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The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
The Movie Lover's Movie
Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo" is a film that speaks to the heart of anyone who has been mad about the movies. In a now-legendary scene, intrepid explorer Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off a movie screen and into the life of Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappily married, unemployed, movie-lover. Together, Tom and Cecilia brave the complications of the real world, including the arrival of Gil Shepard, the actor who plays Tom.
Farrow is sweet as Cecilia and Daniels is wonderful in his dual role. Brimming with quotable dialogue, "The Purple Rose of Cairo" toys with reality while maintaining a feather-light touch. This is a valentine to the movies, and more so, to movie-lovers.
The War at Home (1996)
Great Family Drama
"The War at Home" was a labor of love for director/star Emilio Estevez, and the care he took with this story is evident on screen.
Adapted for the screen by original playwright James Duff, the film focuses on Jeremy Collier (Emilio Estevez), a veteran of the Vietnam War who is deeply scarred by his experiences. Jeremy's family can't understand his pain or deal with his erratic behavior. On Thanksgiving Day, each family member reaches their breaking point.
The cast is just about perfect. They look, sound, and act, like a family; albeit one that is struggling mightily. Real-life father and son Estevez and Martin Sheen are great opposite one another (look for Estevez's sister Renee and daughter Paloma in small roles). Kimberly Williams also does quite well as Jeremy's sister Karen, and the amazing Kathy Bates virtually inhabits Jeremy's mother Maurine.
One of the most striking things about "The War at Home" is the domesticity of it all - a real sense of a family trying to keep up appearances - which is so well-established that the film's explosive finale is all the more shocking. This is a different and very effective presentation of a Vietnam veteran's experiences. Don't hesitate to check out this movie, which should have received more attention back when it was released.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
For horror fans
Wes Craven's "The Serpent and the Rainbow" is one of the more original and ambitious horror movies to come out of the '80s. Not only does it seek to reconnect cinematic zombies with their voodoo roots, ala classics like "White Zombie", but it also uses the creation of zombies as a political allegory. The film is set in Haiti during the last days of the dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
Based - very loosely one surmises - on a true story, the plot follows Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) as he investigates a powder that is said to turn people into zombies. He is aided in his quest by Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), who he quickly falls for, and Louie Mozart (Brent Jennings) an expert in voodoo. Dargent Peytraud (the chilling Zakes Mokae) is the snarling villain of the piece, a man with sinister powers both government-sanctioned and supernatural.
The film abounds with creatively gruesome imagery - a man is buried alive, screaming, in a coffin as it fills with blood, a fiendish hand reaches out from a bowl of soup - this is one of those rare films that genuinely makes your skin crawl. Horror fans should not miss it. It's a shame that the film runs just a little longer than it should and becomes disappointingly routine in its final moments.
There is a sense that this movie was aiming a bit higher than it ending up reaching. I can't quite hold that against it.
The Laramie Project (2002)
Heart-Rending & Important
"The Laramie Project" is a film version of the play of the same name, culled from interviews with real residents of the town of Laramie, Wyoming in the wake of the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard. There are a lot of famous faces on hand (Steve Buscemi, Christina Ricci, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Joshua Jackson, and many others), but the film's power comes from its story, not its stars.
Presented with the voices of Laramie - and ultimately, of America - one is forced to confront the realities of violence and hate in a way that is intense, even infuriating, but extremely worthwhile. An intelligent, complex, and very relevant piece of work.
Ying xiong (2002)
Worth Getting Into
A subtitled martial arts film with a historical flavor that toys with reality - "Hero" may take some viewers time to get adjusted to. And yes, there's an awful lot of that gravity-defying wire-work that has recently surged onto the action scene and since become a favorite target for parody.
But "Hero" is worth it for director Yimou Zhang's magical visuals, particularly his vivid, glorious use of color. One also must appreciate Tony Leung's excellent performance as Broken Sword. Whenever the story turns to Broken Sword, his lover Falling Snow (Maggie Cheung) and his young protégé Moon (Ziyi Zhang) the screen lights up. All three actors are wonderful.
The film's ultimate message is something to inspire discussion. Is it about the beauty of sacrifice? The need for peace? Submission to the government? See it and decide for yourself.
Enduring & Endearing
When you think of "Rocky", you probably think of that soaring music, the film's many sequels, and possibly Sylvester Stallone drinking raw eggs. While all of those things are certainly a part of the "Rocky" experience, the film has so much more to offer.
Stallone wrote the screenplay about Rocky Balboa, a southpaw club fighter who makes his money as an enforcer for a Philadelphia loan shark despite his intrinsically sweet nature. Indeed, it is Rocky's sweet nature that leads him to see the beauty in Adrian, the shy girl that he visits at the pet shop every day. As Rocky helps Adrian to come out of her shell, he finds himself randomly chosen to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed.
"Rocky" isn't just about boxing but about people daring to dream of something better for themselves. The many pleasures of the movie include the easy, often funny dialogue and the well-shaded characters throughout. Stallone and Talia Shire share lovely chemistry while Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, and Carl Weathers - inhabiting Rocky's trainer Mickey, Adrian's somewhat sleazy brother Paulie, and the preening champ Creed, respectively - are great to watch.
Both the film and its title character ooze goodwill and heart. The sequels can be fun, but the original "Rocky" best understands what winning and losing are really all about.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Strange, Beautiful American Classic
In the early moments of "Blue Velvet" we see idealized small town images - blooming red roses and immaculate white picket fences - accompanied by the sounds of the gentle Bobby Vinton pop tune that gives the film its title. If you sense something unsettling about this perfection, that's only appropriate. "Blue Velvet" is a David Lynch film, you see, and it won't be long at all before a clean-cut college student comes across a rotting ear in an open field.
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the boy who finds the ear, and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) is the blonde policeman's daughter who assists Jeffrey when he decides to investigate the truth about his disturbing discovery. Sandy and Jeffrey link the ear to night club singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and later, a deranged man named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
"I don't know if you're a detective or a pervert," Sandy tells Jeffrey when he decides to sneak into Dorothy's apartment. As Jeffrey becomes sexually entangled with Dorothy, we can only cast similar doubt.
It's true that "Blue Velvet"'s dark mysteries have the power to repulse. Voyeurism, rape, torture, and murder are all key to the plot. Yet the film is also spellbinding in its beauty. Vibrant colors and ominous shadows offer gorgeous contrast - call it Technicolor noir - and the film is rife with unforgettable imagery. Moments big and small, from MacLachlan playing with a child's birthday hat to Dean Stockwell's show-stopping lip-synch of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", are as haunting as anything you will see at the movies anywhere.
The acting is top-notch. MacLachlan is just right as the lost innocent Jeffrey, and Hopper shreds the screen as his depraved counterpoint Frank. Rossellini's performance as Dorothy is devastating and extremely courageous: this is her defining moment as an actress.
"Blue Velvet" is perhaps the quintesstential David Lynch film. His strange humor and painterly gift for creating stunning images are prominently on display, and the film illustrates Lynch's contradictory impulses toward unbridled nastiness and aw-shucks sweetness like no other has. After all these years, "Blue Velvet" is still a shocker, and deciding how one feels about it is still a challenge. It is a film to be considered and then reconsidered, visited and revisited, the kind of film that will never fade away. For serious cinephiles, then, "Blue Velvet" is a film to be cherished.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Mel Brooks' spoof "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" keeps the gags coming at such a pace that if one doesn't work for you (and some won't), another probably will. It seems unfair to give the best gags away - but trust me, there are some excellent ones.
Cary Elwes plays Robin, and he is as perfectly cast as an actor could be. Elwes is anachronistically gifted at playing dashing heroes, and fans of his work in Rob Reiner's classic "The Princess Bride" will likely appreciate him here as well. The comic swordfights catch the film at its most high-spirited.
"Robin Hood: Men in Tights" is good for quite a few laughs, and a laugh is nothing to be sneezed at. And speaking of sneezes...is that Dave Chappelle playing Ah-Choo?
Lick the Star (1998)
Kill The Rats
Sofia Coppola's 1998 short film "Lick the Star" is about a group of 7th grade mean girls who devise a bizarre plan to "make the boys weak" with arsenic. While that may sound strange, "Lick the Star" actually comes closer to the truth about junior high cliques than one might expect. Early scenes of the girls flaunting their new secret plan to the uninitiated are particularly powerful.
The short was shot at a real life junior high school and it shows, but its inky black-and-white visuals lend it a rather surreal beauty. That many scenes are accompanied by a fitting soundtrack of jangly girl-group rock is an added bonus. "Lick the Star" makes an agreeable 15 minutes or so, to say the least.
Four Rooms (1995)
Not For Everyone
The story goes that Quentin Tarantino once planned to have different people direct the various segments of his eventual masterpiece "Pulp Fiction". That obviously never came to pass, but a year after the release of "Pulp Fiction" came "Four Rooms", a black comedy with four segments and four directors - Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Tarantino himself. The stories take place at an old hotel on New Year's Eve, with a bellhop named Ted (Tim Roth) acting as a link between them. "Four Rooms" was panned after its initial release, but has since become a minor cult item. It's an ambitious, uneven little movie - the shaggiest of dogs.
Weird decisions were definitely made with the opening segments by Anders and Rockwell, particularly in the editing room. Quite a bit seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, picking up the pace but increasing the "huh?" factor.
The Rodriguez segment is funnier and more focused. It's some of the best work of the director's career, and Antonio Banderas is fantastic as a Mexican gangster.
Marisa Tomei makes a brief but priceless appearance as Margaret, a stoned but amiable New Year's reveller, and then we are launched into the main event - Tarantino's room. His story is the best of the lot. It's talky and tense and ends with a wildly funny flourish.
Tim Roth is charged with holding this whole thing together, and he acquits himself just well enough. It's tough to imagine anyone else pulling off that bellhop uniform, and he provides the film with one of its most memorable images when he sashays down those hotel hallways to Combustible Edison's adorable retro-lounge soundtrack.
"Four Rooms" will surely attract Tarantino completists and the more adventurous movie buffs among us. To them, I can only say this: Be ready for something different. Have patience. Best of luck.