Author Archives: Jackrabbit Slim

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

Review: Lizzie

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The Lizzie Borden case has fascinated people for years, ever since 1892, when the murders of her father and step-mother took place. There have been many books on the subject, and at least three movies, the latest simply titled Lizzie, directed by Craig William Macneill, and starring Chloe Sevigny as the accused murderess.

Technically, the Borden murders are an open case, just like the Jack the Ripper killings, which certainly adds to the allure, as there are numerous theories. The film has an idea of who did it and how, and I won’t spoil it here, but it couldn’t have happened that way. The problem with seeing a movie about something historical that you know a lot about is getting past the inaccuracies. While Lizzie is no documentary, and takes enormous liberties, it’s a solid piece of work.

Lizzie Borden was a spinster, over thirty and unmarried, and living under her father’s (Jamey Sheridan) iron rule. The film doesn’t heap insults on her step-mother (Fiona Shaw), but the film makes Andrew Borden out as a monster and a cheap-skate (he was certainly the latter). In the film, he pays visits to the maid (Kristen Stewart) for nocturnal assignations which are not welcomed.

The gimmick of this film is making Stewart, as Bridget Sullivan, much more of a character than she is portrayed in most tellings of this story. It’s no secret, given what occurs in the trailer, that Lizzie and Bridget have an affair, which adds another motive for Lizzie–her father spies on them, and she’s afraid she’ll be sent to the madhouse (Sheridan calls her “an abomination”). There’s also a subplot involving Uncle John (Dennis O’Hare) that is made up completely out of whole cloth.

But much of the film is accurate, and Lizzie Borden has become something of a metaphor for the repressed women of Victorian society. She was probably a lesbian, and she wanted to be independent and a woman of society, but could do nothing without her father’s permission, as he controlled the purse strings. If a woman was unmarried and unemployed, she had absolutely no power, and she wouldn’t have been allowed to work even if she wanted to. The wielding of a hatchet in this story can be seen as a hacking away at society’s restraints (Lizzie ended up inheriting half of her father’s considerable fortune and living a life that she wanted, though she was shunned by most of society).

The film looks terrific, with cinematography by Noah Greenberg. It may be the most contemplative movie about a double murder you’ll likely see, as there are many shots of passing clouds and birds in flight, but they don’t seem pretentious and give the film a great texture.

Sevigny, who also produced the film, is terrific, as a woman who may not have all her marbles but is sympathetic, even if is she is a killer. Stewart, as a working woman and immigrant who can do nothing to risk losing her job, plays yet another emotionally repressed woman, speaking in an Irish accent that is hard to hear. Many people think Stewart is a bad actress, but I disagree–she just chooses roles that are all about subtlety and women who don’t talk a lot. She needs to play a comic role; someone who won’t shut up.

Lizzie also makes good use of sound effects. Mrs. Borden gets hit in the head quite a few times, and the sound it makes is rather gruesome. I wonder if they used melons.

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Opening in Las Vegas, September 21, 2018

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The likely box office champ this weekend is The House With a Clock in Its Walls (59), or The Movie with Two Prepositional Phrases. With Jack Black in the cast it reminds me of Goosebumps, which wasn’t terrible. If I was still a teacher I’d probably see this, but otherwise I have no burning desire to.

Michael Moore has come out with another film, Fahrenheit 11/9 (70), and guess what? It’s against Donald Trump! Who would have thought! I’ll probably see this eventually, although i need no convincing about Trump’s awfulness. The problem is that no one who likes Trump will see this, but then again, I’ll never see a Dinesh D’Souza film. At least Michael Moore makes good movies.

Life Itself (21), which steals Roger Ebert’s book title,  is getting panned, and judging by the trailer I saw, it deserves it. The director is the guy who created This Is Us, and that’s another TV show I’ve never seen. Anyway, he’s complaining about the reviews because he thinks too many Critics are  white men who don’t like emotion, but is ignoring the bad reviews by women.

Finally there’s Lizzie, ((60) which isn’t even listed on the box office sites. I guess I’d better see this soon before it disappears. I’m a Lizzie Borden buff–I’ve been to the murder house in question (supposedly it’s haunted) and know enough about the case to find fault with anything that’s not true–such as a romance between Borden and the maid Bridget Sullivan (although Lizzie was probably a lesbian). There was a pretty good TV movie on this subject in the ’70s starring Elizabeth Montgomery, and a terrible on a few years with Christina Ricci. This one stars Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.

Enjoy your weekend, folks.

Review: The Wife

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A couple is awake before dawn. The husband is nervous, waiting for a call. The call comes–he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He and his wife celebrate. So begins The Wife, an excellent film from director Bjorn Runge, which then covers the time the winner, Jonathan Pryce, and his supportive wife, Glenn Close, visit Stockholm for the ceremony.

In between, we get flashbacks of how they met. He was a professor and she was a student at Smith College. He was married, but leaves his wife for her, and she is the living example of the saying “behind every great man is a woman.” She gives up writing to be his muse, even going so far as to get him published, as she works as a secretary at a publishing house and suggests him to one of the editors, who bemoans that they don’t have a Jewish writer.

This film is all about Glenn Close. She is the one who wanted to adapt the Meg Wolitzer novel into a film, and stars as the patient and mysterious wife. The film was first seen over a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, and people have since penciled her in as not only an Oscar nominee but a likely winner. It’s the perfect combination of a well-rounded role–some intense outbursts, but mostly subtlety–and a woman who has been nominated six times before without ever winning.

That’s not to say she’s the only good thing about the film. Pryce is also very good, as a pampered man who is very used to being called a genius. His scenes with Close are like watching two great tennis players in an extended rally. They also have a son (Max Irons, son of Jeremy), who is a mess, a would-be writer who suffers from feeling unable of ever being able to match his father.

The Wife is set in 1992, and was not updated because it has to have the flashbacks in a particular time, 1958, when women writers were not taken seriously. There were some who achieved great success–I can think of Mary McCarthy and Ayn Rand as just a couple, but they were the exceptions. Those were the days when women went to college to meet their husbands. A brief but memorable scene with Elizabeth McGovern as a novelist stands out. She tells the young woman (played by Annie Starke, Close’s real-life daughter) not to write.

Hanging over The Wife is a twist that maybe some will get before I did. A biographer, Christian Slater, hovers around the couple in Stockholm. Pryce has refused to authorize his biography, but Slater will write it anyway, and he has a theory that I won’t go into here. But it becomes the crux of the final act of the film. As with any good ending, it is unpredictable but inevitable.

“I am a kingmaker,” Close tells the King of Sweden when he asks her if she an occupation. She is probably also an Oscar winner, if only for the scene in which she registers emotion on her face without speaking as Pryce thanks her in his acceptance speech. Slater tells her, “That’s what makes you so attractive–you’re so mysterious.” This is Close’s best work since Dangerous Liaisons, thirty years ago, for which she should have won an Oscar. Sometimes Oscar is slow to make things right—look at the 41 years Henry Fonda had to wait for the Oscar he should have won for The Grapes of Wrath. But her time will come this February.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 14, 2018

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Another weekend to get those household chores done.

I’m sure the biggest fanboy buzz will  be about The Predator (49), a reboot of the successful monster movie from yesteryear (I love that movies are differentiating themselves now by use of the definite article). Fun fact: I’ve never seen any Predator movie, and have no real interest in doing so. Shane Black returns to the well. Strange combination of actors: Edward James Olmos, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key? Did the casting director close their eyes and just point to names in a SAG directory?

The best-reviewed wide-release film this weekend is A Simple Favor (68), directed by Paul Feig and starring Ann Kendrick in a suspense thriller. I find Kendrick very appealing, and I’m sure she’s very rich after those Pitch Perfect films, so I’m glad she’s trying something different, but I would be happy just to watch her as herself. If variety shows were still a thing she’d be the new Carol Burnett.

Scott Feinberg has come out with his first fling-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks Oscar list, and there are some interesting films on there, including White Boy Rick (60), which stars Matthew McConnaughey and is about a boy who becomes an informant for the FBI and later a drug dealer. It’s set in Detroit, and since I grew up near there (but not in the city itself, thank god) I’m interested. Rex Reed gave it a zero so it must have some merit.

A more sure-fire Oscar nominee is The Wife (76), for which Glenn Close will finally be given an Oscar (I think she deserved it for Dangerous Liaisons back in ’88, no offense to Jodie Foster of The Accused). It’s about the wife of an arrogant Nobel Prize winner forced to live in his shadow. In limited release, trickling into the burbs.

Finally, another faith-based film, this one called Unbroken: Path to Redemption (38), which is a sequel to the Angelina Jolie film Unbroken, but without anyone from that film participating. It’s getting to the point where I wish someone could make a good film for Christians. Is there a William Wyler of the church movies out there somewhere?

Opening in Las Vegas, September 7, 2018

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Nothing much to shout about this week.

For horror buffs, there’s The Nun (46), one of the spin-offs from The Conjuring series. I saw The Conjuring, which was pretty good for a genre picture, but I haven’t caught up. Nuns are scary, though.

For Jennifer Garner fans, there’s Peppermint (29), which has her back in Alias kick-ass mode. It appears to be a kind of female version of Death Wish. Getting awful reviews.

For thriller fans, there’s Operation Finale (58), about the capture of Adolph Eichmann in Argentina. Good cast (Ben Kingsley, Greta Scacchi, and Oscar Isaac), but this screams rental to me. Can’t see myself being motivated to see it in a theater.

For haunted house movies there’s The Little Stranger (68), Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to Room. I read the book, so that gives me some extra curiosity, but only playing in one theater across town. Probably I’ll wait for the DVD.

Review: Christopher Robin

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Christopher Robin is a charming and poignant film, but it will be enjoyed much more if the viewer is a fan of Winnie the Pooh. While I don’t remember reading A. A. Milne’s stories as a child, I came to be an admirer in the adulthood, when I was able to appreciate the koans of the “silly old bear” and his friends.

The story of the film, written by a whole passel of writers, is somewhat trite, and recognizable from similar films like Mary Poppins and Hook. A young boy moves on from his childhood friends and becomes an office drone, ignoring his wife and child and pretty much living a miserable existence. Through a bit of magic, he is reunited with those friends, and regains some of his lost innocence and imagination. Because, as the saying goes, no one on their death bed regrets not spending more time at the office.

While not amazingly original, the film works because of Milne’s characters. Unlike Goodbye, Christopher Robin, which was the true story of how the characters came to be, Christopher Robin doesn’t mention Milne at all. The title character really does associate with walking, talking stuffed animals, and the Hundred-Acre Wood is a place reachable only by crawling through a tree, and becomes a magic land like Narnia or Oz.

Ewan McGregor is Christopher Robin, and he is terrific, playing the efficiency manager at a luggage company. In the climactic meeting with the bigwigs of the company, I was reminded of Mr. Banks facing the managers of his bank in Mary Poppins. He is wound tighter than a drum, but spending time with Pooh and Piglet and the rest loosens him up, and McGregor is able to convincingly show the years melting off of him. Playing his daughter is newcomer Bronte Carmichael, who gives a very accomplished performance for her age.

But the show is stolen by the voice actors. Jim Cummings, who has been the voice of Pooh for about thirty years now, is simply great as the bear, always wanting honey but exemplifying the best qualities of humanity (or bearhood, I guess). He also voices Tigger, sounding every bit like Paul Winchell. Getting the best lines, as usual is Ee-Yore, voiced by Brad Garrett. When asked how he is doing, the perpetually gloomy donkey says, “Don’t get me started.”

I’ll admit I was teary-eyed at the end, and had some laughs. The best thing about Milne’s work is that it always stressed enjoying playtime and being with one’s friends (as well as rigorous politeness). They should be essential reading at bedtime for all children, and the adults can learn something too.

The 91st Oscars Preview: Best Picture

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Ryan Gosling in “First Man”

Yes, it’s that time of year, time for Oscar nerds to start thinking about the upcoming fall season and what movies will be considered for Best Picture. And this year will have an interesting wrinkle, as the new “Achievement in Popular Film” award, which will probably be dubbed the “Popcorn Award,” will debut. Will it ghettoize blockbusters like Black Panther and stack Best Picture with indies and costume dramas, or will voters nominate such films in both categories?

We don’t know who will be voting for Best Popular Film yet, or what the criteria will be, so it’s real guess-work here. But predicting Best Picture nominees has become harder, as the initiative to get more diverse voters has made for two straight winners that were on nobody’s radar at this time of year: Moonlight and The Shape of Water.

So here are my ridiculously early guesses, in alphabetical order. My usual track record is five of these will get nominated and a couple will die quick and silent deaths.

Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Groeningen) A drama about a father, Steve Carell, dealing with his teenage son’s (Timothee Chalamet) meth addiction. Don’t know any more about it than that, but it has all the ingredients of something the Academy would like.

BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee). Will this be the year that Lee finally gets nominated for Best Director, and gets a Best Picture nod? He did get an honorary Oscar a few years ago, but this is one of his best films, and in many ways one of his most traditional: a police procedural. It also fits the zeitgeist and trolls Donald Trump, which can’t hurt in Hollywood.

Black Panther (Ryan Coogler). I think this will break through and be the first comic book film nominated for Best Picture. It already is the slam-dunk winner of the Best Popular film, but it’s movies like this that the Academy expanded the nominations to ten for in the first place. It was such a social landmark, and a pretty good flick, too.

Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton) The second film this year to be about gay conversion therapy (the other is The Miseducation of Cameron Post), but this one has more star power, with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as parents of a boy sent to gay conversion therapy. Another film that fits the zeitgeist of the time. I’m sure Mike Pence will want to see it.

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) This sounds like a surprisingly mainstream topic for Lanthimos: a historical costume drama about the court of Queen Anne (with Elizabeth I getting so many films, it’s about time Anne got some recognition). It stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as ladies of court vying for Anne’s attention. Fun fact: Anne had seventeen pregnancies, but had no heirs when she died.

First Man (Damien Chazelle) The early front runner after raves from Venice, plus a stupid controversy: they don’t show the American flag enough! It is the story of Apollo 11 and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling. If it’s nominated for Best Picture, Chazelle will be the first director to have his first three films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Of course, it’s easier now with up to ten nominees. so it’s kind of like post-season records in baseball.

The Front Runner (Jason Reitman) Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, whose 1988 presidential campaign went up in smoke after being caught in a sex scandal. It’s interesting historically because it’s the first time that reporters actually reported on a candidate’s peccadilloes–before that, they kept them under the rug (they all knew Kennedy was a pussy hound). From the trailer, seems like J.K. Simmons, as Hart’s campaign manager, is in the running for a Best Supporting Actor nod.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins). Jenkins’ follow up to Moonlight, this is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. I’ve never read the book–maybe I should before I see the movie–but given the more diverse Academy this seems like a natural, even with a largely unknown cast (just like Moonlight).

Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke) Speaking of Queen Elizabeth, this is a remake of an oft-told tale, the rivalry between the Virgin Queen and her cousin, Mary. With Saorsie Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth. What all these films get wrong is that Mary and Elizabeth never actually met. Fun fact: I wrote a paper on this subject for my high school European history class. I figure one of the two British royalty films will be good enough to get nominated.

The Wife (Björn Runge)  This hasn’t made it to the suburbs yet, so I don’t know if it’s Best Picture material, but I’ll tell you right now that Glenn Close will win the Oscar for Best Actress. Maybe this film, about the wife of a Nobel Prize winner, will ride her coattails. Fun fact: There will be no Nobel Prize for Literature this year, because of a sex scandal among the judges (those frisky Scandinavians), but there will be two next year.

 

Review: BlacKkKlansman

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Spike Lee has now been directing films for thirty years, and in all that time he’s almost always been done in by self-indulgence. The only two great films he’s made are Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, mostly because he avoided his own worst instincts and stuck to the story (although I think that Do the Right Thing went on too long with Mookie demanding his wages). With BlacKkKlansman, despite the affectation of the title and a coda that some could see as going over the top, is right up there with those two films, and could be Lee’s first film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman tells the tale of Ron Stallworth, who was the first black on the Colorado Springs, Colorado police force (I’ve never been there and don’t know too much about the place, but it has a strong evangelical population and strikes me as the kind of town that wouldn’t welcome such a development in the 1970s). He starts as a file clerk, but because of his race he gets an undercover assignment to monitor a speech by the visiting Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), a founder of The Black Panthers. Stallworth hears much to admire in his speech, but also believes in his duty as a policeman, and thus bristles when the woman he meets and becomes attracted to refers to all cops as pigs.

Seeing an advertisement (!) for recruits to the Ku Klux Klan, Stallworth calls them up and asks to meet. Of course, he can’t really do that, so another undercover cop (Adam Driver) plays the physical Stallworth. Despite being suspected by one of the members, Driver actually goes far enough to get a membership card and get the goods on them for weapons possession. Stallworth manages to speak on on the phone to the “Grand Wizard,” David Duke (still a finger in the eye to America) and befriends him. Duke says he can tell when he’s speaking to a black or white person.

BlacKkKlansman is all over the place, but somehow fits together like a crazy jigsaw puzzle. It’s funny, it’s angering, it’s righteous (and not self-righteous), and it’s a good old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys crime drama. It also may be the first film to depict the Klan as it actually is. When I was in high school we learned about them, and at that time (and I doubt this has changed much) the consistent thing about white supremacists is that they are not very well educated, and sometimes downright stupid. What may seem ludicrously over the top, such as the whole group of them watching and cheering on D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is probably true. One member and his wife share pillow talk about getting a chance to “kill n*ggers.”

Lee, who made a terrific crime drama in The Inside Man, brings those chops here. We get some gripping scenes, such as when the suspicious Klan member wants to give Driver a lie-detector test. Driver is Jewish, so the man also wants to see if he’s circumcised. Of course, as in any undercover police movie, Driver gets made by a man he put in jail, and there is a satisfying but also discouraging ending. This is where Lee shows news footage of the rally of white power lunatics in Charlottesville last year, with Trump saying that some of those who marched were “fine people” and giving tribute to Heather Heyer, who died that day. It may be the first narrative film to actually take a shot at Trump, and it’s not a surprise that it would be Lee to do it. Clearly he wants to show that despite small victories against the Klan, they haven’t gone away.

Above all, this is an entertaining picture. It has a great cast. Driver should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Stallworth is played by John David Washington, son of Denzel, who should easily be able to step outside his father’s shadow. Steve Buscemi is in a small role as Driver’s partner, and the great Harry Belafonte makes an appearance at the end of the film as he tells the story of a friend of his who was brutally tortured for supposedly raping a white woman. Belafonte’s speech is juxtaposed with a gathering of the Klan. The help are black, and one waiter says, “If I knew this was a Klan meeting, I wouldn’t have taken this motherfucking gig.” Topher Grace makes for a clueless Duke (apparently Duke fears that the film makes him look like an idiot. That’s not difficult).

A few other notes: Terence Blanchard’s score is terrific. There aren’t a lot of songs from the period in the film, though one of them is “Lucky Man.” A Spike Lee film is the last place I’d expect to hear Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Review: Eighth Grade

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Eighth Grade, a dandy debut by writer/director Bo Burnham, is perhaps the first film to address a generation that has never not known social media. The kids in eighth grade are about 13 or 14, so have lived their entire lives with smartphones and Facebook. Of course, as one girls says in the film, “Nobody uses Facebook anymore.”

The film focuses on Kayla (played brilliantly by Elsie Fisher), a socially awkward eighth-grader. It’s the last week of middle school, for they will all be off to high school. Kayla likes to make YouTube videos about being yourself, being confident, and putting yourself out there, although she doesn’t follow her own advice. Her room is full of Post-It notes of affirmation, like a little Stuart Smalley, but she struggles to find acceptance in school. She has no real friends, though she’s dying for one.

She lives with a single father (Josh Hamilton) who seems to be mystified by her. He doesn’t know the depths of her loneliness, as she shuts him out of most of her life. A great scene has him trying to talk to her at dinner, but she is plugged into her phone. She gets invited to a pool party because the mother of one of the popular girls invites her. What is great about the film is that there is no scene of humiliation, just kind of a quiet desperation. And she does decide to put herself out there and sing karaoke.

When she visits the high school she will attend she makes a friend with an older girl (Emily Robinson), who invites her to hang out with her friends at the mall. Kayla is overjoyed at this, though there is a disconnect–though only four years older, the high school kids feel like a different generation. “When did you get Snapchat?” one boy asks. “Fifth grade,” is her response, and he finds this proof, as they didn’t get Snapchat until they were much older. It’s like every new social media platform takes over a new generation.

This is not a movie for a teen audience, although a smart teenager may enjoy it, or at least recognize the culture. From my years of teaching I noticed a few truisms, such as the principal trying to dab to appear cool. The only thing that didn’t ring true was how well-behaved the kids were in the classroom. Aside from the principal, who is only briefly scene, there are no teachers seen–it’s kind of like Peanuts.

Eighth Grade is R-rated for good reason, as blowjobs are discussed (there’s an homage to Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Kayla grabs a banana). There is also a scene in the back seat of a car that may make fathers of daughters cringe. The film also does not go heavy on pop tunes on the soundtrack. The only song I can remember is the strange use of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” Instead, Eighth Grade covets moments of quiet and solitude. The climax, in which Kayla and her dad talk while she burns her “hopes and dreams” is a tearjerker.

Fisher, who is in every scene, is amazing. I love little details she adds, such as the use of hand gestures during her videos, or her discomfort in her bathing suit, or her hiding in a photo booth when she spots her dad spying on her at the mall. I believe a star is born.

When I was in eighth grade there was a lot of differences–no phones or computers, but the awkwardness of the age still resonates. I was miserable during middle school, and I suspect most kids were. It’s like a congregation of hormonal angst. Burnham has captured that for this particular age. Eighth graders thirty years from now will have different toys to play with, but will still feel awkward.

Opening in Las Vegas, August 3, 2018

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None of the new releases this week bested MI:6, which I may have to reconsider seeing since it’s getting such hosannas. I’ll wait until MoviePass lifts the embargo on new films, though. I’m going to ride that service until it’s dead.

The highest-grossing release this weekend is Christopher Robin (59), which seems a little like Hook adapted to Winnie the Pooh. I like anything associated with Pooh, and it seems generally harmless. Will see eventually.

The Spy Who Dumped Me (51) teams Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon in a spoof of espionage films that had potential but is not getting wows. A home video watch for me.

The Darkest Minds (37) seems like an X-Men rip-off and was little seen, sinking into the pit it deserves. How many teens with special abilities can there be? The first live-action film from Kung Fu Panda director Jennifer Yuh, who up until Patty Jenkins had the highest-grossing film directed by a woman.

The best-reviewed film of the week, and I plan on seeing today, is Eighth Grade (90), a look at the hell that is middle school. This one is getting such good reviews it may have Oscar potential, perhaps for the juvenile star, Elsie Fisher. Review coming tomorrow.

Review: National Lampoon’s Animal House

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Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House, so I popped my DVD into the machine and watched it for the umpteenth time. It is one of my favorite comedies of all time, and is one of the biggest earning films, based on ratio of cost to box office, in history. Though it is regarded as a raunchy, gross-out comedy, it is steeped in the traditions of movie comedy, going all the way back to the silent days, and has one of the great comedic performances of all time, by John Belushi.

The film was the first to come out of National Lampoon, the sophomoric yet hysterically funny humor magazine that flourished during the 1970s. It published many stories by Chris Miller about his fraternity days at Dartmouth. Along with Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney, a screenplay was fashioned. John Landis, who had directed Kentucky Fried Movie, was at the helm.

The story, for the very young or the very secluded, is the age-old battle between the cool kids and the snobs. Delta House, a decrepit frat full of guys who just want to have fun, are scorned by the evil Dean Wormer (a wonderful John Vernon) and the Omegas, young Republicans and sadists. When the Deltas are kicked out of school, they exact revenge in a “futile and stupid gesture” that wreaks havoc on the homecoming parade.

Little could have been expected of this film. Belushi had never made a movie, but was famous to young people for Saturday Night Live. Other SNL cast members turned down roles: Chevy Chase as Otter (Tim Matheson), Bill Murray as Boon (Peter Riegert), and Dan Aykroyd as D-Day (Bruce McGill). The only other big name in the film was Donald Sutherland, who actually got the film made. He took the standard day rate, turning down points on the film. He estimates it cost him 14 million dollars.

I was just the right age for this when it opened, seventeen (somehow I actually saw it with my mom). When I was a freshman in college the school film society played it, and a bunch of us went, reminiscing about the first time we saw it (just over a year ago). I went to a school that didn’t have fraternities, but like Larry and Kent (Tom Hulce and Steven Furst), I would have enjoyed the easy camaraderie of the Deltas (though I never drank that much).

Reading reactions to the film, it was described as anarchic, but it was anything but. Animal House had a very traditional style of comedy. Much of it was visual, with slapstick like the killing of the horse, or Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf) being dragged by said horse, or Chip (Kevin Bacon) being literally flattened by an onrushing mob. But there is also a great deal of verbal comedy, as it is one of the most quotable films of the era: “Drunk, fat and stupid is no way to go through life,” “They took the fucking bar!” “This is great!” and Belushi’s epic speech, which includes, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

The writers of the film, who grew up during the fifties and surely had seen their share of old comedy films, learned from the masters. We have many instances of gags that would have been right at home in Laurel and Hardy or Hope and Crosby pictures: the rule of three, when Hulce throws a pebble against his girl’s window. Getting no reaction, he throws one a little harder. Still no reaction, so he throws a rock hard, shattering a window. Or the scene in which everyone is checking their synchronized watches, finally getting to Belushi, who has a completely different time. Or just a simple thing such as Mrs. Wormer (Verna Bloom), in the arms of Matheson, kicking off her shoe and breaking glass.

To speak of Belushi, in this viewing I realized how much he is to the film, though he is not the major character. He would have made a great silent film actor. The way he pretends he’s a spy when they’re about to put the horse in the dean’s office, or the face he makes trying to cheer Hurst up after his brother’s car is wrecked, or his breaking of the fourth wall when he looks back at us and smiles while he’s peeping on co-eds undressing. But he also has great verbal dexterity, such as the scene in which, after he has destroyed the folk singer’s guitar, he offers a meek “Sorry.”

Animal House has given many things to the world, such as “Food Fight,” “Toga Party,” and “Road Trip.” The performance of “Shout” by Otis Day and the Knights is one of the great musical scenes ever put on film. Elmer Bernstein’s score, which was serious in nature, turns out to be perfectly used, no more so than when it plays over the chaotic end of the parade. Some scenes were pretty edgy, and may not be made today: At the African American bar, when Hulce asks the girl what she’s studying, an she says “Primitive cultures,” and there’s a cut to Otis (DeWayne Jessie). In fact, that whole scene, with the open implication that white people are afraid when they are surrounded by black people, was pretty daring. Another is when Hulce finds out the girl he as had sex with is thirteen.

Though it’s called a “gross-out film,” it pales to later films, like the American Pie series. The only vomit scene contains no vomit, just a reaction (“Let’s face it, Kent. You threw up on Dean Wormer”). There are no masturbation jokes, no semen references, no accidental ingestion of urine (Belushi does piss on Hulce and Hurst’s shoes). Aside from a few naked boobs and some f-bombs, the film seems rather tame today.

Animal House’s success was often copied but never equaled. It stands up these forty years later, and points out how sad it was that Belushi’s life was snuffed out by over-indulgence.

Opening in Las Vegas, July 27, 2018

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Another weekend of puttering around the house and watching old movies on Filmstruck.

The box office champ will be Mission: Impossible–Fallout (86) the sixth in the series. I can’t remember which ones I’ve seen, and despite glowing reviews, I can’t work up any enthusiasm over this. I think I’ve been boycotting Tom Cruise movies subconsciously, for no particular reason other than he rubs me the wrong way (metaphorically speaking). I may catch it on DVD some time.

A movie that I’m sure I would loved as a kid is Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (70), as I loved superhero cartoons as a lad. This one is apparently also likable for adults. I’ve seen some of the TV series, as I put it on for my sixth graders when I finished a lesson early. I do wonder why they made Robin a jerk.

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

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Marvel films have enjoyed an unprecedented run at the box office–nineteen movies, nineteen his. Ant-Man and the Wasp, the twentieth film in the series, was also a hit, and got some good reviews. But I found it lacking, and close to the bottom of the list, perhaps only slightly better than Iron Man 2.

The first Ant-Man was pretty good, but this one suffers from a bad script, credited to five writers, including star Paul Rudd. The film attempts to be comic, but most of the humor falls flat, and they’ve made Rudd’s character Scott Lang a complete dope.

Picking up from the end of Captain America: Civil War, Rudd is in house arrest for participating in the superhero brawl in Germany. He’s very serious about obeying the law, because he doesn’t want to go back to prison. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) are fugitives from the law. They hate Rudd for exposing Douglas’ technology to the world.

Things change when Rudd has a dream and finds himself psychically intertwined with Douglas’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who shrunk so small she went to the “quantum realm” and couldn’t come back. Douglas has been working on technology that could take him to her, and Rudd is the link.

Meanwhile, two adversaries want that technology (amusingly, Douglas can shrink his lab to suitcase size, but wouldn’t all the furniture get knocked around?)–a woman called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who wears what looks like a white hazmat suit and can pass through solid walls, and a sleazy dealer in black market technology (Walton Goggins).

So Rudd and Lilly, who is the Wasp of the title, fight off their foes so Pfeiffer can be found (a few unanswered questions–what did she eat? How did she go to the bathroom?) Some of the action scenes are quite good, especially when Lilly kicks ass, and a couple of car chases (in one, Rudd increases in size and uses a flat bed truck like a scooter).

But overall, the film is too silly and insubstantial to be enjoyed. In addition to making Rudd completely stupid, Douglas overacts mercilessly. There’s lots of phony scientific jargon–“maybe the vectors are off!” “We checked them a million times!” that are one of the weaker parts of comic books, and the film has trouble balancing the comedic aspects with the more serious overtones (Ghost is dying, and needs the technology to live).

The film tries very hard to be funny, subjecting a good actor, Michael Pena, to serve as the buffoon. There is a bit in which he and some thugs argue whether there’s such a thing as truth serum, which goes nowhere. So does a scene in which Rudd is tied up and held prisoner but gets a cell phone call from his daughter.

Occasionally the film hits a right note, such as including a clip from the film Them! (the greatest giant ant film of all time), or when Lilly, during a car chase, enlarges a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser. I also liked when a character shrinks down so small that tardigrades, an amazing animal, seem like the size of elephants. These moments are too few and far between.

 

Opening in Las Vegas, July 20, 2018

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Another dull week. Spend time with your family.

We already have estimates in and the surprise winner was The Equalizer 2 (49). I haven’t seen the first Equalizer and have no plans to, so this will remain unseen by me. Denzel Washington seems to be still a reliable fox office force.

Another sequel, even less likely to be seen by me, is Mamma Mia!…Again (60), which is kind of a threatening title. A movie mostly for older women, it brings on Cher to play Meryl Streep’s mother (Meryl wisely declined to participate) when she is only three years older. I won’t see this even though it features Lily James, one of the most beautiful women in film today.

And yet another sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web (53), is another in a series of horror movies in the digital age. I think I have the original on my Netflix queue, so who knows, I may see this one day when I’m in a nursing home.

 

GE Meet-Up: Vegas, Baby!

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There was a Gone Elsewhere Meet-Up last night as our old pal Nick was in Las Vegas and had enough time to quaff a few adult beverages at the city’s premier dive bar, The Double Down Saloon. We had a great time, and Nick has promised to post again. I think that he must be the only man in Sweden who has been to both Double Down locations (see the last meet-up in New York City).