It seems somebody over at Netflix may have been reading this column; perhaps in an effort to make up for the previous two weeks of less than stellar new releases, this week sees over 200 new films added to the site’s catalogue. Alas, it’s beyond me to cover that many movies in just seven days (much as I might have tried), so I’ve tried to pick out some of the most promising titles among the latest batch. Making a strong effort to widen the selection of older films, the database this week welcomes a wide range stretching all the way back to the ’60s, and giving us extra tastes of some incredible actors including Pacino, De Niro, Nicholson, and Keitel. The addition of three Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales is a particular standout, making the entirety of Corman’s acclaimed series now available on demand. Three movies from the much-missed Sidney Lumet offer a further highlight, including two of his most acclaimed masterpieces. Dig in and get watching; there’s never been a better reason to have a subscription.
So convoluted, complex, and confusingly caught up halfway between reality and fiction was Charlie Kaufman’s fourth screenplay that it earned Oscars for both him and his twin brother—who doesn’t exist. Arguably one of the most accomplished writing jobs in cinematic history, the Spike Jonze-helmed production benefits further from a truly brilliant double performance from a perfectly deployed Nic Cage as Kaufman himself and the aforementioned imagined sibling. Born of Kaufman’s inability to successfully adapt an autobiography to film, and eventually becoming a mind-boggling treatise on the human imagination, the writing process itself, and the indistinct borders between fact and fantasy, Adaptation is simultaneously a straightforward adaptation of a story, an entirely new tale in itself, and a sharp satire on the workings of the Hollywood system. A baffling masterpiece, this is simply one of the most monumental cinematic achievements of the new century. MUST SEE.
Released less than 2 months after the series premier of The Sopranos, Ramis’ similar story of a mobster forced by increasingly bad panic attacks to undergo psychoanalysis suffers considerably in comparison to that great work of televisual art. Aiming far more so for comedy, it consigns most of its laughs to the frail efforts of De Niro to convincingly cry, something the veteran actor just cannot do, for all his many talents. He and Crystal manage a convincingly comedic relationship that complements the central conceit, but there simply aren’t enough solid laughs in the screenplay to sustain the material at all. Additionally attempting to arouse some degree of dramatic sympathy with these people, it never succeeds in its efforts either way, leaving it a middlingly dull comedic outing hardly worth the effort of viewing. SO-SO.
More loose mixed martial arts exhibition than actual movie, this direct-to-DVD Michael Jai White vehicle heaps on the clichés in offering a trace of narrative alongside its fight scenes. I understand that films like this don’t rely hugely on plot, but do they have to stuff in such a silly, predictable and entirely stupid storyline? Better no plot and pure action than a clíche-ridden fleabag mongrel of a narrative: infused with entirely unfounded and unachieving sentimental drivel, it is the cinematic equivalent of a thin-skinned turkey stuffed with rotten innards. That aside, even the fight scenes themselves offer remarkably little of note or originality at all. White’s character manages to take out well established tough-man street fighters in single punches: fighters who never seem to conclude that attacking one by one is a foolish ploy. Tedious tosh. AVOID IT.
One legend meets another as B-movie king Bruce Campbell plays the king of rock-n’-roll himself in this marvellously madcap tale of Elvis and JFK teaming to take down a recently revived Pharaoh intent on stealing the life force of their Texas retirement home. With a brilliantly deadpan turn from Ossie Davis as a retiree claiming to be the former president dyed black to hide his true identity, Bubba Ho-tep offers no end of fantastically silly fun, the sight of a fully decked out Elvis hurtling along on a zimmer frame to do battle with the undead Egyptian the kind of thing that sticks in the mind pretty interminably. It tends to lull a little between the memorably audacious set pieces, but Campbell brings his A-game to bear, imbuing Elvis with a touch of dignified humanity amidst all the zany madness. RECOMMENDED.
After the ambitious but heavily flawed The Invention of Lying marked his directorial debut, Ricky Gervais reunited with The Office/Extras co-creator Stephen Merchant for his second cinematic outing, a heavily wistful coming-of-age tale set in 1970s England. Following a trio of teenage friends as they enter the adult world, Cemetery Junction manages much like Gervais and Merchant’s television work to expertly balance comic and dramatic aspects to give us rounded characters with appreciable personalities beneath their humourous lines. That the young cast more than manages to hold their own against the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Julia Davis, and an exquisite Emily Davis is testament to their talent, and to the affability the screenplay affords them. With a fine supporting role for Gervais and a glorious cameo for Merchant, it’s a fantastic transition of the duo’s talents to the big screen. RECOMMENDED.
Lumet and Pacino’s second collaboration—following the incredible Serpico (also available to stream, and required viewing for any self-respecting film fan)—tells the true story of a bank robbing duo whose unintentionally long-lasting heist makes them television superstars. Few films of its time encapsulated quite so many of the predominant cultural concerns associated with the New Hollywood period of filmmaking, Frank Pierson’s Oscar-winning screenplay addressing everything from Vietnam to the burgeoning instigation of LGBT rights in American society. Pacino’s performance is among the very finest of his career, the potent combination of his measured restrained and moments of emotional outburst yielding an irresistible emotional attachment to this inevitably tragedy-laden tale. Cazale is unforgettable as Pacino’s sidekick, the pair between them commanding the audience’s attention entirely in tandem with Lumet’s unparalleled command of cinematic space. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Van Sant’s second feature after the minimalistic Mala Noche casts Matt Dillon as the leader of a small group of drug addicts who turn gradually toward crime in desperation to fund their absorbing needs. Far more technically accomplished than his debut, Van Sant does far better here with a respectable budget and the benefit of a professional cast, crafting an engaging road movie cum intimate character study rooted in a real world story. Though the central relationship is what carries the film, the intra-group dynamic can get a little wearying at times, elongated argument scenes lingering on longer than necessary and growing more tedious than tense. Minor flaws notwithstanding, Drugstore Cowboy succeeds on the strength of its performances and the harsh truth in its narrative, giving a consistently realistic portrait of consuming addiction and the relative impossibility of ever really escaping one’s demons. RECOMMENDED.
With one of the most acerbically irritating opening acts of any film I’ve ever encountered, Everything is Illuminated oozes quirk like a seething pustule leaking cinematic bile. An aggravatingly awful sense of humour that regards the word “bitch” as the epitome of hilarity and finds the concept of a hip-hop Jew steeped in kooky charm makes the first forty-five minutes of the film less a viewing experience than a gruelling endurance feat. What’s perhaps even more annoying is that what follows is an actual story with a touch of engaging character drama and emotional resonance, showing the thus far untapped skill of all evolved. But even this, when it at last arrives, is so suffocatingly saccharine—stuffed with tinkling piano tunes, Wood’s tear-filled eyes, and facile ploys for emotional engagement—that it can’t quite redeem the film’s many flaws. AVOID IT.
The circular banality of everyday life gets a comically literal spin in Harold Ramis’ ’90s classic, with Bill Murray starring as the disaffected weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over and over again. Though Andie MacDowell is hardly the best of choices for Murray’s romantic interest, Ramis surrounds him with a fine supporting cast who manage to marvellously replicate their roles again and again. Perhaps it takes a little too long to really find its comic footing, but as soon as it does it soars, throwing great scene after great scene into the arms of Murray, who excels as ever. Growing ever darker and deeper as it progresses, Groundhog Day is the kind of comedy that uses its laughs for a greater purpose, telling us all something about our own lives in the process. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Brooks’ spoof of classic Hollywood suspense pictures riffs particularly upon the works of Hitchcock, reputedly with so great a deal of success that the master of suspense himself sent Brooks several bottles of wine to show his approval. With excellent roles for Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman as the sadomasochistic wheel-turners at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous, High Anxiety offers exactly the kind of fast-flowing genre-ribbing humour Brooks so excelled at. Packed with parodies aplenty—the Psycho gag might be the funniest single scene pastiche I have ever encountered—its appeal certainly isn’t limited to those familiar with the mocked films, these scenes and characters so iconic that they’re entirely recognisable to all. Typically well-written and cheekily irreverent, a classic Brooks performance helps make this a welcome addition to his delightful canon. RECOMMENDED.
The first of Corman’s well-remembered series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations—of which The Tomb of Ligeia, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Pit and the Pendulum are also available to stream and well worth checking out—might also be the most effectively frightening, more concerned with supernatural shocks than its later brethren. The surprisingly creepy effect of a white-haired Vincent Price vacantly plucking an out of tune lute adds the perfect touch of Gothic melodrama to the picture, and marks the beginning of one of the great unsung actor-director collaborations of American cinema. Corman’s uncharacteristically grandiose sets and lavish production design complement Poe’s work supremely, as does the marvellous line delivery of Price, his every utterance spiked with a trembling emotion that only adds to the seductive effect of the poetical prose. RECOMMENDED.
Christopher Nolan’s first outing with a major Hollywood studio bears all too many of the typical problems associated with Americanised reproductions of overseas successes. Stripping the titular infliction of much of the metaphorical character development role it held in the Norwegian original and using it instead as a plot point, Nolan’s version of the story of a police officer whose accidental shooting of a colleague might not be so accidental after all sheds far too much of what made Erik Skjoldbjærg’s film a resounding achievement. With so many unwise story amendments—not least of all a boring action-packed ending and the shift to Alaska itself, therein changing a plot point crucial to the characterisation—it’s not unenjoyable, but there’s simply no need to watch it when the same story has been told so much better before. SO-SO.
The second and far superior instalment of Eastwood’s wartime diptych, Letters from Iwo Jima gives a Japanese perspective on WWII heretofore unseen in American cinema. Eastwood has earned no shortage of comparisons to Ford; this could be viewed as his Cheyenne Autumn: a full-fledged apologist war film humanising those viewed for so long as demonic murderers rather than the equally innocent pawns of international warfare they really were. The emotive score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; the oppressive murk of Tom Stern’s cinematography; the titanic performance of the great Ken Watanabe: all adds up to one of the most affecting and ingenuous war stories the silver screen has told. A brave directorial endeavour, this is certainly one of the most significant achievements of a long and distinguished career, sadly denied the Oscars it deserved in favour of Scorsese’s long-overdue Academy anointment. MUST SEE.
It’s hard to think of a film that has resisted the passage of time as wholly as Sidney Lumet’s Network, the magnificent hysteria of its astute televisual satire only gaining more relevance as the years go by. Already assured fame eternal courtesy of Peter Finch’s arresting and iconic “mad as hell” speech, this is perhaps the one film that will outlive all others in its late director’s incredible canon, a considerable achievement as even those only remotely familiar with Lumet’s body of work will attest. Finch’s Oscar-winning turn is just one of a host of immense performances that add yet more to an overwhelming cocktail of contemporary media incisiveness and caustically cynical cultural analysis. A truly ground-breaking achievement that resounds as powerfully—if not more so—today, this is one of the most important works the cinematic medium has ever produced. MUST SEE.
Gary Sinise’s sophomore directorial effort sees him share the screen with fellow Steppenwolf alumnus John Malkovich in the second film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel. As the mentally handicapped Lennie, Malkovich is just about perfect, investing his character with an affable simplicity that never crosses the line into caricature. Sinise is just as suited to his role as Lennie’s protective friend, bringing to the role the brooding stoicism that he communicates so well with just his eyes alone. Steinbeck’s is a strong story that takes its time involving you with these characters and their relationships, and Sinise manages to translate the material efficiently, if a little unremarkably. There’s little in his direction to be marvelled at, nor in any of the film’s technical aspects. Mark Isham’s score is problematic, at first guiding the emotions but eventually coming across simply as overbearingly manipulative. RECOMMENDED.
Putting together two of the most respected actors of their generation, Tony Richardson’s cynical take on the US border patrol acts as a gateway to grand discussions on the validity of national boundaries and whether or not anyone has the right to deprive others of a decent life on the basis of birthplace. A moustachioed Nicholson plays the incorruptible new recruit against Keitel’s unscrupulous veteran, the latter’s cooperation with illicit immigration business standing as a sharp representation of America’s willingness to capitalise upon the poverty of others for profit. Social commentary isn’t enough to sustain a film of itself, however, and The Border does suffer from some extended periods of dull eventlessness. Even so there’s plenty in the prowess of Nicholson and Keitel to carry things through with a reasonable degree of entertainment; watching these screen giants together is a real treat. RECOMMENDED.
How is it that a serious horror filmmaker can expect their ideas to actually work when surrounded with jump scares? You need only be very vaguely familiar with the genre’s current state to know the incessant proliferation of films that adopt loud noises in favour of any sense of peril at all. The central conceit here isn’t bad: a young woman is terrorised over the phone by a former resident calling from the past, threatening to erase aspects of the future. There’s potential in the idea, but it’s treated with such plodding familiarity and a scattering of logistical inconsistencies that it can’t help but become yet another gimmicky horror failure. Though some decent performances tread about in the muddy gloop that is the insubstantial plotting, all genuine effort is wasted in the face of these flaccid efforts at sudden scares. AVOID IT.
Ever before his digital animation success with The Incredibles and Ratatouille and his triumphant break into live-action direction with last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird captured the hearts of many with his simple but affecting story of the friendship between a lonely boy and a weaponised giant at the heart of the Cold War. The message it purveys certainly isn’t a complicated one, but Bird carries the idea of mastering one’s own fate and refusing to be a slave to the system with such genuine dramatic poise as to craft something truly special. A wonderful voice cast adds an energised zeal to the colourful characters, with M. Emmett Walsh and Cloris Leachman in particular standing out in supporting roles. Stuffed with memorable moments aplenty and a heart of gold, it’s a true classic of animation. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The sole entrant in Corman’s Poe cycle not to star Vincent Price, The Premature Burial instead offers the lead role to a capable but comparably dull Ray Milland. The story of a man with a consuming fear of being buried alive who frets constantly about being buried alive before—you guessed it—being buried alive, it’s also by far the least narratively interesting of the series. Still, Corman’s excellent eye for an extravagant Gothic set provides no end of visual splendours, and the melodrama of his more impressive remains present in all its delightfully overwrought emotion. The absence of Price only goes to show how very necessary he was to the real success of these movies, but even without him Corman manages to deliver the goods to a degree, and the on-screen antics never for a moment grow wearying. WORTH WATCHING.
Starkly contrasted with House of Usher, Corman and Price’s fourth Poe-centric collaboration sees them team with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, adapting the author’s most recognisable work to an unexpectedly comic feature. Price and Lorre form a formidable double act, as well-versed in barbed verbal wit as in silly slapstick fun, the initial barmy madness of the plot finding a certain stability in the strength of their interaction. Once Karloff joins the party things get even more fun, and we’re soon treated to what must be one of the oddest duelling scenes ever committed to film. With an early role from a baby-faced Jack Nicholson and the joy of seeing three horror icons having a great time spoofing their own genre, The Raven takes the more fun side of Poe’s work and turns it into a brilliantly uproarious romp. RECOMMENDED.
A truly brilliant snapshot of the seismic shift underway in both the society and the cinema of America in the 1960s, Corman’s psychedelic fantasy paved the way for the likes of Easy Rider to follow. Jack Nicholson’s script offers some weak dialogue, but the focus is entirely on Corman’s imagery and what he does with his bizarre, startling, and engaging editing. Nightmarish images abound, quick cuts to frightening faces and darkness speak to ideas of existentialism, politics, sexuality, and societal upsurge. The briefest references to everything from Vietnam to feminism evidence just how incredibly aware the film is of the world that produced it, and what it says about these ideas and more by way of its highly innovative style is just amazing. Here’s proof of just how pivotal the great Corman was to the beginning of the finest period of American cinema. MUST SEE.
A great testament to the man’s terrific ability to work just as well within the confines of any generic formula, Lumet’s sole musical is a contemporary reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, set in late 1970s New York and capitalising upon the vast popularity of blaxploitation at the time, or rather attempting to capitalise: the film was a box office flop and a victim of much critical assail for its exorbitant length and the alleged unsuitability of Diana Ross to the role of Dorothy. While the former complaint is hardly disputable—shaving off thirty minutes would have been wise—The Wiz is a lot more fun than it’s been given credit for, deftly hopping from spirit-lifting musical numbers on beautifully decorated sets to subterranean horror scenes with serious creep factor. Richard Pryor’s fantastic scenes as the Wiz himself are reason enough to check this one out. WORTH WATCHING.
Plenty cried havoc when Tilda Swinton’s astounding turn in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was all but ignored come awards season, yet comparably few took notice at the hideous oversight that was Olivia Colman’s lack of plaudits. In a film defined by its performances, hers was the kind of jaw-dropping work that comes but once in a career. Playing against the unquenchable fire of Peter Mullan’s rage, her fully realised portrait of innocence and fragility is one of the most gutting and emotionally overwhelming performances of recent years. In his feature debut, Paddy Considine crafts a rich study of volatile personalities and the effects of destructive anger upon a person’s life, his script steering clear of contrived notions of easily obtained redemption. A harrowing, brutal, and draining viewing experience, but an indescribably rewarding one too. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.