Safety Not Guaranteed, and six more movies



Dec. 30, 2022

Today at the movies — Trey Parker and Matt Stone defeat terrorism, college kids drink beer, a teenage girl falls for her stepbrother, things get scary at the amusement park, Aubrey Plaza meets someone a wacky as Aubrey Plaza, a priest has a larger than usual crisis of faith, and Robert Duvall wants his money.  

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
First Reformed (2018)
I Start Counting (1969)
The Outfit (1974)
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Team America: World Police (2014)
Us (2019)

It's a strong batch, and six out of seven get blue ribbons from me. The best of the bunch has to be Safety Not Guaranteed, which leaves me gobsmacked every time I see it.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

It's 1980 at an un-named university in Texas, where the varsity baseball team occupies two houses on fraternity row. The players are all buddies, and they drink beer, smoke dope, crack jokes, chase girls, go to parties, argue a little, and crack jokes.

There is no plot, no baseball, and there's about thirty seconds of college, where one student is black. 98% of the script is boisterous and superficial conversation, punctuated by laughing and hollering. 

Nobody on-screen is awkward, insecure, or faces any problems. Everyone's nice, life is good, and all these kids are the same at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning.

Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that this is a 'spiritual sequel' to his marvelous Dazed and Confused, about a bunch of baseballers in high school. He's forgotten his own recipe, though. Dazed and Confused was about a new kid trying to fit in. Everybody Wants Some!! is about a new kid in college, but everybody loves him as soon as he walks in the door, so — there's no story to tell.

There are some laughs, certainly, but not enough to make up for the plain unpleasantness of spending two hours with a bunch of loud, drunken athletes — an hour of waiting for the movie to actually start, and then an hour of waiting for it to end.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

First Reformed (2018)

Ethan Hawke plays Pastor Ernst Toller, leader of a small church in upstate New York. He's sick, he has issues, his faith isn't very strong, and his congregation numbers only a few.

One couple at the church needs his spiritual guidance, and he tries to help, leading to a long conversation with the husband — an activist with Greenpeace, who isn't sure it's right to bring a child into this world with his pregnant wife.

Pastor Toller enjoys the debate with his parishioner, and so did I. You don't often see movies with an intelligent conversation about anything outside the movie itself.

The movie, though, is written and directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ), so it's not going to be only a philosophical discussion.

And I think I'll stop there. It's a terrific film, but it's delicate, and saying too much about it might ruin your experience. Let's just say that First Reformed is smart, set in our real world, and deals with tough questions thoughtfully. It's challenging, occasionally brilliant, and one scene still has me perplexed.

Whatever you're expecting this ain't it, but it is an excellent independent film, very much worth seeing.

Verdict: YES.

I'm not literary or anything, but the pastor is named for the real Ernst Toller, a Bavarian playwright and (briefly) politician who maybe killed himself and maybe got killed. Never seen any of his plays myself, so I dunno why Schrader chose that name, but he's no dummy so I know it means something. 

If you've seen the movie or know about the playwright, explain it to me please.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

I Start Counting (1969)

Teenage Jenny Agutter has a crush on her step-brother, who's old enough to be her father. She daydreams about him, spies on him, and comes to suspect that he's a serial killer on the loose. She's decided that's OK, though; she loves him anyway.

The dialogue and situations in this flick are frequently cringeworthy, not due to bad writing but good — this kid says and does some of the stupid things that real kids might do. You're embarrassed at her, and sometimes with her.

From its innocent nature and the cutesy music and baby-voiced folk songs on the soundtrack, you'll think it's an ordinary coming-of-age story or a wistful memento of youth. It is neither, really, and by the end it's a very unsettling film.

Phil Collins, pre-Genesis, has a very small role as the ice cream vendor.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Outfit (1974)

In the opening scene, a pair of mob hit men kill somebody named Eddie. In the second scene, Eddie's brother Earl (Robert Duvall) is released from prison, picks up his girlfriend (Karen Black), and he's looking for revenge.

Earl finds the guy who ordered his brother's murder and says he'll settle for $250,000, please. Payable in cash. He'll even accept installment payments, meaning, he'll keep robbing the bad guys until he's collected the quarter-mill he's demanded.

So this is a heist movie, but not about one heist; it's about a long series of heists and killings, all against a sliver of the mob called "The Outfit."

Eventually Earl teams up with his old buddy Cody (Joe Don Baker) and there are about a dozen well-staged, enjoyable action sequences.

Baker, who always plays thugs, is in low-key thug mode, meaning he'll kill ya if he has to but he'd rather not. Duvall can play anything, and he's fine here.

The dialogue is terse, and almost entirely about the next action sequences. We're never shown a soft side for either Earl or Cody, or much reason to sympathize or identify with either of them, but things move along so quickly you might not notice.

Lots of familiar character actors appear, all in roles I wish were larger, including Sheree North, Marie Windsor, Henry Jones, Joanna Cassidy, and the always-excellent Elisha Cook Jr.

It's a clockwork buddy/action film, of the kind Hollywood seems to have stopped making. No smiling pretty boys, no montage of pop songs, no product placement, just some really good hard-boiled cinema.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, an intern on toilet paper duty at Seattle magazine. She's nervous and dweeby and not a people person. Her boss is a borderline skeevy older man, the kind of guy who blurts out who he's had sex with.

Darius and another intern, a nerdy Indian kid, are assigned to accompany the boss to the town of Ocean View, to see what's the story behind some guy who's placed an absurd classified ad: 

"Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. PO Box 91, Ocean View WA 99393. You'll get paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."

When they get to the town, though, her boss is mostly interested in looking up and hooking up with an ex-girlfriend who lives nearby, and the man who placed the ad is, no surprise, kind of a wingnut.

Which is perfect, because the magazine was hoping the article would be kinda funny. Meanwhile, her skanky boss pursues his ex, and also tries to get the nerdy Indian intern laid, but the nerd has a crush on Darius.

And all along, all these people are interesting, everybody feels authentic, and you'll give a damn.

This is a low-budget indy film, with no stars except Plaza. It's a five-character romantic comedy, with not a lot of laughs and not a lot of romance, but more than enough of both, and it slowly then suddenly becomes something bigger.

Jeepers, I love this movie, and I've seen it four times since it first came out. 

The classified ad that launches the story is real, but also fake. It was written in 1997 by John Silveira, an editor at Backwoods Home, to fill an inch of white space in the back pages of the magazine. Later it became an early internet meme, and now, a movie.

Silveira has a cameo — when the reporters are staking out the post office to see who owns Box 91, he's the old man who checks an adjacent box. He's also credited as the movie's "time travel consultant."

Safety Not Guaranteed was filmed in and around Seattle, including a few scenes at the grocery store where I sometimes shop (but only sometimes, cuz it's a little out of my way). Next time I'm there, I will definitely notice the canned soups.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Team America: World Police (2014)

From the creators of South Park, here's a marionette movie about terrorists. It's pretty much what you'd expect — hilarious, shocking, stupid, and then hilarious again, with a few great songs.

Hearing the voice of Cartman as someone else is a little distracting. Other than that, what's to complain? 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Us (2019)

I watched this for only ten minutes, but had to turn it off because it was 10:00 at night and I was scared out of my bejeebers. If I'd watched it then, I wouldn't have slept all night, so instead I watched it the next day, beginning again at about noon.

"If it weren't for you, I never would've danced at all."

The opening — the part that scared me so much — shows an ordinary family at a beach/amusement park in Santa Cruz. While Mom's in the ladies' room and Dad's playing Whac-A-Mole, their young daughter Adelaide wanders away, across the boardwalk, down to the beach, and into a house of mirrors that's about to close for the day.

Amidst the mirrors, she sees something frightening — herself, but not a mirror image. No, it's a different girl, but also it's Adelaide.

We don't see the rest of whatever happened in the house of mirrors, but Adelaide has been severely traumatized. Jump forward thirty years, and she's happily married and the mother of two kids, but she has an (understandable) fear of the beach. And the girl from the house of mirrors is still out there.

"How it must have been to grow up with the sky. To feel the sun, the wind, the trees."

Writer-director Jordan Peele was pretty damned funny as half of Key & Peele, but since then he's been making movies that refuse to be funny at all, including the terrific Get Out which I can't review, and this one which just about knocked me outta my recliner. A lot of Us reminds me of nothing I've seen before.

Without giving anything away, some of it's frightening as fuck, and some of it's a conventional but well-made horror movie. Occasionally it's over the top, and you might think Mr Peele has lost his way, but that's only because you thought he was done messing with you when actually he's just setting up the next terrifying twist.

"Who are you people?"

"We're Americans."

Us isn't perfect. The story is preposterous when you think about it, and the whole middle section is only an ordinary zombie apocalypse. And enough with the sandpaper voices already.

Much of it's audacious, though, and unlike most horror movies it's not only about scaring you. There's a message under the mayhem, if you stop and think about it.

Verdict: YES, and within walking distance of a BIG YES.

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Coming attractions:

Contagion (2011)
The Crazies (1973)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Superdragon vs Supermen (1975)
Thief (1981)
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970)


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.   



  1. Why can't you review Get Out?

    I think Dazed is Linklater's most overrated flick;, I'd put at least ten of his others ahead of it. It's 45 minutes of Wiley Wiggins rubbing his face and forehead, and 15 minutes of Matthew McConaughey being incredible, and 30 minutes of that girl with the Minnie Mouse voice who ended up fucking Kevin Smith (shudder) in real life.

    My favorites by Linklater:

    Scanner Darkly
    Apollo 10 & 1/2
    Everybody Wants Some

    1. Your comments on Dazed and Confused made me giggle for fifteen seconds, and made me love you even more. It's much more fun to Siskel with an Ebert, so thank you, Jeff.

      What can I say about what makes me laugh, vs what makes you laugh? Tomato, potato.

      Slacker is quite good, and A Scanner Darkly is better. I'd forgotten about Bernie and never even heard of Apollo 10½, so let's add 'em to the list.

      Get Out is one of many movies I watched with my wife. She was every bit the movie nut I am. All the movies we watched together and talked about, and the ones with too many memories of her, I can't watch again.

      Save me the aisle seat.

    2. I just watched Schrader's follow-up to First Reformed, called The Card Counter. Not as good as FR, but still a late-career unexpected masterpiece. It's not really so much about gambling, if that's a turn off. Highly recommended.

    3. Man, I miss movies, and yessir and thanks, this goes onto the long list.

      Through a year of unemployment, I watched a hell of a lot of movies, most of them good.

      Now I get to watch maybe 1 or 2 on the weekend.

    4. And here's a trailer for his newest:


      I like Joel Edgerton, he's also in a great flick called It Comes At Night

    5. I'm virginal for Joel Edgerton. Not sure I'd ever heard of him. The movie looks great, man.


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