As Good as It Gets

D: James L. Brooks (1997)
with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt,
Greg Kinnear

To hell with Titanic! If any of the five 1997 Best Picture nominees deserved the award, it was As Good as It Gets. I think it's safe to say that a better look at the more dysfunctional side of human nature hasn't been made since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a little film which just so happens to have had Nicholson in the lead as well. It's not just that I see a lot of myself in Nicholson's Melvin (also being a bit of an eccentrically tidy and neurotic writer who dislikes dogs), although that holds much of my fascination with the film. Just look at what the movie has done for its stars. Hunt earned Best Actress and is now on the Hollywood A-list (and you should also note how much her Mad About You character now resembles Melvin). Greg Kinnear, best known for such memorable fare as Dear God, turned in the best performance of his life. Nicholson got another Oscar, too, and they even manipulated me into liking the dog. Altogether, the film is a treat simply because it makes you feel positively sane, no matter what your real mindset. And in an era ruled by saccharine films like Titanic, that's an all-too-rare event. — Christopher Null

Sweet Smell of Success

D: Alexander MacKendrick (1957)
with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Emile Meyer

Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a desperate publicity agent on Broadway who seeks favor with Hunsecker (Lancaster), an influential Walter Winchell-type columnist. Hunsecker demands that Falco drive a wedge into the romance between his sister Susan (Harrison) and her jazz guitarist boyfriend Steve Dallas (Milner) by getting an item published that says Steve is half-crazed with marijuana and is a card-carrying Communist. In order to get the story out, though, Falco debases himself further by pimping out a cigar-girl friend of his to columnist Elwell (David White, Bewitched's Larry Tate), then eventually plants the reefer on Steve and sets him up for crooked cop Kello (Meyer) to arrest him. Hunsecker manipulates his sister, Steve, and Falco ruthlessly until he catches Falco in his sister's apartment as he tries to save her from killing herself. Misreading the situation, Hunsecker beats Falco silly and turns him over to Kello to have his ass pounded further. Clifford Odets supplied the screenplay for this film, which is surely one of the most hateful and corrosive scripts outside of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There's scarcely a sympathetic character to be found here; Falco realizes fully well what a despicable guy he is, with a job that consists of shoveling an enormous pile of cow manure (Hunsecker venomously describes him as "the man with the ice cream face... with the scruples of a guinea hen and the morals of a gangster.") Susan comes across as a weak-willed drip in her brother's sway, while Steve is portrayed as a shallow, self-righteous, and overly pious jerk. Kello the cop thrives on brutality and easy money on the side, and Hunsecker callously destroys anyone who doesn't play ball with him. James Wong Howe's cinematography is as harsh and uncompromising as the screenplay, with lighting as severe as that in the interrogation room of a precinct house. Odets portrays all these characters as the barnacles clinging to the underside of the entertainment business, as willing to wreck each other as to get ahead themselves. Be prepared for an emotionally exhausting experience as the Sweet Smell of Success rapidly turns into the fetid stench of betrayal.

— Jerry Renshaw

Intelligent Qube

Sony PlayStation

Put down that raygun and listen up! Intelligent Qube, Sony's latest entry into an otherwise stagnant puzzle genre, has all the elements of a classic, combining the strategy of Tetris with the suspense of a 3-D action game. The graphics are minimalist, to say the least, when compared to the latest texture-mapped, full-motion titles. Hardcore gamers might scoff at the rudimental look of IQ: It wouldn't look out of place in an arcade circa 1990. But that's also the beauty of it — there's no extraneous cinematic sequences, stilted dialogue, or unnecessary back story. What you see on the box is just what you get. The hero, looking like a dressed-down Tom Jones at cocktail hour, runs along a 3-D playing field and tries to capture the advancing giant blocks before they cause him to plunge into the surrounding void. To make matters more interesting, there are two special kinds of blocks, which require timing and strategy to use effectively. Green "advantage" cubes capture blocks immediately surrounding them. Black "forbidden" cubes cause the back row of the playing field to fall away, giving the player less time to finish and less room to maneuver. The player must complete the level within 15 to 20 turns, and the game gives you a counter of how many moves are required to finish. At the end of the game you get an IQ rating that is either insultingly low or pretty flattering, based on how efficiently you played. Sound simple? Well, the intensity and speed of the advancing blocks, the necessary quick strategizing, and the ominous symphonic soundtrack make for heart-pounding, brain-bending fun. No weapons necessary for this puzzling thriller. — Ben Davis

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