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


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.)