Baby Driver

(USA 2017)

“You’re either hard as nails or scared as shit. Which is it?”

— Griff

“Streisand, now Queen? The fuck, what y’all gonna do, you gonna belt out show tunes on the way to the job?”

— Bats

“Don’t feed me anymore lines from Monsters Inc. It pisses me off.”

— Doc

A movie that starts with a bank robbery while the driver blares Jon Spencer on his headphones can’t be all that bad. And it’s not. Baby Driver calls to mind films like Bonnie & Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon, and my favorite, True Romance, yet it has enough going for it that it stands apart as a contributor rather than a ripoff.

Ansel Elgort is Baby, a young buck constantly plugged into his iPod. He works as the getaway driver for a rotating crew of bank robbers headed by kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey). He’s paying off a debt, and he wants out as soon as it’s done — like, in one more job. Baby’s plan is to disappear with cutie waitress Debora (Lily James). Unfortunately for him, other plans get in the way — plans he didn’t make.

Frankly, all the hype over this movie led me to expect more. A lot more. Admittedly, my expectations were high — too high. That said, I liked Baby Driver. It’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. I’d be lying if I denied that my mind wandered at points, but seeing a millennial Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is worth its weight in gold, or at least its weight in Bitcoin. If nothing else, all those hours I spent making mix tapes are now validated.

With Hudson Meek, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, Flea, Lanny Joon, C.J. Jones, Sky Ferreira, Lance Palmer, Big Boi, Paul Williams, Jon Spencer, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell

Production: TriStar Pictures, Media Rights Capital (MRC), Double Negative (Dneg), Big Talk Productions , Working Title Films

Distribution: Sony Pictures Releasing (International), TriStar Pictures (USA), United International Pictures (UIP), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (Netherlands), Big Picture 2 Films (Portugal), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Filmverleih, Sony Pictures Releasing

112 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) C+

http://www.babydriver-movie.com/discanddigital/

What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness)

(USA 1966)

Bruce Baillie’s experimental short film Castro Street has nothing to do with San Francisco. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no characters — unless you count the machines, silhouettes of workers, numbers, words, ads, colors, and sounds that wander in and out the frame like a stream of consciousness. The point is to convey a certain mood through visual and sonic elements.

It works. Dominated by shifting shades of red and blue superimposed over black and white, a drab industrial bleakness emerges from the constantly moving images and noises of oil refining machinery and trains. Suddenly, a welcome bit of nature comes into a view: a field of grass. Toward the end, a familiar pop song that I can’t place is trying to break out of all the noise. I looked it up: “Good Lovin'” by the Rascals.

Overall, Castro Street is not particularly exciting — but it’s pretty.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Canyon Cinema

Distribution:

11 minutes
Not rated

(Daily Motion) C-

 

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre [Star Theatre]

(USA 1901)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.

Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.

Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.

Archival footage tends to spur research on my part, and this is no exception. The building in the foreground is a Roosevelt project from 1893 that was just restored ten years ago (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/12/893-roosevelt-building-839-841-broadway.html). It looks pretty much the same today (https://www.google.com/maps/place/841+Broadway,+New+York,+NY+10003/@40.7341524,-73.9913362,3a,75y,106.41h,100.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdooWdqOlfZTAhAuf6Kjx-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25998fb0fefb9:0xe2533a21e4f56d2f!8m2!3d40.7342965!4d-73.9912195). Even better, the Star Theatre was owned and operated by James W. and Lester Wallack, brothers who created what was regarded as the best theater company in America at its time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallack%27s_Theatre). Today, a Regal Cinema stands where the Star Theatre did.

The Library of Congress has a better print online, so watch that one.

In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

Distribution: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

2 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube / Library of Congress) C

https://www.loc.gov/item/00694388

White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

The Last American Virgin

(USA 1982)

“Are you here to interview me or to fuck me?”

— Ruby

It was decades ago — probably the ‘80s — the last time I saw low budget ’80s cable classic The Last American Virgin. I recently noticed it in the “free movies” queue on…where else, cable. I had to know whether it was as good as I remembered.

An odd mix of other teen movies from its day — think of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Losin’ It and Valley Girl all rolled into one — it isn’t something I imagine being made today, not even as a remake. The Last American Virgin starts out all fun and games — centered on sex, of course — but abruptly takes a dark turn about halfway through. Subject matter aside, it ends on a brutally cynical note that leaves one pondering: what exactly is writer and director Boaz Davidson saying here?

None of this is a gripe; on the contrary, it’s an asset that puts The Last American Virgin in a class of its own. Kudos for that.

Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is a Los Angeles high school student. When he’s not delivering pizzas in a ridiculous pink Grand Prix (or similar late ‘70s car), he and his hornball friends Rick (Steve Antin), the cute one, and David (Joe Rubbo), the fat one, are constantly trying to get laid.

Their antics are pretty funny. They pick up three duds at a hamburger joint and snort Sweet ‘N’ Low with them when a party they promise doesn’t happen and the girls want drugs. They wind up together in the apartment of a horny Mexican woman of a certain age (Louisa Moritz) whose sailor boyfriend (Roberto Rodriquez) is away, and she wants all three of them. Later, they get crabs from a bossy Hollywood hooker (Nancy Brock). A dick measuring contest in the school locker room is, well, uncomfortably hot. Somehow, sex happens easily for Rick and David. Not Gary, though: he’s either too nice or too scared.

At school, Gary meets a new girl, Karen (Diane Franklin). He crushes on her, hard. Too bad she’s into Rick, which causes friction: a bizarre love triangle develops, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it reaches a boiling point by winter break.

I never knew The Last American Virgin is a remake of Davidson’s 1978 Israeli film Eskimo Limon. He fucking nails it with his depiction of jealousy — better than most films do. It’s hard to watch Gary’s hatred for Rick grow stronger while they’re running around getting into trouble together. Monoson’s acting is good, and so is Franklin’s. Their scenes together are the best this movie has to offer. I would be remiss to mention that for such a minor role, Kimmy Robertson really shines as Karen’s wacky friend Rose, who seems like Katy Perry’s secret inspiration.

The Last American Virgin has its unimpressive moments, but it’s hardly a write-off. Overall, it’s held up well. Sure, it falls into nostalgia, but beyond its soundtrack it’s more memorable for its characters, its plot, and its unexpected turn. It certainly isn’t what it appears to be.

With Brian Peck, Tessa Richarde, Winifred Freedman, Gerri Idol, Sandy Sprung, Paul Keith, Harry Bugin, Phil Rubenstein, Julianna McCarthy, Mel Welles

Production: Golan-Globus Productions

Distribution: Cannon Film Distributors (USA), Citadel Films (Canada)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) B

Kedi

(Turkey / USA 2016)

Warm, lively, and thorough, Ceyda Torun’s oddly intriguing documentary Kedi is a sort of love letter to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and its thousands of roaming street cats that have shared space with people since the days of the Ottoman Empire. As one resident puts it early on, “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”

Yes, the cats are cute. Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann follow a number of them as they move through their day: one gathers scraps to feed her kittens stashed safely in a retail building, another is pulled into a turf war with an orange tabby drifter, and yet another assumes the responsibility of taking care of vermin that dare to enter a popular seaside gathering spot for humans.

Each cat has a story, and each attracts — and impacts — different people: a shopkeeper, an artisan, a restaurant owner, a bona fide crazy cat lady. These cats are therapeutic, bringing happiness and purpose to residents. They serve as companions and wards. Most of them have a tough life — or nine of them. Torun does a nice job showing that the cats in Istanbul face the exact same threats that people do: overpopulation, urban development, and local politics.

I laughed, I cried, it was much better than…well, Cats.

With Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, Gamsiz, Psikopat, and Deniz

Production: Termite Films

Distribution: Oscilloscope Laboratories

79 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center at Chicago Athletic Association) B-

https://www.kedifilm.com

Psychos in Love

(USA 1987)

“A well hung hard man is good fun.”

— Girl in Toilet

“I guess that I thought that me being both a manicurist and a psychotic killer would turn a guy off.”

— Dianne

“I hate grapes! I can’t stand grapes! I loathe grapes! All kinds of grapes. I hate purple grapes. I hate green grapes. I hate grapes with seeds. I hate grapes without seeds. I hate them peeled and non-peeled. I hate grapes in bunches, one at a time, or in groups of twos and threes. I fucking hate grapes!”

— Joe

Hmmm. The first warning came from Aaron when Gorman Bechard’s Psychos in Love started to play, and I quote, “I don’t think this is supposed to be a good movie.” Well, there’s an understatement!

What sounded like a bizarre winner — two serial killers who find love over mutual hatred for grapes and mankind — turned out to be a dud. Sure, the weirdness and the DIY aspect of this movie are cool. Angela Nicholas emits a weird Molly Ringwald gone bad vibe that’s truly funny.

However, the whole plot is one dumb joke repeated over and over. It doesn’t go anywhere. Now that I reread the premise, I’m not at all surprised that this is so bad. Gory, cheap, boring, and stupid, this is an hour and a half that I’ll never get back. My only consolation is that I was half crocked when I watched it.

With Carmine Capobianco, Patti Chambers, Carla Bragoli, Carrie Gordon, Debi Thibeault, Cecelia Wilde, Robert Suttile, Lum Chang Pang, Danny Noyes, Herb Klinger, Wally Gribauskas, Peach Gribauskas, Ed Powers, Frank Christopher

Production: Beyond Infinity

Distribution: Media Blasters, Generic Films

88 minutes
Not rated

(DVD purchase) F

http://www.psychosinlove.com

Wonder Wheel

(USA 2017)

For whatever difference it makes, I had no idea Woody Allen had a new movie coming out, like, now. Being a fan, I didn’t hesitate to sign onto a prerelease screening of his latest, Wonder Wheel. Now that I’ve seen it, I must say that I’m not disappointed.

Set in 1950s Coney Island — in case the title didn’t cue you in — Wonder Wheel is a tawdry story of multifaceted infidelity told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hopeful playwright attending school at New York University. An unreliable narrator, he warns us up front that he’s prone to drama. He meets middleaged Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a clamhouse, on the beach. They commence a summer affair. She takes it for more than it is. Then Mickey meets Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who’s hiding from her Mafioso husband. He’s smitten. She’s smitten. Ginny senses it, and she’s thrown into blind jealousy. It doesn’t end well.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie, at least not at first. It’s a bit too cute, too hollow, too stiff, and perhaps surprisingly too nostalgic. The acting is forced and hammy, and the writing is…weird. Hang in there — it gets better, and it becomes clear that everything that appears to be a flaw is actually planned.

About a third of the way through, the characters show their true colors. It’s not pretty, but it all comes together nicely, melding seamlessly into a stage play. Plus, the elements of Allen’s best films — characters who are neurotic narcissists, love (or is it lust?) throwing them off, and the unmistakable reference to Alvy Singer’s boyhood home  — become apparent. It’s dark, but it’s engrossing.

Wonder Wheel is Allen’s take 20th Century American playwrights generally, and Eugene O’Neill specifically. The plot involves a fucked up family situation that brings out the worst in everyone involved, except Carolina. Winslet unravels nicely; she’s not as exciting as Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but she’s really close. Both are strong in their own way.

Jim Belushi evokes John Goodman so much that I wonder if his part was written for Goodman. Curiously, Winslet evokes Susan Sarandon. Ironically, the only good person is the one one who digs her own grave: Carolina. The story is interesting. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which makes the entire film look like it was shot at sunset, is strikingly gorgeous, tinted in dreamy reds, greens, and blues.

I can’t say Wonder Wheel is even close to Allen’s best films, but I rank it in the upper eschelon of his late period work. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s not far off.

With Max Casella , Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Robert C. Kirk, Tommy Nohilly, Tony Sirico, Stephen R. Schirripa, John Doumanian, Thomas Guiry, Gregory Dann, Bobby Slayton, Michael Zegarski , Geneva Carr, Ed Jewett, Debi Mazar, Danielle Ferland, Maddie Corman, Jacob Berger, Jenna Stern

Production: Amazon Studios, Gravier Productions

Distribution: Amazon Studios

101 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.wonderwheelmovie.com/home/