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New on Netflix: Christopher Nolan's 'Insomnia' and the controversial 'Mandingo'

Netflix Instant now houses "Insomnia," starring Al Pacino and directed by Christopher Nolan, plus the trashy Southern plantation shocker "Mandingo" and the Iranian drama "About Elly."
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    Once a joke, the 1975 shocker "Mandingo" can now be seen as a corrective to antebe|Pro

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    Golshifteh Farahani plays one of the vacationers in "About Elly," a 2009 drama fro|Cinema Guild

‘Insomnia’
Thriller/remake

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At this point Christopher Nolan can command his legions to care about the Quay brothers and get a movie greenlit without even having a subject. But back after his brainiac breakthrough “Memento,” Hollywood wasn’t sure what to do with him. Nolan wound up chasing that sleeper hit with a for-hire job, tackling a straight-ahead remake of a grim Swedish film that starsAl Pacino as a cop wrestling with an accidental murder, a serial killer (Robin Williams, in sad creep mode) and not sleeping. (Pacino’s character is considerably, perhaps tragically toned down from the 1997 original, which is one of Stellan Skarsgard’s nastier turns.) There’s little of the structural shenanigans that marks Nolan’s other work, but it shows he’s a perfectly acceptable team player, able to conjure a mood while getting subtle turns from show-offy actors. Of course, he was bound for bigger things.

‘Mandingo’
Plantation saga

Much like “Starship Troopers,” contemporary reviewers didn’t realize Richard Fleischer’s trashy 1975 lampoon of an antebellum melodrama was in on the joke. Instead of a Technicolor epic a la “Gone with the Wind,” you get a run-down plantation shot through murk and dirt — a portrait of rot that exists to correct all romantic views of a period that should have always been this gross. Perry King plays the son of a dying, madly raving plantation owner (a possibly actually drunk James Mason), whose habit of sleeping with his legs on naked slave children because he thinks it will cure his rheumatism is a typical sick joke. King believes he’s one of the good white folks, but he’s not: He talks of freeing his slave mistress, but she’s still a slave, and soon as he learns his new bride/cousin (Melissa George) has slept with his newly purchased fighter (Ken Norton, the guy who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw), his dark side comes right out. Quentin Tarantino, of course, is a fan, but so should everyone else, nasty and hard to watch though it may be.

‘About Elly’
Iranian drama

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Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi had back-to-back hits with “A Separation” and the France-set “The Past,” which was enough to belatedly get one of his earlier films an American release. The 2009 film “About Elly” proves again that he’s one of the great dramatists, able to make work whose comparisons to Ibsen and Chekhov are only slight hyperbole. Here, a group of vacationers try to find out what happened when a teacher who had joined them suddenly goes missing. The truth eventually comes out, but what Farhadi is really interested in is the way the event reveals latent regressive traits in people who think themselves progressive and modern. It’s at once a universal tale and one that could only come from Iran.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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