May 06, 2013, 1:35 PM — The term "pulp fiction" once referred to an actual type of cheap paper that certain entertaining, high-concept, lowbrow books and stories were published on. But since those days are over, the term has stuck around--mainly thanks to Quentin Tarantino--and has referred to anything that's slightly cheap or subversive or not dealing with "respectable" subject matter. Here are ten "pulpy" movies that you can stream on Netflix this week.
Quentin Tarantino's second feature film Pulp Fiction (1994) is one of the greatest of all American movies. It turned moviemaking and movie watching sideways, wrapping up and commenting on virtually everything movies had done up to that point, using a kind of patchwork collage methodology. And yet it's far from a Godardian harangue. It's exciting, suspenseful, intriguing, and constantly alive. It's fun, and funny, and with memorable, sympathetic characters. It inspires discussions of spirituality and redemption. It has madly quotable dialogue. It's a puzzle-box to be pondered. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (John Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), and Best Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), but it won only for Best Screenplay.
The Lickerish Quartet
Despite his intelligence and talent, filmmaker Radley Metzger, worked mostly in Europe, making so-called "porno chic" movies, and was rarely seen in mainstream movie circles. The Lickerish Quartet (1970) is a masterpiece of its kind, self-reflective and elliptical as well as titillating. Three unnamed characters (an older man, his wife, and her grown son) are shown watching an "adult" film. Afterward, they go out to a carnival, where they see a gorgeous trick motorcycle rider (Silvana Venturelli) who looks just like one of the actresses in the film. They invite her back to their mansion, where she sleeps with all three of them in turn. Later, the initial adult movie comes back into play in mysterious ways. Metzger uses all this to discuss the art of watching, as well as the role of memory in watching.
The Call of Cthulhu (expiring 5/15)
The unusual The Call of Cthulhu (2005) actually is based on honest-to-goodness "pulp fiction," written in 1926 by H.P. Lovecraft and published in Weird Tales magazine. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society decided to make a movie out of it, but wanted it to be as truthful to the material as possible, so they made an authentic silent movie, complete with German Expressionist imagery, film scratches, and intertitles. It's only 46 minutes long and with a cast of unknowns, but it's incredibly moody, and does indeed capture the chilling dread of reading an actual Lovecraft story.
Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (expiring 5/15)
Part of the reason we have Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) today is because of composer Giorgio Moroder (American Gigolo, Flashdance). He was the first one to restore the film for a theatrical re-release, though it was very heavily retooled to fit his personal vision. His version, Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (1984), ran only 82 minutes (as opposed to the 148-minute restored version we have today). It features liberal color tinting, and a collection of ten pop tunes (by the likes of Pat Benatar, Freddie Mercury, Loverboy, and Bonnie Tyler) that essentially turned the movie into a long-form music video. Though the experience is radically different from Lang's vision, it has its own kind of weird power, and it was enough to get others interested in restoring the film for real.
One of the greatest Westerns ever made is also one of the strangest. Roger Corman produced it, without credit, sending director Monte Hellman and star Jack Nicholson out into the Utah deserts with the assignment of filming two Westerns for the price of one. Ride in the Whirlwind became the other, but The Shooting (1967) is a kind of existential masterpiece, using the established Western genre to play with themes of identity. A beautiful, cold-hearted woman (Millie Perkins) enlists a couple of cowboys (Warren Oates and Will Hutchins) to escort her to some mysterious rendezvous. Halfway there, a hired gunman (Nicholson) joins them, leading to all kinds of personality clashes, and a bizarre showdown. Carole Eastman wrote the screenplay, under the pseudonym "Adrien Joyce."
Murder by Decree
Director Bob Clark had made the first American slasher movie, Black Christmas (1974), and would later achieve fame with both Porky's (1982) and A Christmas Story (1983), but Murder by Decree (1979) is probably his classiest film. It begins with the pulpy idea of Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) tangling with Jack the Ripper, but Clark ran with it, creating a vivid, moody, foggy atmosphere with many unique angles, as well as some subtle attempts at dry humor. James Mason plays Watson, and John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland, and Genevieve Bujold help round out the terrific cast.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Despite the title, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), the adventure ended pretty quickly. This fun movie had everything: it came from The Destroyer series of novels by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, which could have led to a long run of movies, and the director was Guy Hamilton, the man behind Goldfinger (1964), and several other titles in the James Bond series. Wisecracking Fred Ward starred as Remo Williams, a cop whose death is faked so that he can work off the radar as a secret agent. He receives martial arts training from Master Chiun (a heavily made-up Joel Grey), recalling the previous year's The Karate Kid. Interesting trivia: the movie was filmed during the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, which was covered in scaffolding. Even today, rumors persist that Remo will return.
Directed by Robert Mandel, F/X (1986) is a nifty little self-aware thriller that takes place in a world of movies. Aussie Bryan Brown stars as Rollie Tyler, a visual effects man who gets in trouble with the mob and must use his gifts for fakery to save his life. Everything leads up to a showdown in a creepy mansion. This has one of those plots wherein the character doesn't know who he can trust, which, ironically leads to a mystery story about characters, and not about special effects. Brian Dennehy and Diane Venora co-star. A sequel followed in 1991, as did a TV series in 1998.
Mission: Impossible II
John Woo is often considered the greatest action director in the world, yet his films rarely get any respect; they're often considered "pulp." His Mission: Impossible II (2000) is an example of slick, agile filmmaking with breathtaking moments of clarity and beauty. It's good to remember that Woo's style is usually called "operatic," especially in his Hong Kong films, so when the moments between Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton go a bit over the top, or when he inserts his trademark doves in flight, it feels right. (Never mind that two-thirds of the plot was liberally lifted from Hitchcock's Notorious.)
Limitless (expiring 5/16)
Neil Burger's Limitless (2011) is one of those rare sci-fi movies based on an actual idea and not just battles between humans and aliens or robots. (It actually is "science fiction.") Bradley Cooper (at top) stars in one of his stronger performances as a slovenly writer who discovers a new drug that enhances productivity and clarifies thinking. He faces real trouble when his supplies run low and when he realizes that dark forces are also after the drug. The movie plays with a strong sense of pure desire in a way that most ordinary movies avoid. Robert De Niro co-stars in a villainous capacity, and Abbie Cornish is "the girl." It has its share of ridiculous chases and fights, but Leslie Dixon's screenplay leaves the core of Alan Glynn's novel intact.