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.

 WoNN Spotlight  Danger 5

It's not often that a TV series completely blindsides me. Even if I know almost nothing about it, chances are I've at least heard the title, unless it's from very far away—for instance, from the other side of the world. That happened to me last year with Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and The Slap (currently getting a U.S. remake), and it's happened again with a lunatic piece of business called Danger 5 (2012), which like those other shows comes from our Aussie friends Down Under.

How to describe Danger 5? Let's see... If you combined a 1960s James Bond film with production values from Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, the sensibility of Monty Python (by way of Airplane and Robot Chicken), Japanese monster movies, and a WWII caper as interpreted by 1950s pulp adventure magazines, you might be close. Or you could just say it's a batshit crazy lark with a random sense of lunacy that includes Nazi dinosaurs, talking dogs, machine guns made of gold, people whose last words are always the recipe for a perfect cocktail, a colonel with a giant eagle head, and a version of Hitler who's like a Bond supervillian who always manages to escape at the last minute.

The show's creators, Dario Russo and David Ashby, were also responsible for the gleefully insane retro spoof, Italian Spiderman, which should give you some idea of Danger 5's sensibility and potential for inspired silliness. With six episodes to fill (and another season's worth having just aired in Australia), it naturally can't hit the same heights every time out, but it's always entertaining. As much as I'm enjoying this first season, I'm already looking forward to Season 2, in which Hitler is somehow transposed to the 1980s, and at one point must hide from his enemies by posing as a high school student. If life—and TV—are getting a bit too predictable, I suggest queuing up the first episode of Danger 5. But be warned: the world will seem a much grayer place when you're done. And, as always, "Kill Hitler!"

Playing to the balcony

Two more variations of "over the top" arrive courtesy of Paul Verhoeven, whose 1995 Showgirls and 1997 Starship Troopers were each critically reviled upon their release but have since become cult items. And while the former is mostly celebrated for its sheer campy awfulness, the latter was actually misunderstood as being the very thing it set out to mock. Apologists might say the same of Showgirls, of course, but at least Starship Troopers has a stronger script and a clearer set of convictions. If nothing else, it manages to portray war—even a war with giant alien insects—more realistically than most war movies.

Extreme, if ghoulish, fun can also be had with the return of Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985), a horror-comedy classic that stands on its own as an example of demented excess, perfectly mixing a smart screenplay and direction, an accommodating cast, ample nudity (thank you, Barbara Crampton), and gross-out effects to make you wonder if someone drugged your PBR before watching.

Caged Cage

By contrast, the usually larger-than-life Nicholas Cage reminds us he's capable of subtlety with the return of Leaving Las Vegas, which I briefly reviewed the last time it was streaming, along with the debut of 2013's Joe, heralded as a comeback not only for Cage but for director David Gordon Green, who took a break from broad comedies to return to his indie, character-based roots.

Other new releases include Blood Ties (2014), a kind of Scorsese-lite that's notable for its cast—which includes Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Zoe Saldana, and Mila Kunis—and director Guillaume Canet, best known for 2006's critical fave Tell No One. Also debuting is last year's Elsa and Fred, a romance starring Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine, and Stray Dogs (2013), a languorous Chinese mood piece set in Taipei.

Other notables

The sweetly oddball tale of a boy and his sex doll, Lars and the Real Girl (2007), returns, showcasing Ryan Gosling's acclaimed performance and Nancy Oliver's award-winning screenplay. Another quirky indie, Brad Anderson's 1998 Next Stop Wonderland, is also back—hopefully long enough this time for me to rewatch it. Starring Hope Davis as a brainy Boston romantic with very bad timing, it's one of those scrappy, low-budget rom-coms that's actually decent (if I remember right), perfect for fans of Jennifer Westfeldt's comedies or Anderson's own Happy Accidents (but without the time travel).

Fans of Sidney Lumet and/or Paul Newman will be pleased by the arrival of 1982's The Verdict, a courtroom drama with some oomph (and Charlotte Rampling), while there's mixed news accompanying the return of Quest for Fire, a 1981 favorite I reviewed back in 2013. It's of course great to see this one back, but unfortunately it's still the cropped version I bemoaned in my review. I've contacted Netflix about this using a number of avenues, but so far nothing's changed. I'll continue to monitor the film's status, but in the meantime you'll be better off either streaming it from somewhere else or getting the DVD/Blu-ray.

The February List

Bates Motel: Season 2 (2014)
Blood Ties (2014)
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Cecil B. Demented (2000)
Danger 5 (2012)
Frida (2002)
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)
Elsa and Fred (2014)
Houseboat (1958)
Joe (2014)
M*A*S*H: Seasons 1-5 (1972-1978)
Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Insult (1994)
The Object of Beauty (1991)
Proof (2002)
Showgirls (1995)
Spartacus (Complete Series) (2010-2013)
Stray Dogs (2013)
The Verdict (1982)
We're No Angels (1989)


Along Came Polly (2004)
Danny Deckchair (2004)
Diggstown (1992)
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Leaving Las Vegas (1995) - Review
Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
Quest for Fire (1981) - Review (still the cropped version)
Re-Animator (1985)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Steel Magnolias (1989)
To Be or Not to Be (1983)
Ulee's Gold (1997)


Peter Bodensteiner said...

I remember Ulee's Gold being pretty good. Peter Fonda stars.

Wellesley72 said...

Glad you enjoyed Danger 5. I added it to my queue but wasn't sure I would watch it until I read your column. Hope that Netflix adds more Aussie content as it rolls out "down under". Have noticed recently that Acorn TV, which has a good catalog of UK dramas and mysteries, has been adding Some excellent Australian content (unfortunately as US exclusives). They are also showing a new season of Foyle's War. I have not heard of any mention of the new season coming to PBS, which aired all prior season) or to Netflix.

David Speranza said...

Right. I've heard mixed things about it, but mostly that the performances are very good. It's listed among the returning titles.

Gareth said...

In the UK, MASH was usually shown without the laugh track, and on the very rare occasions they included it by mistake, it was very jarring. Having moved to the States a long time ago, I was very happy to discover the DVD releases had the option of watching without the laugh track, although my wife thought it was strange without it.

Carol said...

Yes, thank you for your review of Danger 5, David. I doubt I would have been drawn to it with only the Netflix blurb to go on. Unlike your excellent description, it fails to convey the brilliant inanity of the show, and foolishly does not include the two words that made me tune in immediately: "Nazi dinosaurs." Very happy to know there is a season 2 to look forward to. Thanks again.