Though I fought it off as long as I could and at first used it strictly to explore — sometimes fruitfully, more often not — new titles for the Thursday Horror Picture Show, I freely admit that I have become something of a Netflix junkie. The irony here is that it’s not even my account. It belongs to my wife, who finds herself on the receiving end of some pretty strange “because you liked” suggestions. That said, I maintain that any outfit that says, because I watched some dumb entrail-munching zombie movie (that I may or may not have watched) I might like John Ford’s The Quiet Man has serious issues. (And what in Clapton’s name makes liking Fritz Lang’s Metropolis lead to the suggestion that I’d want to watch the collected episodes of Roseanne?)
None of those who read the comments in the “Weekly Reeler” are apt to find this online addiction a surprise, since I’ve already performed such dubious…er…services as offering breakdowns on the relative merits of such things as The Prophecy series in the comments. I was going to do the same with the infinitely depressing Children of the Corn movies, but, A.) I found I couldn’t keep track of which film was which, B.) had no intention of watching them again to research the fact, and C.) was going to find myself in the quandary of the book reviewer in Denys Arcand’s Love & Human Remains, posing the question: “How do you say ‘it’s shit’ for 600 words.”
I plead a certain degree of extenuating circumstances since my recent up-and-down health has me housebound a lot of the time, and prey to the ease of wandering around Netflix on my computer and looking for things that might be worth a spin or, at the very least, are not outright Moose Fellation Parties. This is harder than you might think. Or maybe not. I made it through about five minutes of some obnoxious outburst of cinematic offal called #Horror (the title should have told me) before having a moment of clarity and skipping to the end (this usually prevents the abomination from landing in the “Continue Watching” column). In any case, it occurred to me that these mixed experiences might be better served to be put into something like this format.
Pick of the Litter:
Before I Disappear (2014). I’d seen this on the Netflix roster for some time, but had steered clear of it because I had so loved writer-director-star Shawn Christensen’s Oscar-winning short film Curfew (2012) — and I immediately recognized this was an expanded remake of a film that was nigh on to perfect at 19 minutes. How padded might it feel at 93 minutes? The surprise is that it isn’t in the least padded. Instead it provides a much more complex version of the story that incorporates (sometimes elaborates on) all the elements that made the short film so special and adds to them in terms of characters, motivations, and events. And it results in a thoroughly satisfying watch — the kind of movie you walk away from wondering why it didn’t play locally. (The 18 negative to 7 positive reviews may not have helped, of course.)
The premise remains the same as the short film. After slitting his wrists and waiting to die peacefully in his bath, Richie (Christensen) gets a phone call from his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum) asking him to baby sit his equally estranged niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek, who, like Christensen, had been in the short). Already slightly addled — and apparently at a loss to turn his sister — he agrees, clambers out of the tub, crudely bandages his wrists, and sets off (after some false starts) on what turns to be an evening of some note — and no little transformation. As I say, it retains Curfew’s high points — like the dance in the bowling alley and Richie’s flip-book animation — but expands on them and enhances them. Significantly expanded is the short’s hallucinatory nature (see the brilliant use of Bowie’s “Five Years” early on, for starters), something that makes the bowling alley dance number seem both more of a piece with the whole film. (The whole film plays a bit like a neon nightmare of New York City.) Yet the scene is now also more sinister in a “freak-out” sense where it’s obvious Richie doubts his own grasp on reality. (This, by the way, may be in part fueled by an overdose of menopause medication.) I suspect I will actually buy this one.
Hard Labor. (2011) This slow-as-molasses “horror” picture (I use the term loosely) from Brazil seems to have been nominated for one of those vaguely incomprehensible categories at Cannes — “Un Certain Regard Award.” Why, I’ll never know. That it took till 2015 to make it to the U.S. is more easily explained. This film — co-directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Ross — is the largely tedious story of a woman opening a grocery store (looking it up already, aren’t you?) in a location with a suspect past. That past has something to do with peculiar smells, clogging drains, and something that looks like rising damp, but turns out to be moderately more menacing — at least in a past-tense manner. None of this really goes anywhere of note, and apart from a blandly sinister atmosphere, I can find nothing to recommend it.
Curdled. (1996) This bloody black comedy from someone named Reb Braddock (who seems to have gone into education as Associate Dean at Florida State University College of Motion Picture, Television, and Recording Arts) is the sort of thing that was probably a lot funnier in 1996 than it is now. (I find this aging problem to be true of a lot of modern comedy — especially, the kind that tries to shock the viewer, which this very much is.) It’s the sort of thing that rode in on the strength of the involvement of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez — and a connection to Pulp Fiction. Fine, but this story about a serial-killer-fixated young woman (Angela Jones), who gets a job cleaning crime scenes is…well, pretty obvious early on. That it’s going to end being a bloody game of cat and mouse between her and the serial killer (William Baldwin) is telegraphed way too soon. It’s not so much bad as it’s just OK.
Dressed to Kill. (1941) This is one of those inexplicable out of nowhere Netflix oddities. Eugene Forde’s Dressed to Kill (predating and unconnected to both the Sherlock Holmes film and the Brian De Palma one of the same name) is the third of six movies 20th Century Fox made starring Lloyd Nolan as wisecracking gumshoe Michael Shayne. There’s nothing odd about the series. What’s odd is why they acquired (and buried, of course) this one film only. Regardless, this is a lot of fun — a fast-paced (74 minute) mystery comedy with a likable leading man and an equally appealing supporting cast (including comedy from Ben Carter and Mantan Moreland). The biggest surprise is the usually perfidious Henry Daniell in a pleasant and humorous role. (Look fast for Hamilton MacFadden — the original director and architect of Fox’s Charlie Chan series — as a reporter.) The mystery is no great shakes — I’m saying you’ll probably spot the killer early in the games — but the comedy and the pace more than makes up for it.
Charlie Countryman. (2013) This oddball romantic thriller from someone callled Fredrik Bond (whose work otherwise consists of short films) is actually better than the presence of Shia LaBeouf probably suggests. Yes, he’s still Shia LaBeouf and he spends most of the movie needing to lay his hair on paper towels to drain like bacon, but he more or less works. And then there’s the rest of the cast — Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Rupert Grint, Vincent D’Onofrio, Melissa Leo, Aubrey Plaza (not to mention John Hurt providing a narration — to add interest. The film originally had the far more intriguing title, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which should have been retained. The story is a quirky mix of thrills, romance, comedy, and even a dose of the mystical. Is it good? Well, maybe, but it is full of things that are maybe even more than just good, even if they don’t quite make a completely satisfying whole.
Crave. (2012) A guy named Charles de Lauzikira who normally makes behind-the-scenes making-of shorts directed and co-wrote this rather dreary essay in truth-or-illusion about a crime scene photographer (Josh Lawson) going kind of bargain basement Taxi Driver. I was never clear whether or not we were supposed to sympathize with him, but for the record, I did not. The film is not badly made — some of it is strikingly made — but there’s just not much at the center. The most recognizable names in the cast are Ron Perlman (who has a pretty good role) and Edward Furlong (who has the kind of role he deserves).
Antisocial. (2013) Cody Calahan’s Antisocial (which amazingly has spawned a not-so-amazingly unreleased sequel) is that most unfortunate of things — a pretty decent idea housed in a movie that has no clue what to do with it. Essentially, Antisocial is Videodrome, but with social media (specifically, a fictionalized Face Book) replacing TV. (The intimations of Cronenberg don’t end there, and there’s body horror galore.) Problem is this is in the hands of folks who have watched too many dumb zombie movies. Conceptually, we may have Videodrome for the 21st century. In execution, it’s more like just another Night of the Living Dead knock-off, but with an IQ more in keeping with an Italian zombie picture or maybe Return of the Living Dead. I am not keeping an eye out for the sequel.