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

Year 2001 -- Part Two:

Millennium (1990, 100 minutes). A weird plane crash befuddles NTSB investigator Kris Kristofferson (I really hope there aren’t other transportation experts in real life that are as brain-damaged as Kristofferson seems here). Then, he gets a clue when some hot babe (Cheryl Ladd, pretty far from the hot zone by now) drops a ray gun. Turns out Cheryl’s from the future -- some very, very bad future where evidently Flock of Seagulls (or their number-one hair-wearin’ fans) are in power -- and the plane crash and ray gun do make complete sense. Well, they oughta. There’s some brain-buster going on here about time travel, paradoxes and replacement people. Low budget nonsense with some camp value.

The In-Laws (1979, 103 minutes). It’s tricky to carry a farce, especially one with stale gimmicks like mismatched in-laws and Central American dictators, yet this Arthur Hiller film holds up. Alan Arkin, nebbishy dentist, is the perfect foil for reckless “international businessman” and possible CIA agent Peter Falk. The film is peppered with bite-sized hilarious moments, like the suburban dinner scene where Falk describes to an incredulous Arkin the giant Guatemalan child-snatching tsetse flies (the “Jose Grecos de Muertos,” or flamenco dancers of death), and the dictator’s black velvet “art collection” of tigers and buxom nudes.

Son-in-Law (1993, 95 minutes). Did Pauly Shore really happen? He used to be unfunny, but a decade later his now-forgotten shtick of word-mangling, chiffon-scarf-wearing stoner Valley Boy is just plain weird. So here’s the “Weez” fish-out-of-watered on a farm, pretending to be the prospective son-in-law, Crawl. (Yes, his name is Crawl. Is it funny yet?) He’s irritatingly goofy, but by gosh if the Weez doesn’t sprinkle a little San Fernando stardust across the Dakotas and make everybody happier (as well as dress like Aerosmith groupies). Stokin’!

Velvet Goldmine (1998, 123 minutes). The edges of this film are a mess, set in some unexplained dark “futuristic” 1984. Ignore it, and dive into the delicious, freaky middle, the Citizen Kane of English glam rock movies. Look for all your thinly disguised fave raves -- Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, the New York Dolls, the Sparks. Packed with fantastic period detail, such ardent recreation of a glam rock scene mostly unknown to Americans may have cost this film a wider audience. Dabble now. This is a great snapshot of when rock ’n’ roll was never more cocksure, self-absorbed to the point of destruction and sexually freaky, with pitch-perfect acting by Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as rock stars.

The Stoned Age (1994, 90 minutes). Another low-budget silly film about some teens circa 1979 driving around looking to score dope, booze and chicks. The Stoned Age gets props though for an inexplicable subplot full of in-jokes about Blue Oyster Cult (have they that many fans? Are they still watching movies like this? I mean, besides me …) and one great funny line about “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and other similar power ballads.

Almost Famous (2000, 122 minutes). Naïve but perceptive teenage reporter William (Patrick Fugit) hits the road with Stillwater, a mid-’70s group committed mostly to being a “rock band,” just lazily filling the shoes of their groundbreaking forebearers. Writer-director Cameron Crowe wisely uses William as our conduit into this exotic world. Like William, we are thrilled to be backstage, awkward and pleased, before prolonged exposure leaves us disappointed, angry and wiser. Like Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity (2000), Almost Famous understands that music fandom is a full-time psychic commitment and like any love, not without its perils, but this funny, sharply observed film can’t help itself. Rock may be like sausage-making, best left unexamined, but so tasty. A terrific movie, fun and ultimately sentimental, with super turns by Fugit, Frances McDormand as his mom, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his cynical mentor, real-life rock critic Lester Bangs.

The Rose (1979, 134 minutes). Loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin, this road movie charts the final days of a talented but self-destructive singer, Rose (Bette Midler). A tough, depressing film, it lays bare the precarious relationship between talent, vulnerability and the bottom line. Midler delivers a gutsy performance (she looks appropriately terrible) that engenders sympathy for a difficult character as she careens from lonely to hellish to manically high. The harrowing final third will dispel any romantic illusions about “coming home famous.”

Bullitt (1968, 105 minutes). Steve McQueen is the ice-cool detective Frank Bullitt, San Francisco cop. A seemingly no-brainer assignment -- mind a Mob witness -- goes wacky, and Bullitt’s got to hit the steep streets of Frisco in his souped-up Mustang, lookin’ for answers. Stylish early film by director Peter Yates -- interesting on-screen contrasts of brilliant California sunshine and creepy dark interiors; early influential lengthy car chase (Detroit muscle shoot-out, Ford Mustang vs. Dodge Charger) up and down every hill in Frisco; and gritty, moody gray-moral feel that would become the hallmark of many action thrillers in the 70s.

Spartacus (1960, 196 minutes). Bitter slave, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), trained as a gladiator, escapes and eventually leads a massive army of slaves against their Roman oppressors. Spartacus whizzes by in pure enjoyment, the many plots and subplots interweaving with real intrigue and intelligence. Some love the warfare, the brutal gladiator matches or the surreally staged showdown with the Roman army; I loved the meat of this story (Kirks’ chest notwithstanding), the intelligent, witty, complex Roman political games (but for the men in skirts, indistinguishable from today’s political machinations) which lent genuine drama to the action scenes. Fabulous performances by Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier (contemporary releases feature his once-excised bizarre seduction scene with Tony Curtis).

War of the Worlds (1953, 85 minutes). Thoroughly entertaining Technicolor adaptation of H.G. Wells tale of Martian invasion with still-cool special effects by George Pal. (Who needs digital gimmicks? A steel guitar made the Martian death-ray noise.) The Martians are unstoppable, impervious to friendship, strong prayer, big Army guns and even the A-bomb. It looks like Earth is theirs …

Ben Hur (1959, 212 minutes). Still visually stunning epic of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), wealthy Judean Jew, who under Roman rule becomes in turn a galley slave, an adopted son of Rome, a champion charioteer, a rebel and a Christian. Tight script keeps this film mostly free from the groaner dialogue that plagues many historical epics. Heston makes the most of his long, sinewy frame, effectively carries the film’s central drama, his feud with Roman tribune, Messala (Stephen Boyd) -- and truly excels in the two great actions sequences: the sea battle and the chariot race. The DVD (screens in the original Camera 65 format, very wide) has many extras including an interesting documentary about Ben-Hur in all its forms -- novel, stage play, 3 films (a 1907 film version set the legal precedent for copyright protection), and screen tests of actors who didn’t make the cut like young square-jawed Leslie Nielsen.

The Robe (1953, 133 minutes). A cynical, boozy Roman tribune, Marcellus (played with real life conviction by Richard Burton) ticks off up-and-coming emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) and is transferred to the miserable post of Jerusalem. Familiar events involving the trial and crucifixion of a Jewish “religious fanatic” occur; lost to religious doctrine is the Calvary Hill episode where Marcellus wins the dying Christ’s robe in a dice game. Marcellus goes mad with guilt, convinced the robe is cursed. Burton nails these crazy scenes as only classically trained ham actors can -- deliciously. The movie wanes in the middle as Marcellus must undergo a lengthy conversion to Christianity, but the high drama kicks back on when he goes on trial before Caligula who pitches a major hissy-fit about Marcellus’ newfound Jesus love. First Cinemascope film, but sadly, not available yet in a letterboxed version.

Eight Men Out (1988, 121 minutes). John Sayles’ ambitious re-telling of the infamous Chicago White Sox 1919 World Series fix. A huge cast of characters -- ball players for and against the scam, baseball management, reporters and three sets of gamblers -- make the narrative tough to follow at times. Sayles is sympathetic to the dirty players (underpaid, unappreciated or uneducated), but a narrower focus of a few key players may have made the film more emotionally powerful.

The Scout (1994, 101 minutes). A supposed comedy about a Yankees scout (Albert Brooks) who discovers a phenomenal baseball player (Brendan Fraser) -- and pushes his career even though the kid is clearly suffering from half the maladies in a psychiatric handbook. It’s unnerving to watch as comedy -- team success over mental health -- and probably truer to life than I’d like to know.

Cobb (1994, 128 minutes). Ty Cobb: great ball player and superior asshole on and off the diamond. So says this bio-pic that follows sportswriter Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) as he travels with the dying Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones), a bitter, racist, violent nasty old man. Jones plays Cobb with a perverse relish (Jones’ natural flinty coldness serves him well), so much so, that the viewer never sympathizes with Cobb or the wishy-washy Stump, rendering this film an unpleasant journey of its own.

Caddyshack 2 (1988, 103 minutes). Jackie Mason blusters his way through this return trip to Caddyshack’s turf. More tedious than funny, and featuring too much mechanical gopher. Golf tip: Avoid playing the same course twice.

Happy Gilmore (1996, 92 minutes). If you fail at hockey, turn to golf. Hit-and-miss comedy with Adam Sandler includes a great “hit” involving game-show host Bob Barker. Some decent gags (I love the big checks) and Sandler keeps his squeaky-voiced nonsense to a minimum. Golf tip: Practice for tricky putts at miniature golf courses.

Esther … the Girl Who Became Queen (2000, 37 minutes). This well-animated short feature is a simplified version of the Old Testament tale of brave young Persian queen Esther, who saved her people from slaughter. Starring vegetables. The king’s a zucchini; his aide de camp is a squash. Esther’s uncle Mordecai is a grape, there’s some badly behaving peas and I believe Esther to be a green bean. One in a series of popular Bible-based kiddie cartoons, Veggie Tales, featuring these cute foodstuffs, Esther proved to delightfully weird. The walking-talking vegetables have no arms or legs, there’s goofy anachronisms like Chinese food take-out containers and not-in-my-Bible nuttiness (the bad peas are banished to the Island of Perpetual Tickling). Fun, plus I learned a lesson about Courage.

Cleopatra (1963, 248 minutes). Coming in the twilight of the Season of Long Roman Movies, Cleopatra is more a star vehicle for Liz Taylor than a densely plotted, high-minded action-filled epic. Liz lolls about in tremendous wigs, towering headdresses, great swaths of blue eye shadow and lots of flowing chiffon. She loves up Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) until his untimely death, then moves in on Marc Antony (Richard Burton in a shortie toga). Both love affairs, you may recall, end badly. But along the way, Liz excels at some heavy flirting and political gamesmanship (her entrance into Rome is most spectacular). The tragic scenes do stretch Liz’s talents, but isn’t that the fun of a big Liz epic anyhow? Plus, the lavish ancient interiors are great: They look like ’60s modular décor but with Egyptian stylings.

Elizabeth (1998, 121 minutes). Intriguing palace drama about Queen Elizabeth I’s early rise to power despite serious enemies and a citizenry bitterly divided over religion. After a few bad dates, Elizabeth forsakes love for the throne. Cate Blanchett, with her weird pale intensity, makes a great Elizabeth. Nicely shot film, very painterly.

Queen Christina (1933, 101 minutes). My dear, Garbo has never looked lovelier than she does in this Rouben Mamoulian film about the Swedish queen who abdicates her throne for love. All exquisite cheekbones in so-perfect lighting, the adorable page-boy hairdo … and she actually chortles with joy. On another note, this film, while absolutely enjoyable, is famed for its gender-bending weirdness: The Queen prefers to be a King (right down to the breeches, the attending manservant and an implied relationship with a young lady), and bewitches her love, John Gilbert, while disguised as a man.

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000, 127 minutes). A sun-dappled golf fantasy (and outright fantasy regarding class and race realities of 1930s Georgia). A duffer need only relax and focus Zen-like on the journey, not the hole, and the game will just come to him. As blithely and easily as down-in-the-dumps pro-golfer Matt Damon is approached by a mystical caddy, Will Smith, who imparts such greens wisdom. Surely, weekend golfers will find comfort in this less quantifiable approach to golf, rather than the nerve-wracking, ever-increasing stroke tally method. Golf tip: Find your “inner swing.”

Caddyshack (1980, 99 minutes). Only the greatest golf movie ever made, and the sublime melding of four idiosyncratic comedians: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and the late Ted Knight. Still funny after all these years and all these beers. Golf tip: Avoid the gopher.

The Caddy (1953, 95 minutes). Dean Martin takes up golf, employs neurotic golfer Jerry Lewis as his caddy, and proceeds to make a splash with the pro-golfing set. This Lewis & Martin semi-musical vehicle is light on real humor and heavy on old-school Lewis’ mugging. There’s a weird subtext that suggests Lewis is besotted with his cruel lover Martin that may intrigue, but the film is best remembered for introducing that sing-along trattoria staple, “That’s Amore.” Golf tip: Don’t hire a hyperactive, whiny caddy.

Tin Cup (1996, 133 minutes). Kevin Costner plays one of his shaggy roles here as “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a semi-dissolute, lay-about who could be a great golfer if he just focused better. But, there’s no fun in focusing -- not when McAvoy just as happily plays golf with garden tools -- and McAvoy’s refusal to grow up and get with the program make this film more entertaining and less obvious than typical men-plus-sports-plus-effort-equals-honor fantasies. Golf tip: It’s more fun to make bets on outrageous shots than to get the ball in the hole.

The Mummy (1932, 75 minutes). Beautifully shot by German cinematographer Karl Freund (one of two movies he directed, though he filmed many including 1932’s Dracula), this is the original mummy movie replete with all the fantastic sets and moody lighting one associates with German Expressionism. British archeologists unearth the tomb of Imhotep, and inadvertently read a scroll which brings the 3,700-year-old mummy to life. The opening sequence is masterful old-school horror: There’s only the briefest glimpses of the tattered mummy while we watch the young scholar go mad with fright. (In later films, the more the viewer sees the mummy, the dumber it looks.)

The Mummy’s Hand (1940, 70 minutes). In this re-telling, the ancient high priest Kharis is emtombed for loving Princess Ananka, a plot that would fuel many mummy movies to come. This film plays more like a serial romp than a dark horror myth. Besides the requisite archeologists and Egyptians, the excavation crew includes a slapsticky Brooklynite of no discernible occupation and a charlatan magician..

The Mummy’s Curse (1944, 61 minutes). B-movies don’t get any better than this. For no plausible reason, the Louisiana bayou is stalked by a mummy and an Egyptian high priest (who makes his hideaway in a gothic church on a steep hill in the swamp). While much of the footage is rehashed from previous Universal mummy movies, this version does contain a toe-tappin’ Cajun musical number, and Princess Ananka is played by the voluptuous Virginia Christine, who later became Mrs. Olsen of Folger’s Coffee TV-ad fame.

The Mummy (1959, 88 minutes). The mummy returns in Technicolor, brought to 19th-century England to avenge those who plundered his princess’ tomb. A great British supercilious imperialism runs throughout the film. After busting open Princess Ananka’s tomb, Professor Banning declares, “Marvelous! Completely untouched!” as he and his brother stomp all over it, prying open mummy cases and yanking sacred scrolls off the walls. Later, Banning’s son gets in a haughty pissing match with an Egyptian priest about how stupid Egyptians gods are.

The Mummy (1999, 124 minutes). This latest flashy mummy movie is fairly faithful to the old tales, and the tone of banter-and-horror recalls its B-movie forebearers. The special effects, shifting sands and armies of bugs, are great, but I’d say, too great. One should never be so aware of all that computer morphing. It detracts from true escapist nature of the film -- and, really, shouldn’t mummies be all dusty bandages and not walls of fire?

Cradle Will Rock (1999, 133 minutes). Writer-director Tim Robbins’ sprawling ensemble comedy-drama gamely depicts a fascinating, albeit obscure, slice of American cultural history. During the Depression, the federal government funded public theater, until the leftish nature of some productions led to a clash with the burgeoning anti-Communist movement. Robbins focuses on one such theater group run by Orson Welles and John Houseman. There are too many characters due to Robbins’ ambitious desire to document the intersection of art, commerce and politics – including titans of industry, press, Congressmen, society slummers, backstage johnnies and Italian immigrants – but the film picks up cohesion as it nears its rousing, self-congratulatory conclusion (all the more hokey for having actually occurred), the staging of the banned pro-labor-union play, Cradle Will Rock. A fine cast includes Bill Murray, as a washed-up ventriloquist, Joan Cusack as an anti-Red informer and Ruben Blades as the fiery painter, Diego Rivera.

Zou Zou (1934, 92 minutes). Decades before current ethnic exotics like Jennifer Lopez shook their big butts in flimsy frocks, African-American entertainer Josephine Baker shimmied and shook on Paris’ stages dressed only in bananas. This French version of the popular backstage-musical tale -- poor laundress (Baker) wins lead in a show -- stands in contrast to its American cousins for its frank dialogue about sex, and nudity. Zou Zou is primarily a vehicle for Baker’s exuberant performance (and ripe figure) and though it only contains one of her fabled erotic, exotic bendy dances, it’s a doozy.

The Red Shoes (1948, 136 minutes). Visually stunning (truly one of the most gorgeous Technicolor movies ever made) backstage drama about a ballerina (Moira Shearer) forced to chose between her love for dance and for her husband. Superior film of its genre -- great performances, witty dialogue, astounding set pieces (the 15-minutes “Red Shoes” ballet will impress even the most hardened ballet-hater) and despite its high melodrama, a believable narrative. A must-see classic.

Bootmen (2000, 90 minutes). If you’ve already seen Flashdance, The Full Monty, Billy Elliott, Stomp, plus a recent Australian comedy-drama of your choice, you’ve got Bootmen wrapped up. Laid-off Australian steelworkers, despite derision from their colleagues and families, return to their first love -- tap dancing -- and put on a benefit show in an abandoned mill to benefit a job re-training center. Their gimmick: metal-plated boots clanking against the factory debris. Clang clang clang. Harmless entertainment.

Stayin’ Alive (1983, 96 minutes). Everything that made Saturday Night Fever a great little film -- the naturalness of the actors, the transcendental joy of dance, the palooka-ville dreams, the bitter end -- is woefully missing in this freaky sequel. Having conquered Brooklyn, Tony Manero (John Travolta) sets his sights on bad Broadway dance extravaganzas. Who wouldn’t? Still, this dry-ice enshrouded, woodenly acted cliché-fest (co-written and directed by Sly Stallone with power rock by his brother Frank) is a bona fide camp hoot. The finale dance number set in some industrial Hell may be one of the worst dance sequences ever. A glowering Travolta, in full-on Stallone oiled-body Grade-A beef mode (buff sure, but what dancer ever looked like a Teamster?), leaps and gyrates to Broadway stardom, dressed only in a loin cloth, mukluks and a headband. Utterly joyless. A triple feature of Flashdance, Bootmen and Stayin’ Alive would pretty much cover the whole post-industrial dance movement … if you dare.

Rocky (1976, 119 minutes) On March 27, 1977, I wrote: “Today I saw Rocky. Loved every minute of it.” OK, I was 12 and easy prey for what we all reckoned was a feel-good Cinderella story. Twenty-five years later and less inclined to feel good, I say this is still a pretty good movie. Rocky owes more to the kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s -- the unglamorous actors, the naturalistic acting, the shabby sets (Rocky could be Marty’s cousin) -- than any fairy tale. Everybody in Rocky is headed nowhere. Even the “happy” moments have underlying pathos -- the awkward romance between Rocky and pathologically shy Adrian, the opportunistic trainer, the lonely training, and best of all, Rocky’s ring defeat. Sure, his “going the distance” is a victory of sorts, but at film’s end, one’s left to assume that Rocky, Adrian and all the rest will return to palookaville, perhaps even sadder for this small flash of opportunity.

Rocky II (1979, 119 minutes). This starts promisingly enough, with Rocky fumbling post-match, but the small-story charm goes off the rails precisely as Adrian enters a contrived coma. She emerges with an entirely different personality, all gung-ho, encouraging Rocky to win Win WIN! And hence Rockys 3 through 5.

Rocky III (1982, 99 minutes). In which Rocky turns into Sylvester Stallone. This film dabbles in the post-modern with its montage of the “Rocky” marketing. My favorite screw-the-narrative moment: When Philadelphia unveils a statue of a triumphant Rocky atop the museum steps (commemorating a moment Rocky achieved alone) while a high school band plays the theme from the movie Rocky, music never heard by the characters.

Rocky IV (1985, 91 minutes). Our hero vanquishes the Soviet boxing threat, Ivan Drago, played convincingly by 270 pounds of sculpted Nordic man-beef, Dolph Lundgren. Hilarious scenes: James Brown freaks out the Soviets with his hernia-inducing song-and-dance number; a wise-talking robot is added to the Balboa family; and Rocky’s Siberian gulag training sequence where he preps by hauling logs through snow, lifting troikas and sprinting to the tippy-top of the Urals pumping his fists a la Rocky I.

Rocky V (1990, 105 minutes). The Balboas go home, back to the mean streets of Philadelphia, bankrupt and brain-damaged. It’s a worthy attempt to end up where Rocky I should have gone, but it’s too late. Stallone is slumming, forever doomed as a Rocky-parody (Yo!) -- and damn it, there he goes WINNING again.

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