At the Circus, and a few more movies


At the Circus (1939)

Usually the Marx Brothers get only half a movie, leaving the other half for people not named Marx to do unfunny things and sing songs nobody wants to hear.

In this one, the Marxes get about 80% of the film, and when they're off-screen the movie slows down but doesn't drop off a cliff into purgatory, because this time the non-Marx players aren't awful, and it's not vomitopia when they sing. 

Another thing that helps At the Circus is that much of it was filmed at a circus — there are lions and horses, an ostrich that lays an egg, and trapezery, and people tumbling all over themselves, etc.

The story never matters, but it's about a circus owner on the brink of financial ruin, with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo rushing to his rescue, and a pretty lady who dances with a horse.

Margaret Dumont is flustered as always, and Eve Arden is ever-cynical. There's a scene with Groucho and Arden squabbling while they walk on the ceiling, and it looks like no special effects were involved, and they're actually walking on the ceiling.

"There must be some way of getting that money, without getting in trouble with the Hays Office."

Groucho sings "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady," which became one of his best-known bits, and I'd forgotten how hilariously bawdy the song is. Harpo's harp number comes at the end of a truly sweet song-and-dance with a town's worth of black adults and kids, plus elephants in the background. Chico plays the piano and tickles laughs from the ivory.

Like most Marx movies, it's a series of ridiculous sketches, and most of them are funny. It ends with sky-high antics, and along the way there's a long sequence that's too short, as the brothers interrogate a dwarf in his living room, under low ceilings and on half-sized furniture.

I laughed out loud at least two dozen times, then watched it again and found another dozen laughs I'd missed the first time. It's the funniest the Marx Brothers have been since Duck Soup.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a middle-aged masseuse to the rich and famous, who makes a house call at a rich family's mansion. When she's finished, she can't leave, because her beater VW won't start, so her client (Connie Britton) asks Beatriz to stay for dinner.

The meal is a catered event for the homeowner's boss, a billionaire who's Donald Trump and Bill O'Reilly rolled into one deliciously obnoxious performance by John Lithgow. Other guests have also been invited, and each of them is somehow beholden to Lithgow's billionaire, so Beatriz is like a durable stainless steel fork in a drawer full of sparkling sterling silver.

Beatriz mingling with all these rich people yields enough awkward moments for an episode of The Office (UK). Beatriz listens quietly to the billionaire's outrageous statements, but only because she's perfecting her next stinging retort. The vibe is darkly humorous, potentially explosive.

All these people, who'd ordinarily expect Beatriz to be serving the hors d'oeuvres, politely hear it when she talks, but they never listen. And the more she drinks, the more she has to say, and the more nobody wants to listen.

This was written by Mike White (Freaks & Geeks, Chuck & Buck, School of Rock), and directed by Miguel Arteta (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and Chuck & Buck). It's smart, sincere, and comes recommended by me, but I have two niggles to rub together, which might be the same niggle. 

First, Beatriz is not merely a masseuse, she's a holistic cancer-healing masseuse. Establishing her character in the film's early scenes, we see her play a patient like a theremin, brush a chalice around someone's head, etc. She's a woo worker, which nobody in the film questions, but I'd always prefer a woo-free option unless the supernatural is in service of a horror movie.

And second, Beatriz at dinner is marvelous, but after dinner the movie gets woo itself, maybe. What happens next might be a symbolic statement reflecting everything that's gone before and also everything wrong in our world, or it might simply be a painfully pessimistic ending to the story. I have pondered it repeatedly but remain puzzled, even after Googling "explain ending beatriz dinner."

It's still a splendid movie, though.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Spike Jonze makes mindbender movies — Being John Malkovich, Her, and of course, Jackass: The Movie. Here he's taken a swing at Maurice Sendak's kid-classic book, Where the Wild Things Are.

It's about Max, a 9-year-old boy who's endearing one minute and obnoxious the next, exactly like kids are. He wears an elaborate pajama or pants-suit with pointy ears and a tail, and has a big argument with his mom (Catherine Keener). He bites her, then runs off into the night, and into his mind.

From there he sails away to an island of overstuffed toys ten feet tall, all with oversized heads. A few of the fuzzy monsters threaten to eat him, so Max makes up a story about being a king, because monsters eat kids but not kings. He's quickly accepted as king of the wild things, and thereafter wears a crown the same shape and shade of yellow as Burger King's paper crowns. It made me want a Whopper.

The movie's wild things aren't all that wild, and most of them are worried, sad, or have issues. Max cheers them up with assorted fun and games, and several times their antics are interrupted with pop tunes sung in falsetto, or by off-screen little kids.

If you knew and loved the book as a child, you have to see the movie and you probably have. I didn't read the book until my 20s, so I'm immune to that nostalgic effect, and only watched it as a movie.

It has great costumes if they're costumes or great CGI if it's that, and there's imagination dripping all over the visuals. The kid playing Max (whose name is Max) is exactly the embodiment of the kid from the book, and some of James Gandolfini's lovable galoot persona comes through the fur or CGI of the wild thing he voices. I even liked the first falsetto song.

Much of the film, though, feels like you're watching kids play. Max is having fun, playing with big furries, having a dirt-clod war and such, and you get to watch Max having fun. Which is also fun, but never bent my mind.

Early on, you'll remember, Max had a tantrum at home, and Gandolfini's wild thing is sort of a bomb without a fuse, so on a deeper level they story is about dealing with your emotions, right? Keeping your temper under control.

It doesn't go to those deeper levels often or deeply, though. Mostly the movie is satisfied to show more and more scenes of Max and the wild things romping around and hollering and having fun.

As the story approaches its conclusion, you expect a line or two tying everything up and making its point — "There's no place like home" in The Wizard of Oz, or "He lived happily ever after" in Willie Wonka.

You might want to skip the next paragraph, as it's a spoiler of the movie's ending.

In a kids' movie where a boy runs away, literally or in his mind, there's never any doubt that he's going to come home at the end. That's what happens, and here's the big moment, with Max and his mom in the living room, but he doesn't apologize for biting her, and she doesn't scold him, and they have nothing to say at all. There's more than a minute of wordless eye contact between them, a long hug, some chocolate cake, and then the closing credits roll, over another song in falsetto.

It's a conclusion where you have to draw your own conclusion. Mine is that Mr Jonze's swing at Sendak is a swing and a miss.

At no point is this a bad movie, and it looks terrific, and the kid's great, but there's nothing much going on except a kid wearing a tail, running amok, on an island full of kinda sad ten-foot-tall monsters.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

• Coming attractions •

Animal House (1978)

Bamboozled (2000)

Brain Donors (1992)

Dark Days (2000)

Edge of Fury (1978)

Elysium (2013)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Labirynt (1963)

The Thing from Another World (1951)

    • And then •

American Revolution 2 (1969)

Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

Caged Men: Tales from Chicago's SRO Hotels (2017) 

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Delicatessen (1991)

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

District 9 (2009)

Eight Characters in Search of a Sitcom (2003)

The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980)

Following (1998) 

Freaked (1993)

Go West (1925)

Go West (1940)

High-Rise (2016)

Hit! (1973)

Inherent Vice (2014) 

The Invisible Man (1933)

Jurassic Punk (2022)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

My Life in Monsters (2015) 

Naked (1993)

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (first season, 2022)

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)

Tunnel Vision (2023) 

12:01 (1993) 

Upstream Color (2013) 

White Lotus (first season, 2021) 

Who Killed Captain Alex (2010)    


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.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. At the Circus was an MGM release, meaning no Zeppo and less inspired direction, but the boys hadn't entirely given up yet but HAD moved to California where Groucho was excluded from most of the country clubs because he was a non-observant Jew. He had just asked whether his daughter could join a club and go into the pool up to her waist because she was only half Jewish.

    So they did the bit with the Black folks which didn't entirely work, but was a well-intentioned effort.

    So thank you. Any time you bring more people to the Marx Brothers or Will Rogers, another Republican dies of embarrassment. And lord knows we need all the help we can get.


    1. I have done some post-watch Googling, and my high opinion of AT THE CIRCUS seems uncommon, but everyone else is wrong and we are right. It's the second best Marx I've seen.

      I loved the sing & dance sequence. Even thought about ripping it to add to my music collection.

      Eve Arden's shoes, man. Where can I get those shoes?

  2. It's not so easy to think of a first rate band that made more from touring than from song sales, but they exist and they're usually very good in concert. Here's such a band playing (IMHO) their best song. Check out how the two six-string guitarists swap between melody and chord (lead and rhythm) seamlessly, and how the bass takes the melody briefly a few times. A band would need two drummers to keep pace with this kind of madness, and fortunately . . . . Also, of course, the keyboard player contributes those six-finger chords. And everybody is plugged into the soundboard.

    Touch of Grey (with a longish URL)



    1. Been a while since I've listened to this, or much of the Dead. It's dang fine, thx.

  3. "Beatriz at Dinner"


    I'm not a fan of Terry Gross (or Charlie Rose, etc.) but these interviews with Mike White are really enjoyable and often moving:


    I love White's voice and his calmness and empathy and vulnerability, the same features that appear in his best writing.

    Regarding "woo" - it does appear in many of White's works, to varying degrees, but given his upbringing, his relationship with his father (really unusual and interesting and touching, if you haven't read about it) it seems to be his way of attempting to reconcile or make sense of the unknown. "White Lotus" has moments like this, and "Enlightenment" takes the subject head on for its entire duration.

    I think he's something really special, and wonder how he ever got a toehold in the business...

    1. I can't remember if I ever mentioned "Toni Erdmann" to you, but it reminds me of White's work in certain ways, and I think it's one of the best films of the last several years.

      It's a goddamned foreign film (haha) and I know you were having issues getting subtitles for some stuff, but this one's worth it, maybe see if the library has it.

      The trailers for the film don't really convey the hilarious dry humor or pace (lots of lingering sight gags) or complexity of characters.


      Highest recommendation.

    2. Mike White's been a favorite since FREAKS AND GEEKS. He is among the best

      Haven't read about his relationship with his dad, but I remember them from THE AMAZING RACE.

      Almost out of time (family event today) but I'll check out Toni Erdmann....

      and now my brother who;s supposed to call me at 2:00 is calling me ten minutes early...

      Later dood.

    3. Sorry, the show is "Enlightened" not "Enlightenment"


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