This Week On Demand: 06/01/2013

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The first week of each month is always characterised by a huge influx of content to Netflix; what’s relatively rare, though, is so many of these new titles being noteworthy: this week we bring you over twenty films selected from the swarm of dozens, each high-profile in its own way. Even with this careful filtering, however, there are those films that slip through the cracks: worthy of focus, but not covered below, is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, subject of such controversy for the conversion of its IMAX sequences that director Brad Bird even came to comment upon the matter via Twitter. Thankfully, each of the films below can be seen as intended; read on to see which of them are worthy of your valuable time.


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All or Nothing

Returning once more to his social realist roots after the giddy, gleeful theatrical abstraction of Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh began the 21st century with one of his most masterful films in All or Nothing, a poignant combination of his most accomplished abilities in both drama and comedy. A typically perfect cast enact the emotionally transfixing tale of three working class families, each and every character made by virtue of Leigh’s unique manner of filmmaking to feel as real—perhaps even realer—than we ourselves. Timothy Spall and Leslie Manville are the towering highlights, playing a struggling taxi driver and his fatigued wife whose wearied resignation forecasts a grim future for their equally gloomy adult children. It’s not all desolate darkness, however: Leigh injects his dialogue with as much humour as pathos, each line as likely to draw laughter as it is tears, each character as wryly amusing as they are bleakly and beautifully human. MUST SEE.


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Blue Valentine

Debuting with an assurance of style and substance almost unheard of in first-time filmmakers, Derek Cianfrance constructs a heart-wrenching love story with Blue Valentine, examining the halcyon days of a once-idyllic relationship through the bitter lens of its endpoint. Gosling and Williams both provide career-best performances as the wedded Dean and Cynthia, reinforcing the film’s alternating structure of loving and loathing in the diametric opposition of their work from scene to scene. Shot with an intimate immediacy that aids immensely in committing us to these characters just as much as they to each other, Cianfrance commands the eyes and hearts of the audience at once, ensuring the dissolution of this marriage is as sharply and painfully real to us as it is to these jaded spouses. That neither husband nor wife, despite their respective misgivings, emerges the villain is a testament to the definition of these characters, and to the extraordinary compassion and commitment of these performers. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Butter

Struggling to replicate her small screen success with Alias in the movies, Jennifer Garner assumes the role of producer for Butter, casting herself as the politically-minded wife of a butter-carving champion who takes up the craft herself when he is encouraged to step down after a fifteen year reign. It’s a strange sort of idea, different enough to work in the right hands—Christopher Guest’s, for instance—but fumbled at almost every turn in those of Jason Micallef, who demonstrates in his first script a disappointing dependence on cinematic crutches aplenty, from the non-stop narration—of two characters, no less—to the unimaginative structure. A familiar cast of TV faces constitutes a solid supporting cast, Ty Burrell a stand-out highlight as Garner’s dominated husband, delivering the majority of the film’s sadly few effective comic lines. It may well be that Garner has what it takes to be a major movie star; a film the like of Butter is a certain move in the wrong direction. SO-SO.


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Dark Horse

Following up the copious controversy of his evenly audacious and experimental Happiness sequel Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz returns with Dark Horse, a typically misanthropic combination of miserable characters mired in bleak existences and the blackest humour imaginable. It’s Solondz’s great talent to craft lives so phenomenally devoid of pleasure and to then find within them surprising hilarity; Jordan Gelber’s Abe is among his more pathetic protagonists, an overweight thirty-something nerd living with his parents and working for his father, vacantly striving for affection within his sadly stilted life. Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow are all-too-absent in their roles as Abe’s parents, never given the time to make truly memorable characters of their roles. Gelber, though, holds the audience’s gaze with aplomb, his amicable portrait of this hopeful little man earning our affection as he moves towards a misjudged climactic sequence of events which almost, but not quite, strip Dark Horse of its impact. WORTH WATCHING.


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Escape from Alcatraz

Teaming with Dirty Harry director Don Siegel for the fifth and final time, Clint Eastwood heads a visually arresting, if narratively underwhelming, tale of thrills and tension. Structured around the titular event, where really it ought to be structured around the characters themselves, Escape from Alcatraz lacks any great understanding of these men, but in the hands of a master craftsman like Siegel it becomes a technical tour-de-force with palpable tension and a visual aesthetic of the richest detail. With the tight spaces of the titular prison, the omnipresent and oppressive bars, the shadows that fill the frame in the dead of night, cinematographer Bruce Surtees lends to the tale a visual poetry that says everything about the yearning for freedom that the narrative itself never manages to. What he does with the crags and contours of Eastwood’s face is nothing short of jaw-dropping, embellishing the story with the very sense of character Richard Tuggle’s script does not. RECOMMENDED.


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Iron Sky

“In 1945, Nazis went to the moon. In 2018, they’re coming back”; for years there was but this tantalisingly terrific tagline and the title for the movie it promised: Iron Sky. 2012 at last saw the release of the long-awaited exploitation comedy, casting lunatic legend Udo Kier as the moon-Fuhrer intent on enslaving the Earth under the reign of a fourth Reich. Wherever did it all go wrong? Iron Sky isn’t a bad film, let’s be clear there, but with a premise that maniacal and a star that sublime this ought to have been one of the year’s greatest cinematic spectacles rather than just an occasionally funny romp. The obsolete humour of a Sarah Palin-reminiscent President goes to show just how long a gestation period Iron Sky underwent; with so much time spent in financing and filming, it’s a great shame a little more attention couldn’t have been paid to making the experience a more witty one. SO-SO.


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I Was a Male War Bride

The penultimate of five collaborations between Howard Hawks and Cary Grant, I Was a Male War Bride falls short of the mark set by the pair’s masterful His Girl Friday, yet nonetheless stands a strong, socially-relevant comedy with much to say about post-war America. As ever, Hawks perfectly channels the manic eccentricities of Grant’s performance in this screwball treat, casting him as a French Army Captain whose betrothal to an American Lieutenant sees him put in the awkward—and, courtesy of Grant’s majestic work, painfully funny—position of legally qualifying as her bride. It’s only in the film’s final half hour that Hawks manages, much as he had with the earlier The Big Sleep, to reflect contemporary society’s gynophobic tendencies, the preceding hour a largely vacuous comic romp, enjoyable but predominantly devoid of the sharp criticisms that come into play in the hilarious last act, at last elevating the film to the level of the pair’s other work together. RECOMMENDED.


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Miller’s Crossing

Returning after the comic hysteria of Raising Arizona to darker territory more in-line with their debut Blood Simple, the Coen brothers created what many regard as among their finest films in Miller’s Crossing, a magnificent, meandering gangster picture both reverential toward its antecedents and embracing of modern moviemaking too. Gorgeously shot in autumnal hues by Barry Sonnenfield in his last cinematographic collaboration with the brothers, it’s a film of particular visual power, commanding the eye from its iconic opening shot to the very last frame. Gabriel Byrne heads an impressive cast as manipulative Irish mob man Tom Reagan, finding firm support in the likes of Albert Finney, John Turturro, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jon Polito. Such is the density of the plot that the Coens struggled to complete it, eventually taking a three-week break wherein the arguably even more complex Barton Fink was born: it may be tough to keep up, but it’s worth every second of struggle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Branching out from the representation of teenage angst with which he had by then become synonymous, John Hughes made one of his greatest contributions to popular culture in 1987 with Planes, Trains and Automobiles, a riotous holiday comedy uniting Steve Martin and John Candy as mismatched travellers struggling to make it back home in time for Thanksgiving. The rapid-fire rate and commendable consistency of Hughes’ gags coupled with the spot-on delivery of Martin and Candy make for a film deservedly regarded as among the finest comedies ever made, its unending hilarity even excusing some troubled last-minute efforts at greater dramatic poignancy. At once a classic raucous road movie, a brilliant buddy film, and an absurdist adventure through the landscape of contemporary America, Planes, Trains and Automobiles could well be a career highlight for its director and stars both; anyone who can claim to have made a better film than this has had quite the life indeed. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Rosemary’s Baby

Fully worthy of its iconic stature, Rosemary’s Baby’s simplistic B-movie plot of satanic fantasy is turned by the calibre of Roman Polanski’s direction to something a great deal more complex. Deserving mention above all else is Mia Farrow’s performance, an incredible display of maternal fears balled up in the sweetest innocence you could hope to encounter. Polanski’s camera often lurks in the shadows, particularly in the opening scenes picking out the frightful darkness in every corner, playing up the contrast between the good and evil of this everyday world. It’s a film with much to say about religion, though this thematic ambition is also its greatest failing: for all Polanski manages to say, for all his fantastic direction does with this elementary plot, this is not a film of unfathomable depth, its commentary restricted, its scope not overwhelmingly broad. What it is is a hugely effective horror, a well-oiled machine that knows precisely how to hold an audience right in the palm of its hand. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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Slumber Party Massacre

Touted in one of its own taglines as “the ultimate driller killer thriller”, Slumber Party Massacre wastes little time in introducing its power tool-wielding murderer, never bothering to hide his identity and giving him, across the entire length of the film, just a single line of dialogue. Such lacklustre setup is characteristic of the film, written and intended as a satirical take on the inherent sexism of the slasher genre, yet directed under studio insistence as though just one such voyeuristic and unoriginal outing. The result, of course, is a disparate mess of a film, providing cheap nudity-laden thrills to those drawn in by the offer of such exploitation, though just self-aware enough to facilitate some small semblance of fun in the course of its short viewing time. A healthy helping of gore, as ever, aids matters immensely; Slumber Party Massacre makes for harmless, hapless fun, though not nearly so much so as does Sorority House Massacre. SO-SO.


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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

For the vast majority of film franchises, there stands always a clear fan favourite instalment: a movie which perfectly encapsulates the overarching narrative and thematic concerns of the series, encompassing all at once what makes that particular group of movies so great. But then there are those precious few franchises where it seems consensus will never be reached: The Godfather; Indiana Jones; Alien; and The Terminator. For me, Judgment Day has always towered above its predecessor, Cameron’s sequel far better managing the original’s genre hybridity and bringing not just an improved action atmosphere, but far higher dramatic stakes too. The relative absence of horror tropes comes as something of a disappointment, admittedly, yet the increased importance of the series’ apocalyptic overtones more than makes up for that, rendering Terminator 2: Judgment Day a sequel both more entertaining and more aware than The Terminator, better equipped to engage the heart and mind both. RECOMMENDED.


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The Devil Inside

It’s a horror with neither scares nor any apparent efforts at supplying them; an exorcism film without any sense of religious thematic exploration to support its scenes of demonic ritual; a found-footage movie without the requisite directorial competence to cover up blatant cinematic staging; a shamelessly stultifying succession of stupid set-pieces without the self-awareness to recognise its own incredible idiocy; an ensemble piece without actors capable of serving these dimensionless characters, themselves not capable of serving the stunningly ordinary plot, itself not capable of serving the poor schmucks who—in search of nothing more than some fearful entertainment—paid good money to be fed this thoughtless, thankless drivel: it’s The Devil Inside, it’s one of the worst films of 2012, and it’s an insult to horror cinema as much as it is to most anyone with eyes. UNWATCHABLE.


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The Frighteners

Among the most digitally-dependant films yet made upon its 1996 release, Peter Jackson’s follow-up to his breakthrough hit Heavenly Creatures saw him return to his roots in horror-comedy, distilling the brilliant brutality of Bad Taste and Braindead to more mainstream, Zemeckis-produced, Michael J. Fox-starring fare. A showcase for the skills of the then-new Weta Digital, The Frighteners’ relatively primitive CGI impressed at the time but seems already out-dated, the supernatural story and the vast array of spectral shots thereby required seeming less-well served now, given just how far we’ve since progressed. Dated digital effects notwithstanding, it’s an entertainingly madcap movie, Fox’s psychic a likeable rogue of a protagonist whose antics in pursuit of romance seem sillier than one might expect to be aimed at an R-rating audience. Certainly the slightest Jackson film, it at least proved his ability to work on a larger scale, paving the way for his helming of The Lord of the Rings five years later. WORTH WATCHING.


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The Hours

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway forms the structural basis of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, being the common link that ties three women—among them Woolf herself, a 1950s housewife, and a modern-day member of high society—together across time. It’s the sort of structure that works wonders in novelistic form—fittingly, given its basis in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winner—but, subjected to the necessary abbreviations of cinematic storytelling, loses a great deal in translation, its thin attempts to justify the interwoven renditions of these lives never managing to excuse the scattered episodic format. What luck, then, that Daldry enlivens his film with so talented a cast, Streep and Moore bringing just as much to their segments of the narrative as does an Oscar-winning Kidman in the role of Woolf. Harmed though it is by the lack of structural cohesion, The Hours finds its feet in the strength of its performances, the impact of its score, and the genuineness of its emotion. WORTH WATCHING.


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The Machinist

Famed chiefly for its physically remarkable central performance, Brad Anderson’s The Machinist sees a starved Christian Bale star as Trevor, a sleep-deprived factory worker haunted by paranoia and vague memories of an evidently traumatic past. Weighing just half what he would by the time of Batman Begins only a year later, Bale casts a harrowing shadow, his portrait of this broken man far more powerful, alas, than the often-lacking script of Scott Kosar. It’s an ambitious psychological thriller with echoes of Memento, albeit echoes hushed to only a whisper: earnest as Kosar’s efforts at upping the tension and intrigue are, it’s an enterprise all too often undermined by the melodramatic overtones of Roque Baños’ score and Anderson’s unattractive grungy aesthetic. Kosar’s determination to surprise with the contorted machinations of his structure ultimately only does the film a disservice, his steady parade of narrative contrivances detracting from an otherwise engaging mystery. WORTH WATCHING.


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The Odd Couple

The second of ten onscreen collaborations between legendary stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau—they appeared, though not together, in JFK; the former additionally directed the latter in KotchThe Odd Couple also stands as their most famous and well-loved, its oft-emulated pairing of the slovenly Oscar and neurotic Felix producing one of the most consistently funny comedies of its age. It’s easy, the film’s innumerable iconic comic moments considered, to forget just how darkly it begins, the dissolution of Felix’s marriage leaving him a suicidal wreck for much of the opening half. Neil Simon’s script, based on his own hit play, marries these more dramatic aspects to the farcical comedy masterfully, the characters’ key roots in legitimate personal issues always intact regardless of the ridiculousness of their silly situations. Matthau and Lemmon are immaculate, needless to say, working off each other as only the finest of screen couples can. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


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The Usual Suspects

Even if you’ve never seen The Usual Suspects, chances are you still know who Keyser Söze is. Such was the profound cultural impact of Bryan Singer’s 1995 thriller, its central mystery and concluding resolution imbuing pop culture with a name that manages even to exceed the fame of the film which contains it. The true attestation of the movie’s strength, though, is that even knowing its ending doesn’t prevent full enjoyment, Singer’s management of a magnificent cast—Pete Postlethwaite, Gabriel Byrne, and an Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey are just three of the many highlights—and Christopher McQuarrie’s exemplary screenplay together crafting an experience that goes above and beyond mere twists. For all its multitudinous merits, however, it’s hard to argue that The Usual Suspects hasn’t fallen victim to an overbearing reputation: hugely enjoyable, sharply directed, and sublimely acted as it is, among the greatest films ever made it certainly isn’t. RECOMMENDED.


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The Warriors

A veritable cult classic boosted in visibility in recent years with the release of a successful video game adaptation, Walter Hill’s 1979 gritty gangster story predates the pulp-pop style of Tarantino by more than a decade, its contemporary soundtrack and violent narrative a key inspiration—lovingly alluded to in Pulp Fiction—on the then-young grindhouse aficionado. Hill’s camera cranes and pans along the less-scenic routes of New York City as he follows the eponymous gang, falsely accused of assassinating the peace-making head of a rival group, on their long journey home through the darkened streets. Simply structured around a series of encounters with other gangs, each out to take home a hefty reward, The Warriors is an immensely enjoyable action thriller with a sharp appreciation for snappy dialogue and an admirable ability to examine the darker aspects of its protagonists’ criminality, not least of all in an exceptional early performance from James Remar. RECOMMENDED.


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Topsy-Turvy

Operating at the opposite end of the scale to All or Nothing, Leigh’s immediate predecessor revels in its character-based comedy, using the far larger scale of its Gilbert & Sullivan biopic nature to enjoy the sort of fantastical fun the hard realism of Leigh’s modern-set films often precludes. Jim Broadbent is the certain highlight as Gilbert, contributing a ferocious energy to the film that provides a great deal of its sparkling wit and laugh-out-loud hilarity. Much as All or Nothing’s stark drama finds support in a strong undercurrent of humour, though, Topsy-Turvy’s antics are embellished by its slowly-mounting depth of character, the impressively measured manner in which Leigh makes layered humans of his famous protagonists across his 160 minute runtime a true feat of filmmaking. Present as it is, this depth never quite manages to match its comic counterparts in the way the best of Leigh’s work will; Topsy-Turvy could be described as lower-tier Leigh: that speaks volumes about the quality and consistency of his output. RECOMMENDED.


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V/H/S

Perplexingly praised by many as some great confluence of promising young horror talent, V/H/S’ admittedly inspired episodic structure found little reward in the increasingly staid stories supplied by its team of six directors. The nostalgic aspirations of the title and central conceit of a gang of thieves searching a stack of disturbing home videos for one movie in particular are admirable indeed, yet really it’s nought but a convenient means to string together a handful of overly familiar found footage scenarios, only two of the six really succeeding as a standalone horror short. It’s the biggest issue of V/H/S that the framing narrative, directed by David Bruckner, is largely devoid of merit, its characters as unlikeable as they are illogical, its scares as few as its moments of originality. Redeemed in part by strong work from Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence, both boosted by their late-order placement, V/H/S is a disappointing mess, but by no means disastrous. SO-SO.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • Daniel Tucker

    The only Mike Leigh films I’ve seen are Happy Go-Lucky and Another Year, the latter of which I adore. I am also interested in V/H/S, and really need to watch Machinist and Miller’s Crossing.

  • Well if Another Year did it for you I’d definitely recommend All or Nothing. Very similar style. V/H/S is worth a look I guess, though I’m obviously no big fan. I’m not as keen on Miller’s Crossing as many people are, but there’s no denying it’s a great movie.