Saturday, October 3, 2015

P.S. But Did You See October's New Titles?

Aubrey Plaza, Liam Aiken in Ned Rifle
I know I said I was done. But with more classic titles arriving this month than have all year, I couldn't in good conscience look the other way. Props to Netflix—they've actually given me reason to end things on a positive note (just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me back in). So, consider this a bonus post.

Not too much to note among new releases—not until later in the month, anyway—but there is Hal Hartley's latest, Ned Rifle (2014), which I can heartily recommend for fans of the director's work or anyone curious to see how his Henry Foole trilogy winds up. (Aubrey Plaza fans will likewise be pleased.)

But as is evident in the lists below, the real attention grabbers are some high-quality returns (Glengarry Glen Ross! The Impostors!), a few surprisingly distinguished debuts (Boogie Nights! Million Dollar Baby! Risky Business!), and enough new and returning classics to partly make up for the dearth (and disappearance) of so many pre-1982 titles throughout the year. Be still my beating heart: are those two Stanley Kubrick films (two of his very best)—2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange? Is that really Grace Kelly in High Society, and Gene Tierney in the sublime Laura? How about all those Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra movies? And are we really seeing the return of many Nova, Nature, and other PBS programs? Color me impressed.

No idea how long any of these will stick around, but kudos to Netflix for not (yet) entirely abandoning those of us who enjoy a little vintage cinema with our blockbusters.

Okay, that's it, this time for real. Goodnight, folks! (And yes, I'm still canceling in November.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This Is The End

Those of you who have been following this blog in recent months know I've grown increasingly disenchanted with Netflix Instant. It began with what seemed a more-dramatic-than-usual purging at the beginning of the year, followed by the Great BBC Scare, more purges in June, a sneak attack in July, then a complete overhaul of the website's user interface—making it increasingly difficult to navigate beyond basic selection and playing. This was complemented by the introduction of the awful pre-play function to many streaming devices, followed by last month's announcement of nearly 700 EPIX (i.e., popular and classic) movies being dropped for good.

Remember when you could do this?
Then, last week, yet another insulting blow was struck: the removal of the information box that popped up when hovering your cursor over a title in My List (or in accompanying search results). This was a crucial feature for anyone seeking at-a-glance info about a movie or show before playing it or adding it to your queue. It was also a great way to discover if that title was marked to expire (especially TV titles, which often displayed a full month's notice).

But now that's gone, and the only way to see more than basic titles in My List is to switch to the mostly useless Netflix Suggests view (via account settings)—which trounces your carefully ordered queue and eliminates any expiration notices. In other words, just when I thought it couldn't get worse, Netflix snatched yet more control from users.

I'd intended to continue this blog through late November (when I'll be canceling my subscription), but I simply don't have the stomach to stay invested in a service that so blatantly disregards customers who want more than indiscriminate content forced down their throats. As such, I'm sad to say this will be my last post for WoNN, at least for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

September's New (and Temporary) Arrivals

Stallone. Stone. Boom.
Considering that many of Netflix's September arrivals are returning titles from the 1990s and 2000s (how many times have we seen Big Fish, Hitch, and Days of Thunder come and go?)—and many of those are part of the expiring Epix deal—it's hard to be too impressed. But at least it means the return of inspired zombie comedy Fido, along with Christopher Nolan's excellent (and too often dismissed) Insomnia. I'm also happy to see Robert Altman's Popeye back (even briefly), and am looking forward to checking out the depraved weirdness that should be Larry Clark's latest film, Marfa Girl. Also worth a mention: Paul Schrader's Lindsey Lohan disaster, The Canyons, scheduled to appear in all its controversial glory on September 26th.

For classic film fans there's 1975's controversial-for-its-time Mandingo, not to mention the restored version of David Lean's 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, which is as classic as "classic" gets. Not a bad month for family films, meanwhile, with the arrival of Jon Favreau's Zathura, Robert Rodriquez's The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl, last year's reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Volume 1 of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Oh, and if you're a Star Trek or William Shatner fan, be sure to check out his Captains docs, which are surprisingly enjoyable (reviewed here). Other standout titles are listed in bold (and yes, that includes guilty pleasure The Specialist—so sue me).

As I said, many of these titles fall under the Epix contract, which means they're due to expire at the end of the month. Any you don't get to, however, are already on Amazon Prime, and all are expected to appear in October on the increasingly formidable Hulu—which today announced its new ad-free tier. To paraphrase a famous movie character: Now that's an offer I won't refuse!

Monday, August 31, 2015

September's Departures: Of Epix Proportions

Take a final look at High Fidelity
[Updated 9/15: Many titles added, all forthcoming titles now linked. Big thanks to LarryG for compiling list from comments and providing links.]

That's right, August isn't even over—with a lot of great titles set to expire tonight at midnight—but there's enough going on to warrant an early look at September's upcoming losses.

The news continues to be bad for anyone who enjoys Netflix for its back catalog and older titles. The recent announcement of the company's decision not to renew its licensing agreement with Epix only affirms Netflix's reluctance to pay for content it doesn't exclusively own. That means more original shows and movies, fewer classic titles, and (in the long run) more Disney, Marvel, and Weinstein titles. The latter, the result of more recent contracts, isn't necessarily a bad thing—who doesn't like Disney and Marvel movies?—but for those of us who still go see such fare in theaters (quaint, I know), that's hardly the kind of content we crave for home viewing—where the older, more intimate, and more obscure can shine. And is there anyone besides Netflix content honcho Ted Sarandos who thinks striking a threefour-picture deal with Adam Sandler was a good idea? Ugh.

There's no denying this makes good long-term business sense for the company given the outrageous (and escalating) costs of studio licensing fees. But by the same token it represents another huge nail in the coffin of the Netflix I once cared about. Will I miss the latest Star Trek, Transformers, and Hunger Games movies? Not at all. But there are more than enough older, better, and more interesting Epix titles getting the axe (not to mention those yet to come) to make this a true cause for mourning. Combined with everything else that's been taking the fun out of Netflix lately, I've pretty much decided to cancel my subscription before the year is out—in fact, as soon as I finish streaming Breaking Bad, which I finally started watching this month (a latecomer as always).

Ironically, even before I heard the Epix titles were being picked up by Hulu (arriving on October 1), I was already planning on keeping that service for its Criterion films and recent TV shows. But now there's yet another reason. At least the movies there (unlike the TV shows) don't have ad breaks. And there's none of Netflix's awful pre-play. Or post-play. Or, worst of all: the looming threat of new Adam Sandler movies.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

New in August: Movies, Blog Features

In keeping with this site's new format (at least for now), below is a fairly straightforward listing of Netflix's August arrivals. This replaces the standalone NEW TITLES page, and includes revised categorizations to make it easier to see the breakdown of titles across decades. (In keeping with recent trends, the pickings from before 1990 are pretty slim.) Note that all of these titles are recommended, but those in bold seem especially worth a look. Feel free to list any other new and upcoming titles in the comments below.

Also worth noting: the new Recommendations and WoNN TALK pages! The former lets you easily find any WoNN review from since the blog began (and there are way more than I realized), while the latter provides a forum-like space for everyone to sound off on Netflix- or blog-related topics. It seemed like there have been enough general discussions and questions in the past to warrant such a page. How it will actually work remains to be seen, but let's try it, shall we? I know you guys aren't shy!

New Releases

Dr. Who: Season 8 (2014)
The Look of Love (2013)
The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Two Days, One Night (2014)
Welcome to Me (2015)
Wet Hot American Summer: Season 1 (2015)


Asylum (2005)
Blue Crush (2002)
Bride and Prejudice (2004)
Dear Frankie (2004)
Happy Endings (2005)
The Hurt Locker (2008)
The Man from Nowhere (2010)
 Elizabethtown (2005)
 Lassie (2005)
 Quills (2000)
 Shanghai Noon (2000)
 Strictly Sexual (2008)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August 2015 Expirations

Adventuring thru August 10
Due to popular demand, here's the most current list of what's expiring from Netflix this month. Note that this comprises everything currently known to be leaving in August, with bold denoting titles I've enjoyed or that seem worth a look. (Unfortunately, that includes at least three more BBC titles that are wandering off into the night.) As always, feel free to add further titles below as you find them.

Special thanks to reader LarryG, who generously compiled much of this information from existing comments.

August 1

Concussion (2013)
So Much, So Fast (2006)
The Cold Lands (2013)
Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995)
Wave Twisters (2001)
Wu Dang (2012)

August 2

Ed's Next Move (1996)
It's a Disaster (2012)
N-Secure (2010)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What To Do About Netflix?

Since well before starting this blog, I've been a great supporter of Netflix Instant. As I originally wrote in my About page, the streaming service is probably the best entertainment value for your dollar there is. Even when its new prices kick in over the next couple years, it'll still be a great deal.

But in recent months the company seems to be trying its best to alienate all but the most indifferent of customers. Continuing its trend of deemphasizing classic content for new and original programming, it not only axed over a thousand titles last month, but added insult to injury by giving little or no warning beforehand. It's now considering dropping expiration notices altogether. Given that the original purpose of this blog was to highlight more obscure and classic titles while providing a heads-up on when those (and other) titles were leaving, this effectively constitutes a double whammy.

New isn't always better

Then there was the recent website redesign, which was lauded as adding a fresh new look that makes it easier to view basic info for each title without leaving the main screen. Except, for those of us who want more than basic info, we now have to click through three partial screens instead of finding everything (overview, details, comments) on one. We're also now missing any on-screen expiration dates as well as the ability to copy and paste a title for further researching on the web.

Meanwhile, the interface for streaming players (in my case, the Roku Stick) gets more problematic with each new update. Originally you were able to see at a glance the number of items in a row and where you stood within it—an important point of reference when scrolling forward or back, especially in your queue. You could also see the total number of episodes in a TV show's season, which made for a handy indicator before committing to a new series; and once you selected a show, you could see immediately how long the upcoming episode was—great to know when starting a double-length pilot or special extended episode. But now, finding an episode's length takes an extra click, while there's no way at all to see the total episode count without scrolling through each season and adding them up yourself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

July's Massive Housecleaning Continues

Just so no one thinks the number of movies expiring from Netflix this month represents business as usual, here's a tally of how many titles left the service each month since December of last year (as tracked by the enormously helpful site, New on Netflix USA):

December (2014) - 281 titles removed
January - 352
February - 224
March - 218
April - 307
May - 246
June - 212

That averages out to 307 departing titles per month, for the last six months. By comparison, July's total is (drum roll, please)...996. And counting. By the end of this month, given what we already know is set to expire, the toll will easily surpass 1,000.*

Making this number even worse is the fact that, as reported in my July 3 post (also picked up by many news outlets), the majority of these titles left with little to no warning—going against Netflix's historic practice of providing at least one week's notice prior to expiration.

That means you went to bed on the 19th with, say, 164 titles in your queue, and in the morning you woke up to find that 18 of them had disappeared. Poof—gone. Without any chance to reorder or prioritize based on Need To Watch. Thought you'd get a chance to bone up on some Mario Bava giallos or classic silents? Or one of those TV movies of the 1970s you were always curious about? Too bad. Netflix had other plans. And if reports of recent customer service calls are correct, the company plans to eliminate its expiration warnings altogether (because, why bother keeping your customers informed?).

Friday, July 3, 2015

July Expirations: Let's Call It a Massacre

Well, this was unexpected. After June's list of more-than-could-be-processed expiring titles, it was natural to assume the bulk of the damage was done and we could go ahead and discuss July's new arrivals. But Netflix had other ideas. Perhaps trying to keep everyone from noticing exactly how many titles it's eliminating, the service saved a large chunk of its vanishing catalog for July 5—giving no prior notice until the last couple of days (the fact that it's July 4th weekend may also have been part of their plan, if you're conspiracy-minded).

Thanks to all the eagle-eyed readers out there who have been diligently posting their findings (and making my humble Expirations page look like a sub-Reddit forum!), we can gauge just how much will be gone as of Sunday at midnight. Granted, much of it is obscure genre fare and some is downright crappy, but there are also a few genuinely notable older titles—including the early John Boorman flick, Leo the Last (1970), and Jim McBride's seminal David Holzman's Diary (1967)—not to mention a whole slew of silents, many by that era's most distinguished filmmakers. There are too many for me to provide links, but here are all the silent films and pre-1982 titles (so far) that are viewable through July 5:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

June Expiration Watch: Too Many to Tally

Impossible mission, indeed
Well, Netflix has gone and done it: there are officially more titles expiring this month than I have the capacity to process. A good number of these arrived within the last six months, many as recently as April, which makes them even more disheartening to tabulate. Plus, with a large batch of very familiar titles scheduled to return next month, I'm feeling beyond burnt-out in trying to track every coming and going (and coming...and going...). Add to that Netflix's steady stream of original content, mid-month announcements, and the ubiquity of news stories on the company's every move, and this blog has now outgrown one (unpaid) person's ability to manage it.

On a personal level, I'm also finding it increasingly difficult to balance the needs of this site with my own creative work, especially given the number of hours now required to simply update these lists and moderate the comments from all the many helpful contributors out there. Since I don't like the idea of shutting the blog down completely—something I'd been considering—I'm going to instead attempt some streamlining.

A change in approach

My plan, as of now, is to continue to post updates on what's new and what's expiring, but with a few key changes:
  1. Updates such as this will consist mainly of lists, with a minimum of editorial comment.
  2. Lists will narrow their focus to titles I can personally recommend, in keeping with the blog's original intent.
  3. These semi-monthly posts will replace the standalone Expiring and What's New pages.
  4. The current Expiring page will be converted into a discussion area, since the increasingly general nature of the comments there seems to dictate such a space is necessary (plus I'm not quite ready to start an actual forum).

Thursday, June 11, 2015

June's New Arrivals (and Early Departures)

A small but interesting mix of new and returning titles hit Netflix Instant this month. But before we get to those I should point out a handful of mid-month departures that will definitely be missed...

Leaving Soon

Tin Man
At 12:01 AM on the 15th, Netflix will no longer be streaming Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros (2000). Like the director's later efforts, such as Babel (2006) and 21 Grams (2003), his feature debut is supposed to be quite good if also a bit intense (especially if you're squeamish about violence toward animals). Iñárritu's more recent Biutiful (2010) also expires this month (on the 27th), which means the director of last year's Oscar-winning Birdman will soon be entirely absent from Netflix—a situation we hope is only temporary.

Departing on the same day as Amores Perros is the Wizard of Oz reboot, Tin Man, a 2007 miniseries starring Zooey Deschanel that's more enjoyable than it has any right to be, especially given the many past attempts at recreating the magic of the 1939 original. This one manages to be both sequel and update, and uses its extended running time to tell a rich tale that allows for many charming—and frightening—moments. Suitable for adults and children alike, the show's impressive cast also includes Alan Cumming and Richard Dreyfuss.

June 19 will see the departure of three movies that arrived in March, marking only a brief, three-month stay for multi-Oscar-winner Amadeus (1984), Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2002 revenge flick, Collateral Damage, and the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman romantic witch comedy, Practical Magic (1998). Granted, the latter two are light entertainment at best, but the fact that they lasted just three months seemed worth noting. (Why, Netflix?)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

May 2015: What's New / What's Leaving

Before I get into what's expiring this month, I want to take a moment to acknowledge all the great titles that showed up on Netflix in May. For various reasons I wasn't able to comment on them earlier, so I want to at least call out the most notable.

The Newly Welcome

The marquee titles you probably already know (and/or have an opinion) about: The Blues Brothers (1980), David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), The Exorcist (1973), Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), John Woo's The Killer (1989), Legally Blonde (2001), Leon: The Professional (1994), and The Sixth Sense (1999). Oh, and the zombie-beaver movie the world's been waiting for: 2014's Zombeavers. These represent an excellent mix of new and old, violent and funny, and—in the cases of Lynch and Tarantino—a mix of all four.

But there's also the underrated Assassins (1995), a surprisingly entertaining Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas action flick (based on a script by the Wachowskis); Bus Stop (1956), showcasing one of Marilyn Monroe's best performances (and the first new MM title since the March purge); Tom DiCillo's playful, satirical look at the movie business, The Real Blonde (1998); an obscure 1970s western called Santee (1973), starring Glenn Ford; the uniformly excellent indie drama, In the Bedroom (2001), which received a boatload of Oscar nominations; and a couple of acclaimed documentaries, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) and Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978). The latter disappeared for a few days due to technical difficulties, but seems to be back up now and makes a surprising but welcome addition to the Instant catalog.

Equally welcome are the returning titles, which include such stalwarts as Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Internal Affairs (1990), and Saturday Night Fever (1977), but also less well-known pics like Peter Bogdanovich's amusing tale of 1920s Hollywood, The Cat's Meow (2001), and Jay and Mark Duplass's first feature, The Puffy Chair (2005). And then there are a couple of scruffy 1970s films: Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) and the brutal Nick Nolte football comedy, North Dallas Forty (1979), both of which were reviewed the last time they showed up. It's nice to see these join The Exorcist, Bus Stop, and The Last Waltz as proof that Netflix hasn't entirely given up on pre-1982 films.

Monday, April 27, 2015

April Expiration Watch: Farewell to Friends New & Old

Once again Netflix teases us with some stream-worthy titles, only to snatch them away just a few months later. As I did back in January, when something similar happened, I'm going to sort this month's expiring titles into groups based on when they arrived—only this time I'll start with the most recent (just to keep you on your toes). Unless otherwise noted, all of these can be streamed through April 30.

Arrived in March (available 2 months)
Across the Great Divide (1976)
Bitter Moon (1992) - Review
The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Arrived in February (avail. 3 months)
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Cecil B. Demented (2000)
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2010) - thru 5/12
Ulee's Gold (1997)

Arrived in January (avail. 4 months)
Robocop (1987)
Valkyrie (2008)

And then there are those that seemed to be on more reasonable timetables, i.e., on contracts ranging from six months to two years:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Expiration Watch: Stan and George

Given all the breathless headlines these days about superhero franchises and upcoming Star Wars sequels, it's ironic that Netflix is letting go of a couple of very appealing documentaries focused on two of the founding fathers of modern geekdom: Stan Lee and George Lucas.

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010) 

It's impossible to imagine what pop culture—or today's Hollywood—would be like without Stan Lee. As the co-creator of Marvel Comics' most recognizable superheroes, from the Fantastic Four to the Hulk to Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Daredevil, and even Ant-Man, Lee helped shape the path comic books—and now movies—have taken for over 50 years. And he's still going strong, as this thorough and (justifiably) worshipful documentary shows. At 92, the man (or, in this case, "The Man") continues to work rooms, comic conventions, the Internet, and movie studios as the most tireless, charming, and durable advocate of his art imaginable. In his mid-80s at the time of filming, Lee is irrepressibly fit and spry and still very much in love with life (along with his adoring wife of 60-plus years). He comes off as not only a wonderful spokesman for the comics industry, but as a peerless example of the human spirit. You can't help but admire his humor, his energy, and his ability to keep up with the times. And at film's end, you'll feel grateful—and mildly amazed—that he's managed to sustain this level of creativity (and salesmanship) for so long, while quietly dreading the grayer world we'll be left with when he's no longer a part of it. (Update: the doc is gone, but Stan Lee continues to impress in this latest short video, on the art of...cameo acting!]

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Since It Was Good Enough for Netflix...

Introducing the new standalone blog for Amazon Prime subscribers: What's On PRIME Now? (catchy name, no?). Just like this site, WoPN will maintain running tallies of the service's streaming titles to help you decide what's worth watching. This replaces the single Prime page that debuted here last month, with a direct link now taking its place in the tab above—letting you essentially toggle between the two sites.

Go ahead and take a look around. Even if you're not a Prime user, you may find it useful to compare the two service's offerings. I hope you like what you see! And feel free to let me know if I've forgotten something or if anything seems goofy.

New commenting style

On an unrelated note: For some time, technical issues have prevented certain readers from commenting on this site, so I'm changing the commenting style to allow greater access. The trade-off is that now each new comment opens a pop-up window for you to write in, instead of letting you comment inline. It also, for some reason, removes the Reply option, which I'm not happy about but which we'll all just have to get used to—unless someone out there is more fluent in Blogger than I am, and can suggest a more elegant solution.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

New in April: Going to 11?

Some interesting titles are making their streaming debuts on Netflix this month, along with a number of impressive standouts. Let's start with the high points, shall we?

The Big Lebowski (1998) - What else is there to say, but..."The Dude abides"?
Bound (1996) - A steamy neo-noir from the directors of The Matrix, back when they still knew how to put together a taut, well-constructed entertainment
Natural Born Killers (1994) - Oliver Stone's nasty, tasty slice of '90s nihilism, with Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis making Bonnie and Clyde look like Hepburn & Tracy, from a script by Quentin Tarantino
Three Kings (1999) - David O. Russell, better known today for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, cooked up this dark Gulf War comedy that's one part Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one part Catch 22
This Is Spinal Tap (1984) - Even though I own two different DVD editions of this film (one of which is long out of print), I'm very happy to see this seminal rockumentary now online—a comedy that truly goes to 11

There are also a batch of notable titles showing up later in the month, including the much-anticipated first season of Netflix's Daredevil, the off-its-rocker Crank (2006), the latest mind puzzle from Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language (2014), and a couple of highly regarded new horror films, The Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I'm looking forward to all of these (except maybe the Godard, which I saw in a theater—in 3D—and which might be tough to watch again, especially in 2D). Premiere dates listed at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March Expiration Watch: Hitting Where It Hurts

Welcome to the blog's 100th post. Combined with next month's 2nd anniversary and the recently added Amazon Prime page, these are celebratory times at What's On NETFLIX Now? (Cut to: David dozing off at his keyboard). Would that Netflix itself provided greater cause for celebration: unless original series are your be-all/end-all, pretty much every category takes a sock to the jaw this month, from classic Hollywood's biggest stars to underappreciated comedies, cult indies, and, in a big blow to the kid in all of us, nearly the entire stable of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim programs. But let's start with the classics...

Goodbye, Norma Jeane

It's a rough month if you happen to be a Marilyn Monroe fan. On March 31, three of MM's more flamboyant 1950s productions are getting the hook: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). Over the last couple of years we've seen these titles come and go, but my faith in their return isn't terribly strong now that Netflix seems to have lost interest in maintaining its back catalog. In fact, at this rate I may need to rename this blog What's NOT on NETFLIX Now?.

These colorful, over-the-top spectaculars (two are musicals) marked an unofficial coming-out party for the former Norma Jeane, who emerged from half a decade of supporting parts, prurient publicity, and a couple of low-profile dramatic leads (Don't Bother to Knock, Niagara) to fully cement her blonde bombshell status and create an iconic persona for the Hollywood ages. So if you've ever wondered what the fuss was about, this trio of films—filled to bursting with star power and production value—makes a pretty good argument for Monroe's status as a larger-than-life sex symbol who could sing, dance, and play the dumb blonde to comic perfection. She was much more than that, of course, as a number of her more dramatic roles would prove (particularly Bus Stop and The Misfits). But these early flowerings of stardom are how a majority still remember her, before her personal and professional problems overtook the headlines and lent a lasting aura of sadness to the woman whose show-stopping performance of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (in Howard Hawks' Gentleman Prefer Blondes) remains a joyful pop-culture touchstone.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

3 Romantic Comedies That Don't Suck

Hollywood has now given such a bad name to romantic comedies, it's essentially thrown in the towel and stopped making them. (Go ahead: try naming one successful studio-made rom-com from the last couple of years.) For some people that may not be a terrible loss, but I'm not one of them. I'll always enjoy a clever, truly funny rom-com—hold the schmaltz—and I'm sure there are other manly folk out there who secretly like to watch couples meet cute, fight, then make up while we grin foolishly and pretend there's soot in our eye.

That's where independent filmmakers are able to pick up the slack. In place of stratospheric budgets, exotic locations, or superpowered special effects, romantic comedies demand little more than a solid script, a likable, talented cast, deft direction, and an ability to breathe freshness into situations we've all seen a thousand times. A tall order, certainly, but one that, like any good indie, can be achieved for the price of a digital camera and a cast and crew willing to subsist on pizza, bagels, and passion.

Sure, the results can be as bad and predictable as anything starring Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson (*shudder*). But there are also unheralded gems able to climb their way out of the streaming indie muck (for examples, see my reviews of Stuck Between Stations, Cashback, and In a World). Some of these combine a surprising level of star power, professionalism, and originality, and are more than worthy additions to a genre all but abandoned by the studios who invented it. I'm not saying any of the below titles are the next It Happened One Night, When Harry Met Sally, or Silver Linings Playbook, but each offers its own unique take on the pitfalls of finding love in the modern world.

Save the Date (2012)

Lizzy Caplan, Mark Webber
Despite its generic, rom-com-sounding title (ugh, not another wedding movie!), Save the Date still had me wondering how bad a film starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, and Martin Starr could possibly be. The answer, it turned out, was, "Not bad at all." As representatives (joint and otherwise) of three very funny cult comedy series—Freaks and Geeks, Party Down, and Community—the three stars promised to deliver at least a few laughs (and of course it's never hard to watch Ms. Caplan or Ms. Brie, who hit a sweet spot of smart/funny/gorgeous that can warp the faculties of even the harshest critic).

Saturday, March 7, 2015

New in March: A Few Good Things

At first glance I wouldn't call March a particularly stellar month in the history of Netflix streaming—especially in light of all the painful expirations since December. But nearly every category gets a few worthy additions, joining obvious headliners like Top Gun (1986), Twilight (2008), Crash (2004), and Groundhog Day (1993), as well as returning greats Donnie Brasco (1997) and Taxi Driver (1976).


Netflix, of course, likes to promote its original series, so you likely already know about the arrival of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's new sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The premise—irrepressible young woman hits the Big City after being locked in a bunker for 15 years—doesn't exactly set the toes a'tingling, but as the creator of 30 Rock and Mean Girls, Fey's cred is unimpeachable and I'll definitely give this one a look. Later in the month brings the complete runs of A Different World and 3rd Rock from the Sun, the first half of Mad Men's final season, and another Netflix original, Bloodline.

I'm a big fan of Dan Harmon's cult sitcom, Community (unforgivably absent from Netflix), so I was especially excited by the arrival of 2014's Harmontown. Documenting the cross-country tour of Harmon's live podcast—a free-form, often drunken mix of comic geekery, group therapy, and audience love-in—the film takes a peek inside the brain, and conscience, of a brilliantly creative man whose warring id and ego are at times painfully on display, but which remain inseparable from his razor-sharp wit and intimidating comic imagination.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February Expiration Watch: Whittling Away

"I am not an animal! I am... old movie on Netflix!"
I'm going to keep it short this month, as it's more of the same old story, i.e., Netflix is taking yet another chunk out of its back catalog, erasing nearly 20 more pre-1982 titles. Among those are such all-time greats as The Elephant Man (1980), The Graduate (1967), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Old Yeller (1957), Ordinary People (1980), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Das Boot (1981). At this rate, I hate to imagine what will be left of legitimate classics by year's end.

That's not even taking into account expiring second-tier pics like Adios, Sabata (1971), Hatari! (1962), Thief (1981), This Property Is Condemned (1966), and Will Penny (1968). Granted, there should be a few pre-1982 additions arriving in March, but at this point I count only two: Taxi Driver and 3 Days of the Condor. Of course, if you're a fan of upcoming TV shows like A Different World or the recently added Robocop remake, then no worries, right? (Note: heavy sarcasm. Do not ingest if on a low-calorie diet.)

If we look at more recent decades' titles, the picture isn't much rosier. The 1980s fare the best, with the most notable deletions being Ridley Scott's underrated Black Rain (1989), the B-grade John Hughes flick Pretty in Pink (1986), kiddie fave Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), and Terry Gilliam's hot mess, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New in February: Taking It Slow

This has definitely been one of the slower months I've seen in terms of new releases. More than a third of the new titles were returning ones, while, with the exception of Houseboat (1958), there were no classics added in February, not even with 1980 as a cutoff. For comparison, this time last year Netflix added 10 classic titles, including an excellent group of 1970s films. Given all the recent deletions of older catalog titles—both feature films and BBC shows—that's not a good sign, and seems to further cement Instant's continuing emphasis on original content and new TV shows.

But let's look at the good news: among those TV shows are the second season of Bates Motel (2014), the full 2010-2013 run of the sexy/violent Spartacus, and the first five—some would say best—seasons of all-time classic M*A*S*H (comprising the years 1972 to 1978). The latter is a pretty nice coup, I must say, since it's been a long, long time since a lot of us have had the chance to revisit that landmark show. For those who have never seen it, I'm happy to report it still holds up in most ways—as long as you can get past some of the first season's casual sexism (a holdover from the original movie) and learn to ignore the superfluous laugh track CBS forced on the show's creators (to make sure audiences knew it was, you know, a comedy). No telling if Netflix will add the remaining six seasons, the last three of which are a bit spotty, but for now these episodes from the Frank Burns era should keep fans of the 4077th giggling through their surgical masks.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January Expiration Watch: Not So Bad (if you don't count the BBC)

For a lot of you, this month's expiration story boils down to only one headline: All Those BBC Titles—Gone!

But wrenching as that is, it's become something of an old story already, and now that many of us have had time to work our way through shock, denial, and into acceptance (sort of), there's another story being told this month—one that's peculiar and a bit less devastating. It's the tale of 52 notable, non-BBC titles leaving the service by the 1st of February, a full 31 of which arrived within the last three months—suggesting a chronic case of premature (ahem) expiration on the part of Netflix.

But here's the good news: the bulk of those recent additions aren't exactly what you'd call masterpieces, while the rest seem to pop off and on Instant with the regularity of blinking neon in an old film noir. Here's what we're looking at, broken down by month:

Arrived in November

Batman Returns (1992)
Babes in Toyland (1961)
Breakheart Pass (1975)
The 'Burbs (1989)
The Crimson Cult (1968)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Hiding Out (1987)
Kingpin (1996)
Live Nude Girls (1995)
Phase IV (1974) - Reviewed
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Trading Mom (1994)

Monday, January 19, 2015

BBC Fallout: What's Staying, What's Going

My, my. Who knew there would be such a media firestorm surrounding those BBC titles marked to expire from Netflix Instant? I was pretty surprised to see a record number of news sites citing this blog as a source, resulting in a record number of hits—numbers which continue to boggle (thank you all).

But here's the thing: even with all the attention this story received, so many news sites got—and continue to get—their facts wrong. In one story after another I've read that "all" of the BBC titles were on the chopping block. Or, if not all, then shows like The Office and Sherlock were among them (which they never were). I've also seen claims that the mass expiration was "rumored"—which was pretty rich considering Netflix itself was responsible for slapping on all those expiration labels. And now that a good chunk of the most popular series have been renewed, I'm seeing stories claim that "all" or "most" of the titles have been renewed and, Whew! we needn't have been so worried after all, it's just business as usual, move along, nothing to see here, etc.

Well, I hate to stick my thumb in the (black) pudding, but that's just not the case. As you can see from the lists below, 24 titles were renewed, while another 52 are still marked for 2/1 (actually 1/31) departures. Granted, many of those staying are among the most popular and headline-worthy (hello, Dr. Who and Top Gear), but there are equally important series still getting the axe, among them such stalwarts as Fawlty Towers, Coupling, Black Adder, Red Dwarf, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and not one but two Diana Rigg miniseries.

Is it possible Netflix will still renew some or all of these shows in the months to come? We can certainly hope. But for now, they're wearing the scarlet letter E. So I'll leave it to the Anglophiles and the nature- and history buffs to sift through the list and decide which are worth bingeing into the wee hours of January's remaining days. All I can say is: Godspeed. And I do mean 'speed'...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Those (Possibly) Expiring BBC Titles

(1/16 update: Many of these titles have now been renewed, including all of Dr. Who. See next post for the full rundown.)

There's been a lot of buzz in the last 24 hours regarding the large block of BBC shows scheduled to expire from Netflix Instant on the 31st (and which have been listed here for over a week). Sources as diverse as The Huffington Post, CNN, MTV News, and Vulture have all referenced this site's expiration list, which has been awesome, but it's also led to some minor confusion. So, to address any questions some of you might have:

If you don't see it listed, it's probably safe

Not every streaming BBC show is marked to expire. Programs such as Sherlock, Doc Martin, Merlin, and Ripper Street, for example, look to be safe (for now). If there's a specific title you're worried about that you don't see here, just search for it on Netflix's website, then hover your cursor over the thumbnail like so:

See that availability date? It will also be listed on the show's main info page, down on the right beneath Streaming Details:

If there's no availability date, then you're okay (again—for now!). As longtime readers know, this isn't always a foolproof test, since Netflix can be cagey about revealing such dates. But for this block of shows (and TV series in general), it's usually accurate. (Movies, of course, are another matter...)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

January 2015: The New & the Notable

Well, the end of December certainly was brutal. I don't know about you, but I'm still feeling a sharp ringing behind the ears from so many sacked titles. And if this month's upcoming losses are to be believed, the carnage is far from over. (Don't you dare take away my Coupling and Fawlty Towers! Or BBC faves like Dr. Who and Luther and Top Gear and...)

So, has Netflix decided to atone for these accumulating sins by rolling out an irresistible roster of January movies and series? Not so much. I mean, yes, there are good—and even great—titles that showed up this month. But fully a third of those were returning after a brief absence, so we've not only encountered most of them in the past year, but in all probability they'll pull another vanishing act in 3-6 months.

Not that I'll ever argue with returning titles The Apartment, Chinatown, Marathon Man, or Sunset Boulevard. Those should form a permanent foundation beneath the service—an impregnable Wall of Classics (if you'll forgive the mixed architecture)—especially paired with newcomers The French ConnectionFantasia, Marty, the original Robocop, Moonstruck, Mystic River, and Swingers. But considering the damage done to Netflix's pre-1982 catalog in the past couple of months, it's going to take a heck of a lot more to restore my confidence in the service's ability to maintain a respectable mix of both classics and newer titles.

In the meantime, here's the breakdown of what's queue-worthy: