Netflix Streaming Theater Vol. XI
Now we’re dipping into the serious Roman numerals. This reel go-round gives us a widespread new selection of film and television, and I’ve been pleased by the addition of Criterion Collection titles as well as a selection of HD films and some not at all on DVD. If only Netflix Streaming would add more sci-fi and horror…
THE GENERAL (1927) – I’m in the camp that considers Buster Keaton a genius beyond Chaplin (who I think just perfect in his own brave way); his wry humor and technical skill seem incredibly fresh today, devoid of artifice and sentimentality except when it counts. THE GENERAL is a favorite, an astounding action comedy that hasn’t lost anything in silent movie translation. The story deals with Johnny Gray, a sad sack train engineer, who is unfit to join the Confederate army and therefore unable to impress his girlfriend, played by the lovely Marion Mack. Once she is kidnapped by Union spies, he ends up leading the Yanks on a wild train chase through the South, proving himself worthy of a uniform. Amazing to think that this was a critical and commercial failure on release, but was eventually recognized for its cinematic mastery. Some of the compositions, modeled on Matthew Brady’s civil war photographs, are still stunning. And it’s plain hilarious, Keaton’s deadpan expressions are wonderful; I love the moment he puts his hands around the neck of his dim gal in frustration and then quickly kisses her. Orson Welles calls THE GENERAL “the greatest comedy ever made” and who am I to argue? Buster Keaton’s epic is certainly ONE of the best American films ever made. Netflix has raised the bar by bringing The Criterion Collections into the mix. Although the blu-ray is spectacular, this looks crisp and rich on the streaming screen.
DREAMSCAPE (1984) – Here’s one of those borderline cult sci-fi films made in the 80’s that I have fond memories of. This is a clever screenplay by David Loughery, energetically directed by Joseph Ruben, about a hi-tech dream institute run by Max Von Sydow (if only!) where charming, reluctant Dennis Quaid has the ability to enter anybody’s dreams and control the outcome that actually effects their waking — or dying — life. Sinister government agent Christopher Plumber decides to use his other Dream Warrior, a Bruce Lee obssessive played by David Patrick Kelly in another psychotic triumph, to give the President (Eddie Albert) such a scare he’ll die of fright in his sleep. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this premise and the film does its best on a limited budget featuring clever effects by Craig Reardon and others. A fun Saturday afternoon movie. Would make a great Quaid SF double-bill with INNERSPACE.
DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (2009) – So I called Harlan in 2002 and asked if he would be interested in being the subject of a documentary since I couldn’t believe one didn’t exist. He didn’t tell me to piss off and he wasn’t disinterested at all; he told me to call him later in the month. Life interfered with my devious plans and Erik Nelson wisely took on the task of documenting Ellison’s fascinating and controversial life in literature and other media. If you know nothing about his work, you’re in for a treat and if you’re already a fan, this is a choice, angry cornucopia of the father of cyber-punk. There are great rare clips of Ellison through the years, on television at the height of more literate 60’s/70’s talk-show culture and insightful interviews with friends like Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman. Nelson follows Harlan about, letting him wax and rant on a myriad of subjects. As he should be heard.
ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) – This influential showcase for the popular vaudeville duo and Universal’s most famous monsters might be the greatest comedy-horror film ever made. As others have noted, one reason why it works so well is that the monsters are not played for laughs, unless you count the ironic banter from Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to Wilbur (Lou Costello). The Wolfman, again assayed by Lon Chaney for the last time at Universal, is pretty scary here and when Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) starts killing people, you know the filmmakers aren’t messing around. You can see the influence on the John Landis classic, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), which features similar tonal shifts from humor to horror. I’m a minor fan of Abbot & Costello and this is of course my favorite. The print looks great in rich black & white with classic expressionist shadows for such a seemingly light effort.
KING OF THE HILL SEASON 1-13 (1997-2009) – I tell you what: this might be the best gold darn reason to have Netflix Streaming, just to savor the entire run of my favorite TV series of the late 90’s/2000’s. I never fail to laugh out loud (usually at Dale Gribble’s paranoid antics) and I’m more often than not moved to tears by the end of each episode. Hard to believe the anarchist creator of Beavis & Butthead could create such a warm, witty and satirical vision of a Texas suburbia, based on the one I lived nearby in the 90’s. The guest voices were better used here than on THE SIMPSONS, such as Meryl Streep as a Louisiana matron and Brad Pitt as Boomhauer’s cousin. Yep.
FUNNY GIRL (1968) – Fan though I be of 60’s Road Show Musicals, I admit to never having seen Barbara Streisand’s Oscar winning and multi-nominated triumphant screen debut until now. Wisely, Netflix Streaming features the fully restored 2.35:1 anamorphic version: Hello Gorgeous. FUNNY GIRL is loosely based on the life of comedienne/singer Fanny Brice, a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn filled with dreams and chutzpah who found fame among the Ziegfeld chorus and then on her own terms. Directed in super widescreen backlot staid by veteran William Wyler, co-starring Omar Sharif as Brice’s flakey charming husband, and with a cast of hundreds milling about, Streisand drives the film through sheer force of will and talent — it’s easy to see how fresh and exciting she would have been onscreen in 1968. And I think she’s absolutely smokin’ here. The studio walls and story around her already seem like an anachronism. Still, for a three hour Road Show spectacular, the script focuses primarily on her relationship with Sharif with her rise to fame on the sideline when it should be just the opposite. I wanted to know more about her role in Ziegfeld’s garish, ridiculous stage shows (Brice’s own vulgarity gives them taste). Herbert Ross directed the film’s fine musical numbers while Wyler shows his gift for well-composed deep-focus images and one or two impressive aerial shots. Since this is Streisand’s parade all the way, the supporting characters have been cut to the bone, only Kay Medford (from the Broadway show) registers in a Best Supporting Actress nominated role. Also nice to see Ann Francis and Walter Pidgeon together again after FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). People…people who need…people…
GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955) – This is the only Toho Godzilla film of the era that doesn’t feature Ishiro Honda as director yet retains Eiji Tsubraya as director of spfx, and for many moons it was one of the hardest to glimpse, least of all on DVD. Thanks to the remastered editions of Classic Media, we were able to finally view not only the butchered American version dubbed GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER (1959) but the original Japanese uncut release with the far superior title. Still, Netflix Streaming gives you only the American dub in a rather poor transfer, with the vocal stylings of Keye Luke, Paul Frees and young George Takei. Unlike the somber atomic parable of the previous debut GOJIRA (1954), this rushed production has forgettable human characters but the first of many Monster on Monster Battles that would define the Toho kaiju era. For the only time, the fight scenes are under-cranked, so there’s no lumbering about, only fast and ferocious attacks between “Gigantis” (as Godzilla is inexplicably called in the US release) and “Anguirus” or “Angilas” (as I prefer). Eiji Tsubraya’s matte and miniature effects are quite impressive; I particularly dig the puppet and rear-projection close-ups. This would be the last black & white Godzilla film, so the scaly silhouettes of the giant monsters blazing a swath of destruction through Osaka are still ominous.
ROBIN AND MARIAN (1976) – Like Terry Gilliam, Richard Lester likes to take the piss out of myths while acknowledging their power. This is obvious in his fascinating take on Robin Hood in his twilight years, featuring Sean Connery in one of his best roles and one that helped pull him away from James Bond and into his own legendary status (similar to the way Gilliam used him in TIME BANDITS). Written by James Goldman, the story deals with Robin Hood and Little John returning to Sherwood Forest after the long bloody Crusades. Maid Marion, spritely played by Audrey Hepburn after a long screen absence, has gotten herself to a nunnery while Robin’s nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham (a dignified Robert Shaw), almost pines for his return. It’s great to see Shaw and Connery face off against one another again, but it’s testament to their acting that I didn’t make the obvious FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE connection until late in the film. As in his wonderful THREE MUSKETEERS (1974), Lester tones down his quick editing to favor the random and matter-of-fact; watch the scene with Robin Hood slowly, painfully scaling the castle wall, the anti-Errol Flynn. David Watkins superior photography creates a burnished palette while John Barry’s elegiac score add to the autumnal vibe. The film takes a darker turn than the material demands, a very 70’s resolution, but Connery and Hepburn make a great couple and Nicol Williamson is untypically understated as Little John. A wonderful last shot. Highly recommended.
A FILTHY LIFE (2009) – John Waters is the inverse camp raconteur to Harlan Ellison. Both are outspoken in their respective fields and neither suffer fools — though Waters adores freaks. This is the film version of his recent stage show minimally directed by Jeff Garlin and maximally performed by Waters, looking like a pink cigarette wrapped in blue velvet, or Don Knotts in an AIP Beach Party film. The show follows him as he recounts his cinematic adventures from Baltimore to 42nd Street to Broadway, with pits stops to his odd childhood and crime trials and beyond. I laughed louder than the audience, but he’s one of the few souls on this planet that can make me consistently guffaw. I could listen to John Waters talk all day and night. How great is it that the King Of Trash has become an American Pop Icon?