I should probably try to do this weekly, because I’m logging in too many titles over the space of two weeks to deal with all of them. At the same time, the problem of diminishing choices seems likely to set in fairly quickly. That appears to be the single greatest problem with Netflix.
I also feel that I have shorted the horror titles this round, but the bitter truth is I’m encountering more and more of these that even I won’t sit through. Plus, there is such a horribly generic quality — and title — to so many of them that I keep starting films that I soon realize I’ve already slogged through once — and have no intention of sitting through again. Though I have many times complained that the horror genre receives insufficient respect, the bulk of the low-rent, low-quality, low-imagination, and just plain boring crop on Netflix reveals all too well why this is. I love horror pictures. They’re what got me started on movies in the first place, but there’s a limit and this crap is well beyond it. At the same time, the dearth of horror movies has led me to seeing things I otherwise might have skipped over.
Ned Rifle (2014). Hal Hartley is less well-known these days than he was in the days before indie films started looking and sounding as processed and formulaic as their mainstream brethren. I hadn’t seen any of his work in some considerable time and was a little hesitant to watch Ned Rifle — his third and presumably final film in a series that also includes Henry Fool (1997) and Fay Grimm (2006). It is, in fact, a continuation of those films — Ned Rifle is the literal son of Henry Fool and Fay Grimm. The most remarkable thing here is that Ned Rifle is completely comprehensible as a stand-alone movie — never having seen its parent films, I can attest to that. (I have now ordered the first two.) And yet it never feels like it’s filling in background information. The pieces fall into place with an astonishingly natural flow.
It’s also a surprisingly complex film for one with an 85 minute running time. Essentially, it’s the story of Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken), who has been raised — following his mother’s, Fay Grimm (Parker Posey), incarceration for terrorist activities — by the very holy family of Rev. Daniel Gardner (Martin Donovan). Though four years of Christianity have shaped him, Ned’s only desire upon coming of age is to track down his father, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), and kill him for ruining his mother’s life. That, however, is only the barest set-up, since it turns out that little — and almost no one — is quite what it seems. It also doesn’t account for Ned’s poet uncle, Simon Grimm (James Urbaniak), nor for Simon’s obsessive stalker/fan Susan Webber (Aubrey Plaza), who is quite possibly unhinged and certainly has a secondary agenda. All of the main characters — except Susan — are played by the same actors who originated these roles, which perhaps accounts for the lived-in feel of these otherwise wholly improbable characters.
Ned Rifle is very similar to the Hartley films I have seen. The presentation is fairly straightforward, the performances often close to being thrillingly operatic, the humor absurd, but dry. There’s a deep sadness beneath it all — and something inherently, but elusively American about it. It also has a remarkable take-it-or-leave-it quality — like Hartley has made the movie he wanted and that’s that — which is actually pretty refreshing in this age of test marketing, focus groups, and pandering to a demographic.
Night Train to Lisbon (2013). The only other film I’ve seen from Danish-born filmmaker Bille August is House of the Spirits (1993) — which I also saw on Netflix some time back (and which is still there as I write this) — and in some respects the two films are very similar. They are both sprawling romantic and political epics with high-toned casts. Both are impeccably produced and beautifully crafted. At the same time, both slightly tend toward soap (not necessarily a bad thing) and feel like they ought to be better than they are. That is much more the case with House of the Spirits. Night Train to Lisbon comes much nearer the greatness its cast and look and look and sweep suggest. It’s probably no less overheated than House of the Spirits, but its blend of politics and romance — both doomed and hopeful — is much smoother, and Night Train blessedly lacks the dollops of dodgy mysticism that festoon the earlier film.
August is apparently a filmmaker out of his time. His view of the world and cinema is undeniably old-fashioned. He seems to place his faith in the unfashionable idea of the well-crafted, classically formal drama — and trusts that an audience still exists for such. Considering Night Train was picked up by an obscure distributor — Wreckin Hill Entertainment — little seen here and largely ignored by reviewers. Those who did review it were generally unkind, and I can only assume it was because the movie is formally made, out of step, and even a little slow (at least in today’s world).
I actually liked it a good deal. I’m even cool with its less than convincing premise that has a pokey teacher (Jeremy Irons) in Switzerland rescue a would-be suicide, end up with the book she was carrying and her tickets to Lisbon — and becomes so intrigued by the book that he throws caution to the winds and uses her tickets to pursue whatever mystery this is. What follows is part mystery, part romance (or romances, since the story moves back and forth in time), and, to me, all compelling entertainment. And with a cast that not only includes Irons, but Melanie Laurent, Martina Gedeck, Tom Courtenay, Bruno Ganzam Charlotte Rampling, Lena Olin, and Christopher Lee, I found little cause for complaint. A terrific ending and some echoes of Citizen Kane don’t hurt.
Before We Go (2014). It would be easy to dismiss Chris Evans’ directorial debut (in which he also stars) out of hand as insufficiently re-heated Richard Linklater (the connection to Before Sunrise is inescapable) — and, indeed, many did. I approached it with caution — even though I have nothing against Evans. (I even give him high marks for marks for Sunshine and Snowpiercer.) Truth is, it’s not that bad. There are even some really strong bits — the “My Funny Valentine” scene being among the best — and I never minded spending time in the company of Evans or his co-star Alice Eve. Special? Not in the least, but far better than you might think — assuming you aren’t allergic to this kind of romance.
High Lane (2009). You know those really annoying horror movies where really annoying people are set-up to become meat-on-the-hoof for inbred cannibals — the ones where each death is disturbingly satisfying since it means there’s one less whiny victim? OK. Now, imagine how you’d like to see it made by and with French people? Yes, that’s what this is. And guess what? It’s every bit as annoying, but with subtitles. That will doubtless make it more cerebral in some quarters.
Who’s Driving Doug? (2016). Not entirely unlikable, but mighty soapy drama about a college student Doug (R.J. Mitte, TV’s Breaking Bad) with muscular dystrophy who impulsively (and to get at his overprotective mother) hires a sketchy character named Scott (Ray William Johnson) as his driver. Well, before you know it, Scott has talked Doug — and the girl (Paloma Kwiatowski) Doug is stuck on — into a trip to Las Vegas on a supposed family emergency. What happens is on the familiar side and the film telegraphs Scott’s secret pretty early. Plus, there’s an arbitrary ending that’s an unnecessary downer that leads to a not very good “this is where you applaud” speech. Recommended? No, but there are worse things. The much-touted Death Cab for Cutie soundtrack is not a plus. (How could such a generic alt. rock band adopt the name of a song by one of the least generic bands ever?)
Great Expectations (1998). Yes, it’s the Alfonso Cuaron modernized version of the Charles Dickens novel. I should have known better — Cuaron himself has called it a “a complete failed film” — but curiosity won and I lost. Here’s the problem: What makes the novel great are the characters, the language, the setting. What the film has is…well, the plot (sort of), and that is not the best thing about the novel. In fact, moved to modern America, it only barely makes sense — and only if you’re charitable. The use of the John Ringling Home (with much added CGI decay) in Sarasota, Florida for the exteriors of Miss Havisham’s — now Ms. Dinsmoor — mansion is a nice touch, especially if you’ve been there. But that doesn’t make it a good movie. The characters seem to have gotten lost somewhere along the way and, couched in modern terms, Estella comes across as a plain old prick tease. A better title would be Diminished Expectations. The best thing about it is Cuaron next made Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Beneath (2007). This is one of those awful generic titles and is easily confused with other similarly titled horror pictures on Netflix. This one is about one of those deep, dark family secrets and has a pretty good old dark house with hidden passages, a purported monster in the closet, a suspicious-acting widower, and an ending that is, I believe, supposed to be clever. Maybe ironic. It’s not bad. It’s certainly watchable. And the less you know about the plot, the better off you’ll be.
Hush (2016). Mike Flanagan’s home invasion thriller Hush is magnificently OK, reasonably efficient, and bizarrely over-praised. This at least in part has to do with its deaf lead (Kate Siegel) who is unusual, and which makes the film light on dialogue. Now, that might be a plus when you consider the dialogue in most of these movies. That point, I concede, but that doesn’t make it the home invasion equivalent of Murnau’s visual story telling in The Last Laugh (1924). After all, there’s not much plot to convey — just a woman trying to fend off a nasty masked killer. It’s not that hard to do it with visuals. It is, however, mildly entertaining (if almost immediately forgettable) — and it contains my favorite variant on Chekhov’s gun. Here it’s Chekhov’s wasp and hornet spray — if it’s shown in the first act, it has to be used in the third. It is.
Zoombies (2016). Well, it’s no Zombeavers, but then what is? If the title Zoombies doesn’t clue you in that this Came from the Bottom of the Barrel, the poster should. I might also add that I have never heard of anyone involved on either side of the camera, and that it comes from an outfit called “The Asylum.” They made all those Sharknado things, so I’m guessing Zoombies is up to their usual high standards. It is, as you may guess, absolute crap. But the effects are so shoddy that it’s passingly amusing. Wait till you see those CGI elephants! Anyway, where else are you going to see flesh-eating zombie giraffes?