FlixWorthy: I'm Spartacus, Not A Gun

By David Wharton 2010-02-15 15:17:59
Welcome back to week two of FlixWorthy, your weekly guide to Netflix streaming. Each Monday FlixWorthy dives headfirst into Netflix's streaming catalogue and surfaces with a handful of new or notable selections for your amusement and edification. Sometimes it'll be classics, sometimes it'll be little-seen gems, sometimes it'll be shows you might have missed, and sometimes...sometimes it'll be crap so awful it simply has to be seen to be believed. This week's picks run the gamut from gladiators to giant friggin' robots.

As the column continues, I'd love to hear from any and all of you, so drop some comments down below. And if you've stumbled across something interesting in the baffling marshes of Netflix's instant-streaming catalogue, drop me a line if you think it's worth profiling in a future column. Here's what's FlixWorthy this week, kids.


Spartacus: Blood and Sand
(2010, Not Rated)

One of the great things about Netflix is that several of the pay-cable channels make their shows available streaming through the service. Showtime's been really good about this, with shows like Dexter, Weeds, Californication, and The Tudors all offering the first couple of seasons to get you hooked. Starz has done them one better by making new episodes of shows like the excellent Party Down available pretty much as soon as they air on the actual network. Their new gladiator drama Spartacus: Blood and Sand is following this same model, with last Friday's episode already up and ready to stream. Created by Whedonverse alum Steven S. DeKnight, along with executive producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert, Blood and Sand takes a Batman Begins approach to the story of Spartacus, backing up and showing how he came to be a Roman slave and gladiator. If you haven't checked the show out yet, I have one piece of advice: don't judge it by the pilot. The first episode smacks of a writer a bit intoxicated by the freedoms of pay cable, and it tries a little too hard to be edgy and over-the-top, raining down profanity and brutal violence in equal measure. By the second episode, it begins to find the balance between character drama and graphic-novel-styled action. Gore and full-frontal might have gotten the show some much-needed initial publicity, but the shock factor wouldn't have sustained it for long. Thankfully, Spartacus has improved with each episode, and there's definitely more going on here than slow-motion arterial spray and Xena's boobies.

Double-Feature It With...
Robin Hood: Season 1. I had people say some less than kind things about the BBC's latest take on the Hooded Man back when the show premiered in 2006. Since then, I've had some of you lovely readers insist to me that the show has improved over the years, so I've cautiously added season one to my queue. Will it be able to knock the mid-'80s Robin of Sherwood from its pedestal as my favorite telling of the legend? Not bloody likely, but time will tell.


Tales of the Black Freighter
(2009, Rated R, HD)

I probably should have known better. When the Blu-ray Director's Cut of Watchmen came out last summer, it was already a given that a later version would follow that incorporated the animated Tales of the Black Freighter and the faux documentary Under the Hood along with the actual movie. But did I save my pennies and wait for the inevitable "Ultimate Cut?" I did not. Largely because, quite frankly, while I was curious about these extra chunks of the story, I wasn't that curious. Not curious enough to buy them when they came out as a separate release, and certainly not curious enough to replace my perfectly adequate Director's Cut. But just curious enough to add Black Freighter to my Netflix queue and see what I missed? You betcha. At a brisk 25 minutes, Black Freighter brings to life the story-within-a-story from Watchmen, following the adventures of a shipwrecked sailor and thematically echoing the story of the primary film. Gerard "THIS IS SPARTA" Butler narrates the tale, which may help distract you from the fact that King Leonidas keeps signing on to awful romantic comedies.

Double-Feature It With...
Under the Hood (HD)
Really, what else were you expecting me to suggest? You're watching Black Freighter, you might as well tackle the third leg of the Watchmen trifecta. If you left Watchmen thinking, "I must know more about the original Nite Owl," well, here you go.


Stagecoach
(1939, Not Rated)

Every couple of years somebody makes a new Western that gets some good buzz and every outlet on the planet dubs the newcomer the glorious return of a fallen genre. But back before everyone was setting out to post-modernize and demythologize the Wild West, John Ford was almost single-handedly defining much of what we think about when we think of that genre. Stagecoach casts eventual Ford regular John Wayne as the outlaw Ringo Kid. After escaping from jail, Ringo is on the hunt for the men who framed him for murder when he winds up amongst a hodgepodge of travelers who are forced to throw together to defend themselves from attacking Apaches. Stagecoach was nominated for numerous Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Directing, and also landed at number nine on the AFI's list of the Top Ten Westerns. The film was also supposedly a huge influence on Orson Welles when he was filming Citizen Kane. Not bad as far as inspirations go.

Double-Feature It With:
Fort Apache (HD)
Continue the Ford Fest with another in Ford and Wayne's profitable partnership. Loosely based on the Battle of Little Bighorn, Fort Apache stars Wayne alongside Henry Fonda and was the first film in Ford's "cavalry trilogy," which continued on in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande (both of which are also available from Netflix, but not streaming).


The Iron Giant
(1999, Rated PG, HD)

It may seem like Pixar are the only people who can make a proper animated family film these days, but back in 1999 they had some serious competition. Adapting a children's book by Ted Hughes, Iron Giant tells of the friendship between a young boy named Hogarth and a giant robot war machine that falls from space and decides it isn't interested in making war no more. Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and written by Tim McCanlies (Secondhand Lions), The Iron Giant is one of the best animated films of the past several decades, and I'd place it squarely alongside Pixar's best. Littered with in-jokes and awash in Cold War satire (the "duck and cover" movie they show in Hogarth's class is priceless), Iron Giant is at times hysterical, heartfelt, and heartbreaking. Watch it for the first time if you haven't seen it; watch it again if you have. If you can make it past the "Soooperman" line without bawling, then you, sir, are dis-invited from all my future parties. Fun fact: this is the only Vin Diesel performance that has made me cry that was actually intended to.

Double-Feature It With:
An American Tail
Better known as "the mouse movie that gave birth to that song you couldn't escape for the latter half of 1986," An American Tail is Don Bluth in his prime. It's nowhere near the creepy genius of The Secret of NIMH, but the story of an immigrant mouse named Fievel is a great movie to introduce your kids to and a nostalgic reminder of the days when hand-drawn animation was more than a curiosity. Just try not to get that damn song stuck in your head if you can help it. (FYI, the Starz Play version Netflix offers is pan'n'scan.)


Che
(2008, Rated R, HD)

Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro are your guides on an exciting and educational exploration of the life of that guy whose face is on all those hipsters' t-shirts (even though this design is clearly superior). Del Toro plays Marxist revolutionary and guerilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Soderbergh's two-part biopic. Che pulled in mostly positive but not glowing reviews, but you'd better make sure you have a comfy chair on hand, because you're going to be there for a while. Both parts together clock in at an ass-numbing 261 minutes, and without a single hobbit to be seen. Watch them back to back with The Wolfman for an unofficial "Hairy Del Toro" trilogy.

Double-Feature It With:
Patton
Because after sitting through all that lousy commie propaganda, you're gonna need the good old-fashioned stars and stripes shoved right up your cornhole, son, and ain't no man on the planet more qualified to slap the Red off you than General George S. Patton! Now fall in, goddamnit! (FYI, the Starz Play version Netflix offers is pan'n'scan.)


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