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).


NEW RELEASES

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.

Yes, he's troubled, but he's hyper aware of the fact and is doing everything in his power to reign in his self-destructive tendencies and become a better person—not only to himself, but to his longtime girlfriend (now wife), Erin McGathy, who's clearly marked for some kind of sainthood in a future life. McGathy, a comedian herself, often joins Harmon onstage with friend (and MC) Jeff Davis and witty, low-key Dungeons & Dragons master Spencer Crittenden, who nearly steals the film from a willing Harmon. Harmontown is a funny, painful, and ultimately touching look at a flawed and complex personality whose compulsive honesty and unique comic vision have helped make TV smarter and funnier, while turning Harmon into an unlikely geek god among his equally pop-culture obsessed fans.

Other new releases worth checking out: 2014's two-part Houdini, starring Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly, and the French film Jealousy (2013), a relationship drama from film festival favorite Philippe Garrel, who's been stirring things up since the mid-1960s and is probably best known in the U.S. for 2004's Regular Lovers.

CLASSICS

Pickings continue to be distressingly slim in this area, with only four pre-1980 films arriving (one of which is the returning Taxi Driver). Of course, that's still three more than last month, so—progress. The three new arrivals make for an interesting group, starting with 1927's Wings, featuring then-superstar Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, and an unknown Gary Cooper. The first-ever recipient of the Best Picture Oscar and the only silent film to do so, this big-budget WWI melodrama was highly acclaimed for its realistic air combat sequences and remains a thrilling window into the history of both cinema and warfare.

Stepping back further into the past is the understated biblical epic, The Story of Ruth (1960), which I was previously unaware of but which sounds well worth a look, not only for its realistic performances but for the lack of DeMille-like bombast normally associated with such tales. And I bet it's a damn sight easier to watch than Ridley Scott's latest exercise in the genre, all the white people notwithstanding.

And then there's Sydney Pollack's 1975 spy tale, Three Days of the Condor, which—along with other Watergate-era thrillers like The Parallax View and All the President's Men—helped set the ground rules for the thousands of similarly themed movies and TV shows to come. Starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Max von Sydow, it's a tautly directed slice of paranoia from a time before exploding buildings and hundred-car pileups substituted for plot points.

PRESTIGE AND ROMANCE

Joining relatively recent Best Picture nominee Finding Neverland (2004) are a couple of earlier, less well known films: The Madness of King George (1994) and Shirley Valentine (1989). All three boast Oscar-nominated lead performances, with the first two also nominated for screenplay, so each should make for a solid evening's entertainment (especially if you're a fan of Johnny Depp, Helen Mirren, or, um, Nigel Hawthorne and Pauline Collins).

If you prefer something with a whiff of romance, there's Best Actress nominee Renee Zellweger showing off her granny panties to Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001); or Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as two damaged big-city souls in 1991's Frankie and Johnny. Criticized at the time for casting the indisputably gorgeous Pfeiffer in a role originated by Kathy Bates on Broadway, Garry Marshall's film version somewhat justifies the choice with Pfeiffer's touching, broken-on-the-inside performance and her obvious chemistry with former Scarface co-star Pacino (who's admirably toned down as the needy short-order cook). There's a weight and sadness to the central relationship not usually found in romantic comedies, no doubt due to Terrence McNally's adaptation of his own play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Marvin Hamlisch's overly emphatic score lays it on a bit thick, as does the "eccentric, lonely New Yorkers" theme underlining the film's first third, but once it settles down into the heart of McNally's play—i.e., the long, soulful negotiations between the two leads—it overcomes Marshall's tendency toward schmaltz. Still riding his post-Pretty Woman groove, the director does a deft job handling his two stars, showing us two adults who have learned the hard way just how difficult finding someone to love can be.

OR MAYBE YOU'D LIKE SOMETHING SEXY?

She was no Brigitte Bardot, but Rebecca De Mornay in the 1980s lit many a prepubescent loin aflame as Lana, in 1983's Risky Business. Despite having genuine acting chops, she never quite took off the way many of us hoped, her earlier, more notable roles in Runaway TrainThe Trip to Bountiful, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle eventually becoming outnumbered by bad romantic comedies and cable-ready thrillers. Along the way she had the thankless job of playing the Bardot surrogate in Roger Vadim's needless 1988 film, And God Created Woman, a remake in name only of his infamous 1956 classic. Co-starring Vincent Spano (similarly underappreciated) and a smug Frank Langella, this romantic drama is, as most Lana fans already know, worth watching mainly for De Mornay's frequent nudity and surprisingly erotic sex scenes (although I still worry about that spilled wine on the pool table). I had the opportunity to interview Spano back in the mid-nineties, and he claimed that De Mornay's conviction in those scenes was a way of tweaking her father, Wally George, then an outspoken, ultra-conservative TV and radio host. (That's right, you heard it here first, folks—and only 20 years late!)

Another not-so-great film with some smoking-hot love scenes is Dream Lover, a 1994 erotic thriller starring the still young and dashing James Spader opposite the so-beautiful-it-hurts M├Ądchen Amick, at the time known mainly as Shelly from Twin Peaks. What's interesting in retrospect (besides the full-frontal nudity and—OMG!—female pubes) is how unsexy Spader has become since then, while Amick, with a steady presence on television, is arguably hotter than ever. Could it be she shares some of the supernatural powers of her character in the recently cancelled Witches of East End? I mean, what other fortysomething, unenhanced American actress can still pull off regularly getting naked on TV—and look awesome doing it?

 WoNN Spotlight  Bitter Moon (1992)

And then there's Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, which has the virtue of being not only very sexy but very good. If ever a film was misunderstood, it's this overheated cauldron of kink. Starting out like an old-fashioned romance—Hitchcock by way of Harlequin—it soon reveals itself as a demented spiral into the obsessive nature of love. "Every relationship has elements of tragedy and farce," Peter Coyote's hack writer tells shipmates Hugh Grant and Kristen Scott-Thomas, a prim and proper married couple celebrating their seventh anniversary with a sea voyage to India. But Coyote's Oscar, bitter and wheelchair-bound, has his role as Ancient Mariner to perform, spinning a purple, erotically charged tale to make poor Hugh's eyelids flutter for the rest of his days.

Given Oscar's expat pretensions and frustrated talent, it's no wonder his story is so over the top—something many critics didn't seem to get when the film was released, mistaking its overripeness for directorial excess. But Polanski knows exactly what game he's playing, providing an extra dollop of ghoulishness by casting his young wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, in the role of the voluptuous object of Oscar's passion. As a relatively inexperienced actress Seigner may not always be up to the task, but what she lacked then in ability she more than makes up for with gusto (and is still at it, with hubbie Roman, in the recent Venus in Fur). If you were disappointed by the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, this may be just the toxic love potion you need.

CULT FLICKS

Much as Harold Ramis' expiring Multiplicity was swapped out this month for Groundhog Day, a flawed but visually rich Terry Gilliam production, Baron Munchausen, has been replaced by another, 2005's The Brothers Grimm. Ongoing conflicts and compromises with producer Harvey Weinstein apparently kept the film, starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the eponymous, adventuring siblings, from leaving anyone involved satisfied, but as with all Gilliam films it has its pleasures, not least of which is its showcase of the too-soon-departed Ledger.

"You fargin' icehole, I'm gonna put your bells in a sling!" Or so says Roman Moroni in Johnny Dangerously, Amy Heckerling's 1984 gangster spoof starring Michael Keaton and, in his only moderately respectable movie role, SNL's Joe Piscopo. I always get this one mixed up with Wise Guys—another, even worse, Joe Piscopo gangster comedy. But at least this one offers some genuine laughs and a handful of memorable quotes.

Announced just this week as the target of yet another Hollywood remake, 1982's animated kids flick, The Secret of NIMH, was made with love and care by Don Bluth and a group of Disney animators who decided to strike out on their own. Despite being critically well received, it had the misfortune of being released around the same time as Star Trek IIPoltergeist, and a little film called E.T.

And finally, they don't come anymore cult than Tank Girl, a commercial and critical flop in 1995 that had the distinction of being a comic-book movie back before such things were Hollywood's main product (and—how progressive—a female-centric one at that). Joining the ranks of such offbeat franchise wannabes as Buckaroo Banzai, Remo Williams, and Mystery Men, this movie-without-a-sequel seems destined mainly for geek completists, with bonus points for fans of Lori Petty, Ice-T, and the young Naomi Watts. (Wait, Naomi Watts? Okay, you twisted my arm. As if I don't have enough to watch...)

March 1

And God Created Woman (1988)
Best Seller (1987)
Bitter Moon (1992)
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
City of Ghosts (2003)
The Discoverers (2012)
Dream Lover (1994)
Evelyn (2002)
Finding Neverland (2004)
Frankie and Johnny (1991)
Grease 2 (1982)
Groundhog Day (1993)
Harmontown (2014)
Houdini (2014)
Jealousy (2013)
Johnny Dangerously (1984)
K-Pax (2001)
The Madness of King George (1994)
Masterpiece Classic: The Diary of Anne Frank (2009)
Paycheck (2003)
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
The Prince & Me (2004)
Rules of Engagement (2000)
Rumpelstiltskin (1987)
Shirley Valentine (1989)
Singham (2011)
Tank Girl (1995)
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
The Story of Ruth (1960)
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Top Gun (1986)
Twilight (2008)
Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
Wings (1927)

Returned

Better than Chocolate (1999)
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Crash (2004)
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Event Horizon (1997)
House Arrest (1996)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Patch Adams (1998)
Taxi Driver (1976)

March 5

Food Chains (2014)

March 6

Aziz Ansari Live at Madison Square Garden (2015)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 1 (2015)

March 7

Archer: Season 5 (2014)
Glee: Season 5 (2013)

March 9

Cesar Chavez (2014)
The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)

March 11

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

March 12

Force Majeure (2014)

March 15

A Different World: Complete series
Third Rock From the Sun: Complete series

March 17

Dummy (2002)
You're Not You (2014)

March 19

Life Itself (2014)

March 20

Bloodline: Season 1

March 22

Mad Men: Season 7

March 23

The November Man (2014)

March 25

Garfunkel and Oates: Season 1
Turn: Season 1

March 31

Ask Me Anything (2014)

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