Instant Gratification: Netflix Instant Watch New Releases for the Week of July 18-24, 2010

Each week, dozens of new movies and television shows are made available for free to Netflix subscribers to watch instantly on their PCs as well as select game consoles and DVD players as well as other platforms. This column highlights new or noteworthy selections. For a full list of new “watch instantly” selections, check out the Web site instantwatcher.com.

Prodigal Sons (2008) — It isn’t often that my film picks coincide with those of Oprah Winfrey — however, I’d be a fool to shun a movie just because the talk show queen has bestowed her blessing on it. With that said, I’m recommending the film Prodigal Sons, new this week to the Netflix streaming library, a compelling documentary about siblings who are vastly different, yet both share the same struggle to find their identity. Kimberly Reed directs the movie. Probably the more level-headed of the brother-sister pair, Kimberly is unique in that she is a post-op transsexual who used to be named Paul. As Paul, Kimberly (Bear with me, this could get a little confusing) was a popular high school athletic star. Kimberly’s big storyline is her planned return to her conservative hometown of Helena, Montana. How will her ex-classmates react to the person they knew as Paul, who has not been back home since heading out to San Francisco and becoming Kim? Spoiler alert: They’re fine with it. At the very least, they don’t say anything to her face. For all intensive purposes ,they welcome her back with open arms.

This makes the real star of Prodigal Sons Kimberly’s older adopted brother Marc. Marc is, to put it lightly, a fucking disaster. Not only does he have issues over feeling abandoned by his birth parents, he suffers from brain damage as a result of a serious car accident which make him prone to violent outbursts and seizures should he not take his medication — and, towards the end of the film, becomes very lackadaisical about taking his pills. He’s also a Bible-thumper, whose religious attitudes are most prevalent during moments of extreme emotional distress –basically, when he doesn’t take his medication. We bear witness in the film to one such episode at Christmas time, during which Marc blows up on Kimberly for apparently no reason at all. Calling Kimberly’s decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery abnormal and immoral during the course of the fight, Marc makes reference to Kimberly both “sucking dick” and “butt fucking,” despite the fact that his sister only became gay after becoming a woman. Kimberly, you see, is in a relationship with another woman, technically making her a lesbian.

Ultimately, Mark and Kimberly’s physical and verbal altercations are counterproductive to what Kimberly says is the goal of making this movie, to reconnect with Marc. It doesn’t help that the two siblings rarely have a serious discussion. It isn’t until the previously mentioned scene at Christmas — which occurs toward the end of the movie — that Marc makes it clear he has a problem with Kimberly’s decision to become a woman, although in hindsight it’s obvious.

This is a broken relationship with no easy fix. Kimberly remarks at one point in the movie that Marc appears to envy the person Kimberly used to be — Paul. She believes Marc is hung up on her former life, envious of the person that Marc was in high school — a star football player, handsome and popular with women. Kimberly realizes Marc’s head injury might have something to do with his this attitude as the brain injury affected Marc’s short term memory, however it’s clear by the end of the movie that Marc’s problems began long before the car accident.  Kimberly, meanwhile, is trying to forget about that person she was as a teenager and it doesn’t help that when Kimberly is around Marc, Marc is constantly bringing up Paul.

Kimberly’s camera is unflinching. Every uncomfortable moment between these two people is on display, making this a must-see film for keen observers of human behavior — or voyeurs as they’re often called.

Many reviews of this film mention a pretty remarkable plot twist that occurs about a 1/3 of the way through the movie having to do with Marc’s search for his birth parents, which actually inspired Kimberly to make this movie before it turned into the film it is today. I will not spoil the surprise, but it’s definitely one of those moments where real life is as strange as anything that could be conceived in the mind of the artist.

Apparently, Oprah devoted an entire episode of her talk show to this film. Do not let that dissuade you from checking it out. Prodigal Sons is a documentary that has something for everyone. Fascinating stuff. (Add this to my queue!)

The Plague Dogs (1982) — I reviewed this movie for a “Quick Takes” column last month, but am such a fan that I’m going to mention it again — plus this is a perfect example of why I love Netflix. It was just a couple of years ago I couldn’t find this movie anywhere. From what I understand, the VHS version had just a short run of production and I’m sure it was the same case for the DVD (I recall seeing it at a retail outlet in the past, so I know it got a DVD release in the US at some point.) I wound up obtaining it through TLA Video, a Philadelphia-based video store specializing in foreign, indie and hard-to-find films. Now, however, anyone with a Netflix account can watch this movie anytime they want at the press of a button. No more searching far and wide. Just queue it up, boot up your computer, Xbox or what have you, hit play and that’s it. That’s some Jetsons shit right there.

I’ll admit there was a certain pleasure in the pre-Internet days in locating a hard-to-find movie or record, like finding a lost piece of treasure. But at the end of the day, is it really worth it? Wouldn’t you rather be spending your time watching movies instead of playing some kind of endless scavenger hunt?

I’m sorry. We were talking about The Plague Dogs.

The Plague Dogs opens with a blank, black screen and what sounds like a mournful slave hymn. “I don’t feel no pain no more,” the song begins. The title of the film is then revealed in dark red lettering, followed by the rest of the credits. Aside from the music, you hear the sound of splashing water — like a person writhing around in a bathtub. explanation. With the music and these unsettling noises, it’s one of the most ominous, bleakest opening credit sequences I’ve ever seen and gives you ample warning that, for the next 80 minutes, you are not in for a good time.

The movie opens on a laboratory and the source of the splashing water is revealed. It’s a dog in a tank of water, apparently undergoing some sort of endurance test. After much doggy-paddling, the animal gives up and sinks, only to be drawn out of the tank by scientists wielding a long hooked stick.

Having fun yet?

The Plague Dogs is bleak. Only Japan has produced bleaker animated films (See Grave of the Fireflies). Surprisingly, this is a UK release — a very ungroovy UK release. In the 1970s, early 1980s, Britain was known for Monty Python and James Bond. The Plague Dogs is more in line with the Sex Pistols version of the UK. I can almost hear Johnny Rotten screeching “Noooooo future!”

For better or for worse, the bleakness of the film overshadows some of its other elements. I’ve already mentioned the soundtrack. The animation is well done, even better than Watership Down, Martin Rosen’s previous release. The script, in the words of one review elsewhere on the internet, is like poetry — I imagine that most of it was lifted directly from Richard Adams’ novel. (Add this to my queue!)

Other notable additions this week include:

* The Office (UK) Series One (Add this to my queue!)

* Sleepers (1996) — Four friends from Hell’s Kitchen in New York City who were sexually abused by a reformatory guard (played by Kevin Bacon) when they were teens must decide as adults whether to seek revenge or move on with their lives. With Jason Patric, Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Renfro and Minnie Driver. You can’t go wrong with that cast.  (Add this to my queue!)

* Tidal Wave (2009) — South Korean disaster movie — apparently South Korea’s very first disaster movie. Spectacularly cheesy. As a fan of Asian cinema, not as good as it should have been. (Add this to my queue!)

* Twelve and Holding (2005) — Underrated pre-teen drama about a 12-year-old boy who dies in a tree house fire set by bullies and how his friends deal with the tragedy. Sad, haunting and brutal. Directed by Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.). (Add this to my queue!)

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