March 2: Good to Go (1986, 87 minutes): Imagine the nebbishy Art Garfunkle as a hard-bitten, boozy investigative journalist. Now, picture him going undercover in the ‘hood while pursuing a drug-murder cover-up deep in Washington D.C.’s go-go music scene. Yes, the plot is that stupid, but Good to Go deserves a shout out for being the only flick to document any of the crazy-cool, percussion-driven, crowd-pleasing indigenous R&B music of Washington in the 1980s. Fast forward past Garfunkle’s moping to performances by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Trouble Funk, Redds & the Boys, and other long-gone bands.
March 2: Damien: Omen II (1978, 107 minutes): Little evil Damien is growing up and facing the trials of adolescences – military boarding school, step-relatives and coming to terms with his birth-dad, who happens to be Satan. Time to put away childish things, and start the killing. A by-the-book, child-of-Beelzebub flick, the most cinematically interesting scenes are of grisly deaths, especially the Lew Ayres flailing beneath the surface of a frozen lake sequence.
March 7: She’s All That (1999, 120 minutes): There’s not one minute of this Pygmalion-like high school tale that has any basis in reality. Oh, I guess, except for the really important message that the pretty, popular people are really the prettiest and the most popular people. The only entertaining scene is when the MTV Real World self-absorbed actor character (who is hanging out with lame high school kids?!) makes a toad of himself gyrating to Rick James at party.
March 12: Analyze This (1999, 103 minutes): Analyze This has the misfortune to debut in the same year as the brilliant television drama, The Sopranos. Comparisons are inevitable since each work features a New York area Mafia boss who consults a psychiatrist about job anxiety. Mamma mia. Too bad Analyze This hasn’t any of the nuance and originality of The Sopranos. Analyze This is a one-joke film broadly played with little wit or sharpness, strung out along cliched characters. Robert DeNiro slums as the conflicted capo, Paul Vitti; Billy Crystal is the nebbishy shrink, Dr. Ben Sobel; and Chazz Palminteri plays yet another shiny-suited fuhgeddaboutit gangster, Primo Sindone. Subplots involving Dr. Sobel’s wedding and a gang rivalry between Primo and Vitti only make the film feel more tedious.
March 12: Empire of the Ants (1977, 90 minutes): Based, I suspect quite loosely, on a tale by H.G. Wells, this schlocky big bug fest is cult classic cheese. Our plucky gang of victims, isolated on some Florida swampland, is helmed by Joan Collins, who is desperately trying to sell vacation property opportunities, even as giant ants eat up potential buyers. Ant footage is gloriously lame – essentially keyed-in footage of actual-sized ants blown up real big – so big that the color distorts and renders each attack of “giant ant” v. man a bizarre split screen hilarity. Bonus points for the audacious “ant-point-of-view” (teeny multiple images shot through small circles) and a nice plot twist near the end.
March 14: The Crowd Roars (1932, 85 minutes): A snappy, cynical pre-Code Warner Bros. drama about two auto racing brothers and the trampy women who love them. James Cagney is the Indy champ, already boozing, carousing and livin’ on the edge of danger. He grudgingly takes his adoring younger brother on as an apprentice – and soon enough, the two brothers are battling on the track and off. Naturally, the women come between them, and the brothers’ anger precipitates a terrible wreck during a race. The racing sequences in this movie are gasp-aloud electrifying, and decades ahead of their time with in-car camera effects and aerial footage. The film features several real-life racing stars, their names and exploits now lost to history.
March 14: The Crowd Roars (1938, 92 minutes): A kid with a sweet Irish voice and wicked right hook (billed as “The Fighting Songbird”) is forced into a life of boxing by his boozy, gambling, gregarious old man. As a young man and an up-and-coming prize-fighter, Robert Taylor should cut the dead-weight dad loose, but family ties bind. His mistake, because Dad trades his son for a gambling debt, leaving Taylor to box, not according to his talent, but according to how gangsters have fixed the bouts.
March 15: Big Daddy (1999, 95 minutes): Adam Sandler has written himself another man-child role. In Big Daddy, he’s 30-year-old layabout Sonny Koufax who works one day a week and gripes when his friends don’t want to play. In a bizarre strategy to win back a girlfriend, Koufax illegally adopts a 5-year-old boy (twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse). He and the child revel in his anarchic approach to childrearing -- eating ketchup for breakfast, tripping roller skaters for amusement and urinating all over Manhattan. Alas, Koufax must grow up into a decent father and fight for the kid in a bizarre, but maudlin court hearing. It’s this herky-jerky split between farcical mayhem and warm family film that makes Big Daddy unsatisfying. It’s not vulgar enough to be an Adam Sandler “classic” and it’s too outrageous to be a heartwarming kid story.
March 16: The Locket (1946, 86 minutes): There was a time when Freudian analysis seemed groundbreaking and capable of explaining all manner of bizarre human behavior, and hence, it became a popular narrative gimmick. This noir-ish melodrama is a Freud primer on the repression of childhood trauma and its subsequent disastrous impact on an otherwise perfectly charming adult. Laraine Day is the troubled young woman and kleptomaniac and Robert Mitchum is her hot-headed lover. The peculiar structure of this film – flashback within flashback within flashback within flashback (surely a record) – will make you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality too. Stay tuned for a great mental-breakdown, freak-out conclusion.
March 16: Rounders (1998, 125 minutes): Come with me, friend, into the curious grubby male world of hardcore poker. There are the pros, the weekend hobbyists, the compulsive wrecks, the stake-providing gangsters – and then there are the rounders, men to whom poker is a job, albeit a job that requires much skill, but they don’t play for glory, they play for the rent. Rounders tosses all these poker players into the mix for a loose two-week narrative centered on Matt Damon who’s transitioning between non-player, rounder and pro. Edward Norton is all jumpy limbs, as Damon’s loose cannon poker buddy; John Malkovich munches up much scenery as a Russian poker-gangster. Script is way too self-conscious with all the poker slang and explanatory voice-over. It’s not much of an action film, more akin to a talkie, though entertaining enough.
March 17: Snake Eyes (1998, 105 minutes): If you make it through the first ten minutes of this film – the dizzying, lurching continuous shot and some of the worst over-acting Nicholas Cage has ever unloaded on-screen, congratulations! Now, you can settle in for more stable, totally generic action flick, dressed up with gimmicky video footage. It’s Saturday night in Atlantic City – a storm is blowing, a boxing matched is fixed, a political assassination occurs. Cage is the local cop who sees through the intrigue. (As if you, the viewer at home, can’t see through this identical-to-100-other-movies plot before the second reel.)
March 20: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, 90 minutes): A contemporary update on the old western, Rio Bravo. A handful of convicts, cops and one unlucky citizen are held hostage overnight in an abandoned central Los Angeles police station by violent gangs. The gang members are ruthless in their mayhem, but it’s the long stretches of inaction – when the gangs have retreated to re-group – that are most creepy. A solid cast of low-key actors and a weird electronic score (composed by director John Carpenter) make this low-budget work watchable. The re-casting of the western isolation ethos to the inner city requires some contorted plot devices, but overall it’s effective. Alone and under siege in a big hostile American city seems real, if not in actual fact than at least in perception.
March 20: King Kong (1933, 100 minutes): How astounding this film must have seen 70 years ago, when there were still uncharted places on earth where monstrous creatures might live undisturbed. In a nice self-reflexive spin, the movie follows a daring film director, Robert Armstrong, who drags a crew and a pretty young starlet, Fay Wray off to such a place, Skull Island in the faraway South Seas, looking for super footage of rumored mythic creatures. Oh, and do they meet loads of prehistoric beasties – a giant ape, pterodactyls, a T-Rex, a brontosaurus! The stop-motion animation and matte photography effects hold up surprisingly well. (Screening this classic on a television from a poor quality video actually equalizes the real and effect-laden halves of the movie, rendering a smooth film overall.)
March 21: Darkman (1990, 96 minutes): Research scientist Liam Neeson is horribly burnt up (mostly in a belabored plot device), but he survives, albeit really hideous looking. Luckily, he was working on some experimental replacement human skin, and in true comic-book fashion, he easily converts an abandoned mill into a new laboratory. This groovy new skin only lasts for 98 minutes, before it bubbles off. Nonetheless, Neeson creates face masks of his enemies and works – quickly, quickly! – to vanquish them while appropriating their identities. Though Darkman is a gloomy fable, these scenes are played for laughs reflecting director Sam Rairni’s love of broad, slapstick comedy.
March 21: Robocop (1987, 103 minutes): Robocop was a welcome addition to the late 80s canon of big, flashy techno-action thrillers. It trounced the Terminators and Total Recalls because it was darker, sharper, funnier (without resorting those awful tossed-off quips) and extremely violent, though Robocop has a genuine poignancy as well. Set in the near-future, Robocop is on the surface about a dead cop, Murphy, re-animated as a robot super-cop, but really it’s about urban fear. Cities – in this case Detroit – are industrial wastelands, its citizens plagued with crime and barely pacified by inane, vulgar entertainment. The police can’t contain it, and the lucky few are moving into fortress communities. While the national mood is sunnier currently, Robocop’s bleak vision of the future was oddly prescient.
March 25: Year of the Dragon (1985, 136 minutes): Bad Actor Supreme, Mickey Rourke (here curiously made up to appear middle-aged) is a cop determined to bring law and order to New York City’s Chinatown, which he perceives as a hotbed of organized crime. To that end, he ignores his wife, bucks the authority of his superiors, wades through a gross watery basement food processing pit, beds the dishy Asian-American TV-reporter in her high-tech loft, and generally just shuffles around in fedoras and overcoats in classic Rourke fashion. A pretty dull film, perhaps most notable for the utter lack of artistic direction. This was director Michael Cimino’s first film after the all-artistry disaster of Heaven’s Gate, and it looks like he shot it with his arms strapped to his sides.
March 27: A Civil Action (1998, 112 minutes): From a massive book spanning events of two decades to what is essentially a two-hour John Travolta vehicle. With the trial outcome known (the book was a major seller), the film becomes less about suspense and more about character development. It doesn’t quite work. Travolta isn’t good enough to pull it off – he’s too likeable upfront to make this a transformation flick – and the film just flutters out at the end, with the important final developments presented as text codas.
March 28: Criminal Law (1989, 113 minutes): Messy thriller about a hotshot defense attorney (Gary Oldham, playing normal for once) who gets off a serial killer (Kevin Bacon), and spend the rest of the movie breaking the law trying to “bust” him. Aside from the idiocy of these legal loopholes, the film’s big mistake is to tell us up front that Bacon is the killer. Zero suspense.
March 30: The Iron Giant (1999, 86 minutes): While kids will dig this sweet animated tale about a giant robot from the sky, this is a smart film (based on a tale by the late poet, Ted Hughes) any cool adult will enjoy. The iron man – who is probably a gigantic defense system from outer space -- doesn’t just land in Maine, he lands smack dab in the middle of the Cold War, and all its attendant weapons hysteria and “normalizing” activities. The big guy is befriended and sheltered by a couple of town weirdos – a geeky boy and a beatnik – who humanize the 100-story-tall childlike hunk of metal. For kids, a simple tale of redeeming friendship; for adults, some trenchant commentary on weapons disarmament, though I suspect even jaded adults will mist up when the giant makes his dramatic sacrifice.
March 31: Run Lola Run (1998, 81 minutes): From an extremely simple plot – Lola (Franka Potente) has twenty minutes to find and deliver 100,000 Deutsche marks to her boyfriend waiting across town, or he’ll incur the probably fatal wrath of his gangster boss – director, Tom Tykwer, spins out a clever and entertaining thriller. With a frenetic mix of media -- film, video, still photography, animation, techno music -- and technique (slow motion, jump-cuts, split screens, color tinting), Lola’s short foot-pounding journey through the Berlin streets is presented three times. Three identical beginnings are altered slightly (Lola trips in one version) so that subsequent events occur on a different timeline and culminate with three wildly different conclusions. Run Lola Run has great fun inverting of how thrillers – even European arty thrillers – are expected to end.
April 6: Shark Attack (1999, 100 minutes): There’s school of blood-crazed sharks terrorizing the waters around a South African fishing town. Naturally, there’s only one marine biologist up for the thankless task of stopping these ugly munchers – Caspar Van Dien! (After he took on those massive bugs in Starship Troopers, what’s a few sharks?) He’s aided by another capable fish expert, the comely young ___, who has to strip down to her bikini frequently. Frankly, this is one silly Jaws remake by way of Coma (there’s a subplot involving bad medical experiments) but there’s also something comfortingly entertaining about this drive-in fare. And did I mention Caspar Van Dien takes his shirt off a lot?
April 8: Starship Troopers (1997, 129 minutes): From the creator of Robocop, comes this similar futuristic horror story. At once clever, stupid (Caspar van Dien v. giant bug), funny, shockingly violent, laden with state-of-the-art technical effects and plenty of post-modern digs at the very media that gives us Robocops and Starship Troopers. And like Robocop, this film has fascist overtones. Here they are intergalactic warriors sent to a faraway planet of really bad bugs who are destroying earth. Not for the squeamish, but an entertaining ride with buckets of bug guts and black humor.
April 9: Runaway Bride (1999, 110 minutes): Director Garry Marshall regroups with his 1990 Pretty Woman co-stars, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, for another romantic comedy. Roberts, now upgraded from prostitute to a hardware store employee, and Gere, downgraded from executive to USA Today reporter, embark on the same burbling course of true love. Gere turns up in a too-cute small town (barbershop quartets sing on street corners) to get the facts on Roberts, the infamous “runaway bride” who’s left three grooms at the altar and is working on a fourth. The stars beam the big-box-office force of their respective personalities – Roberts is the engaging but elusive girl-next-door; Gere is urbane, bemused and secretly tender-hearted. Runaway Bride is really about both commitment-shy beauties, but the script is so slight and frothy, the conclusion so gosh-darn inevitable, that their transformations barely matter.
April 11: Enemy of the State (1998, 150 minutes): Overly long thriller about a ordinary man (Will Smith) who bumps into the wrong man and finds his life turned upside down by the National Security Administration. The NSA doesn’t just screw up his Visa and cell phone; they keep him under constant satellite surveillance, operating from fantastic civil war rooms. (Surely no Hollywood director has ever seen the inside of any actual Federal office. State of the art 1951.) This flick is sure to fuel a million more federal conspiracy theories at a thousand bad bars, but it’s all very implausible. Gene Hackman’s on board as a retired NSA spook who’s now fighting for privacy. It’s a little homage to his landmark who’s-zooming-who role in Coppola’s 1974 film, The Conversation. Alas, where The Conversation was sharp and creepy, Enemy of the State is both bloated and hacked up. (Gabriel Byrne appears in one utterly unexplained scene, never to appear again.)
April 13: Deep Rising (1998, 106 minutes): Ew yuck. One of the grossest underwater beasties ever. Massive, gaping jawed, super-fast, slimy sea cucumber gone very bad type thing. They’re all over this marooned boat, the hilariously named luxury liner, the Argonautica. They’ve eaten everybody except for the usual handful of mercenaries, corrupt money men, a stunning fashion model and the stouthearted Treat Williams. Guess which ones survive? Big budget no-brain blowout.
April 14: Rush Hour (1998, 98 minutes): Jackie Chan used to make such entertaining movies in Hong Kong. Non-stop rock ‘em sock ‘em crazy stunt-filled roller coasters of action hilarity. Maybe it’s his age, which is admittedly advanced for a man who does his own stunts, but the last few films have been so woefully thin on super stunts. Here Chan is paired with Chris Tucker, who’s amusing, but not that funny, and poor Chan is reduced to straight man in a film that cares too much about its lame plot and not enough about packing in the action.
April 14: The Harder They Fall (1956, 109 minutes): Based on a novel by Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run, On the Waterfront), here’s another dark and cautionary tale. Humphrey Bogart (in his last role) is the washed-up sports writer, who signs on to a sleazy venture, whereby a massive dumb kid from South America is built into a boxing star. The kid can’t speak English or box. He’s just an ungainly hulk. (One recalls the late wrestling star Andre the Giant who was just pure size.) Bogart’s job is to cover the scam, spin the media and help facilitate the fixed matches that will guarantee the kid stardom. There’s no shortage of washed up, broken boxers, willing to take a dive for a desperately needed pay-off. A sobering look at how prize fighters are treated like so much disposable cattle.
April 15: The Anderson Tapes (1972, 98 minutes): A heist caper with a twist. The twist is that every step of the heist is under surveillance, but does it matter? Sean Connery is the master thief, fresh out of jail, who rounds up a new crew to loot an fancy NYC apartment building. On board, The Kid, a desperately pretty young Christopher Walken (his first film role) sporting a luscious head of early 70s hair. Alas, the old guy Connery is the romantic lead, and he gets to bed to the squeaky Dyan Cannon.
April 17: Bowfinger (1999, 96 minutes): Bowfinger is a gentle satire of the Hollywood entertainment community, a bookend to actor/writer Steve Martin’s 1991 L.A. Story. Wanna-be director Bobby Bowfinger (Martin) has a movie script about aliens, an eager C-grade cast, two thousand dollars and no star. He opts to shoot his movie around the unsuspecting action superstar Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy), and these are the best gag scenes in the film, as Bowfinger’s ham actors scream nonsense around a befuddled Ramsey. Murphy again shows that he is often funniest when skewering his real-life Eddie Murphy persona. With such easy targets as crazed celebrities, low-budget dreams and Scientology-like cults, the jabs could have been sharper, but a perky pace keeps this light comedy afloat and entertaining.
April 20: Fight Club (1999, 139 minutes): This edgy feature from director, David Fincher, (Seven) snaps, crackles and then pops clean off the tracks in the last twenty minutes. Nonetheless, Fight Club is a brash entertaining ride, filled with black humor and manic energy. Fincher presents Ed Norton as a contemporary archetype – a seemingly successful insurance office guy barely containing self-loathing and rage, whose all-mod-cons life is bereft of real meaning. (He sates his desire for real emotion by fraudulently attending illness support groups.) Norton meets the charismatic but twisted soap salesman, Brad Pitt, and together they channel their primal rages into fist fights. From their initial bouts spring “fight clubs” as dozens of other lost males clamor for the catharsis of violence. Norton, Pitt -- and the plot -- spin further out of control, though Norton’s performance is always magnetic, to the bizarre conclusion. Renter’s tip – watch the video twice.
April 22: EdTV (1999, 122 minutes): A young goofball agrees to be on TV 24-hours a day. This endless, one-joke film makes The Truman Show look like Hamlet. Short on humor, long on the obvious and packed with product placement masquerading as product placement.
April 22: Targets (1968, 90 minutes): This is a film with three intersecting stories. (1) An aging star of 1930s horror films retires, despite protestations from an eager young director, but agrees to make a final public appearance at a drive-in. (2) A Vietnam vet out in the San Fernando Valley begins shooting people randomly. (3) The star, Byron Orloc, is played by Boris Karloff (playing himself, natch); the eager young director, bursting with new appreciation for the greats of Classic Cinema, is played by Peter Bogdanovich, also playing himself, while being himself -- the writer and director of this homage to Karloff, cinema and drive-ins, as well as a fairly shocking suspense thriller about a crazed sniper. (For film buffs, this house of mirrors has even more rooms: Bogdanovich mentor Roger Corman gave Bogdanovich 20 minutes of his Karloff flick, The Terror, to use in Targets, as well as Karloff, who owed Corman some work.) Orloc and the sniper (and to some degree, the audience) come face to face at the drive-in during a genuinely scary, and then astonishing, conclusion.
April 23: The Heiress (1949, 115 minutes): A classic Hollywood adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square, about a plain and dull heiress (Olivia de Haviland), the charming young man (and possible rounder) who woos her (Montgomery Clift) and her cold and controlling father (Ralph Richardson). The closed-in stagey set works well, this is the tiny world that young women were confined to in well-to-do 19th century society. There’s very little plot, but the film moves at a compelling rate on the fine performances and lively parlor dialogue. ABOVE POSTED POSTED POSTED April 24: Two Shades of Blue (2000, 103 minutes): This so-called erotic thriller boasts both Gary Busey and Eric Roberts -- two of my fave wacky actors. Sadly, their appearances are all too brief. Mostly we get the very wooden Rachel Hunter (swimsuit model and late of Rod Stewart’s arm) who finds herself mixed up in the most awkward and uncinematic murder plot involving TTY/TDD phones -- you know, those computer screen, voice relay phones for the deaf. High-low points include a demented deaf phone-sex routine and Eric Roberts’ head-over-heels death plummet.
April 25: Earthquake in New York (1998, 105 minutes): The title is a misnomer because first we get an earthquake in Los Angeles. A seismic plot set-up where policeman (Greg Evigan) and family suffer some terrible earthquake trauma causing them to move back to New York City … where they will be safe. Naturally, after the next commercial break, a vicious earthquake tears Manhattan asunder. Dad is working the streets of rubble, Mom is down in the subway and best of all, Junior, is trapped hanging off the torch balcony on the Statue of Liberty! Whoo hoo -- crank up the ridiculousness. Why not? New York won’t want it any other way. Oh, and did I mention that Dad is pursuing a serial killer and that very killer holds the wife hostage while in the collapsing subway tunnels?! There’s some great digital footage of Manhattan landmarks collapsing, and you’ll cheer to learn the fractured family just needed another earthquake to patch up the lingering dysfunction caused by the first.
April 27: The Sixth Sense (1999, 105 minutes): The Sixth Sense is a refreshing break from contemporary horror flicks that emphasize shock, gore and gimmicky special effects at the expense of any story or dramatic ability. Director-screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan presents a psychological thriller with few bangs; instead, he slowly builds upon unease and mystery. Are supernatural horrors really plaguing young Cole (Haley Joel Osment) -- or is he just a disturbed little boy suffering the traumatic effects of his parents’ divorce? Toni Collette is good as the child’s working-class, single mother who is deeply frustrated at her inability to help Cole. His own emotional breakdowns have left child psychologist, Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) questioning his healing abilities. As spooky as actual ghosts may be, these three share a more terrifying fear --hat of their potential madness and the inability to function normally.
April 28: CHUD (1984, 90 minutes): Some freaky creatures --annibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers --re living beneath Manhattan and eating innocent passer-bys who veer too close to manholes. Can you believe that the mayor of New York has been stashing hideous toxic waste down in the subway tunnels, probably causing the creation of those light-bulb-eyed, slimy webbed bad-boys? Entertaining, if 100% predictable, in a low-budget way. Daniel Stern stars as the avenging soup kitchen manager.
April 29: Wonder Boys (2000, 112 minutes): Well, I had to go see it on the big screen. They shot a big chunk of this movie on my block. Besides just plain old looking-for-my-house, I’d seen and heard enough of the movie outside my window to want to know how the narrative bits and pieces went together. Movie not as bad as I feared. Michael Douglas rather low key and he blessedly never removes his clothing; Robert Downey Jr. quite entertaining.
April 30: American Beauty (1999, 120 minutes): Last year’s darling at the Academy Awards, this film is like the big-budget, well-plotted and beautifully filmed descendant of cult director John Waters’ acidic humorous riffs on the rampant perversion that lies beneath ordinary American lives. In this black comedy and meditative commentary on the risky pursuit of perfection, much of the pleasure lies in the exaggerated caricatures that bring the film’s tragic-comedy into sharp focus. Kevin Spacey inhabits his dad role with gusto, making his mid-life crisis look like a joyous blast instead of the self-indulgent, widely destructive act it is; wife Annette Bening is cold, brittle and obsessed with appearances. Director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball toss this couple, their gloomy daughter, her vapid cheerleader friend and assorted neighbors into a dangerous spin where the veneers crack and the twisted, sad insides surface to wreak havoc.
April 30: Breakfast with Blassie (1983, 60 minutes): Part send-up of My Dinner with Andre, part low-budget throwaway, this goofy film spies on actor Andy Kaufman and wrestling champ Freddy Blassie as they share breakfast at Sambo’s diner. “King of Men” Blassie talks amiably about how he conquered Japanese wrestling (200 spectators died of heart attacks, sez he.) and offers Kaufman, freshly bandaged from his disastrous bout with wrestler Jerry Lawler, some free advice. “Stick to wrestling women.” Kaufman initially seems deferential to Blassie as the two share unlikely bonds regarding hand-washing hygiene and irksome nature of fans, but there’s a final payoff for fans of Kaufman’s agit-prop humor.