May 5: La Strada (1954, 115 minutes): A simple-minded young woman (Giulietta Masina) accompanies a brutish traveling strongman (Anthony Quinn) through the Italian countryside in Fellini’s neo-realistic masterpiece. A film of haunting poignancy -- being on the road has never looked more grim, yet so poetic, as Fellini and great performances capture the dignity and heart of these marginalized souls.
May 5: Bronco Billy (1980, 119 minutes): Another vanity piece from director-star Clint Eastwood. Whenever he’s behind the camera, he seems to greatly overestimate his own attractiveness. Here he is a misanthropic saint, the stuff of all women’s dreams, in a feeble and unlikely romance between himself -- shoe salesman turned wild west performer -- and Sondra Locke, bitchy heiress. In the honky tonk scene, look for special appearances by Merle Haggard -- and the camera crew! (Nice direction, Clint.)
May 6: Sour Grapes (1998, 91 minutes): The feature film debut of Larry David, the co-creator, writer and acknowledged misanthropic soul of TV’s Seinfeld sitcom. Here he squanders a fabulous set-up based on a true story. Two cousins take a fun trip to Atlantic City. Evan loans/gives Rich his two last quarters. Rich deposits these along with his last quarter into a slot machine and wins a half-million jackpot. Evan feels he’s entitled to a significant chunk of he winnings; Rich does not. As in real life, the families side up and an ugly dispute begins to bubble. Pitched as a dark comedy, even the worst Seinfeld episode was funnier than this film.
May 8: 8 Seconds (1994, 104 minutes): Bio-pic follows the true story of Lane Frost, the plucky lad from Oklahoma who in the 1980s quickly rose to become rodeo bull riding champion (even sittin’ tight on the unrideable extra-rank bull, Red Rock) before being gored to death at age 23. On the road to fame, Frost struggles with a young marriage, the demands of travel and promotion, and nagging insecurities. Luke Perry looks a lot like Frost, but the screenplay is so flat, it even fails to milk the obvious drama of Frost’s tragic death. The closing credits are more moving, a full five minutes of documentary footage of the real Lane Frost and a few words from his real-life rodeo contemporaries.
May 8: J.W. Coop (1972, 112 minutes): A great, off-beat character study of an ex-rodeo drifter, J.W. Coop, on a quest to get back on the rodeo circuit and maybe even make the nationals after a ten year stint in prison. The prison rodeo kept up his ridin’ skills, but trickier to manage upon his release are the changes to the growing big-money rodeo circuit and America after the turbulent 1960s. Written, produced, and directed by Cliff Robertson (who also stars as Coop), the film is peppered with great vignettes that are smart commentaries on the changing times. Lots of real rodeo footage, and real rodeo riders.
May 9: The Big Kahuna (1999, 90 minutes): Urgh. I’ve been trapped in a hotel room with salesmen before in real life. If you haven’t, and feel the need to experience it, rent this film. Otherwise, avoid this self-conscious talkie.
May 12: City of Hope (1991, 132 minutes): Marvelously entertaining ensemble piece from John Sayles, loosely based on one shiftless New Jersey guy, the son of a big local contractor. It’s got all the stench of a modern American city -- racketeering, influence peddling, drugs, labor unions, poverty, myopic neighborhood associations, race baiting, landlord-tenant disputes, bored youth, crime. Among the many intertwining plot lines, Pittsburghers will shiver with recognition as the glad-handing but corrupt mayor plots the takeover of occupied blighted housing so that new luxury apartments (featuring his kickback) can go up.
May 14: The Straight Story (1999, 111 minutes): In a beautiful film based on a true story, the elderly and frail Alvin Straight travels hundreds of miles by lawn tractor through two Midwestern states to visit his ailing brother and to patch up their long-standing riff. Straight is portrayed marvelously by Oscar-nominated Richard Farnsworth, with just the right mix of poignancy and foolish pride. Director David Lynch, who had previously depicted the twisted underneath of small-town life in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, here delivers a sentimental, gently paced valentine to a disappearing rural America -- from the physical (empty two-lane roads winding through corn fields unsullied by suburban sprawl, the simple pleasures of roadside camping, starry nights and humming grain elevators) to the less tangible beauty of friendly folk and a shared simple honesty.
May 15: 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 Raimi’s love of broad, slapstick comedy.
May 15: Alligator (1980, 94 minutes): Bad things happen when a baby alligator is flushed into the sewer, the same sewer that an evil bio-chemical company is discarding mutilated animals used in growth-hormone experiments! What we got here is a monstrously huge pumped-up-on-chemicals alligator that busts up outta the sewer and is terrorizing Chicago (a Chicago that looks very much like the San Fernando Valley, palm trees and all.) Cranky cop Robert Forster and reptile biologist Robin Riker save the day in this better-than-average munch-fest. (Funny script was written by John Sayles, film director.)
May 18: Time Code (2000, 97 minutes): This film may only appeal to the worst sort of tapeheads, but I dug it a lot. Four simultaneous single-take shots, screened at the same time in a 4-screen box. The basic story – a loose mix of comedy and drama that follows a Hollywood pitch meeting, an affair, a relationship break-up and a film audition – never feels as important as the experience of watching the story unfold, which was highly pleasurable. Time Code demands viewer involvement to string the plot and the inter-relationships together, in effect, “building” the plot from the four screen images. The film so neatly acknowledges and taps into contemporary skills that we’ve developed in our multi-media-bombarded world. We can shift from image to image and from sound to sound, picking what we need out of the daily cacophony of entertainment. Twenty years ago, I had a professor who’d screen the classics of Hollywood cinema two or even three reels at a time. “But I can’t follow the story!” I’d wail. “The narrative is not important,” he’d sniff. “The art is the FILM.” For years I’d used this anecdote to illustrate the other-worldliness of some high academics. But after viewing Mike Figgis’ extraordinary feature, at once truly experimental and entertaining, I tip my hat to the mad professor.
May 18: Carrie (1976, 97 minutes): Undoubtedly, the worst high school prom ever, and that’s not even accounting for the band or William Katt’s powder blue tuxedo. Years after the original shock has worn off , the film, paced so much slower than today’s breakneck screamers, feels like a melancholic dream. Poor wan unpopular Carrie White is so immature and filled with self-loathing, that the final mass murder scenes seem quite uncharacteristic.
May 19: The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999, 101 minutes): Without any of genuine shock value of the original Carrie comes this sorta sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2. Knowledge of the first film is helpful, though director Katt Shea graciously cuts in plenty of footage from Brian DePalma’s 1976 feature. Set twenty years later in the same small town that Carrie firestormed, there’s the same old tension between the popular kids and the freaks. Moody weirdo Rachel (Emily Bergl) when angered can move objects with her mind. The popular kids befriend her as a cruel joke. When, at the school dance, Rachel grasps the betrayal, she gets very very mad, starts moving incredibly sharp objects telekinetically – and the gore begins. Yes, it is the exact same plot as Carrie, but without Sissy Spacek’s palpable misery which humanized that horror. Carrie 2 is just another high school with boring supernatural problems. Really, the scariest thing about Carrie 2 is that Carrie 1 vet, Amy Irving, must be desperate enough for work that she took a starring role.
May 20: The Ambulance (1990, 95 minutes): There’s a curious light frothy tone to this thriller about an retro-style ambulance that kidnaps diabetics if the streets of New York. (It’s never quite explained how these diabetics are spotted -- or why even sick people would get into a 40-year-old ambulance.) The bad ambulance then make the mistake of snatching up Janine Turner, whom mullethead Eric Roberts is trying to pick up. His inalienable right to oafish hound dogging hindered, he quits his job at Marvel Comics (look for Stan Lee as … Stan Lee) to pursue the evil meatwagon. Fairly entertaining low-budget piece.
May 20: The Way We Were Were (1973, 118 minutes): Though this was a Sydney Pollack film, it sure feels like one of La Streisand’s later director/producer vanity pieces. Even though co-star Robert Redford is better looking, Barbara gets all the close-ups. Since it’s a Redford-Streisand love-story, one really notices in their frequent shot-countershot tete-a-tetes, how much bigger her tete is. Redford is a WASP novelist; Barbara is a leftist rabblerouser -- with the most beautiful nails in the Revolution! They love and bicker through college, World War II and the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. Neither character is particularly likeable, and so it takes a long two hours for them to finally break up.
May 22: Hell Cab aka Chicago Cab (1999, 96 minutes): A small film produced by John Cusack, and I suspect, involving all his Chicago drama buddies. Based on a play, so most of the action takes place in one guy’s cab, as he drives around Chicago from dawn to dusk. There’s some funny bits, some my-first-play groaner scenes, the occasional astute observation on the human comedy. Our anti-hero, the gloomy, slightly put-upon Paul Dillon is great to watch. He has one of those movie-mugging pans, capable of so many irked, disgusted and puzzled expressions. Cameos by big stars Cusack, Gillian Anderson, Juliana Moore and Laurie Metcalf.
May 23: Monkey on My Back (1957, 93 minutes): Based on the true story of boxer and decorated WWII vet, Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell) who became addicted to morphine administered during wartime for an injury. Back in Chicago, his life spirals out of control -- he loses money, job, friends, family -- when he can’t stop using. Sort of an indie film of its time, this film depicts a pretty frank portrayal of addiction, in spite of scenes of old men hanging around candy stores cackling, “Mister, you gotta monkey on your back. Monkey!” Tame by today’s standards, but the needle-and-spoon set–ups must have grabbed 1950s audiences.
May 23: Slam (1998, 100 minutes): A raw-edged drama of a young marijuana dealer and poet, Ray (Saul Williams) content to free-float through the tough streets of Southeast Washington D.C. until a gang shooting lands him in jail booked on a possession charge. His searing street poems catch the ear of both prison gang lords and a teacher/poet (Sonja Sohn). Ray sees that his talent could be his ticket away from crime and meaninglessness, but the film offers no easy resolution -- to its credit. Shot in actual D.C. locations, Slam features material penned by real-life poets Williams and Sohn, as well as a bizarre cameo by D.C. bad boy and former mayor, Marion Barry Jr. who can’t resist getting some digs in about the federal oversight of the District of Columbia. You go, Mister Mayor.
May 24: East-West (1999, 120 minutes): Euro-soaper about a French family who get conned into moving to Stalinist Russia after World War II, where life turns out to be hellish. High on melodrama, but better than average. Base don true stories and hence an interesting historical footnote.
May 27: Broken Vessels (1998, 90 minutes): Frankly, you may never get in an ambulance after screening this crazy-mad film about crazy-mad ambulance workers, but this black comedy is a blast of ride. Newcomer Jason London joins an ambulance crew in L.A. and gets paired with the hardened vet, Todd Field, who while still proficient, is on a rapid downward spiral fueled by ennui, sex, danger and drugs. Doesn’t take long for London to tumble headlong into Field’s hellish vortex. There’s the implicit understanding that this job -- cleaning up the broken bodies in L.A. -- makes one crazy -- or perhaps only crazy people take the job. No matter, this is an exhilarating fast-paced first feature from Scott Ziehl, set amongst charged urban nightscapes and full of dark humor.
May 27: The Mod Squad (1999, 94 minutes): It’s an highly unlikely premise -- three young sulky criminals (Claire Danes, Omar Epps and Giovanni Ribisi) are spared jail time if they agree to become unofficial cops and help ferret out bad guys in the Los Angeles nightclub scene. When their police mentor is murdered, the three ineptly and humorlessly pursue their “street smart” investigation. Mod Squad is a lifeless retread of the early 1970s television show, itself remembered chiefly for its outrageous costuming, not its believable story line. But for some profanity and a bigger budget for blowing up cars, this Mod Squad has no more zip than a hackneyed television crime series. The only real fun with Mod Squad is seeing how far in advance you can shout out the totally predictable plot developments.
May 28: The Basketball Diaries (1995, 102 minutes): A bio-pic based on poet-musician Jim Carroll’s troubled teenage years in New York City. Though a star high school basketball player and sensitive literate lad given to scribbling autobiographical verse, young Jim (Leonardo DiCaprio) counters his boredom and pain with wild behavior and drugs, eventually ending up on the street with a crippling heroin habit. A mostly bleak tale that doesn’t quite make clear Carroll’s later salvation and notoriety -- as he claims -- through his poetry.
May 28: A Merry War (1998, 101 minutes): From a George Orwell tale, here’s a droll satire about a hopelessly middle-class advertising copy writer (a nicely cast Richard E. Grant) who flings away his career, in a pure ego folly, to become a famous poet. Plagued with class anxieties, he can’t decide if it’s preferable to be a dilettante upper-class wordsmith -- or whether wallowing in the lower-class filth will better spur his creativities. Alas, the right words never seem to come…
May 28: D.C. Cab (1983, 90 minutes): It’s true that Washington D.C. does have this crazy cab system, with lots of small independent cab companies -- some of which hire perversely inept and marginalized folks. (One cabbie showed me a gun he said he was gonna hunt his wife down with after he finished his hack. I had him let me off half a mile from my home, defeating the whole purpose of springing for a cab.) Nonetheless, the low-budget titular DC Cab company just stocks the usual assortment of harmless movie goofs -- smart-asses, beautiful dreamers, professional wrestlers, 80s oddity Mr. T and genuinely deranged Gary Busey. The usual plots about saving the company and foiling some kidnappers.
June 1: Sid and Nancy (1986, 111 minutes): The love affair (or perhaps mutual dependency is better term) between the Sex Pistol’s screw-up bassist, Sid Vicious and troubled American groupie, Nancy Spungen. The first half of the film -- following the band feels a trifle contrived -- artificially cartoonish in contrast to the actual cartoonishness of the band’s antics; the second half focuses mostly on Sid, Nancy and their his-and-hers heroin habits. Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb do fantastic, raw detailed work here -- perhaps too much so. Never as hanging out in a dingy hotel room with alternately shrieking and collapsing addicts seemed so not fun.
June 1: Trainspotting (1996, 94 minutes): A gallows-humor flick that’s says “Aye, and shootin’ heroin’s bad for ya, but who gis a fuck?” A loose buddy flick about some shiftless Scottish drug addicts who banter, commit the occasional petty crime and fall down a lot, somewhere between having a grand time and having a miserable life. Ewan MacGregor is the engaging narrator, who finds life admittedly tedious without his drug cushion.
June 1: The Source (1999, 88 minutes): An entertaining, lively documentary about the Beat poets from director Chuck Workman (best known for his Oscar night film clips). Focusing mostly on the Big Three -- Ginsburg, Burroughs and Kerouac -- Workman edits together fantastic archival footage (home movies, curious TV clips like Kerouac on the Steve Allen show), contemporary interviews with the surviving Beats and their compadres, media clips that set the context for or inform on the Beats (Gene Krupa’s drumming frenzy, ’50s suburban dad, Beatnik advertising), and readings from actors Johnny Depp (Kerouac), John Tuturro (Ginsburg) and Dennis Hopper (Burroughs). The actors are respectful, but it’s something of a misstep in a film that otherwise effectively illuminates what crazy-cool singular people these three were themselves.
June 2: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999, 95 minutes): Boo. Lacking all the goofy naïve fish-out-of-water charm of the first Austin Powers movie, this sequel is mostly lame potty jokes. Disappointing, since Myers can be so much better.
June 2: Woman in Hiding (1949, 92 minutes): A few lively and tense sequences like the spooky opening voice-over read during footage of a car wreck (“That’s my body they’re looking for …”) spruce up this otherwise dull noir thriller. Furniture mill heiress Ida Lupino makes a bad marriage -- so bad that her husband’s mistress (the deliciously slutty Peggy Dow) is waiting at the honeymoon cabin. Then, her hours-fresh husband tries to kill her. She escapes, and flees to a new city, but of course you know he’ll come looking.
June 3: Outland (1981, 109 minutes): This High Noon set on Jupiter’s moon starts off pretty fun -- with people’s heads exploding -- but then it’s mostly 80 minutes of boring Sean Connery as the most dedicated freelance security guard in the galaxy. He’s in some hellhole mining town, and we’re supposed to believe he cares if the workers are on drugs? Nobody else does and that’s the way life is in tough places, but Connery’s gotta do that one-man honor thing. You’ll never guess how it ends. Oh OK, so you already have.
June 6: Marnie (1964, 129 minutes): Beautiful Marnie (Tippi Hedren) has a problem -- she charms her way into accounting positions, embezzles huge amounts of cash, then disappears, only to re-appear in another town with a new identity and a new job. See, Marnie’s all screwed up from childhood trauma, and she just can’t help it. Luckily compulsive Marnie attracts the eye of businessman and amateur psychiatrist Sean Connery who seeks to “cure” her with tough love, a trick marriage and -- ahem -- a forced nuptial encounter. Despite Hitchcock’s cool detachment, especially with the women in this film, the whole thing plays entertainingly hot-n-bothered, full of scenery chewing melodrama and chock-a-block with street corner Freudism, like neurotic women just need a good shake from a strong man.
June 6: Muppets in Space (1999, 82 minutes): There is a place on earth where mortal man co-exists with furry puppets and neither species appears to notice the other’s extraordinary difference. Such is the Muppet World, where fleshy human, Jeffrey Tambor, a paranoid conspiracy-minded government agent, employs a large teddy bear as an aide-de-camp. Tambor and another Muppet, the lonely Gonzo, independently believe an alien visit is imminent. Tambor seeks to thwart it; Gonzo hopes to be reunited with his long-lost extra-terrestial family, and hence the simple plot of this goofily entertaining children’s film. Fast gags, funky sets, puppets with distinctive, likeable personalities, actors (David Arquette, Andie MacDowell, Ray Liotta, Katie Holmes), the surreal man-Muppet factor and 1970s soul music should keep adult viewers comfortable on the couch.
June 6: Toy Story (1995, 80 minutes). From Disney of all monolithic corporate entities comes this smart, funny, even cool-weird, about some toys. Cool toys, dumb toys, petty toys that squabble with one another, toys that get lost out in a strange world. The animation is fantastic, a perfect medium for illustrating the world according to a Slinky Dog.
June 7: The Stray (2000, 98 minutes): After red-headed restaurateur Angie Everhart runs over a homeless guy with her Beemer, she inexplicably invites him to live in her garage. Her house is a big McMansion pile, but the garage is a spooky jumbled mess of old toys and broken clocks. Pretending to be overwhelmed at her hospitality, Frank Zagarino does some chores, but actually he’s just festering. On his mental back burner: his icky accommodations, lingering injuries from the crash, Angie’s hot-headed cop boyfriend who keeps beating him up, a long-ago secret … Some chase sequences make The Stray fairly entertaining, and of course the film reminds you -- don’t hit people with cars, and if you do, don’t offer your grubby garage for convalescence.
June 8: Play It Again Sam (1972, 84 minutes): An early Woody Allen relationship comedy, sort of a proto West Coast Annie Hall. Allen is the recently divorced, nerdy, neurotic film writer. He is enraptured by Humphrey Bogart’s persona -- particularly Bogart’s stoic romantic sacrifice at the conclusion of Casablanca. Allen is periodically visited by an apparition of Bogey who advises and instructs the nebbishy Allen. Bogart’s hardboiled advice about dames and booze isn’t very helpful as Allen bumbles and stumbles through many hilarious bad dates. Ultimately, circumstances conspire that allow Allen to give the speech of his lifetime, conveniently cribbed word for word from Casablanca.
June 9: Dark Passage (1947, 107 minutes): It’s a muddled and uneven narrative, but still a stylistically interesting noir film. A man breaks out of San Quentin prison, flees to San Francisco and holes up with a helpful young woman, Lauren Bacall. His wanted mug is plastered all over town. Only plastic surgery can save him. For the first forty-five minutes, while the man is on the run, the viewer never sees his face (there is a small cheat; we do glimpse a newspaper photo). The film remains intimate, for much of it is shot from the escaped man’s perspective, which makes us him. Interestingly, after the facial reconstruction surgery, the man looks just like … Humphrey Bogart!
June 9: W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975, 91 minutes): The missing link between Paper Moon and Smokey and the Bandit. An on-the-road vehicle featuring the tee-heeing Burt, a rambling good ole boy 1950s con man, who in a protracted scam, decides to mange a half-assed country-western band. Historically important for the first pairing of Burt and his redneck alter-ego Jerry Reed. Make sure you scope out Ned Beatty as the bloated, bespangled Grand Ole Opry star, and Art Carney as the avenging preacher who naturally doesn’t avenge on Sundays. Plenty of wacky scenes, stylistic quirks and Burt smirks – grab a six-pack of Dixie and sit a spell.
June 9: The Last Stop (2000, 94 minutes): Reminiscent of The Petrified Forest (1936) in set-up – a motel-diner high in the Rockies is harboring an assortment of good, bad and really evil people, trapped together during a wicked snowstorm. A bank robbery, some murders, a guy with flashy cowboy boots, a cop (the flatliner Adam Beach) carrying a torch for a high school sweetheart (Rose McGowan, fully clothed) – you just know it’s all gonna shake out predictably.
June 10: Still Crazy (1998, 120 minutes): If you remember the 70s -- and all those bloated, pretentious British art-rock bands -- you’ll find this comedy about the contemporary reunion of one such band, Strange Fruit, quite entertaining. Still Crazy surely owes a debt to the seminal bloated rock band pic, Spinal Tap, but here the jokes are less cartoonish, and there’s a healthy ribbon of melancholy that runs through the film. These guys really haven’t much chance at recapturing their youthful glory (gone in a typical white-heat burnout); plus they can barely stand one another. A movie that didn’t get much notice last year upon release, it would make an excellent double bill with the newly re-released Spinal Tap.
June 10: Arlington Road (1999, 199 minutes). The suburbs are sure getting short shrift these days. Sprawl is the new evil, everybody hates the traffic, and now, posits this film, the bucolic affluent ‘burbs may be harboring domestic terrorists. Men who wear Dockers, coach kiddie sports and are frankly pretty boring might just be men who blow up federal office buildings. This movie pulls plenty of punches, kicks open big plot holes and generally stretches convenience and bends logic to suit its paperback thriller narrative. Like most films of this genre, the criminal’s intelligence, skill and organization is greatly overestimated.
June 10: The Brandon Teena Story (1998, 95 minutes): An independently produced documentary about Brandon Teena’s life and death that at first release got ignored and then later got buried by the Boys Don’t Cry media juggernaut. The filmmakers use primarily contemporary interviews, in addition to TV news footage and photographs, to lay out chronologically the last months of troubled girl-disguised-as boy Brandon. The range of interviews is impressive -- law enforcement, Brandon’s friends, lovers and convicted killers, their parents and Brandon’s family. Participants seem remarkably candid and real -- they are petty, small-minded, hateful, ignorant, sad, guilty, caring, confused. Without the glossiness of Hollywood stars playing at these roles, one is struck by how much class and economics matters in this story. All these kids were in some way looking for escape, a passage, however temporary, away from their grim troubled lives.
June 11: Earthquake (1974, 122 minutes): The disasters in this big-budget start from the opening shot: Charleton Heston’s sweaty chest. Advance to Ava Gardner’s boozy harping, Lorne Greene as Ava’s dad (in real life he was 7 years older), French actress Genevieve Bujold slumming as a dumb bit player prepping to act in a pointless piece of Hollywood trash (just like this movie!) With a title like Earthquake, it’s no surprise what’s gonna happen. We just have to learn to care about the bizarre cast of characters (motorcycle stunt rider, fired cop George Kennedy, a drunken Walter Matthau dressed as a pimp) and structures (repeated early shots of a dam above L.A. with assurances of “everything ok!” portend badly and boldly). Director Mark Robson takes down lots of familiar L.A. landmarks in a lengthy shakin’ sequence . The City of Angels is besieged with tremors, fire, floods and lots and lots of falling masonry. Unfortunately, it takes forever for the most annoying characters to be crushed or swept away, though a surprising number of A-list stars don’t survive the movie.
June 11: San Francisco (1936, 116 minutes): This would be an entertaining movie, even if the Big Quake and Fire of 1906 didn’t close out the last reel. A bawdy, quick-paced tale of Frisco’s Barbary Coast fending off the growing respectability of the city’s new money, replete with a sing-along theme song and a love triangle between the charming rapscallion Clark Gable, his boyhood priest pal, Spencer Tracy and songbird, Jeanette MacDonald. Earthquake footage still thrilling -- most horror is caused by brilliant editing -- but there’s some fine matte photography and small scale model effects as well. Simultaneously tragic, uplifting, hopeful and campy final scene caps off this classic.
June 15: It’s Pat (1994, 77 minutes): They say this movie is unwatchable. “They” are not professional bad movie watchers -- like myself. Widely acknowledged to be the lamest retread of any Saturday Night Live skit, It’s Pat is to be lauded for taking a not-so-funny half-joke (Is Pat a man or a woman?) and making the gag last 77 astonishing minutes. As such I found It’s Pat to be deeply fascinating, perhaps unintentionally experimental. And if you peer closely, you can actually see “bigger stars” like Kathy Najimy and Kathy Griffin trying to climb out of the screen to get away from annoying Pat and such a poor career move.
June 17: Major League (1989, 120 minutes): Finally, a baseball movie that makes sense. The team owner wants to sell the team, but can only do so if attendance drops precipitously. To that end, the owner hires the worst players, they suck on cue, fans cease to care, and thus the BUSINESS of baseball prospers. Now I understand how terrible teams with suck-ass attendance finesse new stadiums.
June 18: Hammett (1982, 94 minutes): Dashiell Hammett created the hardboiled private eye Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), arguably the character most associated with Humphrey Bogart. This fanciful film takes the real-life Hammett (Frederic Forest) -- a writer living in San Francisco in the 1930s -- and inserts him as the detective him into a pulp narrative. Disappearing Pinkertons, teenaged Chinese prostitutes, corrupt Irish cops, pornography, blackmail, stand-up dames -- Hammett wades through a scenario as confusing as any of his own tales. Clearly a labor of homage from director Wim Wenders and producer Francis Ford Coppola, this reality/fiction gimmick never quite finds its proper footing.
June 19: Bicentennial Man (1999, 131 minutes): Director Chris Columbus and actor Robin Williams previously collaborated on the sickly-sweet man-in-disguise-who-just-wants-to-love family fantasy, Mrs. Doubtfire. If you took the worst single minute of schmaltz from that film, covered it in shiny anthropomorphic metal, and stretched it out to an interminable 131 minutes, you’d have Bicentennial Man -- a boring, pointless tale about a robot who becomes human so he can truly love all the insipid people featured in this film. I waited in vain for the robot man to short circuit (surely all machines malfunction at some point?) and kill kill kill, but there were only more tears, more violins, more big hugs and more life lessons delivered in greeting card snippets. Who knew that what we have to fear from future robots is not cold metal violence but rather overwrought, smothering emotionalism?
June 20: Spanking the Monkey (1994, 106 minutes): Dysfunctional family alert! Dad’s disconnected and Mom’s in bed after a nervous collapse. Here comes Junior, home from college, a bright kid with a plum internship eager to move on, but how quickly he falls back into the family head-games hell. The gimmick of this black comedy is that junior ends up bedding his mom, though that scene is pretty tasteful. You’ll cringe through the whole movie anyhow, I promise -- the jerk dad, the asshole “friends”, the bad date, the cheese-loving aunt, the monkey-spanking.
June 21: Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, 123 minutes): Light comedy and family soaper (though mostly free of histrionics and high drama) about a retired Chinese master chef and his three adult daughters. One’s a Yuppie, one’s a meek school teacher, and the third’s a bit of a wild child -- and their long-widowed dad doesn’t understand these modern gals -- or does he? The agony of this film is sitting through the incredible sequences of food prep, where impossibly beautiful traditional Chinese dishes are prepared from scratch.
June 22: Komodo (1999, 85 minutes): A good premise: a small resort island off the North Carolina coast is being sullied by oil drilling and overrun with komodo dragons. That’s right -- komodos, those massive lizards that only live on remote islands in Indonesia It’s a trifle unclear how they got established in the Tarheel State, but who cares? It’s probably something about the oil company -- all ecological crimes lead back to multi-national corporations these days. Here’s a better premise: after a kid sees his parents and dog savaged, surely the worst child psychiatrist in America suggests he return with her to the now utterly abandoned island at night to “confront his fears.” Soon, the kid, the doctor and a couple of criminals (don’t ask) are engaged in fierce man-reptile combat. Icky fun. The ending was so abrupt I can only reckon it means … Komodo 2! Hope they move north to Ocean City.
June 23: Kiss Toledo Goodbye (1999, 100 minutes): Christopher Walken shrugs and mugs his way through this cheapie (so obviously NOT shot in Toledo -- dig the palm trees and the hills in the distance!) as a mafia aide de camp. In a ludicrous set-up, bad actor Michael Rapaport finds out he’s in the mob and smack dab in the middle of crime war. For Walken completists only.
June 24: Evel Knievel (1971, 90 minutes): There’s something cool about those public figures who sign off on autobiographical material well before they’re done accumulating it. Evel Knievel was big in 1971, but he’d get even bigger, especially in the build-up to his ill-fated Grand Canyon “jump.” (The conclusion of this film is a big plug for Knievel’s eventual Grand Canyon escapade.) This is a low-budget non-linear film --contemporary Knievel reflects back over out-of-order bits of his life from the astonishing (his still jaw-dropping wreck after jumping the fountains outside Caesar’s Palace) to the prosaic (his juvenile delinquent years in Butte, Montana). There’s some actual documentary footage incorporated into the film, but you know, actor George Hamilton makes a pretty good Knievel proxy.
June 25: Anna and the King (1999, 147 minutes): Like Little Buddha, this film is also quite orangey. It’s a sumptuous re-telling of the English teacher Anna Leonowen and King of Siam drama (known to most from the 1956 musical, The King and I) -- richly detailed exotic costumes, beautiful location shooting in unspoiled Thai paradises, fantastic sets. But among the gold-tipped ziggurats, the love story between Anna and the King never catches fire, leaving this film lovely to look at, but woefully flat. Jodi Foster’s on-again-off-again English accent is distracting and her uptight performance makes her unlikable. Conversely, Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat beams with energy and charisma, as charming and dishy as any Hollywood matinee idol, even while wearing what looks like a big silk diaper. His instant adorability severely curtails the necessary tension to kickstart the opposites-attract angle. Recommended for Yun-Fat fans who’d like to see his softer, silkier side.
June 26: The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980, 106 minutes): Robert Sacchi (who does look remarkably like Bogart) plays Sam Marlowe, a very freelance detective modeled entirely on his hero Humphrey Bogart. Oblivious to contemporary Los Angeles, Marlowe speaks only in 40s tough guy slang, wears a belted raincoat, drives a vintage sedan, and to his delight, hooks up with “typical” screwball clients all chasing the “eyes of Alexander.” Essentially a one-joke light send-up, there are enough little surprise gags (and many film buff in-jokes) to bounce this film along.
June 27: Stonebrook (1999, 90 minutes): With the rising costs of higher education, this film’s premise doesn’t seem so remote. A farm kid (Brad Rowe) can’t make the tuition at the tony Stonebrook college, so he and his nerdy roommate (Seth Green on an adenoidal bender, but as hardworking as ever) concoct increasingly elaborate scams to raise cash. An entertaining one is the high school athlete recruitment scam. Two minutes later, of course, they’re playing dangerous con games with the local mob. Film shifts at end from a no-brainer to a complex multi-person double-cross I never did get straight. More or less, enough people were killed to straighten out the plot by the end.
June 28: Blowback(1999, 93 minutes): A poor man’s Seven. Mario Van Peeples is the weary cop assigned to investigate a series of twisted murders, where the victims, their mouths stuffed with biblical citations, are arranged as certain martyred saints. (In Seven, you recall, deaths took the form of the deadly sins.) Luckily, Van Peeples is a walking concordance, and the Bible quotes lead him to suspect a killer … who’s already dead! Hmmm, tricky, but justice will out. Viewers adverse to scenes featuring nail gun abuse should exercise caution.
June 29: Bringing out the Dead (1999, 120 minutes): Nicholas Cage is a veteran paramedic, burnt out by the job, the mean city and the psychic weight of dead people he couldn’t save. A loner, driving all night, losing his grip on the tough New York City streets -- it worked before for screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese with Taxi Driver. However, this film, their latest collaboration, lacks energy and drama. Cage broods, hangs out with other damaged people, and goes on more bad ambulance calls where people die. The film is slow, plodding-with-atmosphere, except when Scorsese resorts to clichés lie speed-up careens through streets shiny with neon and rain while a rock song pounds for excitement. With little plot and the perpetually expressionless Cage, Bringing Out the Dead may just be a two-hour gloomy music video.
June 30: The Beach (2000, 120 minutes): All the Titantic-groupies stayed away from this flick despite plenty of barely clothed, sun-burnished Leonardo DiCaprio in it. Maybe it was the opening gambit set in Bangkok, where a drunken Robert Carlyle garbles out the plot set-up. Something about a beach? A lagoon? An inaccessible utopia? Said beach-lagoon-utopia does exist. Ironically, it’s an enclave of hipsterish American and European tourists in flee from the hordes of other obnoxious young tourists converting Thailand to their boozy, plastic-y playground. A quite entertaining social experiment tale until the last quarter derails into the same demented-man-in-the-jungle territory as Apocalypse Now.