Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Quick Oscar thoughts

Hope to have another movie post before long -- "Big Momma's House 2" ruled! -- but here are thoughts on the folks jockeying for a little gold man.

Best Picture
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

I guess "Crash" got the "Walk the Line" slot, which is fine. Not like either would have won. Slighty surprised to see "Capote" here since all the talk has been about the actor, not the movie. But good to see it on the list, even if "Brokeback" probably won't be denied.

Best Director
George Clooney, "Good Night, and Good Luck"
Paul Haggis, "Crash"
Ang Lee, "Brokeback Mountain"
Bennett Miller, "Capote"
Steven Spielberg, "Munich"

You get the feeling Spielberg could film a junior-high girls' basketball game and get a directing nom. Doesn't matter, though, since this is Lee's to lose.

Best Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Capote"
Terrence Howard, "Hustle & Flow"
Heath Ledger, "Brokeback Mountain"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Walk the Line"
David Strathairn, "Good Night, and Good Luck"

Hmmm, three of these roles were real people. That's weird, and maybe the only thing about a contest that is Hoffman's to lose. No offense, fellas, but the rest of you are a bunch of Ringoes, i.e. just happy to be here.

Best Actress
Judi Dench, "Mrs. Henderson Presents"
Felicity Huffman, "Transamerica"
Keira Knightley, "Pride & Prejudice"
Charlize Theron, "North Country"
Reese Witherspoon, "Walk the Line"

Two of these (Dench and Theron) have done better work, and I doubt anyone will take Domino seriously. That leaves Huffman and Witherspoon, and hard for me to see Reese losing. As much as the transgendered thing is "brave," Witherspoon really was the best thing in "Walk the Line" -- easily her best work since "Sweet Home Alabama."

Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney, "Syriana"
Matt Dillon, "Crash"
Paul Giamatti, "Cinderella Man"
Jake Gyllenhaal, "Brokeback Mountain"
William Hurt, "A History of Violence"

Tough call here. Clooney has gotten a couple of awards already, but maybe Gyllenhaal sneaks in here. Giamatti could get the sympathy vote for not getting a "Sideways" acting nom, but he's done better work. Meanwhile, voters may forgive Jake for "The Day After Tomorrow."

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, "Junebug"
Catherine Keener, "Capote"
Frances McDormand, "North Country"
Rachel Weisz, "The Constant Gardener"
Michelle Williams, "Brokeback Mountain"

And now I'm torn. Never mind McDormand (done better), Weisz (can't act) and Keener (nominated for the wrong movie; c'mon ... "The 40-Year-Old Virgin!") Williams was great as Ledger's wife in "Brokeback." I was impressed given her "Dawson's Creek" background. But I loved Adams ... a lot more than "Junebug" itself, and I'm not just saying that because three people have said she reminded them of my wife. (Without the accent, mind you.) I'd be fine with either winning, but it probably will be Williams.

Closing notes
-- Sucks that "The Squid and the Whale" didn't slide in there. It was one of the best five movies I saw, and Jeff Daniels was great.
-- Also surprised "Match Point" didn't make best picture given the love affair critics have had with Woody's "comeback."
-- Finally, I'm not watching any foreign-film competition that doesn't include "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

She's a lady ... whoa, whoa, whoa ... she's a lady: "Transamerica"

I love her to death, but Felicity Huffman isn't all that feminine.

This isn't a bad thing, mind you. Hey, we all like the tomboy at one time or another, and way before her corporate mommy thing in "Desperate Housewives," Huffman was cute, albeit quirky, as the high-strung producer in "Sports Night" (also starring a pre-"Six Feet Under" Peter Krause; check it out). So I've had a soft spot for her for a while, and she's definitely one of the more tolerable housewives. Seriously, what is the big deal with Eva Longoria? She's kind of sexy, I guess, but so annoying it kind of cancels everything out.

Now Huffman is getting some Oscar buzz for her performance as an L.A. man undergoing a sex change who discovers he/she has a teenage son from a long-ago fling. Yow, talk about bad timing. She gives in to her therapist's suggestion to bail the boy out of an NYC jail, which leads to a cross-country road trip in which Huffman's character delays telling his/her son about who he/she is for as long as possible. Being this is a road trip, though, you guessed it ... hijinks ensue.

So we're left with kind of a weird mix of a movie, and it turns out to be rather uneven. Huffman seems to have the transgendered stuff down, and the kid, Kevin Zegers, also is good, managing the sullen and smart-ass routine well. A lot of their interaction is believable, and it's helped by some decent supporting players, such as Graham Greene as a helpful Indian in New Mexico and Burt Young -- yo, Paulie! -- as Huffman's dad in Phoenix.

Alas, there are a couple of problems. First, as much as they try with the makeup, it's really hard to forget Huffman actually is a woman. She does all she can, but I wonder if the movie would have worked better with a guy in the role. Hard to say, and like I said, Huffman is a better choice than more girlie-girl actresses; Jennifer Anniston ain't pulling this off. That's a minor thing, though.

A bigger issue is the script, which has some rather implausible scenes, even for a movie about a transgendered person road-tripping with a teenager. A couple of these involve scenes with those two, and a couple ask us to forget what happened in other scenes. I'm not talking plot development as much as mood. Some scenes are funny, some are sad, and I'm not sure they fit together well. For instance, it's sad that Zegers is a hustler who falls back on trading sex for money or favors when things go bad. Yet we're supposed to laugh at him starring in a gay porno named "Cowabunghole?" Sure, that's funny -- if I'm not king of bad puns, I'm in the royal family -- but I'm not sure it's appropriate.

Perhaps I'm being too uptight. "Transamerica" does have a lot of good things, and Huffman deserves the Oscar nomination she'll probably get. (We also love her husband, Bill Macy.) Still, I always come back to my pal Justin's rule for rating movies: If you see penis, it's an automatic one-star deduction. Note: "Boogie Nights" doesn't count because that wasn't Marky Mark's real unit. Yeah ... sorry, ladies.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The girl can't help it, she needs more: "Bound"

This movie is awesome, and it not's even because of the girl-on-girl action.

Don't get me wrong. The lesbian thing is hot. But this movie works because of how it brings slick style to basic film noir. Seriously, if you replaced Gina Gershon -- hot as she is -- with a guy, it would be just as good. That's good writing and moviemaking, my friends.

We have the Wachowski Brothers to thank for this. You know them from the Matrix" series that was initially intriguing but became a little too sprawling and lot too confusing. Before that trilogy, they crafted "Bound," a caper movie in which a woman just out of jail plots with a gangster's girlfriend to steal $2 million in mafia money. Sounds like a simple plot, but we get plenty of twists and turns to keep the suspense high. And yes, there's some good old-fashioned fooling around by the ladies.

They're played by Jennifer Tilly (Violet, the gun moll) and the aforementioned Gershon (Corky, the ex-con), who apparently is fine being naked around other women, i.e. "Showgirls." Gina has slid off the radar in recent years, between playing in a band and being on various TV shows. That's a shame, because she really was smokin' for a while. For me, it was that whole sneering, bad girl thing, with her lip perpetually curled. Kind of like Joan Jett, if she was hot.

Gershon is great as the criminal, but Tilly is just as good, which is something of a surprise. It's never easy to take her seriously as an actress, probably because she's such a live cartoon between her curvy body and baby-doll voice. (Funny trivia: One of her first roles was as a rocket scientist in "Moving Violations," also starring Bill Murray's brother John and the "Where's the beef?" woman.) But those attributes work incredibly well here, with Violet introduced as a floozy but quickly revealing herself to be pretty sharp.

Rounding out the triangle is Joey Pants himself, Joe Pantoliano. He always plays a good mob guy, and this is no exception. As you might guess, the caper doesn't go perfectly, and Joey Pants gets the chance to show his brutal side. In the end, all three actors are exceptional.

What really raises the movie, though, is the direction. It's weird to watch this again after the "Matrix" movies, because you notice a lot of the same techniques. There's a lot of black and white contrast, for instance, and some slo-mo, including bullets (but not like Keanu dodging them). We also get those overhead camera tracking shots from room to room, and cameras following along telephone lines when calls are being made. There may not have been any glowing green computer screens, but it's clear these are the same guys who handled Neo, Morpheus and Trinity.

In the end, it's a great looking movie and great characters and great pacing, all while being pretty simple. Even with Corky and Violet facing complications in getting the $2 million, things keep moving, and it's easy to follow. Throw in the perfect song for the closing credits, and we get a complete film all the way around. And I don't know if I mentioned this, but there are lesbians, too.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

So this is what drove him to Jesus: "Signs"

So I got called for jury duty the other day. Had to report after ignoring the first notice back in November. Didn't need any unruly bailiffs knocking on my door.

This marked the third time in six years I'd been called, and the last time saw me end up in a murder trial. Boy, was that fun. Nothing like hearing about a case where everyone -- hell, even the lawyers -- seemed to be on drugs. As you might guess, I wasn't looking to duplicate that experience this week.

Fortunately, I can report that this latest experience was the best. Not only did I not get called to a courtroom during the one day I had to be there, but they helped us kill time by showing a couple of movies. The court folks apparently had a thing for M. Night Shyamalalalalalalalalan, since they started with "The Village" -- which I skipped because, well, it sucks -- and ended with "Signs." I had seen that, too, but it wasn't bad, and what else was I going to do? Read?

"Signs" has Mel Gibson as a recently widowed reverend raising his kids on the Pennsylvania farm where his brother Joaquin Phoenix also lives. They discover large crop circles in their corn field, then get other strange signs that aliens may be among us and preparing to visit in even larger numbers. Something tells me those 4-H clubs and FFA meetings didn't prepare the family for that kind of thing.

The theme, which M. Night batters us over the head with, is belief -- Gibson's belief in God, or lack of it after his wife's death, and the family's varying belief in the aliens. There's also a kind of everything-happens-for-a-reason thing going as the alien invasion becomes more and more of a possibility, all the way up to the big finale. Being this is the guy who brought us "The Sixth Sense" and other "gotcha" movies, the ending isn't what you might think, but it's also not a big "a-ha" twist.

Like I said, it's not bad, mainly because the actors are likable and have some good dialogue, and Shyamalan does ratchet up the suspense pretty well. There are a few nice "made you jump" scenes, and the kids are cute, especially the girl named Bo. Gibson's character is waaaayyy too somber, even for a widower, but that's standard for the director. It's not like Bruce Willis was a laugh a minute in "The Sixth Sense" or "Unbreakable," and "The Village"-rs were practically sleepwalking. I guess it's nice that we at least had Phoenix to liven things up, although belting out "Ring of Fire" during the alien invasion wasn't very appropriate.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

If a tennis player is two-timing, does that make it a double fault?: "Match Point"

First things first: I'm not much for Woody Allen.

It's a shame, really, because his early stuff is hilarious. I still laugh at Woody as a cellist in a marching band in "Take the Money and Run," and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" was funny, too. (You gotta wonder if Burt Reynolds ever tells anyone, "You know, I played the 'Sperm Switchboard Chief' in that ... ")

Then came the '80s, when Woody, riding his "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" success, really started to focus on relationships, feelings, blah blah blah. Since I was a kid and then a teenager, I could have cared less, and I've never been motivated to catch up on all that jazz. I TiVoed "Zelig" not long ago, but then erased it to make way for something else. We now have "Crimes and Misdemeanors" in the queue, and we'll see how long that lasts.

Now that you know where I stand with Woody, consider this: "Match Point" was pretty good. For one, all the talky-talky that Woody has his characters do is offset by choppy scenes that give a the impression of things moving along; no real danger of getting bogged down there. Then we get a genuinely messy affair that ups the tension more than you'd expect in an Allen movie. Seriously, he have made a movie called "Bullets Over Broadway," but you don't exactly expect anger and violence in his movies, right?

Set in England, "Match Point" has that coach from "Bend It Like Beckham" who later played a TV-movie Elvis, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as an Irish tennis player who becomes a club pro and meets a wealthy guy whose sister he eventually marries. That seems to set this poor kid up for life, but there's just one problem: He's hot for his pal's fiancee, Scarletttttt Johanssssssson, who has the curious name of Nola. Doesn't that sound like part of New York ... you know, like short for "North of Lancaster Street?" Maybe it's just me.

If Johnny were able to resist Scarlett, this would have been a short and boring movie. Alas, he can't, and the movie follows their affair as Rhys-Meyers continues to rise the corporate ladder and become more deeply involved with the rich family, whose patriarch is the always-enjoyable Brian Cox.

But the real notable performances here are the two leads, with Rhys-Meyers sometimes too muted but generally good as the formerly humble kid who changes with success. Even better, though, is Johansson, who changes more dramatically from the smoky, sultry, oh-so-American fox to something that's sadder to watch, even though she still looks good. Really, I know she kind of has that butthole mouth, but it's hard to name anyone so young who comes off so much older, and has just the right amount of jiggle -- heck, let's call it baby fat -- to go with a nice body overall. And yes, I'm a caveman.

What I liked most, though, was how Allen bookended the movie with the theme of luck. The intro is a tad squishy, but it's a lot better once you get to the end of the movie. Not only is there a pretty good parallel scene, but what ultimately happens after that scene is nothing short of masterful, and I don't use that word lightly. Really, it's not often that I rave about a plot twist right after a movie, but this was the exception. I mean, who could have known that Scarlett was actually a guy? Talk about bad luck. (Damn, I ruined it!)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Clooney! Kidman! No chemistry!: "The Peacemaker"

Not to mention another Clooney movie, but a perfect storm led me to see this recently for a second time. After the lady of the house had gone to bed, I was trolling for something to kill a little more time before retiring for the evening. Lo, there was "The Peacemaker," a passable action movie about stolen nuclear weapons that stars two of the best looking people on the planet. Yeah, that should last me until 1 a.m.!

I didn't see "The Peacemaker" when it came out back in 1997, mainly because I hadn't heard anything great about it and was pretty sick of the George Clooney lovefest from the first few seasons of "ER." Fine show, and I watched it until 4-5 years ago. But Clooney's mugging for the camera and sudden stardom after struggling for a decade in such fare as "Grizzly II," "Return of the Killer Tomatoes" and "Knights of the Kitchen Table" was wearing on me. Besides, Kidman didn't look very hot in the movie and already had done much better work, i.e. "To Die For" and the hugely underrated "Malice."

She still doesn't look so good, but this isn't a bad little thriller. After a nuclear explosion in Russia masks the theft of warheads, Kidman (head of the U.S. government's nuclear smuggling group) and Clooney (an Army guy) team up to track down the weapons of mass destruction, which most likely won't be donated to charity. This involves a little globetrotting and some arguing between the leads, which you would think might build romantic tension. But no, there's no time for that. They've got to save the world, people!

After a warhead robbery that seems to last forever rather than build suspense, the movie picks up pace and proceeds briskly over two hours. For their bickering, neither Kidman's nor Clooney's character comes off as stupid, and they fall into a believable collaboration in chasing down the nukes. Even more convincing is the "villain" -- really just a Bosnian guy with understandable personal reasons for wanting to make some bureacrats glow in the dark. I'm not saying that makes detonating a bomb right, but just understandable.

If anything, "The Peacemaker" may be a little too straightforward. Clooney still is a bit smug but not terribly so, and I'm not saying that because I softened on him over the years. ("Out of Sight" still is my favorite of his movies.) The normally luminous Kidman looks plain enough here for her role, which she would call on again several years later for "The Interpreter." And it's probably just as well that the two leads don't try to flirt until the world is safe. First, there's no way I can see dignified Nicole and player George getting together, period. Second, it's no fun doing the nasty when nukes are on the loose.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Short attention span theater

I've been stumbling through bits and pieces of movies lately, and while none is worthy of a full recap, it doesn't hurt to share a few quick thoughts.

In other words, I'm feeling lazy today. Sue me.

Decent, barely: "Love Actually"
We actually own this because it's a classic "Wife Will Watch Anytime" movie. Alas, that doesn't keep her from flipping to it when it's on HBO, and I've seen a few different parts in recent days. While this tale of a bunch of people in London during the holidays is watchable, it's a little too sprawling and silly in parts, and would be better with one or two fewer storylines and less schmaltz. Even so, most of the performances are pleasant, from Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister to Thomas Sangster as a lovesick kid to Bill Nighy as a washed-up rock singer hoping for one more Christmas-themed hit. He's actually the best, for this line alone: "Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. ... Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!"

This gets funnier with each tabloid headline: "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"
You may recall my review from a while back. While I saw it in the theater, My Eternal Beloved didn't, and I suspect all the Brangelina stuff piqued her curiosity. I watched only to the point where the married assassins made up with each other and went after the real bad guys, because the story kind of loses some steam from that point on. Still, even if Pitt and Jolie aren't extending themselves as actors, they seem to be having fun, especially Pitt, who usually is enjoyable as a smart-ass. And a little bang-bang action -- guns, people -- is never a bad thing. Not a great movie, but not horrible, either.

Better latke than never: "Crossing Delancey"
I really didn't watch this as much as catch a scene or two in between Scrabble plays. That's right, it was a hot time at the ol' house that night ... some Scrabble and an '80s romantic comedy (I guess). This is another favorite of The Light of My Life, who shelled out big bucks to buy a couple of VHS copies off eBay -- one for her and one for her Jewish friend who lives in Manhattan, near the setting of this movie. Best I can tell, Amy Irving is a single Jewish woman who can't decide if she likes a guy (Peter Riegert) she was set up with by a marriage broker. I'm sure there's more to it, but the important thing here is that I won the Scrabble game. Yeah!

Wait a minute ... Drew Barrymore wasn't available?: "Poison Ivy: The New Seduction"
And now for a movie most definitely not selected by my wife. Some people are just now discovering Jaime Pressly as the hilarious ex-wife of Jason Lee's title character in "My Name is Earl." She really is a scream and still pretty hot in a white trash way. But some us first met Jaime through a straight-to-video sequel to "Poison Ivy," Drew Barrymore's comeback movie. While Drew moved on to "Charlie's Angels" and other middling fare, intrepid directors kept the "Poison Ivy" series going -- with Alyssa Milano as Lily in the first sequel, then Pressly as Violet in this movie. I first saw this back in my bachelor days, and when it was on one of the HBOs last week, I had to TiVo it. Sadly, I'm on a tight schedule these days, so I fast-forwarded to the parts where Pressly gets naked. Fortunately, that a lot of scenes, bless her heart. If you have a little more time and no shame about seeking this kind of thing out, here is a great piece of late-night trash. I'm sure Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet regret turning it down.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

It's official: Michael Caine will do anything for money: "The Hand"

Seriously, I might throw $50 his way to see if he'll be in my vacation video, perhaps as the kindly innkeeper who offers sage advice to various travelers.

Discussing "The Hand" -- a so-called thriller/horror movie from 1981 -- is like standing in front of the Thanksgiving turkey: Where do you stick the knife in first? One thing is certain, though. I've seen a lot of movies, and few, if any, made me laugh louder at its very premise (and plot and performances and ... ) than "The Hand."

So let's get into it. Caine plays a cartoonist with marital troubles that aren't helped when he loses his right hand in a traffic accident. Yes, it's his drawing hand, but a bigger problem is that the hand isn't dead yet, and apparently is pissed off enough to crawl around and kill people.

I'll pause to let that sink in. The hand crawls around and kills people. Rather than make the obvious Addams Family joke -- "Gee, Thing, who peed in your Cheerios?" -- isn't this idea beyond absurd? I mean, I'm more likely to believe a guy can kill you in your dreams than a murderous hand. How can a hand by itself can get enough traction to choke someone? How can it get enough lift to spring at someone's face? It's a matter of physics, really.

While no amount of acting or direction could offset this premise, Caine and Co. don't do us any favors. Keep in mind that Caine was pushing 50 by the time this came out. We're not talking about a Renee Zellweger/"Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre" deal here, where an actor is young and unknown. Caine had been around and done a million movies before this. Hell, he was in "Hamlet!" Did he take "The Hand" just to add another "H" movie? He really has to be seen to be believed in this. And his hair is bad, too.

The rest of the cast isn't worth mentioning, even if it includes one of my personal favorites, Bruce "D-Day" McGill. But get a load of the director: Oliver Stone. That's right, the man who made it big with "Platoon," went on to "Wall Street" and became Hollywood's leading conspiracy theorist. Gotta wonder if "The Hand" -- in which Ollie also plays a bum -- is still on his resume. This is why I should have a talk show someday. "Oliver, thanks for being here. Now tell me ... you're a big-shot director with a few Oscars. When can we expect 'The Hand 2: Digits of Danger?'"

When you can't decide which fraternity movie to honor ...

... just pick "Animal House" AND "Revenge of the Nerds!"


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The only Clint I've met in New York is a gay guy who writes for "Woman's Day": "Coogan's Bluff"

Every time I heard this title I thought of a Western. Just say it out loud ... "Coogan's Bluff." Sounds like a land formation in Arizona.

Actually, it's a sheriff's deputy in Arizona, played by the former Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood ("Pink Cadillac"). Again, you'd think it'd be a Western, right? But while we start out in the Arizona desert, our story soon takes us to Manhattan, where Coogan has been dispatched to bring back a prisoner. Wait a minute ... a cowboy hat-wearing Arizona lawman set loose on the mean streets of New York? That can mean only one thing. You guessed it ... hijinks ensue!

This movie came between Eastwood's turns in the "Dollars" trilogy and his iconic performance in "Dirty Harry" -- still an amazing movie. "Coogan" also was entertaining, most obviously with all the fish-out-of-water stuff. Sure, it's not as nutty as "Crocodile Dundee," but it's kind of fun to watch Mr. Squinty deal with everyone thinking he's from Texas, plus other things, i.e. shifty cab drivers and liberated women.

Oh, and did I mention this came out in 1968? That means we get some primo Summer of Love stuff, including a scene later in the movie where Coogan goes looking for people in a psychedelic dance club. It's been a few weeks since I saw this, and I forget the name of the club, which is funny because the song playing during this scene kept saying the name over and over again. Let me see if I can find it on "the Internet" ... nope, nothing. It was "Electric Disco Banana Peel" or something like that.

Anyway, by this time the "get a load of this guy" stuff was getting a little old, but it was still fun to watch Eastwood stride around Manhattan while trying to catch his prisoner. Nothing amazing, but not bad. And bonus points for not focusing on all the obvious New York landmarks. I may be wrong, but I don't recall seeing the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge of even the Empire State Building. Instead, Coogan kicks it on the Upper West Side and ultimately ends up in the Cloisters, a park area waaaaay uptown.

(Amusing aside: My uncle lives near the Cloisters, and when I lived in Queens, my place was a lot closer to midtown than his. Still, I was a dreaded bridge-and-tunneler, and he was a Manhattanite. Whatever.)

Bottom line: If you need a break from Director Clint and want a taste of Tough Guy Clint, this isn't a bad movie. Sure, it's no "Dirty Harry," but it's also no "Bronco Billy."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Monkey see, monkey two: "King Kong" komparison

After putting it off for a few weeks, I finally got to see "King Kong" today. I was worried I'd miss it, especially after going to the trouble of seeing the original "King Kong" from 1933. That was on TCM not long ago, and since I had never seen it, this was the perfect opportunity to see how a classic and its special-effects-laden remake compared. Curious? Read on.

The Original King, 1933
I think I TiVoed this a couple of times before buckling down, and I regret waiting so long. For a movie that's more than 70 years old, the first "Kong" holds up pretty well.

For the sake of those visiting us from Neptune, here's the basic plot: A film crew takes boat to uncharted Skull Island, where the natives kidnap the blonde actress to offer to Kong, a giant ape. The ship's crew launches a rescue mission, recovers the girl and captures Kong, who is displayed in New York as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Far from flattered, Kong escapes and scales the Empire State Building but falls to his death as his sweetheart looks on. The end.

Like everyone, I knew the story but was pleasantly surprised at how briskly it moved along. There's some build-up before they get to the island, but things kick into high gear pretty quickly. Adding to this is a spirited performance by Robert Armstrong as filmmaker Carl Denham. He was pretty funny. Also, Fay Wray really does look great as Ann Darrow, but her non-ape love interest, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), was more wooden than the Kong model, and it was hard to swallow the love story between those two characters.

As for Kong, it's a given that special effects from the 1930s are going to look somewhat cheesy today. But it's amazing what they were able to do with the stop-motion stuff and close-ups of Kong's face and hand. I can totally see where this would have blown away audiences during the Depression, and it's just as impressive as the effects in "Jason and the Argonauts," which came out a whopping 30 years later.

New to the Throne, 2005
Speaking of effects, that's one of two reasons to see the newest "Kong." No surprise, really, given today's moviemaking climate and the film's director, Peter "I Love Hobbits" Jackson.

And the effects are spectacular. We get lifelike dinosaurs on Skull Island, impressive digital settings in the jungle and Manhattan, and plenty of gross bugs and giant bats. Unlike some movies in which the digital stuff is too obvious -- I always think of "Blade 2" and (don't laugh) the "Charlie's Angels" movies, but even in "Spider-Man" you could "see the strings" -- Jackson does a good job of keeping things seamless, even during the big dinosaur throwdown while the crew tries to rescue Ann from Kong.

Ah yes, Kong. As you might expect, we get a much more animated ape this time around, but it's not just about the face and the fur. Unlike the lumbering Kong of '33 (as well as '76), this Kong doesn't give much warning before he shows up. He's still a big dude, sure, but he's also pretty nimble, and it's cool to watch him swing around and gallop through the jungle. Even if I haven't watched a lot of apes move, I had absolutely no problem accepting Kong as a real beast.

But he's much more, you see, and that leads to the other advantage of the remake over the original. While Kong clearly had a serious thing for Ann in 1933, it was pretty one-dimensional and one-sided. I know, I know ... why should we expect anything else? But the remake gives us a little more depth, and allows for a plausible connection between captor and captive, this time played by the lovely Naomi Watts. Kong seems like a savage predator at first, and given the carcasses of previous sacrifices, it's reasonable to think he'll gobble up Ann as well. But this girl ... she's not like the others, and even if it's a little silly and sappy, it's actually kind of sweet to see how Kong comes to love her, and how she sees him as more than a brute.

I won't pretend the previous paragraph made a whole lot of sense, but I do think Jackson did a good job fleshing out the Kong-Ann relationship. The combination of the latest digital effects and great facial expressions by the Kong model, Andy "Gollum" Serkis, make this a more mutual thing than in '33, which ultimately makes for a more poignant story, especially when it comes to Kong's capture and death.

That said, the remake is bloated, clocking in at three hours and change. But it doesn't need to be trimmed that much. I'd probably cut at least one action scene (involving big bugs) and maybe another. I'd also leave out some of the side stories, most notably the stuff with the ship's first mate and a young crew member. All told, you could probably lose 30 minutes and have a movie that actually seems tight at two-and-a-half hours.

Otherwise, there's not a lot to complain about. Sure, Jack Black as Carl Denham and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll -- now a script writer inside of a first mate -- are odd fits and nothing special. Black is hard to take seriously, of course, and Brody is just a bizarre choice given his art-house chops. Also, his character is pretty unbelievable. I'm sorry, but no Neil Simon wannabe is going to be all gung-ho on Skull Island.

Still, that's not why you go see "King Kong, " and Jackson ultimately does a nice job being faithful to the original -- some scenes are identical -- while providing neato effects and new nuances. Of course, if he really wanted to push the envelope, he would have had Ann and Kong settle down on Skull Island. Yeah, let's see how long Kong is interested once she starts bossing him around. "This cave is filthy, you big ape!"

Saturday, January 14, 2006

I understand the "Cartel Busting" merit badge is the hardest to earn: "Clear and Present Danger"

It has come to this: Harrison Ford is such a boy scout that people say it to his face. The nerve!

Not long ago I waxed on how great the younger Harry was as a roguish space pilot and globe-trotting archaeologist. Sadly, all good things must pass, and Ford went on to such fare as "Working Girl" and "Regarding Henry" -- neither of which I've seen, I admit, but still ...

Ford also found a home in a role first played by Alec Baldwin, that of Tom Clancy hero Jack Ryan. While the Baldwin movie, "The Hunt for Red October," remains my favorite Clancy adaptation, "Patriot Games" wasn't bad, and I've caught pieces of it probably a dozen times over the years.

I hadn't, however, seen Ford's follow-up, "Clear and Present Danger." Looks like it came out in August 1994, when I was headed back to college for my senior year and had much more important things on my mind, like getting over my girlfriend of two years and exploring whether I could get a minor in "Libations." As for renting the movie later ... I don't know. I guess nobody ever told me it was anything great, and there was always something better at the video store. ("Hey, 'Under Siege 2' is in. All right!")

Our somewhat convoluted story deals with the U.S. war on drugs -- specifically a Colombian cartel that pissed off the President by killing his friend's family on a boat. That incident leads to a secret operation in South America and all sorts of political maneuvering and deal-making between sides in Washington and assorted locales. It's actually not a bad story, and pretty timely in the '80s and '90s.

Jack Ryan, of course, is caught in the middle of this, with "this" ranging from Beltway malfeasance to ambushes in South America. All the while, his precocious family waits at home, with Anne Archer and Thora Birch both pretty happy that Daddy's enemies aren't going after his family like those nasty Irish people.

The cast is decent, with fun guys like Henry Czerny and Harris Yulin playing slimy D.C. higher-ups, while "that guy" Joaquim de Almeida is a cartel security guy trying to play both sides of the war. We even get Ted "My brother directed 'Spider-Man'" Raimi in a bit part. We love him!

Some actors, though, are a little off, such as Willem Dafoe as a spook heading up the secret op in Colombia. Don't know if it's his weird face, wavy hair or white pants, but he just didn't strike me as a veteran CIA guy who knows his way around Latin America. This movie fell between "Body of Evidence" -- a hugely entertaining bad movie -- and "Speed 2: Cruise Control," and maybe it was a rough time all around for Willem. Perhaps if he just changed his name to "William," things would get better.

Also, the head of the cartel is played by Miguel Sandoval, who is a perfectly fine actor and might have been believable in this role except I can't look at him now and not think of the cockfighting episode of "Seinfeld." You know, with "Little Jerry?" That came a couple of years after "Clear and Present Danger," but the damage is done. Seriously, how menacing is a cartel boss when all you can picture him saying is "When Leetle Yerry is mine, the check will come down ... "

Finally, we have Ford. It's hard to count all the cases of Harrison playing the indignantly noble man. Let's see ... "Presumed Innocent" ... "The Fugitive" ... "Air Force One." Looks like we'll get another one with "Firewall," based on the previews. Frankly, it's a little old by now, and he overdoes it in "Clear and Present Danger."

Sure, I get that Ryan has to do the right thing -- "Truth Needs a Soldier," screams the tagline -- but his naivete in Washington was hard to swallow. Hell, I've never worked inside the Beltway or for the CIA (no, really) and I wasn't surpised at the double-talk. And come on ... this was the guy who knew Greedo was about to shoot him in the cantina.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

And to think this paved the way for "Twin Peaks": "Dune"

I did not say this. I am not here.

You know, there actually could have been a decent movie here, even with Baron Harkonnen's pustules and Paul Atreides's big hair.

The slow blade penetrates the shield.

Not sure why I've been sucked into this movie on more than one occasion. Maybe it's because of the big worms. Maybe it's because it's a well-known flop. Maybe it's because my friend Tex quotes it without hesitation, and at high volume.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Don't get me wrong. "Dune" looks great, even if you set aside those little nose-hoses when Kyle MacLachlan is on the eponymous planet.

He who controls the Spice controls the universe

And I actually enjoy most Lynch efforts. Although overrated, "Blue Velvet" wasn't boring. (Bonus points for its role in "The Squid and the Whale.") I also liked Nicolas Cage's Elvis turn in "Wild at Heart," and "Mulholland Dr." was pretty cool, albeit incomprehensible.

They tried and failed? They tried and died.

But clearly "Dune" was too tall an order. Funny, since the convoluted tale by Frank Herbert might seem a perfect match for Mr. Confusing.

Father ... the sleeper has awakened!

Our story, if you care, essentially is a battle between two families for a priceless commodity, the Spice. This takes place well into the future -- sometime after the year 10,000 -- and also involes some interstellar politics.

My name is a killing word.

MacLachlan ultimately becomes a Messiah type figure on the only planet where this Spice is produced, much to the chagrin of the rival family, led by Kenneth McMillan as a revolting fat man who can float through the air. Also part of the fold is singer Sting, grinning maniacally.

Do we have wormsign?

Like I said, there could have been a nice story here, especially with some of the special effects. Unfortunately, this potential is undone by two things: the squeezing of plot advancement into bits of narration, and the hugely awkward internal monologue of multiple characters.

Long live the fighters!

Seriously, it's just weird to have a camera fixed on a person during a voiceover. Yet this happens a heck of a lot in "Dune," and it's incredibly distracting.

Why prolong the inevitable? I will kill you!

I'll admit that some scenes and quotes (perhaps you noticed those) are entertaining, and that it's fun to see famous faces pop up throughout the movie. (Hey, there's Capt. Picard! There's Ming the Merciless!) But when the "short version" is two hours and 17 minutes, you know you're in trouble.

And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!

Dorkiness knows no borders

A quick break from movies to share something truly goofy ... and hilarious:

Three things I like about this:
3. The Rockets jerseys. Go Yao!
2. The headband.
1. The guy in the back, apparently oblivious to the show.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dumb like me: "Taking Lives"

So she has an Oscar. That doesn't mean I think Angelina Jolie is Meryl Streep. Still, she can do better than this crap, and showing us her goodies (yet again) doesn't make up for it.

I vaguely recall when "Taking Lives" was in theaters, and I very clearly recall having no desire to shell out money for it. In short, this is the kind of movie HBO was created for. "Was there a movie you never would have bought a ticket for but might have checked out for free? Hey, we'll bring it right to your living room!"

I caught this fine film the other night. Normally I'd make a joke about it being on one of the HBO channels -- HBO, HBO2, HBO with Aloe -- but I actually watched it on hi-def HBO. You know, so I could get the widescreen effect. But you know what? This movie sucked at any size.

Our story opens with a young man encountering another young man on a train somewhere in Canada. It turns out one of these young men is not so nice, starting a killing spree that, while the credits roll, brings us to the present. There, some Montreal cops are trying to solve some murders when FBI Special Agent Angelina shows up to help.

Yeah, ol' "Vial of Blood Around My Neck" Jolie is a Fed. You know, I don't think the cop thing worked back in "The Bone Collector" -- didn't see that movie, but I'm just guessing -- and it really doesn't fly in the Lara Croft/Brad Pitt era. Seriously, when your everyday life is so crazy -- "I left Billy Bob, now I adopt Asian kids" -- how can anyone expect you to be an authority figure, even if you're a somewhat kooky FBI profiler? Sorry, no.

Anyway, Jolie and the cops -- including Olivier "I've bumped uglies with the goddess, Diane Lane" Martinez -- get a witness to the serial killer's latest crime in Ethan Hawke ("Explorers"). That sets off a series of scenes in which police think they're closing in on the bad guy but somehow can't seal the deal. Ain't that a bitch.

Other recognizable faces drift through this setting, such as Gena Rowlands and Kiefer "I still do movies, I swear!" Sutherland. I'm not saying the movie isn't watchable. I've come to have a soft spot for Montreal as a movie setting, and even in FBI garb Angelia is never hard to look at. As required by her contract, she also gets a rowdy sex scene. Seriously, what is the deal with that? No complaining, but it's just weird that she always wants some aggressive sex on camera. Yeah, weird ... or awesome, depending on your point of view.

Sure, the movie is watchable, but it's nowhere near believable, even for a suspense movie. As a bonus, it's utterly predictable, too. I'm halfway tempted to "reveal" some of the "twists" because I would neither reveal anything nor would you consider them real twists. (Did the quotes give that away?) But no, I'll let you play Smartest Person Alive like I did while watching this movie. ("Yep, that's what I thought.") Oh, crap ... I just realized I already said Angelina gets naked. Sorry to ruin that for you.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Homo on the range: "Brokeback Mountain"

Either you laughed out loud at the title of this post, or you're calling GLAAD right now. In any case, you had to see it coming.

Then again, my wife suggested "Humpback Mountain," and I also considered "Broke My Back Mounting."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

After rolling out in the big markets over the last few weeks, the latest gay cowboy romance finally came to my fair burg this weekend. Only one theater had it, making tickets so hard to get that we couldn't catch Jake and Heath doing the nasty until Sunday. (The Lord's Day!!!) It was worth the wait, though, as this is a pretty good movie.

Before dwelling on the plot, let us contemplate Ang Lee. Given his range of movies over the last decade, he's near the top of my list of most intriguing directors. I liked "The Ice Storm" and really liked "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Even "Hulk" was interesting, if uneven. Bottom line: You know Ang will break a sweat and give you something good to look at and think about.

"Brokeback Mountain" is no exception, as you might expect from any movie that has a couple of young cowpokes -- actually, sheep herders -- falling in love. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllllllenhaaaaaal play the lovers, who start their romance while watching a herd of sheep on the eponymous mountain in the summer of 1963. The movie follows them over the course of 20 years as they build lives separately yet come together regularly to keep their romance alive.

Assuming everyone already knows this basic story going into the movie, it's nice to watch the set-up in the first half-hour. We get some truly great scenery -- mountains, valleys, creeks, sheep ... lots of sheep -- while warming up to the two lead characters. Ledger is the stoic, mumbling one, always waiting for someone else to say something before giving a one-line response. Gyllenhaal is more outgoing, never shy with an opinion about their conditions high up on the mountain.

How they get together is pretty interesting, if only because it reminded me of guys in prison. Hear me out ... you have a couple of macho fellas playing tough, but all they've got out there on the mountain is each other. Add the fact that Ledger's character is sort of adrift -- an orphan who has a fiancee but seems more matter-of-fact about it than anything -- and you can kind of see how the two guys could bond and become intimate. I have to admit I wasn't immediately convinced when I saw their first interlude, but it made sense the more I thought about it.

Both guys go on to have families -- Ledger with his pre-Brokeback girlfriend, Gyllenhaal with a rodeo queen. As the boys still get together for "fishing" trips, their wives wonder to varying degrees what is going on. Of these couples, Ledger and Michelle "I'm not blonde anymore" Williams are more compelling, with each of them convincingly playing tortured souls. By comparison, Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway have less depth, although that certainly could be by design given their characters' general shallowness.

(Before I go further, let me share something for the straight guys out there: Both Williams and Hathaway show their boobs. Normally I wouldn't be so blunt, but you should know these things when it comes to gay cowboy love stories. If we're going to see Heath's and Jake's butts, it's only fair.)

While the plot may get a little too sprawling as it covers two decades, it's interesting to see how the guys pull off their double lives. Of the two, Ledger clearly is the more conflicted, and therefore more riveting, character. He has the cowboy stuff down pat in the beginning, talking through his lips and keeping his eyes narrowed. As he and Williams have kids and move on with their lives, he remains low-key, which makes it all the more powerful when he betrays emotions, from his jubilant reunion with Gyllenhaal four years after that summer of '63 to his anger when Williams confronts him about their relationship.

Most people don't remember this because of Halle Berry's "Holy Crap" nude scene, but Ledger showed in "Monster's Ball" that he can be a capital-A actor. He builds on that "Brokeback," and I won't be surprised if it earns him an Oscar nomination. Nothing against Gyllenhaal, who's perfectly fine, but this is Ledger's show, and he really delivers. But you know what? I'm still not watching "A Knight's Tale."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Private eyes ... they're watching you ... they see your every move ... : "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid"

Ah, how I long for the days when Steve Martin wasn't family-friendly.

True, he still gets an intriguing, adult role every now and then. "Shopgirl" wasn't bad, and I thought "Bowfinger" was pretty funny. Then there was "The Spanish Prisoner," which wasn't a perfect fit for his wry humor but managed to work all right.

Alas, it seems these days we're treated more to stuff like "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House," which is great for the elementary school set but doesn't do much for those of us who appreciate "The Jerk" ("I'm picking out a Thermos for you!") and "The Man With Two Brains" ("Into the mud, scum queen!").

Wedged in between those two movies from more than 20 years ago was "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," which I first saw as a lad, before I could appreciate its full intent. Martin plays a 1940s private detective sucked into a case by a woman whose father has been killed. Doesn't sound like anything special, right? Well, just you wait.

The black-and-white uses clips from several old movies to advance the story ... or just have some fun. Working around Martin, Rachel "Man, I forgot how hot she was" Ward and director Carl Reiner are such famous faces as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster, Vincent Price and a host of others. As a kid, I recognized maybe Bogey and nobody else.

As an adult -- at least by age -- it was easier to tell when old movies entered the picture, which was good and bad. On one hand, it was fun to see everything spliced together, and to see Martin play off the old footage, i.e. this "exchange" with Grant:
Grant: You don't smoke, do you?
Martin: No, I have tuberculosis.
Grant: Oh, thank heaven for that.

But I'd by lying if I said all of these splices were seamless, and more than one of them was pretty forced. It also didn't help that the quality of old footage was worse than the fresh scenes, even if all were in black and white. I suspect that wouldn't be as much of a problem now, given all the recent restoration of movies. But in the early '80s, the technology wasn't quite there.

Even so, the movie is a curiosity piece, and Martin is funny enough with his own dialogue. He seems to be having fun with such gumshoe-esque lines as these:
-- "I hadn't seen a body put together like that since I solved the case of the Murdered Girl with the Big Tits"
-- "My plan was to kiss her with every lip on my face."
-- "Carlotta was the kind of town where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you."

Then again, maybe Ward -- who really does look amazing here -- has the best line of all:
-- "If you need me, just call. You know how to dial, don't you? You just put your finger in the hole and make tiny little circles."

Um, come again? Mercy.

Friday, January 06, 2006

I always forget ... is it "desert" or "dessert?": "Flight of the Phoenix"

I know, another damn Dennis Quaid movie. This after said my wife said she liked his sh*t-eating grin.

And here's a fun fact: Quaid has never played a character named "Dennis." He apparently makes a great "Frank" (six movies) and "Jack" (four movies). Heck, he's even been a "Doc" and a "Tuck." But no "Dennis." Maybe Tony Danza can learn something from him.

One of those "Frank" roles comes in "Flight of the Phoenix," a rather silly movie that still is a perfectly enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours. I watched "Phoenix" over the course of a few days, always late at night. Nothing helps you wind down like a simple plot and a bunch of unappealing characters trapped in a barren landscape.

Our story is this: Quaid and his co-pilot swoop into the Gobi Desert (yes, one "s") to collect an oil crew that hasn't found any oil. Oops, their bad. The crew is bummed, but not nearly as much as a little later, when the plane comes across a big sand storm and crashes in the desert, far from any town and with no radio.

The crash survivors include the requisite colorful crew, from the guy who plays that annoying "House, M.D." to a rapper named Sticky Fingaz. (If I ever get the beat box going, I'll probably go with "Bonz Nasteeazzz.") We also get a refugee from "The Lord of Rings" (Miranda Otto, oozing no sex appeal whatsoever) and Giovanni Ribisi -- whom I actually consider a bonafide actor -- as a creepy albino geek. Apparently, the Professor and Mary Ann were busy.

Eventually, this precocious ragtag band decides to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old one so they can fly away home ... or at least away from the middle of nowhere. I ruin nothing by sharing this, and I won't reveal whether they make it or not. But come on ... Dennis Quaid is the lead. It's not like he's the Dark Prince of American Cinema.

The whole plane-building epic is entertaining enough, with the expected number of obstacles popping up on cue every 15-20 minutes. As for the characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find Quaid far from earnest at first. He's an ass for at least an hour, and even if he eventually comes around -- shocker -- this was easier to watch than his one-note performance in "The Day After Tomorrow." (For me, "The Big Easy" always has been hard to top. Well, and "Jaws 3-D.")

Other performances vary, but nobody really shines. I'd like to tell you it's because of a crowded cast, but the bottom line is that the script does little more than give each actor a basic profile to maintain throughout the movie. "You be the tough sidekick ... you be the snippy executive ... you be the Latin cook ... you be the, well, girl, I guess ... " and so on.

But hey, the movie looks pretty good, the plane crash was cool enough, and I got a nice sense of what it would be like to be stranded in the desert. (Here's a hint: Don't fall down a dune in the middle of the night.) Besides, being able to turn off your brain and accept a "now what?" story is nothing to be ashamed of. How else can I explain why I own a copy of "Showgirls?"

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I gotta say, "1941" was a lot funnier: "Munich"

Nothing wraps up your holiday like watching a recreation of the most awful event in Olympics history, huh?

My Better Half and I took in "Munich" on our Monday off, which was fortunate because the movie took almost all day to watch. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but not by much. Word has it that acclaimed director Steven Spielberg rushed this movie from editing room to the screen, and it kind of shows.

The movie starts with a riveting retelling of the hostage situation at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes. That spurs the creation of a hit squad to gain revenge by killing the people behind the massacre. Most of the movie follows that squad on its mission, which gets plenty messy -- more emotionally than physically.

As he did with another epic, "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg does a great job sucking you in at the start. Blending recreation with real archival footage, he gives the hostage situation tremendous drama, and you have no problem believing that Golda Meir and other Israeli leaders will make someone pay for the slaughter. To that end, they draft Mossad agent Eric "Hulk" Bana to lead a crew of five people as they track down terrorists across Europe.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to the men keeping a clear conscience. As they (and we) find, a few of their targets are not overtly hateful men. Why, some of them even have kids! This leads to some pretty nice scenes, including a much-noted episode in which the undercover team shares a safehouse with a group of Palestinians, and their leader lectures Bana on why it's important to have a homeland.

Checking in at a hefty 2 hours and 44 minutes, "Munich" is quite simply too long, even for what some may consider a sprawling tale. A more taut thriller that still gave the obligatory moral message could have been made in the two-hour territory, especially since "Munich" starts to lose focus after two hours.

To that point, the flaws are minor. Most of the guys on Bana's team -- which includes Daniel "New James Bond" Craig and Ciaran "Julius Caesar" Hinds -- are decently developed and get their little soliloquys and scenes here and there. We also get some good assassination scenes, none of which come off smoothly, and a few intriguing supporting players, such as a Frenchman and his father who supply names for the squad and a Dutch woman who tempts Bana. And yes, we get some sympathy for the targets, which ultimately does a decent job of letting us know that nothing is clear-cut in this world.

The problems come when the squad's work starts to wind down and paranoia sets in for Bana. I guess it seemed a little overdone to me, and his emotional rollercoaster results in one of the more bizarre sex scenes/flashbacks I've seen on film. I won't ruin it for you, but the bottom line is that it didn't really work for me, this crazy juxtaposition of Bana in the bedroom and murder in Munich. Then again, maybe I just didn't get it. That's been known to happen.

In the end, "Munich" was good but far from perfect, and a little more care and a little less arty-farty might have been a better recipe. Seems there was some Oscar buzz before it came out, but I'm not sure it would even squeak into my top five. For instance, "Syriana" and "Capote" were better. And "Because of Winn-Dixie," of course.

Monday, January 02, 2006

No pain, no 10-yard gain: "North Dallas Forty"

Maybe it's just me, but I don't recall hearing "North Dallas Forty" come up very much when people talk about great football movies. It should.

The only thing I remembered about this movie before seeing it recently was a scene in which Nick Nolte painfully stretches out his body late at night, hoping to work out all the creaks and cracks but mostly just causing more agony. It's pretty pitiful, and it's probably not far off target when it comes to most pro football players, who take the most punishment of any guys in team sports.

Somewhat inspired by the Dallas Cowboys, "North Dallas Forty" follows a fictional pro team as it chases the playoffs. Most of the action takes place off the field, from wild parties with these idolized jokers -- since duplicated in other, second-rate football movies, i.e. "The Program" and "Varsity Blues" -- to incidents in the training room. At the core of the movies is one guy's struggle with how team officials have no problem pumping players full of drugs so they can perform every Sunday.

That guy is Nick Nolte ("Extreme Prejudice"), a wide receiver who still wants the glory but knows it can't last forever. Nolte looked a little thin to convince me he was a football player, but I also may be used to today's ripped physiques vs. the lack of conditioning in the '70s. In any case, Nolte is in fine acting form, warming up the temper he'll fully unleash a few years later in "48 Hrs." He really brings the right mix of humor and sadness to the role, getting off plenty of wisecracks but also looking pathetic at times.

As for the other players, singer/songwriter Mac Davis makes his acting debut as the team's stud quarterback. His part is more understated, but he's also solid as a guy who knows how to "play the game" off the field -- in other words, go along to get along. That makes it hard for him to stay friends with Nolte at times. We're also treated to actual NFL player John Matuszak as a lineman (before he achieved greater glory in "Caveman," "The Pirates" and as Sloth in "The Goonies") and Bo Svenson as another, stupider lineman who looks about 8 feet tall. Seriously, he could start for the Packers. Well, maybe not now, since he's 61.

Rounding out the cast are Charles Durning and G.D. Spradlin as coaches and Steve Forrest and Dabney Coleman as brothers who own the team. Nolte also has a love interest played by someone named Dayle Haddon, whose other titles include "Spermula" and "Cyborg." Take that for what you will.

Ultimately, it's a man's world here, and I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It may seem a bit dated -- nice jumpsuit, Mac! -- but it's still probably not far off. Hey, see how your body holds up to four months of pounding by guys now regularly exceeding 300 pounds. All the pads in the world can't compare to a needle that will make your muscles numb.