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 eightamounting 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


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.)

Monday, July 28, 2014


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 1950s suburban 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.

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 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 Scorsesenot to mention the perennially peripatetic James Bond filmsthen 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


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.