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Tim Robbins (#110 of 7)

The Wolf at the Door Bob Roberts at 25

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The Wolf at the Door: Bob Roberts at 25

Paramount Pictures

The Wolf at the Door: Bob Roberts at 25

Like most political satire, Bob Roberts is a time capsule of its era. Set during the fictional 1990 senatorial run of its titular character, writer-director Tim Robbins’s 1992 mockumentary is in part a critique of President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs and the C.I.A. overreach of the ‘80s and a takedown of the moral crusades that came to a head in the mid-to-late ‘90s. But while its targets are tied rather tightly to a specific time in America’s political past, this shrewdly drawn portrait of the unsettling intersection of entertainment, business, and politics now feels surprisingly prescient.

Viewed through the funhouse mirror of America’s current political climate, there’s an intriguing and frightening through line from the conservative folk-singing politician Bob Roberts (played by Robbins) to Donald Trump. Both men have an uncanny ability to use the media for their own gains, painting themselves as the antagonized victim of fact-based reportage while crafting the image of the wealthy conservative rebel who will cut government excesses as a way to restore power to the common man. But where Trump is brash and boorish, Roberts is slick and mannered—a wolf in sheep’s clothing in an age before Americans simply welcomed in the wolf at their door.

Summer of ‘88: Bull Durham

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Summer of ’88: Bull Durham
Summer of ’88: Bull Durham

Evan Davis: Hey, Dad. What’s up? You good? The Braves are doing well this season. I think that their new starter Mike Minor’s got a shot at the Cy Young, if Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw can somehow have a meltdown after the All-Star Break. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. What? Oh, we’re not talking about actual baseball today? Okay, fine, don’t be so snippy about it.

Father’s Day is on Sunday. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this weekend also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Bull Durham, maybe the most dad-friendly movie in the history of movies. I was not yet three years old when it first hit screens in June 1988, and didn’t actually see the thing until I was about 12. (You made me fast-forward the climactic sex scenes between Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon; you don’t know my tastes at all!) But for me, nothing has ever crystallized Bush I-era masculinity more perfectly than Ron Shelton’s comedic gem.

Crash Davis—the burned-out thirtysomething perennial minor leaguer on one last trot around the bases before he sets the minor league home run record—has always seemed like the platonic ideal toward which men strived in the late ’80s. Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Cruise, and all the other godheads of the period were merely fantasies, never intended to be emulated in any real sense. But Crash, armed with his urbane wit and an endless knowledge of everything from baseball to the correct placement of a garter belt, could have been born out of the roadside bars of North Haven, CT or Twin Falls, ID. He was a man’s man who was anchored in the way that men actually thought and behaved in America at the time. Even his clothes suggested an Everyman with class—both factory joe and Midwestern intellectual.

Summer of ‘86: Tarred and Feathered: Howard the Duck

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Summer of ‘86: Tarred and Feathered: <em>Howard the Duck</em>
Summer of ‘86: Tarred and Feathered: <em>Howard the Duck</em>

Bad reputations can follow films and their makers for years (even decades) after the initial theatrical release. Sometimes this stigma is completely unwarranted, like with Elaine May’s scathing and brilliant absurdist comedy Ishtar. But in other cases, a film can actually high jump past their shit-status by leaps and bounds, cresting into a completely new realm defined by non-verbal astonishment.

Howard the Duck is one such cinematic atrocity. Audiences and critics knew it was terrible in August of 1986 when Lucasfilm and Universal Pictures released the film, and I damn well know it in 2011 having recently suffered through its nearly 2-hour runtime. Willard Huyck’s clumsy melding of comedy, science fiction and film noir is so misguided you have to wonder if the filmmakers even understood the genres they were referencing. So if Howard the Duck has a rightful place in the canon of worst films ever, why the hell would anybody volunteer to write about it?

Summer of ‘86: Top Gun

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Top Gun</em>
Summer of ‘86: <em>Top Gun</em>

When I remember Top Gun, I always think of a pair of women’s shoes and a message from God.

In the spring of 1986, I was, in addition to my regular gig at Los Angeles City College, teaching a course at UCLA in the History of American Film. They needed somebody in a hurry, I was available, I did it, they never asked me back, and I never wanted to go back. The thing about teaching at UCLA is that you stand behind a wooden lectern that could repel Genghis Kahn and look out at 144 students. They are all 19 or 20, they all have perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect tans, perfect teeth, and are all very bright in very conventional ways. All you have to do is imply something will be on the final exam and 144 heads go down, even though the official notes are taken by one of the graduate student TA’s. To me that is not teaching but shooting fish in a barrel. I much prefer LACC, where you never know who or what is going to walk in the door. The UCLA students were all upper-middle or upper class, and were surprised to see Benjamin’s father in The Graduate (1967) cleaning his own swimming pool. Didn’t they have pool cleaning services way back in the ’60s? The students bought into Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan from two years before: that it was morning in America, and we were building up our might to combat the evil empire. That attitude showed up in a number of movies of the period, especially Top Gun.

Robert Altman’s Short Cuts on Criterion

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Robert Altman’s Short Cuts on Criterion
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts on Criterion

For nearly a decade, I’ve felt a certain allegiance to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, and I’d never seen a single frame of it. It was always known as a “big sister” to the sprawling ensemble films that I became obsessed with in the late 90s; if I loved movies like Magnolia so much, then there’s no doubt that Altman’s opus must’ve been exceptional. I took this allegiance so far as to chide anyone who would praise any new “tapestry film” with interlocking stories because, if they knew anything, they’d know that Short Cuts did it first.

Now, finally, I’ve met the “big sister.”

As Altman has put it, Short Cuts is not necessarily a group of stories, but rather a group of occurrences. It lifts the roofs off houses and peeks in on the conversations. And it’s not what the characters are doing that’s important, it’s the fact that they are doing it (and why and how). The film is not concerned with plot, but with people; the rest will take care of itself. It’s a risky approach, and even Altman himself isn’t always successful with the method—The Company took a similar tack with a smaller cast and more plot, and it didn’t work as well as it should have. But it works in Short Cuts.

5 for the Day: Parting Shots

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5 for the Day: Parting Shots
5 for the Day: Parting Shots

Today’s 5 for the day pays tribute to that which comes just before the closing credits, the parting shot. Parting shots can be images that remain onscreen as the closing credits roll. Or they can be images that appear just before the screen goes black (or flashes the words “The End” or “Fin” or “Get the Hell Out”). They can also be a visual accompaniment or response to dialogue. But you won’t find “Nobody’s perfect” or “Shut up and deal” or “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of” on this list, because I’m focusing on cappers that are mainly visual.

Here’s a brief example: suppose you’re watching a movie about Oscar Wilde. Wilde says on his deathbed, “Either the wallpaper goes, or I go.” The next shot fades in, and it’s of an empty bed in the room. The wallpaper is still there; Wilde is not. Fade out, movie ends, critics boo, and the screen gets bombarded with Sno-Caps. This list would probably focus on the wallpaper shot, and would mention Wilde’s last line in passing, if at all.

The first item on my list is my favorite parting shot, and my favorite New York City movie from its era. The others are presented in no particular order. Spoiler alerts are in effect.