Thursday, March 31, 2016

24 Hours of Movies: Movies About Movies

by Patrick Bromley
Movies inside of movies? How much more movie can you get?

For my final 24 Hours of Movies piece this month, I'm watching movies about the movies. It's meta! I think. I'm fuzzy on what's meta. Also on what's metal, which is why I've blown up three microwaves. And been kicked out of three Headbanger's Balls.

Thank you to everyone for suggesting such clever and fun themes this month! You are all the best.

10 a.m. - Sherlock Jr. (1924, dir. Buster Keaton)
My favorite Buster Keaton comedy doesn't even technically qualify as a feature, as it runs under an hour. Of all of his movies I've seen (I have not seen them all), this one holds up the best -- and they all hold up -- not just because the gags are timeless but because he's doing something so forward-thinking in having his main character, an employee at a movie theater, enter the movie that's playing and become an active participant. Yes, I know it's contextualized as a dream, but the blurring of the lines between audience and character/cast member and our relationship to the art we consume are still valid, dream sequence or not. So ahead of its time is Sherlock Jr. that it would be ripped off by both Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and the 1993 Schwarzenegger blockbuster Last Action Hero to varying effect. This movie is so funny and so delightful.

11 a.m. - The Big Picture (1989, dir. Christopher Guest)
The first narrative feature directed by Christopher Guest (and one of only two he's made that aren't mock documentaries; the other is Almost Heroes, so, you know...) casts recent film school graduate Kevin Bacon trying to navigate being Hollywood's next hot director and finding it more difficult than he anticipated. Sure, there's stuff in here that's a little sitcom, but there's a lot of very funny satire that rings true about artistic compromise. Several dream/fantasy sequences are very funny, and the supporting cast includes Martin Short (crushing it as always), J.T. Walsh, Teri Hatcher, Michael McKean and, best of all, Jennifer Jason Leigh in full Louise Brooks mode as a wacky artist who helps Bacon get his groove back. This used to play on HBO a whole lot. I would watch it every time. I love it.

12:45 p.m. - Singin' in the Rain (1952, dir. Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen)
I'm not the world's biggest fan of musicals, but Singin' in the Rain isn't just any musical -- it's one of the best movies ever made period and one of the all-time greatest (maybe the greatest?) narrative films about the change from silent to sound cinema. Dream ballet aside (I will never love you, Dream Ballet), this movie is two hours of nonstop joy. It's funny, it's romantic, it says something and it features a lot of my favorite dancing ever in a movie. Gene Kelly is a pimp. Donald O'Connor is the clowny best friend we all want to have (RIP Doug). Jean Hagen gives one of the greatest scene-stealing performances of all time (Future column idea for JB: "Scene Stealers!"). Plugging this movie into this spot is going to make us feel like we can do anything.

2:30 p.m. - The Hard Way (1991, dir. John Badham)
Let's switch gears to a movie with just as much manic energy as Singin' in the Rain, but which channels that energy into swearing and arguing and shooting people instead of singing and dancing. This great action comedy stars James Woods at his irritable best being forced to mentor spoiled movie star Michael J. Fox in the ways of being a New York cop for an upcoming role. It's fast, it's funny, it's profane, it lets Michael J. Fox send up his image and presents James Woods at his James Woodsiest (crazy right-wing platitudes aside). It's a little past lunch time, but this would go great with some Frog Dogs.

4:30 p.m. - American Movie (1999, dir. Chris Smith)
After four hours of rapid-fire dialogue and crackling energy, I want to slow things down. Like, waaaay down. Chris Smith's 1999 documentary about independent filmmaker Mark Borchardt and his quest to shoot his latest effort Coven (pronounced Coe-ven) is a truly great testament to the power of art and the can-do spirit of a guy who wants to make movies more than anything else, even if he lacks the resources (and, some would argue, talent) to really do so. Yes, there are some scenes in this movie that seem to be laughing at Borchardt and his loyal best friend Mike Schank. But Smith clearly loves these people and sees in them kindred spirits. The problems Borchardt faces are the problems faced by any filmmaker, regardless of the scale on which he or she is making movies, and the ways in which Borchardt perseveres in realizing his dreams are truly inspirational. What a beautiful, funny film.

6:30 p.m. - Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder)
An obvious pick, sure. But I only saw Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard for the first time within the last 10 years and was blown away at just how contemporary it still feels, particularly in the dialogue (written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.). It's a poison love letter to cinema, part black comedy, part film noir, part chamber drama. Gloria Swanson creates one of the most iconic movie characters of all time in a performance that skewers Hollywood actresses in a way that was probably true to the time (hence the theatricality of her work, and boy is it theatrical) but also holds true today. Plus, Erich von Stroheim acts! I always like to put a big, important, popular movie that represents the marathon theme in the prime time slot. Sunset Boulevard is all those things and more.

8:30 p.m. - Blow Out (1981, dir. Brian De Palma)
And now on to one of my all-time favorite films and still Brian De Palma's best. A reworking of Antonioni's Blow Up (with shades of Hitchcock's Rear Window, the film to which De Palma returns more than maybe any other throughout his work), Blow Out casts a never-better John Travolta as a movie sound technician recording audio for the low-budget slasher movie on which he's working when he accidentally witnesses a car accident -- or is it something more? Every single person here is working at the top of his or her game, resulting in a perfect thriller that only gets better with every rewatch. I might be spoiling myself with greatness on this marathon.

10:30 p.m. - Hooper (1978, dir. Hal Needham)
I thought about putting Richard Rush's The Stunt Man in this slot, but it's getting late and Blow Out may have already drained me to much to handle the heady eccentricities of that movie. So instead I'll go with a far less demanding stuntman movie: Hal Needham's Hooper, in which Burt Reynolds mentors a then-coherent Jan-Michael Vincent in the ways of the business. To say that this movie has laid-back charm is an understatement, but Burt Reynolds is enjoyable in his don't-give-a-fuck period and the practical stunts really are a lot of fun. Selfishly, I'm probably programming this one for Sally Field's presence as Hooper's girlfriend.

12:15 p.m. - Fade to Black (1980, dir. Vernon Zimmerman)
We'll transition to horror with this fairly obscure psychological slasher starring Breaking Away's Dennis Christopher as an obsessed movie fan who finally breaks with reality and begins killing people while dressed up as several iconic movie characters (Dracula, The Mummy, etc.). I once owned this as a part of a double feature DVD with Hell Night and either lost it or sold it, which breaks my heart because it's out of print and very hard to come by these days. It's the kind of movie that seems perfect for rediscovery on Blu-ray, but I think the rights are in limbo.

2 a.m. - Demons (1985, dir. Lamberto Bava)
Ah, yes. The Italians reclaim the 2 a.m. slot with Lamberto Bava's Demons, about what is essentially a zombie outbreak (they're demons, but same difference here) at a late-night movie screening. The premise is simplicity itself; the rest of the movie is a lot of screaming and monsters and gore with a healthy dose of heavy metal on the soundtrack. I've seen the movie a handful of times and have enjoyed it without really loving it, so I'm curious to return to it now that I've fallen in love with Italian horror in the last few years. It may be a very different experience. Still don't dig Demons 2, though.

3:30 a.m. - Messiah of Evil (1973, dir. Willard Huyck/Gloria Katz)
I was mostly unaware of this one until I heard Elric Kane singing its praises on my beloved Killer POV. Apparently it has existed in the public domain and, as such, has been subject to many a shitty release, which may have damaged its legacy. I checked it out on Code Red's Blu-ray and really enjoyed the weirdness of it -- particularly a mid-movie set piece inside a movie theater that's truly an all-timer as far as creepiness and dread are concerned. The movie is worth seeing just for that scene. Its placement in this time slot is going to make a lot of it feel like a dream, which is exactly how it should be seen. The filmmakers would famously go on to write American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before going on to write/direct Howard the Duck. Don't hold that against them.

5 a.m. - Living in Oblivion (1995, dir. Tom DiCillo)
This indie comedy from the mid-'90s Sundance boom came up in a Netflix column last week, but I'm happy to sing its praises once again. Tom DiCillo's sophomore film, in which Steve Buscemi plays a put-upon director trying to complete his next feature, is a semi-autobiographical effort about DiCillo's own efforts to make his first movie Johnny Suede (Oblivon's James Le Gros is said to be a proxy for Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede). The film is funny and absurd with a great cast giving great performances. The final scene is also the best and should be easily relatable to anyone who has ever attempted any kind of creative endeavor.

6:30 a.m. - Ed Wood (1994, dir. Tim Burton)
A case could be made for Ed Wood as my favorite biopic of all time. It's easily my favorite Tim Burton movie. It's the kind of biopic that's not always factually accurate, but that doesn't matter because the fiction is so wonderful. And while it's yet another Burton movie about a misfit outsider, it's a movie made with such reverence and affection for that misfit that it's impossible to dislike. The ensemble cast is beyond great and the makeshift family that Wood creates around him during the production of Plan 9 from Outer Space warms my heart in such a big way that this will be the perfect movie to bring me back after a long dark night of the soul. If I was making a list of favorite movies of the '90s, this would be high up on it.

8:30 a.m. - State and Main (2000, dir. David Mamet)
One of the things I love about a lot of movies about moviemaking is that they are simultaneously critical and reverential, because filmmakers see the cynicism and the pitfalls but love what they do enough to keep coming back and making more movies. Before David Mamet went off the deep end, he wrote and directed this incredibly funny, incredibly sweet comedy about a small town being taken over by a Hollywood production and the way that it slowly gets its hooks into everyone. At the center of the story is the screenwriter, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (in a rare romantic lead), whose script and possibly soul is slowly corrupted by the Hollywood machine but finds himself saved through a romance with the charming Rebecca Pidgeon. Because this is David Mamet, the movie is endlessly quotable. My favorite line comes from Sarah Jessica Parker, playing an A-list actress who refuses to do nudity: "Because I want to tell you something, and I think you know what I mean." (End quote.) A close second is Rebecca Pidgeon: "Everybody makes their own fun. If you don't make it yourself, it isn't fun. It's entertainment."

10:15 a.m. - Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Ok, I know I've said a lot of the movies in this lineup are among my favorites. And they really are. But Boogie Nights is in a different category altogether. It's, like, really one of my favorite movies ever. If you can overcome the stigma of it being "about porn" (it's not really about porn), it's a great movie about moviemaking and, like Ed Wood, about creating a makeshift family with your creative collaborators. I'm not sure there's a cast member in the movie who has ever been better anywhere else. This was one of those movies that changed something in my brain the first time I saw it back in '97; I have seen it countless times since and it has never lost its power. I often program the final film for these marathons by reverse engineering the ending, thinking about watching the final scene after 24-26 consecutive hours of watching movies. I can't think of a better way to end my final marathon for the month than with "Living Thing" and Dirk Diggler's big dick.

Movies I wanted to include but couldn't: Day for Night, Contempt, Terror Firmer, Bowfinger, The Player, Barton Fink

And that's going to do it for the weekly installments of 24 Hours of Movies! I'll still return to it throughout the year because it's really fun to write and people seem to enjoy reading it, but only on a once-in-while basis. Thanks for watching all these movies with me! I need a nap.


  1. You're a Sally Field fan?? Yay! Oh, and no Hugo? (I ask, but the truth is I haven't brought myself to rewatch it even though I did love it the first time.)

  2. He inhales that frog dog. It's equally embarrassing and fascinating.

  3. The only film I can immediately think of to include would be Mulholland Drive, which like Sunset Blvd. has been described as a "poisoned Valentine" to Hollywood.

    Sherlock Jr. is a masterpiece (my favorite moment is when detective-in-training Buster gives his fiancée his magnifying glass when she is having difficulty with seeing his engagement ring). And Blow Out? Good Lord, one of the greatest films ever made.

    1. I realize you already have a DePalma film here, but Body Double is a gloriously sleazy look at the bottom feeders in Hollywood.

    2. Mulholland Drive is the first movie that came to mind for me too.

  4. That dream ballet is the perhaps the only thing that impedes Singin' in the Rain from being my favorite movie of all time...and makes it my SECOND favorite movie of all time. In the words of Lina Lamont: "I CEEANT STAN' 'EM!"

    It's an amazing look at movie history, though, in a thuroughly entertaining package. The microphone sequence is the best, the Make 'Em Laugh number is the best, the performances are all the best. Singin' in the Rain is the freakin' best!

  5. Great list. I'd shove The Dirties in there somewhere.

  6. Yeah Demons 2 is tough to love though it's a master piece compared to Demons 3 The Ogre....

    I love The Hard Way, I like James Woods when he is prickly