The Spanish Prisoner
D: David Mamet (1998)
with Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ricky Jay, Ben Gazzara, Felicity Huffman, Ed O'Neill
I've never thought of myself as gullible, but after seeing The Spanish Prisoner, David Mamet's first great directorial effort since his debut with House of Games (1987), I might have to reconsider that. Mamet's writing is one thing. Mamet's directing (always from his own script) is something else altogether, and the staccato paces he puts his actors through takes some getting used to. But once you accustom yourself to phrases like "Dog my cats!," it is so much fun to peel away at the layers of a Mamet mystery. While you'd never know it from the title, The Spanish Prisoner is neither about Spain, nor involves a prisoner. It is actually a story about an abused working stiff named Joe (Scott) who develops a stock market "formula" that's going to make his company (and his boss) wealthy beyond imagination. Convinced that he's never going to get his due, our tragic hero ends up in a multi-faceted con game designed to separate him from the journal containing the precious secret. But what's really intriguing is that, even in retrospect, Joe's actions seem perfectly plausible, even though it is clearly ridiculous to, say, deliver an "innocent" package on a plane for someone. But watch the film a second time, and put yourself in Joe's shoes. Like me, you'll probably do it again.
-- Christopher Null
D: Brian Robbins (1997)
with Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, Sinbad, Carmen Electra
The best kids' comedies are always the ones that have a little something for the grown-ups. Fortunately, Good Burger rises above any expectations one might have about a Nickelodeon film and manages to be cleverly outlandish if not thoroughly entertaining. Based on a sketch from Nickelodeon's All That, the story revolves around Dexter (Thompson), a precocious high schooler who, on the last day of school, has a major fender-bender with Seventies-lovin' teacher Mr. Wheat (played with campy panache by Sinbad). With no license and no insurance, Dexter reluctantly takes a summer job to pay for all the car repairs. He winds up at a fast food joint, Good Burger, where he meets an assortment of other misfits. The weirdest of the bunch is Ed, a dude (who incidentally, says the word "dude" all too frequently) with few brains yet a devout loyalty to his job at the counter of Good Burger. While Ed and Dexter share a few Martin and Lewis type moments, the ultra-corporate Mondo Burger has just opened next door and is determined to bury its competition. From here, it's war as the little guys stand up to the bad boys of Mondo Burger in a clichéd conflict we've seen in numerous other movies. But as inane and predictable as things get, the film works for both children and grown-ups. Directed by Brian Robbins (ex-star of TV's Head of the Class), the movie rolls along in a slapstick, cartoonish, and coherent fashion. Particularly effective is the straight man/buffoon chemistry between Thompson and Mitchell as well as the supporting cast of familiar yet disparate faces (Electra, Abe Vigoda, George Clinton). Snobby skeptics may have dismissed this as fodder when it hit the theatres a year ago, and may do the same in the video stores. Nonetheless, Good Burger still remains a pleasant surprise for all ages and a mindless treat with a sense of heart.
-- Mike Emery
D: Stanley Kubrick (1980)
with Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
It's tough deciding what's scarier here: Jack Nicholson or the lanky, toothy Shelley Duvall, whose winces, sneers of shock, and flails of terror are bound to curdle your blood as much as ol' Jackie's over-the-top madman semantics. Of course the real answer is that it is neither of them, but sweet, mop-headed Lloyd as Danny Torrance, the precognitic possessor of the "shining," whose twisted perception ushers in the most horrifying images from the film. Granted, Kubrick embellished a great deal, using King's haunted hotel story less as a narrative focusing on these characters and more as a launching pad for some shocking visual riffs of his own (leading an impressed but disappointed King to re-adapt the novel years later for a more faithful miniseries starring Wings' Steven Weber). Both Kubrick and King, however, revel in turning the seemingly sweet into mechanisms of evil -- and thus we see not only a beautiful vista like the Overlook turn into a hunting ground for the mentally deranged, but also the menacing sound of a Big Wheel bicycle down the hall, the creepy spectre of two young sisters in their Sunday best, and the deadly fall of a thick and beautiful snow. The funniest thing is that at heart, as King himself explained, it's just a little story about writer's block. A little warning to all of us out there, about the terrors of the gridlocked mind -- and all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, no?
-- Sarah Hepola