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Monday, October 20, 2008

Films: Netflix Roundup - What Have I Been Watching?

With my busy eastern media elite schedule I haven't had the time I'd like to give you, my tens of readers, the movie reviews that I've promised. So here are some capsule reviews of what I've been watched over the last few weeks courtesy of Netflix. I've also helpfully added the stars I gave them in my Netflix rating for easy unhindered digestion.

I Want To Live (1958) (3 Stars)

Susan Hayward plays what was once known as a blowzy broad in this early anti-death penalty flick. The first half hour where she goes from one seedy situation to another is great pulpy fun but her hard boiled overacting takes center stage by the more earnest second half. The inside look on how the process works for death row inmates holds some interest but the increasing desperation of her situation begins to seem more comical than tragic as we await the umpteenth call from the gov.

California Split (1974) (5 Stars)

Robert Altman's incisive and tricky buddy film was unappreciated on release but shines as one of his best movies. Elliot Gould is in full sardonically muttering Elliot Gould mold and George Segal is at his best as two inveterate gambling addicts going after the big score. As I got deeper into the characters- and this is a marvelous character study- the resemblance to John Huston's legendary Treasure of the Sierra Madre struck me. Two guys in thrall to a dream of deliverance through riches that becomes the empty pursuit of specie. Though Gould never goes to the extremes that Bogart does in the Huston film he is just as hooked on the chase. A terrific film.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) (4 Stars)

Ivan Dixon, who died earlier this year, was best known for his supporting role on TV's Hogan's Heroes. As a director though he made this fascinating and tough gem that subverts the blaxploitation genre and asks some tough political questions. In a set-up that clearly plays on the screens inside the minds of the McCain campaign at this very moment, the film takes the premise of the CIA recruiting blacks to divert scrutiny of their actions. The one guy who makes it through is tough and quiet and happily toils away making copies and doing other low level tasks while soaking up all of the counter insurgency methods the agency was honing overseas. Retiring with honor he goes to Chicago to become - you guessed it - a community organizer. Only he ends up passing his training along to black power advocates and gang members - teaching them to lay off drugs and get started making bombs. This section plays like a cross between Fight Club and Shaft before ending abruptly. Well worth seeing.

Hard Eight (1996)  (4 stars)

This early film from Paul Thomas Anderson has the hallmarks of most of his work - beautiful framing and photography, characters that are more flawed than lovable, and a distinct milieu - in this case the gambling underworld of Las Vegas. Philip Baker Hall, one of Anderson's favorites, is terrific as the father figure card sharp to John C. Reilly. Reilly is more of a problem - he finds everything that's whiny and irritating in a dipshit character. It becomes hard to see why Hall would give two squats about him, even after the later plot machinations grind through. Tipping this into an extra star though is a brilliantly jaded turn by Gwyneth Paltrow - it's perhaps her best performance and very different than what she's typecast as now. Then there's the delicious turn by Samuel L. Jackson as a particularly annoying friend of Reilly's.

Smiley Face (2007) (1 Star)

Anna Faris is an attractive and game comic actress in search of a vehicle to really shine. This ain't it. A stoner comedy full of jump-cuts, every cliched "stoned" POV shot in the book, and a mis-judged central performance that hits one spaced-out note interminably, this is one to skip. What's most shocking is that this sub-par take on the far superior Go was directed by the talented Greg Araki, who should know better. Watch Harold and Kumar instead.

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