D: Scott Hicks (1996) with
Armin Mueller-Stahl, Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Lynn Redgrave,
John Gielgud

After piano aficionados gave David Helfgott's recent performances a lukewarm reception, the story of the not-all-together Australian prodigy may have lost a bit of its titular luster, but not to my eye. To me, Shine still stands out as a sterling example of filmmaking that is all too rare these days, filled with emotion and carefully crafted detail that you can't get from the Disneys of the world. With Geoffrey Rush's much-deserved Oscar-winning performance, the best score of 1996, and Noah Taylor's unforgivably overlooked role as the teenaged Helfgott, Shine is exquisite on many levels. Combined with its themes of overprotective fatherly love, blind ambition, and the horrific insanity they can cause, the film is a masterpiece. And let me not forget the music, which is simply awe-inspiring (especially the unbelievable "Rach 3"), and which makes you want to applaud after each piece is performed. As Gielgud (another overlooked gem in the picture) puts it, "It's monumental!" -- Christopher Null

The Narrow Margin

D: Richard Fleischer (1952) with
Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Queenie Leonard, Jacqueline White

Detective Brown (McGraw) is assigned to pick up Mrs. Neil (Windsor), a mobster's widow, and transport her by train across country to testify before a grand jury. Before even reaching the station, Brown's cigar-chomping partner is blasted by the mob. On board the train, syndicate thugs try to bribe and intimidate Brown, while he warms up to Mrs. Sinclair (White). Brown is disgusted with his assignment and Mrs. Neil's callous gun-moll attitude, but refuses to be swayed by the money waved under his nose. The thugs find Mrs. Neil and kill her, but she turns out to be a police woman sent as a decoy (and also to test Brown's integrity).... Marie Windsor (a former Miss Utah) plays Mrs. Neil to trampy perfection and looks fine indeed in a black slip, while square-jawed noir icon McGraw rattles off tough-as-nails dialogue and administers a brutal ass-whuppin' to a mob goon in a Pullman compartment. The Narrow Margin capitalizes on its limited budget by confining most of the action inside the train, using fine shadowy camera work in the corridors to set up a nice sense of claustrophobia. Scholars now consider this picture to be a minor classic, but at the time it was simply a concise, modest, un-pretentious crime/suspense "B" picture. It wasn't until years later that the dang French elevated movies like this by coining the phrase film noir. The great thing about noir is that it became such a popular visual style in post-WWII Hollywood; there's a near-inexhaustible vault of noir-type films that spans several genres. Director Fleischer (son of animation pioneer Max Fleischer) honed his no-nonsense sensibilities in a lengthy career that would go on to include such varied films as The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green, Mr. Majestyk, The New Centurions, and Fantastic Voyage. Forget its tepid 1990 remake; this is the real thing, with a killer hard-boiled screenplay, lots of plot twists, and great performances by Fifties character actors. -- Jerry Renshaw

At The Circus

D: Edward Buzzell (1939)
with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Eve Arden

You know them, you love them: Harpo, Chico, and Groucho Marx

In At The Circus' wonderfully convoluted plot, the heroic Marx Brothers must sabotage a French orchestra in order to save a struggling circus from a conniving midget (a pre-R2D2 Kenny Baker), a sly loan shark, and a slow-witted strongman. Absurd, yes, but then so are the Marx Brothers, and divinely so. As At the Circus jumps from the good-hearted, thick-headed charm of Chico to the sharper, elbow-in-the-ribs wit of Groucho to the supreme physical humor of ur-Kramer Harpo, the brothers provide a delicious three-ring farce of their own. There are, of course, a few bad punchlines and a boxcar of gratuitous circus animals (is it just me, or do gorillas always overact?). And just as they were when I was 12, the musical numbers are interminable (Groucho sings "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" here). But just as it was when I was 12, it doesn't matter: The jokes are worth the wait. Although not quite in a league with Marx Bros. classics like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers, At the Circus is still some of the best slapstick around. -- Jay Hardwig


PYST/Parroty Interactive CD-ROM

So whatever became of the Firesign Theatre, those Sixties/Seventies masters of surreal, cerebral audio comedy? True Fireheads like myself and perhaps a few others who have noticed their familiar voices semi-regularly on The Tick, know that they're still around, but most of you probably just occasionally dust off your Everything You Know Is Wrong album and assume they got picked up by aliens soon after its release. Not so. The FT have kept a low-profile vantage point of the cutting edge, most recently with the release of the Myst parody Pyst, a return to the island after all you millions of cybervisitors have wrecked it with all your trash and Big Business has come in to complete its transformation into a tourist trap. Creator Peter Bergman, along with fellow FTers Phil Proctor and David Ossman and Big Name Actor John Goodman are all present here, in what may confuse many players -- because Pyst isn't actually a game. It more accurately is described as a comedy album with pictures and a few game-like trappings. It's fun, too, though compared to the intellectual level and unreality of Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, it's little more than a particularly witty Hallmark card made for giving to your Myst-obsessed spouse or buddy. The main complaint on the net regarding Pyst has been from people who just can't get it through their heads that it's not a game, and that it's too short (the medium-priced disc can be ventured through in under two hours). Then again, anyone who would want a parody of Myst to go on as long as the original would have to be, if not insane, at least something I wouldn't wanna be. -- Ken Lieck

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