Netflix Streaming Theatre: End O’ The Year Edition

Which means nothing more than it’s been awhile and I’ve been gorging on Netflix Instant Watch lately as they’re finally upping the ante on desirable films with better prints, some even in HD. With Netflix being added to home systems, I expect more title variety and better streaming in the future. So without ado, here’s twelve for the year’s finale.

SWEET CHARITY (1968) – One of the cinematic nails in the coffin to the bloated Road Show musical genre, along with the year’s other critical and commercial multi-million dollar disappointments like STAR! and PAINT YOUR WAGON, this is probably the best of the lot, at least in terms of style and panache. Bob Fosse helmed his first motion picture after years of Broadway success, bringing his pop eye to create a dazzling visual tapestry starring Shirley Maclaine. The simple story by Neil Simon of a woman who keeps ending up with the wrong men (including Ricardo Montalban), the excess weight on light stories doomed the over-priced musicals of the period and is in full bloom here, though sometimes to stunning effect, such as Sammy Davis Jr’s show-stopper, “Rhythm Of Life.” Watching Sammy tear up the screen as the psychedelic sham shaman makes me bemoan how underused he was in film. And in HD, the colors are eye-popping and apropos for this 60’s show-tune behemoth that stands as another relic for a dying studio era.

TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE (2005) – Haskell Wexler is my favorite cinematographer, not just for his ability to capture the poetry of the mundane or highlight the metaphor, but because of his dedicated political activism. He wrote and directed IMHO the greatest American film of the 1960’s, MEDIUM COOL, a brilliant treatsie on the nature of media in the age of pop and war that still holds revelations. Despite his Hollywood pedigree, he’s spent years on the sidelines for lesser known projects, and this documentary by his son, Mark Wexler, is a fascinating account of the divide between the private and public. Not surprisingly, Wexler’s son is rather conservative, and has little interest in his father’s progressive politics, which leads to a few of their debates. But Haskell Wexler doesn’t want the documentary to be about his work in Hollywood, but about him or them. So while we don’t get the inside skinny on working with Mike Nichols, etc., there are insights from his best friend Conrad Hall and even Jane Fonda. Milos Foreman does go into detail about how Wexler was fired from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST after a week or so of filming, tho Wexler blames it on politics and Foreman blames it on Wexler. The documentary has a sad, touching finale with the father and son visiting their Alzheimer’s ridden mother, and this says more about their relationship than any words.

MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982) – I watched this every time it was on HBO back in the cable day, and it was fun to revisit this charming nostalgic look back at the chaotic days of live TV starring Peter O’Toole as Alan Swan, an Errol Flynnesque drunken, swashbuckling star. Directed by one of my favorite actors, Richard Benjamin, the film takes place at 30 Rock in the studio womb of a “Your Show Of Shows” style comedy revue as Swan must navigate sobriety and a doe-eyed writer (Mark Linn Baker) charged to take care of him. O’Toole received a deserved Academy Award nomination and he’s the major reason to see the film, although the supporting cast have their own moments, especially Joe Bologna as the Sid Ceaser-like TV star, and Lanie Kazan as the archetypal Brooklyn Jewish mother. Good to see Cameron Mitchell too in one of his few non-exploitation titles of the decade. It’s mawkish and rose-colored, but that’s what the past is about. Benjamin has a kind spirit as does the film. There’s also a terrific musical theme that would have worked in any action movie of the day.

GRAND PRIX (1966) – I would love to have seen this MGM John Frankenheimer Super Panavision 70 mm Cinerama Road Show epic of Formula 1 and formula drama in a theater upon release. A technical virtuouso, Frankenheimer insisted on no process shots and keeping the 70 mm camera on actual speeding cars, including the one helmed by James Garner, who did most of his driving. GRAND PRIX was a big hit but panned for the rote theatrics between the still spectacular racing scenes. The three hour film is ponderous in that 60’s Road Show manner, but I always loved the intimate spectacle of these superproductions. The big problem is the laying of a heavy existential template over a speed sport, however deadly, doesn’t necessarily equal substantive answers or metaphors. Though I like Garner’s tortured driver and Jessica Walter’s opportunistic wife. Also good to see Toshiro Mifune though his voice was shamefully dubbed by Paul Frees. Worth watching for the Cinerama effort along with Saul Bass titles and Frankenheimer’s excellent kinetic compositions. The print here looks great.

USED CARS (1980) – Roger Zemeckis’s second feature after the wonderful I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (1978) was also produced by mentor Steven Spielberg, an unusual black comedy about competing  brothers (both ably played by Jack Warden) and crooked salesman Kurt Russell’s attempt to make a political name for himself. Breaking into the Super Bowl’s television signal, Russell launches a raunchy guerilla ad campaign for his lot. When one of the brothers dies, vehicular hijinx ensue. Although this may seem far removed from Zemeckis later effects-heavy output, the seeds of his hi-tech future are here (and in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND) as video editing is used to trick the television audience. There’s a fun cast of familiar faces (a few who would next turn up in 1941), such as Gerritt Graham as another superstitious salesman, and even Al Lewis as a hangin’ judge. Between this and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), Kurt Russell found his leading man metier, showing his broad range. Although USED CARS wasn’t a hit, Pauline Kael particularly loved it and while I don’t find it as fulsome as others, it’s open acceptance of avarice was a prophecy of the 1980’s.

SNL: BEST OF WILL FARRELL – I find Farrell funny in small doses and this is just the right amount. I’m including this here for his brilliant Robert Goulet music ad, “The Coconut Banger’s Ball: It’s A Rap.” Goulet crooning rap. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, God knows why. Goulet!

SOLARIS (1972) – I, uh, have a confession to make. I’ve never seen…a Tarkovsky film. Before you toss me out of the cinephillic’s lounge, let me tell you why I’ve never seen a Tarkovsky film: they’re too long and too Russian. Joking. I’ve been meaning to watch this science fiction classic ever since the Criterion Collection release, and happily, Netflix has added quite a few Criterion selections over the past months, including this one. Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem about a space station orbiting a liquid planet called Solaris, the crew have been driven mad with personal hallucinations that may or may not be manifested in reality. A psychologist sent to probe the mystery finds himself trapped within the memories of his deceased wife as she lives once again. I recall reading about SOLARIS in the early 70’s when it was confusingly screened at the 1972 Los Angeles Filmex festival (DVD Savant’s Glenn Erickson was there), and it seemed to match what I later learned about Andrei Tarkovsky and his arctic-paced meditations. In other words, Tarkovsky makes Ozu look like Robert Rodriguez. And yes, I’ve seen Soderbergh’s honorable version of SOLARIS, so I was prepared for the story, if not the lassitude. Watched in the right frame of mind and on the right day (in my case a perfect drizzly afternoon), SOLARIS is magnificent, its unbroken framing creating a hypnotic rhythm which carries you into the character’s subconscious and oceanic world beyond. The effects are more minimal and less impressive than DARK STAR, but their lo-fi nature adds to the stark sci-fi Russian ambiance. I am particularly taken with a controversial scene that tests or rewards the viewer, an extended journey by car through the neon freeways of Tokyo that either represents a memory trip to Solaris or a meditative travelogue. The nice thing about Russian science fiction is that there is no definitive answer.

ISHTAR (1987) – What was once hilariously synonomous with excess Hollywood budgets (30 million dollars) for a Hope/Crosby style road comedy is now a sub-cult favorite of the unaware and the hipster. Written and directed by legendary satirist Elaine May, the film’s delays and reshoots were reported with TITANIC-like disdain. I think the film is pretty funny, and I love the opening scenes with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as the Ed Woods of New York lounge music (with music by Paul Williams). They play opposite types, and their dimwit status is solidified by Hoffman’s totally 80’s headbands. May’s gift is in loose conversational skits and ISHTAR has plenty, even more when Charles Grodin shows up with his sorely missed dry humor. The problem is that the desert adventure grafted onto the team’s mishaps aren’t as interesting as their New York stories, though I like the jab at CIA-intervention policies. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography might be too lush, but it looks good in anamorphic wide-screen on Netflix.  In the end, there’s nothing wrong with this misunderstood 80’s comedy. As Beatty tells Hoffman, “It takes a lotta nerve for a guy at your age to have nothing.”

NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008) – Presented in glorious, eye-fucking High Definition, this detailed, fascinating look by Mark Hartley at the rise of the Australian exploitation film industry is my pick for best documentary of last year. I was unaware of the existence of a few of these films, especially popular sex comedies such as STORK featuring Bruce Spence, but it was good to learn the backstory of such drive-in treats like MAD MAX, STONE; ROAD GAMES; THE MAN FROM HONG KONG; PATRICK; RAZORBACK and of course, the notorious STUNT ROCK. This is a fast-paced, well-edited documentary with a bevy of great talking heads such as Quentin Tarantino, Richard Franklin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Stacey Keach, Russell Mulcahy, Dennis Hopper and even George Lazenby. Now I’m dying to check out these Ozploitation movies.

MY NAME IS NOBODY (1974) – This international hit produced — and clearly co-directed — by Sergio Leone made a brief star of smilin’ Terence Hill as the titular character. Henry Fonda returned to the Leone stable as an aging gunfighter coaxed into final glory by the lightning fast but peaceful warrior “Nobody.” A comedic variation of themes from his other mythic westerns, the film also carries a jovial Ennio Morricone score that sometimes riffs on his past work. While Leone didn’t want to entirely hand off the directorial reins, his visual stamp is felt in many scenes, particularly the awesome wide shot of the camera rising over Fonda as he waits for a phalanx of galloping bad guys on horses. I was always lukewarm to Terence Hill, whose antics were a pasta dish short of Franco and Ciccio — although I admit to a strangelove for his kiddie film SUPERFUZZ (1982). Yet Hill kinda grows on you here since he comes across as a kinder, gentler Man With No Name crossed with Jackie Chan. The movie’s sped-up slapstick is what will most test your patience, but since this is ostensibly a comedy, it’s acceptable. The somewhat faded print here is in widescreen anamorphic, but the German DVD release is the one to view for sharpest color and clarity.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (2004) – I missed this in the theater (as did a few of you) but I was always intrigued by the loving 1940’s pulp sci-fi magazine design of writer/director Kerry Conran. I love the story of how he turned an obssessive visual effects demo into a multi-million dollar film starring Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. So why doesn’t it totally work? I think it does as a dead-on recreation of the Buck Rogers World War II era, but the script and characters don’t fully engage us the way STAR WARS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK did with similiar tropes. Still, the film is retro-eye candy of the highest order, and I love the look of this world inhabited by molls, scientists, pilots, reporters, zeppelins and giant robots. I find Law and Paltrow engaging and even Sir Laurence Oliver shows up in a clever moment. In the end, some of the spfx have been surpassed by cut-scenes in video games, but I still tip my cap to Conran for his dedicated vision. The film is presented in HD and as such looks fantastic.

RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN (1980) – John Sayles is my favorite living screenwriter. He first came to my young attention with his smart scripts for THE HOWLING; PIRANHA; THE LADY IN RED; BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS; and ALLIGATOR. The secret to Sayles’ exploitation success comes from the fact he never talked down to the genres, but created a reality base so the mundane would seem more fantastic. Politics also inform all his work, the subversive medicine within the sugary exploitation. He took his Roger Corman cash and used it to finance his first feature for 60 grand about a reunion of college friends and activists using one house and local theater actors. The result was a surprising box-office hit that changed the face of post-70’s American cinema by launching the first wave of genuine independent films. What’s also interesting is that for a story steeped in the protest politics of the 60’s, the film is almost an elegy due to the ascenscion of Ronald Reagan and the coming legacy of 1980’s greed and consumption.

Though THE BIG CHILL (1983) was later accused of thieving Sayle’s premise, the films are quite different in theme and execution: Lawrence Kasdan’s confused yuppie characters are trying to find their better selves from days gone; John Sayle’s earnest group are trying to transition into adulthood while keeping their ideals alive. Although raggedly shot and acted, I’ll take the Secaucus Seven over the Big Chill anyday. I like these characters, especially Gordon Clapp as a naive Democratic speechwriter and Mark Arnott, the stand out actor of the group and the most interesting (he even explicates prog-rock — or “heavy metal goes to college” — in an amusing bar scene). David Strathairn makes his debut here as a goofy local who doesn’t have much in common with the Seven anymore. Sayles is a generous screenwriter, giving everybody an insight or moment to flesh out the roles, and he has an absolute knack for witty, naturalistic dialogue. The politics are subsumed and my favorite moment is when the group is wrongly arrested and you find out exactly what happened in their past protest life. Even better, there are no life or death revelations, and the twining friendships will probably last forever, as will their political dedication. IFC has added 56 titles to the Netflix Streaming, including all of John Sayles’ early titles, so this is a nice way to close the curtains on this streaming movie year.

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10 Responses to “Netflix Streaming Theatre: End O’ The Year Edition”

  1. Grand Prix is a movie I’d *love* to see in the theatre, given the proper treatment. Solaris too, actually: it’s a jawdroppingly wonderful film.

    I’d noticed, too, that the prints have been getting better on Netflix streaming. There’s still a lot of duff ones in the obscure old movies I like, though. :(

    • Yes, it would be great if the Cinerama Dome here in Hell-A did a nice run of 70 mm films rarely screened. They’ve done it before and GRAND PRIX would be worth it. The IMAX of its day!

      I’d like to think the good folks at Netflix are hip to my streaming column and have been upping the print quality accordingly;]

  2. I’m a big, big fan of the SKY CAPTAIN film and was bummed that it didn’t become a bigger hit so that Conran could make a sequel. In fact, he seems to have completely dropped off the radar. I guess the film’s financial failure pretty much killed off his career which is too bad. I agree that the characterization and script is weak but the visuals are just so damn beautiful to look at it and I’m a sucker for retro-futuristic/steampunk worlds that this film is one of my faves that I love pulling out and watching every so often.

    Also, nice write-up on MY FAVORITE YEAR. Love that film Haven’t seen it in ages but remember it being one that I would always watch if I caught it on TV.

    • christian Says:

      Tried to find some new project info on Conran but not much shows up. I hope he gets another crack at a feature, tho I’m sure his mad skillz will keep him busy with efx work. I have friends who just couldn’t get into SCATWOT but I think you need to get into its visual style and I did within ten minutes.

  3. Nice write-up guys.

  4. Mark Arnott Says:

    I just gotta say I’m tickled pink to be anointed a stand-out in that company. Thanks. It was a hoot to make, that movie, and a good time.

  5. christian Says:

    Mark, much blessings on you for stopping by! I’m enamored of your performance in the film. If you have anything to share about the making of this classic, please chime in!

  6. Nice write-up,thank you.

  7. […] UNLEASHED (2010) – Directed by Mark Hartley, who did the fantastic Ozploitation documentary, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008), trains his outre eye on the Filipino film industry that thrived in the late 60′s and […]

  8. […] UNLEASHED (2010) – Directed by Mark Hartley, who did the fantastic Ozploitation documentary, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008), trains his outre eye on the Filipino film industry that thrived in the late 60′s and […]

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