Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Mack (1973)

As one of the many promotional gimmicks he used to pimp his latest movie, Grindhouse, director Quentin Tarantino rented out a movie house in LA and hosted a few nights of original grindhouse films.

When it came to the Blaxploitation genre, he chose to show this 1973 classic, and for good reason.

The Mack has all the makings of a true grindhouse classic – over-the-top violence, gratuitous sex and nudity, etc. But it also has what many such exploitation spectacles are sorely lacking – a decent story brought to life by good actors working under the careful eye of a strong director.

The fact that lightning didn’t hit twice for a lot of the people in The Mack (with the notable exception of comedian Richard Pryor) just makes watching the film more interesting.

The Mack tells the story of Goldie (Max Julian) an ex-con fresh from serving five years in the pen and looking for a way to make some fast money and get revenge on the men who sent him to the big house in the first place.
Naturally – at least naturally for this kind of movie – he becomes a pimp.

Goldie’s rags-to-riches story is a familiar one, particularly if you listen to some of the rap music being made today, but what raises it above the level of a simple gangsta cliché is the commitment of everyone involved to the themes of the story. The Mack isn’t just another one of the dozens of Blaxploitation flicks Hollywood cranked out to cash in on the genre’s popularity.

It’s an original, and it deserves recognition for being better than the rest.

Starring Max Julian, Richard Pryor.

Friday, April 13, 2007

When We Were Kings (1996)

I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat.” Muhammad Ali

Good documentaries capture a special, specific moment in time and illuminate it like lightning in a bottle.

Great documentaries take that light and shine it on the audience to help them see what they didn’t really understand about the past so they can better understand their present and their future.

When We Were Kings is a great documentary.

The film, directed by Leon Gast, covers the classic 1976 boxing match – The Rumble in the Jungle -- between George Foreman, the heavy champion of the world at the time, and Muhammad Ali who was, believe it or not, the underdog challenger of the fight.

If all it did was show audiences highlights from the fight while they listened to the pundits of pugilism (Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Howard Cosell among them), When We Were Kings would be worth watching.

Gast had the vision to look beyond the ring and to see the much bigger picture of two very different Black Americans going back to the land of their forefathers – land those same forefathers were taken from to be slaves in the ‘new world.’ The diversities between the two champions as they relate to their African homeland, which in Gast’s film is a mirror reflection of the problems between the races in America at the time, makes for compelling viewing.

Starring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

If you haven’t seen The Slums of Beverly Hills, you are denying yourself a real treat.

Featuring a fantastic ensemble cast and a great script from director Tamara Jenkins, the film chronicles the comic misadventures of the Abromowitz family as they seek shelter within the 90210 zip code.

Led by the head of the clan, Murray (Alan Arkin), the Abromowitz family is not interested in living in Hollywood to be part of the movie industry. Instead, they’re there to be part of the school district so they can get a Beverly Hills education at bargain living prices.

Their already chaotic lifestyle gets a jolt of adrenaline when cousin Rita (Marissa Tomei) escapes from rehab and moves in with them as an alternative to being locked up by her overbearing father, Mickey (Carl Reiner).

Natasha Lyonne is fascinating as Vivian, the blossoming daughter of the family, whether she’s discovering her body or battling with her brothers. And Kevin Corrigan steals every scene he’s in playing Eliot, the stoner neighbor.

In less talented hands, the adventures of this family may not make for very compelling film viewing, but these folks do such a fantastic job all you can think of at the end of the film is hitting replay to watch it again.

Starring Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

The film opens at a football game in a heavy, yet theatrically lit, downpour.

The final play of the first half finishes and the players head to the locker room. The star running back is called to the phone to hear a mysterious message from a man telling him to throw the game or else.

The scene shifts to the last play of the game. The quarterback gets the ball, drops back and throws a perfect spiral to the running back who starts heading for the game-winning touchdown.

The defense starts forming a wall to stop him and he does what any running back would do, at least in a film directed by Tony Scott. He pulls out a gun and shoots his way through the defense, scores the game winner, puts the gun to his head and blows his brains out in the end zone.

And that’s just the first 10 minutes of this incredible over-the-top macho action/comedy classic.

The rest of The Last Boy Scout is a boys club of bad jokes and banging heads as washed up private investigator Joe Hallenbck (Bruce Willis) teams up with washed up quarterback Jimmy Dix (Marlon Wayans) to solve the murder of a stripper named Cory (Halle Berry).

It’s mindless entertainment, but it’s some of the best mindless entertainment ever made. Enjoy.

Starring Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Halle Berry.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

Josie and the Pussycats never had a chance in theaters.

I don’t now if it was the fact that it was based on a animated series nobody really liked to begin with or if it was just too smart for the audience it was being marketed to, but the movie seemed to hit theaters on Friday and pretty much fade into oblivion before Monday rolled around.

And that’s too bad. Josie and the Pussycats is sharp, satirical and funny, features some strong comic performances and, believe it or not, has a soundtrack that rises above the fray to be pretty enjoyable on its own.

The film tells the story of a grrl power trio who are paying their dues playing gigs at the local bowling alley. When a popular boy band is killed in a plane ‘accident,’ the girls are signed to a major record deal and put into the marketing machine that will make them famous by stripping away their originality and making them the musical equivalent of white bread.

Rachel Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid are perfectly cast as the bubbly band members. Sure, they don’t really play their instruments (Cook’s singing voice was dubbed by the lead singer of the band Letters to Cleo), but neither could the musicians they’re playing. (And they’re twice as animated when they lip-synch to boot.)

The real treats of the show are Alan Cumming as the maniacal manager and Parker Posey as the mad music mogul out to control the world through subliminal messages in pop music. Watching these two pros go toe-to-toe in their scenery-chewing contest is worth it.

Starring Alan Cumming, Parker Posey, Rosario Dawson.

Monday, April 9, 2007

All of Me (1984)

Great physical comedy is a joy to behold on film.

And I’m not just talking about some guy getting kicked in the groin, which is about as good as physical comedy gets these days. No, I’m talking about a performer using their body to build their character the way an artist uses a brush to make a painting or a writer uses a pen to write a story.

Steve Martin may be better known for the sillier side of his comic persona – the arrow-through-the-head, ‘EXCUUUSSSEEE MEEEEE!’ side – but the fact is that he’s one of the most gifted physical comedians to ever perform in front of a camera.

All of Me is a perfect example of his work.

In the movie, Martin plays a struggling attorney who gets the chance to make partner in his law firm by handling the last wishes of a dying millionaire, played to perfection by Lilly Tomlin. When he finds her dying wish is to have her soul transported by a cut-rate swami into the body of the stable master’s hot daughter, the lawyer realizes he’s dealing with a lot more than he can handle.

But that’s only the start of his problems. The swami turns out to be as good as his word when it comes to transferring souls, only instead of putting the rich bitch into the body of the young babe, he mistakenly transfers it into the body of the lawyer.

Hilarity ensues, but only because Martin is talented enough to make you believe his body is possessed by two warring personalities. It’s not something you can write about and make funny. It has to be seen to be appreciated.

So why not see All of Me.

Starring Steve Martin and Lilly Tomlin.

IMDB Site.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Animal Crackers (1930)

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know.”

And thus film comedy history was born.

Confident from the success of their first film, The Coconuts, The Marx Brothers opened up the floodgates of their own maniacal brand of humor with their second film, Animal Crackers. Although little more than a filmed version of their successful Broadway play of the same name, Animal Crackers was a perfect launching platform to truly unleash their unique comic film personalities on the world.

Writing out the plot of a Marx Brothers film, for the most part, doesn’t make any sense. Explaining that Animal Crackers is the story of an heiress giving a big party to unveil a priceless masterpiece that is subsequently replaced with a copy, which is then stolen, is like explaining what a hanger looks like when trying to describe a shirt.

The only thing you really need to know is what character Groucho is playing this time around so you can know which routines you will be seeing. For example, in Animal Crackers, Groucho plays Capt. Geoffrey T. Spaulding so you know you will hear him sing “Hello. I Must Be Going.” If you want to hear him sing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” on the other hand, you’ll have to rent something else.

And while their names may change from film to film, Chico and Harpo’s characters don’t change that much. Chico is always the hustler with a 'unique' grasp of the English language, and Harpo is his silent, but never dumb, partner in crime.

Or course, if you know the Marx Brothers, you know all this already. And if you don’t, this is a perfect place to start.

Starring The Marx Brothers.

IMDB Site.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Supergirl (1984)

File this one under “so bad it’s good.”

Six years after director Richard Donner and actor Christopher Reeve convinced us all a man could fly in Superman, director Jeannot Szwarc and actress Helen Slater proved just how silly that can look without enough good talent on both sides of the camera.

Although it’s painfully obvious from the opening credits that Supergirl is little more than a cheap attempt to cash in on the original Superman franchise before it was completely bled dry (which happened the next year with the release of Superman IV: Quest for Peace), there is a certain guilty pleasure in watching it that’s hard to deny.

From the opening scenes, where you get to watch veteran actors Peter O’Toole and Mia Farrow ham it up for their paychecks, to the final scenes of Faye Dunaway spinning around in front of a cheap special effects screen as some evil creature she’s conjured up tries to eat her, Supergirl is a hoot.

I’m sure it was not intended as a campy bit of fun when it was made. It was just made with such ineptitude that it’s impossible not to laugh at it.

Here’s a perfect example. When Supergirl leaves her home planet, she is dressed like a Greenwich Village hippie. She travels millions of light years and crash lands in a pond. When she flies out of the water, she’s dressed in her Supergirl costume.

And nobody ever stops to tell the audience why. Or else I didn’t hear it because I was laughing too hard.

Starring Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway.

IMDB Site.

Friday, April 6, 2007

42nd Street Forever

I Dismember Mama.

Werewolves on Wheels.

They Call Her One Eye.

The Bullet Machine.

These may sound like silly made up names, but as 42nd Street Forever proves, these are the titles for actual films that played the seedy movie theaters – the true grindhouses -- of New York City back in the day.

42nd Street Forever is not a documentary; instead it’s a compilation of trailers from the best (or the worst) movies offered to the audiences who patronized these theaters. Watching them, you may find yourself amazed that there are people sick and twisted enough to come up with ideas like this, let alone the fact that they were given the money to make movies out of them.

The idea that there was an audience chomping at the bit to see them seems downright insane.

Or at least that’s one reaction. Personally, I watched 42nd Street Forever with paper and pen to make notes so I could check to see if I could Netflix some of the more provocative titles. Perhaps even go to Amazon and buy them.

Granted, not everybody wants to see Matango, but watching the trailer for it I was suddenly struck with the nostalgic feeling of a child watching the movie – renamed Attack of the Mushroom People – on a Saturday afternoon’s Creature Double Feature. I have to see it again.

Anyone looking for a glimpse into the true ‘art’ of grindhouse cinema will want to explore what 42nd Street Forever has to offer.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Undercover Brother (2002)

It’s tough to imagine, but there was a time when Black Cinema – so called Blacksploitation movies – was a force to be reckoned with at the box office.

Movies like Coffey, Black Caesar and Superfly were not only huge hits, but serious films – at least more serious than they are taken now when the platform shoes, wild threads and big Afros of the stars are seen more as campy fun than serious style.

Writer John Ridley and director Malcolm Lee managed to combine their obvious love for Blacksploitation cinema with their comically twisted nostalgia for the time when they came up with the idea for Undercover Brother.

The film tells the story of Anton Jackson, a Black spy/superhero who joins forces with The Brotherhood (an all-Black secret service) to stop The Man and his plan for world domination, appropriately called Operation Whitewash.

It’s a silly movie. OK, very silly. But if you are a fan of the films it both honors and lampoons – sometimes in the same sentence – it’s also very, very funny.

Eddie Griffin is terrific as Jackson, whether he’s battling bad buys with his unique kung fu style or going undercover as a wannabe poser trying to fit into The Man’s world. Dave Chappelle is hilarious as the militant Conspiracy Brother and Neil Patrick Harris steals every scene he’s in playing Lance, the White boy trying to pass in The Brotherhood.

Starring Eddie Griffin, Dave Chappelle, Neil Patrick Harris.

IMDB Site.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Sting (1973)

There are hundreds of so-called ‘classic’ movies, and chances are that you haven’t seen many of them.

Well, it’s time to try and change all that starting with The Sting.

Directed by George Roy Hill and starring the dynamic duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, The Sting is one of the best con movies ever made, as well as being one of those rare films that gets better with time.

In the film, Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a low-rate grifter who stumbles on a big score when he steals a wad of money from a mob bagman. The mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) kills Hooker’s partner and tries to kill Hooker, too, but he gets away and heads to Chicago to set up his elaborate revenge plan.

Even if the Oscar-winning script, written by David S. Ward, weren’t so damn much fun, The Sting would be worth renting just to see Newman and Redford in action. Made just four years after they starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman and Redford look like they are having the time of their lives in the movie. There’s no upstaging or petty crap going on between them; it’s just two actors at the top of their game doing what they do best.

And it’s a joy to behold.

Starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

IMDB Site.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Singles (1992)

“Desperation - it's the world's worst cologne.”

While he will always be known for his directorial debut, Say Anything, writer/director Cameron Crowe deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the sophomore jinx with his second, equally enjoyable film, Singles.

Set in grunge-era Seattle, the film focuses on a group of 20-somethings going through their quarter-life crisis trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives and who they want by their side when they do it.

There’s Steve (Campbell Scott), the traffic study guy, who’s falling in love with Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) the ecology activist; Debbie (Sheila Kelley) the man-hungry ad exec who makes a dating video proclaiming “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Debbie country;” and Janet (Bridget Fonda), the idealistic romantic who is so in love with the idea of being in love that she refuses to believe her stoner musician boyfriend (an hilarious Matt Dillon) tells her point blank that he’s seeing other people.

There’s a universality to Crowe’s writing that makes the angst his characters put themselves through feel fresh and believable, which is impressive given the fact that the film was made 15 years ago and most romantic comedies made since then have the shelf life of a soap bubble.

And if none of that makes you want to watch this delightful film, do it for the cameos: Eddie Vedder, Paul Giamatti, Chris Cornell, Peter Horton and, believe it or not, the one and only Tim Burton.

Starring Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon.

IMDB Site.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Dear Frankie (2004)

A few years before he girded is loins to lead the Spartan armies in 300, Gerard Butler revealed his softer side playing a good hearted stranger in the appealing romantic comedy Dear Frankie.

Dear Frankie tells the story of Lizzie, a single mom (the delightful Emily Mortimer) struggling to raise her hearing impaired son in a working class neighborhood in Glasgow. The fragile shell she has built around their lives gets a shock when a little white lie Lizzie has been telling her son comes back to haunt her. Seems that instead of admitting that his abusive father abandoned him, Lizzie told young Frankie his dad was a sailor out at sea, going so far as to send detailed letters from the fictitious father to the boy telling him all about his travels.

One day Frankie sees a photo in the local paper announcing that his “father’s” ship is coming in, forcing his mom to frantically find a man to play the part of Frankie’s dad for a few days.

It may sound a wee bit preposterous, but the cast is certainly good enough to make it work. Mortimer gives Lizzie the perfect blend of toughness and vulnerability she needs to gain our sympathy, and Jack McElhone is heartbreaking without being too cute as Frankie.

The real gem of the film, though, is Butler whose resume up to this film was filled primarily with bad action movies (Laura Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) and even worse horror flicks (Dracula 2000). He’s thoroughly charming – and more importantly thoroughly believable -- as the stranger who comes into Frankie’s life.

Starring Gerard Butler, Emily Mortimer.

IMDB Site.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Re-Animator (1985)

Every one in a while, it’s good to kick back and relax to a classic horror movie … like Re-Animator.

Granted, Re-Animator is not ‘classic’ in the sense of Nosferatu or Frankenstein, but those of us who prefer their horror with a little twist – and a lot of gore – there’s nothing quite like this Stuart Gordon extravaganza.

The movie tells the story of medical student Herbert West (the delightful Jeffrey Combs) who is obsessed with extending the time a body can be brought back to life after the brain technically dies. While more legitimate scientists (at least in the film) put the limit at 12 seconds, West feels that with just a few squirts of his special neon green formula he can extend it … indefinitely.

Bringing the dead back to life is a staple of the horror genre, but few films have the guts, so to speak, to capture it so graphically on the big screen. Although some of the gore looks a little dated – especially when compared to some of the stomach churning exercises in bad taste being churned out today – Re-Animator still has enough murder and mayhem to make its more squeamish viewers reach for a bucket.

What separates this film from the hundreds of other horror movies dedicated to the same central theme is Re-Animator's wicked sense of humor. Whether it’s West’s first experiments with the household cat (“Don’t expect it to tango. It has a broken back.") to the infamous seduction scene (don’t ask … it has to be seen to be believed), Re-Animator is a very funny film. Sick, twisted and very funny.

Starring Jeffrey Combs.

IMDB Site.