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:


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.


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...

 WoNN Spotlight  Phase IV (1974)

You wouldn't think a bunch of sentient, murderous ants could be scary—and at first they're not—but as the amazing micro footage in this film builds, and you see the intelligence and determination behind those insects, you can't help but feel nervous. Nervous not only for the human characters being threatened, but for the real-life ants as they're wrangled and occasionally mangled on camera (no Humane Society watching this one, it seems). As graphic artist and title designer Saul Bass's only directorial credit, Phase IV is impressively creepy and disturbing, even if marred by some unconvincing low-budget effects amid all the mind-blowing ant photography. Michael Murphy, later of An Unmarried Woman and Manhattan, is nicely cast in an atypical (for him) genre piece alongside Nigel Davenport (who resembles a British Dan Harmon). It's just too bad there's no version of the film available that includes Bass's original, recently discovered ending, which approaches 2001: A Space Odyssey levels of trippiness (although you can find it on YouTube if you're curious). This is the kind of 1970s sci-fi I've always loved: messy, low-fi, character-based, and with a message.

"I'm Birdm-- I mean, Batman."

1980s and '90s

After last month's big '80s purge, it's nice to see some amends being made among November's newcomers, although the emphasis seems more on the '90s this time around. Along with cable staples like Joe Dante's 1989 The 'Burbs, starring Tom Hanks, and 1987's grown-man-goes-back-to-high-school comedy, Hiding Out, with Jon Cryer, there are the welcome arrivals of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)—the timing of which likely isn't a coincidence given that Michael Keaton's excellent Birdman is now in theaters. I have yet to bring myself to see Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, but I always thought Batman Returns achieved the perfect blend of action, humor, and comic book campiness (plus a transcendent Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, arguably surpassing even the great Julie Newmar).

Other '90s titles of interest seem split between fantasy and chick flicks, with 1990's Arachnophobia (a fitting companion piece to Phase IV), The Rocketeer (1991), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) falling under the former, while You've Got Mail (1998) and Live Nude Girls (1995) represent the latter. You likely know all you need to about You've Got Mail (Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, bookstores, cuteness), which is one of Nora Ephron's better post-Sleepless In Seattle comedies, but Live Nude Girls is a grown-up chick flick that's better than you'd expect, featuring a pre-Sex and the City Kim Catrall, Dana Delaney, and Olivia D'Abo—some of whom, yes, are both live and nude (no fair guessing who).

Jennifer Connelly and Billy Campbell in THE ROCKETEER
The one real '90s oddity is Trading Mom (1994), a weird and intermittently charming kids film starring Sissy Spacek in four different roles (and two or three bad accents), Anna Chlumsky (from the My Girl movies), Maureen Stapleton, and—of all people—Andre the Giant. Your kids may enjoy this, but moms don't be surprised if you find yourself looking over your shoulders afterwards.

Modern Classics

The young cast of STAND BY ME
Also falling broadly into the '80s/'90s niche are most of this month's returning titles (see list below) as well as what some might call modern classics. What makes a modern classic? Well, it's tough to argue against Stand by Me (1986), Seven (1995), Goodwill Hunting (1997), or even Total Recall (1990). Each not only has its place in the pop movie pantheon but benefits from a strong directorial voice in, respectively, Rob Reiner (back when that still meant something), David Fincher, Gus Van Sant, and Paul Verhoeven. Goodwill Hunting, of course, showcases the late Robin Williams' Oscar-winning performance in Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's (cough) Oscar-winning script; while Total Recall shows off Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime—perhaps in anticipation of his latest, Sabotage (2014), which debuts on Netflix later this month—as well as a pre-stardom Sharon Stone.

Leung, Lau
Other candidates for modern classic status: Sam Raimi's giddy western, The Quick and the Dead (1995), showcasing the usual Raimi verve along with fun, impassioned performances from Sharon Stone (who reasserts her presence on Netflix following the expiration of those Allan Quatermain movies), Gene Hackman, and a young Leo DiCaprio; and the blistering Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002), which was the source material for Martin Scorsese's 2006 The Departed. I give the American remake a slight edge (surprisingly), although both films are accomplished nail-biters, while the original has the added allure of a noirish HK atmosphere and solid performances by Andy Lau and the always great Tony Leung (the one from Wong Kar-Wai's movies, not The Lover).

All-New, All-Now

Stone, Turturro
It may only be my imagination, but of late it seems Netflix has been getting a lot more new releases a lot earlier. Granted, most of these aren't the big blockbusters people like to salivate over, but they do exhibit a level of quality beyond the typical indie and genre dumps that are sometimes the norm (Exhibit A: Destiny Turns on the Radio).

For instance, there's this year's shaggy-dog indie comedy, Fading Gigolo, written and directed by John Turturro, whose screenplay at times seems to be channeling middle period Woody Allen—no coincidence, considering the film stars Turturro and the Woodman himself. While the scenes between these two elicit many of the film's laughs, it's the other characters who supply a level of melancholic romance that's all Turturro. The cast of (refreshingly) older actors include Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara, and (ta da!) Sharon Stone—completing this month's young/older/oldest Sharon Stone trifecta.

Another movie for grown-ups is last year's Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and starring an Oscar-nominated Bruce Dern. I missed this one in theaters so am looking forward to finally catching up with it. From what I gather, it's got that character-oriented, slow-moving vibe that fans of 1970s films will especially appreciate. Speaking of the '70s, there's a brand-new documentary on director Robert Altman, called Altman, now streaming. That's another one I'm looking forward to, although the irony of it showing up only a few months after nine of the director's movies expired makes its presence bittersweet.

Also of interest—partly because I know so little about them—are this year's Stretch, directed by Joe Carnahan, and 2013's French drama Violette (2013). And then there's November's crown jewel...

 WoNN Spotlight  Snowpiercer (2013)

If you didn't catch Snowpiercer in the theater this summer, you weren't alone: it had an intentionally limited release, with much of its business aimed at the pay-per-view market (you'll have to ask Harvey Weinstein about that one). But don't let the lack of Michael Bay- or Marvel-sized promotion fool you. This low-budget sci-fi action flick is the real deal. Starring Chris Evans in a very un-Captain America-like role, the film takes a preposterous premise—the last of civilization resides on a miles-long train barreling across a frozen wasteland that was once Earth—and sells the hell out of it. Director Joon-ho Bong, who also made the terrific Korean monster flick, The Host, is determined to make you a believer, and by 30 minutes in you will be (assuming you aren't cowering under your seat). Bleak, brutal, relentless, with class-conscious satire at its core, this is the kind of take-no-prisoners sci-fi you rarely see in large-scale, English-speaking movies anymore. An excellent (mostly grimy) cast lends Evans enthusiastic support, including Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton (who's creepily hilarious in a role originally written for a man). Like a Terry Gilliam movie stripped of romantic illusions, Snowpiercer is a ride where no one is safe—especially the audience. So buckle up and get ready to hug some curves. And whatever you do, don't open the window!

November 1-7

Altman (2014)
Arachnophobia (1990)
Babes in Toyland (1961)
Batman (1989)
Batman Returns (1992)
Best Laid Plans (1999)
The Bletchley Circle: Series 2 (2014)
Blue Bloods (2010-2013)
Breakheart Pass (1975)
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)
The 'Burbs (1989)
The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Cleopatra (1963)
The Core (2003)
The Crimson Cult (1968)
Fading Gigolo (2014)
Goodwill Hunting (1997)
Grey's Anatomy: Season 10 (2013)
Hell Is for Heroes (1962)
Hiding Out (1987)
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Infernal Affairs (2002)
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 9 (2013)
Jennifer 8 (1992)
Kingpin (1996)
Little Odessa (1994)
Live Nude Girls (1995)
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Season 2 (2013) - Review
Phase IV (1974)
Phenomenon (1996)
Pinocchio (2002)
Portlandia: Season 4 (2013)
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Seven (1995)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Stand by Me (1986)
Stretch (2014)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Total Recall (1990)
Trading Mom (1994)
Violette (2013)
Your Inner Fish (2014)
You've Got Mail (1998)
Yu-Gi-Oh (2001)


Addams Family Values (1993)
Airplane! (1980)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Braveheart (1995)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Fierce People (2005)
Heartburn (1986)

November 8

Nebraska (2013)

November 10

Helix: Season 1 (2014)

November 19

Sabotage (2014)

November 27

Bill Cosby 77 (2012) - canceled!

November 29

The One I Love (2014)


Wellesley72 said...

You forgot to mention in your list the long overdue Season 2 of The Bletcley Circle. Good to see that Netflix continues to add high-quality British (or in the case of Miss Fisher, Austalian) mysteries. For those of us U afraid of subtitles, they need to add more French, Italian and Nordic thrillers along the lines of Spiral or Salamander.

David Speranza said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I've added a mention in the TV section.

marcj said...

I liked your article dear!! Breaking bad is my favorite Tv show and it starts in 80’s. It is based on American crime. But I would like to know the best tv shows on netflix. Please suggest me if you have any idea.