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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Permanent Midnight (1998)

Ben Stiller can act?

OK, that’s a cheap shot, especially when you consider that the guy has been in more than 30 movies.

But it wasn’t until he took on the role of Jerry Stahl – talented writer and hopeless heroin addict – that Stiller showed he could do more than make people laugh.

Based on the autobiography of Stahl, Permanent Midnight tells the story of a New York writer/druggie who comes to Hollywood to get away from the bad influences of his life in the Big Apple and hopefully get back to doing what he does best –writing.

Unfortunately, the move west doesn’t do much for Stahl except put him in a better climate. He soon gets a job as a writer for a show where the leading man is a puppet (in real life Stahl wrote for the sitcom Alf) and while the money is great it only means he can buy better drugs and buy them more often.

Hollywood is full of comedians who at some point in their career get sick of being the ‘funny guy’ and try to make the switch to drama so they can be taken more seriously as an artist. Some are successful at it, some crash and burn so badly they can’t even go back to being ‘just funny’ anymore.

Stiller proved in Permanent Midnight that he has the chops to dramatically go toe-to-toe with not only his comedic peers but with most of the so called ‘serious;’ actors making movies today.

Starring Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Hurley, Maria Bello.

IMDB Site.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Mothra (1961)

What do you do as a follow-up to a giant radioactive lizard attacking Tokyo?

If you are Ishiro Honda, director of Gojira (Godzilla to American audiences), you make Mothra, a movie about a giant moth attacking Tokyo.

Monster movie fans are already familiar with this twisted tale of a scientific exposition heading to a mysterious island. They know about the two twelve-inch high women, played by identical twins Emi to and Yumi Ito, that the bad guys kidnap from the island and their evil plot to exploit them on the Tokyo stage. And they know how the natives of the island chant and dance themselves crazy to raise the island goddess, Mothra, out of her egg and onto her destructive trail of revenge.

What they also know, and what you will discover when you watch Mothra, is how downright hilarious the movie is to watch. Like almost all imported monster movies, it is badly dubbed into English with hilariously inept exposition inserted in place of realistic dialogue. It has truly cheap looking special effects, too, from the model buildings that Mothra destroys to the toy soldiers and toy tanks that fight back.

Above and beyond all that, though, Mothra is infused with a general silliness that only increases as the plot gets more serious. By the time the giant moth gets to the city (mind you he arrives as a giant caterpillar) your sides will ache.

IMDB Site.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Big Fat Liar (2002)

A lot of people will read this blog and say, “A Frankie Muniz movie? I wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Frankie Muniz movie!”

Well, get over yourself.

Big Fat Liar may star Muniz, but it’s a much better movie that you would be led to believe given the knee-jerk assumptions you are making. And that includes the performance of its star.

Big Fat Liar tells the story of a young man who has cried wolf too many times in order to get out of doing his homework, his chores and anything else he doesn’t feel like doing. Naturally, when something bad really does happen to him – like leaving his class assignment in the back seat of the limousine of a big talent agent who is driving him to school (after first sideswiping him and wrecking his bike) – nobody believes him.

What follows is every kids revenge fantasy as Muniz enlists the help of his cute classmate, played by Amanda Bynes, to not only get back the assignment but get the agent -- a wonderfully over-the-top Paul Giamatti – to admit that the big summer blockbuster he’s making is based on the assignment he ‘found’ in the back of his limo.

Sure, it’s kid’s stuff, particularly the pop music montages that director Shawn Levy depends on way too much, but it’s still fun to watch, especially Giamatti's raving performance as the agent. Muniz, who was only 16 when he made the movie, does a fine job playing the straight man of the piece, and Bynes is, as always, adorable.

Give it a chance.

Starring Frankie Muniz, Amanda Bynes, Paul Giamatti.
IMDB Site.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Airport (1970)

There was a time when disaster movies were as much about the people being acted upon as they were about the giant special effects acting on them.

A perfect example is Airport, one of the first – and best – disaster movies ever made: Compare its 10 Oscar nominations (and one win) to, let’s say, the three technical achievement nominations that Armageddon got and you’ll understand what I‘m talking about.

The film tells the story of a poor depressed soul named D. O. Guerrero (Van Heflin) who comes up with a plan to make a better life for his family by taking out a big insurance policy and ending his own life midway through a flight from New York to Rome.

But that’s just one of the stories being told. There’s also the story of the pilot (Dean Martin) who gets the stewardess pregnant, and the story of the little old lady (Oscar winner Helen Hayes) who raises stowing away to the level of art. The Airport manager is in love with his secretary, but wants to stay loyal to his wife (who is having an affair). The pilot and the manager – who are brothers-in-law – hate each other. And George Patroni, the gruff airport mechanic (a wonderful George Kennedy), hates everybody because he got called in to fix their problems on his one night off.

Sure, it’s a soap opera, but it’s a very well written and well acted soap opera that puts humans and human emotions in the forefront instead of just being props to the big bang that comes at the end of the film. That makes it better than most of the ‘disasters’ being show in theaters today.

Starring Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset.

IMDB Site.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

It’s been 30 years since The Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and his good buddy Cledus (Jerry Reed) made their first high speed run from Georgia to Texas to deliver 400 cases of Coors to "Big Enos" Burdette, and while there have been dozens of car chase movies made since then, few have come close to being as much fun as Smokey and the Bandit.

Made at the height of Reynolds’ box office fame – long before he started doing direct-to-video crap like Cloud 9Smokey and the Bandit is little more than an excuse for good ol’ boys to go chasing each other around in fast cars while the law -- in the bombastic form of Sheriff Buford T Justice (Jackie Gleason) -- chases after them. It’s silly, but its charm lies in the fact that it knows it and just wallows in it with glee.

The film is anything but a stretch for Reynolds, who had been playing pretty much the same character for the past 10 years before he even got behind the wheel of the iconic Trans Am he drives in the film. Smokey and the Bandit did, however, give two of its cast members a chance to stretch far beyond their audiences’ expectations.

The film was released only a year after Sally Field won her Emmy for her deeply disturbing work in Sybil, and it was a relief to everyone to watch her lighten up and have some fun (and be darned sexy, too) as The Bandit’s sidekick.

And what can be said of Gleason’s work as Sheriff Justice, beyond the fact that it is among the best comedic work he ever did, and given the fact that the man is a comedy legend that’s saying a lot.

Starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and jackie Gleason.

IMDB Site.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Edmund (2005)

Edmund is a powerful drama of one man’s slide into madness that drags the audience along with him whether they want to go there or not.

For those willing to risk 90 minutes of their life watching it – even if they have to watch some of it peaking through the hands they have clamped over their eyes – it’s an ultimately rewarding experience if for no other reason than they get to see a great actor, William H. Macy, do some of the best work of his career.

In the movie Macy plays Edmund Burke, a mild-mannered fellow who one night, on impulse, goes to see a fortune teller who proclaims that the Tarot cards are revealing a problem in his life: He’s not where he’s supposed to be. Edmund takes her at her word and decides to make some drastic changes in his life, starting with telling his wife he’s leaving her because she no longer interests him ‘spiritually or sexually.’

What follows is a true descent into hell for Edmund. It would spoil things to give too much away; suffice it to say that with a script by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) behind the lens, it’s not a trip for the faint of heart.

Which makes Macy’s performance that much more impressive. There are very few actors who could do the things that Edmund Burke does and still make the audience care about what happens to him. Nobody would ever cheer Edmund Burke for his actions or his beliefs (and least I hope they wouldn’t), but Macy is powerful enough to make you want to understand the why behind it all.

Sarring William H. Macy, Denise Richards, Mena Suvari, Julia Stiles.
IMDB Site.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Slaughterhouse Five (1972)

It’s not easy to turn a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel into a movie; rent Breakfast of Champions some time and you’ll understand what I mean.

Director George Roy Hill and screenwriter Stephen Geller had better luck than most when it came to making the esteemed writers words come to life on the silver screen with their interpretation of Slaughterhouse Five.

The book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a small-town optometrist whose life becomes ‘unstuck’ in time, meaning he is forced to relive random moments from his life without being able to predict when or where he will time travel next. One minute he’s sitting in his study writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, the next he’s behind enemy lines in World War II or off to the planet Tralfamadore where he’s kept as a sort of pet in a human zoo.

Hill and Geller make the most of the story’s framework, giving viewers a sense of Billy Pilgrim’s unusual life without losing the narrative thread, no easy task given the scope of the tale. The film is visually exciting, particularly the scenes at Dresden where Pilgrim was a POW when the allies bombed the peaceful city to rubble.

Michael Sacks, making his film debut, is terrific as Billy Pilgrim, giving the role just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence it needs to make it believable. Valerie Perrine is equally fun to watch as Montana Wildhack, the B-level actress who finds herself swept up to Tralfamadore to be Billy’s companion.

The real treat of the film is watching Ron Leibman as the angry coward Paul Lazzaro, whose tag line “Nobody (messes) with Paul Lazzaro” will ring in your ears long after you finish the film.

Starring Michael Sacks, Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman.

IMDB Site.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

District B13 (2004)

Almost a quarter of a century after John Carpenter came up with the brilliant idea of creating a future where the criminals of the world are kept together in a city all their own in Escape from New York, French filmmaker Luc Besson came up with an idea of his own.

He took the bare bones of Carpenter’s story and added a few twists of his own, like setting the film in Paris, giving the bad guys a nuclear bomb and using parkour-trained stuntmen in his cast.

The result is the thoroughly enjoyable District B13.

For those unfamiliar with the term, parkour is a style of movement that focuses on the fluidity of getting over, around, past and through objects when traveling from point A to point B. Parkour practitioners move from place to place by adapting to and not trying to force their way throuh the objects they find blocking their path.

Or something like that. If you try to intellectualize the theory to much, you will miss the jaw-dropping thrill of watching District 13.

Director Pierre Morel does a great job of capturing all the action. He doesn’t use a lot of quick editing cuts to make the sequences look artificially hyperactive. He’s confident enough to just film the stunt men doing their stuff, which should be a lesson to 99 percent of the directors making action movies today.

When you’ve enjoyed the 85-minute joy ride of District B13, be sure to check out the bonus features and see how the stunts were done without using special effects. It will make you want to watch the movie all over again.

IMDB Site.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

There are very few stand-up comedians who can be as compelling on the big screen as they are live in a club. Richard Pryor is one of the best, and nothing showcases his talents better than his first film, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.

Filmed at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, California, the film is a 90-minute lesson in stand-up, from how to work the crowds to how to create characters and tell stories that are more than just simple setups for a punch line.

From the minute he struts onto the stage, Pryor is in complete control of his craft. He playfully taunts the audience as they rush back to their seats, like a great jazz player playing warm-up scales to see how his instrument sounds before he gets down to playing the first song.

Once the people settle in, Pryor starts to play. He starts telling stories – he’s not the kind of comic who depends on jokes – that range from observational humor on what makes us different, to equally sharp comments on how we are really all the same. He uses a lot of personal references in his material, too, leaving nothing out of the mix which is a brave decision given the fact that at the time of this show, his life was more than a bit of a mess.

Describing any of what he talks about, however, would only take away from the magic of watching the man himself. Do yourself a favor. Rent this DVD and spend an evening with Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.

Starring Richard Pryor.
IMDB Site.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film is an odd sort of documentary.

Many horror fans will be disappointed that the film bites off more than it can chew in terms of really giving viewers an in-depth look at this unique brand of the horror movie genre.

Those who don’t like horror, and wouldn’t be caught dead watching any of the movies discussed in this film, will be appalled that anyone would want to rent this DVD in the first place.

As a proud member of the former group, I wished Going to Pieces was a 15 disc box set and not a single 88-minute disc. But I can also appreciate it for what it is – a fantastic clip real from some of the best slasher films of the past 30 years.
For horror fans like me, Going to Pieces was a real trip down memory lane. I could name most of the bloody mayhem from the montages that played throughout the film – the ax welding Santa in Silent Night, Deadly Night, the pick wielding miner in My Bloody Valentine, the kabob skewer weilding killer in Happy Birthday to Me.

Ahh … good times, good times.

If you want a basic understanding why anyone would say watching those kinds of movies equals a good time, watching Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film may be a good place to start.

IMDB Site.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Omega Man (1971)

This summer, Will Smith will save the world (again) in I Am Legend, the story of the last human on earth battling against the nightly attack from the rest of the world - all of whom have transformed into blood-thirsty vampires.

In 1971, back when Smith was just three years old, Charlton Heston did pretty much the same thing in The Omega Man. (And for those keeping score Vincent Price did it, too, in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth.)

In The Omega Man, Heston plays Robert Neville, an army scientist working on a top secret biological experiment that goes horribly wrong. Just before the outbreak, Neville, who was working on a cure, injects himself with an experimental drug that keeps him alive.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that everyone who didn’t get the antidote –which is just about everybody left on the planet – is pretty pissed off at Neville and wants him dead. So Neville spends his days hunting down and killing the infected, while at night, the infected get together to come up with ways to repay the favor.

Although it’s a little bit dated – particularly the groovy clothes and cool dialogue Heston looks so uncomfortable with – the film has enough action, and social consciousness, to make up for any unintentionally funny moments.

Heston who, unfortunately, is known by the younger generation of film fans for his senile NRA ranting in Michael Moore’s documentary, Bowling for Columbine, gives a good performance, as does Rosalind Cash as his not-infected-yet love interest. The real treat, though, is watching the great character actor Anthony Zerbe chew the scenery as Matthias, leader of the infected legions.

Starring Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, Anthony Zerbe.

IMDB Site.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Shaft (1971)

Who’s the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?

If you don’t know the next two lines to that song chances are you think Samuel L. Jackson originally played the detective being sung about and the singer, Isaac Hayes, got his start as the voice of Chef on South Park.

Well, if that’s you, it’s time for you to watch the original Shaft starring Richard Roundtree as private investigator John Shaft, the very definition of movie guy cool. As the posters used to say, Shaft was “Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt.

While it is generally lumped together under the banner of Blaxploitation films, Shaft has none of the clich├ęs that other marked other films of that genre – there are no pimps in big hats and tricked out cars and no hookers in platform shoes. Shaft is a gritty, street level drama that could have starred any of a dozen white Hollywood tough guys. Instead, it gave the world what it needed so desperately in 1971 – an African American leading man in a serious film.

In the film, Shaft is hired by Harlem mobster Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped by the Italian mob who is trying to muscle in to Bumpy’s territory. With the help of some young Black militants – and the White police lieutenant – Shaft comes up with a plan to save the day without kowtowing to anybody, Black or White.

Shaft is one of those rare films that was made more than three decades ago yet feels as fresh and energetic as any cop move being made today.

Starring Richard Roundtree.

IMDB Site.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Midnight Run (1988)

Before his face was plastered all over the Hollywood Wall of Shame for being the guy who made the infamous Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez bomb, Gigli, director Martin Brest made some fine movies including the thoroughly entertaining action comedy Midnight Run.

The film stars Robert De Niro as Jack Walsh, an ex-Chicago cop forced to make a living as a low level bounty hunter. He gets the job of a lifetime when his bail bondsman hires him to bring in Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a tax accountant who stole $15 million from the mob and donated it to charity.

While the Duke is easy to find, getting him from New York City to Los Angeles to make good on his $500,000 bond proves to be a lot more challenging for Jack to pull off. The FBI is after him. The cops are after him. The mob is after him. There’s even another bounty hunter after him.

Brest, who also directed Beverly Hills Cop, knows how to put an action sequence together and he pulls out all the stops to make the duo’s cross country adventure a full scale stunt extravaganza complete with lots of car crashes, shoot outs, fist fights and aerial stunts. What makes the film work, however, is the acting. De Niro and Grodin are great together, and the supporting cast is a who’s who of great character actors, including the always enjoyable Dennis Farina as the acid-tongued mob boss Jimmy Serrano.

Starring Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin.
IMDB Site.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Freeway (1996)

Freeway is a twisted retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story with Reese Witherspoon playing the part of Vanessa Lutz, a potty-mouth piece of White trash who has to find her way to grandma’s house after the police arrest her mom and step dad for charges ranging from drug possession and prostitution to molestation.

On the way to grandma’s, Vanessa’s car breaks down and she is offered a ride by Bob Wolverton (a terrific Kiefer Sutherland), a seemingly mild-mannered social worker who may or may not be a psycho serial killer. Soon after they meet, Vanessa and Bob are at each other’s throats – literally. When the smoke clears and the blood finally settles, she, being a minor, ends up in reform school and he is left a deformed cripple bent on revenge.

And that’s just the first half of the movie.

Freeway is a twisted tale and may be too much for some people to sit through, let alone enjoy. If you get beyond the gore, though, and find its darkly enjoyable comedy center, you will be in for a treat.

Without taking anything away from Witherspoon’s more popular performances, the portrayal of Vanessa Lutz is one of her best. Maybe it’s because Lutz is everything Witherspoon isn’t in her other roles – foul-mouthed, angry, violent, slutty and, above all, totally believable. Sure, she made a great June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, but seeing her bring Vanessa Lutz to such vibrant life on the screen truly shows how good she is as an actress.

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland.

IMDB Site.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

King Kung Fu (1976)

It’s not easy to recommend a movie like King Kung Fu to anyone unless you think they are the kind of film fan who can appreciate the dumb fun of a no-budget comedy about a talking gorilla/martial arts monster running amuck in Wichita, Kansas.

In fact, the only people who will continue to read beyond an opening line like that are probably big fans of the film already. Either that or they’re from Wichita and were ‘lucky’ enough to get roped into being an extra in one of the crowd scenes (since no one actually responsible for making the movie would want to see it again).

The film is a take-off on the martial arts movie that flooded American cinemas during the 70s, with a nod given to the popular David Carradine series Kung Fu. A Chinese gorilla (OK, a guy in a really cheap looking gorilla suit) who has mastered the martial arts is sent on a goodwill mission to America. He makes a stop in Wichita “so the red necks can gawk at him,” where a pair of wannabe Walter Cronkites start staging fake news events in the hopes of causing an ape rampage and making a name for themselves by scooping the national news.

Writer/director/star Lance Hayes (who, according to imdb.com never made another movie) uses every low budget trick in the book to squeeze a few laughs out of this ridiculous scenario and, to his credit, he actually gets a few. Sure, a lot of the time you will be laughing at the movie instead of with it, but that’s what makes King Kung Fu worth checking out.

IMDB Site.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Now that Martin Scorsese has finally gotten his Oscar, it’s time to set the way-back machine and revisit one of his early directing efforts, Boxcar Bertha.

This low-budget gem is a fascinating window into the mind of the fledgling genius behind the lens. It’s full of the kind of gritty action that Scorsese later raised to the level of art in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, filmed in a fresh visual style that’s almost as exciting as the car chases, shoot-outs and fistfights he packs into the film’s 90 minutes.

Boxcar Bertha is the story of Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey), a young woman trying to make ends meet during the Great Depression. After seeing her father die in a crop dusting accident, she drifts from town to town, and from man to man, looking for a way out of the poverty that rules her life.

The cast of the film is made up of familiar faces that, like the director, all went on to better things. Hershey is good in the lead, despite the fact that she’s not given much more to do than look pretty and practice her southern drawl. David Carradine has a much juicer role playing Big Bill Shelly, the union organizer who dies in a very unique way at the end of the film.

The real reason to watch Boxcar Bertha, of course, is to see what Scorsese was capable of 35 years ago working under the gun, so to speak, with legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman. The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot.

IMDB Site.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Peter Pan (1953)

Given the fact that they’ve been making great films for more than 70 years, the Disney Studio’s animated movies sometimes get taken for granted. We all know Peter Pan is a classic because we’ve grown up with the idea that it is. But when was the last time you sat down and watched it?

Well, do yourself a favor and spend the 77 minutes it takes to enjoy what the studio animators (and if the opening credits are any indication there was an army of them working on this picture) did in interpreting J. M. Barrie's story about a boy who never grew up.

Chances are you know the tale already and probably from this movie more than from the source material. Peter Pan goes to the home of the darling family one night to recover the shadow he left behind. He meets the Darling children – Wendy, John and Michael – and invited them back to Never Land to share in his adventures with The Lost Boys, Captain Hook and Tinker Bell (who is still the hottest pixie to ever be painted on an animation cell).

While some of the film feels dated – particularly the scenes with the ‘Injuns’ – Peter Pan is still a lot of fun to watch whether you are 4 or40 (even older for some of us). The digital restoration of the film is amazing, and there is an second disc chock full of extras for you to explore when you have the chance.

IMDB Site.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Back before he became the Oscar-winning elder statesmen of meaningful movies (Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby), Clint Eastwood made a career out of quirky character-driven action flicks that felt more like really well done home movies than big budget Hollywood productions. They all featured pretty much the same cast of Clint and his friends – character actors Geoffrey Lewis, Bill McKinney and Gregory Walcott to name a few – and told pretty much the same story of a bunch of good old boys taking on the system and, after a few smack downs, triumphing in the final reel.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is cut from the same cloth of these classic Clint movies, with the notable exception of tossing a young Jeff Bridges into the mix. The result was not only one of the best of Clint’s films from that era, but a performance good enough to garner Bridges an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (He lost to Robert De Niro and Godfather II).

The plot to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is, to be honest, silly. A group of robbers band together to break into an armory in Montana using a giant cannon to blow a hole in the side of the safe. It’s a pretty gutsy plan but they have faith that it will work because they did it a few years before – they just lost the money from that heist and need to do it again.

Like I said, it’s silly.

But the performances are good and director Michael Cimino does a good job of balancing the action and humor in the film.

Starring Clint Eastwood,Jeff Bridges.

IMDB Site.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They Live (1988)

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.”

While it may not have the same cachet as Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky, punk” or The Terminator’s “I’ll be back,” hearing Rowdy Ronnie Piper deliver that line in John Carpenter’s 1988 film, They Live, is still a classic movie moment. The rest of the movie is pretty darn good, too.

In They Live, Piper plays Nada, an unemployed construction worker trying to find a job, a place to live and a quiet life for himself away from prying eyes and nosey people. One day he finds a cardboard box full of cheap sunglasses that reveal a whole new world to him when he looks through them. While half the people he sees through the glasses are normal, the rest are revealed to be hideous aliens plotting to taking over the world.

John Carpenter has never been known for the subtlety of his movies, and They Live is about as heavy handed as he gets, from the in-your-face action scenes to the political themes that lie behind the alien invasion. There’s enough style and humor in the movie, however, to make the director’s medicine go down easy even if you don’t agree with what he’s saying.

And for those of you who enjoy movie trivia, pay close attention to the ‘Put the glasses on” fight between Piper and co-star Keith David. Now go rent South Park: Season 5 and watch Timmy and Jimmy in their epic 'Cripple Fight'. Note the similarities.

Starring Roddy Piper and david Keith. Directed by John Carpenter.

IMDB Site.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Men (1950)

If there was ever a movie that screams “remake,’ it’s The Men.

This 1950 classic, which marked the screen debut of Marlon Brando, is a gritty look at the lives of a group of paraplegic veterans trying to cope with life without the use of their limbs. Of course, The Men was made more than half a century ago, long before ‘gritty’ meant lots of violence and gore in glorious Technicolor. The grit here is emotional and it’s as raw and honest as anything being portrayed on film today.

The story focuses on Bud Wilcheck (Brando), a moody loner who lost his will to live when he lost the use of his lower half. Frustrated by Bud’s lack of progress, his doctor (a wonderful performance by Everett Stone) takes him out of his private room and put him in the ward with the more hardened veterans, hoping a hard dose of the reality he will face for the rest of his life will snap him out of his self misery.

The interaction of the men on the ward – some of them not actors but actual patients of the Birmingham Paraplegic Hospital where the film was shot – is fascinating to watch, even though it feel more than a little dated at times. The conflict between Bud and his new wife (Teresa Wright) is equally poignant.

The Men may focus on the generation who fought the ‘good fight’ of World War II, but its message has the potentially to be more powerful when applied to the men and women coming home from the war today.

Starring Marlon Brando,Teresa Wright.

IMDB Site.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Kansas City Bomber (1972)

I’ve had a mad crush on Raquel Welch since I was a boy sitting in the Paris Cinema in Providence watching Kansas City Bomber.

I can pinpoint the exact moment she stole my … heart, too. It’s the scene when the slimy team owner (Kevin McCarthy) gets her back to his apartment. He takes off her coat revealing what the woman who up to this time had been dressed primarily in an unflattering roller derby uniform looks like in a skin tight sweater dress.

To quote Mike Myers, who was just nine when this Hollywood thunderbolt first hit me, schwing!

I’ve seen Kansas City Bomber many, many times since then and, while the unveiling scene always makes my heart skip a beat, I’ve come to appreciate the film for more than Raquel’s physical charms.

In the movie, Raquel plays K.C. Carr, a journeywoman roller derby player who gets her big break when she is traded to the Portland Loggers and is finally given a chance to show fans she’s more than just another pretty face. Unfortunately, the Loggers already have their own star, the hard-living Jackie Burdette (Helena Kallianiotes) who does not intend to give up without a four-wheeled fight.

There’s plenty of roller derby action in Kansas City Bomber and director Jerrold Freedman makes it look a lot more believable than the actual sport (although the slow-motion ending is a bit corny).

Kansas City Bomber is the best skating action/comedy since Slap Shot, and, since it was made five years before the Hanson Brothers even hit the big screen, it deserves a to be seen.

Starring Raquel Welch, Helena Kallianiotes, Kevin McCarthy.

IMDB Site.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The War Wagon (1967)

Most DVD viewers today know who John Wayne is, but chances are that if you’re over 30 you’ve probably never actually seen a John Wayne film with the possible exception of catching parts of The Quiet Man between beers on St. Patrick’s Day. People know he’s a screen legend. They just don’t know why.

While there are certainly more critically acclaimed Wayne movies than The War Wagon, there are few that are as much silly fun to watch. The film also has the added bonus of letting you watch Wayne, who plays a bad guy for just about the first time n his career in this movie, go toe-to-toe in a scenery chewing contest with his dimple-jawed co-star Kirk Douglas.

The film is the story of ex-con Taw Jackson (Wayne) who organizes a small band of desperate desperados to help him rob the old west version of a Brink’s armored car, an iron-clad buckboard known as the War Wagon.

Even though he is the ‘bad’ guy of the movie, Wayne doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made him a box office legend. He may snarl a bit more and he may let himself be the butt of his co-stars jokes a little more often. He may even take a few more punches than he normally does during the big salon fight, but he doesn’t stray too far from his strengths, which is fine. It’s not his best performance, but it’s good enough to introduce new viewers to the cinematic world that John Wayne ruled over for so many years.

Starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas.

IMDB Site.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Down Wth Love (2003)

Down With Love is a good movie that never quite found the audience it deserved.

Starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger, Down With Love is a sly and witty updating of the romantic comedies that Rock Hudson and Doris Day made back in the 60s (Pillow Talk, Send Me No Flowers, etc.). The problem is that everybody old enough to remember enjoying the Rock and Doris films was upset at the idea of a bunch of young whippersnappers having the gall to re-imagine their beloved ‘classics.’ At the same time, young fans who knew McGregor only as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Zellweger as Bridget Jones weren’t cinematically savvy enough to get what they were trying to do.

Well neither side knows what it’s been missing.

Down With Love is a lot of fun to watch, from the first time Zellweger wriggles across the screen in her fashionably tight designer dress to the final scene when she wins the heart of the rascally Romeo who, until they met, thought his life was complete being a ‘lady’s man, man’s man and man about town.’

The story spins around a classic battle of the sex’s scenario. Zellweger plays Barbara Novak, author of ‘Down With Love,’ a liberating how-to tale that has women around the world fighting for equal rights in the workplace, the home and the bedroom. McGregor is Catcher Block, the suave scribe at a popular men’s magazine who goes undercover to expose Novak and her revolutionary theories about what women want.

McGregor and Zellweger are downright delightful to watch, as are their sidekicks played, respectively, by David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson.

Down With Love is sexy, sassy and surprisingly sweet without being cloying. It deserves a second chance.

Starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.
IMDB Site

Thursday, March 8, 2007

King Kong (1976)

I love monster movies. And the cheaper the monster, the better.

So it’s no wonder I’m a huge fan of all King Kong movies (with the possible exception of Peter Jackson’s overwrought CGI snore-fest of 2005).

My favorite, though, is 1977’s King Kong. Along with giving the world one of the silliest monster stories of all time -- Kong is brought to New York City to be used as a promotional tool to sell gasoline -- the film marks the big screen debut of Jessica Lange and it’s one of the worst debuts in movie history.

Lange plays a wannabe starlet named Dwan – and, no, that is not a typo. Her character’s name actually is Dwan. She’s found floating out in the middle of the ocean stretched out in a barely-there little black dress in a life raft, the lone survivor of a yacht explosion. (And her excuse of how she survived has to be heard to be appreciated.)

Being the only blonde bimbo within a thousand miles, Dwan soon finds herself drunk and tied up as a sacrifice to the island god, who looks like a man in a cheap monkey suit, especially in the close-ups. The rest, as they say, is movie history. Bad movie history (but well worth watching).

Lange went on to win two Oscars and become one of Hollywood’s great leading ladies, so you have to cut her some slack for her acting in King Kong. When I first saw it I was pretty sure she’d win some kind of award, but I was only 17 and had never seen a hot blonde take a shower under a waterfall while crouching in a giant inflated ape hand before. And I never forgot it.

Starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange.
IMDB Site

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Koyaanisqatsi is the Hopi Indian term for "life out of balance,” and while there is a lot to be said about the film, I think director Godfrey Reggio sums it up best in the interview that’s part of the DVD’s bonus features.

The film, he admits, means different things to different people. To one person it is a film about saving the planet, and to another it is an homage to industrial progress. Some are deeply moved by seeing Koyaanisqatsi, he says, and some think it’s “a piece of (crap).”

While you reaction may fall into any of the above categories – and probably into a few Reggio didn’t mention – one thing is guaranteed, you won’t forget the experience of watching Koyaanisqatsi. And trust me; Koyaanisqatsi is a film you experience, not just watch.

Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have any sort of narrative, at least in any traditional sense of the word. It’s actually made up of a series of images – from clouds moving across the desert sky to people rushing through their daily commute – all played using a wide range of photographic techniques to highlight the poetry of the motion that many of us either miss because we’re too literal about what we see or that we ignore because we’ve become just so inured to the world we live in.

It’s fascinating to watch, and when you crank up the Philip Glass score to 11 it becomes downright hypnotic.

Directed by Godfrey Reggio. Music by Philip Glass.
IMDB Site.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank is a movie that is chock-full of two things most films today are sorely lacking: style and substance.

The style comes from director John Boorman. The substance comes from its star, Lee Marvin.

Point Blank tells the story of a guy named Walker (Marvin) who gets double–crossed by his best friend during a robbery. Left for dead, Walker manages to not only survive getting shot, but soon recovers enough to begin systematically tracking down everybody even remotely involved in betraying him.

The story is straightforward enough, and in less talented hand Point Blank would have made a decent thriller. Boorman, whose films have ranged from the classic (Deliverance) to the classically bad (Exorcist II, the Heretic) takes a much different approach to the material and uses just about every trick in the book to tease, titillate and, at times, downright frustrate the audience. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s films will get a kick out of the way Boorman plays with the narrative of the movie. Personally, I get a kick out of reminding them he was doing it when Tarantino was just four years old.

Marvin, a veteran actor who had risen from the ranks of smalltime character roles (Gorilla at Large) to winning a Best Actor Oscar (Cat Ballou) by the time he hooked up with Boorman for this film, makes Walker the quintessential anti-hero, the kind of a guy who sees no problem in asking his dead wife’s sister (a young and very sexy Angie Dickinson) to seduce the bad guy so he can get to him.

Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn.
IMDB Site

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Vincent Price stars as Anton Phibes, a deranged doctor – not a medical doctor, mind you, but a mad organist with a Ph.D. in music – who uses nine Biblical plagues as a template for his revenge on the physicians and nurses he blames for letting his wife die on the operating table. Cheesier than a Philly Steak Sandwich (you can actually see the strings holding up the bat as it swoops out of the room in the opening scene) it’s filled with that bad-movie charm I love to unwind to. Price is entertaining to watch, no small achievement considering his character can only speak through an old-fashion megaphone he plugs into his neck, and there are some classically bad supporting roles from the likes of Joseph Cotton and Terry Thomas.

The killings themselves are more fun than fierce. The rats in one scene look more like they’re cuddling with their victim than killing him, despite the extreme close-up of one of them gnawing on something nasty, and the plague of frogs murder is too 70s trippy to be anything but silly. But the plague of locust is suitably creepy and the plague of the first born is a diabolical mix of tension and terror.

Someday, Hollywood will do a remake of The Abominable Dr. Phibes that will be twice as gory and not half as enjoyable. Until then, enjoy the original but skip the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. It’s awful.

Starring Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Terry Thomas.
IMDB Site