romanticism made him a giant among audiences, peers, and generations of aspiring screenwriters (his most famous contemporary torch-bearer being Cameron Crowe, writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous). An Austrian Jew smart enough to see the Nazi writing on the wall in 1933, Wilder left Europe for Hollywood and soon carved out a career as a highly successful screenwriter, co-writing Midnight, Ninotchka, and Ball of Fire before becoming one of the sound era's original crop of writer-directors (joining Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, and John Huston).

Double Indemnity was only Wilder's third Hollywood picture as a director, following the diverting Ginger Rogers vehicle, The Major and the Minor (1942), and the underrated WWII thriller, Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Turns out the third time was the charm, as Double Indemnity became the first of a string of indisputably great classic movies that would include Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, to name only a few. Like those other films, Double Indemnity represents a kind of cinematic perfection that most filmmakers rarely achieve once, much less the half dozen or so times Wilder and his collaborators managed.

Friday, November 7, 2014

New in November: Tough to Choose


A lot of good stuff this month. A lot. Which is why it's taken me longer than usual to sort through it all and decide which titles to write about. Let's start with something easy:

TV

It's hard not to be happy at new seasons of Portlandia, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and (hooray) Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (a series I reviewed earlier this year). Also The Bletchley Circle, which I hear good things about but haven't seen. Making its Netflix debut (on the 10th) is the first season of the sci-fi thriller Helix, which was executive produced by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore and should be worth a look or two. If you're more in the mood for science than science fiction, there's the debut of the three-part Your Inner Fish (2014), an entertaining and—to some—provocative look into what we were before we became the sophisticated movie-watching bipeds of today.

Classics

A fairly idiosyncratic mix of pre-1980 movies are on hand, starting with 1962's Hell Is for Heroes, an acclaimed WWII actioner directed by scrappy Don Siegel and starring Steve McQueen and James Coburn. If those two stars aren't steely-eyed enough for you, check out Charles Bronson in Breakheart Pass (1975), a rough-and-tumble western that also features tough guys Ben Johnson and Richard Crenna.

O'Toole, Hepburn
Distinctly less action-heavy is Cleopatra (1963), which, if never exactly considered a good movie, its notoriety makes it a genuine curiosity for a) Dick and Liz fans, b) Joe Mankiewicz fans (he did All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives), c) fans of historical epics, and d) those who are physically capable of sitting in front of their screens for 4 hours.

But no need to torture yourself—not when you can treat yourself to something bubbly like 1966's How to Steal a Million, a romantic heist comedy directed by William Wyler (Roman Holiday) that features Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn alternately wooing and outwitting each other. Or maybe you're still feeling Halloweeny, in which case you might try laughing yourself scared with The Crimson Cult, a 1968 B-horror movie by way of Brit stalwarts Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Steele in green (or is it blue?) body paint. And then there's something that tries just a bit harder...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Horror without Borders: 5 Movies, 5 Countries

Fright doesn't need a passport.

In the spirit of Halloween, here are a handful of notable horror films streaming on Netflix, from places other than the United States. All but one of these has subtitles, but that shouldn't deter true horror buffs (most of whom I assume can read). Arranged in order from Artfully Serious to Disgustingly Funny, these are my picks for a horrific, internationally themed All Hallow's Eve...

Let the Right One In (2008)

(Sweden)
The justly celebrated Let the Right One In might be the most low-key horror film ever made. It doesn't frighten so much as slowly seep into your skin, like a stealth transfusion that uses the wrong type of blood so your body has no choice but to reject it. Resembling a low-budget European art film (which in many ways it is), Let the Right One In keeps the big shocks and scares to a minimum, calibrating them for maximum intensity as director Tomas Alfredson's observational camera records the film's acts of violence with a contemplative, almost mournful gaze—until you're so invested in the characters, every subtle shift in tension leaves you gnawing a knuckle. Shaped as much by mood and silence as emotion and sensation, the film can be viewed as a touching story of friendship between sensitive, introspective 12-year-olds—except when it isn't. At those times it becomes one of the more unusual, artful, and disturbing vampire movies you're likely to see.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

October Expiration Watch: Hacking Away at the '80s

Bad news this month if you're a fan of 1980s movies; also if you're a Clint Eastwood, Francis Ford Coppola, or Firefly fan (no, Firefly isn't leaving, thankfully, but Serenity—the feature-length sequel to that short-lived cult series—sadly is). Some other good stuff will also be taking a break from streaming (we hope it's only a break), including a handful of classics, a helping of sci-fi, a bit of horror, and a few curiosities that are worth a look if you're craving something unusual.

'80s FAVES

American Psycho (2000) - not technically an '80s movie, but it's based on a Brett Easton Ellis novel that's of and about the '80s—in all their greedy, serial killer excess
The Big Chill (1983) - Lawrence Kasdan's tribute to baby boomer nostalgia (capsule review here)
Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) - this one's a double period piece—a semi-autobiographical 1980s comedy set in Neil Simon's Depression-era youth; watch it back to back with Woody Allen's Radio Days and don't be surprised if you start talking like an old-school Brooklyn Jew
Broadcast News (1987) - great cast, sharp and funny James L. Brooks script; see it if you haven't
Caveman (1981) - Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach, and Shelley Long as wacky cavemen with '80s hair—but the star of the show is still the drunken dinosaur
Footloose (1984) - if someone were to send an '80s time capsule into space, a DVD of this movie might very well be in it
He Said, She Said (1991) - also not technically made in the 1980s, but with those hairstyles, those shoulder pads—and Kevin Baconit's not fooling anybody: so '80s!
La Bamba (1987) - Ba-la-la-la-la bamba! Hmm...'80s movies about other eras: a recurring theme
Say Anything (1989) - how dare they take away Lloyd, Diane, and the giant boombox! (cue Peter Gabriel's..."Red Rain"); an '80s movie so hip it feels like a '90s movie (only not Singles)
St. Elmo's Fire (1985) - remember what I just said about Footloose? I take it back.
Steel Magnolias (1989) - no, I'm not crying, I'm just chopping onions...on the couch in front of the TV

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Finding Her Voice: Lake Bell's IN A WORLD...

"The industry does not crave a female sound." - Sam Sotto

Lake Bell, Fred Melamed
With the affordability of digital production, it should be no surprise that a growing number of Hollywood actors, dissatisfied with today's big franchise pictures, are stepping behind the camera to create characters and stories of their own. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed, and starred in last year’s sharply amusing Don Jon; Zach Braff recently released his follow-up to Garden State, Wish I Was Here; and James Franco seems to turn out something new (if usually unwatchable) every other month.

The ranks of women initiating their own projects is also growing, even in an industry as male-dominated as Hollywood's. Though mostly working in the indie and low-budget spheres, there are a number of actresses who write (or more often co-write) their own films, such as Brit Marling, Krysten Ritter, and Katie Aselton, with the occasional breakout success of a Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) or critical acclaim of a Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks).

But with exceptions like Aselton (The Freebie, Black Rock), Jennifer Westfeldt (Friends with Kids) and former actress Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely), very few have made the transition to the director's chair as confidently as Lake Bell, who wrote, directed, and starred in 2013’s laugh-out-loud funny, In a World…, making its Netflix streaming debut.