Sunday, November 17, 2013

November Comings and Goings (2013)

It's been an interesting month on Netflix Instant, for reasons both good and bad. Among the bad is the usual loss of some very worthy titles on October 31 (see previous post), but unlike in past months, the attrition has continued into mid month. It also seems to be taking an especially high toll on foreign films, a few of which are indisputable classics.

What else would you call 8 1/2, The Bicycle Thief, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? All of these, surprisingly, expired on 11/15 (note: The Bicycle Thief has since returned). Meanwhile, on 11/20 we'll lose a number of former Netflix mainstays, including the intriguing, Memento-like romantic drama, Novo (2002), starring a very easy-on-the-eyes cast headed by Eduardo Noriega and Anna Mouglalis; Russian Dolls (2005), Cedric Klapisch's sequel to his young-bohemians-in-Barcelona ensemble comedy, L'Auberge Espagnole; Jean-Claude Brisseau's controversial, sexually explicit Exterminating Angels (2006); and a personal favorite, Sex Is Comedy.

Sex Is Comedy (2002)

A kind of hothouse, female version of Truffaut's Day for Night, Sex Is Comedy is Catherine Breillat's witty look behind the scenes of a sexually charged coming-of-age film not unlike her own Fat Girl. Getting to the heart of the dynamic between a director (Anne Parrilaud) and her emotionally needy actors, the film displays in hand-wringing detail the games and manipulations that become basic currency in the negotiations surrounding a movie sex scene. The performances are excellent and subtle all around (especially Parrilaud's channeling of Breillat herself), the humor is smart and sly, and the emotional resonance by film's end comes as a welcome surprise. This is one of the few Breillat films that feels less like an exercise or political statement and more an honest-to-goodness movie, with an actual beating heart. Yet it still gets across its message, in some ways making it the lighthearted antithesis of Brisseau's above-mentioned Exterminating Angels, a semi-autobiographical fantasia that follows a similar, more explicit—and potentially more inflammatory—path. Come to think of it, these two films would make an excellent double feature. But be warned: Angels can be pretentious and a bit baffling in that French arthouse way, and the line between sexual exploitation and commenting on said exploitation has never been dicier. Prepare to squirm.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

Expiring a day earlier (November 19) is Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a grand, sprawling, often surreal biopic of French composer/performer/ provocateur Serge Gainsbourg. That makes it a 2-for-1 deal for fans of French cinema and classic French pop. The film is, fittingly, a messy, self-consciously arty look at the musician's life, from his precocious childhood as a Jew among Nazis to his 1960s and '70s heydays as a perpetual enfant terrible and eventual French national treasure. Along the way he's shown playing Beast to all manner of Beauties, including Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. Eric Elmosnino does a remarkable job of impersonating Gainsbourg, showing us the complex mix of arrogance and insecurity that fueled the man's talent—and self-destructive tendencies. Director Joann Sfar, a former cartoonist, brings a surreal pop sensibility to the film in an attempt to personify Gainsbourg's dueling impulses. It doesn't always work—and the film may at times be baffling to anyone unfamiliar with Gainsbourg's too-big-for-one-movie histoire—but it's a refreshing change from the standard biopic, and offers enough eye and ear candy to see you through the uneven pacing and sudden jumps in narrative.

Elle Fanning and Val Kilmer, in Coppola's Twixt
Offsetting the above losses somewhat is the gain (or return) of many noteworthy titles, including a surprising number of decent flicks from the past year or so. These include Computer Chess (2013), a low-budget 1980s period piece shot on old video cameras and directed by Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha); Robert Zemeckis' Flight (2012), starring Denzel Washington; The Lifeguard (2013), a dramatic showcase for the usually bubbly Kristen Bell (which I mostly liked despite its critical drubbing); Robot & Frank (2012), a well-regarded oddity I missed in theaters and have been looking forward to seeing; Twixt (2012), the latest from the great Francis Coppola, even if this curiosity (starring Val Kilmer!) is less than his best; Skyfall (2012), the latest of the James Bond movies and certainly one of the better ones; Frances Ha (2013), an engaging black-and-white indie starring the always watchable Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with director Noah Baumbach (who also directed her in the excellent Greenberg); and last but not least, the notorious Sharknado (2013), the batshit-crazy horror sleeper that was the toast of the Twitter-sphere earlier this year and experienced exactly the kind of success Snakes on a Plane didn't.

An eclectic mix of latter-day classics have also found their way onto Instant. There's the low-key sci-fi drama Silent Running (1971), in which Bruce Dern plays a botanist tending to the last of Earth's greenery (in space). Marlon Brando, in the performance of his career, teaches Maria Schneider a new use for butter in the groundbreaking Last Tango in Paris (1972). A young Mel Gibson displays early acting chops in the Australian Gallipoli (1981), a solid little drama based on an actual wartime court-martial. Then there's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), a wackadoodle sci-fi comedy that gives new meaning to "offbeat" and "too cool for school." Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, and Jeff Goldblum anchor what, in any other dimension, would have been a successful movie franchise. Alas, we can only wonder what Buckaroo and his crew would have done in future installments.

Ruger Hauer shows off his (cough) sword

Paul Verhoeven, master of the extreme, directs Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Flesh + Blood (1985), a medieval actioner that's violent and bloody and far from perfect, yet still fascinating like so many of Verhoeven's movies. This would be the bridge between his Dutch films and the Hollywood extravaganzas to come (his next film was Robocop). And finally, there's Cameron Crowe's early, angst-filled romantic masterpiece, Say Anything... (1989), which did nearly as much for boomboxes and Peter Gabriel as for John Cusack's career. If this comedy doesn't bring a wistful smile from you (whether you're male or female, young or old), then you'd better get to a doctor, because clearly you're dead.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)
The American (2010)
Broadcast News (1987)
Caligula (1979)
Computer Chess (2013)
Crystal Fairy (2013)
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Flesh + Blood (1985)
Flight (2012)
Frances Ha (2013)
Gallipoli (1981)
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
The Lifeguard (2013)
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Robot & Frank (2012)
Russian Ark (2002)
Say Anything... (1989)
Sharknado (2013)
Silent Running (1971)
Skyfall (2012)
Twixt (2012)
Urban Cowboy (1980)

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