Cast: Frankie Avalon, Sterling Holloway, Jonathan Winters
Now this is what I like to see on the Netflix Instant Watching roster: another digital-only release of an otherwise almost-impossible-to-find film—and in its original “Toeiscope” ultra-wide aspect ratio to boot. This highly inventive 1960 anime adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s Monkey King manga remains forever burned into the brains of Gen X children who happened to see it in their formative years, and it continues to hypnotize kids with its compelling imagery, archetypal quest narrative and loads of transforming magical beings.
Despite the heavily Americanized redubbing (Jonathan Winters!) and rescoring (Frankie Avalon!), Alakazam (née Saiyu-ki) remains a high water mark in animation. This film is nothing more nor less than the epic Journey to the West, with Buddha renamed to King Amo and the Monkey King to Alakazam. Certain story elements are glossed over or awkwardly repurposed, but the English-language script retains a certain cracked logic that more than suffices to glue together the fabulous animated set-pieces, and the songs aren’t half-bad either. (Once you’ve seen Alakazam, you’ll instantly spot the film’s reference in the 2006 anime Paprika.) Sadly, the Netflix copy, while properly widescreen, is emphatically not HD. If you wanna borrow my laserdisc, drop me a line.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White
Ponyo is a great film. Some have dismissed it as sub-par Miyazaki, but those people are wrong. The intrusion of a cosmic magical force into an everyday community could be terrifying, but here it is only a source of joy and playfulness as the normal rules of reality are temporarily suspended. I saw this film five times in the theater, mostly just so I could watch the scene where Sosuke’s toy pop-pop boat grows big enough to carry him (and Ponyo) on a journey through a flooded town as prehistoric fish prowl through the water below. Wow.
So I have mixed feelings about Ponyo being on Netflix WI. On the one hand, this criminally-underrated and under-seen film should be viewed by as many people as possible. On the other hand, the delicate seaside pastels and fluid animation gets short shrift from the non-HD version available. Actually, it probably looks fine on the Roku, so go for it.
Cast: Denise Poirier, Matt K. Miller, John Rafter Lee
Tongues and orifices feature prominently in “Aeon Flux”
In the early ’90s the first handful of Peter Chung’s “Aeon Flux” shorts totally blew the minds of flannel-clad, bong-huffing, MTV watchers everywhere, and it’s easy to see why: They still stand up as quite unlike anything before or since.
Totally non-verbal, these mini-non-episodes delight in carefully setting up audience expectation, then sadistically subverting it by killing off the heroine (a trope in these early shorts) or suddenly depicting the army of pursuing bad guys as abused victims crying out for help. And what about the transgressive depiction of tongues and orifices and oozing alien eggs? Oh yes. The biological gross-out, as with David Cronenberg’s yuckier films, is high art here.
Erotic hair-licking in “Tide.”
Unfortunately, whatever temporary autonomous zone that was in effect to allow Chung the freedom to make these uncompromising experiments evaporated as the character and her dystopian world were suddenly crammed into a 22-minute format burdened with tedious dialogue and labored plots, in effect becoming what the initial “Aeon Flux” incarnation had been parodying. Aeon Flux died a final and permanent death after that, except for a crappy in-name-only film from 2005. Oh well.
You can watch all the episodes on YouTube, but the Netflix WI versions are higher quality (as good as a fresh VHS copy from 1992 anyway) and commercial-free. You can watch all the good ones in slightly over 30 minutes. If you want to taste just one, try “Tide” (my personal favorite).
Cast: Olivia Barash, Harry Dean Stanton, Fox Harris, Tracey Walter, Emilio Estevez, Sy Richardson
In 1984, British director and self-proclaimed "radical filmmaker" Alex Cox managed to get the backing of Mike Nesmith and Universal Studios to make what is probably one of the great American satires. By Cox's account, nobody was watching over his shoulder as he hand-assembled an eclectic dream cast and shot his highly subversive, anti-nuclear, magical-realist, science fiction, punk rock black comedy until a new studio boss came in and almost scuttled the whole project. The cult-favorite soundtrack and a highly successful New York run saved the film from direct-to-video obscurity, and for this the world can be thankful.
Our story begins in New Mexico as J. Frank Parnell, inventor of the neutron bomb, begins his woozy trek across the desert to Los Angeles in a Chevy Malibu with a trunk full of instant death. At the same time in suburban L.A., our hero Otto (Emilio Estevez, in what is easily his finest screen role) finds himself at a crossroads, unfulfilled by work or home life and unrelieved by bouts of anti-social behavior. Happenstance lands him a job as an automobile repossessor. Will these two narrative vectors eventually intersect? Of course they will. What Repo Man has going for it (in spades) is an impressive take-no-prisoners attitude. Everything in '80s Los Angeles gets the shaft, from Dianetics to new age alien conspiracy theories to drugs to vapid consumer culture. And somehow there's even a True Grit-like coming-of-age character arc as Otto learns the "repo code" from crusty old Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). It's profane, energetic, hilarious and a goddamn cinematic pleasure; if you haven't tasted the delights of Repo Man, now is the time. HD available.
Cast: Woody Allen, Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Michael Murphy, Andrea Marcovicci, Remak Ramsay, Marvin Lichterman, Lloyd Gough, David Margulies, Joshua Shelley, Norman Rose, Charles Kimbrough, Josef Sommer, Danny Aiello, Georgann Johnson, Scott McKay
The Front is one of the few films where Woody Allen acts without writing or directing (although I definitely suspect him of improvising), and it stands out as a container for one of his best performances. I realize he’s been making sub-par, semi-stupid films since, what, Radio Days? But as an actor saddled with a screen persona as archetypal as Groucho Marx, he’s never been better put to use than in this heartfelt 1976 comedy-drama exploring the chilling effect the House Un-American Activities Committee had on the entertainment industry. Certainly this is the only film where Zero Mostel and Woody Allen share screen time, which is worth something all by itself.
Allen is the “front” of the title, an unambitious cashier (and bookie) who agrees to pass off his blacklisted friend’s television scripts as his own. The comedy arises from the farce of the masquerade, the tragedy from the human toll of the HUAC witch hunt. It’s a subtle balance that director Martin Ritt (himself a victim of the blacklist) pulls off with flair: there are belly laughs followed by moments of utter grimness. Some people object to that; I don’t. The bookending of the film with Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” is inspired, and the final line is a precious moment of anti-authoritarian wish-fulfillment. I declare this film unjustly overlooked. Netflix rip is not only clean and widescreen but HD.
Cast: Megan Mullally, Tom Cruise, Janet Carroll, Joe Pantoliano, Curtis Armstrong, Rebecca De Mornay, Nicholas Pryor
Defending Risky Business from imagined detractors could be a full-time job. It’s the archetypal juvenile male fantasy: easy sex with hot blonde prostitute Lila (Rebecca De Mornay), chase scenes in fast cars (dad has a Porsche), no parents (they’re out of town) and the chance to triumph over Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano). The first line of the film encapsulates this so neatly it’s hard to believe: “The dream is always the same.”
Brickman’s pre-John Hughes sex comedy exudes existentialist ennui, teen hormones and film noir fatalism in equal measure. This is the movie that demonstrates the Tom Cruise star power, now so sadly depleted and misused for Dianetic ends. First-time writer-director Paul Brickman (he directed only one other film) made some excellent decisions, not the least of which was to keep things dark. The Tangerine Dream score telegraphs the director’s intent to make a black comedy, a satire even (Cruise’s character Joel is a member of the Future Enterprisers and he ends up running a brothel). So much the better.
For my money, the two highlights of this entertainment are:
(1) Joel burying his head in Lila’s shoulder after his dad’s Porsche ends up in Lake Michigan; her cold, cruel look into the 360-spinning camera is priceless. He is hers.
(2) The sex-on-a-train scene; Chicago mass transit never looked so much like a boudoir on wheels. The seen-from-a-train voyeurism/exhibitionism is even foreshadowed in the opening credits, a move not usually seen in ’80s teen sex comedies.
I don’t condone this film, but it’s very, very good. Especially considering what it is. If nothing else, it’s the best Tom Cruise film ever made. HD version available, if you got the bandwidth.
Cast: Marius Goring, Jean Short, Gordon Littmann, Julia Lang, Bill Shine, Anton Walbrook, Esmond Knight, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann
This Powell-Pressburger film, like all their other collaborations, is intelligent, well-wrought cinema with the focus clearly on the characters. But The Red Shoes is also one of those genuine classics that continues to be as brilliant and compelling as when it was first released—not only due to its double-wrapped, cruelly ironic narrative and eye-popping Technicolor sequences, but also for its incredible villain, the heartless-yet-charming ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, more inhabited than played by the great Anton Walbrook. Walbrook owns this film in much the same way fellow Austrian Christoph Walz owned last year’s Inglourious Basterds: You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on the screen. The surreal depiction of the title ballet is the high point of this film’s cinematic ambition, a 17-minute exercise in color, motion, trick photography and chilling gravitas that forever changed the way dance was depicted in film. The Netflix rip is more than fine but sadly not HD.
By any metric, M. Night Shylaman’s crackpot adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a fucking disaster. Kids in cineplexes across the country squirmed in their seats and couldn’t wait for it to be over. Key plot elements are either unexplained or mentioned casually in passing; the kung fu is weak, the bending is anemic; crowd-pleasing characters from the show are mangled beyond recognition, relegated to background scenery or left on the cutting room floor … the list goes on. It’s a stinker.
The real deal.
But unlike similar mass-market turdbombs that bilked audiences with promises of high adventure and delivered only boredom and incoherence—(cough) Phantom Menace (cough)—this one is getting the roasting it richly deserves. Critics, fans and racebending activists agree, there’s something for everyone to hate. Two weeks after TLA opened, here’s a roundup of the fun:
• “M. Night Shyamalan Finally Made A Comedy”: Charlie Jane Anders’ Pultizer-Prize-worthy post on io9. Hate factor: This is the high-water mark of TLA hating with lines like “It's an absurdist masterpiece, in which a million things happen but nothing takes place.” Delight factor: I’m still weeping with joy at how lethal this is. Charlie Jane Anders, will you marry me?
• Suppressed Reelz Channel “First Fans” review (at Century Rio 24 in Albuquerque!). Hate factor: Extreme! Hardcore fans in costume keep saying “It sucked!” over and over again. Delight factor: High. Burque nerds really get into their hate. Too bad Reelz pulled this off their website.
• Racebending.com: Takes exception to the lily-white casting. Hate factor: High. Delight factor: Zero. Would they have been in favor of this shitty film if the casting was politically correct? We’ll never know.
• “People Really Hate The Last Airbender”: Lovely roundup of mean film critic quotes. Hate factor: Medium. Hate once removed is less hateful. Delight factor: High. Why read the whole review when you can just read the zingers?
Cast: Paul Newman, Michael Ontkean, Jerry Houser, Andrew Duncan, Jennifer Warren, Lindsay Crouse
Besides having the most eloquently foul-mouthed script this side of Repo Man,Slap Shot is also notable for its utterly authentic backdrop of depressing, beer-swilling, industrial Northeast gloom (it’s set in Pennsylvania, but shot in upstate NY). Gleefully violent and crass, this film is nonetheless a class act with great comic timing and rich character work by Paul Newman, Lindsay Crouse, and Strother Martin. But it’s Nancy Dowd’s game-changing original screenplay that deserves most of the praise. Clean widescreen copy too.