Foreplay: Memento (2000)
This high-concept thriller about a man who cannot trust his senses made director Christopher Nolan’s reputation as the millennium’s new Kubrick. The jigsaw puzzle plot starts with Guy Pearce’s inability to store new memories or make sense of his old ones. He tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder—and the peculiar tattoos that cover his body. Inked with clues, his very being is marked-up as a desecration against standards of human values and conventional storytelling. Nolan settles for being unsettling even when he solves Pearce’s mystery and this unsatisfying storytelling practice ushered in the era of Hollywood nihilism. Movies and humanity would never be the same again.
Press Play: This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This rock and roll satire about a British Heavy Metal band is the work of comics—Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner who all wrote and starred. Its sarcasm is more like Guest’s other semi-improvisational sit-coms (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) than Reiner’s other sappy Hollywood movies (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally) so take Reiner’s directorial credit as lightly as the band’s inane cock-rock lyrics. (Credit must have been decided over a poker game.) The film’s mockery of music takes backseat to mocking it’s documentary pretense, giving birth to the concept of The Mockumentary. Movie storytelling would never be the same again. Next up in this untrustworthy media vaudeville: Michael Moore.
Playtime: Crossfire Hurricane (2012)
This is a 50th-anniversary retrospective on The Rolling Stones, the musical act formerly billed as “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”—until Hip-Hop changed the game. Director Brett Morgen goes for real innovation by using archival footage and overlaying it with his recent interviews on the soundtrack. This makes pop history both vintage and vital. The title comes from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the surly, locomotive biography of a bad boy who won’t be tied down—a figure who personifies these ever-aging bad-boy rivals of Beatles. What you already know about them (and what you don’t know) gets enlivened by concert and recording footage and simply thrilling to their undeniably infectious creativity. Pop stardom would rarely be so sensational again.
Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Foreplay: The Five Heartbeats (1991)
Just in time for Black History Month, this backstage musical tells the story of a fictional R&B group that sings and dances a lot like The Temptations and The Four Tops. There’s 1960s nostalgia and a lot of hokey soap opera amidst the ghetto intrigue, personal drama and civil rights struggling. Director Robert Townsend also plays one of the Heartbeats (along with Tico Wells, Harry Lennix, Michael Wright and the actor known simply as Leon but most famous for Madonna’s Like a Prayer music video). The film is a tribute to the trials and triumphs of black pop music. It’s based on history but really is just a medley of imagination and wish fulfillment, just like the movie Dreamgirls but a whole lot better. (Showbiz veterans Diahann Carroll and Harold Nicholas make cameo appearances.)
Press Play: The Girl From Chicago (1932)
Also in time for Black History Month is this rarely shown film by pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. This is one of his most entertaining of his strange specialty films. Micheaux’s regular storytelling genre was melodrama—usually crime stories and romances—which means he was the Douglas Sirk of Harlem. In this one, a government agent (Carl Mahon) in Mississippi falls in love with a local girl (Grace Smith), they move to Harlem and get involved with a racketeer (the great Juano Hernandez who went on to a dignified acting career in Hollywood). Micheaux intersperses the plot with entertainment breaks—musical acts and dances that push this film toward the avant-garde while it documents the era’s black cultural trends.
Playtime: Finding Dory (2016)
Fish Lives Matter—that’s the theme that makes this latest Pixar movie also a contribution to Black History Month. Ellen Degeneres voices the Blue Tang title fish bringing-in her TV specialty of representing diversity and political correctness and insufferable cuteness. Dory’s short-term memory loss as she goes through the predictable Pixar plot of leaving home and returning home can be looked at this month as an allegory for the African American slave experience and the desperate search for ancestral homelands. Is that a stretch? Pixar can use a stretch from its usually unimaginative formulaic product. Otherwise this is just a sequel cashing in on the once-was-enough children’s hitFinding Nemo.
Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Foreplay: Woman in Gold (2015) Helen Mirren wasn’t always the grande dame of serious cinema. Her full-frontal nude entrance in Ken Russell’s 1972 Savage Messiah paraded one of the shapeliest female forms in movie history. That hot chick Helen could have posed for Gustav Klimt’s famous painting that is at the center of this new film’s legal and moral controversy. Helen plays a Holocaust survivor who sues to win possession of the Klimt masterpiece from the Austrian government. Comic actor Ryan Reynolds breaks type as her novice lawyer but without ever cracking wise; his character experiences a personal victory. This time, Helen is fully dressed in righteousness. She’s serious, not sexy. But the problem is, the movie also lacks surprise. You already know she’ll win her case but you might also wish, to quote comic Rodney Dangerfield, that she would show more of her Klimt.
Press Play: Corpse Bride (2008) For those who like their women—and their animation–ghoulish, Tim Burton takes another leap at his unaccountably admired The Nightmare Before Christmas. Johnny Depp voices a 19th century swain who accidentally pronounces his wedding vows in a cemetery, wedding him to a drop-dead scary bride voiced by Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Burton). This might have been more tolerable as a live-action film, giving the great Helena room to stretch her likably eccentric craft. Instead, Burton’s puppet animation (manipulated by an army of technicians) ensures that everything remains freaky. That includes Danny Elfman’s music score, less annoying than in Nightmare. This new nightmare was also a hit, spawning a 2016 short and a 2017 TV sequel. Just think, had Helena and Depp performed this live-action, we wouldn’t have had to suffer through Burton’sSweeney Todd.
Playtime: Contact (1997) Is Jodie Foster more lovable than Amy Adams? That is the question Contact poses in defense of its rip-off by the recent Amy Adams vehicle Arrival. Jodie plays a scientist who, since childhood, explored astronomy with an interest in communicating with extraterrestrial species. (The plot includes her Spielbergian wish for an absent father, also a space scientist.) When Jodie’s efforts result in an astonishing close encounter, director Robert Zemeckis goes full tilt sci-fi, digital F/X crazy. This film is even more of a technical marvel than Arrival and Jodie sustains an emotional response that surely inspired likable Amy Adams as well as Christopher Nolan. Note to Memento fans: Nolan showed the great influence of this movie in his own rip-off Interstellar. And guess what? Matthew McConaughey stars in both! But time has shown that Contact is, in every sense, an original.
Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Foreplay: Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Tim Burton turns his adolescent rebellion against social convention into this live-action and slow-motion animation feature. An anti-Christmas movie, it’s for Scrooges everywhere. Its story replaces the Christmas wish on “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All Men” with the childish threat and ghoulish horror of All Hallow’s Eve. The skull-and-bones-skinny king of Pumpkin Town, Jack Skellington (voiced by composer Danny Elfman), replaces the figure of gift-giving (life-giving) Santa Claus by arousing a graveyard full of ghouls to celebrate dead humanity. It’s a case of Tim Burton giving-in to his own bad dreams and forcing nightmares upon the movie-going public. This is a family movie for victims of emotional homicide. Elfman (who voices Jack) wrote the song score that is incessantly hyperactive, maybe the most annoying soundtrack in movie-musical history.
Press Play: Magic Mike (2012) Stephen Soderbergh’s bisexual hit uses Channing Tatum’s own Southern-trash biography as the basis for this film about male strippers. The story confuses entrepreneurship with social-climbing but there’s also an undeniable amount of sexual curiosity. Is Tatum and his crew of hunks (Alex Pettyfer, Joseph Manganiello and Matthew McConaughey) just working for a living or are they giving way to secret sexual instincts? The film isn’t good enough to explore that issue. Instead, Soderbegh exploits it. This is his unacknowledged, soft-core sequel to the film that was his career breakthrough, Sex, Lies and Videotape. This time Soderbergh and Tatum indulge in the digital-video age’s post-porn dishonesty. Tatum’s Mike mixes his entrepreneurial instinct with his horn-dog tendency; it’s about the way capitalism corrupts the erotic instinct. Wait for the sequel, Magic Mike XXL. It’s also trite, but at least the dancing is better.
Playtime: Babe: Pig in the City (1998) Speaking of sequels, here’s a rare example where the sequel to a good movie surpasses the original. This hasn’t happened since The Godfather, Part II and Pig in the City is equal to that masterpiece. Mad Max director George Miller takes over and his antic, sarcastic personality turns the sweet original fantasy into a super-intense Animal Farm metaphor that contemplates life’s difficulty. Children will appreciate the fright and adults will be moved to think. Away from the beloved Hoggett farm, Babe (voiced by E.G. Daily) and Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) must face mortgage bankers and big city diversity (cats, dogs, chimpanzees as varied as the human populace). Babe’s courage gets challenged by a Pit Bull Terrier in an extended chase scene so expertly executed and terrifying that it takes on existential dimensions. “Why?” Babe heartbreakingly cries. It is one of the most profound moments in movie history.
Foreplay: Superman Returns (2006)
As Netflix’s Superman month draws to a close, here’s a real piece of demoralizing Kryptonite. Director Bryan Singer treats the Superman legend with the same juvenile cynicism of his X-Men movies—turning comic book heroism to passionless displays of brutality. The scene where the Man of Steel is relentlessly pummeled, or bluffs a bullet to his eyeball, neglects the audience’s awareness of his invulnerability. It’s just dumb, repetitive violence which becomes particularly offensive when Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane is brutalized during an airplane flight. What happened to chivalry? It got chewed-up in Singer’s perversely sexualized clichés. Who else but a Hollywood hustler would cast Superman for fashion model beefcake blankness? Don’t blame young actor Brandon Routh who smiles appealingly. It’s not his fault that the movie was sold via the salacious meme “Routh rhymes with mouth.”
Press Play: Vanilla Sky (2001)
After the success of Jerry Maguire, writer-director Cameron Crowe must have thought he could get away with anything. This is his bid at imitating French New Wave montage—playing games with time, memory and expensive special effects—in this story of a publishing magnate (Tom Cruise) who, after an accident, undergoes plastic surgery and memory reassignment about his selfish love life. Penelope Cruz plays the barely intelligible Spanish side chick and Cameron Diaz plays the scorn psycho chick but Cruise gets lost in the director’s obnoxious homages to Francois Truffaut and Bob Dylan. Nothing exceeds like excess and Crowe’s background as a highly successfulRolling Stone magazine writer parallels Cruise’s dilemma but it adds nothing to this story of wealth, privilege and selfishness beyond wealth, privilege and selfishness.
Playtime: Boogie Nights (1997)
Not as much fun as the disco-skating film Roller Boogie but this Paul Thomas Anderson film does have Rollergirl, a sad sack porn star who screws with her skates on. She’s one of the lowlifes employed in the San Fernando Valley porn industry. Anderson explores that subculture like ripping-off a condom to expose America’s greedy, skanky, drug addicted and brain-dead essence. This is a Robert Altman carnival with STDs. Mark (Marky Mark) Wahlberg plays the moronic teen who becomes Dirk Diggler, the X-rated stud whose little head is attached to a big moneymaker. Burt Reynolds got an Oscar nomination for playing the shady skinflick entrepreneur and Anderson won acclaim as the new Tarantino simply for scoring all the screwing and coke sniffing to ‘70s radio hits. Stay tuned for the big reveal: Diggler unzipping and hauling out what is too-obviously a rubber night stick.
Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Foreplay: V for Vendetta (2005) Alan Moore’s DC graphic novel inspired a generation of would-be political activists to romanticize their political paranoia and the Wachowski siblings backed it up as this film’s producers. They used futuristic alarm and thriller techniques similar to what they had used on The Matrix. Moore’s heroine, Evie (played by Natalie Moore), joins the cause of a mysterious figure (Hugo Weaving) who saved her life. They crusade to save Britain from totalitarianism. This is where millennials got the idea to become anarchists wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The mask’s moustachioed smirk is hard to take seriously because the disguise trivializes the real history of British anarchy; on action-movie fantasy terms, it is essentially juvenile. Maybe Portman’s bald-headed avenger will inspire the next generation of fashionable anarchists. Joan of Arc clones could be the next big thing in Bermondsey or Ferguson.
Press Play: El Dorado (1967) Howard Hawk’s next-to-last movie is pure Americana–a celebration of masculine community. Yes, it’s another John Wayne western, in the same mold as Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo but this time not so classic and with slightly arthritic bravado. Still, Hawks’ sense of American camaraderie has its appeal—especially when old-timers Wayne and Robert Mitchum let their bygones go by and team up against a common enemy. They define patriotism and friendship in timeless terms, teaching that lesson to the next generation: That’s James Caan in his third movie, taking on the role of the new jack Hawksian stud. He’s young, dumb and wet behind the ears.
Playtime: Ocean’s Twelve (2004) Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of Frank Sinatra’s 1960 Rat Pack stag party flick, has none of the original’s Army veterans’ camaraderie, or its sense of desperate Americans making a last-ditch effort at grabbing the American Cash Dream—in Las Vegas. But Soderbergh had a hit, so this sequel is, instead, all about greed. Supposedly, greed is justified by the celebrity cast: George Clooney (as criminal mastermind Danny Ocean), Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta Jones, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle and the late great Bernic Mac who all, at this stage of their careers, had hit the jackpot. Twelve has shameless charm, improving on Soderbergh’s dull, formulaic Oceans’ Eleven. Sometimes, even the sequel to a bad idea can be better.
Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Foreplay: The Angry Birds Movie (2016) So many people have played Angry Birds on their cell phones it’s no wonder Hollywood animators took the next step and turned their boredom, excitement and digital addiction into cartoon characters. Imagine using that brightly-colored world of collapsing houses for social satire. The easily triggered animals are given the voices of top comedians: Jason Sudeikis, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph play Red, Bomb and Matilda, contented birds on their own island who get angry when their bubble is invaded by Green Piggies. (Think “Piggies” from the Beatles’ White Album.) It’s a clever parody of phone-gamers trying to reclaim childhood in their own private world, a comic community of Millennials. Let the envy wars—and the laughs—begin.
Press Play: Toys (1992) People who hold on to their affection for the toys of their childhood will respond instantly to the look of Toys. It’s an imaginary world writ large—like living inside a 20th century toy chest or Santa’s workshop. But this nostalgic concept never carries over to Barry Levinson’s attempt at political satire. He stars Robin Williams as a child-man who competes with his militaristic brother (Michael Gambon) for the family’s toy-making company. Levinson wars with the idea of innocence; his preachy seriousness is at odds with the movie’s dream-like environment. Toys was the last film designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the visionary genius responsible for the look of Scarface, The Conformist and The Last Emperor. His toyshop set designs salute Surrealist artist Rene Magritte as well as Walt Disney and are more impressive than Levinson’s jarringly violent anti-war message. (L.L. Cool J makes a charming Hollywood debut as a boyish soldier.)
Playtime: Harry and the Hendersons (1987) Steven Spielberg produced this good-natured fable about a family who takes in Sasquatch. It’s the same affection as if the Henderson’s had run-over Bambi and took the deer into their own home. But Harry, the hairy benevolent beast (played by six-foot, five-inch African American actor Kevin Peter Hall) is more than a pet; he’s an alien—like Spielberg’s E.T.–who has a tough time being domesticated by the customs and peculiarities of human family life. Like Bambi and E.T., Harry belongs to his own world, a life lesson learned by the Hendersons (John Lithgow, Melinda Dillon and their two kids). Director William Dear repeats Spielberg’s affectionate humor, creating a world of cartoon-like sweetness. Think about its theme: It’s a secular Christmas movie in time for the holidays.
Illustration by Hilton Dresden
Foreplay: Hannibal (2001)
This shameless sequel to Silence of the Lambs (even Jodie Foster refused to participate) gained a new and hysterical audience when clips of Julianne Moore gunning down crazed urban predator Hazelle Goodman was used in a popular gun-control satire. It showed politically correct pacifist Moore pleading “Enough!” But too much is never enough for director Ridley Scott who out-creeps Jonathan Demme’s original film. Ridley even features an outrageous cannibalism scene in which Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecture makes a gourmet feast of unfortunate detective Ray Liotta’s gray matter. It’sBrain Salad Surgery—an inside reference to the classic Emerson Lake & Palmer prog-rock album with cover art by H.R. Giger whose ghoulish designs in Alien made Ridley’s career.
Press Play: Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
This box office embarrassment about a magical Negro (Will Smith) who spreads fairy dust on segregated pre-Civil Rights era golf courses was both ahead of its time (pre-Obama) and behind the times. Tiger Woods had already won a Masters Tournament and a U.S. Open when the movie was released and flopped, but Hollywood prefers p.c. sentimentality to actual social progress. Matt Damon, portraying the condescending white golf pro, didn’t seem to know better and director Robert Redford was simply in pandering mode. Will Smith was in search of a klieg-light halo. His next role would be Muhammad Ali.
Playtime: Compulsion (1958)
This bio-pic of Loeb & Leopold, thrill killers of the 1920s, follows Alfred Hitchcock’s 1949 stage-based dramatization Rope. But this quasi-exploitation version of the story is even better. Genre expert Richard Fleischer dares to show Loeb & Leopold (Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell) as rich, narcissistic murderers, gay fellow-travelers of Chicago’s Al Capone era—and Stockwell goes all the way with sensitive, sympathetic gay inference. He’s Sub to Dillman’s Dom and Orson Welles (imitating real-life defense attorney Clarence Darrow) argues for them memorably. Stockwell, Dillman and Welles split a well-deserved Best Actor prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Foreplay: The Crucible (1996) Arthur Miller’s 1950s play about the Salem witch trials is always talked about as a political allegory but this modern adaptation works best depending on what mood you’re in and which cast member you favor. Daniel Day Lewis fans can see a horror story about a handsome man stalked by a psycho. Winona Ryder fans can see a love story about a tragically misunderstood hysterically romantic teenager. Joan Allen fans (I know you’re out there) can see a comedy about actors pretending that they’re in an American version of Macbeth. Best of all, this desperate attempt at a classic is easy-watching for high school students dreading that book report.
Press Play: Black Snake Moan (2007) Samuel L. Jackson fans, this is the SamJack movie of your dreams. He plays a retired black Southern blues performer whose dull life is awakened by an out-of-control white teenager (Christina Ricci). SamJack tries to rehabilitate the hot-to-trot redneck by keeping her chained-up in his shotgun shack. Is this a race comedy, a sexual nightmare? Or is it a sexual comedy, a racial nightmare? Director Craig Brewer, who made the Southern hip-hop movie Hustle & Flow, plays with the possibilities—risking it all in a scene where SamJack steps out of his comfort zone and attempts to sing the blues. Turns out, SamJack’s comfort zone is, as usual, amping-up race and sex stereotypes. As the title suggests, this movie is something new: It is stereotype porn.
Playtime: House of Wax (2006) Fans of the classic 1950s Vincent Price horror film, rejoice! This is not a sequel but an entirely new re-imagining of haunted house terror. Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murphy add post-puberty sexiness to the familiar genre of teens in trouble. It’s a Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre mash-up set in aBeverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Dawson’s Creek world. That’s right, it’s a new classic. Director Jaume Collet-Serra has action movie panache plus a visionary sense of humor (see how he envisions the title) that Millennials correctly call “wicked.” And, yes, Paris Hilton’s Most Valuable Player performance turns out to be a scream.