Knuckleball! (2012) Let’s thank the makers of Knuckleball! for showing some much welcome restraint and not taking the obvious route with their film. The documentary covers the least respected pitch in baseball, a wobbly slowball that’s sometimes viewed as the last refuge of the untalented. But rather than go with a tongue-in-cheek snarkfest poking fun at the pitching style, directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg get earnest, with most of its time spent following the Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield and the Mets’ R. A. Dickey – at the time of production, the only two knuckleballers working in the Majors – through their bumpy career arcs, with most of the focus given to their performances in the 2011 baseball season. The filmmakers are more concerned with the personal side of the game, unafraid of quieter moments, using the humanity of their subjects to underscore the drama of the season. It’s a fascinating and rather gentle study of outsiders struggling to work in an insiders’ game.
The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse (1944) Universal’s Mummy cycle of the 1940s makes for perfect marathon viewing. Each entry is only an hour in length, give or take some spare minutes, and there’s enough variety to keep things from bogging down with repetition. Granted, The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Curse lend far too much time to recapping the previous films, but for the most part, we’re bounced around enough in terms of character and ideas (not to mention location – the fourth movie’s sudden, unexplained move to Louisiana is a headscratcher) to make each chapter feel fresh enough. My favorite is The Mummy’s Ghost, which gets all of the franchise’s elements just right, and with the right balance of mystery and spook house fun. The worst, I suppose, is Curse, but even that one has its campy charms.
Die Another Day (2002) So it’s come to this. I suppose the only people watching Die Another Day these days are folks like me who are plowing through the entire 007 series and muddle their way through this film out of obligation. I suppose it says plenty about the franchise that its worst film isn’t that bad; an action flick could do a lot worse than suffering from a wobbly second half, a handful of dumb sci-fi notions, and a clunky performance from its female lead. (The theme song, though? That’s hard to top in terms of being rock bottom.)
The Mummy (1959) Is Hammer’s 1959 version of The Mummy the best mummy movie ever made? I’m tempted to say yes, although I’ll hedge my bets and call it a maybe. After all, Universal’s 1932 original is one of the great early horror films. But there’s also very little mummy in that Mummy, unlike the Cushing/Lee upgrade, which is packed with the guy. (And man, what a mummy Lee makes!) The latter also streamlines the Kharis mythology of the 1940s series, delivering a straightforward revenge flick that’s steady in action and thrills. While it lacks the eeriness and romance of the Karloff version, it doesn’t really need it, its sense of adventure carrying us through spectacularly.
Running Scared (1986) Rarely has a buddy picture been so thin – the plot is nonexistent, a five-minute rundown spread out over an hour and a half. But we also get heyday-level Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, darn near perfecting the art of screen chemistry, assisted by some great comedy writing (and, I assume, a heavy dose of ad libbing). It’s a mountain of smartassery, laid back even in its tensest moments, and the whole thing’s great fun. Also: Michael McDonald!
48 Hrs. (1982) Speaking of buddy pictures, Walter Hill’s landmark genre entry feels a little dry when following Peter Hyams’ yukfest. Even Eddie Murphy’s performance, very funny at times and fresh and vibrant throughout in that starmaking way, feels restrained by comparison. (Those are the pitfalls of the double feature.) No matter – 48 Hrs. crackles with its own energy, a darker, angrier energy fueled by Nick Nolte’s “I don’t wanna be here” grumble-vibe and Hill’s own knack for urban grime. The mix of action and comedy isn’t as polished as later genre efforts would be, making the comedy seem a pinch out of place in a film that leans heavily on action, but it’s a film that works splendidly on its own terms. Also: Bus Boys!
The Son of Kong (1933) So it’s no King Kong, but hey, what is? This rush job sequel is mainly remembered for its many flaws (clunky comic tone! flimsy plot! racism!), but there’s enough here that works to make multiple revisits enjoyable. The set-up alone (in which Carl Denham finds himself evading a pile of lawsuits following Kong’s New York rampage) is clever enough to earn our attention. The film takes its time getting us back to Skull Island, but once we get there, we’re treated to some impressive live action/animation process shots and, of course, some great stop motion work from Willis O’Brien, whose character work on Kong Junior genuinely connects on an emotional level. Considering the filmmakers had only months to put the whole thing together, Son of Kong impresses.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Turns out I was next.