Monday, July 28, 2014

Expiration Watch: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

The Final Countdown was completely off my radar when it cruised into theaters back in 1980. That may have had something to do with a little film called The Empire Strikes Back, which all the kids were scrambling to see. It also may have been due to Countdown's starsKirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, and Katharine Ross--not being the sort to lure my younger self into theaters. Add in the lack of wham!-pow! special effects or the interstellar scenery Hollywood was already making all the kiddies crave, and my lack of awareness is even more understandable.

But the fact that I didn't discover this smart, ambitious science fiction film until now I lay squarely at the feet of that awful 1986 song of the same name (whose shrill, hair-band chorus still makes me shudder in embarrassment for the entire decade). Because as it turns out, The Final Countdown is an admirable attempt at the kind of time-travel scenario found in an early Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode (such as "The Last Flight" or "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," for those in the know).

The movie's central premise is simple: What if a modern-day aircraft carrier slipped through time and found itself in the waters near Pearl Harbor, on December 6, 1941the day before the Japanese attack?

Friday, July 25, 2014

July Expiration Watch: Fun While They Lasted

Still haven't watched the pet-zombie flick, Fido? What about Peter Bogdanovich's classic 1973 comedy, Paper Moon (reviewed here)? Or the darkly imaginative The City of Lost Children, from the duo who created the brilliant Delicatessen? If not, you better get to it, because those and other recently added titles are about to expire, including one of the better entries in the Star Trek series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (which arrived only this month, in case you're feeling a sense of deja vu).

The City of Lost Children
You may also want to get cracking on a number of other new-ish titles already earmarked for the big sleep, such as the two ZAZ* comedies, Airplane! and Top Secret!, which redefined big-screen zaniness in the 1980s; Mel Gibson's Braveheart, which helped redefine movie violence in the 1990s; and 1969's Easy Rider, which redefined youth culture, the movie industry, and Jack Nicholson's career, all in one smoke-filled swoop.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Joy of Conversation: STUCK BETWEEN STATIONS

There are a lot of obscure indies lurking in the recesses of Netflix Instant, many of which, sadly, are forgettable exercises in predictability (how many tragic tales of junkie strippers do we really need?). So it's a real treat to find one as accomplished and entertaining as 2011's Stuck Between Stations.

Taking place over a single night in downtown Minneapolis, the film follows two former high-school acquaintances (Sam Rosen and Zoe Lister-Jones) getting to know each other as each confronts a personal crisis.

Casper, a U.S. soldier on leave from Afghanistan, is home for a few days to deal with his father's death. Meanwhile, graduate student Rebecca faces the messy blowback of an affair with her comparative-lit professor (played by Michael Imperioli). It's been ten years since these two last saw each other, and a mix of curiosity and attraction finds them wandering from one nocturnal gathering place to the nexta bar, a party, an indoor circus, a convenience store, an empty playground. Between encounters with a handful of other characters, they catch each other up on where their lives have taken them and what kind of adults they've become.

Monday, July 14, 2014

July Highlights: Slow on the Update

No two ways about it: there were some pretty good additions to the streaming catalog this month (even if it's taken me longer than usual to note them). I've been finding it tricky to do much more than update the new and expiring lists this summer, but in place of a GONE FISHIN' sign, how about we break down the best of the new titles into more manageable chunks? We'll start with the prestige pics, which include numerous multi-Oscar winners, and work our way through the classics, the so-bad-they're-good, the rewatchables, and the returned. And just to mix things up, we'll put each list in chronologicalas opposed to the usual alphaorder.

PRESTIGE PICS
Patton (1970) - George C. Scott kills it as the erstwhile general, in an Oscar-winning script by Francis Ford Coppola
On Golden Pond (1981) - Jane and Henry Fonda team up with Katherine Hepburn; a bit mawkish but well-acted and beautifully filmed
Sophie's Choice (1982) - Meryl Streep in the first of her many world-changing performances
Gandhi (1982) - Richard Attenborough directs Ben Kingsley in this epic Oscar-winning tale
Eight Men Out (1988) - John Sayles guides a stellar ensemble cast (John Cusack, David Strathairn, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd) in this understated, intriguing account of the infamous "Black Sox" Scandal
Philadelphia (1993) - Tom Hanks shows he's serious, nabbing his first Oscar for Best Actor in Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama, which also stars Denzel Washington
Dead Man Walking (1995) - Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, more Oscars
City Of God (2002) - Searing, must-see drama set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, filled with incredible filmmaking and unforgettable performances by a non-professional cast
Venus (2006) - Peter O'Toole in a late-career performance as an aging actor who finds himself falling for a young model. But will she fall for him back?
The Master (2012) - Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams all got nominated for Oscars in this latest exercise in intensity from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

June Expiration Watch: Art of the Tease

Turns out some of the more impressive additions to Netflix Instant these last few months were little more than loaners. I'm not really sure the point of acquiring streaming rights to a film for only two or three months (why not six? or a year?), but if you were excited by such recent additions as The Terminator, Chinatown, Angel Heart, and classic Kubrick and Scorsese--not to mention the perennially peripatetic James Bond films--then you better get your licks in while you can.

And since no one else seems to be tracking this, here are the most notable films that debuted on the service in recent months that are now expiring:



Arrived in May

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
James Bond Films (list below)

Arrived in April

Angel Heart (1987)
Bad Company (1972)
Chinatown (1974) - review
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - review
Dragonslayer (1981)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
The Odd Couple (1968)
Roger Dodger (2002)
Spanglish (2004)
Rocky (1976) + sequels
The Running Man (1987)
The Terminator (1984)

Arrived in March

As Good As It Gets (1997)
Dr. Strangelove (1964) - review
Gattaca (1997)
Taxi Driver (1976)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

New in June: Go Big or Go Home

Netflix continues to bolster its back catalog of important directors. There are new additions this month from Woody Allen (Annie Hall), Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes), Howard Hawks (El Dorado), Steven Spielberg (1941), and three more from Robert Altman, not to mention the return of those itinerant Francis Ford Coppola films that never seem to stick around for more than a month or two. And in the No News Is Good News department, the handful of James Bond movies that showed up last month remain availablea first in the year-plus since this blog began. Bond titles, as many of you know, usually vanish after 30 days. But one of the bigger stories in June is the streaming debut of a movie as infamous as it was unavailable (at least in the U.S.), and as underrated as it was underseenthe one, the only:

Ishtar (1987)

"Honest and popular don't go hand in hand"
An early example of a movie reviewed for its budget rather than its quality, Ishtar sits only a notch below Heaven's Gate in terms of the critical scorn and audience indifference hurled its way. It may not have ruined a studio, but it certainly helped ruin the directorial career of Elaine May (who also wrote it), and long served as one of a handful of poster children symbolizing Hollywood excess prior to today's Tentpole Era. Me, I've always thought the movie got a bum rap. Having seen it during its initialextremely brieftheatrical run, I remember being puzzled by the critical pummeling. Certainly it wasn't The Greatest Comedy Ever, but it was clever, entertaining, and silly in equal portions. Essentially a big-budget homage to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road pictures (anyone remember those?), it revels in the absurdity of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, as two of the world's worst songwriters, getting dragged into an international crisis involving the CIA, gunrunners, and Middle Eastern revolutionaries. Hoffman and Beatty have a blast playing against type (Beatty is hopeless with the ladies), bringing real zest to their off-key interpretations of the deliberately awful Paul Williams songs they're meant to have written. Some of it may be dragged out and, at times (yes), excessive, but like the characters in a Will Ferrell or Farrelly Brothers movie, these are very smart people playing stupid, and most of the time they get it rightespecially Charles Grodin, whose sly underplaying steals every scene he's in.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

May Expiration Watch: Breaking It Down

An interesting mix of titles are expiring this month, which I'll group loosely into three categories:

Not Charlie's Angels

1. Going to Extremes

In the mood to have your mind bent, broiled, or otherwise contorted into a WTF curlicue? Any one of these films will leave you variously scratching your head, choking on your popcorn, or considering life in a monastery.

Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Abel Ferrara directs Harvey Keitel in this intense tale of a New York cop battling his inner demons in the original Sin City (i.e., NYC in the early '90s).

Deadly Blessing (1981)
Gorgeous 1970s actress Maren Jensen (Athena in the original Battlestar Galactica) in one of only two movies she starred in before leaving showbiz. This one, a creepy horrorfest directed by Wes Craven, co-stars a young Sharon Stone and an old Ernest Borgnine sporting a Quaker beard. (For trivia buffs, Jensen's other starring role was in the even more obscure Beyond the Reef., a.k.a. Sharkboy of Bora Bora.)

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Kinky horror madness from the king of extreme himself, director Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States, Women in Love). Featuring the unlikely cast of Amanda Donohue, Hugh Grant, and (Holy '80s, Batman!) Catherine Oxenberg.

Friday, May 23, 2014

More Than a Pretty Face: MISS FISHER'S MURDER MYSTERIES

I admit it: mysteries, crime procedurals, and courtroom dramas—with their rote formulas and seemingly predetermined outcomes—tend to trigger my yawn reflex. I prefer stories with characters less bound by the strictures of narrative destiny. It may only be an illusion concocted by a clever writer, but I need to believe a character can at any moment do something that will surprise me, turn the story on its head, or at the very least make me believe the conclusion isn't preordained. And, with apologies to Columbo, TV murder mysteries are about as predictable as it gets: someone is killed, the hero investigates, and, by way of wits and the overcoming of obstacles, the killer is apprehended—all within a neatly wrapped hour. Except by that point I've usually reached for the remote.


But then I got my first glimpse of Miss Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) Fisher. Sleek and mischievous behind glossy lipstick and jewels, brandishing a pearl-handled revolver and bright blue eyes and that fatal Louise Brooks bob, she made me forget all about my impatience with overly ritualized storytelling. Flappers with perfectly structured cheekbones trump snobbery every time, leaving me little choice but to spool up the first episode of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Instant Classic: PAPER MOON

When Paper Moon was first released, in 1973, it was already a throwback. Compared with other great films of that amazing yearThe Exorcist, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, Serpico, American Graffiti (among so many others)it must have seemed downright archaic. Part buddy film, road movie, and picaresque, the film's contrasty black-and-white cinematography, long takes, and classical storytelling techniques ensured its status as an instant period piece. And yet this jaunty cross between The Sting (also 1973), The Grapes of Wrath, and The Little Rascals, with an unlikely love story at its center, became a sizable hit and remains one of the more purely enjoyable movie experiences.

As any student of film will tell you, for a few brief years in the early 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich was God. After cutting his teeth as an actor, Esquire film critic, and eager acolyte of low-budget king Roger Corman (for whom he directed 1967's Targets), Bogdanovich took the cinematic world by storm with his morose, artful adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel, The Last Picture Show (1971). Critical hosannas greeted the cocky wunderkind, whose devotion to his Old Hollywood idolsnotably John Ford, Orson Welles, and Howard Hawkswas reflected in every carefully composed frame of his black-and-white potboiler.

Monday, May 5, 2014

New in May: Getting Adventurous

Minya, can you hear me?
If you like action and adventure, then this is your month. Perhaps in an effort to compete with Hollywood's big spring releases, Netflix is bulking up on its escapist fare. From the high cheese of Fantastic Voyage and all things Godzilla (including Rodan!) to the thrills of the Romancing the Stone flicks and the artful splatter of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, there are any number of ways to get your streaming action groove on. Oh, and did I mention the latest return of Bond, James Bond? Yep, 007 is back again (some of him, anyway), although if recent history is any guide, he won't be around for long—so take advantage of that license to kill before it inevitably gets revoked. (Click here for an earlier rundown of select Bond titles.)

Raquel, I'm over here!
There's a little something for every taste, from every decade since the 1950s. Want to gawk at a miniaturized Raquel Welch, shrunk down and wetsuited to enter a dying man's bloodstream? Apparently, a lot of people did in 1966, which is where the aforementioned Fantastic Voyage comes in. Feeling the urge to bone up on the many moods and manifestations of Godzilla before the latest remake hits the big screen? Then plan to spend a lot of time sitting in front of the little screen, because over half a dozen Godzilla films have reemerged from the earth's core after being buried in January. Most of these are pretty crappy (including what's arguably the worst of all, Godzilla's Revenge), but if you take your monsters seriously—and prefer to avoid a talking baby Godzillathen stick with the first installment, Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) or 1964's Godzilla vs. Mothra. Or, go ahead, queue up Godzilla's Revenge. As long as you're prepared to uncork a bottle of Awwws (and guff-awws) to randomly hurl at your screen. Talking baby monsters, indeed...

Saturday, April 26, 2014

April Expiration Watch: Looking for Preston

As we begin this final weekend of April, it's time to once again take stock of the noteworthy titles leaving Netflix streaming. It's not the most painful list of deletions to come this blog's way, but some of them will sting, especially the handful of 1970s films that arrived only three months ago. Those titles, singled out here back in February, are Harold and Maude, North Dallas Forty, and Marathon Man, all of which contain the welcome grit and unpredictability that were hallmarks of 1970s cinema (and which seem so hard to come by amid today's endless sequels and remakes).

Other Me Decade flicks ascending to Netflix Heaven (or is it only Limbo?) are Paul Mazursky's touching and funny Harry and Tonto, which won Oscars for Mazursky's screenplay and Art Carney's lead performance; the original, made-for-TV, Brian's Song--the first movie to introduce my younger brother and me to cry-bonding when we were kids; and tough-guy director Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sara, a western starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine.

Stanwyck, Fonda
All of the above will be disappearing in the final seconds of April 30, as will a couple of bona fide classics from even further back: Preston Sturges' screwball gem, The Lady Eve (1941), and Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959). The Wilder film--which has streamed only since January--should be familiar to even casual classic-movie (or Marilyn Monroe) fans, but the lesser-known Sturges flick remains an essential entry among screwball comedies of the 1930s and '40s. In fact, the genre was all but played out by 1940, until the man who cut his teeth as a screenwriter in the previous decade convinced a wary studio to let him direct, giving him the chance to take his unique mix of verbal wit and physical comedy to dizzying heights.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New in April: Revival of the Fittest

With the possible exception of zombies and radiation-breathing monsters, everyone loves a good resurrection, right? Especially if it means a second month in a row of Netflix reviving so many great titles from expiration lists past. It's tough to beat last month's bounty, with all its returning classics and Altman movies, but April's not too shabby either. Among personal faves I'll go ahead and plug Barton Fink (review) and Chinatown (review), both of which have already received attention here but can never be watched too often (and really, if you still haven't seen Chinatown, I'm not sure why you're even finishing this sentence. Go! Stream!).

Marilyn Monroe--and musical--fans also get some love this month, with renewed doses of There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the latter representing Monroe's second collaboration with director Howard Hawks (the first--Monkey Business (1952)--is already available). That brings MM's presence on Netflix to nine titles, and Hawks' to four. And while this still leaves a serious streaming gap in the classics department, it's a step in the right direction.

A very special episode of Family Feud
You could even argue that these last couple months represent a conscious replenishment of many director and star catalogs. For instance, the returns of Titanic and The Terminator mark a beefing up of director James Cameron's filmography on the site, providing backstory for the already-streaming Terminator 2--and simultaneously adding to the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ah-nuld, who recently saw the addition of The Last Stand and Last Action Hero to Instant, can now also be spotted sprinting through The Running Man--one of the more entertaining examples of his late '80s output (and one that fits neatly between two similarly themed films, 1974's Rollerball and 2012's The Hunger Games).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

March Expiration Watch: More Musical Chairs

I'm hard-pressed to find any rhyme or reason in the licensing agreements between Netflix and the studios and distributors who provide its content. You'd think that if you're going to pay for the rights to stream, say, an all-time classic like Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, you'd want it to stick around for more than a couple of months, right? And yet, after debuting in February, this brilliant Hollywood satire is now returning from whence it came (to some virtual equivalent of a studio vault?). The same goes for Play It Again, Sam (review) and Breakfast at Tiffany's, both of which reappeared in January after expiring last year and are once again exiting stage left. Finishing equally brief stays are the underappreciated Racing with the Moon and Catch-22--bringing to mind those on-again/off-again Coppola films last seen in January.

Olivia D'abo, Josh Hamilton
At least Darren Aronofsky's Pi (review) got to stick around for a full year before it gets the axe on the 31st [update: it's been renewed], which is more than can be said for 1995's Kicking and Screaming, which showed up less than 30 days ago and is already getting its pink slip. It's hard to believe the streaming rights to such a small film cost all that much, so why not pay for a longer-term license? Else why bother? After all, despite its many charms, Noah Baumbach's first feature is hardly the kind of prestige flick that will get people signing up for Netflix in droves. Such a brief visit seems far more appropriate (if cynical) for a recent blockbuster, no? Netflix could even build a marketing campaign around it: "Now, for one month only, catch up on all the X-Men movies before the new sequel's premiere!" Heck, do that several times a year prior to big summer and holiday releases, and it would boost business for all concerned (and Netflix might even be able to score a licensing discount in exchange for the joint publicity).

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

New March Titles: Exiles' Return

So many new and returning titles this month! Whether by accident or design, Netflix seems to be making up for some of the recent deletions from its catalog. Already back from the January 1 "great purge" are a number of classics including Easy Rider (1969), Roman Holiday (1953), Serpico (1973), and True Grit (1969), along with popular favorites The Bad News Bears (1976), Dirty Dancing (1987), and As Good As It Gets (1997). Fans of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman will also be pleased to see Capote (2005) return to the fold.


Also returning: a veritable slew of Robert Altman films, from the good to the great to the misguided, bringing the director's total number of streaming titles to an impressive nine. No telling how long they'll stick around this time, but must-sees are The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974); should-sees are Streamers (1983), a stark, underappreciated adaptation of David Rabe's play, and the Tim Roth tour de force, Vincent & Theo (1990). In the "misguided but rarely seen" category is O.C. & Stiggs (1985), Altman's satirical attempt at a teen comedy that remains fascinating despite its flaws. This intermittently funny oddity is worth watching for Dennis Hopper alone, who seems to be reprising his stoner-photographer character from Apocalypse Now, complete with a "Ride of the Valkyries" attack. Martin Mull, Ray Walston, and Jane Curtin also join the fun. Bizarre? Entertaining? Misunderstood? I can guarantee you at least two.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February Expiration Watch: Spreading the Pain

Netflix offers up its inevitable end-of-month misery to movie lovers in the next couple of days, pulling the plug on a wide mix of titles that many of us would rather stay right there in our queues, thank you very much. Certainly there's consolation to be had from the coming return of a number of lamented losses (including several by Robert Altman), but it will be tough to say goodbye to the pulpy-but-fun Black Snake Moan (2007), the goofy antics of John Cleese in Clockwise (1986), the corny romance of An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), the shocking irreverence (and sad truths) of Bill Maher's Religulous (2008), and even the well-crafted do-goodism of Kevin Costner's undeniably entertaining Dances with Wolves (1990).

The pain is distributed evenly, at least: if you like classic Hollywood stars, then take a last look at Clara Bow in It (1927), Marilyn Monroe in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), Shirley MacLaine in Woman Times Seven (1967), and, um, that giant blimp in Black Sunday (1977).

If you're a fan of Pam Grier blaxpoitation flicks, then this month's expirations may especially hurt. Three of her better-known movies are on the chopping block: Coffy (1973), Friday Foster (1975), and Sheba, Baby (1975). Fortunately, she'll still maintain a respectable streaming presence, with her "cage" pictures and a number of more recent actioners and melodramas sticking around, including Quentin Tarantino's latter-day ode to her, Jackie Brown (1997).