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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

New in October, Pt. 2: Something for Everyone

Now that we've gotten all those Woody Allen titles out of the way, what about the rest of this month's arrivals? They're actually a pretty extensive—and diverse—group and include a number of welcome returnees, some of which snuck back onto Instant in the final days of September. Among those are 1994's tear-jerking basketball doc, Hoop Dreams; arguably the best of the Merchant-Ivory productions, A Room with a View (1986); and the less well-remembered (except by avid '80s cable watchers), The Wild Geese (1978), a satisfyingly virile action yarn from director Andrew McLaglen, starring the Stallone, Statham, and Schwarzenegger of their day: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Roger Moore.

Harris, Burton, Moore
As fun as it violent and cool-headed, The Wild Geese is filled with real men doing manly things, and doing them the way God intended—without computer effects. See all those figures parachuting down into enemy territory? Those really are guys in parachutes, jumping out of real airplanes. And the explosions? Actual on-camera fireballs. I mean, yeesh, kids today with their fancy computer-generated men and airplanes and clouds and water that's never quite convincing. We're talkin' old school here, okay? Back when stars could actually be expendable. None of this mamby-pamby digital blood, or worse, fake animals (hire a deer wrangler already!) or talking dogs, or...

Sorry, um, where was I?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

New in October, Pt. 1: Getting Woody

Among an already healthy batch of incoming titles this month, a highlight for many will be the little-heralded arrival of 13 Woody Allen films, spanning the 20 years from 1971 to 1991. Combined with the already streaming Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), this means Netflix now offers all but four of Allen's titles from those decades. Granted, three of those missing are among his best—Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)—but with a filmography as relentless and wide-ranging as Allen's that still leaves enough chestnuts to make nearly any other director, living or dead, feel a pang of envy.

The '70s and '80s were fertile times for Allen, heralding not only his earliest and, to many, funniest comedies, but the commercial and artistic breakthroughs of Annie Hall and Manhattan, the technical tour-de-force of Zelig, and the warmly nostalgic Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Entering the 1980s, Allen went on an artistic tear that few, including himself, have rivaled in terms of sheer inventiveness and variety. Working side by side with legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis from 1977 to 1985, the former TV writer and standup comic was definitely feeling his cinematic oats (even if he sometimes wore his influences too unabashedly on his sleeve).

This is the first time since starting this blog (18 months ago!) that I've witnessed such a large dump of one director's titles onto Instant. I have no idea if they'll be sticking around or will emulate the James Bond model of one-month-and-done. For those who can't stand the sight (or sound) of Woody Allen, or have a gripe with his personal life, well...you've probably already stopped reading this. But for fans and anyone curious about the director's early, often groundbreaking work, the following highlights should help you navigate a group of films which, while only a fraction of Allen's total, could proudly be called a complete filmography by just about anyone else.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

September Expiration Watch: Roads Not Taken

This month's expiration list looks mighty familiareither because we've seen most of these titles expire before or because they only recently made their way to streaming. In the latter category, a good half of those leaving on September 30 arrived in either July or last October, which means a lot of three-month and one-year contracts are up.

Will they be renewed? Hard to say. Although given the resilience of Netflix repeaters like Mean Girls (2004), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and Legends of the Fall (1994), I'm guessing they're in that sweet spot of popular-but-not-too-expensive that will assure a return.

I'm less confident about those perennials that have been around so long it seemed they'd be available forever: titles like The African Queen (1951), Battlestar Galactica, Law & Order, and The War Zone (1999)a motley mix, for sure, but a high-quality group whose absence will make Netflix Instant just a little less special. Also unlikely to return anytime soon are big-ticket items The Hunger Games (2012) and Safe (2012), which are wrapping up what appear to be 18-month contracts.

Meanwhile, let's hope the more outlying titles like Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Mädchen in Uniform (1958), and Don't Look Now (1973) are shown some renewed love in the coming months. There can never be too many classics on Instant, as far as I'm concerned—or too many Coppola or Roeg films.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A-Tweeting We Will Go

For those of you who occasionally dip a toe (or even a whole leg) into the Twitterverse, I've just started a WoNN-only account that you might be interested in, @NetflixNow1. I'd previously used my personal handle for announcing new blog posts, but I was feeling more and more limited in what I could tweet without seeming schizophrenic.

The truth is, over the course of any week there are all sorts of Netflix-related tidbits I'd like to share with all of you, but they aren't usually deserving of the time needed to write (or read) a full blog post. You knowupdates to the new and expiring lists, links to pertinent news stories, brief announcements about titles to watch out for, thoughts on movies good and bad, etc.the kinds of things that are perfect in short bursts. And, as regular Twitter users know, it's also an easy way to exchange thoughts and ideas, especially with those of you too shy to leave comments here (or who have weird browsers that won't let them).

So if that sounds like your kind of thing, and you'd like a bit of added value to your WoNN experience beyond a simple subscription, by all means click on that inviting-looking Follow button below. Then, tweet your friends.

Or as henchman Harry Wilson said to Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, in Some Like It Hot:

"Join us..."


#followme #itseasy #orelse

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Swing First, Ask Questions Later: MINNIE & MOSKOWITZ

There are a couple of things to bear in mind while watching the spiky romance that is John Cassavetes' Minnie & Moskowitz (1971). First of all, if you view it through eyes that are even remotely politically correct, you're sure to be horrifiedthe characters (usually the men) resort to violence and unnerving, stalkery behavior on a regular basis. Which is where the second consideration comes in: this lovestruck free-for-all is intended as a scrappy homage to 1930s screwball comedy, so it's as much cartoon as it is romancethe violence, despite the gritty 1970s textures and vérité-like camerawork, shouldn't be taken too seriously.

In fact, as far as Cassavetes films go, Minnie & Moskowitz is considered a frothy romp. But like the director's other, more serious work (such as Faces and A Woman Under the Influence), it offers its share of darkness and disillusionment amid the romancewhich makes it all the more affecting. In some ways it's a shaggier, less clenched forebear to Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, one of the few films it's comparable to. I like its scatterbrained quality, its unpredictability, the tossed-off nature of its handheld camera and its unusual editing rhythms (scenes often end a beat or two before you expect). I also like the growling, dissatisfied incidental characters who unexpectedly emerge from the background to claim flesh-and-blood lives before ceding the spotlight back to the film's stars.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Expiration Watch: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA


Tick, tick, tick...

Somehow, one of the greatest science fiction shows of all time is expiring from Netflix at the end of the month. How can that be? By the gods, Netflix, have you no heart?

Of course, all of you have watched it by now. Right? Um, you haven't? Then it's time to get on it! Think you've got what it takes to binge your way through 75 episodes in just three weeks? That's only...let's see...a tad over 3-1/2 episodes per day, including a couple of weekends for extra-large portions. You don't really need all that food and air, do you?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

New in September: It's All About Pacing

This month's new offerings are a bit deceptive. On the one hand, most of the titles showing up in the first few days of September don't inspire a lot of excitement. There was the return of a number of on-again, off-again classics (welcome back, Ms. Hepburn and Messrs. Cooper and Wayne), a bunch of 1980s and '90s comedies and sci-fi/horror, and a handful of returning kid flicks. So far, so predictable. But once we look forward, things start to get interesting, with the debuts of a number of recent films that are undeniably top tier, as well as new seasons of quite a few notable TV shows.

Robin Williams down but not out

Flubber
But let's take a moment to break out the older and returning titles. First off, last month's loss of two Robin Williams movies, Popeye and The Fisher King, was certainly bad timing given the actor's own untimely departure. But Netflix seems to be making up for that with the joint arrival of Barry Levinson's beloved wartime comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), and 1997's Flubber, a serviceable remake of Jerry Lewis' Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). Which means the late Mr. Williams hasn't been totally left out in the cold, even if his incoming titles are arguably a downgrade from the outgoing. Perhaps the Michael Keaton comedy two-fer of  Mr. Mom (1983) and Multiplicity (1996) will help balance the scales?

Hello, kiddies

It's also more or less a wash as far as family films go, with last month's expirations being offset by a number of  (mostly returning) titles. Among those are the above mentioned Flubber, Barry Sonnenfeld's witty remake of TV's The Addams Family (1991), Disney's Fox's animated Anastasia (1997) and live-action Swiss Family Robinson (1960), Mel Brooks' Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs (1987), Pee-Wee Herman's second big-screen appearance, in Big Top Pee-Wee (1988), and the welcome return of Martin Scorsese's sumptuous ode to cinema, Hugo (2011). Also making its way to streaming is that rite-of-passage film for generations past, Old Yeller (1957), which may be a bit musty but should still leave a tot or two bawling by the end credits.

Monday, August 25, 2014

August Expiration Watch: Cleaning House

It looks like a number of three- and six-month contracts are up this month, with Robert Altman and two recently deceased stars suffering the worst of it. Say farewell to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance in Capote (2005), which returned in March, as well as two very different sides of Robin Williams, in Popeye (1980) and The Fisher King (1991). The former was directed by Altman, who is about to see his impressive catalog of streaming titles reduced by nineamounting to wholesale cinecide. That means that, along with Popeye, this will be your last chance to check out That Cold Day in the Park (1969) and Fool for Love (1985), both of which debuted in June, plus the five titles that arrived with such a splash back in March.

Among expiring classics there's Howard Hawks' El Dorado (1966), a June arrival that's already being put out to pasture (for shame, Netflix), plus a pair from that master of sarcastic wit, Billy Wilder, whose streaming oeuvre will now be minus The Seven Year Itch (1955), starring Marilyn Monroe (sporting her iconic white dress), and The Apartment (1960), with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine setting the standard for adult romantic comedies.

1970s action flicks are also taking a hit, with the pending expiration of two recent Pam Grier entries, Black Mama, White Mama (1972) and Bucktown (1975), as well as the Clint Eastwood mountain-climbing thriller, The Eiger Sanction (1975). But the real '70s gem may be Charley Varrick (1973), starring Walter Matthau and directed by Don Siegel, the tough-as-nails director who also gave us Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Gun Runners, and Dirty Harry, among others. Matthau is at his unflappable, efficient best as a bank robber who finds himself in possession of mob money and being tracked by a cold-as-ice killer, played by a scary Joe Don Baker. Gritty and merciless, this one was an early influence on Quentin Tarantino (who apparently cribbed a line of dialogue for Pulp Fiction). Keep an eye out for Sheree North, as a wised-up photographer, and Felicia Farr, a.k.a. Mrs. Jack Lemmon, as a mobster's mistress. As far as I'm concerned, Farr didn't make nearly enough movies after Billy Wilder's great Kiss Me, Stupid (no longer streaming, but reviewed here). The only thing I had trouble buying: Matthau as heartthrob. Or maybe I'm missing something?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trying to Connect: TOUCHY FEELY

With its potentially overripe premisea Seattle massage therapist finds herself repelled by contact with human skin, while her dentist brother discovers a talent for healing patients with only touchTouchy Feely is best approached as a kind of modern, magic-realist fable. Writer/director Lynn Shelton, a Seattle filmmaker whose talents have graced such films as Your Sister's Sister and TV shows like Mad Men and New Girl, seems aware of the potential for heavyhandedness and treats her characters with a playfulness and generosity that keep the film from getting bogged down in pretension.

I certainly didn't expect it to be so funny (it's listed as a drama), although its humor is of the quirky, slow-burn variety that doesn't always call attention to itself. Much of my own amusement came from Josh Pais' painfully repressed dentist, Paul, who is so clearly uncomfortable in his own skin that even when he finds a measure of contentment it's with a wary distrust of the universe. His social awkwardness makes you squirm even as you laugh in recognition at every subtle twitch and pained smile. He may be a middle-aged dad who interacts with patients on a daily basis, but the man has never learned to be at ease with others.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Good Samaritan

There was a period in the late 1990s when Robin Williams seemed to be making one bad, sappy movie after another. This was between his Oscar-winning turn in 1997's Good Will Hunting and his embrace of darker roles in 2002's Insomnia and One Hour Photo. As a longtime fan I was particularly disappointed to see him in such schmaltz as Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar, and Bicentennial Man. He seemed to be creatively out of gas and working, if not strictly for the paycheck, then from some karmic desire to bring good into the world via syrupy comedy-melodramas. My respect for himas both actor and comedianwas precipitously low. And I know I wasn't alone.

But in early spring of 2000, while living on New York's Upper West Side, something unusual happened. Faced with two winter-deflated tires on my Raleigh M-20, I walked the bicycle to a shop on Columbus and 81st in search of air. But when I arrived, the store was closed, its final customer being escorted to the door. He was a stocky, muscular man with grayish hair, and as he exited I knew almost immediatelyeven under his bike helmet and sunglassesthat it was Robin Williams. And he knew that I knew.

Monday, August 11, 2014

More Expirations, Netflix Gets Sneaky

Not to keep sounding notes of expirational doom, but when a film as brilliant as Memento (2000, reviewed here) is poised to leave Instant in a few short dayseven if it's not at the traditional end-of-monthI'm happy to be called a Netflix nag. It's not the only movie worth checking out that will be expiring on August 14 (11:59 P.M., to be exact). Also getting a premature burial are three history-centric titles, not to mention those that vanished mysteriously on August 1 (addressed after the jump).

Agora (2009)

Although taking place in Alexandria in the 4th century A.D., Agora's not really a sword-and-sandals flick (though there are plenty of both). It's more an intelligent study of religious intolerance and the passing of Classical Antiquity into the first flowering of Christianity, featuring an excellent Rachel Weiss as the enlightened pagan-philosopher Hypatia. Director Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, The Hours) brings a jaundiced view to the Christian hordes sacking and stoning everything in sight, but it's refreshing to see a period film of this scale not caught up in empty-headed spectacle and obligatory CGI nonsense, and with such a strong female at its center. As usual in such an undertaking, the history tends to get fudged, but that doesn't detract from the overall message or the gist of what actually went downand what continues to transpire even in our own, apparently enlightened, age.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Expiration Watch: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

There have been movies based on books, plays, TV shows, news articles and even songs. But Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) must be the first to have been spawned from a classified ad. Granted, as classified ads go, this one was a doozy:


Published in the pages of a ruralist magazine back in 1997, the notice went on to gain notoriety on the Internet as well as on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show. Even before its authorship and veracity were finally accounted for in 2010, its core idea piqued the interest of screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow, who decided to create their own backstory for the ad's mysterious author and spin from it a gently romantic tale. The result was a scruffy, high-concept indie comedy, one sadly scheduled to leave Netflix on August 12 (at 11:59 P.M., for those watching the clock).

Monday, August 4, 2014

New August Titles: Cult of Personality

Downey does Chaplin
Like scanning virtual tea leaves, sometimes it's fun to look for meaning in a particular batch of new Netflix titles. The month of August might easily be called Biography Month given how many titles focus on the life of a singular personage. From documentaries like Hawking (2013), Chasing Shackleton (2014), and Pumping Iron (1977) to fictionalized accounts like Chaplin (1992), Evita (1996), and Prefontaine (1997)--or even movies named after their main characters, such as Sabrina (1954), Rocky (1976), Mad Max (1979), and Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys (1998)--it's tough not to ponder the existence of a guiding hand in the form of some mischievous Netflix programmer or puckish artificial intelligence. (The more conspiracy-minded among you can imagine the Biography Channel staging a behind-the-scenes coup, or at least greasing back-room palms for a bit of devious cross-marketing.)