Welcome to the latest first-of-the-month content drop on Netflix, offering, as ever, a range of films both old and new, both great and very much not. As is always the case, we’ve done what we can to cover as wide a range of titles as possible; be it documentary or drama you seek, comedy or crime, thriller or action, there should be something to suit below. You’ll find faces you know and faces you don’t, directors at the top of their game and others at the bottom. You’ll find, if you haven’t already, that I’m struggling not to repeat myself when introducing these columns.
Angels of Sex
Variously released as Angels of Sex and The Sex of the Angels, Xavier Villaverde’s latest directorial effort certainly offers a heavenly view of the fraught ménage à trois at its centre. Despite the somewhat belief-stretching conclusion on which the movie comes to rest, it’s an interesting piece of work with a core trio of fine performances to hold the interest as it progresses to a slightly repetitive stretch of break-ups and make-ups between Carla, her boyfriend Bruno, and his man on the side, Rai. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is particularly good, making utterly believable every stage of Carla’s discovery of this infidelity. Álvaro Cervantes and Llorenç González manage a commendable chemistry, both with each other and respectively with Bergès-Frisbey, to complicate matters further. Villaverde has a tendency to stray into melodrama here and there, and his finale is a mess, yet somehow Angels of Sex charms enough to leave a positive impression regardless. WORTH WATCHING.
A Shock to the System
Arriving ten years before American Psycho, Jan Egleson’s cynical corporate comedy is jet-black in its humour, and immensely effective for it. Michael Caine gives one of the finest performances of his career as an office worker passed over for a promotion, chewing the scenery with decadent abandon as he decides to slyly kill off all who stand in his way. Tearing through the film with dialogue as sweary as a sailor, Caine looks to be having as much fun as do the audience, his murderous antics perfectly pitched by Egleson. Though perhaps overly reliant on Caine’s narration—Simon Brett’s novel formed the basis of the script—the film’s biting snarkiness is a treat to behold, its menacing view of ruthless capitalism smartly conveyed through an escalating series of often quite audacious scenes. A disappointingly straightforward plot is a sad drawback, though most will be too caught up in the maniacal magnificence of Caine’s work to notice at all. RECOMMENDED.
Earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, Chasing Ice belongs in that category more than in the Best Documentary Feature: it’s not a bad film, by any means, but its approach to its climate change subject matter is far from inspired enough to earn it any major awards. Following ambitious photographer James Balog as he attempts to capture the gradual decline of glaciers across the space of three years, it’s a visually stimulating and often genuinely striking piece of informative filmmaking, well-structured between Balog’s findings and the footage of his strained efforts to attain them. Director Jeff Orlowski likes to pit Balog as the heroic human faced with this monumental task, capturing scenes of his family life and returning regularly to his health problems to accentuate the selflessness of the task. It is, at times, a stretch too far, and Orlowski’s efforts actually tend to detract from the power of Balog’s research, which says all that needs to be said itself. WORTH WATCHING.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
An absolute necessity for any film noir fan, Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid—much like director Carl Reiner and star Steve Martin’s other co-scripted comedies of the time, The Jerk and The Man with Two Brains—is a movie of terrific energy and inventive wit, delivered with the silliest streak imaginable. Concocting a detective story around a selection of clips from almost twenty classic noirs, it pits Martin against the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis in a tremendously entertaining parody of the genre’s tropes. It may play better to those familiar with the films featured, hinged as much of its comedy is on facetious recontextualisation; whether a noir expert or a newbie entirely, however, what can easily be appreciated is the terrific charm of Martin and Reiner at the top of their game, spouting sharp lines at every opportunity. It helps, of course, that the cinematographic influence of the oldies makes the film look so damn good. RECOMMENDED.
Generation Um… (Read our full review)
It’s hard to tell what writer/director Mark Mann, who makes his feature debut with Generation Um…, thinks of the characters he therein hoists upon us. As the title so clearly indicates, the youth of today are apathetic and aimless, but the manner in which Mann makes use of stars Keanu Reeves, Adelaide Clemens, and Bojana Novakovic suggests a certain pity for their plight. It’s a curious film, feeling at times like a just-surfaced remnant of the ‘90s in the mold of Slacker; Mann’s use of a digital camera as a plot point is the only thing to really situate his story within the here and now. His characters are more the eternal shadows of disaffected youth than they are representative of a certain generational trend unfolding before us now. In a sense it’s actually quite fitting, then, that the film should be so aimless and empty itself. Alas, it’s not ironic: Generation Um… is just a tedious waste. AVOID IT.
How to Grow a Band
A platinum-selling mandolin player by the age of 20, Chris Thile left the comfort of his Grammy-winning folk act Nickel Creek to create progressive bluegrass act Punch Brothers in 2006. How to Grow a Band is their story, examining the conflict between the individual and the group, and more prominently between artistic experimentation and commercial consideration. There’s a magnificent scene towards the end of the film where director Mark Meatto, all along tightly cutting from performances to interviews, allows the camera to linger on the band in the throes of their music for a staggering twelve minutes, both it and the viewer appearing to become ensnared in this confluence of passion and skill, entangled in the majestic beauty of great music. This, more than any of Meatto’s efforts at exploring and explaining Punch Brothers’ atypical style, is what truly conveys the essence of what the film is all about: striving to do something that makes you happy in life. RECOMMENDED.
Imitation of Life
The final Hollywood production of melodrama master Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life sees the director again undercutting the surface gloss of high society to reveal the serious problems beneath. Racial inequality is his primary concern here, and there’s a terrific edge of cynicism to the way Sirk masterfully subverts Lana Turner’s starring role as a rising stage actress in New York to draw the viewer’s attention to Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner’s subplot of the black maid and her ashamed white daughter, who angrily tries to escape her heritage. Each earning an Oscar nomination for their work, Moore and Kohner are immense, whisking the film from under Turner’s feet and imparting a powerful social message to an unsuspecting contemporary audience. Therein lay Sirk’s greatness as a director, masquerading as a populist to deliver his progressive punches, hiding insightful social analyses in apparently innocuous melodramas.
Planet of Snail
It’s almost unthinkable, for a person in full command of their senses, what it must be like to be both blind and deaf. The challenges in just managing to live, let along in enjoying life, are all but unimaginable. It’s partly for this that Young-chan, the primary subject of Korean documentary Planet of Snail is so incredible, immersed as he is in a life far richer than most of us could ever dream of. Director Yi Seung-jun adopts an unobtrusive approach in observing Young-chan and his remarkable wife Soon-ho, herself afflicted with a spinal disability, silently watching as they together work to change a lightbulb or to entertain guests. Their love is humbling, heart-warming, and often hilarious; no amount of cynicism could deny the reality that these are people who have found the perfect match. An unending delight of a movie, Planet of Snail deserves mention in any collection of the greatest cinematic love stories of our time. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Once among the most powerful auteur directors of the New Hollywood era, Francis Ford Coppola nowadays more closely embodies the spirit of the independent filmmaker, his movies self-funded and distributed outside the bounds of the studio system. Tetro, released in 2009, is a fascinating work operating on many levels at once: ostensibly a simple tale of family wounds reopened as one brother visits another in Buenos Aires, where he fled years earlier, the film infuses its exploration of family with a bold examination of art, its multiple shooting styles coming courtesy of talented young cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who went on to shoot The Master. Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich bring the brotherly dynamic of Coppola’s script to life brilliantly, setting the stage for a powerful meditation on blood relationships and identity, both personal and familial. Whether by choice or by necessity, the small scale of a film like Tetro has brought out the long-dormant best in Coppola. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Deep End
Released just last month was What Maisie Knew, the fifth film from directorial team Scott McGehee and David Siegel. The pair first garnered attention for their second feature, The Deep End, a delicately observed family drama that uses the horror of a mother on discovering her teenage son’s gay lover dead outside their home as a narrative complication that ingeniously belies the underlying thematic simplicity. Tilda Swinton is, as ever, an immense anchor to the film, carrying it through some troubling script weaknesses with the raw power of her performance, at once embodying the best and worst of middle-class America. McGehee and Siegel impose pleasingly expressive visuals upon proceedings, the excessive fades of their editing the sole aesthetic drawback to an otherwise handsome picture. Clinging to certain clichés as it approaches its finale, the film never quite manages the full impact it ought to, but there’s more than enough ambition hear to earn these misgivings forgiveness. RECOMMENDED.
Too few people saw Mean Creek, the dark, brooding, often brilliant bully drama that comprised the promising feature debut of writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes. It was seven years before he returned with The Details, starring Tobey Maguire as a suburban husband whose marital problems drive him to infidelity, and whose growing pest problems seem determined to drive him to madness. Here embracing comedy, Estes is somehow even more cynical in his view of humanity, and the results are nigh-on disastrous. It’s a nasty film, a miserable and mean-spirited mess that seems to want to indicate the inherent ugliness of humanity but instead shows it perfectly through its own ill-will, the cruel comedy peppered through its senseless story. Maguire and his fellow cast members—Elizabeth Banks and Ray Liotta among them—are utterly wasted, sucked into the caustic, cynical void that is Estes’ script. Rarely is a film so thoroughly unpleasant. AVOID IT.
The Numbers Station (Read our full review)
It’s films the like of The Numbers Station that call into question the appellation “thriller”: sure, it may act firstly as generic description, offering an instant impression of what the plot may involve, but it also—mistakenly, in this case—suggests that, at some point, at least one thrill might be had. Not so, and as its lazily vague story—following a disgraced CIA operative tasked with guarding the titular facility and its code-reading staff in rural England—unfolds, The Numbers Station consistently manages only to bore. If only because he looks positively exhausted, John Cusack is a fine fit to the limited lead role, filling the character with what little humanity the writing will allow. Wasn’t it certainly doesn’t allow for is any chemistry at all between Cusack and Malin Akerman, who struggles her way through the leaden, expository dialogue, every bit as mind-numbingly dull as is this basic siege narrative. AVOID IT.
By 1997, Francis Ford Coppola’s stock could hardly have fallen much further. The glory days of the 1970s long behind him, 1996’s Jack saw the most unanimously negative reviews of his career—indeed of most careers. He bounced back well with The Rainmaker, a terrifically entertaining courtroom drama named by John Grisham as his favourite adaptation of any of his novels. Starring a young Matt Damon as an idealistic attorney whose view of the law comes to be corrupted over the course of a particularly disheartening case, it’s a sharply structured, sensibly paced work of top-tier filmmaking from a director who, despite his prior missteps, evidently still had it. It’s not without its problems, of course, chief among them a disappointingly standard romantic subplot, but The Rainmaker does all it sets out to do, making the most of a great cast that pairs Damon with Danny DeVito, Jon Voight, and Mickey Rourke. RECOMMENDED.
The final feature role of Marlon Brando, Frank Oz’s The Score is second a heist movie, first a curious coming-together of three actors at various points of a typical Hollywood career. Brando, of course, was at the end by 2001, appearing here as but a bloated shadow of the phenomenal performer he once was in the role of a criminal mastermind; Robert De Niro, his own descent from greatness then well underway, plays his would-be-retiree partner who opts to go on this one last job; Edward Norton, his star just born, is the young inside man. It’s fascinating to consider how the three between them reflect the rise and fall of Hollywood stardom; much more fascinating, alas, than watching the movie unfold. A by-the-book sequence of twists and double-crosses, it never once challenges any of its leading men to demonstrate the skills that got them where they were. AVOID IT.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Returning the cinematic representation of the zombie legend to its Haitian origins as seen in the likes of White Zombie, Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow sees the horror maestro put his own personal spin on the undead mythology. It’s his reliably creepy direction, best put to use in a series of remarkably unsettling nightmare scenes, that makes the film as interesting a genre piece as it is; the script, from TV writers Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, would fall apart in weaker hands. Bill Pullman is effective as the anthropologist protagonist, whose sceptical outlook gives the movie a nicely ambivalent approach to its supernatural subject matter. Craven executes proceedings masterfully, glossing over the plentiful story issues with his unique ability to turn matters from campy to creepy in seconds; his fusion of the two in the film’s bonkers finale gives us one of the most entertainingly eerie sequences of the great director’s career. RECOMMENDED.