You can’t call an algorithm an asshole.
It used to be, if you had just seen something and wanted to pick up another film in the same vein, maybe something a little off the beaten path, you’d talk to your friendly neighborhood video store clerk. These were the guys who knew most every faded, dust-covered tape they had, and they were happy to steer you towards something interesting and unfamiliar, whether it be a foreign film that bypassed your area’s theaters or a forgotten bit of genre sleaze given a second life on a burgeoning new format. Those guys and those stores are gone now, yet there’s still plenty of work to be done — the rise of streaming video has resulted in the unearthing of a staggering amount of forgotten, underloved cinema. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the darker corners of Netflix Instant. Their library is vast and daunting, filled with a striking number of films previously unavailable since the heyday of VHS. And to sift through it all, they’ve got algorithms, bits of code that relate titles you might be interested in to titles you’ve liked.
Thing is, though, while that code can tell you that you might find a particular film interesting, it can’t tell you why. It can’t champion that film, argue passionately for it, tell you exactly how gorgeous or exciting or chock fulla boobs it is. And if you end up hating that film, you can’t mouth off to the algorithm, aside from logging a one-star rating and maybe writing a review that no one’s going to read anyway. There’s no conversation. The personal touch, she is missing. I aim to put it back. Somebody has to be The Guy Behind the Counter. I think I can be that guy.
If you want a horror film with personality: Pontypool (2009, Bruce McDonald)
“Mrs. French’s cat is missing…” So many zombie movies have slithered from the digital pipe in the last year that it’s natural for the genre to be suffering burnout. How, then, to revitalize it? Let’s see… what if the infection was not physical but mental, coded in language and how we process it? That’s the hook of the terrifically creepy Pontypool, a film that lets chaos spin from the mere act of speaking. Stephen McHattie, with his gloriously gravelly voice, plays a no-bullshit radio talkshow host whose snowy Monday morning goes from bad to disastrous when folks in his tiny Ontario town of Pontypool start acting a little odd. Seems there’s something multiplying in their brains, making them act violently towards others — could it be related to the muttered, repeated mantras they all seem to have?
McDonald and writer Tony Burgess let this build slowly, like a virus taking hold; more importantly, the two take the irrational nature of the premise and expand it until it’s the whole point, the problem and the solution — fight repetition with repetition, violence against the flesh with violence against language, the unexplainable with the deliberately scrambled. It’s a thriller for both the senses and the mind — a clever conceit exploited for both the sinister and the darkly humorous, where a conversation can turn from everyday to dangerous with a mere repeated word signaling oncoming derangement. At the center of it is McHattie in a deliciously curmudgeonly turn, quietly frightened yet still willing to rip into a corker of a joke if he can make one (“Do we really want to provide a genocide with elevator music?”). So much at the base of the horror genre is about terror of that which we can’t understand. Pontypool perversely offers us the horror of understanding too hard.
If you want to see Nicolas Cage go absolutely, mind-blowingly batshit crazy: Deadfall (1993, Christopher Coppola)
At first, Deadfall plays like a generic neo-noir, with a drippy Michael Biehn ensnared in One Last Job after he accidentally kills his father during a con gone bad. But then, Nicolas Cage pokes his bewigged dome into the film. What Cage does here — sweaty and slit-eyed, perpetually wearing big black wraparound Bono shades — can’t be contained by the notion of “chewing scenery.” He tears off great chunks of the scenery, shreds it, gnaws on it, pounds it into powder, snorts it and shoves it into whatever orifice happens to be handiest.
Even by Cage’s standards, he’s way off the leash here, and it’s mesmerizing to witness. Weirdest of all is the otherworldly accent in which he’s chosen to drench his words — at times it sounds like Elvis with a head cold and a jaw that’s been wired shut, while other times it approximates Tom Waits impersonating Fire Marshall Bill. And the more Cage is on screen, the more his lunacy leeches into the rest of the film. By the time Angus Scrimm pops up as a menacing jeweler with a robotic scissor-hand, the only reaction is, “Yeah, well… of course.” Good thing, too, because otherwise Deadfall would have remained a hollow and self-conscious genre riff that goes a long way to proving yet again why Biehn never became a leading man and that James Coburn and Peter Fonda would show up in anything in the ‘90s, provided there was a paycheck in it. But you know what? There’s a scene where Cage screams “FUUUUCK” for a full six seconds in a strip club and another where he runs out of words and literally just starts barking at the camera. That’s worth any price of admission, where I’m from.
If you just want to see a whole bunch of European bosoms: Dagmar’s Hot Pants, Inc. (1971, Vernon P. Becker)
Despite the title, there’s no hot pants in this movie, nor is there much in the way of corporate intrigue. (The print on Netflix uses the more sedate title of Dagmar and Co.) What it does have is Dagmar, a Swedish prostitute making her way through a hectic day in her adopted home of Copenhagen. A film made today with this plot would either be a leering, smutty sexcom or a moralistic drama, but this is a rather bouncy iteration of the light-hearted ‘70s sex farce. It’s a pleasant and airy thing, structured like a British Confessions of… film but less aggressive about its cornball vaudeville vibe.
Most of the jokes are familiar iterations of old standards sprinkled with the occasional groaner of a pun (“I’m all tied up right now,” exclaims a trussed-up whore), which seems fitting in light of the film’s episodic nature — as Dagmar drifts through her day, meeting regular johns and fellow hookers, there are times when Becker appears to be making a sketch-comedy film that has Dagmar as the framing device.
There are certainly worse ways to frame your film, though; Dagmar is a girl so sweet-natured that the first thing she does in the film is kiss Lenny, her teddy bear, on the nose and opine what a great day it’s going to be. That sort of optimism is pretty enticing, and her good nature informs the film as a whole. Even when conflict creeps in during the film’s last half-hour, it’s pretty much the kind of easily-surmountable softballs you’d expect the world to pitch at someone described by her brother as, “a very sweet, sentimental and moral girl.” Despite the omnipresent nudity from both Dagmar and several of her friends, this is far from the salacious romp promised by the title. It’s enjoyable fluffy and, dare I say, almost wholesome. Also: man, is it ever chock fulla boobs.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.