Netflix Instant Pick: Reservoir Dogs

Every week we recommend a movie we love that is available via Netflix instant view, the greatest thing ever created! Enjoy!

As many of you may be aware, I am a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino. I enjoy his trademark dialogue, interesting pop cultural observations, and his love of genre filmmaking. Reservoir Dogs is his first feature, and while it’s a flawed film, it’s still worth watching for the sheer bravado of the whole thing.

For those that may not be aware, Reservoir Dogs is the story of a diamond store heist, more specifically, it’s aftermath. The heist goes wrong, there’s an undercover cop in the group, and lots of people die.

Tarantino has always been known for his use of intense language and graphic violence, and Reservoir Dogs is the origin. The movie has a lot of blood, and seems to relish the violent nature of the gang of robbers, specifically the sadistic man codenamed Mr. Blonde.

What allows the film to be better than just the violence is the performances, specifically Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink, and Michael Madsen as the aforementioned Mr. Blonde. They all breathe life into their characters, and although the face time for each is short, they are all quite memorable. The caliber of the actors involved is what elevates the movie beyond just the machinations of plot, which although is clever, does leave the viewer underhwelmed, especially on repeat viewings.

Overall, this is still a must-see film, even though it’s the least successful (in my opinion) of Tarantino’s filmography.


Netflix Instant Pick: Empire Records

Every week we recommend a movie we love that is available via Netflix instant view, the greatest thing ever created! Enjoy!

One of the great things about Netflix is coming across a movie you had no idea was on instant streaming, because if you had known, you would have watched it 100 hundred times by now. Finding Empire Records last night was just such a surprise.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the film, it reminds me a lot of The Breakfast Club, as it deals with high school aged young adults struggling to make it through adolescence alive (literally, in some cases). The only difference is the audience isn’t seeing cookie cutout representatives of standard high school cliques, but kids taking their place on a spectrum of mental insanity. Which makes for some pretty strange but lovable characters.

Netflix actually streams a special “fan” version of this film, which is a good deal longer than the original and does a great job of giving fans of the film more insight into the individual plotlines of each character (As a side note: If you are interested in learning more about the editing process in filmmaking I strongly encourage you to view original versions of films and then their unedited counterparts. And always ask yourself why the filmmaker decided to deep six certain scenes. It’s an awesome exercise!).

ANYWAY, the story follows this group of kids working at an independent record store on the verge of becoming, gasp!, a corporate franchised “Music Town.” The night manager, Lucas (Rory Cochrane), stumbles across the franchising contracts late at night during his closing shift. Like any red-blooded American boy, proud of this place of employment and protective of boss Joe’s (Anthony LaPaglia) dignity, he takes money from the safe and goes to Atlantic City in an attempt to win a fortune to save Empire Records.

Unfortunately, there are few teenage craps champions in this world, and we know that poor Lucas will loose everything and return to a very angry Joe, who must now come up with the missing money or risk losing Empire Records for good. Lucas’ late night gambling excapade is the catalyst that sets the rest of the story into motion, as we learn more about each of the employees at Empire Records, and Lucas’ unique and close relationship with store manager Joe. He undoubtedly becomes a surrogate parent to each of the kids, and while most times he feels inclined to beat them to death, he feels a great responsibility to them.

The Empire Records store plays an integral part in the film. I love movies where the locale it essentially another character in the movie. We can tell that the store is a safe haven for the teens, and that music is a life raft not only for them but for their loyal customers. There are countless scenes and shots in the movie that portray customers with oversized headphones dancing, swaying, making out,  and sometimes crying to their favorite artists. The film is definitely a not so subtle love letter to the importance of music and more importantly those grungy, gritty, poster infested independent music stores we love so dearly.

The film has a stellar cast including Anthony LaPaglia, Rory Cochrane, Renee Zellweger, and Liv Tyler.

Watch it now!

Netflix Instant Pick: Superman: The Movie

Every week we recommend a movie we love that is available via Netflix instant view, the greatest thing ever created! Enjoy!

With the summer we’ve been having, I can certainly understand people feeling fatigue over comic book movies, but this one is still the king of them all. Superman: The Movie, released in 1977, had a long history in development, at least as far back as 1973, and reportedly $2 million was spent on flying tests alone. Mario Puzo wrote a draft of a script for Superman and Superman II, both campy and overwrought. Both scripts coming in together at over 500 pages (which would make both films be about four hours each). Spielberg was considered as director, but was unavailable. The task fell to Richard Donner, just coming off the success of The Omen.  Brando had to be persuaded to join the production, and Gene Hackman finally signed on. The search for a Superman lasted three years, and they finally went with an unknown, Christopher Reeve. Filming for both films lasted 19 months.

But none of that matters. The wonderfulness of the film outshines any of that behind-the-scenes drama. What makes Superman: The Movie such an amazing film is that it is able to convey ridiculous science fiction concepts, godlike characters, and a healthy Americana with a sense of seriousness, fun, and heart.

The film doesn’t follow a three act structure so much as it is divided into three sections: Krypton, Smallville, and Metropolis. The initial section on Superman’s home of Krypton shows his parents’ life and the destruction of the planet, sending their son to Earth. The Krypton sequence pulls no punches in terms of easing the audience into the mythology, dropping the audience into the densest part of the film, and relying on Marlon Brando’s charisma as Superman’s father, Jor-El, to capture the audience.

The film then picks up with Superman’s childhood as Clark Kent, in Smallville, Kansas. The setting in rural Kansas is completely opposite that of Krypton, and here Clark is raised by his farmer poster parents, Jonathan and Martha. The film does everything to evoke the 1950s here, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Seeing both aspects of Superman’s birthright back to back really sets up everything else in the film as he comes to take on a dual identity. Superman descends godlike, from Krypton, but it is Clark Kent, from Smallville, Kansas, that tempers him and provides the heart of the story.

The third section, Metropolis (and California) shows Clark Kent’s arrival and the beginning of his career at The Daily Planet, meeting Lois Lane. It is also here that Superman begins his public career, and reveals himself to the world. A love triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman develops. Gene Hackman shows up as Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor, with a diabolic real estate grab. Superman shows his superheroics, and faces off with Luthor in a battle of wits and strength, and ultimately must choose which of his fathers to follow, Jor-El, or Jonathan.

I can’t say enough about this movie, as it’s one of my favorites, and still stands as the greatest superhero movie of all time. Really, I could probably write several thousand words on this film, from the acting, to the effects, to the Christ imagery, etc. But I’ll spare you (for now!).

The performances are delightful, and the movie is about something greater than just a good action scene. John Williams also delivers one of the best scores of his career, and hearing the title gives me goosebumps every time. It’s a grand movie, and one of the few real American epics. Superman is our Thor, Hercules, or Gilgamesh, and this film roots him just as much in Kansas as Krypton. As close to a perfect fantasy film as you could ask for.

Watch it now!

Netflix Instant Pick: Return to Me

Every other week we recommend a movie we love that is available via Netflix instant view, the greatest thing ever created! Enjoy!

I don’t consider myself a chick flick aficionado and I normally don’t enjoy films marketed specifically to women, but Return to Me is one of my favorite movies to binge on Ben & Jerry’s to, and I mean that in the best way. It’s a tear-jerker, but it’s also a movie with a lot of heart, comedy, and great performances.

The film was written and directed by Bonnie Hunt, a personal favorite of mine, and tells the story of Grace (played by the awesome Minnie Driver), a young woman in need of a heart transplant, and Bob (played by the equally awesome David Duchovny) an architect and recent widower who befriends Grace after the sudden death of his wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson). Bonnie Hunt gives a pitch-perfect performance as Grace’s best friend Megan, David Alan Grier is charming as Elizabeth’s colleague Charlie, and the always wonderful Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker!) plays Gracie’s loving and devoted grandfather Marty.

The story leaves little room for big surprises and because the audience is almost always aware of what will happen, they can be completely immersed in the love story being told. It’s a love story told on multiple levels between friends, family and lovers. And perhaps most poignantly for some viewers, it’s a film about individual passion and drive to achieve personal goals and dreams.

When Gracie receives another chance at life, she wants nothing else then to be able to ride her bike to work, paint, and travel to Europe. The love she ends up finding is a fortunate “accident” constructed by the fates. For Bob, the ultimate battle is struggling to overcome his feelings of pain and loss so that he is able to finish his most important project, a new memorial gorilla sanctuary at the zoo where Elizabeth worked as a zoologist. It is through his relationship with Grace that he finds the strength to move on, while still holding his memories close. And finally Marty, who finds that by letting go of his fears surrounding Grace’s fragile health, he is able to take part in and support her new found happiness and strength.

The film deals with painful subjects, but as in real life, the pain is dealt with most often by humor. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are with Marty and what I like to call “the old gentlemen’s poker club,” a group of old friends who celebrate life in similar ways to the pals at Cheers. O’Connor alone is reason enough to watch this film-his performance is truly at the heart of it all.

For a wonderful story that is never schmaltzy, Return to Me is worth at least one viewing, and if you’re like me, you will always return time and again.

Watch it now!

This is Your Body on Crack: A Review of Super Size Me

After viewing Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011) I was compelled to give Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) another shot. When the documentary about America’s ever expanding waistlines first premiered, I was so repulsed by the spectacle that I didn’t think I’d be able to stomach watching it. But I was intrigued by Spurlock’s personality and zeal and decided to watch at my own risk.

We all know the premise-Spurlock decides to go on an all McDonald’s diet for 30 days. He can only have items on the Mickey D’s menu, including drinks, and whenever a McDonald’s employee asks him if he would like to Supersize his order, he must comply. The rules are clear and finite. He hires a team of doctors and nutritionists to monitor his health throughout the course of his experiment, and even has the reluctant support of his vegan chef girlfriend. The tone of the documentary at the beginning is not unlike that of a lovable goon setting off on a quest that only he understands the importance of, while those around him just chuckle and shake their heads.

About midway through, the tone shifts completely. Spurlock is clearly struggling with the diet, and his doctors and family begin to worry about the permenant physical damage this whole crazy scheme is going to cause. At this point, Spurlock is fighting what can only be called an addiction-to his quest, but also to the food. He feels bad without it, is happy when he begins to chow down, and then soon after, feels horrible again. It all sounds very familiar to the audience, and it’s supposed to. It’s also supposed to frighten you, but by god, I would be lying if I said I couldn’t eat a McDonald’s hamburger while watching this all unfold. What the heck is wrong with me?

Despite countless appeals from his doctors, Spurlock continues full throttle, refusing to quit, even though his point has clearly been made. At the end, Spurlock gains 25 pounds, increases his cholesterol by 60 points, suffers from headaches, loss of energy and feelings of depression among other ailments. So what was it all for?

We know that Spurlock was able to get his body back to its pre-schmorgesbord diet condition. But why do all this just to prove what the American public supposedly already knows? Super Size Me was widely praised by critics, but some dissenters commented on Spurlock’s tendencies toward self-indulgence. I couldn’t help but also feel dumbfounded why someone would go against medical advice, especially after seeing cold hard evidence of his decaying liver, and ignore the anxieties of his family just to make a movie. But then I realized that’s what makes some people documentarists, and other people whiny movie critics (myself included, no worries). Both groups are equally passionate, just on different ends of the crazy spectrum.

I don’t agree with other critics evaluations of Spurlock’s vanity. If I wanted to create a film showcasing “me” and my tireless moral crusades, I could think of a few more attractive ways to do so. I think one of the most glaring successes the documentary manages is to teach health professionals and the general public, not that fast food is bad for you (we knew that), but that in a matter of weeks, you could be doing damage to your body. Weeks! On more than one occasion, Spurlock’s doctors confessed to being slightly surprised at the speed with which Spurlock’s overall health deteriorated. Now, very few people eat fast food everyday, but even eating it on a consistent basis, over let’s say months or even years, is reason enough to worry about what people are doing to themselves. Super Size Me is a film that pretty much compresses the fast-food-consuming lifecycle of a human and serves up a grim look into the future if American’s can’t soon grasp the concept of self-control and accountability. It’s a message that can never be too old, or too overdone, because tomorrow may just be the day it all sinks in.

Groundhog Day

There is no way this winter is ever going to end, as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any other way out. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him. – Phil Connors

Among the various subgenres that encompass the range of science fiction and fantasy, the one I enjoy the most may be time travel. I have always been entranced with the idea of time travel (and I imagine most sci-fi geeks with a deep love of history might share that passion), to the point of even taking a college class on the subject.

While there are many different kinds of time travel films, like the kind that involve traveling back to other eras (Timeline, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), and man out of time stories (Les Visiteurs, The Time Machine), the best kind has a character reflecting on his or her own personal history, like Marty McFly from Back to the Future or the guys from Primer.

A slightly different take on time travel is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. Specifically, it is a time loop film (itself a subgenre of time travel). As a brief summary, Bill Murray plays Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Connors, stuck in Punxsutawney for Groundhog’s Day, an event he hates covering. He, and only he, begins to relive this hated day over and over again.

First, in something slightly unusual for a time travel film, how or why Phil is reliving the same day over and over is never explained, and really, neither is why he is able to break out of the loop. Taken as hard science fiction, this would be completely unacceptable, but it definitely serves the story because all of the focus is on Phil rather than the fantastical events itself.

Once Phil begins to realize he is living the same day over again, he goes through several phases of behavior. First, he simply behaves recklessly, and seems to enjoy just causing mischief, relieved to not be bound by the normal societal consequences of spying, seducing, and stealing. Then he becomes despondent, and tries repeatedly to end the loop by killing himself.

After explaining the situation to Rita, his producer (who he also has feelings for), played by the always excellent Andie MacDowell, she suggests he take advantage of the situation by improving himself. Finding new inspiration in this, he not only starts to really get to know her, but also plays piano, speaks French, and ice sculpts. More importantly, he also starts to think about more than just himself, helping many of the locals with their problems, like Ned Ryerson (played perfectly by Stephen Tobolowsky). Eventually, he figures out how to demonstrate to Rita that he is a changed man, and the loop is broken.

The tone of the film is similar to Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and without Murray’s performance and Ramis’ direction, this easily could have been a much darker film at its core, and not be considered one of the best comedies of all time. I think the key to this is definitely Murray, using what Alison Willmore (formerly of the late, great, IFC News podcast) calls his “snarky zen” persona to maximum effect. Indeed, this film may be considered a turning point in the career of Mr. Murray, showing his turn from 80s madcap comedies like What About Bob? to more serious fare like Rushmore and Lost in Translation.

Another interesting aspect of this film is that it has widespread acclaim by spiritual leaders of many faiths, most notably Buddhists and Catholics, who see it as demonstrating how living a good life in the present can give rewards tomorrow (the afterlife). The military has also seen widespread adaptation of the film’s title to refer to any monotonous situation.

Much speculation has been given by fans of the film as to how long Phil is stuck repeating February 2nd. Harold Ramis has speculated anywhere between 10 and 10,000 years. Recently, Ramis has stated 30-40 years based on Phil’s acquired skills taking about 10 years to get good at each.  Of these 42 are shown in the film.

Fittingly, the cable channel Encore is playing the film on a 24 hour loop today. It is also available for viewing on Netflix Instant, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch it. Or did I do that yesterday?

*The poster above is by the artist Brandon Schaefer. Click the image above to see more from the same series, or check out his Flickr here.