Wednesday, August 21, 2013

New August Titles (2013)

Among the notable titles joining Netflix Instant this month are a stellar example of '70s sci-fi, the Spike Lee joint of Spike Lee joints, an underrated drama from the writer-director of personal fave The Fabulous Baker Boys, Christopher Nolan in his more forgetful, pre-Dark Knight days, and a bit of unabashed filth from the mind (and groin) of Kevin Smith.

Rollerball (1975) - EXPIRED 9/1/13

Once upon a time, in a decade far, far away, science-fiction movies were built on ideas, not special effects. Before Star Wars changed the rules (and box-office expectations), all you needed to make a sci-fi flick were a respectable actor (say, Sean Connery or Charlton Heston or Robert Duvall), a script with some cautionary message reflecting the day's concerns, a newly built, futuristic-looking mall or campus as your setting, a few cool-looking props and/or model space ships, and maybe a miniature of a domed city. Presto—big-screen dystopian future. Those were the days of Zardoz, Logan's Run, Soylent Green, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and THX-1138, among others. Granted, most are not what you'd call "great" films, but they're all provocative and idiosyncratic (and flawed) in ways that give them an organic charm—something sorely missing from today's machine-stamped blockbusters. Even Rollerball—which posits a future run by benevolent corporations who keep the peace by pitting nations against each other in an internationally sanctioned blood sport—alternates its bursts of violence with hushed, meditative talks about free will and human nature (as well as the random burning of trees as party trick).

James Caan, skating the first wave of his post-Godfather stardom, plays the sport's only superstar, Jonathan E, whose improbable 10-year reign with the world-champion Houston team is making the higher-ups uncomfortable. They want him to retire and, although he resists, will do whatever it takes to change his mind—even turning the game of rollerball into literal bread and circuses. Pitting Caan's stoic, determined athlete (whose coiled stillness reminds me of Derek Jeter) against John Houseman's powerful face of The Energy Corporation, the film becomes as much a story of the little guy taking on a stifling system as a drugged dystopia with touches of '70s weirdness. Director Norman Jewison contrasts the contemplative dialogue scenes with extended, gritty action sequences that provide visceral oompf without today's reliance on frenetic overcutting. You feel the punches, but more importantly, you're able to follow the action. I never could bring myself to see the 2002 remake—considered terrible by most accounts—but from the trailer I can imagine the incomprehensible pile-up it must have been. Anyway, this first Rollerball, with its ominous Bach fugue underscoring the enforced civility beneath the battered heads, still wears the crown of a minor sci-fi classic.

Do the Right Thing (1989) - EXPIRED 1/1/14



Spike Lee can be a maddeningly inconsistent filmmaker, his cinematic vision and creative energy often squandered on scripts that feel a draft or two short of final. But Do the Right Thing, his third feature film, was an early example of what he could achieve when he was firing on all cylinders. A sweltering day-in-the-life of a black Brooklyn neighborhood, everything about this movie seems designed to raise your temperature—physically, emotionally, politically, morally. Bedford-Stuyvesant had long been a poster child for black, disenfranchised New York, and in the 1980s especially it became a flashpoint for racial unrest. Lee provides a vivid, heightened cross-section of one particular Bed-Stuy block, locked in time and place but in many respects still universal in the racial attitudes it portrays. From Rosie Perez's defiant booty-shaking (to "Fight the Power") in the opening credits to the garish rings of Radio Raheem and the oversaturated colors of Ernest Dickerson's stylized cinematography, everything about Do the Right Thing is sweaty and in your face. And that's as it should be. There are times for subtlety in filmmaking and times for staccato poundings to the head and gut. In a city then rocked by crime, murder, and systemic racism, Lee's was a voice bold enough to proclaim itself young, angry, and black. Coming when it did, on the tail end of the Reagan '80s, it bordered on revolutionary, causing no small amount of fear in the white establishment (if no actual riots). But it was also smart, even-handed (the black characters were as flawed as the white), and—this was key—often quite funny, especially in Lee's iconic character of Mookie. With a great ensemble cast, including Danny Aiello as sympathetic pizzeria owner Sal, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and a young Giancarlo Esposito, the film maintains its vibrancy and ability to entertain (as well as shock). It would take more than a decade, until 2002's 25th Hour, for Lee to realize such a coherent expression of his artistic goals again.


Flesh and Bone (1993) - EXPIRED

Flesh and Bone begins and ends with violence. In between it tells of a halting, heartfelt romance shared by two damaged people caught beneath the encroaching shadows of happenstance and fate. Steve Kloves followed up his critically acclaimed directorial debut, The Fabulous Baker Boys, with this difficult-to-categorize drama. Though starring then-hot Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, who were a couple at the time, the film was ignored by audiences and considered a letdown by critics. Kloves, who had danced within the lines of commerciality with Baker Boys, this time strayed too far over, using his big-name cast (including a chilling, post-superstar James Caan as Quaid's dad) to craft a noir-ish fable of a father's sins and the inescapability of the past. The small-town Texas settings reflect the crippled souls of the characters, evoked effectively by the film's leads, including a touching Meg Ryan and a standout Gwyneth Paltrow in the role that got her Hollywood's attention. Quaid's tight-lipped vending machine salesman shares an obvious empathy with Ryan's newly liberated housewife, their on-screen chemistry a rarity among off-screen couples. The film's mood is languid, evocative, with a Sam Shepard-esque vibe, yet it feels close enough to the small tragedies of our own lives to feel more than a simple genre piece. It sticks with you long afterwards. Kloves went on to write the Oscar-nominated script for Wonder Boys before becoming the writer-in-residence for the Harry Potter films. As a huge fan of his intelligent, grown-up dialogue and clean directorial style, I can only hope he'll one day write and direct more films like The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone—even if, given the current fate of such adult fare, they only end up on premium cable.


Memento (2000) - EXPIRED

Most people don't need to be reminded that Christopher Nolan, director of the Dark Knight movies and Inception, first burst onto the scene with this ingenious little nonlinear noir. Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man unable to retain long-term memories but determined to avenge the murder of his wife. Relying on a mix of Polaroids, tattoos, and handwritten notes to himself, Shelby keeps track of the clues that will lead him to the mysterious "John G." The brilliance of the film's conceit is its ability to allow the audience to get inside Shelby's head by dividing the movie into two dovetailing narratives—one in black-and-white that moves forward chronologically, the other in color, moving in the opposite direction. The resulting effect is to keep viewers as disoriented as Shelby, left piecing together the clues themselves while the larger mosaic only slowly takes shape. The performances, cinematography, and editing are all exceptional, but it's the script and Nolan's direction that allow (just barely) the many disparate parts to coalesce into more than a box of random characters and events. When the movie's over—and assuming you were paying attention—the net effect is a mental kick to the groin. Watch, rinse, repeat.

Zack & Miri Make a Porno (2008) - EXPIRED 8/1/14

Along with their girth, potty mouths, and fondness for weed and pop culture, Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen are similar in one other respect: you either like their movies or you don't. In Zack & Miri Make a Porno, Smith, director of Clerks, and Rogen, star of, well, practically every stoner-slacker comedy in the last five years, bring out the best in each other in a raunchy nod to their love of porn and the comedies of Judd Apatow. More story-driven and less riff-bound than Smith's usual fare, Zack & Miri is also decidedly more conventional. But in this case that's a good thing, especially with characters this strong and jokes so good. Rogen and co-star Elizabeth Banks (who more than holds her own) play off each other nicely as down-on-their-luck roommates who decide the only way they can make enough money to pay their bills is to stage a high-end porn film and sell it on the internet. Yes, it's a premise explored in the earlier The Amateurs, but here it gets a more youthful, raunchier spin and a convincing love story at its center. Along with great comic turns by Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Brandon Routh, and Justin Long, Zack & Miri adds a John Waters-level of meta with the casting of former porn star Traci Lords (as "Bubbles"). Despite the movie's unabashed filth, it wears a big heart on its semen-stained sleeve—one reserved not only for the burgeoning romance, but for the hapless, driven, Clerks-like film crew doing whatever it takes to finish a movie in the face of limited resources and little prospect of success. It's the story of every no-budget indie ever made.

AUGUST LIST

48 Hours (1982)
Abduction of Eden (formerly Eden) (2012)
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Breakfast Club (1985)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Downfall (2004) - source of all those Hitler YouTube videos
F/X (1986)
Flesh and Bone (1993)
Greenberg (2010)
Memento (2000)
Paradise Alley (1978)
Rollerball (1975)
Samsara (2011)
Stargate (1994)
Titanic (1997)
Tristana (1970) - Luis Bunuel
You Only Live Once (1937) - Fritz Lang
Zack & Miri Make a Porno (2008)
Zodiac (2007)

James Bond movies, including:

Dr. No (1962)
From Russia with Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Never Say Never Again (1983)
License to Kill (1989)
Goldeneye (1995)

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