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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.
Mocking the Cosmos (1996)
Jeff Stanzler's short "Mocking the Cosmos" is a little movie with some big ideas and a startlingly black sense of humor. The plot concerns a nasty divorced couple (Tim Roth and Kelly Rowan) and their bright young son (Jonathan Farkas). The bickering parents are contrasted with an intergalactic drama that only magnifies their pettiness.
The acting is quite good, with all of the adult cast members taking on disparate dual roles. Roth has never given us reason to doubt his versatility, and there's certainly a taste of it here.
Multiple viewings may increase your appreciation of this one. You're never as big as you think you are!
The Hidden (1987)
In the 1987 sci-fi actioner "The Hidden", an evil, body-switching alien with a taste for Ferraris, loud music, and murder is wreaking havoc. Only another alien, impersonating an FBI agent and teamed with an ordinary cop, knows how to stop it.
"The Hidden" is an irrepressible, high-spirited genre flick full of screeching car chases, sprays of bullets, and shattering glass that leaves more than a few casualties in its wake. It has alot of fun with the body-switching premise and maintains a strong sense of humor throughout. Kyle MacLachlan's performance as the unearthly FBI agent offers another great reason to watch. This is the perfect film for those in search of a rock 'em, sock 'em good time.
Beware the Moon
It begins with two young Americans, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking across the Northern English countryside. Cold and hungry, they duck into a creepy pub called The Slaughtered Lamb where the locals are obviously hiding something...
The classic opening scenes of writer-director John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London" provide the irresistible hook for his lovably quirky film. Widely noted for its savage sense of humor and eye-popping makeup effects by Rick Baker, "American Werewolf" gives classic monster movies a facelift. The film is nothing if not an original. The soundtrack of werewolf-ready tunes like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" is just one of its distinctive touches.
In the acting department, Naughton is admirably game for his role and fares well, receiving smart support from the rest of the cast. Special mention must be given to Griffin Dunne, a scene-stealing scream as Jack.
"An American Werewolf in London" is genuinely scary, funny, and, frankly, weird. Movies like this one come along once in a blue moon. Upon having seen it, you won't forget it.
Campfire Tales (1997)
Twice Told Tales
Sporting surprisingly high production values and a cast full of familiar faces, the horror anthology "Campfire Tales" will keep genre fans mildly amused.
Why only mildly amused? Well, the cast isn't the only familiar thing about this movie. Most eek freaks have already heard variations of the film's stories around campfires of their own. To wit, the opening segment (starring James Marsden and Amy Smart) is a quick retread of "The Hook" urban legend.
The three main tales, told by a group of teenagers (including Christine Taylor and Christopher Masterson) get progressively better. Ron Livingston turns up in an acceptable bit about terrorized honeymooners, followed by a rather creepy cautionary tale of an Internet predator. Finally, the always effectual Glenn Quinn plays a stranded biker who falls for a mute, mysterious girl (Jacinda Barrett) in the film's best segment.
Of course, it's those storytelling kids who suffer the nastiest twist of all.
The film's end title music, a slightly retooled version of "The Monster Mash" is weirdly fitting. Though entertaining, "Campfire Tales" is nothing new.
Running Time (1997)
Find it! Watch it! Now!
Josh Becker's "Running Time" is a remarkably effective and economical heist flick shot in black and white with the illusion of being a single take. These stylistic anomalies may draw your attention at first, but "Running Time" is more than its experimental hook. It's a good, taut thriller with a sharp comic edge. It also has a refreshingly brisk pace (clocking in at about 70 minutes long).
Bruce Campbell is excellent in the lead role as Carl, an ex-con whose plan for the perfect heist is undone by the incompetence of his partner Patrick (Jeremy Roberts) and a general case of Murphy's law. Anita Barone also gives a winning performance as Carl's former high school squeeze, Janie.
"Running Time" is a fine film that deserves a wider audience. Help start the trend.
Quotable, Witty, Brilliant
Okay, so you may want to brush up on your knowledge of "Hamlet" before viewing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", Tom Stoppard's big screen adaptation of his own classic play. Please don't let that frighten you away, or you'll miss out on a seriously funny movie.
The lead roles are extremely well cast. Gary Oldman is hilarious as sweet, befuddled Rosencrantz. Tim Roth's angry, frustrated Guildenstern is the perfect complement. They make a great team.
Stoppard's film has a sprightly step even when raising a few cosmic questions. It's the perfect tonic for some of the more pompous cinematic takes on Shakespeare, and even the Bard would appreciate its sparkling wordplay.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Well Worth Your Time
"Jackie Brown" is different. With this film, Quentin Tarantino takes a half-step back from his own distinctive style to adapt a novel by his hero and obvious influence, Elmore Leonard. It's true that "Jackie Brown" is one of the more overlooked films on Tarantino's luminous CV. It is a comparatively quieter work than the director's other, more explosive, films. "Jackie Brown" even unfolds in (nearly) linear fashion. Be that as it may, this is one funny, richly detailed, and memorable crime story.
Pam Grier shines in the title role, imbuing Jackie with great depth, humanity, and strength. Grier shares a fine onscreen chemistry with Robert Forster, who is excellent in his role as a smitten bail bondsmen. The rest of the cast, including a villainous Samuel L. Jackson, contribute well. Robert Deniro and Bridget Fonda make a very funny - if unlikely - comic duo.
Tarantino wasn't looking to top "Pulp Fiction" here. He set out to create a stylish and enjoyable movie, and succeeded.
Vampire Western Comedy
Once you see the vampires in sunscreen and sombreros, you will know exactly what kind of movie Anthony Hickox has made with his "Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat". Not only is it totally silly, but it's also pretty unique.
The plot of this vampire western comedy goes something like this: the powerful Count Mardulak (a quietly comic David Carradine) has founded a colony for reformed vampires in an old ghost town called Purgatory. The denizens of Purgatory fight the urge to kill and drink a milky-looking blood substitute ("It isn't even the right color", huffs one vamp). But it turns out that reform doesn't suit all the vampires that well, and things only get more tense when a few humans come to town.
B-movie lovers will likely be charmed by "Sundown", stop-motion bats and all. It certainly strays from horror cliche. Adding to the lighthearted festivities is Bruce Campbell as the artless but well-meaning Van Helsing. Overall, it's a kooky good time for movie fans of a particular mindset.
Lionel (Timothy Balme) is a nice young man whose overbearing mother hasn't been herself lately. Think "Psycho" on steroids. That only begins to describe "Dead Alive", an outrageous horror flick from director Peter Jackson. Yes, yes - THAT Peter Jackson.
"Dead Alive"'s ample gore and wild, splatstick humor owes much to Sam Raimi's antic "Evil Dead" trilogy. "Evil Dead" fans will have a hard time keeping their Bruce Campbell one-liners to themselves while watching. That said, this kiwi splatter pic is not to be written off as a mere Ash rehash.
"Dead Alive" will undoubtedly take audiences places they've never been in their wildest nightmares. No fair telling what happens, but even the most jaded horror buffs will be tittering with surprise (if not gagging or hiding their eyes).
Jackson has created a gruesome cartoon, and his cast - Balme in particular - is attuned to that sensibility. "Dead Alive" is thoroughly disgusting and utterly hilarious. Genre fans should not pass it up.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
"Thelma and Louise" made a huge splash when it was released and has since become a part of the pop culture lexicon. In it, a mistreated housewife and harried waitress stumble into an out-of-control - but totally liberating - crime spree. As bold and relevant as ever, it remains a vastly entertaining must-see.
Callie Khouri's screenplay is a feeling, funny classic and director Ridley Scott lends this road movie epic scope, seeking out the beauty in open spaces.
Both leads - Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise - give fine performances. Thelma and Louise become fully realized human beings who share a powerful and authentic friendship. Their transformation into two outlaws is also made entirely believable by the actresses.
And what about the men? Harvey Keitel is charming as the sympathetic lawman, Hal, and Michael Madsen's turn as Louise's boyfriend Jimmy is wonderfully nuanced. Brad Pitt also leaves a strong impression as the winsome blonde thief J.D. It's easy to see why this film made Pitt a star.
"Thelma and Louise" is a film of rare cultural resonance, to be sure. Yet while undoubtedly provocative, this movie is also alot of fun.
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Vice as Nice
Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee & Cigarettes" is a collection of spare, comic vignettes that feature the beloved vices of the title. As with any film of this kind, some segments outshine others. However, "Coffee & Cigarettes" has a nice effect as a whole, with repeated bits of dialogue and visual motifs helping to tie it all together.
The cast is eclectic and appealing. The inimitable Steve Buscemi is funny as a waiter with unique theories about Elvis, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits share an amusingly passive-aggressive conversation, and Cate Blanchett is quite good in a dual role as both herself and her cousin. Jack and Meg White make a lovably surreal appearance, with Jack in particular proving himself a strong screen presence. The two comic highs of the film are one bit featuring Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan and another with Bill Murray opposite RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. A final segment featuring William Rice and Taylor Mead closes the proceedings on a strange, dreamy note.
And all of this adds up to...? A unique, droll little movie for those in search of a change of pace.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
I'll Swallow Your Soul!
Dig the premise. Two rest home inhabitants, one believing he is Elvis, the other, JFK, must defeat a mummy that robs the elderly of their souls in a most unsanitary manner. Such is the story of Don Coscarelli's "Bubba Ho Tep", an endearingly unclassifiable cinematic pleasure from left field.
Bruce Campbell gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Elvis, imbuing his character with great heart and depth without losing any of the story's humor. Campbell's Elvis shares a warm rapport with JFK, played with hilarious paranoia by Ossie Davis. The leads are backed up by good performances all around, particularly by Ella Joyce, as a nurse whose job requires her to be quite...familiar...with "Mr. Presley". Stuntman Bob Ivy also deserves special mention for his work as the titular monster.
Along with the great performances, "Bubba Ho Tep" succeeds with its sheer loopiness and deliciously deadpan wit. Yet there's more to it than even that. "Bubba" is a film of disarming - if not alarming - emotional resonance, exploring the themes of aging, iconolatry, family, and fame. This within the confines of your basic Elvis vs. Mummy plot. More than just silly cult flick fodder, "Bubba Ho Tep" will stick in your mind the way composer Brian Tyler's excellent score for the film hangs in the air. When was the last time a movie caught you off-guard?
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Don't You Forget About Me
Directed by John Hughes and starring Brat Packers Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, and Anthony Michael Hall, "The Breakfast Club" is THE quintessential '80s teen movie. The plot is simple enough: five kids from five different cliques are stuck in Saturday detention together. They talk and get to know one another, eventually realizing how alike they are. It's the getting there that's fun. The characters and dialogue are very well done (and its a good thing, because that's really all there is). The kids in the cast are great, and you have to love that theme song by Simple Minds. If you haven't seen this one yet, where have you been?
Mean Girls (2004)
Not Another Teen Movie
Don't be afraid.
I know that the recent crop of teen movies has given you ample reason to doubt the worth of "Mean Girls". But fear not! You are in good hands.
"SNL" matriarch Tina Fey has delivered a smart, bitingly funny screenplay (she also has a role in the film as a Math teacher). Fey knowingly satirizes every high school horror from cliques to "cool" moms ("If you're going to drink, I'd rather you do it in the house"). It's been a long time since such keenly observed teenagers have hit the silver screen. If you've been to high school, "Mean Girls" will strike you as terribly familiar - and mercilessly funny.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
You may already have heard that "Kill Bill Vol. 2" is talkier and more character-driven than the stylish, enigmatic "Vol. 1". Indeed, "Vol. 2" has moments of tenderness and heartbreak that its predecessor never came close to. We also learn more about the Bride (Uma Thurman), including her real name and her relationship with Bill (David Carradine), who makes his first on screen appearance. But while "Vol. 2" is not the gleeful blood flood that the first installment was, the action remains sharply paced, darkly comic, and consistently surprising.
The rogue's gallery of villains left standing when the lights came up on "Vol. 1" are appropriately fiendish here. Daryl Hannah gives Elle Driver's one eye a furious workout while Michael Madsen shines as the grinning, twisted cowboy Budd. Budd's attempt to dispose of the Bride is truly fraught with terror. Perhaps most importantly, Carradine does not disappoint as Bill, who proves that emotional ties can be more formidable than an army of Crazy 88s.
As for the Bride herself, Thurman's performance is unforgettable. The Bride's heroic stature grows with each frame, particularly when we see her struggle under the tutelage of the unrelenting Pai Mei (a terrific Gordon Liu) in flashback sequences.
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino delivers another gorgeous, wild "Kill Bill" movie, this one packing a fiercer emotional punch. Here is a movie that pulls the rug out from under its audience at every turn, never settling for less than brilliant. "Kill Bill Vol.2" is a wholly satisfying conclusion, a breathtaking new classic.