Netflix Streaming Theater Vol. VI

Let’s reel in the new year with a fresh batch of Instant Watch films that includes the outre, the classics and the forgotten among others. Netflix has added so many terrific titles that it’s been a buffet of indecision as to when I can viddy them all, but I’m plugging away like you, catching up on old and new favorites, so this edition will contain multitudes. Our Feature Presentations:

SALT & PEPPER (1968) – A surprise hit from BANANA SPLITS director Richard Donner, starring Rat Packers Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford as the titular pair of swinging London club-owners and bon vivants, I have no real defense for this ridiculous bit of fluff — that doesn’t mean I haven’t watched it about five times, specifically for the great opening titles. I’m a sucker for Sammy Davis, Jr. and feel his was the most unappreciated and underused talent of the Rat Pack. The plot, such as it is, entails something about our koo-koo heroes involved in 60’s style international espionage and their wacky attempts to find out who’s killing who or bombing whatzit; I’m still not sure nor should I care. There’s lots of “Playboy” era sexism and limp risque humor, such as the recurring joke with a group of English students calling out, “Fags” — for cigarettes, get it, guv? Each silly scene beggars reality, such as Davis wailing on guitar during a faux-rock number in a youth club, or the pair escaping the villains in a floating car boat. But Sammy and Peter are a likable pair of cads and their unapologetic ebony and ivory vibe is kind of heartwarming in the midst of the decade’s racial strife. Plus, check out that Jack Davis poster! However, the 1970 sequel, ONE MORE TIME, directed by Jerry Lewis, must be seen to be disbelieved and makes SALT & PEPPER look like a Billy Wilder farce.

FULL METAL JACKET (1987) – No, it’s not the best war movie ever made, as I’d put Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY (1958) up with obvious others like APOCALYPSE NOW, PLATOON among a few before this. But there is greatness here as in most Kubrick, particularly the entire first section of the film set at boot camp where we first encounter Privates Joker (Mattew Modine) and Pyle (Vincent D’Onfrio) learning how to become trained killing machines under the harsh tutelage of Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Emery), the most loathsome and charismatic soldier in the history of cinema. Expertly framed by Kubrick’s compositional mastery and Douglas Milsome’s icy blue lighting, this segment is a powerful indictment of the military during our misguided excursion into Vietnam, leavened by some pitch black humor courtesy of Emery’s endlessly quotable insults and D’Onfrio’s doltish grin (recalling one of the Droogs from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE). We all know how it climaxes, with Kubrick’s patented bowed-face-stare-into-the-maw-of-madness and Sgt Hartman on the rifle receiving end of his own protege. Sadly, the second half of the film set proper in ‘Nam, with a more wizened, cynical Private Joker and his team caught in a flurry of battle, is less satisfying, though not without interest. I would have prefered Anthony Michael Hall, Kubrick’s inspired, original choice for Joker; the sketchy characters don’t seem to have anywhere to go except through their paces and I’m not sure what exactly this segment has to say about America or Vietnam except that the combo leads to dehumanization, Stanley Kubrick’s subject du jour. One can debate for days whether this is an iconic masterpiece or a brilliant misstep, but there are moments that are forever part of our film DNA. Netflix presents this in crisp High Definition, and it’s certainly worth another view if only to remind us of an age when cinema masters ruled the screen.

“10” (1980) – Surprisingly, I just watched this for the first time following Blake Edward’s passing and was surprised at how less wacky it was considering Edward’s slapstick pedigree. No wonder since it was written in the early 70’s, obviously based on the filmmaker himself in a time of unbridled hedonistic introspection. Starring Dudley Moore during his second-act American ascension (that began with his scene-stealing in FOUL PLAY (1978)) as a bored successful songwriter undergoing the classic mid-life crisis who falls for a spectral beauty played by Bo Derek, “10” mashes up Edward’s cinematic sexual hijinks with somber meditations on age. Interestingly, the film posits a square attitude with Derek representing the callow youth of the age, even though she launched a fashion trend and hundred magazine covers; it’s hard to take seriously Moore’s lament that today’s generation only has “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” for an anthem in the face of his “elevator music” as Derek apropos calls it. Still, Moore is outstanding and the seduction scenes between him and Derek (who is actually quite good here) are more raw and insightful than I would have expected. And despite the generational chauvinism, Edwards was still a cultural forecaster, injecting the ponderous strains of Bolero into music cliche history. Julie Andrews doesn’t have much to do here, but Dee Wallace, Robert Webber and Brian Dennehy get juicy roles and the whole film has an aura of melancholy that belies its comedic nature.

NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1978) – Based on former NFL player Peter Gent’s caustic, raunchy best-seller (which I own), this is possibly the best film about professional football, a sport I admittedly could not give a shit about except what it reveals about our cultural character. Nick Nolte stars in a defining role as Phillip Eliot, a fading quarterback whose failing body is propped up by pot, sex, pills, booze and the glory of the gridiron. Due to his individual, idiosyncratic nature, he finds himself on thin turf with the hard-ass team owner played to icy perfection by G.D. Spradlin, who made a minor career out of such roles in the 70’s (playing almost the same part in 1977’s basketball sleeper, ONE ON ONE). Elliot has enough self-awareness to question the casual sexism and brutality of his teammates, well-played by Mac Davis, the awesome Bo Svenson and ex-pro, John Matuszak. He finds himself in a somewhat typical “beauty and the beast” relationship with a socialite who frequently questions his lust for the macho theatrics (yet doesn’t question her own lust for the stud). Ted Kotcheffs direction is top-flight here, and I’m particularly impressed by the locker room prelude to the big final game, an amazing scene that shows each player going through their own mental warm-up, replete with simmering rivalries and uneasy alliances. Charles Durning and Dabney Coleman add to the bonza ensemble, but it’s Nick Nolte’s show all the way in an Oscar-worthy performance; his epic monologue to the team owners is one of his finest moments. The film wisely jettisons the novel’s tragic, sensationalistic ending in favor of a more subtle 70’s flavored denouement. Touchdown!

THE LAST EMBRACE (1980) – Jonathan Demme’s first and least-known studio film is a strange Hitchcockian thriller about a frazzled agent (Roy Scheider) who may or may not be marked for assassination. He enlists the reluctant aid of the sexy, underused Janet Margolin (ANNIE HALL) and they find themselves in a confusing web of intrigue and murder. It’s great to see Russ Meyer regular Charles Napier in widescreen action and there are juicy bits from John Glover and Christopher Walken as well. Scheider’s nervous paranoid freak-outs are unusual somewhat unintentionally funny and the stoic nature of this thriller plot doesn’t fit Demme’s eclectic, generous style, but it’s definitely worth a view of only for a film unavailable on DVD and whose identity I only learned of last year. Or did I? Is this a set-up? A trap?

TWO FOR THE SEESAW (1962) – Another Forgotten Film newly discovered in the Netflix vault (and recently added to the 20th Century Fox CreateSpace DVD On-Demand line-up), this is a fascinating romantic noir about a staid, recently divorced lawyer (Robert Mitchum) who moves to Manhattan and meets your proto-typical beatnik (Shirley MacLaine) to form an uneasy love affair between two worlds. Based on a play by William Gibson, directed with maximum Panavision style by the master of studio filmmakers, Robert Wise, TWO FOR THE SEESAW has some of the most stunning black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen, the palpable grit and intimacy of New York adding to the texture of the odd couple; DP Ted McCord deserved his Academy Award nomination. In a nice surprise, Mitchum’s squarish lawyer only wants the best for the self-destructive MacLaine, and doesn’t attempt to turn her into a stay at home housewife. Their relationship is handled with a surprising amount of risque honesty given its studio pedigree, but Wise never shied away from controversy, a more subtle and less exploitive Otto Preminger or Stanley Kramer. Both actors are in top form and in fact would start an affair of their own after the production. While the poster promises a madcap love story, the film’s kitchen-sink ambiance belies any easy generalization. A powerful, memorable final scene.

11 HARROWHOUSE (1974) – Another long overdue title recently released by the good folk at Shout! Factory, this was a regular on late-nite television back in the day and one I never actually watched. Starring Charles Grodin (who also wrote the screen adaption with Jeffrey Bloom), Candice Bergen and the stalwart English trio of James Mason, Trevor Howard and John Gielgud, directed with stylish panache by former editor Aram Avakian (JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY; END OF THE ROAD; COPS AND ROBBERS), this is the very definition of a 70’s breezy, international caper film. Grodin narrates in his most deadpan manner (which Variety dubbed as “catatonic” and was oddly absent from the original VHS release, making it clear the voice-over was a post-production addition) as an underacheiving diamond-merchant who attempts a massive gem robbery from the high-class rogues at “11 Harrowhouse.” I adore this kind of urbane, methodical film redolent of a quieter pop era with a sleek Michael J. Lewis score, expertly lensed by Arthur Ibbetson (WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY; WHERE EAGLES DARE) in an excellent Panavision print and Avakian’s subtle mise-en-scene for his last directorial effort delivers the goods.

THE BEAST WITHIN (1982) – I still have the FANGORIA magazine that alerted me to the production of this unusual shocker and recall Roger Ebert’s TV review where he declared this the most disgusting film he’d ever seen. I vividly recall being at the drive-in with family and watching this mesmerized on the opposite silent screen of whatever forgotten film we had ostensibly gone to watch. Written by Tom Holland (FRIGHT NIGHT; CHILD’S PLAY) and directed by Philippe Mora, this is certainly one of the most unique, and yes, disgusting, genre films of the decade. The weird gothic story deals with the aftermath of a monstrous rape that leads to the birth of a troubled youth who carries the cursed “cicada” gene, intensely played by Paul Clemons (a genuine horror fan who made appearances in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND). Revisiting the Mississipi swampy scene of the crime, the beast within rears its ugly head in a revolting, show-stopping finale that helped usher in the totally 80’s age of the bladder-effect courtesy of future Oscar-nominee Tom Burman, who also originated the term “special make-up effects.” Undeniably sleazy and ridiculous; directed with genuine Southern-fried atmospheric dread by Moira, with a nifty character actor cast from Ronny Cox to Luke Askew to L.Q. Jones, sporting Les Baxter’s histrionic final score and an aficionado’s love of the horror genre, THE BEAST WITHIN is perfect drive-in fare or fodder. You have been warned.

SUBURBIA (1996) – Richard Linklater’s follow-up to DAZED AND CONFUSED, based on a play by Eric Bogosian, and set in Burnsfield, Texas (shot in my beloved Austin, natch), the story takes place over the course of one night as a pack of restless youth confront their dead-end lives in the form of Pony, the only one to escape and return as a minor rock star. Featuring an archetypal 90’s indie cast of Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Parker Posey, and Steve Zahn, Bogosian’s script doesn’t necessarily reflect genuine generational angst; I don’t believe that Ribisi’s Kerouacian writer and Amie Carey’s performance artist would be part of a gang that regularly insults the Indian convenience store owner (Ajay Naidu). But the actors are quite engaging, and there are many moments of truth and humor thanks to Linklater’s typically understated directing. SUBURBIA is not available on DVD but will be coming to Criterion in the near future. Hail Netflix for adding this worthy addition of cinematic anomie to the instant queue.

6 Responses to “Netflix Streaming Theater Vol. VI”

  1. THE BEAST WITHIN was one of those eighties horror movies that totally changed the way i looked at monsters. there was a weird kind of sleazy, ugly sexual undertone that pushed the concept far away from the imaginary realm, from the muppet show into reality. the were-cicada concept is totally mind boggling. the transformation is viewed as a human rite of passage, without the bore of simple metaphor (see BLACK SWAN for a missed opportunity of bringing back this aspect into full light).

    i remember X-TRO fondly too, in the same drive in genre.

    • What you said. The Southern Gothic backdrop combined with some weird black humor and the preposterous plot amid the psycho-sexual horror made for impressionable viewing. X-TRO does share some themes, tho it’s not as memorable.

  2. Thanks for the heads up on THE LAST EMBRACE and TWO FOR THE SEESAW – both of which I have not yet seen nor even heard of. Got ’em in my Netflix queue. Huzzah!

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