Hidden Netflix Gems: Raising Arizona

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: Raising Arizona (1987)

Even if you haven’t heard of Joel and Ethan Coen, you’ve sure as hell heard of some of their films. The brothers have jointly written, directed, and produced such modern classics as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. Their work bounces around in time, space, and genre—the Coens never make the same movie twice—and they’ve been renowned for it over the past three decades, with 13 Academy Award nominations and four wins.

Before all those accolades, the Coen brothers made their debut with 1984′s Blood Simple, a neo-noir thriller. Not wanting to make a reputation as one-trick ponies, they avowed to make to their next project as different from their first as possible. Out of that desire, the one-of-a-kind screwball comedy Raising Arizona was born.

Our protagonist is Herbert I. “Hi” McDonnough, played by the polarizing Nicolas Cage, who can make or break a movie depending on whether or not he fits his character. Hi is the type of lovable nitwit that often fills Coen fare: an erudite idiot reminiscent of Lebowski’s Dude, if he’d been born in an Arizona trailer park and had a penchant (though not necessarily a skill) for robbing 24-hour convenience stores. Luckily, Cage slips into Hi’s skin masterfully, right down to the wacky hairdo and funny accent (“Temp-ee, Arizona”). The performance remains one of his best to date, although ultimately Adaptation takes the cake.

Opposite Cage is Holly Hunter as the tight-lipped policewoman, Edwina or “Ed,” who’s always taking the recidivist Hi’s mugshot photos. After one particularly fateful arrest, Hi finds Ed in tears and learns that her fiance has left her. He proposes after his latest release from prison, and the two get married and move into a tiny trailer in the Arizona desert, which Hi lovingly calls a “suburban starter home.” One of the film’s many sources of comedy is the contrast between the upbeat world of Hi’s narration and that of the more objective reality we see on screen.

Hi does his best to “stand up and fly straight” after settling into married life, getting a job in a machine shop, but finds it difficult “with that darned Reagan in the White House.” Nonetheless, as time passes, the couple want to take the logical next step and start a family. Unfortunately, “biology is against them,” as they receive the unhappy news that Edwina is “barren,” and they’re denied the chance to adopt because of Hi’s criminal record.

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Hidden Netflix Gems: Bottle Rocket

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bottle Rocket” (1996)

Before Wes Anderson was a household name (at least among movie buffs), before receiving Oscar nominations for The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, before The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore, and The Life Aquatic, yes, before all of that, he and Owen Wilson co-wrote the screenplay for Bottle Rocket. It was based on a short film of the same name they’d made in 1992 and released in 1994. Bottle Rocket was Anderson’s directorial debut and marked the first appearances of Luke and Owen Wilson, as well as their lesser known older brother, AndrewLeslie Mann, now famous for her many roles in husband Judd Apatow’s films, even had a small part, though it was eventually left on the cutting room floor.

Anderson’s first film is an interesting look back at the development of filmmaker’s now signature style: the methodical cinematography, with its bright coloring and compulsive need to center-frame the actors, along with humor so dry you’d better pack a canteen. Though a commercial failure, Bottle Rocket served as a launching pad for the careers of all those names above, so easily recognized here in 2013. But the film is worth a watch on its own merits, even for those who aren’t intrigued by the idea of taking a look at the early work of a couple of future A-listers. Thanks to Anderson’s burgeoning style and its innocent, humorous characters, Bottle Rocket has been certified fresh and holds an 80 percent rating on the TomatoMeter. If that’s not enough to sway you, Martin Scorsese named it his seventh favorite movie of the 1990′s. Yes, that Martin Scorsese.

Alright, enough blabber, onto the film itself. Bottle Rocket is a caper comedy about a couple of twenty-something Texans (just like Anderson and the Wilsons were when they made the film) determined to become master thieves. It begins when Dignan (Owen Wilson) aids his best friend Anthony (Luke Wilson) in “escaping” from a mental hospital. In truth, Anthony checked himself in voluntarily and it happens to be the last day of his stay, but he goes along with the charade to please his friend. Dignan, who is both endlessly optimistic and endlessly naive, then shares his “75-year plan” for a glamorous life of crime. Hopefully you’re beginning to see the style of humor the film employs.

Dignan’s scheme includes a few small-time heists before meeting with a Mr. Henry (played by James Caan, perhaps best known for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather), whose landscaping business Dignan worked for (and was fired from). Dignan seems to believe Mr. Henry is some kind of criminal mastermind, though whether or not that’s the case remains in question for much of the film, and the truth of the matter is best left unspoiled. Anthony goes along with the idea for much the same reasons he allowed Dignan to “rescue” him from the mental hospital—he doesn’t want to disappoint his friend, who’s oh so excited, and hey, he’s got nothing better to do.

Along the way, the two recruit Bob Mapplethorp (Robert Musgrave) as a getaway driver, because he’s the only person they know who owns a car. Although in fact, the car belongs to Bob’s wealthy parents. The eccentric trio endures a great deal of mockery from Bob’s brother, John Mapplethorp, aka Futureman (Andrew Wilson), whenever he crosses their path.

After they rob a local bookstore (in hilarious fashion), the guys hide out in a cheap motel near the Mexican border. There begins another major plotline, as Anthony falls in love with a Paraguayan maid named Inez, though she speaks little English and he no Spanish. That alone is a fantastic indication of Anthony’s character, and it makes it all the funnier that he’s the voice of reason in the film’s merry little band of thieves.

Bottle Rocket is great entertainment whether you’ve heard of Wes Anderson or not. Dignan, Anthony, and Bob are lovable misfits, and their interactions make for a great deal of subtle, witty humor. If you’re familiar with Anderson’s work and aren’t a fan then this one may not be for you. However, I recommend you check it out nonetheless. He’s the type of director that can take some time and understanding to appreciate. If you’ve put that time in and still don’t like his work, well, there’s no accounting for taste. I mean, anyone who disagrees with Marty freakin’ Scorsese on the subject of film is probably missing the point. Anyway, watch the damn thing and see for yourself.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: Bernie

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bernie” (2011)

When you live in a small town, everybody knows everyone else. They know what you’re like, who your parents were, what you do for a living, whether or not you go to church, and probably a few too many “dirty little secrets” that they use to gossip behind your back. For Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, small town life led to some speculation over whether his effeminate personality indicated he was gay. But it also meant that everybody knew him as the kindest, warmest, friendliest and most generous man they knew. Nobody was more well liked than Bernie.

Then he killed Marjorie Nugent. And despite the logic of that fact, while Bernie Tiede’s life changed, public opinion didn’t.

That’s the stranger than fiction basis of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film “Bernie,” which stars Jack Black in the title role. He’s a 39-year-old assistant funeral director loved by one and all. Kind-hearted soul that he was, he always delivered a gift and checked up on those the deceased left behind. Nobody made him do it, he wasn’t getting paid, he just cared. That habit leads to his befriending 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, who’s portrayed by Academy Award winner Shirely MacLaine.

Contrary to Bernie, nobody much cares for Mrs. Nugent. Even her own family hates her—she hasn’t spoken to two of her grandchildren in years after they sued her in an effort to get some of her husband’s money. She’s mean, nasty, and entirely lonely, but unwilling to bridge the gap of emotional connection. Until Bernie knocks on her door. Soon they’re eating meals and going on expensive vacations together. Eventually, Tiede even became the sole benefactor of Nugent’s will. She became controlling and jealous. Tiede was on call 24 hours a day, more a servant than a friend, but unable to walk away due to his inherent goodness (not to mention all the money being thrown his way). It was a clash of personalities, and Nugent’s hate beat out Tiede’s love. In a moment of weakness, Tiede snapped and shot Nugent in the back four times.

On paper, it was an open and shut case for Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the county’s district attorney. A young gay man had gotten wrapped up in the luxurious lifestyle that friendship offered a rich older woman. He was already getting a handsome amount of money, but stood to be the sole benefactor if she was out of the picture. So he killed her, end of story.

Only it wasn’t. Despite the facts, despite Tiede’s confession, the people of Carthage refused to believe their Bernie could have done such an awful thing. Those who would admit it would indicate the old bat had it coming to her. Believing he’d be unable to get a fair decision out a jury made up of people from Carthage, Davidson asked for a change of venue for the trial—a common request of defense lawyers, but a rare occurrence for a prosecutor.

In “Bernie,” Linklater takes the “small town folks who won’t believe the facts” idea and milks it for every bit of comedic and dramatic juice it’s worth. And it works, the film has a 92 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Linklater’s co-writer was Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” was the basis for the film.

“Bernie” uses a mockumentary style to give it that small town gossip feel. It often cuts to interviews with fictional East Texas residents (portrayed by real East Texas residents), who weigh in on its events. The question of whether they were genuine accounts was on my mind until McConaughey appeared on screen.

The film offers one of Black’s best performances to date. Perhaps the only role that could could compete came in 2003′s “School of Rock,” another Linklater project that allowed Black to mix in his quirk and musical talents. The actor makes you believe Bernie Tiede is someone who really could (and did) exist. He’s got funny characteristics, finds subtle humor in effeminate movement and body language, but never delves into the realm of the cartoonish. You understand why Bernie might’ve picked up that rifle, you might even approve (as the people of Carthage seem to).

Enjoyable and easy to watch, “Bernie” is a black comedy that mixes just the right amount of both ingredients. It seems to mock the eccentric Southern personalities it contains in a fashion that is loving rather than cruel while implying greater questions about the dangers of faith trumping fact.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: Michael Collins

“It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Michael Collins” (1996)

“Michael Collins” is a 1996 historical biopic starring Liam Neeson as the titular Irish revolutionary. Written and directed by Academy Award winner Neil Jordan, the film won the Golden Lion, the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, and became the highest-grossing picture of all-time in Ireland upon its release. The high profile cast includes Alan Rickman (Éamon de Valera), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy), Brendan Gleeson (Liam Tobin), and Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan).

For those who don’t know, Michael Collins was an Irish revolutionary, military, and political leader who made the liberation of his homeland from its British colonial overlords his life’s work. In the now 90 years since his death (and well before it), his actions made him a folk hero, “The Big Fellah,” the single most important figure in the fight for Irish freedom. As such, “Michael Collins” begins with the following opening crawl:

At the turn of the century Britain was the foremost world power and the British Empire stretched over two-thirds of the globe.

Despite the extent of its power, its most troublesome colony had always been the one closest to it, Ireland.

For seven hundred years Britain’s rule over Ireland had been resisted by attempts at rebellion and revolution, all of which ended in failure.

Then, in 1916, a rebellion began, to be followed by a guerilla war which would change the nature of that rule forever.

The mastermind behind that war was Michael Collins.

His life and death defined the period in its triumph, terror and tragedy.

This is his story.

Although the film depicts historical events, it is first and foremost a character piece. As such, I don’t consider it a spoiler to discuss the real-life developments of nearly a hundred years ago (aka the film’s “plot”). Even still, I won’t get into too much of the nitty gritty.

“Michael Collins” depicts its main character as the heroic leader of the songs. All at once he’s a brilliant military strategist and leader of men, but unafraid of getting his hands dirty. He’s the brilliant public speaker, the ideological inventor of guerrilla warfare, and ultimately the pragmatic diplomat who signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty when he believed any further violence would be for naught but its own sake.

The IRA had been backed into a corner when the British unexpectedly called for a cease fire and offers were made to begin peace negotiations. Collins signed the aforementioned treaty, calling it “the best we can hope for at this moment in time.” The truce established an Irish Free State only nominally attached to the British government, but fell short of the independent republic the IRA had dreamed of and preserved the separation of Northern Ireland. Collins felt that the best method moving forward was further negotiations from the “inside,” with the hope that they could someday achieve those goals without further bloodshed.

Rickman’s de Valera is pitted against Collins to various degrees throughout the film, but never more so than in the treaty’s wake. His refusal to accept its terms led (indirectly) to the Irish Civil War, Collins’ assassination, and even the violence that continues to shake Northern Ireland to this day.

In 1966, de Valera, then the Irish president, was quoted as saying, “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.” I don’t think even he could have predicted just how right he would be, and “Michael Collins” is a shining example. The film seems to both run with the idea by, as Roger Ebert put it, portraying Dev as “a weak, mannered, sniveling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed” and concede it as an inherent flaw by including the quote in the picture’s end. In the film, Dev is the Judas to Collins’ Christ, characterizing the former’s refusal to support the treaty as indirectly leading to the assassination of the latter, and perhaps even hinting that Dev knew the attempt on Collins’ life was coming.

But as Neil Jordan has pointed out, it wold be impossible to, in a mere two hours, portray an entirely accurate account of events to an audience that (for the most part) would know nothing of the minutiae of Irish history. That said, “Michael Collins” gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. At the end of the day, the fact remains that it is a movie first and a biography second. For the movie to be both commercially and artistically successful, it required a villain outside of the faceless evil of the British Empire. Thus the role of tangible, human antagonist fell into de Valera’s lap. And let’s face it, if there wasn’t a hint of truth in the idea, Dev would never have made that quote.

Sometimes the (near) truth is stranger or more exciting than fiction, and there are few better examples than the life of Michael Collins. Whether or not you’re a history buff, “Michael Collins” is satisfying film that combines biography, war, and political intrigue without getting too intense with any of them (although the romantic subplot can seem out of place). And hey, for once you can tell people you learned something from a film rife with explosions.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: Timecrimes

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: Timecrimes” (2007)

“Timecrimes” is one of those movies where it seems like giving away anything at all is giving away too much. I’ve included the trailer below out of habit, but if you’d rather not have the film’s twist(s) spoiled, you should avoid it as well as the synopses on Netflix and elsewhere. Even most reviews seem to reveal too much. However, this isn’t an M. Night Shyamalan movie. That is to say spoiling the twist won’t spoil the whole thing. It’s revealed fairly early on and it’s not the only thing the film has going for it.

Here’s what I will say: “Timecrimes” is a Spanish thriller based around time travel. Contrary to many films built on the same idea, “Timecrimes” is extremely low-budget. There is no CGI, one location, and only four speaking roles (one of which is held by writer/director Nacho Vigalondo). Perhaps the film’s most important contrast to its many peers is that the time travel elements do not become convoluted or confusing. “Timecrimes” makes up for its inherent bare bones-ness by maintaining a constant state of tension and forward movement—much like Hector, the main character, the audience has no time to stop and think.

Let’s talk about Hector (Karra Elejalde) then. He’s a middle-aged man in the midst of renovating his home in the Spanish countryside, where he lives with his wife, Clara (Candela Fernández). Hector’s spending his Saturday relaxing in the backyard, looking out into the woods beyond his property through binoculars. There he spies an attractive young woman (Bárbara Goenaga) undressing. His wife leaves to go shopping, and Hector decides to be lead investigator in case of the naked lady. When he finds her, she appears dead, and he’s stabbed by her apparent killer, a mysterious man whose face is wrapped in a pink bandage. Hector runs, ending up in the lab of a scientist played by Vigalondo. Soon after, the scientist convinces Hector to hide from his persuer in a large mechanical device. It’s night time when he gets in, but when he steps out just a few moments later, the sun is shining. Hector has traveled back in time by an hour and a half. And that’s when things really start to get interesting.

The film isn’t exactly a character study, so neither Hector or the rest of the parts are incredibly deep. But in the case of “Timecrimes,” that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It makes Hector into something of an everyman, which allows the audience to wonder just what they would do if placed in his situation: getting sent back in time after being chased through the woods by a pink-bandaged bandit.

The film is getting an English-language remake, which is ironically humorous for reasons that will become clear once you’ve watched it (if you don’t understand what I mean by then, check out Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe’s review). The project was originally in the hands of David Cronenberg, but has since been shifted from United Artists to Dreamworks with Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Gangs of New York,” “Moneyball”) attached to write, produce, and perhaps even direct.

Like I said, there’s not much more I can say about “Timecrimes” without feeling that I’ve given away too much. I promise it’s an exciting, well thought out thriller. If you don’t believe me, take its 87 percent rating on the Tomatometer as proof. The film’s virtues more than make up for its flaws and it’s a better way to spend 90 minutes on a Saturday night than looking at the woods in your backyard through binoculars. Enjoy!

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

  

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