Phil’s Big Streaming Pile: November Edition

Phil is thankful for the cornucopia of titles available on Instant. And he even brought the turkey.

This past week, I found myself caught up in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary hoopla and sat down to watch my first episode of Doctor Who. Which is to say, THE first episode of Doctor Who, from 1963. Yes, I know you can get onboard starting with the Eccleston run, or even maybe just the Tennant run, but my crippling OCD demanded that I watch the first available iteration. It might have dissuaded a lesser, saner man, but having absorbed 1000+ episodes of Dark Shadows, I was well-prepared for the live-to-tape shenanigans of William Hartnell & Co. I think (and pray) that I will be able to get away with simply sampling a bit of each Doctor before I dive into this new stuff you're all so worked up about. But probably not.

Why am I telling you all this? I had this half-assed idea to build an entry around my "collect 'em all" viewing mentality. My compulsion to run down every episode, every version of an entertainment, ingesting every variation possible in an attempt to have some sort of empirical understanding of it. The parameters are fluid and I make them up as I go (I've yet to really dig into the world of slashfic, for example), but I can tell you I once read every available screenplay draft of 1968's Planet of the Apes, as well as every novelization, as well as the discarded '90s remake scripts by Terry Hayes and Sam Hamm. I'm not bragging; I spent hours, days maybe, tracking that shit down, and I can barely remember them. And just typing that fact makes me think I should pull those out of the attic and re-read them. Oh god. Anyhow, here are some films I've watched on Instant recently, in the dubious name of completionism.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES - Sherlock Holmes is, like The Doctor, currently a popular figure with the Tumblr crush crowd, but it's curious to me that the popularity of the BBC show sends fans inward to fan fiction and the like, as opposed to, say, the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, or at least other takes on the character. I've been chipping away at filmed versions of the detective for a while now, and this 1970 film is certainly a curious detour for the character. It fell through the cracks into footnote territory when the studio saw fit to take director Billy Wilder's cut and carve it nearly in half, losing two of the film's four interwoven tales, resulting in poor reviews and a quick commercial run. What's left of the film is a bit patchwork, but still worth looking at, if for no other reason than it's one of the first films to deconstruct Holmes as a character. (There's also a plot point suggesting Holmes is sweet on Watson, Tumblr people.)

HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ - After watching and enjoying Sam Raimi's Oz The Great And Powerful, I found myself wanting to not only revisit the 1939 film, but also the silent films that were based on L Frank Baum's stories. I searched Netflix, Amazon and Hulu looking for viewable copies, and then realized they're all on Disc Two of the current Wizard of Oz Blu-ray. Lucky for you, this one is also on (which, to my shame, I haven't pointed you toward nearly enough in this column). This 99-year-old movie (!!) was produced by Baum himself, and it's a loosey-goosey adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; a separate plot mapped onto the familiar action would turn up in a Baum book the following year. The film's budget restraints (most of the action is set in a patchy wooded field in Los Angeles) only help to accent the more fantastical stuff. There's a proto-Andy Serkis playing all the animals (and frankly killing it), and there's a scene in which the Tin Woodman decapitates the Wicked Witch that made me gasp out loud. The Scarecrow has more in common with Tim Curry's Pennywise than Ray Bolger's straw man, but he also gets a fun little dance number in with a human-sized crow. On the whole I found myself wondering if the film's imagery and affectations delighted 1914's children or scared the living shit out of them, but today this is a great glimpse into the early days of family filmmaking.

JOHN CARPENTER'S ESCAPE FROM LA - It's hard to accurately convey just how excited we were for this movie in 1996. Escape From New York was, no lie, one of the defining movies of my generation, and when the news of a sequel first surfaced, with a cast that included Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier, Bruce Campbell, Stacy Keach and Peter Fonda, well, I mean, holy shit. Expectation-wise this was, for me and a lot of my friends, our Phantom Menace. I'm not kidding. Sadly, upon release, this remained our Phantom Menace, an outright betrayal of our beloved film. The winking Old West music cues, the too-cute in-jokes about Los Angeles, the Libertarian politics seeping through the satire - this was not the franchise I remembered! Escape From New York was absurd, but the absurdity worked because it was played straight. Escape From LA is played so broadly that it's more of a parody of the original than a true sequel, and that's' something I just wasn't on board with in 1996. Even on its own terms, I've never come around to loving the film - it's all cushy cynicism from rich middle-aged folks in place of the angry young edge of the original - but I admit I revisit it from time to time, and I'd be first in line if Carpenter and Kurt Russell decided to close it out as a trilogy. After all, more time has passed between Escape From LA and now than the 15 years between LA and the original. Who knows what kind of film we'd get?

SILENT RUNNING - I'm not sure what completist itch this scratches (told you up front it was a half-assed theme), but I'd been meaning to watch it for a long time, imagining it as a kind of link between 2001 and Moon, but for a long time Netflix only carried a terrible-looking SD transfer, so I held off. They've got the HD version up now, and it's a fun, if dry, sci-fi yarn that does indeed sit between those two films, with a huge dose of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on top. Getting to see what people in past decades thought space travel would be like is a huge treat - stuff like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Planet of the Vampires, even the old Flash Gordon serials offer great historical value even if their slower pacing is testing your terrible attention span. Silent Running is very much the 1972 counterculture vision of space travel: Bruce Dern is a solitary, conservation-minded astronaut who maintains the last of earth's trees in a forest contained inside an enormous space vessel. Yep. When HQ moves to shut down the program and nuke the empty vessel, Dern goes a little mad, kills his co-worker with a shovel (did I mention the movie is rated G?) and reprograms two robot workers in a bid to save the trees. Fun model work from director Douglas Trumbull and songs by Joan Baez add to the time capsule quality of this one.

Twixt - Because you want to be completist every Francis Ford Coppola movie...? Okay, so my theme has fallen apart, but I'm not going to have watched this film for nothing. Coppola's digital doodle from 2012 is, as Devin reminded me on the BAD podcast, the legendary director stepping up and doing what George Lucas loudly planned to do - go off and make weird little art movies, as if the blockbuster stuff was a 40-year side-trip. That is, without question, exactly what Coppola has done here. The result is, while in no way good, a fascinating way to spend an hour and change. Val Kilmer is never dull (ever!), and the noir-ish plot - a burnt-out writer needs a story, and a really dark one falls into his lap during a small town book-signing - sounds great on the page. But then that plot (and some autobiographical backstory about Kilmer's daughter being killed in a boating accident) takes a backseat to what feels like extended improvisation, which near as I can tell doesn't always mesh with a film as reliant on post-production as this one. There are moments of life, but the presentation is a novelty that soon becomes a distraction, the visual compositing often hitting a level somewhere below the worst shots of Sin City. Again, an 88-minute oddity from one of the greatest directors of the last 50 years is never a waste of time in my book, and at the very least you get to see Kilmer not only converse with Edgar Allan Poe, but resurrect his Brando impression from The Island of Dr. Moreau. Which is not streaming.