It’s wild and wooly out there in the world of streaming video. As movies and TV shows become increasingly accessible through a variety of services, it has also become increasingly difficult to keep track of what is available where, what is expiring when, and what is actually worth watching. So every Friday, Vulture will have a list of recommendations of movies and TV shows that are new to Netflix (as well as Hulu, Amazon, On Demand, and other streaming sites), those that are expiring, and those that you should watch just because.
Max Fleischer's Superman
Supposedly Zack Synder and Christopher Nolan's Man of Steel is delivering the Superman adaptation that fans have been waiting for all their lives. While I had a ball with the duo's high-impulse blockbuster, a whopping two-and-a-half hours of existentialist gazing and mid-air fisticuffs, a collection of animated Superman short films from the forties makes me wonder if the grand approach is worth the trouble. Does Superman need to be a Moses/Jesus metaphor grappling with the realities of godly powers? Or can a big blue boy scout simply save the day from Earth's most menacing evil-doers? When watching Max and Dave Fleischer's Superman cartoon collection (now floating about in the public domain), I believe a man can fly … with little expositional baggage.
The Fleischer Bros. were at the top of their game back in 1941, best known for their Popeye the Sailor shorts and the 1939 feature Gulliver’s Travels. That year,
Warner Bros. Paramount recruited the duo to produce a series of theatrical cartoons showing off the Man of Steel's amazing powers — some of which they made up for their own enjoyment. Before the Fleischers animated Superman's adventures, he could only leap tall buildings in a single bound. In their version, he could fly! And fly he did, swooping in to save derailing trains, pummeling mad scientists, and taking down waves of mechanical monsters with a few swift punches. The Fleischer's used their patented process of rotoscoping to film actual actors playing the parts of Clark Kent and Lois Lane before laying over a thick coating of art deco and dynamically constructed action. And they’re simple: Something attacks, Clark hears the call, Superman appears out of nowhere then — WHACK BAM BOOM! — another happy ending. Bite-size, thrilling, and a sight to behold. (Available on YouTube)
Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
It's easy to whittle a person's career down to one or two highlights — even an industry legend. Take a man like Mel Brooks, recipient of a recent American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement award. When Brooks’s name comes up, you may think, "Blazing Saddles, that is a funny movie!" Or, "Mel Brooks ... I used to love those 2000-Year-Old Man albums." All appropriate and reasonable reactions.
But a creative individual will always comprise more than their work suggests, and PBS's American Masters documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise proves it with a reflective look at Brooks's nearly 70-year career. The Renaissance man was known for his taboo-breaking comedy, starting with stints on television and eventually recording the aforementioned albums with fellow improviser Carl Reiner. When he segued to film, he was a comedian making movies. He’s still regarded that way. Through interviews and archive footage, Make a Noise shows that Brooks not only made us laugh, but was an essential part of the filmmaking scene of the seventies. As “serious” filmmakers were challenging what film could be, Brooks was doing the same for cinematic comedy — and skillfully. He directed an Alfred Hitchcock parody (High Anxiety) that landed because it understood the language of Hitchcock. Brooks played both sides of the line, an agile businessman in Hollywood who could help bring legitimate cinema to life. Yes, the man who directed Spaceballs also produced David Lynch's The Elephant Man. And the most revelatory reveal: Six decades after breaking into the business, Brooks doesn't appear to have lost a single drop of wit. (Available on PBS)
The unfathomable success of The Purge solidifies a long-gestating theory: Ethan Hawke goes great with genre. Though he earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in Training Day and has popped up in easily classifiable dramatic fare time and time again, he's at his best when the world around him is heightened to the point of absurdity. The Purge, last year's Sinister, his remake of Assault on Precinct 13, even the Before movies — they're a naturalistic examination of relationships, hyper-focused to unrealistic degrees. They're vivid, poignant, and, like a soap opera, we always want to know what happens next (explaining why Before Midnight is earning critical raves and lots of indie box-office dollars).
Which leads me to Hawke's best work to date: Gattaca. Like many of writer-director Andrew Niccol's recent films (In Time, The Host), Gattaca is overflowing with explanation of an alternative future. In this world, genetics can be controlled with precision and "valids" — eugenically elite humans — are favored over the naturally imperfect in all factions of life. Gattaca separates itself from the rest of Niccol's filmography thanks to Hawke. The actor avoids winking an eye at the potentially silly scenario. He’s wonderfully unassuming. For all his life, Vincent (Hawke) has dreamed of being valid and going to space — a job requiring a peak physical condition. So he takes an illegal route, paying a former swimming champion (Jude Law) for his identity and genetic material. The simple plan spirals out of control (don't they always?) and Vincent finds himself in hot water. A bigger star might dabble in confidence as the world crumbles around them, just to look better onscreen, but Hawke never wavers as he drowns in the neo-noir mystery that unfolds. Like The Purge, like Sinister, like Before Midnight, total immersion is Hawke's greatest strength. Gattaca happens to have the purest DNA of them all. (Available on Crackle)