This Week on Demand: 06/10/2013

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Editor’s Note: Reviews this week are by Ronan Doyle and Jaime Burchardt

As ever, the first-of-the-month content drop on Netflix gives us a whistle-stop tour through the history of American cinema, plus a few choice glances at industries beyond. Here we have some of the finest filmmakers the country’s ever produced, if not perhaps in every case their finest films. From erotic thrillers to westerns, iconic horror comedy to ironic horror comedy, if there’s not something here to sate your tastes, you’re just going to have to lower your standards.


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Citizen’s Band

An early effort for Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, Citizen’s Band takes as its foundation the simply unifying power of radio, following the fortunes of a disparate cast of characters connected only by their small town CB antics. Shouldered by a witty script from Paul Brickman, it’s a strangely funny little film, moving from tale to tale with little overt intent and being all the better for it. As much as the various stories Demme tracks might seem unrelated, Citizen’s Band emerges gradually as simply the story of us all, the little quirks and oddities and communal characteristics that constitute our humanity. Appealing low-rent, its minimal production values—Demme, like so many of his contemporaries, learned from the great Roger Corman—may be a little rough on the eye at times, but this is a film as funny as it is flimsy, well equipped to quietly entertain. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Congo

From the early to mid-‘90s, long-time Hollywood producer Frank Marshall was on a roll with his directing career. He had Arachnophobia and Alive under his belt. Confidence must have set in, because he decided to tackle one of Michael Crichton’s novels, which were hot at the time, and… well, that pretty much stopped that part of his career in its tracks. While it’s not completely horrid, Congo is a life-size mess. A team of scientists, business people and downright idiots go on an expedition to a lost city filled with diamonds, and it’s all being led by a gorilla that uses technology—1995-style, baby—to actually talk. Does it sound silly yet? It doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. The overall product may cause some headaches, but Ernie Hudson’s suave, charming performance and Stan Winston’s make-up effects—for the killer apes ONLY—are a couple of the aspects that prevent it from being one solid pile. AVOID IT. ~JB


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Dressed to Kill

An integral entry—the first, say some—in the erotic thriller genre, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill owes an equal debt to Hitchcock and giallo, from its Psycho­-esque psychological overtones to the black-gloved mysteriousness of its anonymous antagonist. Fast and loose in its narrative structure, it freely trades protagonists throughout, following at various points Michael Caine’s psychiatrist, Nancy Allen’s call girl, and Angie Dickinson and Keith Gordon’s mother-son pairing as revelations aplenty radically redefine the various relationships between. De Palma’s brisk pacing and a central trio of terrific performances distract from a slightly silly setup studded here and there with scenes of egregious dialogue. Whatever the script’s drawbacks might be, De Palma gleefully plasters over them with abundant twists and turns, making of Dressed to Kill a wildly entertaining offering, if not quite as intellectually engaging as it evidently endeavours to be. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Evil Dead II

There’s classic horror, and then there’s classic horror-comedy, and then there’s freaking Evil Dead II. First off, the approach to it is just bonkers, and an early warning sign that writer/director Sam Raimi himself is just a wonderfully off man. It’s half sequel, half remake as it retells the events from the first Evil Dead (another classic) with a different approach. A few minutes in, we’re at the end of the first one, and the second one just goes about torturing our “hero” Ash in elaborate and devilishly insane ways. It has a gigantic water tower filled with different shades of blood and gore, stamina that would make today’s horror flicks fluster, a story that actually pulls you in while not making much sense and, most of all, it has direction from Raimi that’s a staple in the horror genre. It’s as shocking as it is hilarious. And that ending… come on. MUST SEE. ~JB


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Fargo

The dichotomous nature of the Coen brothers’ filmography, established in the brooding neo-noir debut of Blood Simple and strikingly different comic sophomore effort Raising Arizona, has perhaps never been better brought together than in Fargo, the siblings’ sixth collaboration, and one commonly held to be among their best. It’s a consensus not hard to understand, as a typically terrific cast including William H. Macy, Francis McDormand, Steve Buscemi, and more enact a macabre moral tale rooted in the senseless stupidity of humankind. Harvesting hilarity from yet another gallery of eccentric characters, the Coen dialogue—or lack thereof, in Peter Stormare’s case—is at its finest here, benefitting from the particular patois of the Midwest. So too is the brothers’ building sense of despair: funny though the film may be, the death and destruction at its core is as bleakly bemusing to us as to McDormand, in her deservedly Oscar-awarded turn. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Forrest Gump

Seemingly losing more and more of its original acclaim as the years go on—not least of all among cinephile circles, where it’s doomed to be thought of as the movie that beat Pulp FictionForrest Gump seems on track, oddly for a film that earned some $600 million, to be worthy of the term “underrated”. For as saccharine and sentimental a film as Robert Zemeckis’ can be, it remains a fascinating examination of faith, its various symbols invoking the age-old question of destiny versus chance, a central concern its narrative sprawl across decades of American history addresses. On top of which, of course, it’s just a damn good story, entertainingly told under the auspices of a top-notch cast led by the Oscar-winning Tom Hanks. Endearingly and enduringly populist, Forrest Gump’s unashamed sweetness is its greatest allure; it’s a film, like its eponymous protagonist, so optimistic it can’t but be loved. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Ghostbusters

What more need be said in support of a film like Ghostbusters? It’s Ghostbusters! Much as the movie might advertise its age a little too easily, Ivan Reitman’s is a classic for good reason, boasting expectedly excellent work from Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd together with the rest of the first-rate comic cast. Much like a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man let loose on New York City, the movie gives its proven comedy talents the free reign of a huge budget, and its incredible returns—it’s the 33rd highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation—attest the safe hands they were. Rarely do comedies come to be so iconic; its unique blend of bizarre characters, cracking dialogue, special effects silliness, and the aforesaid excellence of cast makes of Ghostbusters a ludicrously entertaining slice of Hollywood history. Here’s hoping the on-again-off-again second sequel continues to stay unmade. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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King of New York

Arguably Abel Ferrara’s first mainstream hit, 1990’s King of New York saw the acclaimed independent director bring his extensive genre experience to the gangster film, enmeshing a modern-day Robin Hood story in a typical crime thriller. Starring a menacing Christopher Walken as the recently released drug kingpin intent on regaining control and sharing the spoils of war with the city’s poor, it’s a spectacularly violent story well served by Ferrara’s gritty sensibility. Frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John’s script makes an engagingly enigmatic figure of Walken’s gangster, never allowing us explicit certainty over his intentions or motivations. Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, and Wesley Snipes are the standout strengths of a diverse supporting cast also including an early turn from Steve Buscemi. If not quite standing on the same tier as Bad Lieutenant, the film with which Ferrara would follow it, King of New York remains an excellently entertaining effort, a top-notch gangster thriller. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Guy Ritchie’s films have always been an ultimate kind of divider between film lovers, and rightfully so. His first one, however—you know the one that dates all the way back to 1998—captures a very, very raw and intimate look into his crazed mind. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is just simply brilliant. A card game gone wrong in the seedy side of London sets off a series of unfortunate events between four best friends, and their must retrieve all the money they lost… or else. All of the other fine, established crime lords in London get roped in somehow, and it just… freaking explodes. The situations may not be original, but the execution is so intriguing and energetic you won’t care where you might have seen this or that before. Ritchie never quite recaptured the glory he achieved here, although Snatch came pretty close. MUST SEE. ~JB


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Resident Evil

Turning its survival horror source to Hollywood action is the first of many many issues in Resident Evil, Paul W.S. Anderson’s first entry in a now five strong film series based on the acclaimed video games of the same name. Creating a female action movie hero is one of the very few things the film gets right; Milla Jovovich’s tough-as-nails role is welcome, though hardly well-serviced by Anderson’s exceptionally uninteresting characterisation and preposterously perfunctory dialogue. A disposable supporting cast finds a small trace of personality in Michelle Rodriguez, though they’re mostly deployed merely as laser or zombie fodder. Anderson’s few efforts to implement the games’ eerie horror aura fall utterly flat, pushing him to progressively up the action ante in increasingly ugly ways. This is a movie as visually boring as it is narratively, stuffed with shiny surfaces that serve only to play host to spattered blood, the source of which we’re never given cause to care about. AVOID IT. ~RD


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Salinger (Read our full review)

If not perhaps the total train wreck certain reactionary reviews have labelled it, Shane Salerno’s Salinger is at least one of the most woefully inept of this year’s major documentaries. Backed with typical aggression by Harvey Weinstein, who ordered a new cut after the film had already been released to theatres, it’s a film that’s rightly struggled to garner acclaim. That’s courtesy, primarily, of its meandering motivations; ostensibly an effort to discover the man behind The Catcher in the Rye, the film eventually amounts to little more than a gossipy exposé of a man who sought little more than to live in peace. But it’s not just issues of intent that plague Salerno’s execution; he’s simply not a very good filmmaker, both his structuring of this story—such that it is—and his editing severely lacking throughout. Allegedly nine years in the making, Salinger arrived with little to show for the evident effort that went into it. AVOID IT. ~RD


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The Central Park Five (Read our full review)

Understandably acclaimed as among the best in a year defined by great documentaries, The Central Park Five compellingly presents the case of the eponymous young men, black and Hispanic youths sentenced in 1990 for the rape of a young woman. Revealed to be innocent in 2002, after each had served their sentence, the men’s story brought to the fore the issue of racial prejudice in the judicial system and the media. Interviewing the five and various others involved in the case, directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon present a disquieting story of institutionalised racism, smartly centring their harrowing account on the coerced video confessions of four of the young accused. That the directors’ relative inexperience in feature documentary filmmaking shows is small matter in the face of the extraordinary tale they tell, and the disturbing things it has to say about these inherent issues of the American criminal justice system. RECOMMENDED. ~RD


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The Field

Rather than follow-up the Oscar-winning hit that was My Left Foot with a move to Hollywood—he would wait until after In America for that—Jim Sheridan opted to stay in Ireland for The Field, an adaptation of John B. Keane’s play about an elderly farmer threatened with the sale of the land he has rented and tended for decades. Richard Harris’ Oscar-nominated leading role is a momentous turn, often overbearingly so, his gruff grandstanding turning character to caricature. Still, his better moments are extraordinary, investing the husk that is Bull McCabe with a stoic sense of humanity. Strong supporting work from John Hurt and Sean Bean make things all the more investing, helping to overcome the expository drawbacks of Sheridan’s dialogue. Far from the great exemplar of Irish cinema it’s sometimes held to be, The Field is a fine if only functional piece of work, often overdone but always interesting. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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The Last Days of Disco

The final film in writer/director Whit Stillman’s loose thematic trilogy, and his final work until last year’s Damsels in Distress, The Last Days of Disco portrays just that, centred on a group of friends as the world they’ve grown up in comes crumbling down around them. Led by a pair of pitch-perfect performances from Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, this portrait of the aimless adventures of these young socialites is an unsurprisingly intelligent affair, brimming with witty dialogue typical of Stillman’s observational style. Regular collaborator Chris Eigeman offers one of the movie’s greatest draws as a sordid sleaze ball who’s somehow so charming too, leading an impressive supporting cast. For all the positives, though, The Last Days of Disco seems often as devoid of direction as the characters it concerns, no more sure of where it’s going or why than they. Also like them, that never stops it from being a pleasure to spend time with. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Troll 2

Notoriously labelled by many the worst film ever, Troll 2 has found more success than anyone involved could ever have imagined courtesy of its explosive, ironic cult fandom. It’s far from the worst film ever, of course, its hilariously poor production values and utterly inept storytelling rendering it awful for sure, but inoffensive alongside it. This is one of those rare movies truly deserving of the “so bad it’s good” label, its baffling inability to recognise the extreme absurdity of its dialogue, story, and performances making for a terrifically entertaining experience lathered in disbelief. Can they really have thought they were making a horror film? Can they really have thought any of this would actually work? Those are questions answered in Best Worst Movie, the wonderful documentary by Troll 2’s star-turned-director Michael Stephenson, and a movie that aptly asks if a film that entertains, intentionally or incidentally, can really be bad at all. SO BAD IT’S BRILLIANT. ~RD


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Tsotsi

One of only three films from Africa to have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—and one of only thirteen in total not from Europe—Tsotsi follows its eponymous character through his life of crime in Johannesburg, centred on the moral dilemma he encounters when he finds a crying baby in the back of a car he steals. A premise-laden potential gives way to a rather mild payoff as director Gavin Hood steers the scenario in as safe a manner as possible, staying clear of any major moral questions the story might be used to ask. Still, there’s fine work here from lead Presley Chweneyagae, under whose command Tsotsi’s redemption plays out not quite so creakily as it might have. Terry Pheto is very good too in a role that’s interesting despite the obviousness of its plot mechanics; in fact, that’s perhaps the most appropriate summation of Tsotsi itself. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD


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Two Mules for Sister Sara

The second of director Don Sigel’s five collaborations with Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara pits the star against Shirley MacLaine in the title role, he the cowboy who saves her from a band of rapists in the middle of the desert. Maybe the least interesting of Siegel and Eastwood’s work together, it’s nonetheless a witty western romp, packed with audacious acting and no shortage of barbed exchanges between its odd couple stars. The appeal here lies in the unabashed fun: the risqué antics of the central sexual tension; the trigger-happy gunfights across the Mexican border and through a French outpost; Siegel’s expert employment of western tropes. Caught between Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry, the Siegel-Eastwood films that would redefine the western in a new urban context, Two Mules for Sister Sara can’t help but seem a little standard, yet it remains a solid effort, a fine bit of fun from a few old pros. WORTH WATCHING. ~RD

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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.