Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part Five: The Good Streaming Content

     Now I finally get around to the movies and television shows available to Watch Instantly I found rewarding.  No big preamble to this one.

Streaming Movies and TV that were Worthwhile
The Crazies (2009)
     This is another cheat.  I saw The Crazies in the theater, but I wasn't sure if I liked it as much as I was glad Breck Eisner handled the tone with the right mix of tension and absurdity.  Given a second viewing, I might like it a little less, but I am more convinced that it works as a movie.  I'll give Radha Mitchell a chance in nearly everything, but it is Timothy Olyphant who is most successful in hitting the right notes and meeting the intensity level required throughout the calamity.  The Crazies satisfies nearly everything I look for in a disaster movie – it introduces the audience to the characters, then to the disaster, and the audience gets to watch (in this instance) the disaster kick those characters asses.  There is no uniformity in how the people are afflicted in The Crazies, which plays as both more realistic and more terrifying.  Even with a somewhat limited budget, it doesn't feel constrained.  Given how much I enjoyed it, I thought it would only be fair to give the original 1973 version a watch.  I couldn't make it through the first half hour.  Where Romero appeared more concerned with selling conspiracy theories and orchestrated inefficiency, Eisner opts for a more focused approach showing the deterioration of a town through the eyes of a select few residents.  Maybe it doesn't work as commentary, but I'm convinced it was not intended to.  It is an almost horror, mostly suspense, disaster movie where people behave in decidedly less than civil ways.

The Gamers: "Dorkness Rising" (2008)
     Who knew that a micro-budget movie could give gamers – and when I reference gaming I mean: roleplaying, roleplaying, roleplaying, board games, and some (not Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon!) card games – the respect and understanding of their gaming passion while crafting a fantasy world that is more satisfying than anything in Dungeons & Dragons (2000), Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005), or the god-awful In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007).  One of the major differences between those films and Dorkness Rising is that the latter fully acknowledges that the fantasy world is one created by the players and inhabited by their characters.  The game world may be decidedly generic, but that works because it doesn't attempt to steal focus from the in- and out-of-game bickering that informs all of the action.  Perhaps the best feature of the movie is the deft send-up of the habitual notion that only certain players really know how to play the game; in the case of Dorkness Rising, the male players are dismissive of Joanna's (Carol Roscoe) character build because she did not observe the same hierarchy of perceived needs as they collectively do.  I think the movie is a win on every level, but I will gladly concede that if you don't already have a love of table top gaming, especially Dungeons & Dragons, much of this movie will not appeal to you.

Her Minor Thing (2005)
     I didn't know if I wanted to include this on the list.  For the most part, Her Minor Thing is a light comedy that asks the audience to believe that Jeana (Estella Warren) is a 25 year old virgin. The character tries to find some kind of message of ownership of the condition as it becomes widely known, and the boyfriend who reveals the information receives a mild comeuppance in the end.  There is also the issue that the first half of the movie is edited quite differently from the second, leading me to believe that the original script called for a little more of a screwball comedy feel.
25 year old virgin?
     What I like about the movie, and why I included it here, is that all of the major characters have a chance to own their own personal failings.  Despite meeting a dreamy new guy, Paul (Christian Kane), and scheming to get her paid-for cruise ticket back from boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/boyfriend? Tom (Michael Weatherly), Jeana still has to deal with her complicated feelings for Tom.  She may not love him, but it as close as she knows to love.  Tom is in the same boat, not knowing that he has to give more in a relationship.  Now, if I didn't have an unabashed man crush on Christian Kane and a general like of Michael Weatherly from watching NCIS (2003-present), I don't know if I would have given this movie a chance.  But it doesn't try for too much, and it has enough respect for most of its characters to make it a rewarding watch.

Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006)
     Regardless of which side of the Iraq War one finds themselves on, the reality of corporations taking advantage of the conflict to create the mechanism to effectively steal from the U.S. government should cause the viewer to become upset.  That the government is complicit in the enterprise is lamentable but not shocking.  The film gives an accounting of the practices of four companies: Blackwater, KBR (at the time a subsidiary of Halliburton), CACI, and Titan.  I cannot really put words to the outrage this stirred in me, and the best I can do is to recommend that it be seen to be understood.  In fact, I can thank Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers for giving me a much better framework to understand the ridiculous set-up for Buried (2010).  It serves as a much better drama, let alone indictment of corporate malfeasance, than the Cortés' stuck-in-a-coffin movie.

Constantine's Sword  (2007)
     I'm not really sure how I happened upon Constantine's Sword; I think I linked off of another member's profile to their listed reviews and saw it there (a feature that Netflix took away).  It is effectively a documentary about the how author (and former Roman Catholic priest) came to write Constantine's Sword (2001), a book that deals with the history of antisemitism in the Catholic Church.  The movie takes a more constrained look at that history while introducing the bias against non-Christian (particularly Jewish) members of the U.S. Air Force Academy fostered by the Evangelical Christian community.  Like Howard Zinn, Carroll was actively opposed to the Vietnam War (where Zinn was a bombadier in WWII, Carroll's father was the founding director of both the Air Force Office of Special Investigations – AFOSI – and the Defense Intelligence Agency – DIA – and an FBI agent before that) on the belief that war is immoral.  It is from this viewpoint that his investigations into and condemnation of the tying of Christianity to the concept of a righteous war – in this case, the largely undeclared war against Judaism waged by the Catholic Church for centuries in Europe.  Carroll is a pleasant character on screen and it is clear that he has great sympathy for both the victims and the perpetrators who have committed atrocities in the name of God; he very much brings an aura of hate the sin and not the sinner to his examination.  I enjoyed the movie, but I know that it barely scratches the surface of what he wrote about.  That's why Constantine's Sword is one of three history books (joining Donald Kagan's The Peloponnesian War and James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise) on the reading list for the 2011-2012 reading season.

TiMER (2009)
     Maybe I internalized TiMER a little too much.  As a lonely single guy, the concept of technology perfectly identifying true love (or soul mates) and when it will be encountered is more than a little appealing.  And I could get past Emma Caulfield looking too old to play 29 or being burdened with a name like Oona for no apparent reason.  TiMER manages to get the anger and frustration of not being connected to "the One" right, and while it doesn't indulge the darker implications – it is a light, romantic comedy – it does a fantastic job of making a degree of romantic surety as dreadful, if not more, than the prospect of being alone.  Caulfield is extremely likeable here, even when her character is behaving in a very self-absorbed fashion.  The rest of the cast does well, with John Patrick Amerdori largely redeeming his performance with a scene where he tries to behave as he suspects a man is supposed to.  It isn't high art, but it is different from the cookie cutter rom-coms that have been manufactured over the last decade.  Well worth the watch.

Suspension (2008)
     I already have a brief write-up about Suspension on this blog (available here), but seeing as how it is part of the reason I decided to start giving some kind of voice to my opinions on the Netflix movies, I thought it would be appropriate to include it on the list.  It is another example of a low-budget film that works well within its constraints, but it has so much more to say to the human condition (or at least an aspect of the human condition) than the kinds of movies that dominate at the box office.  I cannot recommend it strongly enough even knowing that the premise and slow build up will frustrate many serious viewers.

Frontline: Bush's War Parts I & II (2008)
     Bush's War offers up a wealth of information on the hows and who's behind the U.S. lead invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Much of it is surprisingly counter-intuitive, with evidence of Dick Cheney not (within the White House, at least) pushing for a prolonged military commitment to the war and Condoleezza Rice acting as a stabilizing force as Secretary of State (where she had been a complete and total failure in even making her voice heard prior to that).  While Bush's War feels a little more apologetic than one would expect from a PBS production, that may be because there is still no resolution on the war.  It otherwise tries for an even and thoughtful tone.  It really does a fantastic job of detailing the steps to war – though I am sure some people will find many missing – and how the decisions were made.  Not a fun viewing experience, but more than a little informative.  I wouldn't recommend letting this stand as your primary source of information regarding the forces behind the war, but it will greatly inform your knowledge of it nonetheless.  Both episodes can be seen here.

Better Off Ted (Seasons 1 & 2) (2009-10)
     Sure, Better Off Ted is just a re-do of Andy Richter Controls the Universe (2002-03) that focuses on the attractive executive rather than the schlubby workerbee.  For me, it made better use of the possible absurdities of nameless, faceless corporate evil than Andy Richter Controls the Universe ever did.  Likewise, it isn't reduced to intercutting flights of fancy to achieve its laughs.  Jay Harrington and Portia de Rossi are particularly strong in Better Off Ted, but the entire cast works well together.  As a limited run series – only 26 episodes – it is rather easy to give in and watch it in its entirety.  Unlike the great Arrested Development (2003-06), it didn't show signs of decline after the first season and maintained a continuity of storyline without having to overwrite what had already gone before.  Below is an example of the exchanges between good-guy Ted (Harrington) and icy, aloof Veronica where the latter is supposed to be paying tribute to a deceased employee, one she hasn't bothered to learn the name of (mind you, this is not the actual video from the show).

Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne (2009)
     I recommend Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne based solely on the first three episodes; the last three are a bit of a let down in comparison but still better than average Americanized anime.  There is a decided lack of explained backstory, but Rin Asogi operates as a private eye using here one real asset – her imortality – to overcome her total lack of risk assessment or tact.  There is a liberal amount of lesbianism in the series, because it serves as payment to information brokers, but Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne is much more of an action series with odd inflections of mythology and spiritualism.  It doesn't operate by the standard rules: while woman can be made immortal, men can be turned in angels; these angels are kind of evil and eat the immortal women (who, in turn, are so sexually excited by the mere presence of angels that they have no defense against this).  I like the animation, but I really enjoyed Colleen Clickenbeard's voice work for the American version.  Not for little children (or probably children in general), but not so over-involved that it requires a lengthy commitment to get the story.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
     I saw the first Toy Story (1995) with Debbie Trueblood in a theater full of small children; still preferable to when we saw Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).  As such, I didn't really enjoy it.  I think there wasn't much of a story and what was there was stretched out far too long.  Likewise, I didn't think Toy Story 2 (1999) was anything special.  Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed Toy Story 3.  I thought it made a real effort to serve the characters – I especially liked that Andy was given more form.  I don't think it is a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it was easily the best movie I found available through the Starz Play feature.

Sports Night (Seasons 1 & 2) (1998-2000)
     Maybe Sports Night wasn't a comedy.  Maybe it always was a half hour (~21 minutes) light drama.  But Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Josh Charles, and Joshua Malina could deliver Aaron Sorkin's scripts better than any other cast I can imagine.  I never understood why NBC didn't make an effort to pick up Sports Night and pair it with Frasier (1993-2004), even if the latter was always more of a conventional sitcom than it was thought to be at the time. I do want to note that in watching Sports Night, I became aware that Netflix's watch next episode button didn't faithfully take me to the next episode.  As such, I ended up watching several episodes out of order.  Not a huge deal, but it did prove a little distracting.

1 comment:

  1. I loved BETTER OFF TED! Well, season 2 wasn't that good.