TV Party is a new Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.
For some reason, during each of the umpteen times I’ve had to see the Ouija trailer in theaters over the past few months, it’s occurred to me that the film’s tagline of “Keep Telling Yourself It’s Just a Game” is eerily reminiscent of one of the key lines in Joe Dante’s wonderfully depraved Small Soldiers. “Everything else is just a toy” is both one of the pre-programmed lines for Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of the Commando Elite, and a threat of what the Commandos are capable of once a pair of moronic toy designers (David Cross and Jay Mohr) put munitions chips in their new line in order to rush them out to the public.
What ensues is a suburban nightmare that could only come from the guy once responsible for Gremlins. When Alan (Everwood’s Gregory Smith) befriends the Gorgonites, the peaceable monsters doomed to be murdered endlessly by the Commandos in their pre-programmed battle, he unleashes a violent assault on his family and on the next door neighbors, the Fimples. Small Soldiers is very much a movie of the late ’90s, but there’s a savage edge to it that most movies aimed at kids today wouldn’t dare touch. It also has Phil Hartman’s last performance, as the dubious Phil Fimple, so for that alone it’s worth a watch.
On the whole, Small Soldiers is a surprisingly effective black comedy ostensibly made for kids, and to indulge in clichés for a moment, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy
I know what you’re thinking. “You want me to stay in and watch a four-hour documentary this weekend? What do you think I am? Some kind of nerd?” First of all, yes, you are likely some kind of nerd for reading this feature. Second, it’s a comprehensive look at the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, not the construction of the Hoover Dam (which borders Nevada and Arizona, FYI).
While the documentary understandably pays more attention to Wes Craven’s original 1984 film, it covers the other movies in the series extensively. You’ll learn all about the gay subtext of Part 2, that Renny Harlin was (allegedly) kind of racist during Part 4, that Robert Englund loves Looney Tunes in Final Nightmare, and how Miko Hughes’ parents got him to cry on the set of New Nightmare (a more disturbing story than anything that actually takes place within the movies). It’s a loving study of the most imaginative horror franchise to come out of the ‘80s, or any decade for that matter.
Halloween! It’s next week! Immerse yourself in horror! And watch out for a Jason Mewes cameo!
Next week, we’ll be talking about Jake Gyllenhaal in anticipation of Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller, Nightcrawler. To kick off the related studies, we’re going back to the little indie film that brought Mr. Jake G to the limelight. No, not October Sky. Richard Kelly’s cult classic, Donnie Darko.
Set in 1988, curiously amidst Governor Michael Dukakis’ infamous presidential campaign, the supernatural drama follows the misadventures of its titular character (Gyllenhaal), a depressed teenager who experiences a series of erratic visions tied to the end of the world. It’s a little confusing the first time around, but puzzling it together is what makes it all the more fun.
With its beautifully quirky score by Michael Andrews and a razor-sharp soundtrack featuring Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Church, and more, Donnie Darko subtly embraces the nostalgia of the ’80s. In fact, it’s one of the best films to capture the feeling of the decade without pandering pop cultural references. It’s just … there.
The cast is also superb. Gyllenhaal is surrounded by eccentric performances by the late Patrick Swayze, Holmes Osborne, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle (!), and even a young Seth Rogen. The chemistry between IRL sister Maggie Gyllenhaal is palpable, and Jena Malone sparkles as the new girl in school. Considering Kelly’s disappointing CV, this was pure lightning in a bottle.
Whatever you do, ignore the Director’s Cut.
John Wick is a nice little return to form for unlikely action star Keanu Reeves. In the past, the guy’s made gold with hits like Point Break and The Matrix trilogy, what with his laid-back stoner persona pitted against crazy situations. For awhile, it appeared that Reeves had a knack for getting into trouble and fighting his way out. This weekend’s Wick is no different, and knows that, which is why Reeves has so much fun on-screen. Kicking ass, taking names, lamenting the loss of his car, wife, and dog with choreographed fights and shoot-outs. To celebrate, it’s high time we revisit his best and purest action effort, Speed.
Twenty years ago, Speed was a ticking time bomb of excellent moments and perceived as an heir to Die Hard. Today, it’s held up as a Rube Goldberg-like actioner with surfer cop Jack Travis (Reeves) squaring off against a scorned mad man (the late Dennis Hopper) with hyper-intricate, transportation-based hostage scenarios. Each set-piece is a ride, from the rigged elevator, to the unstoppable train, to the film’s grand set-piece aboard a bus unable to slow down. The dialogue snaps, the action moves fast, and director Jan de Bont worked with the assurance of an old pro.
Pop quiz, hot shot: Did you know Keanu Reeves did 90% of his own stunts, cut his signature hair to look like an average Joe, and even initially turned Speed down because he felt it bore too much resemblance to Die Hard? Go ahead and watch it in 50 minutes, or this post will explode. Spoiler alert: No, it won’t.
With winter looming, the recent cruddy homecoming comedy This Is Where I Leave You still festering in second-run theaters, and the current media clusterfuck over Renée Zellweger’s face, it’s a good time to crack open a cold one and hang out with the best friends you’ve never had in Ted Demme’s downright delightful Beautiful Girls. There’s very little plotting (but many quotable monologues) in this tale of a New York pianist (Timothy Hutton) returning to his tiny Massachusetts hometown for a high-school reunion, but the story doesn’t matter. This is a movie about characters who will always be stuck in circles and ruts, and every performance is pitch perfect.
In perhaps his last real role as a leading man, Hutton’s never so cool, charismatic, and easy to connect with. Same goes for his gaggle of buddies who are still living in their high-school aftermath, including a gregarious Michael Rappaport, the dependable Matt Dillon and Noah Emmerich, and Max Perlich, an actor I’ve always wanted to go fishing or paint huffing with. Under Demme’s direction, these actors actually seem like they’ve really been friends for 20 years … and that’s no small feat.
But in a film about confused man-boys, the film’s titular characters never get the shaft. Lil’ Natalie Portman beams as the self-aware “neighborhood Lolita” who teaches “alcoholic high school buddy shit-for-brains” Hutton valuable life lessons (all while keeping a potentially creepy relationship from going full-blown gross). Uma Thurman gets in some good scenes in a brief turn as a visitor who’s just too smart for the town’s horny goons. And, going back to the Zellweger thing, Rosie O’Donnell leaves skidmarks on the screen with a bang-up, balls-out funny philippic on men’s warped expectations of feminine beauty that includes this gem of a passage:
“Let me explain something to you, ok? Girls with big tits have big asses. Girls with little tits have little asses. That’s the way it goes. God doesn’t fuck around; he’s a fair guy. He gave the fatties big, beautiful tits and the skinnies little tiny niddlers. It’s not my rule. If you don’t like it, call him.”
Okay, it really doesn’t tie to Zellweger’s new face, but it’s a helluva scene and the first time I’ve typed the word “niddlers.”
It bums me out that Timothy Hutton never gets work like this. It really bums me out that Taking Back Sunday used Rappaport’s great big monologue in a fucking Taking Back Sunday song. And yes, Beautiful Girls might be the reason that dolts belt out “Bomp-ba-daaaah!” whenever “Sweet Caroline” plays. But most of all, it bums me out that I’ll never have friends like these. But at least I can visit ‘em on the ol’ Netflix.