Ghost World, and six more movies

Ghost World

This is a brilliant comedy-drama about the terrors and errors of fitting in, or deciding that you don't fit in at all.



Jan. 28, 2023

It opens at high school graduation, where best friends Enid and Becky snicker at the stupid speeches and ceremony. They're the kind of kids who snicker a lot, and why not? In high school and in life, there's a lot to snicker at.

In the local alt paper, they find a particularly pathetic "missed connection" ad, and decide to respond to it, pretending to be the woman who made some man's heart flutter on the airport shuttle bus. The man who placed the ad turns out to be a dweeb, and they enjoy laughing at him, but he's the beginning of things that start spiraling out of control in Enid's life.

See, while he's a dweeb on the surface, he's really just an older, perhaps even more cynical version of Enid. A dweeb, yes, but he knows it, and revels in it.

"I used to think about one day, just not telling anyone, and going off to some random place. And I'd just... disappear. And they'd never see me again. Did you ever think about stuff like that?"

Ghost World is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, and it's poignant, occasionally funny, and finally cosmic. It captures what it's like to be an outsider for so long that 'inside' seems like a fictional place.

And it does it while being funny, with a cryptic but optimistic ending.

Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson star, and when I saw this in a theater in Kansas City a lotta years ago, I thought Johansson was a zilch and Birch would be a big star. Shows what I know, which is nada, but I still don't see what's the big deal about Johansson.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff, with Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, David Cross, the late Brad Renfro, and the eternal Teri Garr.

Please do stick around for the post-credits sequence.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Animal Crackers (1930)

This is the second Marx Brothers movie, wherein Captain Geoffry T Spaulding (Groucho) has returned from safariing in Africa, and he's feted with a party hosted by the elegant Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont).

The whole movie takes place at the party, where a pair of bumbling musicians (Chico and Harpo Marx) are busily trying to find a painting that's been stolen and replaced with a fake, and also they're cheating at cards, and finding plenty of funny things to keep them busy and keep you laughing. 

The film has lots of hilarious Marx Brothers bits, including what's perhaps Groucho's most famous line, "One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know." He has a zillion zingers, and sings a couple of dang funny songs, including the classic "Hello, I Must Be Going."

"Well, all the jokes can't be good. You got to expect that once in a while."

Actually, pretty much all of the jokes are good. The unfunny stuff includes Zeppo Marx, who's only on screen briefly, and an entirely uninteresting love story between some uninteresting man and Mrs Rittenhouse's daughter, played by Lillian Roth. Click the sound off, especially when they sing, and you'll miss nothing.

Like the brothers' first film, this was distilled from one of their Broadway plays, credited to George S Kaufman and three other writers, none of whom are Marxes. It looks a little less stagy than The Cocoanuts, sounds clearer (talkies were pretty new), and it's a bit funnier overall, to my taste. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Being There (1979)

"Life is a state of mind."

Peter Sellers plays Chance the gardener, a retarded man, probably the illegitimate son of his wealthy employer. He's lived his entire life on the grounds of the mansion, tending the garden and watching idiotic TV shows. He has no birth certificate, no ID, no education, and suddenly he has nowhere to go, because his employer/father has died.

Chance has always been allowed to "wear any of the old man's clothes," though, so he certainly looks like a distinguished gentleman. And he's white. What more is necessary to be a success?

Homeless, Chance wanders the streets of Washington DC, wearing a nice suit. He's accidentally jostled by a limo belonging to another very rich man, and to avoid the red tape of an ER visit, he's driven to their mansion, to see their live-in doctor.

When anyone talks to Chance, he usually answers with the only thing he knows, which is gardening talk. "In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again," and so on.

In conversation, his dull thoughts are taken as philosophical. Soon, he's the new best friend of the rich man of the house (Melvyn Douglas), and the new lover of his wife (Shirley MacLaine). There's apparently no limit to how far Chance can unintentionally advance in life.

What a delightful but strange film this is. Sellers was one of the best comedic actors of his or any generation, and Being There is a comedy, and damned funny, but Sellers never plays it funny. He's absolutely a straight man here, but as the situation gets more and more bizarre it's all very funny indeed. And with a whiff of truth to it, about the essence of media and celebrity.

Based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski. Directed by Hal Ashby, with the second-best ever use of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" in a movie.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dumbland (2002)

Wes Anderson has made some animated films, so why shouldn't David Lynch?

This is an episodic collection (episodes 1-8) of crudely drawn cartoons about life in suburbia, mostly centered on a big doof with a small IQ. It's strange and not funny, but strange can be good on its own, without being funny.

This isn't, though. As with everything I've seen from Lynch after the first few episodes of Twin Peaks, this is weirdness without a point, and it gets repetitive. 

It's only thirty minutes long, but feels much longer.

Here's a taste: A little girl is screaming about a big man who has a stick stuck in his head. "Get the stick!" she screams, again and again. 21 times she'd screamed "Get the stick!", before I fast-forwarded to the next mini-episode.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Flight/Risk (2022)

This is a documentary about Boeing's 737 MAX crashes, the corporate stupidity that led to it, and the stonewalling after the fact.

The topic is kinda personal for me, because my pop worked for Boeing when Boeing was a good company, and he loved aeronautics and took serious pride in building the best planes possible. So did Boeing, back then. Boeings were better built than Brand X, my dad always said, and he'd be frustrated that they're not any more.

Now Boeing's headquarters is always on the roll, first to Chicago and then to Virginia, always farther and farther from the workers who design and build the planes here in Seattle.

That physical distance has led to a philosophical distance, where the designers and riveters are trying to make planes that fly reliably, while management just wants to make planes that fly cheaply and profitably.

The documentary is disappointing, though.

It shows lots and lots and lots of clips from TV coverage, re-establishing the very basics — some planes crashed, and lots of people died.

Well, duh. Anyone who's read even the briefest article on the 737 MAX crashes already knows everything that's in the first twenty minutes of this film. The TV clips horrified me, but not for the news, since the news was all a rerun, but for the reporters' tilted tone and rolling eyeballs, reminding me why I don't watch news on TV.

A lot of the rest of this is interviews with the families of the dead, and guess what? They're sad and they're angry. But that goes without saying, doesn't it? I don't need a half hour of intruding on people's grief to understand that they're grieving.

"Could you just tell me what you miss most about your mom?" the movie's unseen narrator asks. What the fuck is wrong with you?, I shouted at the screen. Plane crashes kill people, and that's sad, but the sadness goes without saying, or it should. Asking the families of the dead to describe their grief isn't journalism. It's maudlin trash.

The film has better and most impressive special effects than a science fiction film, snazzy graphics indeed, but all I want is the facts, please, without the tricks. 

And the facts, without the tricks, information that's pertinent and wasn't already widely known, adds up to less than half an hour of Flight/Risk's running time. I'll scowlingly recommend it for that, but this film should've been much, much better than it is.

From the worthwhile bits, the most outrageous nugget is that, after the first 737 MAX crash but before the second crash, Boeing sent executives — and a lawyer — to address a pilot's meeting, and reassure them that the plane was safe when they knew (or should've known) it wasn't. So why did they send a lawyer?

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

In Transit (2018)

"This experimental film was shot with only improvised dialogue, no screenplay, and mostly in one day. The two lead actors never met before filming."

With a long wait before her plane, a 20-something white woman steps into an otherwise-empty airport restaurant for a cup of coffee. Pretty soon a 20-something white man comes in, orders tea, and the two of them start talking. Their conversation is occasionally interrupted by flashbacks for both of them — his girlfriend recently dumped him, and her fiancé has just died. 

None of this is great drama, but I wouldn't have guessed it was improvised until she tells him her fiancé died, and he almost immediately suggests that they play a board game. In the restaurant, at the airport, he whips out a board game and they start playing.

There's a bigger problem with the film, though, and again it's the guy playing the guy. He's scraggly, unshaven, and with chest hairs sticking out from his t-shirt, he looks like the dictionary illustration of a douchebag. He's more presentable in his flashbacks, but the way he looks in the restaurant, 99 out of 100 pretty women would move to a different table rather than talk to him.

Instead they get deeper into their conversation, and it gets less and less interesting, and more and more obviously unscripted. As a guy who loves eavesdropping, I'd look around the restaurant for a better conversation to overhear.

There's a reason most movies have scripts. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Prime Risk (1985)

Here's something you don't see often: a high-tech hacker/heist flick where the genius mastermind is a woman. She and her wanna-be boyfriend are using electronics to screw over a bank that's screwed both of them.

The high-tech stuff seems ridiculous now, almost 40 years later, but it might have been clever for its time. Hard to say.

The movie gets points for having a smart woman at its heart, and more points for having two other smart women characters, which adds up to three more than most movies. Sadly, though, those are the only points it gets.

The direction generates little suspense, the script is clumsy, and maybe it's not so bright for hackers to label a floppy disk "Vienna bank codes."

It gets worse and dumber. There's a subplot about learning to fly a Cessna, and then suddenly the movie is about a ring of spies led by Keenan Wynn, trying to disrupt the global banking system. Wynn's worse bad guys keep chasing and capturing our better bad guys, who escape to be chased and captured again, but the chases, captures, and escapes are only monotonous. 

And has nothing changed? The ATM they're robbing in 1985 looks and acts and beeps exactly like the ATM I used the day before yesterday. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Coming attractions:

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
The Lady Eve (1941)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Nobody Waved Good-Bye (1964)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Rubin & Ed (1991)
The Thing (2011)


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 twenty-plex, you're missing out.

— — —

If you can't find a movie I've reviewed,
please drop me a note.
— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. Reviews are spoiler-free. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

← PREVIOUS          NEXT →


  1. It's possible that you and I saw Ghost World together, in the theater. Maybe not, I don't remember exactly when you left town. I had strong feelings (in many ways) about Thora Birch as well, and ScarJo didn't make an impression on me at all. But she's become a good actress, and my god, she is my single celebrity crush, for sure. Her ass in "Lost in Translation" is ridiculous, and might be a key part in what awakened my ex-wife's awareness of her gayness, and I'm not joking.

    1. Some movies I remember where I saw them, but not GHOST WORLD. All I know for sure is that it was a discount matinee, or a night show at a discount cinema. Never pay full price, never!

      I'm mostly immune to women's asses. Even a fine one, it's not in the top twenty things to notice. And whether round or rectangular, I've never noticed Ms Johansson's.

  2. Also, if it's not too late, you may want to eat a gummy before Rubin and Ed. I'm interested to see your opinion. I haven't watched it in 25 years, probably, and I was certainly higher than hell each time I watched it, but I loved it.

    1. Saw RUBIN & ED several days ago. Was not stoned, and yet I loved it.

    2. Excellent! I was worried that I steered you wrong. Crispin Glover, man.

    3. Mr Glover was in character from this movie, as Rubin Farr, when he almost kicked David Letterman in the face.


The site's software sometimes swallows comments. For less frustration, send an email and I'll post it as a comment.