Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: A Year in Review

It was a pretty eventful year on Netflix Instant and here at What's On NETFLIX Now?, with lots of good movies coming and going (many of them more than once). For less thorough readers and those who only discovered the blog in recent months, I thought it would be fun to recount some of 2014's highlights, not only to give an idea of what you missed but to show what's still available to explore—both on Netflix and on the backpages of this site. I'll also try to provide some insight into what's ahead in 2015 (depressing though it may seem)...

Altman's 3 Women
JANUARY 2014 saw an impressive influx of new titles following a pretty dismal December, including rarities like Robert Altman's 3 Women and indispensable classics like Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—both of which have unfortunately expired (although I'm happy to report that the latter will be returning in January 2015). Standalone reviews covered an obscure, oddly charming 1972 comedy, The Public Eye, from director Carol Reed, and Megan Griffith's effective, low-key thriller, Abduction of Eden, loosely based on the true story of a woman kidnapped into a human trafficking ring.

FEBRUARY marked the site's first significant bump in readership following a highly ranked post on Reddit, with monthly hits more than tripling. This prompted a look back on the blog's philosophy and some of what had come before (a post I may need to revisit myself, since I feel I may be wandering a bit from my original purpose). The month was also notable for an influx of excellent 1970s flicks, four of which received short reviews, although three of those later expired—as is so often the case on Netflix these days. Another film, 1974's Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, merited its own full review, mainly because I've always had a soft spot for car chase movies of the early 1970s. February also saw the passing of writer/director Harold Ramis, a true mensch of 1980s and '90s comedy, along with the loss of a number of notable French films, including two starring French heartthrobs Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. One of those, 1962's A Woman Is a Woman, represented Jean-Luc Godard's lone entry on Netflix.

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 may 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—making it 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.

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 nineamounting 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.

Matthau as Varrick

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

Expiration Watch: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

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

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 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.

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 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 (2014)

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 (2014)

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 year—The 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 idols—notably John Ford, Orson Welles, and Howard Hawks—was reflected in every carefully composed frame of his black-and-white potboiler.

Monday, May 5, 2014

New in May: Getting Adventurous (2014)

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 (2014)

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

Masters of Comedy

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 (2014)

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).