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If You Haven’t Gotten Into These Shows, Now’s The Time

Friday Night Lights
One of the most depressing moments of this presidential race is watching Mitt Romney appropriate FNL’s “Clear Eyes Full Hearts Can’t Loose” slogan with seemingly no lawsuit or action against him. Romney being a fan of the breathtakingly beautiful and brutally honest Friday Night Lights makes no sense, as the show is a remarkably straight-forward portrayal of race, class, and sexual issues in modern-day America, complete with abortions, class struggles, and surprisingly candid discussions about what it means to be a man and a woman. And yes, while the framework of the show focuses on high school football, it’s much larger than that. Now’s the perfect time to settle in for five seasons of the Taylors (even if season two stumbles through some network-mandated melodrama).

Breaking Bad
To paraphrase Belle & Sebastian, if you’re feeling sinister, go out and watch Breaking Bad. From the first episode, it’s clear that none of this will end well. But the cast & crew’s remarkable patience at showing the gradual transition of a high school chemistry teacher into a gangland terror is nothing short of perfection. Bryan Cranston deserves all of his accolades and awards, and hey, you get to learn a lot about cooking meth, too.

Freaks & Geeks
New to Netflix instant, this show lives up the hype. And what hype it is, produced by Judd Apatow, written by Paul Feig (director of Bridesmaids) and starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and a raft of other now-famous faces. Unlike John Hughes movies, this portrayal of high school in 1980 never slides into easy roles or stereotypes, as characters change and grow over the course of one season. There are no villains, just people trying to get through life. Also, disco jumpsuits!

This show never scales the heady heights of TV greatness, but what it does pull off is surprisingly rare: it’s nice. It’s a nice show about nice people where goofy things happen and (mostly) everything sorts itself out by the end. The premise is that a US Marshall (played by the shockingly charming Colin Ferguson…why isn’t this guy a big TV star?) stumbles onto a town in Oregon where the US Government keeps all of the smartest people in the world to work on research projects. The Marshall lands a job as the new town sheriff, becoming in essence the dumbest person in a town full of geniuses. But goshdarn if he doesn’t use his everyday smarts to get everyone out of trouble when ridiculous “science” experiments go wrong. Like I said, this is a fundamentally goofy show; in one episode a type of subliminal messaging system goes awry and causes people to act out whatever song they’re listening to, leading to someone “burning down the house” or, after a pack of dogs run by the camera, literally asking “who let the dogs out?” But it’s a big-hearted show that is family friendly, and just plain enjoyable. And in a little bonus, it’s probably the most progressive show on television, with women in constantly strong & empowering roles, and people of color cast in substantial roles over and over again. It’s nice!

Other fun shows to check out:

The Rockford Files: 1970s era James Garner drives a groovy car and mocks his own cluelessness in this shambling private eye show.

The Office: Both US and UK versions are on here so you can compare! The British one is short but absolutely perfect. The American version has falled off in recent seasons, but I bet you’ve forgotten just how good seasons two and three are.

Cheers: Sitcoms don’t come any better than this.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Would you like me to talk at you for hours about this show? No? Oh, okay.

The Kids in the Hall: Certainly the best sketch show on this side of the ocean, Kids in the Hall remains weird, avant-garde, and insanely funny.

American Experience: The Triangle Fire

Okay, so this one might be a little heavy, especially coming after the Billy Wilder romantic comedy post. However, it is Labor Day weekend and it’s worth taking a moment for that. Holidays like this one kind of get lost in the shuffle as an excuse for barbeques and 3 day weekends. But it’s sitting down for an hour to reflect on what Labor Day really means, especially in this political climate where once again unfettered capitalism and less government oversight is being touted as the answer to everything. 

While the American labor movement wasn’t started by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, it was certainly a grim reminder of how bad things had become. The details: when a fire broke out in a poorly ventilated sweatshop, managers had already locked the doors and stairwells to prevent employees from leaving or taking breaks. The result was grim: 146 workers, mostly female immigrants, were killed in the fire.

This PBS documentary from the American Experience series strikes all the right notes as it covers the lives of the immigrant women who worked in the building, and highlights the relentlessly grim details of daily life in a sweatshop. A fascinating chunk of the film focuses on the women’s shirtwaist strike of 1909, and its place in the suffrage struggle of the early century. Some of the reenactments are a little too much, but the wealth of archival materials more than makes up for it. It’s a somber but vivid portrait of our country 100 years ago and it’s sadly very recognizable, as we still grapple with women’s roles in society, and still fight over union & labor and the power of “job-creators.” The next time you hear someone say that less oversight is always the key to prosperity and success,  keep this film in mind.

Billy Wilder Weekend

The late, great, Billy Wilder is one of my favorite Hollywood directors. His more personal work encompasses some of the most scathing satires and bitter-hearted romances ever made in Hollywood: Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and my favorite, Ace in The Hole.

Yet Wilder was also a man who played by the rules of the studio system, and was content to turn out work more popular, crowd-pleasing work if it gave him the clout to write and direct his own films.In 1954 & 1955 he co-wrote and directed two successful films that cemented the cinematic reputations of two of Hollywood’s most famous (and completely different) female stars: Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.

For the lightweight Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn was just coming off the popular Roman Holiday where she played a naive princess charmed by Gregory Peck. Wilder and Ernest Lehman adapted Samuel Taylor’s play about a lower-class woman whose romance with a wealthy ne’er-do-well brother (William Holden) is complicated when the responsible brother (a wonderfully cast-against-type Humphrey Bogart) develops feelings for her as well. The dramatic parts of this film are ahead of their time and Wilder builds a charming modern-day fairy tale around the ethereal beauty of young Audrey Hepburn.

Switching gears, Wilder adapted the massively successful Broadway play “The Seven Year Itch” as a project for the up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe. Referred to simply as “The Girl,” Monroe plays the object of married man Tom Ewell’s fantasies in this admittedly over-wrought sex comedy. The Seven Year Itch hasn’t aged as well as its counterpart, but it’s still charming to watch. Wilder is arguably the director who got the best performances out of Monroe (here and in the masterpiece Some Like It Hot), and he created the indelible subway grate sequence that would cement Monroe’s visual reputation.

Two completely different leading ladies. Two completely different films, made back to back by one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. 

Breaking Bad

I admit that I can be a bit contrary. Sometimes when everyone loves something so much, I get tired of hearing about it and build up an adverse reaction. For instance, I’ve never seen True Blood, but I’m already sick of hearing about it. I initially felt the same way about Breaking Bad, and only gave in after hearing Bryan Cranston (who comes across as the nicest and most interesting man alive) on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast

I was wrong to judge. Breaking Bad is an amazing TV show deserving of every accolade it gets. And for those of you who wonder why Bryan Cranston keeps winning Emmys over Jon Hamm, it’s because he deserves it. The premise of the show is set up wonderfully in the pilot: Walter White (Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher, discovers he has terminal cancer. With the assistance of a former student (Aaron Paul), he turns to cooking meth as a way to provide for his family when he’s gone. 

Breaking Bad has a lot going for it; the superb cast (also including the terrific Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Dean Norris), the showrunner Vince Gilligan (who served as co-executive producer of The X Files), the outstanding location shooting in Albuquerque, Nex Mexico, and the premise of the show itself. But what strikes me the most about the show, aside from the brilliant character moments and interactions, is how well Breaking Bad captures two essential factors:

1. They cook the meth: now what? I feel like a lot of shows would take a hard right turn into Hollywood territory here, but Breaking Bad doesn’t shy away from it. Because of Walt’s scientific knowledge, they produce some of the best meth in the Southwest, because for once it’s not junkies & burnouts who are cooking it. But how do they sell it? Do they trust a gangland distributor? And what about the Mexican cartels? Breaking Bad recalls the best of The Wire in its cold, calculating look at how criminals succeed.

2. The small choices Walt makes that eat away at his soul. Walt starts from a position of just wanting to provide money from his family before he dies; it’s almost noble, and he certainly sees it that way. But soon there are lies upon lies, lives are endangered, and the guns come out. Vince Gilligan said that his goal for the show was to see how someone goes from being a friendly high school teacher to Scarface, and the show does just that in minute, believable increments. What was unthinkable at the end of season 3 becomes routine at the end of season 4. And so on and on.

I could talk about Breaking Bad all day, and I haven’t even mentioned Walt’s brother-in-law the DEA agent, the appearance of Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, or even the amazing use of music in the show. It really is that good, folks. Just one caveat: if you start watching, avoid reading any spoilers about season 5 (Netflix has seasons 1-4 right now). 

Super Double Feature

So it’s been a while since I’ve updated here, and I’m sorry about that. Life, etc, I suppose. But I was drawn back in today by noticing that Netflix Instant now has the crown jewel of comic book movies in their collection. Call it the “Citizen Kane” of superhero movies, or maybe just the first time that Hollywood took a comic book seriously. Either way, it’s Superman, and Superman II.

The original “Superman” remains breathtaking, and not just for the astounding wirework that floats Christopher Reeve through the sky better than any CGI (the rear-projection flying sequences are less successful). It’s a modern-day film (well, modern in 1978) that hearkens back to a simpler, more classic style of filmmaking, which is perfect for Superman. A character like Batman welcomes gritty reboots because they allow you to explore the darkness of his character. But Kal El (aka Clark Kent, aka Superman) is an uncomplicated immigrant, raised with midwestern values to believe in truth, justice, and the American Way. This film coming in the middle of the gritty 1970s must have been a conscious rebuke to all the anti-heroes that were hogging the screens. “Superman” is mythmaking at its finest, and “Superman II,” while noodling with that mythology, does the original justice.

It’s amazing that the two films turned out so well. They had a long gestation and pre-production, and were marked by clashes between the producers and director Richard Donner. The two films were essentially being shot simultaneously when Donner was fired during Superman II. Richard Lester, for reasons never truly explained, was already serving on the film in some capacity and stepped in to complete the film. Lester, a great director in his own right who was responsible for The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” has the wrong tone for the material, and his sequences are confusing in Superman II, and egregiously bad in the follow-up, Superman III (the less said about this one, the better).

Anchoring the production is the best and still least-quibbled over superhero casting of all time. Even Christian Bale goes overboard with the scary Batman voice, but from the instant Christopher Reeve is onscreen, he is perfect as Superman. Through body language and comic timing alone, he’s able to convince you that onlookers would never realize that the bumbling, shy Clark Kent is really the broad-shouldered, effortlessly agile Superman. 

So wrap up a sometimes bleak and confusing summer with a double feature of good old-fashioned escapism, heroics, and derring-do. You’ll believe a man can fly.


Greetings and salutations for it has been too long since we posted here at Bestflix. Too busy living life for writing about movies to stream instantly. But now that it’s unbearably hot and all I want to do is sit in front of the TV and air conditioner, I’m back!

The movie for today is a favorite of mine and a curiously underrated one. If I told you that there was a film starring Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn that was a loving send-up of Hitchcock films, directed by the man who made Singin’ in the Rain, you’d say I was crazy. Crazy! And yet, that film exists, and it is Charade, a movie that has never quite gotten its due. UNTIL NOW!

Director Stanley Donen is mostly known for his association with Gene Kelly but he acquits himself quite well in this farcical treatment of international intrigue. Hepburn plays (what else) an impossibly elegant woman caught up in a ring of spies. Grant, playing a satirical take on his wrong-man roles for Hitchcock, is just an innocent bystander. Or is he a double agent? Or a double double agent? And what is Walter Matthau’s role in all of this anyway?!

Much of Charade was shot on location in Paris which gives the film a gorgeous, travelogue sensibility. Grant pokes a lot of fun at himself, especially at the noticeable age difference between him and Hepburn (25 years!), and Hepburn also plays with her movie star image as well. There’s an air of post-modern mockery about the film that still never detracts from the terrific chase scenes and suspense. 

Charade is also purposefully confusing, but don’t worry - it all makes sense in the end. Well, Cary Grant taking a shower with his clothes on never really makes any sense, but it’s fun nonetheless. 

The Long Goodbye

When I worked at a repertory theater in New York City, one of the best series we did was dedicated to Robert Altman’s film output of the 1970s. Everyone knows the highlights of MASH and Nashville, but the quality, diversity, and breathtaking ingenuity of his work during this period is almost unsurpassed by any other American filmmaker. No one dreamed bigger or shot higher than Altman, and he didn’t always succeed. For every MASH there was a Buffalo Bill and the Indians. But there were also buried treasures, like the heartbreaking California Split, the experimental 3 Women, or my personal favorite, The Long Goodbye.

Elliott Gould plays Philip Marlowe by way of Tom Waits in this hybrid film. Gould effortlessly combines 1930s panache with 1970s unshaven California charisma, to create an out-of-place private detective adrift in the free love 1970s. As great as the entire film is, Gould gives one of my favorite performances in any film, anywhere. He mumbles, lurches, stumbles and drawls his way through the role, constantly talking to himself, yet he still holds onto a core of Humphrey Bogart’s rogue code of honor. It’s a highwire act that pays off brilliantly.

The plot is purposefully convoluted, with Altman’s improvisational style actually adding to the sense of menace and uncertainty in the film. John Williams (yes, of Star Wars fame) contributes an elegant, jazzy score that highlights the film’s period style. As Gould investigates a friend’s death and a husband’s disappearance, he encounters any number of oddities, ranging from a drunken Sterling Hayden to a cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Oh, and also the world’s tiniest harmonica, for some reason.

A successful blending of film noir, comedy, and dark drama, The Long Goodbye was for years one of Altman’s lost masterpieces. I couldn’t be happier that it’s experienced a renaissance in recent years and I can’t recommend it enough. 

Bubba Ho-Tep

Sometimes I can’t resist. I try to stay away from more esoteric movies or things I think people won’t really like, but sometimes it’s just like “OMG. Bubba Ho-Tep, y’all!!”

I feel like Bubba Ho-Tep must have started out life as a joke. It’s far too preposterous to be a real movie, let alone one that you could watch instantly in the privacy of your own living room. The Premise: Elvis Presley (the real Elvis) switched places with an impersonator, so he’s still alive and living in a rundown rest home in Texas. His best friend is an elderly black man who believes he is JFK (the film is unclear as to whether this is actually the case or not). Together they team up to fight a mummy.

I know, it already sounds like the best movie you’ve ever seen. But wait! JFK is played by Ossie Davis, one of the most distinguished African-American actors to have lived; someone who knew Martin Luther King Jr. AND delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. Elvis is played by Bruce Campbell, arguably the most beloved cult actor of our time, an incredibly gifted physical comedian, and author of the wildly entertaining “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor.”

It’s nerd-vana. Even writing this now, I have a hard time believing that this film is actually real.

The worst thing I can say about Bubba Ho-Tep is that occasionally it shows the limitations of its obviously meager budget. But director Don Coscarelli and his cast are so committed to this insane idea, that it makes the little film a lot of film. It is a horror film at heart, so bear that in mind if you’re squeamish. 

What’s most impressive to me is that the film actually has something to say. Bubba Ho-Tep is a ridiculous comedic horror film, but it also speaks about how we treat American icons once they’re relegated to the dustbin of history. It seems crazy to refer to a film about Elvis and JFK fighting a mummy as “bittersweet,” but there you have it. Check out Bubba Ho-Tep.

Drive (aka Netflix needs to get it together)

First, let me say this. I hated Drive.


It seems crazy to me that this film isn’t popping up at the top of my “Newly Released” or “Newly Added” queue on Netflix Instant. As I’ve said before, I am a fan of Netflix for the David & Goliath struggle they’re engaged in, but they have to get it together.

Drive was one of the best-reviewed and most talked-about films of 2011. Why isn’t it showing up right away? Why isn’t Netflix sending us emails delighting in the fact that they can offer it to us? Why did I stumble across it, maybe 15th in a list of thriller movies because I was bored last night.

So I’m offering this post as a wary glimpse of the problems that Netflix is facing. Like I said, I personally don’t recommend Drive. But if you want to see it, now you can! A lot of people and critics that I know and respect loved it, so clearly the problem is with me!

To my mind it was empty-headed, pretentious, sexist, and full of style that, quite frankly, wasn’t even that great. Any Michael Mann film has late-night driving scenes that are more sexy and avant-garde (well, except for Last of the Mohicans). I feel like if Drive had starred someone other than Ryan Gosling, it wouldn’t have gotten half the attention it did, and not because he’s particularly good in the film (he’s fine, but he can only do so much with a terrible script), but because he’s the current meme heartthrob. Albert Brooks is great, yes. But any movie that manages to waste Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman is committing a crime against casting. 

Ugh! I hate this movie! And I hate that Netflix is so bungled that it buries a movie that a lot of people want to see way down in its search engine. But maybe that’s just how it was for me - if Drive popped up at the top of your suggested or newly released sections, let me know! In the meantime, I’ll be watching old episodes of the Rockford Files.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

An awful lot has happened to Wilco in the ten years since the release of this documentary. They’ve released numerous albums, done side projects, played huge venues, staged their own music & arts festival, and become one of the world’s most respected touring groups. They even had to cope with the death of co-founder Jay Bennett in 2009.

For me, I still like Wilco a lot, but I don’t love them the way I used to. The new songs just don’t grab me, and maybe that’s my fault as much as anything. I’ve always enjoyed the hard-rocking Wilco more than the other incarnations, including experimental, noise-rock, quietly folky, and current NPR-friendly. And while there’s nothing wrong with being NPR-friendly, it’s hard to imagine the screaming noise of “Misunderstood” or the ragged edges of “Shot in the Arm” playing on All Things Considered.

But as I said, these are my issues, and fortunately “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” captures Wilco during perhaps the most eventful period of their existence. The documentary encapsulates the recording of their game-changing album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and the genre-pushing experimentalism that went with it), their subsequent battle with Warner Bros records over the release of the album, and Jay Bennett leaving the band for good. I’m not one of those people who believe that the band was better with Bennett; that’s an oversimplification and the band’s current touring lineup is amazingly strong. But Bennett is an agreeably anarchic presence, and it’s great to see him engage and confront Jeff Tweedy, whether it’s in the studio or onstage.

The film’s gorgeous black and white photography is suitably evocative of the music Wilco is making, and while it’s not a game-changer on the level of DA Pennebaker’s profiles of Bob Dylan, it’s an interesting look at the music industry and a band at a moment of crisis, and how one Chicago band managed to succeed on their own terms. 

Also, the live footage kicks ass.