Breaking Away, and six more movies

200 Motels (1971)

This is Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring and hallucinating. It's not a concert film, not a documentary, but also not very narrative, and never less than weird.

Dr Zappa was brilliant, of course, and this is (a sanitized version of) what it was like to be on tour with Zappa and the Mothers. Lots of drugs must've been consumed, and a good time was had by all, including me.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Breaking Away (1979)

This is about four boys, best buddies and fresh from high school. None of them are going on to college, though they live in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. They hate the college kids, and the feeling is mutual, and both sides are probably right.

In a role so famous and a performance so perfect it probably hurt his career, Dennis Christopher stars as Dave Shohler. His family is very not-Italian, but Dave is a bicycling fanatic, and idolizes the Italian national cycling team, so he's taught himself about fifty words of the language, and plays Italian music on his record player, and sings Italian opera, badly but charmingly.

His mom is played by Barbara Barrie, sympathetic to the boy's Italiano dreams — she starts cooking Italian meals, and renames the family's cat Felini. The boy's dad is played by Paul Dooley, who's grumpy and getting grumpier as his son keeps calling him 'Papa' instead of Dad. 

"I won't have any 'ini' in this house!"

The Neverending
Film Festival

There are very few movies that are exactly right all the way through — no flat notes, no moments that don't shine, nothing you'd ever fast-forward past no matter how many times you've seen it. This is one of those movies. I can watch over and over again, and have, and never found a moment of it tiresome or boring.

The kid keeping pace with a Cinzano truck at 60 mph, set to music from The Barber of Seville, is simply thrilling. And the serenade. And Dave's race against the Italian team. The bike repair montage. And the Little 500. And the last few minutes always get me.

Dave's buddies are Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley, and I always want to hug 'em all.

I watched Breaking Away twenty times when it first came out. Saw it again a week ago, and damn if it ain't still a simply excellent buddy movie, coming-of-age movie, father-son movie, and a pretty good sports movie, too. I'm watching it again as I type this.

Steve Tesich wrote Breaking Away, but never much else, and I wonder why. Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Dresser, and inexplicably Krull) directed and produced. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

It's Alive (1973)

A happy suburban couple are having their second child. Mom's in labor, and Dad's in the waiting room having oblivious man-chat with the other expectant dads.

In the delivery room, things aren't going smoothly. Mom keeps saying that this hasn't felt like her previous pregnancy, but nobody in the hospital takes her seriously until the baby is born, and it's monstrously disfigured, and it kills the doctors and nurses, then escapes to begin terrorizing the city.

Seems to me Mom would be the natural focus of the story, but instead the movie is mostly interested in the dilemma Dad (John P Ryan) faces — he's suddenly famous, and fired, and having spawned this thing is an insult to his manhood, so he refuses to think of himself as his child's father. While the 'baby' is still alive, Dad signs over rights to its corpse to mad scientist Andrew Duggan, and he joins the ridiculous, sometimes comical police dragnet to corner and kill the damned thing.

Of course it's crazy, but this is Larry Cohen teaching a class on how to make an enjoyable scary movie without wasting too many millions of dollars. Instead of relentless gore, he gives us relentless tension. Smartly, we only see the movie's central horror in glimpses, and yet, your imagination will vividly fill in the blanks. It's exhausting and exquisite and great entertainment.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

It's Alive 2 (1978)

And this is Larry Cohen getting everything completely wrong.

Several more of these mosterbabies have been born, so I guess every expectant mom in America is being tested by the government. The cops know that a particular woman in Arizona will probably be the next to bear a monster, so a dozen cops are waiting in the delivery room to kill it as soon as it's birthed.

The movie's biggest mistake is bringing back John P Ryan as the dad from the first movie, and making the sequel mostly about him. He was fine in the first movie, but here he's just a reminder how much better the original was.

He's heading some paramilitary organization, all about killing these monsterbabies, but inexplicably he kidnaps the expectant mother from the hospital — where, remember, an entire police precinct is waiting to kill the newborn if it's a monster — and instead forces her to give birth in a truck — where there's nobody to kill the monsterbaby. This makes no sense.

Why did the dad from this second movie (Frederick Forest) abandon his wife (Kathleen Lloyd)?

Why is no-one worried about the mad scientist (Andrew Duggan) who wants to raise a tribe of these monsterbabies and breed them?

I dunno, I dunno, and I dunno, but even a preposterous monster movie needs to play by some ground rules of storytelling.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

This third installment wastes no time making amends for the shitty second movie. Before the opening credits, there's an emergency childbirth in a cab, with a cop delivering, and the baby comes out huge and terrifying, and the cop screams, "It's one of them!" and then the monsterbaby kills the cop, the cabbie, and the mother, and wow, this installment is underway with a scream.

"They're being born faster than we can kill 'em!"

The world is seeing more and more of these monsterfreak babies, and a court decides that we the people are too civilized to kill the monsterbabies, so instead they're exiled to an otherwise deserted island. And then five years later, some foolhardy fools charter an expedition to that island, just to check up on the kiddies.

Michael Moriarty stars, and he's the perfect muse for Cohen. Like in Q: The Winged Serpent, he's a little bit bonkers and he ought to be unsympathetic, but he's likable even when he's unlikable. He's also a much better father than John P Ryan from the first two movies — he actually cares about his terrifying murderous son.

3/4 of It's Alive III is a pleasing recovery for the franchise, but toward the end there's a woman who's gang-raped for no plot-related purpose, and another woman in peril, and the movie never recovers. It sputters on to a depressingly so-so ending.

Karen Black and Macdonald Carey have smallish parts. Music by Laurie Johnson, who scored Dr Strangelove and TV's The Avengers (no superheroes, please).

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Nightmare at Noon (1987)

This is a lousy movie about… fuck all, I have no idea. Space alien Brion James is poisoning a town's water supply, and paramilitary troops arrive in black vans, and there's a redneck maniac with a knife, a dangerous hitchhiker (Bo Hopkins), and a pretty cop and a cop who's not (George Kennedy). I made it through about 25 minutes, and should've quit quicker.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Thunderpants (2004)

Patrick Smash (Bruce Cook) was born flatulent, and farted so chronically and stinkily that his father couldn't stand it and soon moved out. His childhood was farty and lonely, until he met Alan (Rupert Grint), a classmate who's a genius but has no sense of smell. They'll be best buddies for life.

The whole movie is an extended fart joke, but it's surprisingly sweet and innocent, and since it's British even the farts seem to have an accent and an aura of class.

Cook is fine as the little stinker, but Grint, looking about ten years old, steals the movie. He's a walking sight gag, and delivers every line funny, even lines that wouldn't be funny if anyone else said them. He's amazingly adorable, and should've been a bigger child star than Harry Potter allowed.

Simon Callow plays an opera singer, Stephen Fry plays a Brit lawyer with the puffy white wig, Paul Giamatti plays some kind of secret agent, and Ned Beatty is a loony Christian NASA director.

Beatty bugged me; his character is in charge of NASA but seems to know nothing about science, and keeps saying things like, "Praise the Lord!" After a few frowns from me, I decided he's a satire of too many too-Christian American officials, and after that realization I started laughing again.

If you haven't guessed, Thunderpants is a kiddie movie, but I smiled for an hour and a half, and laughed several times. It's as funny as a fart, and that's pretty funny.

"You have that revolutionary new engine, right there in your shorts, Patrick."

Verdict: YES.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. I wondered if you were fucking with us, but Google says Thunderpants exists. With the exception of Tolkien you're usually right about what's good and what's not so I'm tempted.

    1. Let me know if you hate it.


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