lame superhero movies. Stupefyingly banal “romantic comedies.” Yet another outbreak of that dread disease, “Sequel Fever.” And something called The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, the trailers for which give the distinct impression that Sean Connery may have trapped and skinned his own costume. After browsing the summer 2003 movie menu, your average film lover may be forgiven for perhaps lapsing into a deep and profound depression.

Still, there are some quality and occasionally extraordinary films out there. So why does seeing them require such effort?

Well, the black and twisted soul of your average Hollywood producer is an obvious answer. With two eyes fixed firmly on the bottom line, movie executives have thoroughly succumbed to the blockbuster as a guaranteed cash cow. Sheer laziness is another explanation. Films that straddle several genres, shift among multiple tones, and deal with complex and interesting themes are hard to market, and most studios don’t bother trying. That does not mean, however, that such films out aren’t there, if you know where to look. With that in mind, the Stylus movie staff decided to put together a guide of films that have flown under the radar for far too long.

The movies in this list represent all manner of the underrated and largely unseen. You’ve got your lost classics, your overlooked mainstream gems, and your so-indie-they-have-a-cult-of-one films. The only common denominator these movies have is that few people in the 2003 English-speaking world have seen them, and that if you ask your humble Stylus writers, this situation must be rectified as quickly as possible. We’ve stayed away from foreign films (that’s another article altogether), and we’ve stayed away from much-loved “cult” movies. These movies are quirky, idiosyncratic choices, or have been too-long confined to the film school set. But we hope having the Stylus stamp of approval will motivate you to track these worthy films down. Happy Hunting.

Stylus at the Movies

Bigger Than Life
(Nicholas Ray, 1956)

Released in the shadow of his Rebel Without a Cause—where it has unfortunately languished ever since—Bigger Than Life returned director and classic auteur Nicholas Ray to the dark, hidden underbelly of 1950s American suburbia. This time, instead of exploring juvenile delinquency and youthful alienation, Ray tackles the pressure of consumer culture and keeping up with the Joneses by crafting a satirical-cum-frightening portrait of a domineering parent.

The film—adapted from a New Yorker article—stars James Mason as Ed Avery, an elementary school teacher in an idyllic small town who learns that he has a potentially fatal condition, and takes the then-experimental drug cortisone in order to combat it. The drug works, but its side effects cause the otherwise mannerly Avery to suffer from delusions of grandeur. His megalomaniacal behavior eventually descends into abusiveness. At first, his demands are all too common—forcing his son to spend hours on long division or tormenting him for not being able to catch a football, for instance—but eventually he becomes monstrous. Most famous are the dinner-table scenes, liberally swiped for the much less subtle or elegant suburban family drama, American Beauty.

Just as he was in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, Mason is perfectly cast as the seemingly gentle and genteel European undone by a changing America. His measured performance moves from mannered and reserved to uncomfortable and even humorous before veering off into the truly disturbing, and he does it all with subtlety and grace. Ray’s dissection of America’s newfound and misguided quest for surface achievement without regard to the potential hidden, internal consequences is an unsettling yet graceful masterpiece, making Bigger than Life one of the few 1950s family dramas that easily translates to today.

[Scott Plagenhoef]

(John Schlesinger, 1965)

Most of the classic youth-related British films of the early to mid-1960s were either about provincial dreamers and/or hooligans navigating the dreariness of working-class life with one eye on southbound trains or a giddy, vibrant celebration of the newfound post-Beat freedom and spirit of youth. Darling is an odd combination of both.

The 1965 film—directed by John Schlesinger—is a sly satirical look at the selfishness and decadence of London’s swinging fashion set. Schlesinger takes the spirit of the British New Wave but dresses it up in a dramatic story and a linear narrative. Julie Christie stars as a fashionable, amoral model who sleeps her way to the top of the British style set and beyond. If her turn as an easy-going, handbag-swinging free spirit in Billy Liar put Christie on the map, this made her a deserved star—and earned her a Best Actress Oscar.

Christie and her sizable charm are admittedly a big draw here, but the sharp, witty dialogue, smart direction, and ensemble acting—primarily from former matinee idol Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey—is also delicious. It wouldn’t work, either, were Christie not so fun to watch. Her plucky mix of faux-naivete and sexual cunning is compounded by her role as narrator—so her words and deeds don’t always jibe. For instance, she tells us that the thought of splitting up a family abhors her as she prepares her new apartment across the street from her lover’s house. And that’s really the central contradiction: Nobody ever thinks they are a bad person—particularly when decadence is seen as a righteous path toward personal freedom and away from social or cultural oppression. This is London as it is just starting to swing, of course, and the new sexual and economic freedoms of youngsters rubs against the country’s stodgy tradition and the humiliation of the country’s limited post-war international role. What’s a little infidelity, racism, or deception between friends—particularly if it gets you that plum modeling job?

[Scott Plagenhoef]

The Falls
(Peter Greenaway, 1980)

Peter Greenaway’s first feature film is three hours of obsessive listing and categorisation, describing irrelevant specifics in excessive detail without ever clarifying or even outlining the general. Wanting something to categorise, Greenaway invented the Violent Unknown Event, or VUE for short. The film pretends to be a VUE Commission documentary about 92 of the fourteen million people affected worldwide by the VUE, all of whose surnames begin with “Fall”, and all with bizarre names such as Aptesia Fallarme or Propine Fallax. The VUE caused the creation of 92 different languages and four new genders; it is associated with birds and with water. Why it happened is—obviously—unknown, although some think that birds were responsible, and one sufferer suggests it was perpetrated by Alfred Hitchcock. A big picture is gradually built up through details, though always left tantalisingly vague.

This probably makes The Falls sound very dull, but that’s far from the case. In reality, it’s a fascinating work filled with in-jokes, self-referencing and odd loose ends, with a light and surreal humour all of its own. It’s at the centre of Greenaway’s work and career as a filmmaker. Very similar in style to the director’s early short films, such as H Is For House, it even contains footage from two of them. And in his later films, Greenaway refers back to The Falls, with details like the three main characters named Cissie Colpitts in Drowning By Numbers, and many elements of his current project The Tulse Luper Suitcases (including the character of Luper himself). Precisely mimicking a certain form of low-budget documentary, there’s a great charm to its quiet patchwork of images, heightened by Michael Nyman’s wonderful score. Like all of Greenaway’s films, you’ll either love it or hate it. But for the former group, it’s a bizarre, idiosyncratic enigma that you’ll treasure forever.

[Dan Emerson]

Gregory’s Girl
(Bill Forsyth, 1981)

Bill Forsyth is best known as the director of cult classic Local Hero, but slightly less well known is this 1981 movie. Set in the Scottish “New Town” of Cumbernauld, it centres on Gregory, an awkward and clumsy teenager with his head in the clouds, who loses his place on the school soccer team (a group so bad that one character jokes “I heard they got a corner and took a lap of honour”) to Dorothy, a (no! but yes!) girl, who he of course proceeds to fall in love with. In fact, the whole school seems infatuated with her, with two students even selling photographs. She, of course, is completely oblivious. Soon enough, Gregory seeks romantic advice from his ten year old sister, who spouts platitudes and clichés such as “If you’re going to start falling in love, you need to start taking care of yourself”, and works up the courage to ask Dorothy out.

Okay, okay, I know, this sounds awful, but it’s anything but; in fact, it’s one of my favourite movies. Defiantly not really going anywhere at all, it’s likeably whimsical and filled with immense warmth and charm. Every single character is exceptionally friendly and charming; Gregory may tut at a boy who visits his sister, suggesting “Act your age—go and break some windows, demolish a phone box”, but only because he’s so protective. Gregory’s friends, meanwhile, are at least as awkward as he is, and all dreamers; one of them, for example, keeps reciting bizarre statistical trivia and claiming it as “a well-known fact”. It’s full of little unexplained jokes, at least one so truly inspired that I can’t bring myself to spoil it. And perhaps best of all, with multiple viewings, it only gets better and better.

[Dan Emerson]

Happy Accidents
(Brad Anderson, 2001)

Cute, co-dependent Marisa Tomei has run through one weird boyfriend after another. She finally meets the perfect guy—eccentric, sure, but genuine and adorable—when she finds Vincent D’Onofrio on a New York park bench. This could be the best relationship she’s ever had—until the day she discovers D’Onofrio has a secret: he claims he’s a “back traveler” who comes from the year 2470. Is he nuts? Or worse, is he telling the truth—but lying about why he came back? By grafting a sci-fi angle onto a straight-up romance, director Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland, Session 9) risked making a film that was too busy, confusing, or outright silly to work. But instead this is his best film to date, intriguing, funny, and deftly original. The chemistry between the leads puts it miles above the “cute” Meg Ryan movies that have plagued the genre, each plot twist is a surprise, and the tangents actually support the film—like D’Onofrio’s satirical tales of the future, or a cameo by Anthony Michael Hall. And where most rom-coms settle for the slimmest devices to keep their lovers apart, here’s a movie that, no matter how odd the premise, gives them believably giant obstacles—and makes their romance that much more charmed.

[Chris Dahlen]

Last Night
(Don McKellar, 1998)

Don McKellar’s 1998 movie has such a brilliant premise that I can’t but love it. Taking place in the last six hours before the world ends—you never find out the cause, but are given small hints such as the sun still shining at midnight—we find not a chaotic apocalypse, nor the mawkish sentimentality and nauseating excessive goodness of Deep Impact or Testament. Instead, people just go on acting like people, and make little plans, which inevitably go astray. So one family sits down to a pretend Christmas dinner; a couple plan make a pact to commit suicide in the world’s last moments; and one man fulfills an ambition to make as many different kinds of sexual conquests as possible. Obviously, as I said, these plans go awry, and over the movie’s fairly short duration, all the different characters end up interacting with each other—and then the world ends.

Last Night manages to feel exceptionally real, owing primarily to writer, director and star McKellar’s well-observed portrayal of human nature. Many of the film’s characters pursue minor and essentially futile ambitions; for example, in addition to the above, the radio DJ plays his 500 favourite songs ever. By contrast, McKellar’s character, Patrick, regards his family’s actions as stupid, and plans to meet the end alone; but his stance is shown to be at least as petty as everyone else’s. The movie is far from bitter, though; well acted by an excellent cast, especially Sandra Oh, you care about the characters not despite but because of their flaws. Full of understated humour and incidental pleasures, yet finally genuinely moving, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

[Dan Emerson]

Living on Tokyo Time
(Stephen Okazaki, 1987)

Unlike several of the movies featured here, Living on Tokyo Time was never unfairly maligned by audiences or critics, seemingly because no one saw it. Not even the efforts of indie guru John Pierson could make the film an underground success. Even if Stephen Okazaki's 1987 debut had been pushed into some sort of wide release, it's unlikely that it would have attained the cult status of other indies of the era. It's a subtle, nuanced movie whose appeal is hard to articulate. The story follows Japanese-American wannabe rock star Ken (Ken Nakagawa), who is convinced to marry Kyoko (Minako Ohashi), a recent Japanese immigrant in search of a green card, because he has nothing else going on. Kyoko, not fluent in English, and Ken, as far removed from Japanese culture as possible, are an unlikely pair. Even as Ken begins to fall in love with the beautiful Kyoko, she grows more and more homesick, feeling alien in a country where she cannot express herself. It does not help matters that Ken appears to Kyoko, as he does to everyone else, as a bored, almost brain-dead zombie, discontented and uninterested in life.

The movie has striking similarities, plot-wise, to Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. The two films present similar ideas about American ennui and do so with a similarly dry wit, but Living on Tokyo Time feels entirely different. It is a warmer portrait of an even duller character than John Lurie's Willie, the central figure in the Jarmusch movie. Ken, Kyoko and all the supporting characters are all strangely likeable and compelling—their boredom and dissatisfaction isn't all that defines them. Okazaki renders the remarkable green card/marriage story unremarkable, and makes Ken’s unremarkable everyday life remarkable. Every one of the film's San Francisco locales feels real and interesting. While not on the level of Wayne Wang's 1982 work Chan Is Missing, the film contains a nonetheless fascinating meditation on the Asian cultural experience in America at the end of the 20th century. Living on Tokyo Time is an immediately enjoyable and funny film that only gets more meaningful with time.

[Colin Beckett]

Modern Romance
(Albert Brooks, 1981)

According to the much of the film cognoscenti, Albert Brooks’ best “early” movie is 1985’s Lost in America. This is unfortunate, really, because in my view Brooks (oft-regarded as the Left Coast Woody Allen) made his best film four years earlier when he wrote and directed Modern Romance. Here, Brooks actually outdoes Woody, both in his ability to distill romance to pure neurosis and in his ability to make that neurosis utterly hilarious. In Modern Romance, Brooks makes clear his view that all of life’s choices are driven by fear and insecurity. How such a bleak worldview could be as side-splittingly funny as this film is remains a mystery, but there you are.

Brooks plays Robert Cole, a Los Angeles film editor who obsessively breaks up with and then woos back his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold), only to repeat the cycle over and over again. After one such breakup, we see Robert attempt to break out of his depression by popping a couple of Quaaludes (oh, how very 1981). The subsequent scene ranks as one of the all-time great examples of understated comic glory. Robert, stoned to the gills, wanders around his house, crashing into walls, phoning old friends and girlfriends to talk about nothing in particular, and gazing fondly at his record collection (“I love my house. I love my albums.”).

That scene alone would make tracking down the shopworn VHS copies of this film worth the effort, but the movie is crammed with razor-sharp one-liners and unexpectedly farcical sight gags. Brooks even takes time out of his obsessive self-analysis to lob a few zingers against the outside world, most notably cretinous Hollywood types (the scene where he edits a subpar sci-fi movie is a classic) and the emerging world of aerobic fashion. Reportedly one of the late Stanley Kubrick’s favorite all time films, Modern Romance is an underrated touchstone of modern romantic comedy, and a must-see for fans of accessibly intelligent humor.

[Jay Millikan]

O.C. and Stiggs
(Robert Altman, 1987)

Made in the thick of a career low for Robert Altman, O.C. and Stiggs is perhaps the last still-underrated 80s teen comedy. This 1987 film belongs in the pantheon of 1980s, bizarro, stoner comedies alongside Better off Dead and Tapeheads. Based on National Lampoon characters, the original script is reported to be markedly different from the final cut of the film, which is more a product of Altman's drug abuse than anything else. Whatever the circumstances of its creation, O.C. and Stiggs is a thoroughly engaging, often hilarious mess. The bare semblance of plot concerns the summer plans of two recent high school graduates, O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Mark Stiggs (Neil Barry), to ruin the life of the clueless, slightly sinister Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley). Things get weirder and weirder as the film progresses, and it eventually devolves into a series of gunfights and oddball one-liners. The cast is filled out with appearances by such disparate personalities as Dennis Hopper, Jane Curtin, Melvin Van Peebles, King Sunny Ade, Nina Van Pallandt and Bob Uecker. O.C. and Stiggs is no great work of art, but it's as goofy and enjoyable a diversion as any film of its ilk.

[Colin Beckett]

The Party
(Blake Edwards, 1968)

The great Peter Sellers emerged as an international star with his performance as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, a role that, along with his portrayal of Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, still defines him among most critics and the majority of the moviegoing public. Particularly in the first Pink Panther film, it is the combination of Sellers’ antics with David Niven’s impeccable elegance that gave the comedy a veneer of sophistication that lasts to this day. But in 1968’s The Party, also directed by Blake Edwards, that veneer is removed, Sellers is allowed to run rampant, and the result is spectacular.

Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, a sweet-tempered Indian actor for whom the term “bumbling” is a monumental understatement. After accidentally blowing up an entire movie set, Bakshi is mistakenly invited to one of Hollywood’s most exclusive parties, where he proceeds to wreak escalating havoc for an hour and a half. By the end of the evening, the gated mansion where the party takes place is filled with gallons of soapy water, an utterly destroyed kitchen, a roomful of hysterical guests, and at least one painted elephant who wanders blissfully through the wreckage. And while Sellers’ every (mis)step is comic gold, be sure to watch Steve Franken as Levinson, the drunken butler who steals every scene he’s in.

In evaluating the Sellers canon, I lump people who like The Pink Panther over The Party in with those misguided souls who prefer A Night at the Opera to Duck Soup in the Marx Brothers pantheon because of the “stronger love story.” Elegant wit is fine and dandy, but give me gleeful anarchy from a certified comic genius any day. The Party gives us the experience of watching Peter Sellers totally unleashed.

[Jay Millikan]

(Oliver Stone, 1986)

Ever wonder what a movie directed by Hunter S. Thompson would be like? Wonder no longer, dear reader, and rent Oliver Stone’s Salvador. One of his first studio films, and forever overshadowed by the almost simultaneous release of Platoon, Salvador may rank as Stone’s greatest accomplishment. It serves two functions—as a savagely pointed critique of Reagan-era foreign policy in Central America, and a drugged-up road movie par excellence.

The backstory of this film is almost as entertaining as the movie itself. Gonzo journalist Richard Boyle spent several years in El Salvador in the late 70s and early 80s, writing about the political repression and notorious death squads of that benighted country in-between getting stoned out of his mind and screwing as many native women as could be found. Naturally enough, upon his return to the States he hooked up with Oliver Stone, who at that time was known primarily for being the drug-addled bad boy responsible for writing Scarface and Midnight Express. The two went down to Mexico, mixed their drugs up, and decided to make a movie about Boyle’s experiences (the special edition DVD features mind-boggling interviews with the major filmmakers, so stay away from VHS copies at all costs).

James Woods stars as Boyle, delivering a sensational performance in making Boyle both compulsively likeable and the incredible asshole he evidently is (“down here you can get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks”). He and Jim Belushi, as the radio DJ Doctor Rock, impulsively drive down to El Salvador from San Francisco in search of drugs, sex, and a big story for Boyle. They find all three, with Boyle’s silent tour of a mass grave ranking as one of the most profoundly effective political statements in all of Stone’s films.

Salvador is one of the most kinetic movies I’ve ever seen, moving with a raw energy that Stone, for all his attempts, has never quite equaled. Much of its energy is owed, no doubt, to the fact that everyone involved in making it was higher than shit. Nevertheless, Stone’s ability to weave his political critique into an often-hilarious road movie makes Salvador one of the few genuinely effective pieces of agitprop film.

[Jay Millikan]

Shock Corridor
(Samuel Fuller, 1963)

In the past 10 years, DVD releases and name checks by iconoclastic directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have considerably raised Samuel Fuller’s profile and helped re-write his legacy. Yet Fuller—who critic Andrew Sarris once tagged “an American primitive”—remains a director whose work seems more discussed that watched. In order to redress that inconsistency, the place to start is with 1963’s Shock Corridor.

The film is the story of an ambitious journalist who fakes a mental illness in order to infiltrate a sanitarium to solve a murder mystery—an accomplishment that he believes will result in a Pulitzer Prize. But instead of focusing on the whodunits, as a lesser filmmaker would have done, Fuller crudely uses the exaggerated grotto of the mental hospital as a petri dish for American society and its ills: racism, military rule, repression, and so forth.

One of the original Hollywood outsiders, Fuller’s visual feasts often feature a total breakdown between the personal and political, with characters fit to societal types. What saves Fuller’s work from being preachy is just how bleak it often is, how mixed his messages are, and how inventively he frames his low-rent tales.

A veteran of both crime reporting and pulp fiction writing, Fuller’s crude Algrenesque view of the world was punctuated by a poetic ugliness and a distaste for the hypocrisy of materialistic boom years of the late 1950s and early 60s. For years, he was able to create his offbeat, singular works because they were literally cut-rate B films, but Hollywood soon lost patience. After Shock Corridor and the following year’s Naked Kiss—a film about a bald prostitute who escapes into suburbia only to find its horrors are worse than her street life—Fuller was essentially excommunicated from Hollywood. Before he left, however, his work peaked with this stylized, expressive, ugly look at the frailties and immorality of contemporary America, designed to illustrate how tragically close to madness the country teetered.

[Scott Plagenhoef]

(F.W. Murnau, 1927)

F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is arguably the greatest artistic triumph of Hollywood’s silent age. The film—subtitled “A Song of Two Humans”—was the last great visual feast prepared before the advent of sound made post-silent, pre-Welles cinema a shockingly stunted visual dead end.

The film is set in a dozy farming town that doubles as a weekend getaway for city dwellers. Farmer George O’Brien is wooed by urban seductress Margaret Livingston who—in a memorable moonlight tryst—convinces him to attempt to murder his wife, Janet Gaynor, and escape to the city.

The plan calls for the husband to capsize his boat and leave his wife to die. Unable to carry out the deed, the boat safely reaches shore and the horrified wife escapes to the city. The farmer—his love for his wife renewed tenfold—chases and attempts to convince her of his intentions.

The trolley ride from country to city is one of the most lyrical, gorgeous film sequences of the silent era. Once in the city, its jazz and sensory overload dazzle the couple, who indulge in haircuts and studio photographs and charm the well-heeled by capturing an escaped—and eventually drunk—fairground pig and demonstrating the peasant dance. The characters are so broadly drawn that they don’t have names, but this adds to the film’s parabolic charm and highlights its whirlwind celebration of life.

Murnau’s first American production, Sunrise features the expressive lighting and elaborate sets that made his German films so beloved. It’s also lifted by the playful, adventurous work of The Last Laugh’s cinematographer Karl Fruend, whose camera spins, dances, and dazzles. Unfortunately—like many silent classics—it is nearly impossible to view and is unavailable on DVD. If you’re lucky enough to live in a town with a vibrant repertory cinema, the chances are it will make an appearance—sometimes with live musical accompaniment. For the rest of us, there are some VHS copies to be seen.

[Scott Plagenhoef]

Wise Blood
(John Huston, 1979)

In interviews, Bruce Springsteen used to quote Wise Blood, reportedly his favorite movie. He described one of the final scenes, in which Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), after being informed that people have "quit" scarring or disfiguring themselves for Christ, responds "They ain't quit doin' it as long as I'm doin' it!" Bruce used the quote to emphasize his commitment to rock and roll, but in the film it's a cry of outrage and desperation; Hazel has nothing left but the religion that torments him. But the film is much more than just a bleak downer. Based on Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novella, the film follows the adventures of Motes, who, upon returning from the service to find his family gone and his house burned, packs up for the fictional Taulkinham, Georgia, to preach for his own "Church of Christ Without Christ". Through flashbacks, the audience learns of the fire and brimstone torture doled out to Motes by his preacher grandfather that inspired him to create "The church where the blind can't see, the lame don't walk and the dead stay that way". In Taulkinham, Motes meets an endless succession of sad-sacks; from the perennially friendless Enoch Emery (Daniel Shor) and sly grifter Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) to street preacher Asa Hawkes (Harry Dean Stanton) and his underfed, white trash daughter Sabbath Lily Hawkes (Amy Wright) who takes a shine to Hazel. Director John Huston details these characters' eccentricities with a sharp, vivid lens, creating a madcap, almost screwball atmosphere, but never letting them fall into cheap parody. The audience can feel as deeply for Enoch Emery as hard as they laugh at his foibles. Hazel Motes is one the most unforgettable characters in fiction, and Brad Dourif has the perfect face for Motes' never-ending scowl, delivering his caustic one-liners ("I bet you think you been redeemed") with pitch-perfect condescension. Wise Blood is a different take on the "cinema of loneliness" motif that dominated the 1970s. The film is a must-see; it's as sad and affecting a portrait of despair as it is as an uproarious slice-of-life.

[Colin Beckett]

Zero Effect
(Jake Kasdan, 1998)

It’s safe to say that, without papa Lawrence, director of The Big Chill and screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back, Jake Kasdan’s The Zero Effect probably would never have been made. In Hollywood agent-speak, even late-nineties gold like Ben Stiller does not a hit make when you’re talking about a film centering around a whacked-out, drug-addled, private investigator who writes thrash-folk songs under the influence of...something. Yet somehow, Jake Kasdan does something very special with this little-known film, first and foremost because he features the utterly brilliant work of one Bill Pullman. Yes, you read that right—that guy.

After nearly two decades of being miscast, misused and misunderestimated by Hollywood, Pullman creates in Daryl Zero one of the most unique and strangely affecting characters in recent memory—unapproachably eccentric, incapable of maintaining the most basic of relationships, yet undeniably sweet. We first find Zero trapped in a penthouse fortress behind six locks and endless cabinets of tuna, which he scarfs down by the can-full. There, Zero seems destined to live out an existence as a sort of Philip Marlowe-Charles Foster Kane hybrid—until a case comes along in which he is assigned to investigate the lovely and mysterious Kim (Hollow Man) Dickens, who just might have, in a manner of speaking, the keys to those six locks. So follows numerous plot twists and surprises concerning robberies and family ties, none of which I will reveal here.

Indeed, there are countless pleasures to be had in The Zero Effect, but watching how Pullman and Kasdan connect Zero’s eccentricities and insecurities to his investigatory brilliance is probably the most pleasurable. Fascinating, too, is how Pullman uses his Boring Everyman status to blend in as a master of disguise in any situation. In an age when every old-skool comic book character is coming to life via big budget CGI and big movie stars playing to type, here’s to a real superhero braving and bearing it all.

Enjoy this Stylus acclaim, Bill, you earned it.

[Matthew Weiner]

By: Stylus at the Movies
Published on: 2003-05-27
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