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.

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 variety and inventiveness. 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.