I Can’t Stop Watching (Mostly Bad) Movies!

July and August 2000:
July 1: Light It Up (1999, 99 minutes): If The Breakfast Club took hostages! Some angry students in a rundown NYC school holed up against a police siege. Forest Whitaker is their wounded cop hostage, and during the all-nighter, it’s Breakfast Club all over as the mismatched angries reveal their hurt little selves to each other.

July 2: Outside Providence (1999, 103 minutes): This coming-of-age tale is based on a novel by Peter Farrelly of the notorious lowbrow humor Farrelly brothers. While both brothers adapted the screenplay, and there is a generous portion of their trademarked ribald gags and cheap shots at the physically challenged, this light comedy is closer to Cameron Crowe’s class conscious Say Anything than the scattershot freakishness of the Farrellys’ There’s Something About Mary or Kingpin. Shawn Hatosy is a shiftless stoner teen stagnating in a dull town until a car wreck lands him in a snooty prep school. The film nicely captures the ennui of teenage life circa 1975 and the oppressive shabbiness of a depressed working class town. Occasionally, the film flashes odd moments of sensitive brilliance, especially in Hatosy’s fragile relationship to his damaged father, played with remarkable effect by Alec Baldwin.

July 3: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999, 97 minutes): The critics hated it, but I laughed all the way through it. Yes, it’s spotty, and familiar turf (small town beauty pageants), and lots of the acting doesn’t hold up (Kirstie Alley, Denise Richards) but there’s decent doses of twisted observational humor. Trailer park matrons Allison Janney and Ellen Barkin get the best lines.

July 6: Lost Horizon (1937, 132 minutes). This lyrical Frank Capra film was based on the popular James Hilton novel about a English diplomat’s accidental discovery of Shangri-La, a verdant peaceful valley hidden high behind the peaks of the Himalayans. Between the gripping opening scenes of Chinese revolution and the white icy hell of treacherous mountain treks, the diplomat (the always contemplative Ronald Coleman) and his few cohorts discover the secrets -- both physical and spiritual -- of this lost utopian valley overseen by an aged wise lama. After previous brutal edits , the film available for screening today is a best-case restored version employing only audio and still photos to recreate a few lost scenes. The effect is jarring, but don’t let it dissuade you from enjoying this lovely film, which is agreeably equal parts ripping yarn and philosophical discourse.

July 7: Sleepy Hollow (1999, 105 minutes): Liberally adapting a short story by Washington Irving, director Tim Burton creates another of his spooky, fog-enshrouded worlds where things are apt to go bump in the night. A small New York town in the late eighteenth century is plagued by gruesome beheadings attributed to an otherworldly headless horseman. Enter the “modern” logical detective, Johnny Depp, to sort it out. While the story wisely gives credence to both fact and the supernatural, the narrative suffers somewhat from obviousness, extraneous padding and misguided attempts at levity. However, Burton does a fine job as usual with the gloomy settings. The marauding horseman sequences are the best, shot for hoof-pounding action, and enhanced by a campy, literally one-note performance by Christopher Walken, who cameos not as the headless horseman, but as the aggrieved head.

July 8: The Spring (2000, 90 minutes): In case you were wondering where Kyle MacLanahan ever ended up…well, see, he and his kid get stuck in a weirdly perfect small town after an accident. (For Twin Peaks fans, it’s a logging accident. For real.) Everybody there is young and pretty and mostly nice. But folks are hiding something, something about the water. It’s magical healing water, right? I can’t say any more.

July 9: The Crossing Guard (1995, 120 minutes): The second directorial effort from Sean Penn. Like his first feature (The Indian Runner), this is something of a downer film focusing on the few days during a hit-n-run driver’s release from jail. Jack Nicholson, the father of the little girl killed in the accident, has been in a 5-year tailspin since, and feels release and redemption -- through revenge enacted on the driver (David Morse) is imminent. Parts are overdirected, and with Nicholson it’s hard to draw the line between him acting and him simply being Jack Nicholson, a character I find irritating and lazily employed. Conversely, Morse, physically seems unable to bear his enormous guilt, even on his huge hulking form, hence I found him the more sympathetic character.

July 10: A Kiss Before Dying (1991, 93 minutes): Here, Sean Young spreads her meager talents out over two roles, that of twin rich sisters, Ellen and Dorothy Carlsson. Bad guy, Matt Dillon, quickly knocks off the one sister (he has deep-deep-seated, never-quite-explained anger towards the Carlsson family) and promptly starts in on Sister No. 2. All the tricks -- pretending to be nice (he helps feed the homeless), buttering up dad, stalking -- all leading to inevitable man-and-wife fight-to-the-death combat.

July 11: Black Widow (1987, 101 minutes): Who’s zooming who? Dateless FBI profiling wizard, Debra Winger, becomes obsessed with oft-widowed, Theresa Russell, who displays a remarkable penchant for marrying terribly rich men just before they keel over. Winger befriends Russell, accepts her hairdo advice (much needed!), beds her fiance and more in this shameless, silly two-chicks-circling-for-the-kill tasty trash fest.

July 12: Sabotage (1936, 81 minutes). Early Hitchcock thriller (though not without moments of light comedy) about a low-key movie theater owner in London who secretly commits sabotage for some unnamed group. Sabotage features a well-known tick-tock, clockwatching bomb planting sequence that while overtly sentimental is still shockingly uncompromising. Fans of Hitchcock will delight in the early exposition of some of his later familiar motifs -- birds, public monuments and cinematic in-jokes.

July 13: The Leopard Man (1943, 66 minutes): Spooky odd little film (from a Cornell Woolrich story and directed by Mister Chiaroscuro Atmosphere himself Jacques Tourneur) about a tiny hamlet in New Mexico. A traveling act accidentally lets loose a leopard which immediately sets about killing young women in town. The young-women-only angle is just one indication that these horrible crimes might actually be committed not by a big cat, but as some sicko pretending to be a leopard! Tourneur is a wise director that knows that mystery and suggestion is far more creepy than light shone on the actual truth. The first “attack” is especially masterful.

July 14: Six Days Seven Nights (1998, 101 minutes): Perky little Anne Heche is an editor at a women’s mag, but not smart enough to know that no holiday, when one arrives midday, can ever be six days and seven nights long. And so begins the illogic of this rote romantic comedy where the bitchy New Yorker and the gruff, tough guy (Harrison Ford) get stranded (but only for a romantic few days) on a deserted tropical isle. It makes Survivor look like hardcore survivalism, and the subplot with pirates (pirates for godsakes) will have you longing for your own getaway. Away from this tripe. And can we please have a moratorium on last-minute rushes to the airport to say “Wait, I love you.” Oh, did I give away the end?

July 15: The Paper Chase (1973, 111 minutes): Timothy Bottoms flounders during his first year at law school, especially in the intimidating class of Prof. Kingsfield (John Houseman’s breakout role at age 71). Study groups are formed in earnest, but in the tense milieu of law school, alliances splinter, ideals are lost and Bottoms turns to less-scholarly pursuits like pillaging the library and dallying in bed with Kingsfield’s daughter.

July 16: Citizen Ruth (1996, 102 minutes): A black comedy-of-modern-manners about abortion. When certified loser and huffer, Laura Dern, enters the court system pregnant for the fifth time, she falls into the hands of first, the religious pro-lifers, and then, the feminist pro-choicers. The film has fun skewering both sides of the debate, though the pro-choicers seem less demented, better behaved and absolutely have the much nicer home. Also, they don’t have the very creepy Burt Reynolds evangelist character in their group.

July 17: Fear Strikes Out (1957, 100 minutes). Based on the true story of Jim Piersall, the Boston Red Sox player who suffered a nervous collapse mid-career. Anthony Perkins is just perfect for this role, displaying lots of the skittery rabbitness he’d later employ in Psycho. His breakdown on the ball field, with his horrible shrieks of psychic agony, is so visceral it’s almost unwatchable. (Piersall himself took exception with Perkins’ performance and liberties exercised with his story.) The end drags somewhat as it takes Perkins ages to learn what we did in the first five minutes -- his dad’s overbearing, high pressure “support” has driven him over the edge.

July 18: Godzilla (1998, 138 minutes). What an endless yawn! Even the dumb set-up (my favorite part of disaster movies, when we meet all the stock characters, who conveniently have bizarre specialized skills that just might, might, come in handy later) was short and stupid. A few mitigating points for having an earthworm specialist brought in to tackle the largest creature on earth. In a movie this long, viewers need more entertaining filler. Or gratuitous nudity. Or heads exploding. The hours and hours of digital Godzilla stomping around Manhattan were boring. Thank heavens for liberal use of product placement or I’d have had nothing to think about.

July 19: My Dog Skip (2000, 95 minutes): Though this film couldn’t be more sweetly nostalgic, even in the face of Real Life (racism, war, death, life’s assorted let downs), it made me feel terribly guilty. Guilty, for not even thinking about my childhood pets, much less composing some old-fashioned, “no nobler beast” valentine like author Willie Morris has about his dog. This is his tale, of growing up geeky and lonely in wartime Yazoo, Mississippi, and of his feisty Jack Russell terrier, Skip, who helped him navigate life. The dog (one of the dog “actors” is Eddie from Frasier) is a mite too cute at times, but Frankie Muniz as young Morris is marvelously off-center, atypical for sentimental childhood films. See it with your dog … and a hanky.

July 20: The Kennel Murder Case (1933, 73 minutes): William Powell starred in a brief series of films featuring the marvelously erudite dilettante New York City detective Philo Vance (a creation of novelist S.S. Van Dine). The district attorney is always befuddled by some bizarre locked-box crime, and calls in his friend, Vance, who dashes over from his club or a little private Egyptian scarab research to assist. Our smooth detective quickly unravels the cases usually relying on his own private store of fantastic and archaic knowledge. In this old-fashioned, but still amusing, locked door mystery loosely centered around wealthy New Yorkers and their show dogs, the esteemed Mr. Vance is aided by his own plucky Scottish terrier, Captain MacTavish, as well as a suspect’s Doberman pinscher, Figaro.

July 21: Pushing Tin (1999, 124 minutes): Smells like a movie a man would write. All idiocy about hot chicks, fragile male psyches pumped up through booze, fisticuffs, stunts, Iron John claptrap -- frankly a bunch of utter tripe you’ve seen a bunch of times before. Cusack makes a stale ham dinner of his role; Billy Bob Thornton does that psycho thing again; Angelina Jolie is the sex kitten. I like the idea of peering into the probably stressed-to-Saturn lives of air traffic controllers, but most of those scenes devolve into cheap quips and big balls contests.

July 22: The Negotiator (1998, 138 minutes): Way too long! It’s like I was the hostage in this film about a hostage negotiator who goes postal and has to be talked down by another hostage negotiator. I guessed the trick ending at once. I’d hoped for a little more oomph from co-stars Samuel Jackson and Kevin Spacey, but the film leaned too much toward action and less towards the mind games thriller side.

July 23: The Phenix City Story (1955, 100 minutes). Curious, low-budget docu-style film based on actual events in Phenix City, Alabama, a small town virtually paralyzed by local crime syndicate rule. A small band of citizens rally around the attorney general Filmed on the location, the movie is unusually gritty and contains (for the time) quite explicit vice and violence. Warning: tacked on documentary prelude gives away the end.

July 24: SLC Punk (1999, 97 minutes): An amusing tale, mostly a series of vignettes, about a small band of punk rockers struggling to find community, breed anarchy and mostly just find something to do in the early 80s in Salt Lake City, Utah. The location is the great gag -- sure it’s easy to be a rebel in other rebel-friendly places like New York or Los Angeles, but what if you’re in the middle of the desert immersed in the greatest concentration of strait-laced livers in the country? Our punk narrator, Steve-o (the charismatic Matthew Lillard) takes us to their parties, grubby living spaces and an occasional show, while pontificating about anarchy, ranting about Reagan and whining about various enemies -- poseurs, heavy metal heads, rednecks, cops, parents, boring people etc. Of course, middle-class Steve is just a poseur too -- we dig it at once, and this lack of pretension makes SLC Punk so much more real than “serious” punk movies. I suspect director/screenwriter, James Merendino, walked it, talked it. The film is rich with perfect details of that time.

July 25: Swimming with the Sharks (1994, 93 minutes) An alleged dark satire of Hollywood powermongers, it’s mostly just a opportunity for Kevin Spacey to rant and rave. Film feels shrill, not sharp, and isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be given the easy topic.

July 26: The Cobweb (1955, 125 minutes): What cobweb? This movie should be called The Drapes. Imagine bored housewives, bitchy spinsters, rich patronesses, esteemed psychiatrists, social workers and troubled patients of the agoraphobic, megalomaniacal, neurotic and plain-old Oscar Levant variety each intensely focused on a single set of new drapes to hang in mental hospital’s library. Drape anxiety so fevered, so consuming, that it destroys careers, marriages and even threatens to take lives. This right-off-the-rails Vincente Minnelli melodrama features such A-listers as Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Lillian Gish, Charles Boyer, Gloria Graheme, the aforementioned Levant and several competing sets of drapes.

July 27: The Wood (1999, 107 minutes): A first feature from screenwriter-director Rick Famuyiwa, The Wood is a light comedy that charts the coming-of-age of three buddies from Inglewood, California. The traditional end of childhood, a wedding, prompts the three men (Taye Diggs, Omar Eepps and Richard T. Jones) to reflect back on their enduring friendship through their awkward adolescent years. Cue the usual scenes of goofy hi-jinks and fumbling sex. Unfortunately, nothing much happens dramatically and less-than-snappy dialogue make the viewer feel like he’s nodding politely to some stranger’s dull reminiscences. Epps and Diggs and engaging performers, but the movie doesn’t give them much to do other than say, “Hey, remember when…?” as less skilled actors play out their teen years. Give Famuyiwa points for trying though: Movies about young black men from Los Angeles who are not gangbangers or other macho caricatures are rare.

July 29: Heads (1994, 99 minutes): This is one of the “little, quirky film” that tries so hard to be “little” and “quirky” that it’s just really, really irritating. The deeply uncharismatic Jon Cryer plays a bumbling copy editor who gets mixed up in series of small town beheadings. It’s all played for cute, with overdone retro chic (Airstream trailers, manual typewriters, men in hats, funky old cars). Ed Asner phones in a role as a cranky news editor -- there’s a stretch.

August 1: Re-Animator (1985, 86 minutes): Blood-soaked horror-comedy about some naughty medical students who use a secret serum to bring dead bodies back to life. The yuks don’t really start until the pompous neurosurgeon, Dr. Hill (David Gale) is decapitated. Apparently receiving direction remotely from his disembodied head, Hill’s body injects his head with re-animation serum. The head and body travel separately, but together, (the body carries the head in a gym bag, as the eyeless body lurches along getting yelled at by the head) over to the hospital morgue where substantial amounts of zombie mayhem and sexual harassment via severed head occurs. The medically squeamish should stay away.

August 3: The Jazz Singer (1980, 115 minutes): How bad is this film, this ridiculous re-make about a cantor’s son who wants to go pop? Let the actors speak for themselves: When a young Ernie Hudson spots Neil Diamond in blackface (!!) pretending to be the fourth member of a R&B band, he hollers in outrage for his people and starts a bar brawl. When dutiful wife, Catlin Adams, sees Diamond in a open-necked disco glitter shirt, she divorces him in the next frame. When dad, Laurence Olivier hears the lite rock crap spewing forth from his only child (albeit a 40-year-old man), he rends his shirt in anguish and wails, “I hev no son!” Olivier must “hev no shame” to flay about oy gevalt-ing in this dreck. And speaking of ham, you should see the mugging when Diamond’s shiksa, Lucie Arnaz, plants one on the dinner table. With the exception of Diamond singing (fully one-third of this vanity piece, and how the crowds cheer!), this is one of the best worst movies ever. Who knew that Diamond had such range -- you’ll mist up when he rocks the schul with his rump-shakin’ “Hava Nagila” and gasp in shock when he spirals out of control into a Waylon Jennings outlaw-type hitch-hiking bearded troubadour.

August 4: Fair Game (1995, 90 minutes) Hey, Cindy Crawford can act! At least by today’s action flick standards which requires pouting, sporting a filthy undershirt and surviving numerous explosions. Because of a rilly stupid plot device (fully loaded Russians skulking offshore interfering with a petty civil divorce trial), attorney Cindy Crawford (no really, she looks great in the short skirt suit) is on the run. Fortunately for her fans, all those explosions repeatedly strip Cindy of her clothing (she also gets trapped in showers and rainstorms, hubba hubba, but the best is when she’s blown up into a swimming pool -- ooh hoo, wet shredded underwear!) Between mortar attacks, she finds time, while escaping on a speeding freight train, to engage in some Skinemax-grade sex with one of the Baldwins. It hardly matters which one, Cindy’s totally topless! Astonishingly this film failed to jumpstart Miz Crawford’s dramatic career. Or William Baldwin’s for that matter, his own tight sweaty undershirt notwithstanding.

August 5: The Champ (1931, 87 minutes): Little Jackie Coogan, when he isn’t spitting, cursing or scuffling, is bawling his eyes out. No wonder. His dad, Wallace Beery, in a typical boarish, bearish Beery role, is a drunken failure of an ex-prize fighter, sleeping it off in bars while his kid toughs it out for his old man. Frankly, by today’s standards, much of the plot plays likes crazed child abuse. In a rare flush and sentimental moment, homeless Beery gives his needy kid a race horse. The outrageous plot and high dramatics (these are mostly broad-gestured silent screen actors in an early talkie) all build to the towel-wringing moment when Beery, against the advice of the ring doctor (uh oh), climbs back into the ring to win back his kid’s respect.

August 7: A Tale of Two Cities (1935, 121 minutes): Now, here’s a severed head to weep over, valiant Sydney Carton who donates his noggin to the French Revolution so that the husband of his beloved will be spared. Ronald Coleman, who made a career playing self-sacrificing Englishmen, is quite perfect as the vaguely romantic, melancholy, but ever noble Carton in this lush adaptation of Dickens’ sprawling novel. Even though Carton’s something of shyster lawyer, only the very cold-hearted will fail to shed tears at his most tastefully filmed sacrifice.

August 10: I’m Losing You I’m Losing You (1998, 102 minutes) Based on Bruce Wagner’s wickedly outrageous (and wildly uneven) satirical novel about Hollywood of the same name. As always, big sprawling novels that take hilarious potshots at Steven Speilberg’s momma don’t translate well to a 100-minute film (even when directed by Wagner himself) Film to its detriment focuses on the softer strands of a very screwed up H’wood family. Too bad.

August 11: The Sweet Hereafter (1997, 110 minutes): Told in director Egoyan’s signature jigsaw style -- bits of the tale are presented in a non-linear fashion, til the entire picture fills in, this is a haunting film about the effects of a terrible school bus accident on a small town. Everyone is damaged, and the arrival of a injury laywer (Ian Holm), himself personally troubled, only ruptures the already fragile bonds in town. Depressingly subject matter, but skillfully crafted and moving film.

August 13: Greed (1924, 140 minutes): This silent film was the Heaven’s Gate of its day -- an incredibly ambitious film from director/madman Erich von Stroheim that ate up years of film stock and remained a blot on von Stroheim’s marketability. Von Stroheim’s “true” version ran ten hours; what’s available to screen today runs a mere two-and-half hours. Von Stroheim swore he’d film Frank Norris’ novel, McTeague, as written, despite its massive cast of characters, and with painstaking detail, eschewing all studio set-ups and running up colossal bills shooting in Death Valley and San Francisco. (What remains of this pure realism is fascinating; in the background of the narrative, one can see actual everyday life.) The tale itself is unrelentingly sordid -- a loutish charlatan dentist meets a skittish woman (Zasu Pitts) through his best pal. They marry, but when Pitts wins a lottery she won’t share or spend (even as they starve), the three become locked in a twisted hellish triangle, splintering, only to reunite later in violence. The Death Valley conclusion of this film is rightly one of the most well-known sequences in film history and a flagrant assault on the upbeat ending of glossy studio films. No doubt the film has suffered for its many cuts, but what remains is a stunning visual work, astonishing in its darkness, that still unsettles.

August 13: Duel (1971, 90 minutes): The classic existential chased-by-a-truck suspense flick. Salesman Dennis Weaver’s just minding his business, driving double-nickels through southeastern California. He passes a truck, then the truck passes him -- and tries to wreck him. Perplexed, Weaver tries to avoid confrontation, but it’s soon obvious, though utterly without logic, that the truck (neither weaver or we ever see the driver) is trying to kill him. Taut thriller that remains unsettling.

August 15: Lord of the Flies Lord of the Flies (1990, 90 minutes): A re-work of William Golding’s classic fable, updated and cast with American military school boys, instead of the English kiddies. The change detracts from some of the class issues, and when generally rowdy American boys turn savage, it doesn’t seem so shocking. Also, the movie fails to ever explain the title, which I found a bit odd.

August 17: Da Hip Hop Witch (2000, 94 minutes): This Blair Witch parody has a funny premise -- instead of the spooky woods, what if a witch was lurking in the inner city projects attacking famous rappers? (That well-known rappers are still hanging in the projects remains debatable, but for the sake of the narrative, let’s assume they’re still keepin’ it real.) Unfortunately, the execution of the premise is pretty garbled -- several loose plot lines intersect, but most of the film is a procession of rappers, few gifted in dramatic delivery, many seemingly under the influence, screaming and shouting about the hip hop witch. (Luckily for these streetwise thespians, witch conveniently rhymes with bitch.) Despite the low-budget loophole of the original Blair Witch, novice Hip Hop director, Dale Resteghin, might have built a tighter narrative and featured less screeching, incoherent rappers. Hilariously, his one big coup -- Eninem -- later asked to be cut from the film. He wasn’t, and viewers can ponder his cameo where he seemingly free-associates a bizarre anal-probe encounter with the hip hop witch.

August 17: Here On Earth (2000, 96 minutes): Beautiful selfish rich boy meets beautiful sweet small town girl. Beautiful love, complete with babbling brooks and recited poetry, soon ensues. The girl’s less-beautiful, but achingly sad, small town former boyfriend moons. Tragically, the beautiful girl contracts a fatal disease -- a luminous cancer that makes her glow even more. Curiously, the two sad boys don’t really reconcile in typical romance fashion. Indeed, the movie seems quite cruel to not-rich, boring backwoods boyfriend. Teen movie love-triangle, dying young schmaltz -- you’ll weep over something.

August 19: Any Given Sunday (1999, 162 minutes):This flick is typically overdirected by Oliver Stone. Sometimes I’m willing to cut him a break if it seems he’s trying to do something interesting -- but here, what?! Do we need all these headache-inducing jumpcuts and X-treme slow motion just so we can “learn” that professional football staffed with jerks and run by bigger jerks? Washed-up coach, failing team, locker room pump-up speeches, rah rah rah. The most engaging part of the film is watching Jamie Foxx’s transformation from nervous newbie to athletic superstar Grade-A jerk (not that that’s much of a novelty event either). For someone trying so hard to be cynical about something the rest of us are already plenty cynical about, I was just flabbergasted to see this movie resolve in a series of Brady Bunch-style, leaned-my-lesson-dad group hugs!

August 21: The Long Long Trailer (1954, 97 minutes): A Desi-and-Lucy big screen success (they mostly reprise their roles from the hit TV show) about taking the new suburban home -- on the road. Cheaper than a fixed house and with more anticipated freedom, they foolishly buy a huge, lavishly appointed trailer home. No sooner is that glorious shiny dream attached to their back bumper then the troubles start. Slapstick reigns, but the film delivers the most brilliant comic-suspense sequence when Lucy, Desi, their vehicles -- and some rocks -- attempt to cross the Rockies.

August 22: Supernova (2000, 90 minutes): Trouble aboard this ambulance-in-space -- and I don’t just mean James Spader’s buff new physique. Answering a distress call, the ship picks up a guy who isn’t sick -- in fact he’s too well -- as well as some alluring piece of space debris. In typical fashion, the hunk of space junk is soon controlling the entire vessel. OK space-danger-opera with entertainingly limited effects (lots of shaky-cam).

August 25: No Alibi (1999, 90 minutes). Even though investment banker Dean Cain doesn’t look a thing like his low-life brother, Peter Stebbings, slighted bad guy, Eric Roberts -- perhaps blinded by rage after the loss of his serious cash stash -- exacts revenge on Cain. Since revenge comes in the shape of the sexy Lexa Doig, Cain hardly cares at first. Then his brother starts romping with Doig, who’s also dating Roberts. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well, even between the best-bud brothers.

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