I Canít Stop Watching (Mostly Bad) Movies!

July and August 1999:
August 31: The Late Show (1977, 94 minutes): Pleasant little odd-ball film, a light homage to the Chandler-type movies of the 40s. Hollywood fringe dwellers, cranky old detective, Art Carney and screwball dame, Lily Tomlin, pursue a red herring - a kidnapped cat -- through some fancy houses where bad guys in flashy suits fire guns and one-liners at them. The usual plot twists - adultery, blackmail, burglary, double-crosses galore. Nicely paced, snappy and fun.

August 30: The Brotherhood (1968, 98 minutes): Kirk Douglas, with dyed hair and bad mustache, is the old-school, candy-store and unions, Italian mob man bumping up against the New Breed of businessmen mobsters (theyíre planning to discretely muscle in on the space industry.) Actually, this film is pretty oblique about whether these guys are in the mob, but by the third episode of lengthy dialogue in unsubtitled Italian, I was starting to get it. Douglas is lively, but utterly unbelievable as the old-school Italian guy. Inter-generational Mafia conflicts might have been interesting subject matter in 1968, enough to float this movie, but then The Godfather hadnít been made yetÖ

August 27: Very Bad Things (1998, 100 minutes): Five friends hit Las Vegas for a raucous hotel bachelor party and things go very wrong. They accidentally kill the stripper theyíve hired. Oops. Seems simple enough to bury her in the desert and go on with the wedding, but trouble begets more trouble in this very black comedy. The film begins slowly, and is wildly uneven. Parts drag and Christian Slater is especially irritating. However, if you like your black comedy unrepentantly shocking and mean-spirited, the film does build to moments of tremendous, jaw-dropping hilarity. The ending will leave you appalled or exhilarated.

August 26: Hard Rain (1998, 96 minutes): It never stops raining during the movie. Ever. Must have cost a fortune to make, not counting the insurance bond on real-life bad-boy and star Christian Slater. Die Hard in a flood. And some flood! From waist-deep high to the rooftops in just an hour or so. Doesnít prevent an armored car heist. The bad guys and morally ambiguous good guys chase each other in boats through flooded houses, churches, cemeteries -- and down the halls of a school on jet skis. Whoopee.

August 19: The Truman Show (1998, 102 minutes): There are two great things about this movie. (1) Jim Carrey is quiet, mannered, entirely pleasant. (2) The huge "world" set that Ed Harris runs The Truman Show from. Interesting exposition on "life as entertainment" but what to make of it when increasingly people donít seem to mind?! Like Network, this may be an even more fascinating to film to see 20 years from now after pop culture has skittled ahead to some new place.

August 15: 54 (1998, 92 minutes): Urgh - forget the dumb, dumb fairy tale about the hunky not-gay Studio 54 waiters and their no-talent friend, Salma Hayek. This film is worth seeing for Mike Myersí incredible turn as Studio 54 impresario, Steve Rubell. Myers nails it. His Rubell is the worst kind of lonely, an outsider at his own party. This should have been the story.

August 14: Strictly Ballroom (1992, 94 minutes): Another peek into the curious world of ballroom dancing, the big swirly dresses and blonde lacquered hairdos. In this Australia comedy, the knives are out for unlikely young couple - the male heir apparent to the Pan Pacific Crown and the not-so-glam newcomer gal - who elect to add forbidden "fancy steps" to their routine. Shock! The lead couple are sort of bland, itís the colorful supporting cast that bounces this film along.

August 14: A Hero Ainít Nothiní But a Sandwich (1978, 105 minutes): Earnest 1970s film about a young heroin addict. A mixed bag -- some moments feel real, others are strictly after-school-special. E for effort though. Film tries to play it straight, no sensationalism, mostly well-acted.

August 13: Dance with Me (1998, 126 minutes): More ballroom dancing, but salsa-fied! And would you believe Kris Kristofferson as an instructor?! Real ex-Menudo hunk Chayanne (exhibiting here more natural flair than ex-Menudo Hype of the Moment Ricky Martin) is a young Cuban emigre to Texas, trying to hook up with the dad he never knew, Kristofferson. Chayanne meets the tasty Vanessa L. Williams at the dance studio, and after her longtime dance partner dumps her, signs up to be her partner. Will they fall in love? Will they win the big dance contest in Las Vegas?! Will father and son ever unite? Itís a no-brainer from page one, but the film is lively and pleasant enough.

August 13: Urban Legend (1998, 100 minutes): After the success of 1996ís clever teen horror flick, Scream, now comes the pale imitators like Urban Legend. The premise is clunky Ė kids with cute hair take a college course about popular urban legends, then are killed off according to legend. Predictable plot "twists" - is it the weird janitor? The mean dean? The cute college reporter guy? The guy (gasp!) who played Freddie in the Nightmare on Elm Street series? Yup, teen-screamer emeritus Robert Englund has a small role, but the rest of the fresh-faced cast seem like shampoo models on their first big acting break. Urban Legendís strained attempts to be post-modern and self-referential leave one nostalgic for the good old-fashioned teen-carve-Ďem-up plots of yore. Drink beer. Attempt carnal relations. Get killed by homicidal maniac. Repeat as necessary. No smirky hipness required.

August 8: Mac (1993, 118 minutes): This film is tribute to actor (and here writer/director) John Turturroís dad, who according to the film, built a few houses in Queens in the 50s. Could have been an engaging little story, but film is floppy (those smaller human stories gotta be tight) Ė and suffers from some big hammy acting. Italian American blue collar family so Ė sigh Ė youíve seen this before, lots of group shouting, so that the viewer, canít even tell whatís going on.

August 8: Harlan County, U.S.A. (1977, 103 minutes): A heartbreaking documentary about a year-long coal minersí strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in the early 1970s. In places, the film seems unreal Ė folks couldnít be that poor, big companies couldnít be that criminally selfish, unions couldnít be that corrupt - but every shocking, grim thing is true. Not a feel-good film. Small victories are won, but at terrible costs, and ultimately, the viewer comes to understand that the strike is just one hard time in a life -- in generations of life -- of desperately hard times. Tough, but well worth seeing.

August 7: Your Friends and Neighbors (1998, 99 minutes): Time was patrons rushed to the arthouse cinemas to see independent films that featured lots of great sexÖuhÖart. Now that mainstream cinema is chock-a-block with the graphic matings of actors with no visible body fat, smaller quirkier movies have shifted their focus to examining bad sex among the mere mortals. Your Friends and Neighbors invites the viewer to peer in at six thirty-somethings -- two couples and two singles (Amy Brenneman, Aaron Eckhart, Catharine Keener, Ben Stiller, Nastassja Kinski and Jason Patric) -- who have awful, unsatisfactory sexual encounters. Meanwhile, they talk, lie, drink wine, sleep around, lie some more Ė and generally make a worse mess of things. This film is not as sharp as writer-director Neil Labuteís previous dark moral fable,In the Company of Men, but it is funnier and less disturbing.

August 7: In the Company of Men (1997, 95 minutes): Ouch. Spare film - minimal sets, actors and directing - about two generic junior management white guys who undertake a cruel "prank" on a deaf secretary in their office. To avenge themselves against "the cruel way women treat men", theyíll each date the secretary, build up her hopes, then dump her as "payback." Obviously, these two guys are no angels, but thereís something malevolent about the contemporary office setting, as if all the wickedly-scripted non-specific corporate speak and the cheap cubicles breed such sociopathic behavior. Viewer is in on the game, a fly on the wall, and with little scenery or extraneous plot for distraction, itís a big cringe at times. Probably not a film for everyone, but recommended. Itís disturbing, but gutsy and brilliant.

August 4: Blue Collar (1978, 114 minutes): Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto work the line at a Detroit Checker Cab plant. The job sucks, and their corrupt union (here the fictious AAW, American Automobile Workers, no relation to UAW, ha ha) doesnít care about them any more than management. The film is part comedy, part crime caper, part social indictment, and it meshes surprisingly well. A perfect role for Pryor - funny, profane and full of bottled rage and frustration, but fighting for simple dignity.

August 3: True Love (1989, 104 minutes): Wow, this movie is what The Wedding Singer dreamt of being! A 1980s working class Italian Bronx wedding, and every detail is perfect! (And yes, there is a wedding band, and they will make you laugh harder than any moment of Adam Sandlerís self-conscious send-up.) Smart script, funny and bittersweet, that does not make a mockery of these folks, however unsophisticated they might be. The film follows Michael and Donna through the last shaky days of their engagement, but director Nancy Savoca ropes in the whole neighborhood, making this something of an ensemble piece that feels real. (Depending how and where you grew up, this may be your wedding!) Bonus points for not succumbing to a neat ending.

August 2: Porkys (1981, 94 minutes): Hang out with those 1950s kids at Angel Beach High and engage in the usual adolescent hi-jinks: talking loudly about sex you havenít had, hanging out at the drive-in, talking about sex, goofing off in gym class, talking about sex, getting into fist fights, talking about sex, and storming a honky-tonk hoping for sex. The original Porkys, "the classic." This film also provides valuable instruction about resolving conflict through gross property destruction.

August 1: Norma Rae (1979, 114 minutes): Sentimental story of the tough gal who takes on the evil textile mill in her grim little southern town and wins union representation for the mill workers. Itís a slimmed down, easy to follow, good-vs-evil story, and youíll be shouting "Union! Union!" along with cast. And the cast is great. Lots of honest to god real looking people, and a genuine hellpit mill you canít wait to get out of. Role of a lifetime for Sally Field, she does great as the scrappy, flawed Norma Rae, even when the script takes leaps and bounds, failing to sketch out her motivations.

August 1: Back to the Beach (1987, 92 minutes): The premise: what if Frankie and Annette went back to the beach "now"? Now, being the mid-80s Los Angeles, which means this film dishes up the requisite ersatz punk rockers and Valley Girls. A candy-colored cartoon, really - hardly offensive but about as stupid as any old Frankie and Annette movie, minus the giggle factor of the early 60s bathing suits. Annette and Frankie - the actors - seem to be enjoying themselves on this contrived romp. Various cameos from other 60s TV personalities. You wonít want to miss these three bizarre scenes: (1) Annette invents a dance called "the Jamaican ska", and sheís backed by Fishbone (remember them?!); (2) PeeWee Herman drops in from the sky and does a spastic "Surfing Bird"; and (3) Dick Dale and his band of surf-bums are inexplicably joined by Stevie Ray Vaughn (dressed in his finest Texas bluesman duds), and no surprise, Vaughn shows Dale how to play "Pipeline" with more than one finger.

July 29: The Big Leibowski (1998, 127 minutes): The Coen Brothersí play on Raymond Chandler-type L.A. mysteries - and like most of Chandler pieces, it doesnít make total sense, and the characters were all one-note, nuts-over-the-top. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman have the force of their respective personalities Ė easy going and manic respectively, to carry this along but each has more talent than the script gave them credit for. (Occasionally, the script was abandoned for easy-joke profanity. Címon, youse guys can write better than that! Itís been ages since just barking out the f-word was funny.) More stunt casting, sigh. Red Hot Chili Pepperís Flea as a Dieter-type German nihilist gang member (bwa ha ha ha), John Turturro as the funny, but pointless polyester-clad bowler, Jesus. (And why must bowling always be derided?!) Film had its moments, but then it also had big chunks that sat around and smelled funny. The dream sequences were visually cool (like the bowling-ball-cam), and you gotta give them props for trying. Better to risk and possibly fail than to make another formulaic lame film.

July 27: Sliding Doors (1998, 108 minutes): Miz Paltrow, upon returning from work, finds herself split in half. One half catches the train and goes on to lead Life A. The other half (operating in some parallel universe, I guess) misses the train, and goes on to lead Life B. And that timing matters. Miss A finds her boyfriend in bed with his mistress. Miss B doesnít Ė and so on. The whole film was a no-brainer in that the good guy was so charming and the bad guy was so odious. Utterly contrived but quite entertaining. I dunno why Paltrow bothered with the fake English accent thing (which falls down occasionally) because the London of this film looked like frightfully American -- so many glass and marble office buildings, fake 40s diners and some terrifying glass-atriumed futuristic hospital.

July 27: Ladies of Leisure (1930, 98 minutes): Early Frank Capra film about a "party girl" (in todayís parlance, an "escort") Ė a very young Barbara Stanwyck -- who meets a dilettante playboy artist Ė the quite dull Ralph Graves. The film is pre-Hays code, so itís a little saucy for its time - lots of gratuitous underwear scenes and broad hints at sexual behavior. Perfunctory tale, salvaged by some occasional snappy dialogue and Stanwykís great performance. The good-hearted wise-cracking dame was a role sheíd play often.

July 26: Love Serenade (1996, 101 minutes): A bittersweet black comedy in what has to be the ugliest, one-horse town in Australia. Into this dusty nowheresville blows a middle-aged big city radio deejay (the film never states it explicitly, but heís on his way down. Way, way down, one presumes from dicking up somewhere better.) Heís a 70s relic, utterly full of himself in that fatuous manner that plays off like "caring." He moves next door to two lonely sisters, who each become infatuated with him. Brave performances by Miranda Otto and Rebecca Firth as the sisters, and George Shevtsov as the deejay. This is a movie about sad, less-than-ordinary people. Painful, funny and a must-see for those who canít stand "Desiderata" (which factors significantly in this film.) "You are a child of the universeÖ" Ack.

July 24: Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993, 96 minutes): The first half of this film snapped and cracked. Chantel is a straight-up, head-together Brooklyn teenager, fiercely motivated to get up from the projects. The role feels real, sheís no fantasy, Chantel is immature, capricious and selfish, like teenagers are. Then she gets pregnant, and while the film does reflect a very real scenario of how she deals with her pregnancy, and is non-judgmental, it devolves into TV movie melodrama and idiocy. Itís a shame, because Ariyan Johnson is great as Chantel, and the film had super opportunities to explore some ignored realities of teen pregnancy. Instead, it moves from being the kind of smart, provocative film youíd want teenagers to see to some kind of confused mess with a pat ending.

July 24: All Over Me (1996, 90 minutes): A baby-dyke coming of age flick. Ultimately empowering, but the ride is soft of depressing. Lumpy teenage girl, Claudia, whoís kinda in love with her best friend, the blonde and petite Ellen, watches in dismay as her advances are rebuffed, and worse when Ellen takes up with this roughneck pig. Nicely captures one of those truly awful moments of adolescent Ė when two best friends just diverge completely. Alison Folland is super as Claudia, who navigates this awkward rite of passage.

July 24: Bulworth (1998, 107 minutes): During the last days of the campaign, incumbent Senator Bulworth -- Warren Beatty -- suffers a hilarious personal and professional meltdown. The real delight of this political satire is not when the white-bread politician turns streetwise - dressing like a homeboy and spewing profane raps - but when the Senator just blurts out the truth. ("Iím controlled by big corporations, and Iím only in it for the sex and money.") Itís the naughtiest thing a politician could ever do, and itís exhilarating. Beatty aptly plays the fool (along with Oliver Platt as his beleaguered chief-of-staff) and there are some good laughs, albeit on easy targets. Too bad real-life leftie Beatty didnít buy a clue from his own satire. (Beatty directed and co-wrote Bulworth.) Late in the movie, he opts to make some obvious Serious Points, and the fun falls flat.

July 24: How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998, 124 minutes): Romance blossoms between two beautiful people who live in showplace homes with impossibly large showers. Itís hard to care about their problems, and especially in this wafer-thin film (based on Terry McMillenís novel of the same name), which is deeply committed to set decorating but very light on characterization or plot. Angela Basset, a 40-year-old divorced bond trader (who looks 25) takes a Caribbean break, and meets the sculpted, witty and caring 20-year old Taye Diggs (heís conveniently a medical student, not a sleazy beach boy.) The movie purports to be about their differences - in age, social standing, attitudes - but itís mostly smooth sailing. With little drama to worry about, I just sulked about the days that the cast and crew of this yawner must have enjoyed in that divine Jamaican beach resort.

July 22: The Fog (1979, 91 minutes): More of a mist, but a big, evil fast-moving mist that harbors some crazed man-killing ghosties! John Carpenterís follow-up to Halloween still feels kind of low-budget, since most of the money probably went for the glowing fog effects. Man-eating green fog notwithstanding, the earliest scenes are actually the creepiest, when a bunch of stuff around town goes haywire. Clocks blowing out, gas pumping itself. Not really a very scary film, though Carpenter inserts those things-flying-out-of-the-closet moments, so itĎs guaranteed youíll jump once or twice. Stars mother-daughter scream queens, Janet Leigh and Jamie Leigh Curtis, though the screaming is left to Adrienne Barbeau. Filmed along the spectacular Point Reyes coastline in Northern California, probably on the one day of the year, they didnít have real fog there.

July 18: Grace of My Heart (1996, 116 minutes): For a movie that expects the viewer to familiar with Brill Building lore, 60s era Carole King songwriting, Phil Spector and his girl groups, Brian Wilsonís meltdown during the Smile LP production and the ascension of the singer-songwriter, this film is just a surface skim, filled with cartoons (beatniks in black berets!) and little insight. Ileana Douglas stands in here for the hard row women had to hoe in the music industry, but her progression from cranking out early 60s pop ditties to 1970s self-enlightening concept album (that is not Tapestry, huh!) just bubbles by, held aloft on the TV movie threads of her succession of bad men and worse hair-dos. Director Alison Anders, rather than flesh out some real details of those years (oh say, publishing rights and money, or such denied) fills up the film with extraneous and oops!-hereís-another! B-list celebrity pals (Jill Sobule, Chris Isaak, Redd Kross, Shawn Colvin, Chyna Kantner), including not one, but TWO, actual rock star wives (Amanda DeCadenet and Patsy Kensit.) Film definitely loses steam towards the end, but you wouldnít want to miss Matt Dillon as the demented Brian Wilson (thereís a piece of inspired casting?!) nor the gratuitous scene set in the topless vegetable commune.

July 16: Making Love (1982, 111 minutes): In this film, three TV stars flirting with big-screendom - Kate Jackson, Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin - take a slo-mo ride to new shocking new personal spaces -- respectively, married suburban drone, New York City sweater queen and gay nightlife loner. Kate and Mike are happily-marrieds until Huge Head oí Hair Hamlin sashays by. Rated R in those days for a closed-mouthed man-to-man kiss and one F-word. Itíd be rated G today. Or B for Boring. Or BSF for Bad Seventies Furniture. Thatís the real scary part of this film.

July 15: Vendetta (1999, 120 minutes): Based on a true tale of Italian immigrants framed for a copís murder in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, so that local kingpins could take control of the lucrative docks away from enterprising Italian immigrants. Film takes a long time to get going. First half is confusing, scattershot among too many characters. Once the men have been railroaded for the murder, the movie shifts into courtroom drama mode, becomes easier to follow, and more interesting.

July 15: Babe: Pig in the City (1998, 97 minutes): A childrenís film for only the most jaded of kiddies, which is to say, adults. Babe was all sunshine and fuzzy sheep down on the farm, but this sequel is the long dark night of our naÔve and plucky porcine. Cast adrift in the cruel city (a fantastic noir-ish retro metropolis), poor Babeís task is merely to survive. The supporting characters are a grim, moribund lot, all damaged and abandoned - be they two-legged, four-legged, or in one sad wee beagleís case, two-legged-and-two-wheeled. A fascinatingly different but curiously dark film. How dark? A fire in a childrenís hospital, a terrier-lynching, starving animals and a gasp-out-loud dog-and-automobile accident. Good triumphs, and there is happy resolution meted out back on the farm, but sensitive souls may find this film upsetting.

July 14: Babe (1995, 94 minutes): Utterly charming! No lie. I was all gooney-eyed through it. Good things: (1) the talking, emoting animals are really believable, some kinda seamless technology, doesnít matter what, it works. (2) Babe the pig is kinda stupid, you canít help but root for her, and itís good that the pig isnít cast as some superstar extraordinary creature. Babe is a just sweet bumbling pig that gets lucky. (3) Nice retro look to film and sets (4) A fast-moving smart script. None of that dumbed-down Disney stuff. (5) Ditto on the soundtrack. Film uses real music instead of that schmaltzy pablum people mistakenly think children prefer.

July 12: Prince of the City (1981, 167 minutes): Based on a true story, Treat Williams is a dirty NYC cop, who to assuage his conscience, agrees to cooperate with a gigantic Federal crackdown on police corruption. No surprise that things go from bad to worse to really really bad. If youíve ever fantasized about being a whistle-blower, this film will make you think twice. Filmís a trifle long, but lots of super character actors and any slow or extraneous parts early on feed a good pay-off in the last half-hour.

July 11: The Opposite of Sex (1998, 105 minutes): A vulgar, yet droll, black comedy of post-modern manners. A teenage harlot, Christina Ricci, turns up at her gay half-brotherís quiet suburban home determined to wreak havoc. She beds his dishy lover and infuriates his still-pining gal pal, Lisa Kudrow. Toss in the loverís lover, Kudrowís glum suitor, Lyle Lovett, a pregnancy, a gun, extortion and some community gay-related hysteria -- and itís a rollicking mess. Ricci is instant camp with her non-glam trashy look and gum-crackiní attitude, but the real stand-out is Kudrow. With pitch-perfect delivery, she is brutally funny as the brotherís bitter, clinging pal, whose tart asides barely disguise her loneliness and frustration. The filmís self-aware riffs on "quirky film" cliches are a bit disruptive, but well-intentioned and wholly survivable.

July 9: JFK (1991, 189 minutes): Clocking in at 3 hours plus, this film is surprisingly watchable. Hereís the real-life (though one presumes liberties have been taken) tale of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison who becomes obsessed with JFKís assassination, smelling a cover-up, and initiates an investigation. Director Oliver Stone lays it out as a murder mystery thriller, and that helps move the story along. "Answers" are provided. Of course, the viewer is free to ignore or embrace these revealed "truths" but at least for the purpose of the filmís narrative they work. Big, big cast, lots of well-known actors pop up. Kevin Costner is ok as Garrison, though with such a huge story, I wished Stone had cast a more capable and nuanced actor. Film drags in the final courtroom scenes, you can pretty much fast-forward through the big summation speech. Stone kept those editing pyrotechnics of his to a minimum in the film. They did make the same old images a bit fresher, but I still have a headache from the strobe-light effects of Natural Born Killers!

July 6: Postal Worker (1998, 90 minutes): I donít recall this film being released theatrically, and thatís no surprise. Using mass-murdering postal workers as comedic jumping-off point, this film delivers some spot-on black humor, some clever lowbrow gags (plus many, many more that fall flat), a little psychoanalysis and a pretty big mailbag of gratuitous bloody mayhem. Impossible to market. The only "star" is Paul Williams, the diminutive 70s song-writing boychik. I dunno where heís been since the day the music died, but he looks like heís on the tail end of at least three hard-lived lives.

July 5: The Cotton Club (1984, 127 minutes): A long film, that still feels like sections might be missing. An admittedly ambitious project Ė a re-telling on the real-life actor George Raft and gangster Dutch Schultz stories, plus white New Yorkís excursions into black Harlem nightlife, big sets and lots of elaborate and well-staged song-and-dance numbers. Itís too sprawling to be a great movie, the pieces donít fit together right. Some actors are woefully flat (Richard Gere, Diane Lane) or bad (Nicholas Cage) Ė others like Bob Hoskins are just swell.

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