What I’ve Caught Up With, February 2023:
Film: 21 Jump Street (2012)
I have to admit I was kind of skeptical of this one. There is a particular brand of humor from the early teens that is crude and leans toward the offensive. There was a sense that we had moved into a post-racial society and such things were acceptable. After 2016, though, that fiction could not be maintained, and movies from this era have aged poorly in terms of comedy. 21 Jump Street manages to still be pretty funny, almost in spite of itself. Solid comedic performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are really the only reason to watch a comedy as guys who are genuinely too old to pass as high school students try to pass as high school students. Ultimately, this is Brooklyn Nine-Nine if everyone was incompetent, kind of.
Film: Friday (1995)
A classic stoner comedy and the source of “Bye, Felicia,” Friday picks up the mantle from Cheech and Chong and runs with it. Slacker Craig (Ice Cube) and his friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) spend a Friday smoking Smokey’s stash that he’s supposed to be selling for local dealer Big Worm (Faizon Love). When Smokey comes up $200 short, Big Worm threatens to kill both of them if he’s not repaid by 10:00 that night. There’s nothing serious happening until this takes a darker turn at the end that feels a little tonally off, but this is all about the things that happen during the day, along with some fun cameos, like Michael Clarke Duncan’s first (uncredited) appearance on film. It’s no Boyz n the Hood, but it’s not trying to be.
Film: Three Came Home (1950)
Claudette Colbert tells the story of a woman taken prisoner by the Japanese at the start of the American phase of World War II. Stationed with her husband on Borneo, Agnes Newton Keith (Colbert) suffers terrible hardship including a miscarriage in her years of internment with her young son (Mark Keuning). Her trials include being assaulted by a Japanese guard and then being beaten when she refuses to recant her story. Colbert is good, but the real performance of note here is from Sessue Hayakawa as the surprisingly kind-hearted commandant. This is fine, but hardly required viewing, and while likely stark for the time, it’s tame by Empire of the Sun standards.
Film: Downhill (1927)
When you hear the name “Alfred Hitchcock,” you don’t tend to think of drippy melodrama involving high society, but with Downhill, also known by the exceptional title of “When Boys Leave Home, that’s what you’re going to get. Society boy Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello) takes the rap for knocking up a shopgirl (Annette Benson) so that his friend Tim (Robin Irvine) can stay in school and go to Oxford. A terrible fall in social rank and a long period of dissolution follow until the inevitably uplifting climax. This is mainly interesting as an example of early Hitchcock, although it has little to do with the rest of his filmography.
Film: Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
There’s nothing new under the sun, and here’s some evidence. Death Takes a Holiday is kind of the ur-version of Meet Joe Black. The concept of Death, personified in the person of Fredric March, decides to become human for a few days to see what it’s like. Naturally, he's going to succumb to the feminine charms of Grazia (Evelyn Venable), setting up the oddest love triangle of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, Freaks notwithstanding, since she is naturally engaged to someone else. This falls right in line with the Depression-era fascination with the extremely wealthy, where romance of a sort is the most important thing, despite thousands starving to death. It’s not bad, and has the benefit of running under 80 minutes, so it’s not a huge time commitment, either.
Film: The Nutty Professor (1996)
The remake of the Jerry Lewis classic is the third time Eddie Murphy played multiple characters in a film. Rather than going from nerdy to cool (something he eventually did in Bowfinger), Murphy instead opts for fat to thin. His Sherman Klump is bumbling but brilliant and vastly overweight. The appearance of grad student Carla Purty (Jada Pinkett Smith before she started treating Hollywood like Tinder) causes him to want to lose weight. A chemical formula later, and Sherman transforms into skinny, hyper-masculine Buddy Love (Murphy without the fat suit). Larry Miller as a Klump-hating dean is a standout, and while there’s a lot of fat shaming here, it’s nice that we’re ultimately given the reality that Buddy Love, for all his being thin, is a dick and Sherman is really a sweet guy. The PG-13 rating is a surprise, considering all of the N-bombs.
Film: Kicking Blood (2021)
Kicking Blood, also known as Kicking Blood: A Vampire Love Story really wants to be considered clever by comparing vampirism to addiction. It’s an easy connection to make, though, so when our vampire Anna (Alanna Bale) finds herself attracted to suicidal alcoholic Robbie (Luke Bilyk), it’s not much of a shock. The idea that vampires not only use blood for food but as psychedelics is interesting, but not a lot else is. When a movie unironically tells the character who has bottomed out to “clean up” when it looks like he is freshly showered, there’s a problem that lack of budget won’t fix, although there’s also a lack of real creativity here to overcome that microbudget. At least it’s really short.
Film: King Creole (1958)
I figured that after watching the Elvis movie I should watch an Elvis movie, and King Creole fit the bill. It’s a weird little genre of film—the goal was clearly to create a movie along the lines of The Wild One or more likely Rebel Without a Cause, putting Elvis in the role of the troubled but ultimately decent lead. Fans of MST3K know the genre of troubled kid who sings--Daddy-O, The Beatniks and Wild Rebels are clearly based on King Creole. The big news in this one, aside from the presence of Walter Matthau as the heavy and a pre-Addams Family Carolyn Jones as the love interest, is the fact that Elvis, if not Oscar-worthy, could be a serviceable actor. Dean Jagger and Vic Morrow round out the cast, but it really is about Elvis singing.
Film: Runaway Jury (2003)
There’s something about a courtroom drama that really gets the juices going, and Runaway Jury is one that brings a lot of bells and whistles. We’ve got a legal case against a gun manufacturer whose guns were used in a mass shooting, and naturally both sides want a verdict in their favor. And with the literal future of gun manufacturers on the line, this means dirty tricks, bribes, blackmail, and more. This is a surprisingly deep cast—Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz—even small roles are ably handled by a veteran cast. It’s a little off the rails, but it’s fun to watch. It’s perhaps a bit naïve and a bit ridiculous, but it’s very entertaining.