Biloxi Blues (1988, 105 minutes). Near the conclusion of World War II, recruits from New York do time in the army’s training facility in Biloxi, Mississippi, irked by one another and tormented by their nasty instructor, Christopher Walken. Adapted from Neil Simon’s play, this film lacks a compelling plot, and mostly seems a feeble skeleton for hanging non-sequitur one-liners on while trotting out all the conventions of boot camp movies: the banging garbage can reveille, the latrine cleaning, the tipped-over bed, the disastrous push-ups episode.
Private Benjamin (1980, 110 minutes). Recruit Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) also gets sent to the Biloxi training center (though it looked a lot like Biloxi, California, with mountains and palm trees). This comedy (uneven, but engaging enough) about a spoiled brat who enlists in the army is part of a small sub-genre of late 70s quasi-feminist films about women who move past men and get their act together (this film even gives a shout out to another, An Unmarried Woman).
Tigerland (2000, 109 minutes). In a genre of boot camp movies that are comedies about the iconoclast who won’t fit in, Tigerland is a tense, even harrowing, drama about a bright young charismatic man, Bozz, whose rebellion is perceived by his trainers, ironically and yet truthfully, as superior army leadership material. Joel Schumacher helms a cast of unknowns, including stand-out Colin Farrell as Bozz, in this gritty Vietnam-era drama. Tigerland is the U.S.-based, last-stop training facility, seemingly designed to make the recruits crack up before they ship out.
Stripes (1981, 105 minutes). A goofy comedy that addresses a major hindrance to our nation’s military readiness -- just about anybody can, and does, join the army. The affably quirky Bill Murray heads this crew of losers, including scene-stealer John Candy who joined the army as a low-budget weight-loss program. The last third of this movie -- the requisite totally phony rescue mission -- is utterly bereft of gags. As soon as Murray’s crew barks, “That’s a fact, Jack!”, stop the movie. That’s an order.
Incubus (1963, 78 minutes). Lost for over 30 years, but now finally on video, this indie horror film about fetching succubi who tempt men into Hell topped many must-see lists of cult movie completists. Incubus stars a pre-Trek William Shatner, the cinematography was by future double Oscar winner Conrad Hall -- and most bizarrely, the film is entirely in Esperanto, a late-nineteenth century artificial language. With a minimal story, the film is slow, moody and weird. Once the novelty of hearing Esperanto wears off, the unknown language increases the freaky dreamlike sensation. (Shatner naturally delivers heartfelt lines in Esperanto with the same stop-and-start delivery he applies to English. Also, the plot curiously resembles the Star Trek boilerplate: Kirk meets a comely alien babe who turns out to be trouble causing Kirk to go mano-a-mano with some dark force.) This film survives as a novelty, though it was worthy attempt to be a low-budget, yet high-concept horror thriller. Hall, clearly influenced by Japanese and Swedish arthouse movies, delivers a remarkably crisp black-and-white film, with some exquisitely framed shots and a sophisticated use of deep focus, atypical of cheapie horror flicks.
Bait (2000, 119 minutes) Small-time crook Jamie Foxx crosses paths with the wrong mastermind criminal and the wrong cops. The cops, without his knowledge, wire up the vaguely idiotic Foxx, and set him loose, hoping to lure the mastermind. It’s similar to Enemy of the State, with lots of fantastsic high-tech war rooms with faster-than-instant tracking capability. The overall tone is goofy action, but there is also something off-putting about a bunch of white cops who have no qualms about secretly rigging up some young black layabout as human bait.
Viva Knievel (1977, 104 minutes). Starring Evel Knievel in his own action adventure, batteries not include. Choke back the tears in the opening scenes as Evel sneaks into an orphanage and places Evel Knievel Toys by Kenner under the kiddies’ beds. Watch him charm the nuns. See, a kid with crutches walk again! Soon, Evel is down Mexico way, trying like a good Americano hero to do some stunt jumping, but nasty Leslie Neilsen plans to use Evel and his crew to – gasp! – smuggle drugs. Evel’s entourage includes “ballsy” photojournalist Lauren Hutton and hoofer Gene Kelly, as a sloppy drunken mechanic.
The Pilot (1979, 99 minutes). Drunken pilot must choose between the FAA and the AA. Not recommended before air travel.
Miss Congeniality (2000, 111 minutes). Butchy FBI agent goes undercover at beauty pageant. You can see most of the gags coming and the ugly-duckling gal that just needs a good make-over (and the subsequent dreamy boy) to be truly happy is a pretty retrograde concept these days. Hence film should have been either smarter or sillier, but it’s diverting enough, especially on the small screen.
Beautiful (2000, 112 minutes). Stay away. This unfunny, uncharming, unnecessary tale of a determined beauty pageant contestant (Minnie Driver) who must embrace her cast-off daughter (that Pepsi ad hell-spawn, Hallie Kate Eisenberg), and learn a Life Lesson is meant to be some kinda Hallmark feel-gooder but is often cruel and plain unpleasant.
Smile (1975, 113 minutes). A great, oft-overlooked, very funny movie from Michael Ritchie is kind of a Nashville-lite satire about a low-rent beauty pageant, that perfectly skewers small-town life through the minor aspirations of the contestants (delightfully lumpy and untalented) and the pageant staff. Out of a ensemble cast, Bruce Dern is super as the slightly dumb, but affably earnest “Big Bob” Freelander, pageant coordinator and RV salesman. Nicholas Pryor is his buddy who is having a midlife crisis and refuses to go through the Ceremony of the Exhausted Rooster with the town’s fraternal organization, Barbara Feldon plays his uptight wife and pageant director, and Michael Kidd is the bitchy “big-time” choreographer.
Best in Show (2000, 90 minutes). Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary is a perfectly detailed, delicious peek into the only beauty pageant I regularly watch: The Westminster Kennel Club Show, the beauty pageant for purebred dogs, complete with all the phony pompousness, bitchy hysteria and frenzied blow-drying that accompanies such human spectacles. Fred Willard just steals this movie as the boorish, uninformed show co-host (real-life Westminster counterpart: baseball’s Joe Garagiola). Guest hits every silly mark, but manages to find genuine affection for his dog-show world characters (possible exception: Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock as neurotic shrieking Yuppies). If you missed this hilarious movie in the theaters, rent it now. And absolutely check out the Westminster Show on TV next February.
Pitch Black (2000, 107 minutes). Director/writer David Twohy delivers an entertaining version of a traditional outer space story: a disparate crew is trapped on a hostile planet and must band together to fight extra-nasty alien creatures. Pitch Black may have the oddest set of castaways -- a junkie cop, an antiques dealer, a family of Black Muslims and a baldheaded child of undetermined gender -- but they’re served well by their de facto leaders, tough-gal pilot, Radha Mitchell, and the subtly charismatic convict, Vin Diesel. A lower budget keeps the special effects from overwhelming the film. The fright gimmick is simple but effective: The flesh-eating aliens only come out at night, but this planet has three suns. Bad luck, the planet does go black, and endless night is terrible disadvantage in warding off hungry beasties.
Roustabout (1964, 101 minutes). Typically bad Elvis movie has the troubadour reluctantly join a carnival where he sulks until he sees the Wall of Death, a motorcycle stunt act where a cyclist drives very fast around the inside wall of a big cylinder. Elvis tries it out, and succeeds immediately. Gets the girl in the end too.
Eat the Peach (1986, 90 minutes). Inspired by repeated viewings of Roustabout, two layabouts decide to build a Wall of Death and become stars in their bleak, boggy corner of Ireland. Despite this amusing premise, the film never quite finds its footing, veering annoyingly from frothy to grim and back again. The construction of the Wall of Death is kinda cool -- it’s such a bizarre structure -- as is the one and only public performance on the rickety wooden folly.
Evel’s Greatest Jumps (1997, 30 minutes). Or cut right to some of Evel’s biggest jumps on this quickie package. Footage from his most notable wrecks (much more memorable than his successes) like Caesar’s Palace (30 days in a coma; fun fact: that footage was shot by John Derek and actress Linda Evans!), Wembley Arena and Snake River Canyon. In between jumps, Evel rambles about fame, narcotics abstinence and wreck premonitions.
A Boy and His Dog (1975, 87 minutes). Goofy cult movie, based on a Harlan Ellison story, about a young man (Don Johnson) who wanders through a devastated Arizona after World War IV with his talking, smart-aleck dog (Tiger, from The Brady Bunch), looking for canned food and willing chicks. After a slow and somewhat confusing start, the movie kicks into great late-night wackiness as Johnson visits a community of survivors living underground in their own demented Mayberry.
Testament (1983, 90 minutes). A mother (Jane Alexander) and her three children cope with the devastating after-effects of a nuclear attack in a small California town. This quietly powerful movie does everything right that The Day After did wrong: it focuses on one family, not 40 people; the horror is a slow build of little domestic details; the pretty town looks exactly the same after the attack -- the deaths will come slowly from radiation poisoning -- which is far more frightening really than the visual hyperbole of rubble and flames; and no dumb made-up geo-political reason is provided for the bombing, acutely tapping our worst vague fears about the nuclear threat and our powerlessness before its possibility. The folks in Testament die without ever knowing why.
Get Carter (2000, 104 minutes). I’d bet the farm the guy, Stephen Kay, who directed this used to do television ads … or maybe music videos. He used every flash trick in the book -- slo-mo, jump cuts, herky-jerky pans, super close-ups, everything cut to electronic music. So distracted was I by all this, I barely noticed what a stinkeroo movie this was. A lame remake-update of the original 1971 flick, but oy, with Stallone in one of his “acting” modes shiny suit and all.
They Only Kill Their Masters (1972, 97 minutes). They being Dobermans pinchers -- the scare dog of the ’70s. Just exactly who the masters are isn’t as clear but it’s a damn shame that kooky, boozy small-town detective, James Gardner -- the consummate ‘70s TV actor (or so says my dog, woof woof) only acts like ham -- and doesn’t smell all meaty and salty and deliciously pink. Loping movie about a hot babe with a Doberman who turns up dead at her beach house. Probably only for Gardner completists.
Communion (1989, 103 minutes). In which Christopher Walken is anally probed by aliens. Walken is in full-on head-tilting, 30-yard-stare, vocal-tic mode here as the writer whose mountain cabin getaway becomes ground-zero for these intrusive little green men. The plot -- a stringy piece of work based on the “true experiences” of Whitley Strieber -- pretends that Walken’s character is freaked out by the aliens, but the demented scenes where Walken cheerfully parties with the diminutive outerspace visitors -- he sings, dances, peppers them with his trademark non sequiturs -- all in the nude no less, belie this narrative contrivance.
Thunder Alley (1967, 90 minutes). Pretty rote tire-opera. Disgraced stock car driver (Fabian) ends up working a two-bit stunt car act, where he falls for the owner’s daughter, (Annette Funicello) herself a leadfoot fireball. (You never see these stunts at a motor show today; most involved purposefully flipping the car. With no visible safety apparatus.) The usual dust-ups with competitive drivers and even more competitive track bunnies. Fabian shakes off his bad driving demons during a critical race when while blacking out, he finally recalls a forgotten childhood trauma. Paging Dr. Freud, please report to Turn 1.
Dirty Dancing (1987, 97 minutes). That this frothy film has already become a reputed cult-hit amongst its erstwhile teenaged fans so few years after its release baffles me. It’s not bad enough to be truly campy; it’s certainly not good enough to be re-discovered as a lost classic. What it is a retread of any number of Judy & Mickey, Frankie & Annette let’s-put-on-a-show, plus more sexual content, a hearty dash of melodrama-from-the-can and … um … “dirty dancing.” Dirty dancing -- not something I ever wanted to see Jerry Orbach performing, but the cheesy highlight of this film is gee-whiz conclusion when the entire Catskills resort -- regardless of age, infirmity or personal dignity -- starts bustin’ some freaky moves.
Point Blank (1998, 90 minutes). A busload of violent criminals. A daring escape with planned sanctuary … in a shopping mall?! Yes, a boxed-in structure filled with cameras and pesky civilians, and surrounded by acres of parking lot perfect for assembling SWAT teams. There’s an idiotic plot device about a criminal mastermind who’s sequestered away somewhere behind the shoe store with a “Master Plan” and lots and lots of explosives. The only thing more weary and puffed-up than the plot is the hero, a freakishly over-muscled and bloated Mickey Rourke. (This is a career in weird freefall: the middle-aged bulk-up always seems like a desperate cry for help.) Rourke kicks some butt and consumer tranquility is restored to the mall. Bonus points for managing to incorporate TWO strip teases scenes into a mall siege narrative.
Cast Away (2000, 143 minutes). Disregarding the first and third portions of this movie which are FedEx commercials paraded around in meaning-of-life costumes, I dug the exotic filling where company man, Tom Hanks washes ashore on a deserted island. No irritating subplots, no extraneous movie characters (smart-ass kids, shouting boss, wily cabby), no Celine Dion songs or armies of sentimental violins. I was quite engaged by the puzzle aspect: how does one make do with whatever the island offers plus the odds bits of the civilized world that have come ashore from the same plane wreck? How can one survive mentally? (It would have been interesting to put a different actor on the island; Hanks plays sturdy so often, he seems a shoo-in to survive.) Still, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis deserve credit for keeping this solitary bulk of the movie afloat.
St. Elmo’s Fire (1985, 110 minutes). Thank God the 80s are over and hip young things don’t live in virtually empty apartments with three pieces of distinctive furniture, a vase of exotic long-stemmed flowers and airbrushed murals on the walls anymore. Nostalgic? This film will make you glad were never one of these stupid, self-absorbed gel-topped Yuppie embryos with dramatically different earrings.
Barfly (1987, 100 minutes). “A drink for all my friends!” Mickey Rourke method-acted his way through this week-in-the-life of poet-and-boozehound Charles Bukowski, and according to my records, once bit by the lure of method acting life’s sad losers, sent his once promising acting career right off the rails. (Follow-ups include 1988’s dreadful Homeboy where Rourke took up boxing in real life and 1989’s Johnny Handsome where he plays a hideously deformed petty criminal with an unintelligible speech defect.) Still, this is an entertaining film; Faye Dunaway has some fun slumming as Rourke’s new drinking buddy. Bukowski cameos as a barfly; indeed, it appears many of the extras are genuine rummies.
The Cutting Edge (1992, 101 minutes). It’s Flashdance for boys. On ice! A rogue-ish blue-collar hockey player (D.B. Sweeney), after a career-ending injury, takes up ice dancing -- and he’s marvelous! Just a natural, slithering gracefully across the ice in red spandex, even saddled with his total bitch partner, the "pro", Moira Kelly. Will their hate turn to love? Will they make it to the 1992 Olympics? Will they dare the extremely dangerous "Pamchenko move"? To accommodate our non-skating stars, the ice dancing sequences are shot either in extreme close-up (face frozen in concentration), from half-mile away or in near darkness. Also, a good third of this film has been shot in slow-motion for maximum dramatic intensity, and I suspect, just to stretch out the utterly predictable plot.
The Ice Follies of 1939 (1939, 81 minutes). Joan Crawford rockets through a standard Star-is-Born plot, becoming a Hollywood star overnight and thoroughly emasculating her sputtering, hidden-from-view husband, Jimmy Stewart, whose dream it is to "tell stories on ice, with singing!" Not many movies where the man of the house runs off on his wife, leaving behind a note that says, "Darling, our love can’t survive until I make a success of my Ice Follies." There are some eerie similarities between the film and Miz Crawford’s real-life string of marriages to vapid men soon crushed under her fame and ambition. But never mind all that. Soon enough, Stewart’s Ice Follies are a go, Crawford retires, the studio hires her back, plus funds Stewart’s ice musical, and with proper gender roles re-established, we all happily reunite for the Technicolor epilogue, "A Song for Cinderella." On ice! With songs! The skating musical extravaganza, which is the only reason this bizarre film exists is just plain dreadful, in spite of some clever skating, and is surely the true antecedent of 1980’s roller-skating musical disaster, Xanadu.
Baby Boy (2001, 129 minutes). Director/writer John Singleton returns to the Los Angeles community depicted in his 1991 film Boyz N the Hood with this comedy-drama about a shiftless immature young man (Tyrese Gibson) and the assorted woman in his life. The film is poorly paced, inconsistently written and lacks empathy for the lead character upon whom Singleton heaps derision. Though great laughs are created at Gibson’s expense, it also means we don’t care about him when the film takes a baffling dramatic turn.
The Sixth Day (2000, 124 minutes). Set in the near-future, The Sixth Day follows the travails of a decent family man, Adam Gibson (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who finds himself inexplicably cloned. He quite literally comes home to find himself already there. Human cloning is possible, but illegal, so something nefarious is afoot. In typical action-thriller style, Gibson single-handedly (plus help from his clone) takes on the evil scientific corporation that so cavalierly duplicated him. Shot with flashy flare (jump cuts and strobe effects) by director Roger Spottiswoode, The Sixth Day doesn’t break much ground in the ethics of cloning, but manages to be a fun no-brainer romp through what is a highly unlikely scenario. Schwarzenegger plays his roles with a light touch and there’s a great scene near the end when he must battle a hilariously incomplete clone. Of course, the director gets to credit for opening his near-future film with scenes of the wildly popular XFL. Should have been a no-brainer that the XFL won’t make it a year.
Smalltime Crooks (2000, 94 minutes). Abandoning his often uncomfortably personal domestic dramas, writer-director Woody Allen returns to his comedic roots with a light farce about some would-be bank robbers and social climbers. Whiny Allen and brassy Tracey Ullman are low-rent New Yorkers, who to divert attention from their planned bank robbery, open a cookie store next door. The success of the cookie store catapults them overnight into the worst sort of nouveau riche existence. Ullman has the most fun trying to “improve” herself, aided by the smarmy Hugh Grant. Jon Lovitz and Michael Rapaport are hilarious in the film’s first half as bumbling accomplices, then sadly, totally disappear. Comedy veteran Elaine May, as Ullman’s dim-bulb cousin, steals the film’s second half. It’s well-trod ground -- the working-class fish swimming in the affluent pond with predictably disastrous results -- but an amusing trifle nonetheless.
Survivor Exposed (2001, 107 minutes). Six beautiful women on a deserted island, Butta-Cheeka. No clothes. No men. New meaning to the term “forming alliances.” Hubba-hubba. This Survivor parody is way too long, has lots of jiggly bare breasts and butt but little “erotic action,” and probably a limited shelf-life before CBS’ lawyers clamp down on it. My favorite moment was after the bitchiest babe had been voted off the island, she talked the tribe into letting her stay by promising they could all spank her.
The Blue Lagoon (1980, 105 minutes). As our castaway children-turned-randy-adolescents, Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins are dreadful, except for the fact that they spend much of the movie barely clothed (or even nude) and they’re both long, sinewy and tanned. If you look close you can see everything. Brooke was 15, Atkins, 19 -- that’s the titillating feature that made this fantasy soft-core, sorta-kiddie-porn “survival” adventure such a box office success. Padded pretty heavily with languid shots of nature and the kids loving the island life -- as if they’d landed at Club Med -- building sandcastles and catching butterflies.
Swept Away (1974, 112 minutes). A thinking man’s castaway movie from Lina Wertmuller that invites much speculation about the volatile yet symbiotic relationship between communism and capitalism, the ugly side of gender wars, the unbridgeable gulf between the haves and the have-nots, parlor intellectualism vs. narrow “real-life” dogma -- and for the balcony seats, can there be true love between the classes? All this and more occurs when a shrill pampered rich woman washes ashore with the uneducated grubby deckhand in this sometimes funny, sometimes unbelievable, but frequently provocative film.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, 110 minutes). An unsettling horror story based on the Oscar Wilde novel with an interesting variation on the good-bad split-personality gimmick. Coldly handsome young Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), upon viewing a magnificent oil portrait of himself, makes an ill-advised bargain: He trades his soul for eternal youth. Believing himself immune from the physical costs of time and sin, Gray immerses himself in a lifetime of sordid behavior. Indeed, his youthful appearance remains freakishly unchanged, while his portrait, locked away from the world’s eyes, bears the ravages of his evil ways, becoming a literal illustration of his corrupt soul. (The film is black-and-white but the portrait close-ups are in color. Evil never looked so weirdly bright and lush.)
Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, 96 minutes). This is the version to see: a feverish, sexually charged, moody nightmare of self where the kindly Dr. Jeckyll succumbs to his bad self, Mr. Hyde. Jeckyll, an inquisitive scientists, concocts a potion that will separate man’s two halves, believing that if the bad is spun off, the good half will flourish in its absence. Bad theory. The frustrated Jeckyll (a victim of an endless Victorian wedding engagement) is consumed by the grotesque Hyde -- a leering embodiment of male sexuality run amok, all heavy breathing and unsightly facial hair -- who piles misery and raw physical abuse upon the saucy Miriam Hopkins (who once caught the good doctor’s eye and unconscious desire). Frederic March is remarkable in the two roles. The direction by Rouben Mamoulian is inventive -- the transformation scenes are smooth; the opening sequence is shot as though through Dr. Jeckyll’s eyes; and there’s lots of symbolism for the post-Freudian crowd.
Monkeybone (2001, 92 minutes). After a freak accident leaves him in limbo, a mild-mannered cartoonist Stu (Brendan Fraser) regains consciousness -- but under the control of his alter-ego creation, the pure id, Monkeybone. All the special effects and animation of the limbo underworld aside, these are the best sequences of Monkeybone, when the always fabulously physical Brendan Fraser lets his monkeybone loose. Except for when Chris Kattan shows up in a side-splitting piece of physical comedy and flat out steals this movie, as yet another of Stu’s manifestations.
Lifeboat (1944, 100 minutes). Eight castaways trapped in a lifeboat during World War II. The usual motley assortment of wet rats, and Tallulah Bankhead who is perfectly coiffed, entirely sanguine and in possession of a mink coat, a film camera , a typewriter and her fabled nasty wit. The trouble starts when the boaters haul a German sailor aboard, but the most fun is upfront before even Tallulah succumbs to the harsh elements.
The Hound of Baskervilles (1939, 80 minutes). A monstrously huge dog is reputedly killing the inhabitants of Baskerville Hall, so when the latest Baskerville heir arrives home to the spooky mansion on the gloomy moor, he stops off in London first to ask for Sherlock Holmes’ aid. Holmes sends his trusty, porcine sidekick, Dr. Watson (in this film especially, Holmes and Watson play like sniping long-time lovers). A rapidly paced yarn, that’s fairly true to the Doyle tale, with particularly creepy-looking moor sets. There’s also one odd moment that escaped the censors -- when Holmes retires having solved the case, he orders Watson to “bring the needle.”
Far From the Madding Crowd (1967, 165 minutes). John Schlesinger’s beautifully shot (Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer) wide-screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel set in the moody, barren English countryside. Haughty Julie Christie is loved by three men -- the stable sheep manager Alan Bates, the wealthy and utterly besotted Peter Finch, and the dashing , sexy roué and soldier, Terence Stamp. Stamp, long and sinewy with irregular but fierce good looks, woos Christie by repeatedly charging at her with his sword unsheathed. A film marked by quiet, seemingly disconnected moments, that ultimately gel to provide a riveting yet ethereal drama.
Superman (1978, 150 minutes) / Superman II (1980, 127 minutes). You’ll need to watch Superman I to get the backstory, but don’t watch it for Stamp. In the film’s early Krypton scene, he utters about ten words before he is converted to a two-dimensional piece of space glass and sent hurtling into Superman II. Now, freed from his flat prison, Stamp blossoms as General Zod, roaming the U.S. kicking butt just for the sheer perverse pleasure of it. His final encounter with Superman is disappointing. It’s no surprise who’ll win, but the scene is such a blatant early product placement exercise, it’s disheartening to see the marvelously sly and sardonic Stamp get vanquished by plunging through a billboard.
The Collector (1965, 119 minutes). A twisted young loner (Terence Stamp) kidnaps an art student (Samantha Eggar) and imprisons her beneath his house, preserved for his admiration like the butterflies he also collects. Essentially a two-man show, well-acted and definitely creepy. Stamp, like Anthony Perkins in the similar Psycho, is at once repulsive and sympathetic.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, 102 minutes). After years of flinty, tough-guy character actor work, Stamp takes a brilliant hard left in his career playing the sad-eyed middle-aged transsexual, Bernadette, on a drag-show tour of the Australian outback. Stamp’s work is utterly without irony or smirk, a beautifully nuanced portrait of a woman tentatively shifting gears in mid-life.
The Limey (1999, 90 minutes). Cast again as the yobbo villain, now since retired, Stamp does another neat take on his own career: returning to familiar cinematic turf, but older, sadder and wiser, the English gangster slightly out of step with contemporary Los Angeles. Director Steven Soderbergh cleverly integrates footage form one of Stamp’s mid-’60s British dramas (as narrative flashback) heightening the Stamp mystique then-and-now gimmick. The Limey does a similar riff on Peter Fonda, who plays a lizardly version of himself, “the man who got rich off the ’60s.”
Sugar and Spice (2001, 81 minutes). The head cheerleader (Marley Shelton) turns up pregnant and discovers, bummer it’s like rilly rilly expensive to raise a baby. She rallies her cheerleading squad, including the sharp tongued Mena Savuri, to rob a bank for the baby provisions fund. Light comedy that should be darker, but it’s cute and silly enough for a summer snack.
Love with Proper Stranger (1963, 102 minutes). Modern gal Natalie Wood, struggling to break free from her old-fashioned Italian family, has an impulsive one-night stand with jazzman Steve McQueen and gets pregnant. She doesn’t want marriage to an unknown man, just enough money and an escort for a termination in this frank-for-its-time film with an explicit depiction of a backroom abortion mill. Love was also a pivotal movie that helped ingénue Wood toughen up and tough guy McQueen exhibit some softness.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, 98 minutes). One of Preston Sturges’ best comedies and equally noted for its daring premise, played for laughs as well as sympathy: Small town gal Betty Hutton parties with a bunch of GIs leaving for the war, wakes up hungover and thinks she might have married some guy whose name she can’t recall -- “Ratzywatzy, or something like that.” Well, she did something that night, since she soon finds herself pregnant. She enlists the goodhearted 4F-er Norval (Eddie Bracken) to clear her name through an increasingly complicated and hilarious plan. From an admittedly seamy gimmick (drunken intercourse with an unnamed stranger), Sturges crafts a funny and ultimately sweet story.
Georgy Girl (1966, 100 minutes). Funny comedy about a curious Swingin’ London three-way that develops between frumpy Lynn Redgrave, silly Alan Bates and bitchy Charlotte Rampling, when Rampling gets pregnant. Rampling, who’s gorgeous, witty and just wicked, plays what may be the most disdainful, least maternal new mother in all of cinematic history.
Murder She Said (1962, 87 minutes). Margaret Rutherford begins her four-film reign as Agatha Christie’s small-town spinster amateur detective, Miss Marple. Rutherford was surely one of the most unusual looking actresses to ever headline a film: She possessed a short front-heavy body that resembled a 200-pound loose sack of potatoes in recline, and a jowly, horse-y face. Portraying Miss Marple did her no favors since Marple favors bulky tweeds, hats that looked like crushed waste-paper baskets and a whopping great cape. But Rutherford is a perfect delight as Miss Marple, endowing her with a feistiness and physicality not evident in the Christie novels. Rutherford’s Marple is robust British, jolly-hockey-sticks ready for anything -- impervious, her naughtiness tempered by humor. Witness how the elderly Marple disguises herself as a railroad worker and illegally tromps along the train tracks -- as trains run by! --- searching for murder evidence "because we must!" In the opening sequence of this film, Miss Marple’s train slowly passes another, and in the opposite train she witnesses a brutal strangulation. I was profoundly horrified by this film scene as a child and in my subsequent years of riding British Rail, I gazed into passing trains with some trepidation.
The Body in the Library (1987, 151 minutes). Coincidentally, the housekeeper from Murder She Said’s estate, actress Joan Hickson, turns up here as Miss Marple. Her Marple is closest to the novels: small and bird-like, quiet, forever pursing her lips, self-effacing to the point of irritation. This BBC-adaptation is an hour too long -- lots of scenery filler -- and it takes a while for the drama, set at a seaside hotel, to get going. For the most part well-acted, in that arch old-fashioned British parlor style that suits Christie’s mid-century murder-among-the-wealthy period novel.
Murder with Mirrors (1985, 100 minutes). Helen Hayes tackles Miss Marple, and she seems … well, like Helen Hayes. (Indeed, for no good reason, Hayes gets to perform Lady MacBeth’s soliloquy.) Adequate but no spark. While set in the English countryside, this film seems over-Americanized with lots of gunfire, and a car chase and explosion. Bette Davis is the life in peril, though frankly the actress was so obviously ill, the viewer can hardly believe she survives each scene. Tim Roth plays an early psycho role. This film uses Christie’s typical solution gimmick by assembling all the suspects in one room before pointing out the murderer. A-ha!
The Claim (2000, 120 minutes). The Claim resets Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge in a tiny, scrappy California Gold Rush town lorded over by a successful prospector turned despot Dillon (Paul Mullan). The simultaneous arrival of two women from his past (Nastassja Kinski, Sarah Polley) and the railway survey team headed by an ambitious young engineer (Wes Bentley) throws Dillon’s carefully crafted life into chaos. Dillon attempts to negotiate through intersecting love triangles and power grabs, but his fate has been predetermined by the sins of his past. This understated and often lyrical film from Michael Winterbottom draws well from its setting, the beautiful, but cold and bleak Sierra Nevada mountains, and turns on the bittersweet moment when the future, as represented by the modern technology of the railroad, arrives to obliterate the past, however hard-won and sentimentalized.
Quills (2000, 123 minutes). Despite being imprisoned in an insane asylum, the devilish and irrepressible Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) with the help of a young prison laundress (Kate Winslet) continues to publish his naughty novels to the delight and consternation of the public. Particularly offended is Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) who comes to asylum to "cure" de Sade, hence cease his publishing. Removing de Sade’s ink and quills proves ineffective; the Marquis writes and provokes by any means available, all of it leading to a dramatic and unfortunate conclusion. Rush is exceptionally good as the embattled Marquis, establishing an amusing brave face through which his desperation shows. Caine has a good small role as the villainous doctor. A frequently funny film, Quills is a sympathetic portrait of de Sade, who is portrayed here as a free-thinking sensualist and a glorious martyr to censorship.
An Everlasting Piece (2000, 103 minutes). Inexplicably, the Bard of Baltimore, Barry Levinson, packs up his gear and relocates to mid-1980s Belfast, where two young barbers -- one Protestant, one Catholic, naturally -- try to make a living selling men’s hair pieces. Bad toupees are inherently funny, as are the pathetic vain souls who wear them, but to set such a trivial plot during a particularly grim period in recent Ulster history and incorporate century-old troubles as a plot device, requires considerable skill, which is absent here. The film veers between sentiment, gravity and silliness, though fans of sharp Irish comedy will find nuggets of funny material, ably acted by a fine cast, strewn throughout.
The Big Tease (1999, 86 minutes). Mockumentary about a amiable Scottish hairdresser who travels to Hollywood for a hair competition, only to find he’s not included. Undaunted he rallies the aid of low-lifes (semi-chauffeur Donal Logue) and highlights (TV star Drew Carey) to win his rightful spot on the stage. Typical "plucky underdog" light comedy maintained by the guileless appeal of its star, Craig Ferguson.
Shampoo (1975, 109 minutes). Set on election night 1968, George Roundy (Beatty), a popular, talented hairdresser, who while trying to juggle too many ladies and his own childish impulses, fails to see which way the wind is blowing. Hal Ashby’s clever satire (co-written by Beatty and Robert Towne) skewers all in its depiction of 1960s Los Angeles silly narcissism sliding into the money-and-power personal politics of the ‘70s. A sharply observed movie that plays well off of Beatty’s own playboy reputation, and manages to make hairdressing a very sexy, and manly, occupation.
Black Shampoo (1976, 83 minutes). And there’s there Black Shampoo, a movie so bizarre, exploitative, sloppily made and full of freaks, you could easily believe it’s one of John Waters’ lost classics. Mr. Jonathan is a successful Sunset Strip black hairdresser who seems to cater mostly to the sexual needs of middle-aged white women rather than to anybody’s hair. The film does open with Jonathan giving a shampoo, but no sooner is the lady rinsed, when she’s got Mr. Jonathan’s pants down. The foxy new receptionist has a nasty mobster ex-boyfriend who wrecks the salon. After a couple of bizarre complications (including genital torture with a curling iron) and a wacko cowboy-drag barbeque party, Mr. Jonathan has to kick the bad guys’ asses, which he does, ably aided by the mostly nude receptionist and a pool cue.