With the growing popularity of Netflix instant streaming in the U.S. and its most recent arrival into Canada, we at Row Three would like to highlight some of the great choices available at the press of a button.
Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins)
Disney’s bloodiest, ickiest, smartest fantasy comes in the cult 80s fantasy, Dragonslayer. In which Ralph Richardson, playing the original Gandalf, and his cocky apprentice Galen do battle with the nastiest and most frightening dragon ever committed to the big screen. A fable about the loss of the old guard (magic) replaced by the rise of the new (Christianity), it is not so lamenting about it as J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) or Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy II). Yet, it is not shy about the sacrifices to be made, and how others will seize upon those heroic deeds to grab their own power. A surprisingly mature work (and also the only Disney effort to have a split-second shot of young breasts) that is very worth seeking out in the gorgeous HD stream offered by netflix, that maximizes the Welsh and Scottish cinematography, showcases the state-of-the-art Go-Motion technology to fully realize a live-action dragon, and shows of a very young Peter MacNicol’s gossamer blonde curls. A true gem.
Starman (John Carpenter)
On the surface, John Carpenter’s movie is pretty innocuous stuff: an alien (Bridges) lands on earth and takes the form of a woman’s dead husband and then forces her to drive him to Arizona where he’s going to get picked up by his alien buddies. I’m unsure who the target audience was at the time this was originally released but it’s a pretty bland little picture featuring Jeff Bridges as the alien (Starman) and the great Karen Allen as the woman driving him to Arizona (Jenny). There are some great moments (like the one in the dinner when she tries to run away but can’t face leaving Starman alone halfway to his destination) but for the most part, it’s pretty boring stuff – until the alien/human sex. Here’s Carpenter at his best: infusing the story with the horrific idea that this woman not only had sex with an alien but is carrying what appears to be the new messiah. The characters go through this as if it’s no big deal and this freaked me out more than the idea that Jenny had sex with an alien. Twisted.
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)
It’s pretty tough to choose a favorite Preston Sturges film – his output as writer/director was remarkably consistent and often brilliant. But I always come back to The Lady Eve, which sparkles so brightly I have to go watch it (or bits of it, just to get my fix) every few months. Barbara Stanwyck is Jean, daughter of a card sharp (Charles Coburn) who’s none too dull herself, but finds herself falling for one of her father’s marks, the heir apparent to a fortune in pale ale (played by Henry Fonda). When Charlie finds out who Jean really is, he drops her, but she swears an elaborate revenge that only begins with making him fall for the Lady Eve Sidwich, an alter-ego Jean takes on just for the occasion. Stanwyck is always incredible to watch, with just the right combination of street smarts and class, and being surrounded by Sturges’ strong stock company (including William Demarest at his most memorable as Charlie’s uncouth valet) only makes her stronger. The film is full of tiny moments of delicious humor, much of it far more absurd than you’d expect, and a surprising amount of warmth. It’s not got the depth of Sullivan’s Travels, perhaps, but it sure does put a giant smile on my face. Oh, plus I want Babs’ wardrobe SO BADLY.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Would you believe me if I told you that ALL of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was on Netflix Instant? Well, you should, because it is. I’ve been a Python fan for a long time, starting from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (sadly not on Instant). It took me a while to get into the absurd humor of it, but once I did, there was no going back. I’m sure there are a ton of these episodes I’ve never seen all the way through, but I started again at the beginning last night anyway, blazing through the first three episodes before even coming up for air. Great stuff, this, and no one’s ever managed to do absurdist intellectual sketch comedy (often in drag) as well since. I think my favorite thing about it is that the sketches aren’t self-contained, but feed into each other and into a main theme for each episode – knocks it even further above other sketch shows.
Kiltro (Ernesto Diaz Espinoza)
I’d been looking forward to seeing Kiltro ever since catching Espinoza’s fun-filled MirageMan at Toronto After Dark in 2008. This was Espinoza’s previous film and it also starred martial arts expert (and occasional stunt man for The Rock) Marko Zaror, so I expected a good balance of humour, great fights and less than great dramatic moments. While I still got all three, the balance wasn’t quite as good this time around…The story of one man and his pantaloons trying to first woo and then later save the girl of his dreams is goofy, cheesy and far too melodramatic – granted, it’s trying to gently poke fun at all those qualities. However, it just isn’t sharp enough to execute what it’s attempting and often ends up being exactly the kind of movie it was trying to spoof. Having said that, it pulls off several funny moments, has some gorgeous visuals that pop up occasionally and contains some pretty spiffy fight scenes with the absolutely ripped Zaror moving incredibly quick. The digital blood is somewhat of an embarassment though – even with a low budget, it looked pretty terrible. Unless, of course, they did that on purpose as another part of the spoof. If that was the case, it still didn’t work.
The Boogeyman (Ulli Lommel)
It’s probably not a great sign that I had to double check IMDB for a plot synopsis of this film even though I just watched it about a week ago. It’s first half is somewhat tame, standard 80s horror fare as it sets up the back story of a brother and sister. As kids, they had to put up with an alcoholic mother who allowed her boyfriend to tie the kids up in order that they not be annoying whenever the adults wanted some “private time”. Not being able to take it any longer, the brother takes matters into his own hands. This leads to both siblings being transferred to their aunt’s care on a farm where we catch up with them 20 years later. Aside from Willy (the brother) not having spoken since the incident, things seem reasonably normal. Not to mention dull. It plods quite a bit during this middle portion and never succeeds in building any kind of tension or atmosphere or fun for that matter. The movie was included in the bunch of “Video Nasties” that were banned in Britain in the early 80s, but you would never have believed that watching this first half of the movie. The second half, however, clarifies the situation…It’s still hokey and cheesy, but the evil from 20 years ago has now been released back into the world through a smashed mirror and things start to get messy. And pretty gooey too. It’s not that the back half is all that great to save the movie, but at least it tries something different with the “kills” and doesn’t default to a basic “Halloween slasher” film (the opening and its music were immediate warnings that it might). In the end it all ends up being reasonably entertaining, a little gory and something that probably won’t stick around in my thoughts for much longer…
The Servant (Joseph Losey)
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that feels like a punch to the gut and an intellectual massage when it’s all over. Imagine being wrestled to the ground by a stranger before walking to your college cinema studies class, only to have an enlightening discussion on an under-appreciated classic that you feel gratified to have discovered, and then write a thesis on. Losey’s The Servant leaves the viewer feeling challenged, emotionally-engaged, and grateful that artistic expression can provide entertainment value and an education in psychological warfare. The Servant clearly served as inspiration for guys like David Mamet and Neil LaBute, in which four central characters play mind games with one another in a way that is both disturbing and amusing at the same time (LaBute must’ve seen this before writing The Shape Of Things). Your sympathies change sometimes within the span of one scene, especially once the climax kicks in and each character reveals its true colors (which are often gray or opaque in nature). Everyone is incredibly flawed and in search of hedonistic needs to where manipulation becomes an art form in of itself. Losey worked with playwright Harold Pinter in a way that exemplifies the collaboration process – as the claustrophobic direction meshes impeccably with the confrontational and often malicious dialogue. There is no working class hero here, and there is very little redemption for all involved. Not only is The Servant a complex commentary on class and sexism, it’s relentlessly compelling as each layer unravels by the end. This film has become a gateway drug for me – I now want to see every Losey film and read every Harold Pinter play. For fans of dark character-driven theatrics that reveal the more calculating characteristics of human nature, you’ll want to put The Servant at the very top of your Netflix Instant queue as soon as possible.
-JIM LACZKOWSKI (directorsclubpodcast.com)