Five Weird (But Good) Things to Watch on Netflix

Plus: Further thoughts on a controversial Washington Post article and an early Hollywood rarity.

Five Weird (But Good) Things to Watch on Netflix

My 45th-anniversary piece on “National Lampoon’s Animal House”here’s a free link – went up at the Washington Post Tuesday morning and by the end of the day had attracted 1,400 comments. Most of them A) were furious that I had subjected a movie just about everyone unconditionally loves to a smidgen of critical thought and B) were convinced the basic thesis – which is that “Animal House” was an inflection point in a college generation’s transition from at least lip service to progressive ideals to an entitled, unabashed hedonism – was a pile of revisionist hogwash. To which I will only say that A) it is in fact possible, maybe even necessary, to both take uncomplicated enjoyment in a good smart-dumb comedy and have thoughts about its cultural and social impact — to quote the sage Brian Eno, “I think thinking is a bloody good idea.” As for B), commenters angered by my contention that young conservatives like the ones I knew at Dartmouth College in the late 1970s/early 1980s took inspiration from “Animal House” and the Delta crew, well, come on – nobody comes out of that movie wanting to be the Omegas. No one wants to be the Nazis, the racists, the bad guys. Everyone wants to see themselves as the devil-may-care lovable losers who resist authority, no matter what sociopolitical point on the graph you’re coming from. And this college comedy, love it as much as you or I may, enabled a lot of college students who saw it in 1978 to embrace the principles of self-gratification and self-interest without feeling that they had to feel guilty about it anymore. In other words, yeah, “Animal House” is a funny movie and it was a key step in the passage from hippies to yuppies. I saw it happen with my own eyes.

For what it’s worth, and judging from the number of sign-ups for the Watch List in the last three days — Welcome! — other WaPo readers found the article non-enraging, and I’m scheduled to be talking about the piece on CNN Saturday morning at 9:45, so tune in if you’re so inclined. I will not be wearing a toga.

Before I cut out early for a birthday weekend in the mountains, I thought I’d do another quick trawl for half-decent movies on Netflix, a.k.a. The Service Everyone Has But No One Knows Why. And I have to say the pickings are slimmer than ever, to the point where the service really does qualify as the single worst streaming platform for feature-length films. Original Netflix romcoms featuring actors you’ve never heard of, sure. Stand-up Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias specials, lots of them. The biggest hits of Bollywood, Lollywood, and Nollywood, why, yes. And TV series, of course, some of which are quite good and some of which are “Emily In Paris.” But of movies that have received US theatrical and festival releases and been reviewed by critics (I realize I’m being a bit snobbish here, but you work with what you know), there are precious few that are worth my time or yours. And the ones that are worth our time I’ve already covered here and here and here and here, previous posts that newcomers to the Watch List are urged to check out. Instead, I will leave you with five Netflix oddities – two documentaries, two stand-up shows, and one short film – that may have cruised below your radar but that do have their pleasures.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2017) – The life of Hedy (not Hedley) Lamarr, legendary Hollywood beauty and inventor of a wireless technology that now makes possible your GPS, cellphone, wi-fi, and Bluetooth and has a $30-billion market value of which the movie star received precisely nothing. Alexandra Dean’s documentary is a fascinating, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic portrait of a gifted scientific mind who spent a lifetime being looked at while never truly being seen.

Middleditch & Schwartz (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, 2020) – Thomas Middleditch (who you know from the HBO series “Silicon Valley”) and Ben Schwartz (who you know from a ton of stuff) turn what sounds like improv-club death by torture – full-length playlets based on audience suggestions – into a lunatic trapeze act, the two performers playing multiple characters and sometimes passing a character between each other like a live-action baton. Three hour-long episodes are available, all worth seeing and all capable of inducing a rare comedy high.

The Pez Outlaw (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, 2022) – The delightfully bizarre saga of Steve Glew, a disheveled Michigan nobody with OCD and a devoted wife who in the early 1990s made himself a millionaire by cornering the market on rare Pez dispensers, in the process becoming an international smuggler and the personal bête noire of Pez CEO Scott McWhinnie. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, an espionage thriller, and, by the end, a deeply touching love story. Directed with a sweet tooth and tongue firmly in cheek by Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel.

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2018) – This 74-minute special has been knocking around the service for five years now – pre-dating the duo’s popular Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building” – so chances are you’ve seen it already, but if you haven’t, treat yourself to two prize hams jostling each other in and out of the spotlight. Martin’s fake-insult schtick and banjo skills are reliable entertainment, but Short’s recreation of his early-career appearance in a production of “Hair” is screamingly funny.

What Did Jack Do? (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 2017) – A 17-minute short by David Lynch that went straight to Netflix after its premiere at the Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain in Paris and that is best described by simply quoting its logline: "In a locked down train station, a homicide detective conducts an interview with a tormented monkey." Lynch plays the detective. A capuchin monkey named Jack Cruz plays opposite him. There’s a chicken, and there’s a waitress, and – this being Lynch – there’s coffee. It’s unsettling and weirdly comical, and it could have come from the brainpan of no other living filmmaker.

Old Hollywood YouTube Find of the Week: My former editor at the Boston Globe passed this along via email with the comment, “Have you seen this?” — and, no, I had not. It’s test footage for a 1934 RKO production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” starring Katharine Hepburn as Joan of Arc, that was never made because Shaw wouldn’t agree to making cuts in his play. It also represents a test of Technicolor’s then-new three-strip process, and it is both breathtaking and slightly discombobulating. When we think of Hepburn in color, we think of the older actress of “The African Queen” and other roles that typecast her as a spinster, and to see the mercurial supernova of the early ‘30s, fresh from her biggest RKO hit, “Little Women,” in the hyperreal pastels of early Technicolor is to enter a bewitching alternate reality. You can neatly gauge the age of the commenters on YouTube by who they think Hepburn looks like (Linda Evangelista, Milla Jovovich); for myself, I keep seeing the ghost of Tilda Swinton hovering about the frame. It’s test footage, so you can’t really call what Kate’s doing here “acting” — more like posing while the studio wind machine gets cranked to Gale Force 9 — but it is magic nevertheless. (RKO finally got a Joan of Arc movie made in 1948 with Ingrid Bergman; Shaw’s “Saint Joan” had to wait until 1957 for director Otto Preminger, star Jean Seberg, and screenwriter Graham Greene.)

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