Personal Services, and six more movies

Got your popcorn and Red Vines? (Don't even talk to me about Twizzlers. Screw your Twizzlers, I'm a Red Vines guy.)



Dec. 17, 2022

Today there's clown-on-clown action, three women become one, a documentary about a movie star's RV, angsty high school love, a waitress runs a whorehouse, Sam Waterston goes native, and there's no escaping John Goodman's survivalist pit. 

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Death to Smoochy (2002)
Ernest Borgnine On the Bus (1997)
Foxfur (2012)
Personal Services (1986)
Rancho Deluxe (1975)
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

Best of show: Personal Services.

Big surprise, in a good way: 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Big surprise, in a bad way: Some Kind of Wonderful.

No surprise at all, 'cuz it's exactly what you'd expect: Ernest Borgnine On the Bus, and Foxfur.

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10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gets into a wreck on the freeway, and wakes up with an IV in her arm, but she's not in a hospital. She's deep inside a concrete bomb shelter, built by a wingnut survivalist named Harold (John Goodman). He says he found her in the wreckage of her car, says he saved her life, but says she can't leave the bunker because something awful has happened above them, up in the world — everyone breathing the air up there has died. He says.

He's clearly a worrisome character. This is crazy Goodman, like in The Big Lebowski but meaner. Probably he's nuts, but nuts or not, he might be telling the truth about what's happened to everyone at the surface. The only other resident of the bomb shelter is Emmett, a man about Michelle's age who'd been a neighbor of Harold's, and he vouches for everything Harold says.

The three of them settle in for a long stay, perhaps years underground, if Harold is right about the surface contamination, but living with Harold is prickly for everyone. He has a lot of rules, no patience, no sense of humor, and he demands respect and obedience from Michelle and Emmett.

Michelle is smart, resourceful, and skeptical of Harold's story. Harold is believably prickly. Emmett is naive but not stupid, and seems like a decent man.

Emmett and Harold aren't going to let Michelle leave, but for a movie, it's refreshing that neither of them make any sexual threats or demands of Michelle. Well, except cooking — Harold says she'll have to do the cooking, because she's the 'girl'.

Hollywood's idea of a bomb shelter has all the modern luxuries except cable TV. It's a mansion's worth of underground space, with of course, endless supplies of food and water, electricity and purified air. There's simply no way that one farmer could've built this sprawling, carpeted survival space, but in the movies most people live in House Beautiful, and it's my only real complaint here.

10 Cloverfield Lane is very loosely a sequel to Cloverfield, J J Abrams' sci-fi junker that was so bad I didn't finish watching it. Other than the title, though, the tone, style, and setting is different, and this is barely even science fiction. It's a taut three-character drawing room drama, set in a concrete drawing room.

It's also the first thing I've seen with J J Abrams' name on it that's neither crap nor mediocre — it's genuinely good. He's the producer, but didn't write or direct. Thank you for that, Mr Abrams. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Death to Smoochy (2002)

Robin Williams plays the bad clown, a TV kiddie-show star who's been taken off the air amidst a scandal. In a rush, the network looks for a replacement, and finds Smoochy (Edward Norton), a very good clown who sincerely likes kids and can't be corrupted.

Danny DeVito directs and has a supporting role. Catherine Keener, Harvey Fierstein, Jon Stewart, and the late but marvelous Vincent Schiavelli chip in. 

I've liked all the DeVito-directed movies I've seen. He has a weird sensibility that appeals to me, and Smoochy is a good flick. I do wish DeVito would get away from the studios and make something smaller. He's always at the edge of what a studio will allow in a movie, and someday I'd like to see DeVito go past the edge.

Death to Smoochy is ballsy and subversive, certainly watchable, and enjoyable. It has all the good attributes you could ask of a comedy, except that it's not very funny. It's odd and askew, and you'll watch it slack-jawed, but it's almost completely laughless. I'm willing to overlook that, though, because it's ballsy and subversive, certainly watchable, and enjoyable.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Ernest Borgnine On the Bus (1997)

Between acting gigs in the 1990s, movie star Ernest Borgnine bought a bus outfitted like a fancy recreational vehicle, and drove around the country just for the fun of it. This documentary tags along, and it's a happy ride.

Borgnine gives us a tour of the bus, does all the driving, and has a thousand stories to tell about other stars he has known and married. He seems like a lovable galoot, very much like most of the characters he played, and I certainly envy his rig.

The movie is good enough to recommend, but it should've spent more time reminiscing with Mr Borgnine, and less time on the numerous irrelevant musical interludes.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Foxfur (2012)

While using new PC software to edit a music video, there's a glitch and a spark, and the entire universe short-circuits.

After that, the world is full of random special effects, and three women named Foxfur may hold the answer, if they can find the kidnapped conspiracy theorist Richard Hoagland before being evicted.

It's a Damon Packard film. Brace yourself. Mr Packard makes movies that play entirely by Packard rules, but they're always a blast, a furious affront to al the formulaic Hollywood crap. Foxfur has several hilarious set pieces, including the most hilariously unhelpful sales clerks since Clerks.

Richard Hoagland, central to the plot, is an actual conspiracy nut fro our allegedly real world, played here by an actor. Several other prominent wingnuts are also characters in the movie. Packard doesn't need to worry about lawsuits, because people like Hoagland and David Icke have no reputations to damage.

Everyone who likes movies ought to see at least one Damon Packard film. This is one. If you like it, you'll want to see them all, a project I'm still working on.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Personal Services (1986)

This was made in the 1980s, but feels like it's set in the 1960s, and in a good way.

It's about Christine, a waitress when the story starts, but she's invested her savings in the purchase of a cheap flat, where her tenant is falling behind on the rent. That tenant is a prostitute, and in search of extra income, Christine soon becomes a madame, overseeing the discreet delivery of goods and services at a reasonable price.

Julie Walters stars, and it's a well-scrubbed feel-good movie about the business. She's quick with a quip but also good with staff and customers. In any workplace, co-workers can become friends, and friends can become more family than family, and that's the feel here. The goings-on in Christine's home seem downright homey.

There's a plot twist halfway through that caught me completely by surprise, and actually, the whole movie caught me by surprise. It's directed by Monty Python's Terry Jones, so you're expecting something raucous, but instead it's subdued, even heartwarming, with plenty of laughs but no moments of outrageous Pythonesque comedy.

The movie opens with an announcement reassuring the viewer that this is not the life story of Cynthia Payne. I don't know who that is and didn't bother to Google it, but another on-screen announcement at the end explains: She was a prominent English madame of the era, apparently being prosecuted at the time this was made, and served as consultant to the moviemakers here. For obvious legal reasons, she wanted to make it clear that the film is not a confession.

It's an open-minded, pitch-perfect film, and stuffed with kinks, but sweetly. The police, always breaking up the party, are unambiguously shown as the bad guys they are in such matters.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Rancho Deluxe (1975)

Jack (Jeff Bridges) and Cecil (Sam Waterston) are modern-day cattle rustlers and best buddies on the ranges of Montana. There are lots of laughs on-screen between them, but very few that reached me in my recliner. I never quite got into this flick.

Jack and Cecil are good old boys, like The Dukes of Hazard, but without the racism and Southern accent, and amped up more than TV would allow. They're all about smoking dope, screwing women, shooting cattle, etc. They're at war with the father of the two women they're screwing, and also up against with a pompous local rancher, whose cattle the boys especially target.

Early in the film, there's a 2½ minute outdoor fuck scene, with Bridges thrusting into Patti D'Arbanville, who keeps screaming, "Oh yeah, baby baby, oh yeah, baby." The camera doesn't show much skin, I didn't catch any character development, and it's not sexy. Yes I'm old and cranky, but 2½ minutes of fake boinking is a bore, while waiting for a plot to develop. 

Develop it does, but at its own pace, which is slowly.

Along the way, Jack goes to dinner at his parents' house and finds that they've invited his ex-wife. It's unexplained why his parents would do that, or why his ex would accept, but Jack shouts at her, "Anna, don't you understand that we make each other insane?" To prove his point he then throws a tantrum in the dining room, throwing a vase and breaking a mirror, etc, like he's 12 and his cell phone's been confiscated.

That scene made me strongly dislike this 'Jack' character, and what's extra perplexing is, Jack's marriage hadn't been mentioned before that moment, and it isn't mentioned after. It's an outburst as pointless to the story as the earlier boinking.

The script reminds us several times that Jack's sidekick Cecil is Native American. "Before you whites came here," says the very white Waterston, "we had a simple existence in these shining mountains, under this big sky."

"Horse shit," says Jack.

"We had that too," says Cecil. 

That line is funny, and there are more laughs, and toward the end the film starts simmering. Bridges' character even redeems himself somewhat, but it's a long slog getting to the predictable ending. 

Slim Pickens is given a meaty supporting role and makes it sizzle with A1 Sauce. He's a former horse thief, brought onto the ranch to capture the rustlers, and every scene he's in feels like a different and better film. Another saving grace is Clifton James as the rancher, a visual punchline reacting to everything with rolling eyeballs and a rubbery face. Harry Dean Stanton is another plus.

Directed by Frank Perry, who later made Mommie Dearest, and this is as understated and subtle as that. Music by Jimmy Buffett, including a song he sings in a bar, while mugging wildly at the camera. 

Verdict: Best I can do is MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

This is one of John Hughes' high school movies, and I liked it a lot a long time ago. Liked it so much, I saw it three times at a dollar discount cinema.

Thirty-five years later, it seems mostly ridonkulous. Stereotyped good-boy Eric Stoltz has the hots for stereotyped pretty girl Lea Thompson, and somehow can't see that his platonic friend Mary Stuart Masterson is actually The Girl For Him. 

Masterson is all I really remembered about the flick, and she's still stellar. John Ashton is endearing as 'Dad', and some of the background boys and girls are funny and funny-looking. Even in high school, though, was anyone ever as clueless and shallow as Eric Stoltz's character, and was life ever this full of angsty overdramatic dialogue?

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming attractions: 

80,000 Suspects (1963)
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2021)
The Incredible Mr Limpet (1963)
Look Who's Back (2015)
Rear Window (1954)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   


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