FilmNerds Recommends: March Alternatives

The FilmNerds crew is back once again with FilmNerds Recommends, our monthly feature where we do our sacred duty as film geeks by telling you which movies we think are worthy of your valuable home entertainment time. March is truly a dry season when it comes to new releases in theaters with studios dumping off their least promising projects before the summer season gets rolling. This month, as we occasionally do, the FilmNerds crew has chosen four of the month’s big releases and given you alternative choices that offer a more satisfying variation on the same theme. Every FilmNerds recommendation is currently available on Netflix so if you see a pick you like, simply click on the DVD cover art to link straight to the movie’s page on Netflix.

Instead of The Adjustment Bureau

Ben Stark’s Pick – Blade Runner (1982)

Honestly, this Philip K. Dick adaptation from Bourne Ultimatum writer George Nolfi looks pretty good to me. I’ll probably be waiting for its arrival at the local $1 theater, and in the mean time I’ll keep watching another PKD story, Blade Runner. It’s been a recent slow-going mission of mine to revisit each cut of the Ridley Scott classic on blu ray, and it’s been a pleasure so far.

Corey Craft’s Pick – A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Because I know no one else is going to even approach this one, I’ll be the in-house defender of Steven Spielberg’s wonderful A.I. Artificial Intelligence, one of the most thought-provoking, fantastical science fiction films of recent years. (Though it’s hard to believe that movie is a decade old this year… wow.) Working from a story by sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss that had enticed Stanley Kubrick in the later years of his life, Spielberg took over the film after Kubrick’s death and made a movie that artfully (yes, ARTFULLY) melds their two sensibilities in a robot’s fairy tale journey that examines the very question of what it means to be human. The ending, which has been misunderstood time and time again, caps the movie off with a stunning answer. But haters, as they always do, are going to hate.

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – Inception (2010)

I hate to make such an obvious and recent reference, but revisiting Christopher Nolan’s would continue to serve us all well, not necessarily because we must take more time to process Nolan’s universe and set of rules but because of the power and warmth of the narrative. The more I watch the film, the less I’m wrapped up in the technical mastery and instead am consumed by Nolan’s protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio in his best performance) and the sacrifices he makes to return to his children. He puts his family, colleagues and employers at great risk in a simple effort to make things right for himself, but more importantly, to ensure his son and daughter have at least one parent. Nolan never wants to overemphasize the technology or specifics of his modern world, instead insisting we simply roll with it and buy into Cobb’s emotional journey.

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca is one of the most underrated “intelligent” sci-fi films to emerge in recent years. Written and directed by The Truman Show scribe Andrew Niccol, this October 1997 release under-performed at the box office, despite receiving a favorable 82% rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Blending elements of film noir with a heavy dose of dystopian cynicism, Gattaca presents a world in which people who haven’t been genetically engineered to perfection must battle discrimination on all fronts. Ethan Hawke plays an aspiring astronaut whose natural-birth prevents him from climbing the ladder at a space-exploration company. He pays a paralyzed man (Jude Law) who was genetically engineered for the rights to his identity so that he can pursue his dream. The fascinating plot never feels contrived, and Niccol creates a uniquely imaginative world in which it dreamily unfolds.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – Equilibrium (2002)

This isn’t quite the hidden gem it was a few years ago but at the time it was released, I was baffled at how little attention this very smart, very violent high-concept film received. The idea of a society medicated into apathy and controlled by a group of geometry-obsessed supercops seems like it would get a lot of traction these days among certain political communities but all that aside, it’s simply a thoughtful yet bad-ass sci-fi action movie with a strong lead performance from Oscar-winner Christian Bale.

Instead of Take Me Home Tonight

Ben Stark’s Pick – The Party (1968)

There’s no more obvious pick here than Blake Edwards’ The Party, starring Peter Sellers as a bumbling extra who accidentally gets invited to a swanky Hollywood shindig. As with the best of Edwards, much of the comedy comes out of background details, including a waiter who becomes progressively drunker throughout the night.

Corey Craft’s Pick – Boogie Nights (1997)

I never went to any parties, so as far as depictions of parties in film, your guess is probably a lot better than mine as to what constitutes a cool party movie. But for the sake of being contrary, let’s pick a really depressing answer and say Boogie Nights, which seems to have a lot of scenes at parties. And also scenes on pornographic film sets. But the sprawling cast of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scorsese homage (that’s not a stretch to say at this point, is it?) has a whole lot of fun and parties hard until the seventies come crashing down, and when they come crashing down, they crash hard. And none of those parties seem very much fun, and you’re left with some dude standing in a corner throwing firecrackers into the air while you zone out to “Jesse’s Girl.” Yeah, that’s my favorite party movie.

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – Dazed and Confused (1993)

Tied with its predecessor American Graffiti as my favorite “one night out” movie, Richard Linklater’s high school comedy speaks to teenagers and college students alike who struggled with the thought of being stuck in their small hometown forever and maybe came to the conclusion that it might not be such a horrible thing if you’re surrounded by friends. Rarely do filmmakers actually “get” the high school experience, often opting to set up pathetically unrealistic party scenarios instead of a bunch of folks meeting up in the middle of nowhere to stand around a keg and hang out. While a psychotic homeowner has never stuck a pistol in my face prior to my slamming the accelerator and peeling out under a sea of gunfire, I feel like we’ve all more or less shared an experience like that. One of my favorite scripts from a filmmaker I feel actually matters to our generation.

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – Back to the Beach (1987)

With Summer rapidly approaching, I highly recommend taking the party to the greatest spot known to man: the beach – with 1987’s Back to the Beach. 1960s teen-icons Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon star as fictionalized versions of themselves in this tongue-in-cheek homage to their American International Pictures-produced series of movies that included Beach Blanket Bingo and Muscle Beach Party. Filled with humorous contrasts between the idealized world of 60s beach parties and 1980s sensibilities, the film chronicles Frankie and Annette’s attempt to reclaim a Hawaiian beach from a gang of four-wheeler riding baddies, one of whom is dating their teenage daughter (Lori Laughlin). Again the material is as self-aware as it gets, resulting in a fun, often hilarious send-up of a forgotten era. Watch out for memorable cameos by Pee-Wee Herman, Dick Dale and O.J. Simpson.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – Valley Girl (1983)

I caught this highly underrated teen party movie as part of my ongoing Back to the Movies series here on FilmNerds (end of shameless promotion) and was shocked not only at how incredibly likable the young Nicholas Cage was in his first major movie role but also how sensitive and compassionate this movie turned out to be in the face of a major trend towards brainless sex comedies in the early ’80s. The various party scenes in Valley Girl are a great reflection of the painful and awkward experience of falling in love with someone you don’t know from across a room at a party.

Instead of The Lincoln Lawyer

Ben Stark’s Pick – Amistad (1997)

Although only its climax really takes place in court, Amistad still contains one of the most amazing courtroom speeches of all time. The setting caveat aside, Spielberg’s long melodrama is a mature and measured look at slavery and its horrors.

Corey Craft’s Pick – To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill A Mockingbird is the answer here, because no courtroom scene in cinematic history compares to Atticus Finch’s impassioned monologue to save Tom Robinson, and Gregory Peck gives one of the most iconic performances ever. That movie probably inspired an entire generation to go into law.

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – A Time to Kill (1996)

I’ll take you back to the mid-90s, when Matthew McConaughey could act, or at least made better choices. Honestly, I’m hearing The Lincoln Lawyer actually isn’t half-bad, so maybe we get an extension of his excellent work as Jake Briggance in Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of the John Grisham’s powerful novel. Shouldering the burden of leading an ensemble of borderline southern accents, the Texas-born McConaughey comes across as genuine in this forward, slightly gritty mainstream courtroom drama. I gladly bought into the hammy performances and sweaty (Ashley Judd) atmosphere, but thanks to McConaughey’s gripping monologue in his closing argument, the story comes front and center.

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – The Verdict (1982)

You’ll experience one of Paul Newman’s greatest performances in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, which features a script by David Mamet. Newman stars as an alcoholic, small-time civil attorney who takes on a medical malpractice case from which he hopes to quickly profit with an out-of-court settlement. However, once he recognizes the severity of the injustice that has occurred, Newman’s character seizes the opportunity to change his ways and finally do the right thing. Sidney Lumet is no stranger to courtroom dramas; this, along with 12 Angry Men, serves as one of his finest entires in the genre. Newman gets strong support from Jack Warden, as well as James Mason who – along with Newman – received an Oscar nomination for his work here.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – The Caine Mutiny (1954)

While only the latter part of the film takes place in a courtroom, The Caine Mutiny features what many would call Humphrey Bogart’s most impressive performance as a naval captain that skirts the line between insanely demanding and just plain insane. The courtroom scenes are a really clever exploration of the precarious situation of declaring your boss insane without being insubordinate, something that anyone who’s ever had a bad boss has probably spent a lot of time thinking about…

Instead of Sucker Punch

Corey Craft’s Pick – Crank (2006) or Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)

The Crank movies. And if you have to ask why at this point, I don’t know what to say.

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Ben Stark’s Pick – The Transporter (2002)

Ignore Corey’s pick. Instead, check out Crank’s less methed-up cousins, The Transporter Trilogy. The first film really loses its moment about half-way through, the second is basically a Wile E. Coyote movie, and the third actually attains a level of balance. Take all the films together, divide them by three, and you have a really slick, enjoyably cartoonish modern action flick.

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)

The most exquisite junk food you’ll ever taste, Quentin Tarantino’s most thoroughly entertaining film pits a beautiful blond hell-bent on “retiring” the folks that tried to murder her and her unborn child. If you ever wonder whether a filmmaker is having any fun behind the scenes, look no further than the first half of Tarantino’s blood-spattered epic. It’s loud, colorful, disciplined and unspeakably reverent to the MANY films, television series and musicians that influenced it. But while it makes heavy references to things from the past, I’d wager it’s one of the more original films of the past 25 years. He may have borrowed bits and pieces from his favorite works, but this is 100 percent Tarantino to the letter. Every day, I think of a new favorite scene or chapter, and today it’s nearly every minute we get to spend with Sonny Chiba’s Hattori Hanzo.

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – RoboCop (1987)

While many might throw it in the science-fiction category, I have to go with another title from that fabled year of 1987: Paul Verhoven’s Robocop. Featuring cyborgs, big guns, hilarious villains, cocaine, hot 80s women, murderous robots and much more, it rarely gets more absurdly fun than this. All of the action is anchored by one of the great 1980s action scores by composer Basil Poledouris. While Verhoven triumphed numerous times in his subsequent career, Robocop still stands tall as his strongest effort and remains one of the classic examples – if not the classic example – of over-the-top 80s action movies.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

Firstly, let me say that I’m definitely going to see Sucker Punch and expect it to be better than the movie I’m recommending here. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is not a terribly good movie all in all but it has some spectacularly fun action sequences. Director McG doesn’t do a lot of things well but never let it be said that the guy can’t film explosions, women running from explosions, women riding motorcycles through explosions and all manner of other things involving women, explosions and slow-motion photography. See the other recommendations in this category first and if you still feel like you haven’t seen enough action, check out Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.