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Alphabetized Movie Thoughts

by Jack Sommersby

From A to Z, some off-the-top-of-my-head mentions of personal favorites that will hopefully inspire one to check out your local video store for them.

Here we go...

...All the Marbles (1980) is a great female-wrestling comedy with Peter Falk aces as a crusty manager who buys Aquafresh only when it's on sale, hates M&Ms, and doesn't mind being called a lousy lover inasmuch as he does a lousy manager. Directed by the late Robert Aldrich, who also scored with the 1974 football comedy The Longest Yard, the film boasts fine wrestling sequences, crunchy dialogue, and wonderful performances.

The Best of Times (1986) is the best football comedy ever made, which doesn't come as too much of a surprise considering it was written by the same Ron Shelton who both wrote and directed the best baseball comedy ever made, Bull Durham. Robin Williams and Kurt Russell are stupendous as small-town down-on-their-lucks who manage to arrange a re-playing of their last high-school football game -- the game where Williams' Jack "Butterfingers" Dundee dropped the winning touchdown pass in the last seconds. The scene where Russell serenades his estranged wife through a motel door with the Carpenters' "Close to You" is a keeper.

The Challenge (1982), written by John Sayles and directed by John Frankenheimer, is an extremely entertaining action flick. In his first starring role, Scott Glenn is excellent as a two-bit L.A. boxer unwittingly used as a decoy to deliver a prized family sword to Japan. Soon, he finds himself caught between two feuding brothers who'll do anything to attain that prize: one's a rich businessman and the other a samurai teacher (played by Seven Samurai star Toshiro Mifune no less!). In addition to the expertly-shot action, there are welcome dashes of sly humor craftily blended throughout. Very underrated.

Dead Calm (1989) is a taut, tense, terrific high-seas thriller starring Sam Neil, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane. Think of it as the visceral side to Roman Polanski's debut A Knife in the Water, with the superlative Dean Semler's lighting and director Phillip Noyce's evocative direction garnishing the proceedings with plenty of atmosphere and nerve-jangling suspense. Kidman is atypically affecting and sexy as the headstrong heroine.

Endangered Species (1982) is a first-rate thriller about a string of bizarre cattle mutilations afflicting a small, tranquil Colorado town. No tracks have been left at the scenes, the carcasses are bereft of both blood and vital internal organs, and strange lights in the sky have been reported by residents. Is it UFOs, devil cultists, or something even more sinister? Robert Urich, as a recently-retired NYPD lieutenant, and JoBeth Williams, as the newly-elected sheriff, are outstanding in the lead roles. Kudos also to director Alan Rudolph for conjuring up and sustaining nerve-frying suspense from start to finish. (Classic exchange: When Williams asks Urich if he's ever been shot at, he replies, "Honey, I've been shot at more times than you've been laid.")

Ffolks (1980) showcases Roger Moore's finest performance as a commando-squad leader who's quite the flipside to 007: he's crusty, despises women, loves cats, and does needlepoint; and Moore clearly relishes the opportunity to play against type, mixing underplayed stalwart heroism with crack comic timing. The story has to do with terrorists (headed by Anthony Perkins) seizing two off-shore oil rigs and demanding a hefty ransom or they'll blow them up. Moore and his elite squad aim to stop them. Well-calibrated direction by Andrew V. McLaglen, who also brought us the magnificent action-adventure The Wild Geese two years prior.

The Grey Zone (2001), unlike the overpraised Schindler's List, is the best Holocaust drama ever made. Solidly acted by an eclectic cast (Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, and David Arquette in the same film!) and incisively directed by sometimes-actor Tim Blake Nelson. Simply told and a simply breathtaking work of art.

Horror Hotel (1960) is a dandy tale about a female coed who spends her winter vacation in a small New England village to do research on her paper yet winds up being terrorized by a coven of witches who're gearing up for a fiery sacrifice. In a vital supporting role, horror veteran Christopher Lee probably gives what is his finest performance; and director John Llewellyn Moxey builds the tension like a true maestro, with Desmond Dickinson's enshrouding B/W cinematography a huge asset.

The Island (1980) finds reporter Michael Caine investigating the disappearance of six-hundred boats and two-thousand people within a three-year period in the Carribean. What he discovers is a mystery that's been kept secret from the outside world for the last three-hundred years. Though not quite as swift and lean-and-mean as Peter Benchley's novel -- the middle section sags a bit -- the film is very entertaining and showcases a never-better Caine as the kind of hero you'll be proud to root for. The first twenty minutes and the grand finale aboard a Coast Guard ship are worth placing in a time capsule. Also features one of legendary composer Ennio Morricone's best scores.

Just Cause (1995) finds Sean Connery as a Harvard law professor/retired-lawyer looking into the possible wrongful child-killer conviction of Florida prisoner Blair Underwood and coming face-to-face with pure repugnant evil in the process. Graced with tantalizing twists and turns, remarkable color photography by Lajos Koltai, robust scoring by James Newton Howard, outstanding location shooting, superb supporting performances by Laurence Fishburne (as a county sheriff) and Ed Harris (as a Southern Baptist convicted serial killer), and sure-handed direction by Arne Glimcher.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) is, quite simply, the best submarine adventure ever made: exciting, psychologically complex, and full of surprises. Kathryn Bigelow's direction is typically impressive, but it's Harrison Ford, as a Russian U-boat captain, who's the standout in a galvanizing, career-best turn. One of the very best films of 2002.

The Last Waltz (1978), which chronicles the last performance of the Band in San Francisco's Winterland in 1976, is the greatest rockumentary ever made and director Martin Scorsese's best film of the seventies. Most of the on-stage performances are exhilarating, but just as vital are the off-stage interviews that tell of both of the pros and cons of being in a road band for sixteen years. Smashingly good and unforgettable stuff.

The Mothman Prophecies (2002) is a brilliant sci-fi thriller set in a small West Virginia town where unexplained phenomena and sightings of a red-eyed creature are investigated by sheriff Laura Linney and Washington Post reporter Richard Gere. Director Mark Pellington's work is even more dazzling than it was in his dandy 1999 political thriller Arlington Road: the camerawork is consistently inventive, the visual palette is delicious, and the scene transitions are remarkably assured. It's a film that dares not to spell everything out, to rely on three-dimensional characters who make sense to guide us through the outlandish story, and boasts a climactic action sequence that's nothing short of phenomenal.

No Mercy (1986) isn't exactly an original piece of work -- a Chicago cop (Richard Gere) goes to New Orleans to track down the killer of his best friend and partner -- but it's been surprisingly well-crafted by director Richard Pearce, a former documentary filmmaker who adorns the proceedings with wonderful texture and creatively staged action. Gere's charisma and intensity add some robustness, as does Alan Silvestri's knockout score and Jim Carabatsos' colorful dialogue. Another plus: George Dzundza's crowd-pleasing turn as Gere's cranky superior who reveals some real human dimension.

Octopussy (1983) is the best of the James Bond adventures. Though director John Glen and star Roger Moore didn't fare terribly well with the previous entry, For Your Eyes Only, their work here is top-notch all the way. Plenty of gorgeous women, inventive gadgets, and breathtaking stunts that will helplessly reduce one to a giddy child-like state.

The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) is a great new York movie: streetwise, savvy, and seedily swank in a hypnotic kind of way. Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts play second cousins who partake in a small-time robbery that has unforeseen consequences. Like Vincent Patrick's novel, it's less concerned with story than the dynamics in the relationships of the characters who never as wise as they like to think -- they're dreamers whose egos and aspirations tend to cloud common sense. Just listening to the dialogue and watching the talented cast (which also includes Daryl Hannah, Kevin McMillan, Burt Young, and Geraldine Page) dig into their juicy roles with aplomb is worth the rental cost -- and so is the opening shot of Rourke shaving with an electric razor to the tune of Sinatra's "Summer Wind"!

Quiet Cool (1986) is an underrated B-movie that gives us the pleasure of watching the talented James Remar, who's usually cast in villainous roles (with the most memorable his despicable Gannes in 48 Hrs.), play a heroic cop who travels to the Pacific Northwest to help out a former flame's cousin who's on the run from relentless marijuana growers. Basically, it's a survivalist action pic where the city-bred cop must do battle in the densely-wooded areas of Oregon, and able director Clay Borris keeps everything moving so efficiently you haven't time to ponder the ludicrousness of it all.

The Rundown (2003), an action comedy set in the Amazon, makes for a terrific time at the cinema. The Rock is mercilessly funny as a mobster's henchman who's assigned to bring back his boss' troublemaking son who's onto the scent of a valuable treasure. Our hero, who's built like a firehouse, must contend with smart aleck Seann William Scott, villain Christopher Walken, rough-and-rumble natives, and, in one hilarious scene, a horde of horny monkeys. The Rock proves himself a genuine, charismatic action star, and in only his second film director Peter Berg demonstrates the verity and finesse of a veteran filmmaker (in fact, this is a far more impressive effort than Berg's follow-up, the tendentious Friday Night Lights). Features the best, most disciplined use of CGI in years.

The Sure Thing (1985) still ranks as director Rob Reiner's and John Cusack's best film. Cusack plays a sex-starved Ivy League freshman who hitchhikes out to California with the promise of getting laid by blond beauty Nicolette Sheridan thanks to his best friend from high school, Anthony Edwards. Alas, the trip doesn't go trouble-free: Cusack's strapped for cash, bad weather ensues, and he's forced to rely on a brainy fellow student, Daphne Zuniga, who gradually forms an infatuation for a guy she's previously dismissed as a cad. Lots and lots of funny situations, gut-funny dialogue, and an uproarious turn by Tim Robbins as a master geek who subjects the hero and heroine to endless show-tune sing-a-longs in the car. Priceless.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) suffers from a banal final quarter, but up until there co-writer/director William Friedkin offers up a spectacularly seedy cop tale that's almost on par with his Oscar-winning The French Connection. William L. Petersen is a doggedly-determined Secret Service agent out to nab counterfeiter Willem Dafoe at all costs: proper procedure and rules he throws out the window in order to bring to justice the man responsible for his veteran partner's death. The thin line between cop and criminal is interestingly explored here, with the former actually coming off as the more appealing of the two. Wayne Chung's hard-pounding score drives the film forward almost as well as Friedkin's propulsive narrative skill, and Robby Muller's lighting manages to exude so much in the way of palpable sleaze that you'll feel the need for a shower afterward.

Up the Academy (1980), the first film brought to you by the makers of Mad magazine, is a highly offensive but undeniably uproarious comedy set in a military school where a quartet of mischievous misfits square off against a dastardly foe in the form of Col. Liceman (brilliantly played by Ron Liebman, whose dexterous vocal inflections here should be studied in acting schools for years to come). Crude, profane, no-holds-barred stuff that serves up a rich shiek's son who's a kleptomaniac, a preacher's son who smokes his stepmother's grass and has carnal relations with her, and a winning pre-Karate Kid Ralph Macchio as a wisecracking Mafioso's son who devastates his father by not wanting to follow in the family's prostitution-and-drugs racket. A killer soundtrack and Barbara Bach's bountiful cleavage help out, too.

Venom (1982) is a neat, shiver-inducing British domestic thriller that finds a boy and his grandfather held hostage in their home by kidnappers, who are in turn held hostage themselves by the police waiting outside -- along with the world's deadliest snake, a black mamba, which was mistakenly delivered to the boy from the local pet store and which proceeds to knock everyone off one by one. The screenplay (which is very faithful to Alan Scholefield's fine novel) is terse, the editing adept, the direction full of prowess, and the top-notch cast (with Nicol Williamson, as a cop, and Klaus Kinski, as the lead villain, the standouts) excellent.

Warning Sign (1985) is one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made, the kind that reveals itself to be brain-dead in the first two minutes but somehow manages to work up a rather jovial appeal. The setting is rural Utah, and a highly-contagious germ has spilled in a top-secret government laboratory that turns those affected into rage-fueled maniacs; when the facility is sealed and locked down by security guard Kathleen Quinlan, her husband, sheriff Sam Waterston, tries to rescue her. In essence, it's a combination of The Andromeda Strain and Night of the Living Dead, but the IQ-deprived writing and endless unintentional laughs dissipate the tension. Standouts of the god-awful dialogue: "Two, four, six, eight, I don't want to radiate."; "It's different for you! Germs are your job!; "I feel rage, Joanie. Beautiful rage!" To be fair, though, the editing by Robert Lawrence, scoring by Craig Safan, and photography by the great Dean Cundey are outstanding, and the film itself is never boring.

Xtro (see review) (1983) is one of the best of the Alien knockoffs. Gruesome creatures, lots of gore, and a sexy, full-frontal Maryam D'Abo on the receiving end of some truly drool-inducing oral sex. What more do you need?

Year of the Dragon (1985) doesn't exactly boast the most literate of scripts (it bears absolutely none of the nuance of Robert Daley's crime novel), but Michael Cimino's direction is so voluptuously colorful that the film is alive like very few are. What we have here is Captain Stanley White (an intense but miscast Mickey Rourke) going after Chinese crime lord Joey Tai (a magnificent John Lone) and turning New York's Chinatown upside down in the process. The dialogue is pure loony-tunes at times ("I'm not Italian -- I'm a Polock, and I can't be bought."), yet this only adds to the fun (like watching Stanley and his partner cuss and belch in front of a pair of elderly vegetarian nuns who're running a wiretap in a flophouse apartment). Cimino has zero common sense when it comes to characterization and dramatization, yet he has a maestro's eye for eye-popping spectacle, dazzling detail, and sensuous movement within the widescreen frame. Boasts one of the greatest opening-credits scores by David Mansfield.

Zero Effect (1998) marks the filmmaking debut of writer/director Jake Kasdan, the son of veteran filmmaker Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan. It's a rather original cinematic endeavor that offers up career-best turns by Bill Pullman as a reclusive but brilliant private investigator and Ben Stiller as his exasperated assistant; they take on a case involving rich businessman Ryan O'Neal, who's being blackmailed yet isn't quite the innocent victim he makes himself out to be. Kasdan's dialogue has sparkle, his camerawork is assured, and the twists and turns of his story are nimble. It's great to see Pullman, usually cast as a bland Everyman in supporting roles, given the opportunity to demonstrate the scope of his talent by playing a truly interesting eccentric without italicizing the eccentricity -- he goes for the man, not the mannerisms, and creates a classic three-dimensional character that should have warranted an Oscar nomination. The film's second-half isn't on par with the first-half, and Kasdan's confident editing rhythms start sputtering at about this time, too, but overall this is still an admirable piece of work.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1541
originally posted: 07/05/05 05:32:50
last updated: 07/06/05 03:23:17
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