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

Year 2001 -- Part Four:

Me, Myself and Irene (2000, 117 minutes). Rest assured that the naughty Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary) have delivered another anarchic, and somewhat uneven, romantic comedy guranteed to generate laughs, groans and the occasional gasp of distaste. No bodily fluid or unpleasant function is left unexplored (including a male-only gag that may be a cinematic first). A slender plot finds state trooper, Jim Carrey, on the lam with Renee Zellweger, the very week a nervous breakdown splits his personality in tow – the meek Charlie and the pure-id monster, Hank. This is a great gimmick for Carrey with his gift for twisted physical comedy and his transformations provide much of the film’s comedic meat. Carrey’s three teenage sons – who happed to be black, massively overweight, gutter-profane geniuses – feel like a cheap, even offensive plot gag, but I surrender; they made me laugh the most.

Chuck and Buck (2000, 99 minutes). Chuck and Buck is a weird non-buddy comedy-drama that pivots around two former childhood pals – Chuck (Chris Weitz) now a successful businessman and Buck (Mike White, who also wrote the script) an emotionally stunted man-child – who 18 years later meet at a funeral. Buck attempts to re-kindle the long-ago friendship. Chuck demurs. Buck insists, relocating to Los Angeles where he can stalk Chuck and his financee full-time and write a play that he’s sure will reunite him with Chuck. Neither character is particularly likable – Buck is pathetic, a grotesque pale, twitchy selfish weirdo; Chuck is weak and flat. Part black comedy (the film’s funniest moments occur during the production of Buck’s play), part creepy stalker flick and part psycho-sexual exploration (the film’s least effective gambit), this indie film is nonetheless oddly compelling.

Boys and Girls (2000, 94 minutes). Freddie Prinze Jr. and Calire Forlani struggle through this utterly lifeless romantic comedy about two college cuties who are best friends unaware that they are just perfect love mates for each other. A wholly unoriginal idea executed with no zip or tension; Prinze and Forlani generate zero chemistry. Pointless subplots involving their respective lovelorn roommates (Jason Biggs and Amanda Detmer) means 100 minutes of four boring people fretting and whining about the meanings of life and love. It’s too much like a bad night out with one’s own carping tedious friends, and hence, not worthy as paid entertainment.

Town & Country (2000, 105 minutes). Two affluent couples (Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, Garry Shandling and Goldie Hawn) see their long-term marriages derail from infidelity. The tale has glimmerings that resemble Woody Allen’s better sophisticated Manhattan domestic comedy-dramas, but there’s little depth or wit. Despite a smooth start, the film soon picks up an alarming speed, hurling one freaky contrivance and character after another, virtually burying the meat of the story with bizarre, and painfully unfunny, slapsticky subplots. It’s all befuddling. Apparently rumors of the long-delayed filnm held up to re-work appear correct. Plus any film that casts renown playboy Beatty as a moral compass seems destined for ridicule.

Bedazzled (2000, 93 minutes). Harold Ramis’ Bedazzled is a high-gloss remake of the 1967 Peter Cook-Dudley Moore comedy about the poor working nobody who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for seven wishes designed to vastly improve his lot (make me rich, powerful, tall, witty, etc.). Brendan Fraser, who is an amiable comic actor, is the small prize in this otherwise not-quite-funny enough film. He makes his sad-sack self earnest and likeable, and has great fun in the various new dream roles the devil bestows him. These sequences are the film’s funniest, and in them, Fraser gets steady support from Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein and Toby Huss, office mates who turn up in all his new lives. Elizabeth Hurley, as the devil, makes a fine swimsuit model, but otherwise, she seem like, well, a bitchy man-manipulating clothes-horse.

Nurse Betty (2000, 108 minutes). Sweet, neglected Betty (Renee Zellweger), after a sudden trauma, disconnects mentally, believing herself to be the intended love of a television soap opera doctor. She travels to Los Angeles in her fantasy stupor to unite with the dreamy Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear), while being pursued, without her knowledge, by two squabbling hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). This whimsical dark comedy/raod movie/ensemble crime caper is a change from director Neil LaBute’s previous films (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) which clinically dissected male-female relationships. LaBute here tries for too much; the hitman subplot fails to connect to Betty’s journey properly. But, when focused on Betty’s demented pursuit of happiness, Nurse Betty is an enjoyable odd tale. Zellweger makes Betty innocent without resorting to little-girl mannerisms and Kinnear is her perfect foil as the unctuous B-grade celebrity.

In the Mood for Love (2000, 97 minutes). Set in 1962 Hong Kong, this moody period piece from writer-director Wong Kar-Wai about unrequited love unspools slowly, but is always engaging. Two neighbors (the lovely Maggie Cheung who wears an impossibly beautiful collection of stunning cheongsams dresses and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) gradually discover that their respective spouses who travel on business frequently are having an affair. Cheung and Leung bond in the loneliness and their pain, tentatively “recreating” how the betrayal could have happened, and becoming tentative friends. An eventual love affair of their own is severely restricted: by their close communal living quarters, by their polite morality, and most ironically, by their refusal to become their philandering spouses. However bittersweet and strangely elusive, In the Mood for Love is a beautiful film, marked by languid style, careful compositions and an excellent use of music and song.

The Yards (2000, 115 minutes). In this second feature from director/screenwriter James Gray, a young man (Mark Wahlberg) returns home to bleak Queens, New York, from prison, hoping to go straight. Almost immediately he finds himself enmeshed in shady family business: A politically connected uncle (James Caan) uses graft, intimidation and sabotage to secure subway maintenance contracts. A screw-up one night in the subway yards puts Walhberg in hiding, falsely accused of murder, while his family sorts out the ethical complexities -- and convenience -- of letting him take the fall. The Yards is more dark family drama than crime thriller; the action is spare and the pace mannered. Gray chooses instead to create a gritty, claustrophobic murky world (he frequently plunges his film into actual darkness) where moral conflicts are inevitable, and cannot be resolved without fracturing already fragile family bonds.

The Others. (2000, 105 minutes). This moody psychological supernatural thriller from Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, peers into a gloomy, dark mansion on the Isle of Jersey, inhabited by a high-strung World War II widow (Nicole Kidman), her two reputedly ill children and three mysterious servants. Bumps in the night and frayed nerves quickly set the household in turmoil. The journey into the mysterious darkness however proves more intriguing than the somewhat reached-for conclusion in this nonetheless well-acted spooker.

You Can Count on Me (2000, 109 minutes). This sleeper from last year, a smallish narrative about a adult sister and brother plays well on the small screen. Laura Linney is the older sister, now a single mom; Mark Ruffalo her brother, who leads a nomadic life, turns up, as he is wont to do when troubles build up elsewhere. He’s seems incapable of maintaining an easy stability (director/writer Kenneth Lonergan does a nice job pairing Ruffalo with Linney’s son, Rory Culkin, who in contrast to Ruffalo’s impulsiveness appears preternaturally wise). Linney, who Lonergan slowly reveals as marvelously human, gets stuck between caring, enabling and growing increasingly frustrated at her brother’s behavior. A believable, and surprisingly gentle, drama.

Billy Liar (1963, 94 minutes). Tom Courtenay plays “Billy Liar,” a young man so bored with his life as an undertaker’s assistant in a Northern English town that he invents fantastic scenarios in his head, like he is the revered one-armed leader of Ambrosia. Unfortunately, he also has a bad habit of telling grotesque lies: His father’s leg is amputated, his sister’s dead, he’s engaged, he’s not engaged. A funny film that uses handy footage of urban renewal (the old war-damaged city center is being razed and rebuilt all shiny and modern) to mirror Bully’s own struggle to step forward into reality.

Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire (1999, 90 minutes). Better than average low-key story about two lackadaisical brothers in L.A. who with a little effort (and lot of luck) finally meet the right women and mature a bit. Hopefully. There’s an interesting subplot involving an old man who was involved in the all-black film productions of the 1940s. The title of this indie film from Martin Scorsese protégé Kevin Jordan is explained, but it still has to be one of the worst titles ever.

Lifeguard (1975, 96 minutes). Rick (the tanned and sinewy Sam Elliott) is a 33-year-old L.A. lifeguard. The summer brings the crowds and the lifeguard groupies (a swingin’ ’70s fringe job benefit); winter means foggy solitude and contemplation. But Rick doesn’t give much thought to his future, until several former high school pals -- now successful adults -- suggest he grow up. As incentive they offer a mature love affair and a lucrative job selling Porches. Rick decides to stay a lifeguard -- and because this narrative sits within the cult of California do-your-own-thing, half-baked selfishness disguised as self-actualization, the film suggests he made the right call.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, 98 minutes). This is one of those great children’s films that is deliciously weird, heartwarming without being gooey, and still freaky. It’s a slow set-up while we wait out all the winners of the trip into Wonka’s secret candy factory, but once inside, the wonder, wackiness and even danger begins! The sets are wonderful physical things, free from the dumb special effects that date other older fantasy films. As Wonka, Gene Wilder is just a wicked delight, warm yet somehow malevolent at the same time. He prances about making bizarre, even worrisome, statements. Best of all, he doesn’t seem to care at all when the bratty kids get disappeared. Sure, he says they’re coming back, but he hardly seems concerned and frankly, we never see them return. I, who has suffered through too many bad movies with too-cute wisecracking urchins, can’t emphasize enough how pleasurable it is to see bratty kids just vanish into psychedelic machinery. (Fun fact from the DVD background featurette: This film which rails against eating sweets and watching TV was financed by General Mills [makers of TV kiddie cereal ads] to promote a new line of candy.)

Gung Ho (1986, 111 minutes). Very lightweight, utterly predictable comedy of industrial manners. A Western PA auto factory is taken over by Japanese management. Predictable clashes occur, mostly serving to emphasize tired stereotypes of both Japanese and American workers. The scenes of the Japanese managers engaging in ritualized bathing in the Mon River are alarming though.

Modern Times (1936, 87 minutes). One of Chaplin’s masterpieces, Modern Times opens with a factory worker, a literal speeded-up cog in the great machine, being driven insane by the monotony of his job. An apt satire of modernization and its perverse affects on the workers (particularly the vulnerable workers of the Depression), the fantastic, man-eating exaggerated machines in film unforgettable. Of curious interest, among the many small set-pieces Chaplin performs in this work is the foiled jail break while he’s totally hopped up on cocaine.

Toys (1992, 121 minutes). Some personal vision of director Barry Levinson’s brought to screen with ample budget and impressive visuals, yet this film about a toy factory under siege by military men just stinks of flop sweat from the opening scenes. Watch it with the sound off for the cool sets, and to spare yourself the cutesy-pooing of man-boy Robin Williams.

Murder at the Gallop (1963, 81 minutes). Miss Marple (in the form of the formidable Margaret Rutherford) is back on the case. When the local police don’t believe a wealthy recluse’s death was murder (Miss Marple finds an important clod of dirt), she investigates on her own. Soon, she’s checked in the posh riding hotel, The Gallop, presided over by possible suspect, the delicious Robert Morley. You’ll goggle at the scene where the well-padded Miss Marple bends over, submitting her wide backside to Morley’s braced foot as they two giants of the British stage struggle in some stable body clutch to remove a riding boot.

The Las Vegas Story (1952, 88 minutes). Even Hoagy Carmichael plinking on the piano can’t save this yawner of a crime story set in Vegas. Reputedly, Howard Hughes produced this film to help market the city he was acquiring a real stake in. Sadly, even as a early ’50s travelogue (that old neon is ill-served by black-and-white photography), Hughes seems to have missed the mark as most of the action takes place on crummy looking sets and starring Mr. and Mrs. Physique, Victor Mature and Hughes’ other discovery, the ample Jane Russell.

Legally Blonde (2001, 96 minutes). Bubbly California sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) goes east to Harvard Law School in this fish-out-of-water comedy from first-time director Robert Luketic. After an awkward arrival, Elle enthusiastically embraces law school and is soon applying her own silly expertise (fashion, hair maintenance) to a high-profile murder case, as well as to the personal life of a sweet but frumpy beautician (Jennifer Coolidge).Valuable lessons are learnt about being true to oneself. This light, frothy pink confection of a summer film never quite finds it true groove but Witherspoon is charming and fun.

Casablanca (1942, 102 minutes). Hadn’t seen this in years. In my youth, probably saw this film 15 times. It was always playing somewhere. When a pal dragged it out, I thought: It’ll be dull, I remember every last bit of it. Maybe I did, but I still marveled at what a near-perfect film this is. Not a line of dialogue wasted. Shot in luminous black-and-white, each tiny detail of this precisely crafted, ensemble-acted studio film is a joy to behold. Only it’s omnipresent familiarity as an overused pop culture touchstone dents it -- and in fairness, that Bogart is reduced to bad ad quips is not the fault of this movie.

The Only Game in Town (1970, 113 minutes). Pretty stagey two-man romp through the sad loser side of Vegas. That those two actors are Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor will cause the curious to tune in. Taylor is a lonely dancer (Taylor, a puffy 38 years, has her showgirl scenes shot from the neck up); Beatty tinkles the ivories in a bar off the Strip. Both hope to leave Vegas which has long since lost its glamour -- Taylor lives in a particularly banal apartment overlooking a big expanse of desert nothing where the distant blinking lights of the Strip simply mock the miserable time she’s having. Beatty fights a gambling compulsion. This film’s one good sequence is when Beatty goes on a craps bender; it’s rightfully tense and uncomfortable. But, through the admittedly unfair prism of history, the most sublime scene is when the uber-bachelor of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Warren Beatty, begs the 8-times-wed Liz Taylor to marry him and she demurs with every excuse that Beatty himself must have used.

Chicken Run (2000, 85 minutes). Grade-A comedy about clay chickens trying to escape a clay concentration-camp-type poultry farm for a free pastoral life in a clay green meadow.

Lucky Town (2001, 100 minutes). Pretty standard sorta-thriller about a teen (Kirsten Dunst, doing nothing for her hot new career here) who runs off the Vegas in search of her professional gambler father, James Caan (doing nothing for his very lukewarm fading career). The usual cards are played: various gaming and gangster codes are obeyed and broken; strippers are beat up; a heist goes bad; people get shot; and Luis Guzman – the hardest working Latino bad-boy actor out there – gets what little snappy dialogue there is.

Amores Perros (2000, 153 minutes). An impressive debut from Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, this inventive ensemble film tracks several strata of contemporary Mexico City from the vapid celebrity talk shows to the barbaric illegal dog fights. A handful of people’s lives intersect and are changed by a car accident: two sets feuding brothers, one poor, one wealthy; a magazine publisher and his model mistress; and elderly homeless man, as are the lives of several dogs -- the model’s pampered fluffball, vicious fighting dogs and the strays who follow the old man. Amores Perros is reminiscent of Pulp Fiction in its criss-crossed narrative structure, its focus on the gritty yet colorful underworlds and its occasionally brash presentation, but ultimately it proves less gimmicky, more thoughtful and displays a sure hand at capturing a sense of the city’s disparate but linked urban energy.

The Gift (2000, 110 minutes). In this psychological horror film from director Sam Raimi (the gory,clever Evil Dead trilogy), a young widowed mother (Cate Blanchett) finds her gift for psychic reading causes great trouble: for herself, plagued with terrible visions of a local girl’s savage murder, and for the townsfolk, who all seem to be connected to the crime. Raimi builds a palpable tension (the understated soundtrack is good) and employs his patented style (jumpy shocks and super close-ups shot in slow-slow motion). Blanchett is fine as the burdened psychic, though hers is the only character with any emotional range. Lay some of that blame on co-screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton, who heaps on the Southern Gothic and relies on tired one-dimensional characters like the donut-eating sheriff J.K Simmons or the crazed redneck Keanu Reeves. So much for the New Southern writing. The conclusion is something of a trick, but there’s a decent, unsettling ride up to it.

Thunder in Carolina (1960, 92). Hotshot mechanic (John Gentry) hooks up with gimpy aging stock car driver Rory Calhoun and his one-armed crew chief, Alan Hale Jr. Groomed to drive, Gentry quickly ascends through the Carolina dirt tracks to the big race: the Southern 500 at Darlington, SC. There’s the usual dilemmas with fretful women, boozy ex-drivers and racing rivals. Shot in bright color on location, this film has lots of great footage from that year’s actual 500, including drivers Lee and Richard Petty, and nice sense of what a low-budget carnival even top stock car racing used to be.

Days of Thunder (1990, 108 minutes). A Simpson-Bruckheimer power-blast-o-rama shot in perpetual sunset about NASCAR racing that if not for jaw-dropping liberties taken with auto-racing reality would actually leave one very bored. A few of my favorites head-shakers include: the brain doctor riding a motorcycle without a helmet; emerging from race cars every time mysteriously covered in black grease; and passing up the middle with a wrecked car during the Daytona 500 to win.. Tom Cruise’s dumb-ass character blithely admits as he bends his skintight jeans into a stock car worth millions that he learned about stock car racing from watching ESPN: “Their coverage is excellent.” Cruise and the other “drivers” in this film should be limited to the demo derby. They wrecked 35 real race cars making this film, but the most impressive shots are the aerial views of those speedways packed with 150,000 shirtless, howling fans. Forty years ago they made similar tire operas on shoestring budgets: a few hack actors, some car crashes, an on-track rivalry, an off-track romance and a couple real stock car drives for authenticity. Just how it takes Simpson and Bruckheimer $60 million to produce the same thing is a marvel of whacked economics. Days also features Nicole Kidman as the brain expert, puffy, drugged-out uber-producer Donnie Simpson in a cameo as a race driver, and Robert Duval as a Carolina smoked ham

Dude, Where's My Car? (2000, 83 minutes). In the dubiously great cinematic tradition of anarchic stoner buddies (Cheech & Chong, Bill and Ted) stumbling through a noble quest comes Jesse (Ashton Kutcher) and Chester (Seann William Scott) who awake from a night of heavy partying and can’t find their car. As the lads retrace their steps, they discover that the previous evening found them in a strip club, a game reserve and a tailor’s; in possession of a lot of money and pudding; and pursued by two sets of space aliens. It’s as silly and derivative as it sounds, but Kutcher and Scott are goofily likable, enough gags hit the mark (evidently the comic variations of "dude!" and "sweet!" are infinite), and the film does manage to tie up all these disparate threads into one relatively satisfying conclusion.

O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000, 106 minutes). The writing-directing-producing brothers Coen return with a goofy stylized riff on The Odyssey, re-set in Depression-era Mississippi. Three escaped bumbling cons (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) in search of buried treasure are beset along their journey by the law, oracles, politicians, other criminals and most bizarrely, a hillbilly music recording contract. O Brother suffers from the Coens’ hipper-than-thou smugness, individual scenes work better than the movie as a whole, but the pace is brisk enough to keep the film on track. Those familiar with Homer’s Odyssey will get more of the jokes (the sirens, John Goodman as the one-eyed Cyclops). It’s no Fargo but O Brother is an easygoing quirky road comedy, prettily lit to resemble an old tinted postcard and with an excellent soundtrack of early American music.

Memento (2000, 116 minutes). Leonard (Guy Pearce) struggles to avenge his wife’s murder, a task frustratingly complicated by his loss of short-term memory. Each hour is a fresh puzzle as Leonard consults notes, photos and his own tattoos to recall facts and people. Director Christopher Nolan takes the film noir staples of paranoia, memory, revenge, elusive identity and obsession, puts them into overdrive and through a funhouse mirror to deliver an enigmatic and entertaining post-noir thriller. Memento’s much-talked-about gimmick -- the narrative runs backwards in short bursts of forward action -- demands concentration (and makes the film a bit chilly) but it’s following the story from Leonard’s messed-up perspective that’s most taxing and intriguing. He’s a decidedly unreliable witness. Those who bent their brains in the theater to deconstruct Leonard’s backward tale may succumb to the temptation offered by video and re-play the story segments in chronological order.

Save the Last Dance (2001, 112 minutes). This season’s update on the underdog saga is Save the Last Dance, an MTV-produced teen melodrama about a white aspiring ballerina (Julia Stiles) from the country, who after the death of her mother, moves to the black slums of Chicago. After an awkward beginning (she uses the wrong slang and can’t dance hip-hop style), Stiles makes friends, learns to shake her booty, snags the too-sweet, too-smart boy, and dares to dream again of ballet school. While the film is reminiscent of Flashdance -- the plucky kid from the streets astounds the high-culture ballet world with her groovy street-dance moves -- it owes more to the Rocky genre, with its requisite family conflicts, thumping pop music, montage training sequence and the "believe in yourself" pep talk. Stiles, who the movie blessedly does not dumb down, manages a feisty performance.

Sisters (1973, 92 minutes). Another of Brian de Palma’s Hitchcock homages explicitly quoting Psycho, Rope and Rear Window, and graced with a Bernard Herrmann score. Margot Kidder plays a set of twins -- one normal, the other a homicidal maniac. Creepy and ooky, and shot with a fair amount of style (split screens, get it?), de Palma gets a good run of suspense going, particularly as a nebby neighbor, a feminist rabble-rouser member of the press (Jennifer Salt) starts investigating. The surprise end is fairly predictable, though the closing shot is surely another nod to the Master Hitchcock’s perverse sense of humor.

Frogs (1972, 90 minutes). One of the greats of the eco-thriller sub-genre. First, zombielike Sam Elliott (a naturalist photographer so in touch with nature he might as well be a tree branch) ends up trapped on a private island where a very dysfunctional and terribly dressed rich family are having a party. There’s mean old wheelchair-bound pater (Academy Award winner Ray Milland); his daughter, a middle-aged nutjob who chases butterflies; the drunk playboy grandson; his shrill wife; the nymphomaniac granddaughter; a random black fashion model; and assorted others. Naturally they run some kinda polluting industry. There’s a lot of fore … er … frogshadowing of danger, as fully about a third of this film is cutaway close-up shots of frogs, snakes, newts and geckos. Finally, in one hilarious scene after another, the whole party gets taken out, one by one, as the newts, geckos, snakes and alligators, apparently under the control of the mastermind frogs, turn brutal.

Corky (1972, 88 minutes). Now here’s a fairly dull tale of a drunken loser, wanna-be stock car driver, Corky. What’ll keep you transfixed is the sheer awfulness of it. Corky -- in a "feels-real" manic performance by Robert Blake -- is utterly unlikeable. He’s mean to his hillbilly Texas child bride (sophisticated English actress Charlotte Rampling in a stunning piece of miscasting); is nasty to his boss and co-workers; and dumps on his best friend. Why, he even tries to kill a nice hippie family who stops to help when his Pontiac Superbird breaks down. And then there’s his hometown shooting rampage! Corky does make it to the Atlanta speedway, where he’s glared at by stock car star, Buddy Baker. The movie ends with the surreal scene of a sobbing Corky peering through the speedway fence, watching himself race around the track. Sick.

What Planet Are You From (2000, 104 minutes). A few laughs, most typical fish-out-of-water type gags, or from Greg Kinnear who has a nice sharp edge beneath his boyish demeanor. But, also overly long, and missing a certain necessary zing.

The Dark Corner (1946, 99 minutes). Fairly complex noir about a two-bit detective (Mark Stevens) and his no-nonsense secretary (Lucille Ball, in a dramatic role) who get caught up in some bad business. There’s blackmail, stalking, murders, affairs, art scams, past debts, high-priced lawyers. Soon enough, there’s a bad frame around Stevens: "I’m in a dark corner and I don’t know who put me there." Indeed. A lot of plot, but all threads get sorted out in this pretty dark and silent (no background music) thriller.

Hollow Man (2000, 114 minutes). Re-work of the invisible man gambit but this time, being invisible or hollow makes one insane or soulless. Not much a mental stretch; not much a of plot here either as the bigheaded scientist experiments on himself and goes invisible/nuts. Lots and lots of special effects. The first couple of "going invisible" scenes are cool (the body strips away in layers), but then it’s the usual boring round-up of explosions and morphy things leaping through the air. Also, most of the action takes place in an underground lab. The claustrophobia may be intentional, but since there is a big budget, why not let loose a crazed invisible man on Washington, D.C.?

Waiting for Guffman (1996, 84 minutes). The small town of Blaine, Missouri, puts on a show, "Red White and Blaine" for their 150-year-anniversary. And aren’t they blessed to have amongst them the visionary director and dynamic creative force that is Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest). St. Clair is deluded about his talent, but no more so than his troupe. Therein lies the charm of this sweet mockumentary about small-town theater and its participants, all eager for a bit glamour and fantasy away from their dull, and even sad, lives. Nobody on-screen breaks the spell; they share both Cork’s enthusiasm and delusion, including married travel agents, Rona and Sheila (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), "the Lunts of Blaine"; first time actor and fulltime dentist, Alan Pearl (Eugene Levy) and even the unsophisticated, appreciative local audience. While the film is funny, it’s pure of heart, and never is cruel to these modest players.

To Be or Not To Be (1942, 90 minutes). Ernst Lubitsch’s sharply observed wartime comedy about a Polish theatrical troupe who turn to espionage during the Nazi occupation. Sounds grim, but it’s hilarious also while aiming well-placed shots at fascism, Hitler and the persecution of Jews. The opening sequence is a masterful piece of dramatic sleight-of-hand. Naturally, who is better equipped to be a spy, to assume a pretend identity, than actors? Carole Lombard (in her last role) and Jack Benny play the bickering his-and-her drama queens.

The Producers (1968, 90 minutes). Now we know it is possible to make two hilarious backstage comedies involving Hitler. In Mel Brooks’ film, a washed-up Broadway producer (Zero Mostel, with a splendid comb-over) and his timid accountant (Gene Wilder) figure they can make more dough on a flop than a hit. They acquire what they rightly believe to be the worst script available, “Springtime for Hitler” -- a righting of Hitler’s bad press, and line up a terrible cast and crew. The opening number of this play is still one of the funniest musical numbers to be captured on screen. Dick Shawn plays Hitler as you could never have possibly imagined him to be, baby.

Trapeze (1956, 105 minutes). High-gloss, top-star performance with good action sequences directed by Carol Reed about some troubles under the big top. Burt Lancaster is the famed trapeze star, now crippled and bitter, after a tricky stunt -- a triple somersault -- went awry. (In great cinematic fashion, whenever he sees a trapeze bar, a theremin begins to howl.) Arriving with dreams of triples is a hotshot young trapeze performer, Tony Curtis. Lancaster agrees to work with Curtis, and all is progressing well, until the ambitious and pneumatic tumbler Gina Lollobridgida sets her meat hooks into both men. A real mess -- an endless love triangle, with all three parties in love and in hate. The one true love, between the "pure flyers" Tony and Burt, flames only for a brief moment, before it is subsumed by more traditional but less glorious and satisfying boy-girl unions. All three stars spend most of the film in tiny skintight outfits: Burt and Tony, who then in their physical primes, did their own stunts, and Gina, her ample figure squished into a teeny tiny costume, seems aerodynamically unsound to the fly through the air. Yummy all ’round.

Wagons Roll at Night (1941, 84 minutes). Essentially, Warner Bros remade their 1937 film, Kid Galahad, a boxing melodrama, re-setting the same drama at a circus. Parts snap and crackle like great Warner Bros. oldies; other bits involving goony sweethearts lag. Humphrey Bogart is the circus manager; the sad-eyed Sylvia Sidney his put-upon woman; and Caesar the lion, we are told repeatedly, is one bad cat.

The Big Show (1961, 113 minutes). A twisted overheated family melodrama almost coincidently set in a European circus. Bad dad and circus owner (Nehemiah Persoff) totally dominates his adult kids lives, belittles them mercilessly and pits them against each other. Oh, and he’s too cheap to replace the highwire rigging. Disaster is imminent, especially after the circus gets a polar bear act. Histrionics aside, there’s a lot of real circus performers in this widescreener, and some great acts. Cliff Robertson and Esther Williams star. Yes, she does a swimming scene, even in a circus movie.

Big Top Pee Wee (1988, 86 minutes). A joke told twice is never as funny or surprising, and that’s one of the flaws of this follow-up to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Big Top lacks that film’s manic verve and demented sweet hilarity in service to simple plot, and instead becomes an almost irritating retread of Pee Wee-isms sprinkled throughout a lame plot. After a storm, a circus -- and bad-movie tip-off Kris Kristofferson -- lands on Pee Wee’s farm. For Pee Wee completists -- and keep an eye out for Benicio del Toro in an early role as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy. He’s the one that looks like a dog.

Heavy Metal (1981, 95 minutes). Several fantasy tales are linked by a glowing green ball of evil and some bad ’70s album tracks. Heavy Metal hasn’t aged particularly well (though nearly any image from the film would look awesome airbrushed onto the side of ’78 Chevy van). You got your robots, spaceships, planets with funny names, drug jokes, time-space issues, and of course, the Women of Heavy Metal -- enormous naked women, with life-threatening breasts and thighs. Why, just one of their erect nipples could put a man’s eye out! It’s this kind of entertainment that gives fantasy-obsessed males a bad reputation. A pop psychologist would have an easy time here: These huge voracious sex kittens, who terrify meek men and boys into sexual congress, whereby these pale, flubbering males somehow -- through an evidently untapped sexual prowess -- lay these vixen flat with their powerful lovin’. Well, fantasy has its place, because real life is never so thrillingly easy.

Cool World (1992, 101 minutes). And continuing in that vein, there’s this film -- an uneasy (and often poorly done) mix of humans and cartoons. The illustrated women all look like that gal riding on big-rig mud flaps: huge boobs, a four-inch waist, long legs ending in stiletto heels. It’s an icky plot about the human men longing to bed these creatures. When the creator (Gabriel Byrne) of these characters gets it on with his own drawings, that’s a bona fide big psycho-sexual masturbatory-loop mess. And here’s a surprise: When that hot ’toon after making it with Byrne becomes a real woman (Kim Basinger, looking all too mortal), well, she’s not nearly as compliant or sexy as her two-dimensional self.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988, 104 minutes). Cool World just wishes it could be this smart, fun film about cartoons and people co-existing, which was marvelously executed and well written. Of course, the femme fatale ’toon, Jessica Rabbit, was built like a high-heeled bra, but as she plaintively points out, "I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way."

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001, 106 minutes). Much ink has been spilled discussing the new generation of animation in Final Fantasy, that fascinating and yet slightly off-putting human realism. It’s worth a look if only out of curiosity, and presumably successive features will improve the technique. The computer can create some swell images and special effects, which is good, because the story of battling some big orange ghosts is thin. But the film deserves props for delivering a decent animated woman in a fantasy film. The heroine, Dr. Aki Ross, is normal-sized, quietly gutsy, intuitive, smart, not particularly interested in the square-jawed hero, wears form-fitting but androgynous clothes, and takes no on-screen showers!

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