Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! See the Freaks!

Schlitze laughs.

Schlitze laughs.

It’s one of those films that movie nuts grow up hearing about. Banned for years. Directed by the guy who did the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Oh, and starring mostly sideshow talents of the day. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a sort of holy grail for many years. Based on Tod Robbins short story, “Spurs,” Browning’s film would prove to be a controversial classic of the grotesque and remains unique and controversial to this day. What sort of deranged mind could be behind such a disturbing landmark film?

kinopoisk.ru

Tod Browning with some of his extraordinary cast.

Tod Browning (one of my personal favorites) actually had a rather close relationship with the circus growing up and in the early 1900s the great American sideshow was a huge attraction. People would flock to the circus to see wild exotic beasts, incredible feats, and see the unusual and deformed bits of humanity that were sadly usually kept behind locked doors at the time. This was Browning’s turf and, after having directed several weird movies in the silent era with men like Lon Chaney, Sr. (including West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown) and proving he could be a master of supernatural horror culminating with Dracula, he was the perfect gentleman to adapt Robbins’ dark tale of carnival carnality and revenge.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Freaks employed such circus sideshow talents as Prince Randian the Living Torso (otherwise billed as the Human Caterpillar); Schlitze, the pinhead; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who would also star in Chained for Life); Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo the Bird-Girl; Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton; Josephine Joseph the Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; and a host of dwarfs, Pinheads, and assorted legless or armless people.

Just a regular day at the circus.

Just a regular day at the circus.

The plot revolves around the sociopathic but beautiful trapeze acrobat, Cleopatra, who takes advantage of the rich lovestruck dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three). But Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Man Who Laughs) is actually romantically entangled with Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra seduces the gullible Hans and marries him only to plot to poison him to death and take his fortune. All the while she and Hercules mock the “freaks” and laugh at Hans. Oh, how they shame him. And then it happens. Cleopatra and Hercules become acquainted with the code of the freaks and revenge is served up cold and horrific.

One piece of the tragic love quadrangle.

Three pieces of the tragic love quadrangle.

Although a horror movie about so-called freaks, what will surprise most viewers is the humanity and compassion Browning displays. Where Count Dracula is wholly evil and inhuman, the Freaks are simply people with fascinating lives (albeit, a bit more complex in some situations) who only seek to live in harmony . . . but will violently defend the honor of one of their own disgraced brothers. Perhaps the code of the freaks strikes a slightly more mythical chord, but at the core of this gnarled beast of a film beats a heart with real feelings. Two “normal” circus folk, Venus and Phroso court each other and are friends with the sideshow folk. The conjoined Hilton sisters share comical moments with their future husbands. The Bearded Woman has a baby. Madame Tetrallini holds the Pinheads close to her bosom like a mother. Real affection exists in this cock-eyed world of circus shadows and abominations. They are a tightly knit family. They celebrate a wedding feast together and attempt to inaugurate the odious Cleopatra into their world—much to her chagrin and disdain.

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartbreak of the dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles), as she watches the man she loves, Hans, forsake her for the bigger woman and get maligned for it by the whole circus. Even though Hans ignores Daisy and pursues only the diabolical Cleopatra, Frieda still loves him and weeps for him when he is ridiculed. Earles had worked with Browning before for The Unholy Three and he and his sister both give fine performances here.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Hans' sistser

Daisy Earles as Frieda.


Freaks is a challenging film. It challenges the audience to see these people as human beings, and skilled ones at that (most of the cast gets a chance to perform bits of their acts throughout the film, such as when the limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his cigarette with only his mouth). It challenges people to not underestimate those folk whom may strike one as incapable or inconsequential. It challenges us to accept the acts of violent revenge as poetic justice. It challenges our preconceptions about the world and those in it. It is tragic, comedic, emotionally compelling, and in its final moments it is a full-fledged horror movie complete with lightning, creaky carnival convoys advancing in the night, and deformed aberrations clamoring through the mud for soft places to sink their knives into. It is the stuff horror legends are made of and it is what has made this cult classic a lasting part of our cinema history.

They're coming to get you, Cleopatra.

They’re coming to get you, Cleopatra.

Like its predecessors—Dracula and Browning’s earlier silent horror flicks—Freaks is a deeply atmospheric journey through shadowy realms of the grotesque and strange. For all its controversy and shock appeal, Freaks is a fine film with fascinating characters and a pleasing story that builds in emotion and suspense. Freaks is an oddity that gets better upon each viewing. It was almost an antidote to Dracula. What could be more of a reversal of Lugosi’s singular embodiment of undead evil cleverly disguised as a debonair and charismatic noble? Come to see Freaks for the promise of deformity and tales of the peculiar, stay for the heart, humanity, the satisfying horror climax, and genuinely surreal coda.

The Sisters.

The Hilton Sisters.

Top 10 Reasons to See “Freaks”

1. It’s a classic horror film from the great golden age of movies.

2. It’s better than Dracula.

3. It casts real sideshow performers as both human characters with ordinary (and unusual) problems and as misunderstood objects of horror at the same time.

4. It was banned in several countries for decades…making it kind of awesome.

5. A real life brother and sister play romantic interests (not necessarily cool, just sorta weird).

6. See if you can recognize one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.

7. It is a movie that is really hard to forget once you’ve seen it.

8. Halloween is fast approaching and you’ve already seen that Saw garbage.

9. It adeptly combines elements of classic horror with humor and some good old-fashioned creaky melodrama.

10. Because I demand it of you.

Prince Randian.

Prince Randian.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010

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Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—life outta whack

I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.

Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.

I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?

The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.

The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.

Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.

The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.

Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.

picture references:

moviemail-online.co.uk

screentrek.com

smh.com.au

thecia.com.au

narod.ru

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010

Baseball — Black by Popular Demand

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.

Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!

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What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).

Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.

This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.

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Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.

The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.

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After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.

I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.

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Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!

2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.

3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.

4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.

5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).

6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.

7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo. 3

8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.

9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!

10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode Two – yeah, I did it again.

Sometimes this is just easier and more fun than writing long reviews.

What follows are some of the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Oh No:

“Why are a lot of my movies showing up on this list of disasters?”

This was actually a fairly good bunch of movies so luckily the “bad” will be short. Knowing (2009) is so almost bad it might as well count as bad. It stars the infamous Nicolas Cage (Adaptation, Con Air) and was directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I Robot, but I’d say it’s Dark City that keeps him on the radar). The world might be ending and somebody knew all the key dates for major world disasters and recorded them years ago. Knowing has a lot of interesting ideas floating around in it but somehow it can never feel like something more than an improved Left Behind or a not as good Signs (sorry, spoilers, if you’re picking up the clues). It’s mostly almost bad, but more bad than good yet still sort of interesting. Ah, just watch it and you tell me. I don’t think it deserved to be as critically panned as it was. It’s probably on par with most crappy thrillers that get decent reviews.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Dear Lord, make some better Christian movies.”

So I was a little disappointed with Androcles and the Lion (1952). Perhaps it was partially because I did not realize it was going to be a comedy. Maybe I didn’t think anybody besides Mel Brooks would stage a comedy in a coliseum. Unlike Brooks, however, the comedy is very sweet and there really isn’t any edge. I’m a fan of Alan Young (Mr. Ed, The Time Machine, and the voice of Scrooge McDuck) and he’s okay here. Victor Mature (The Robe, Samson and Delilah) I’ve never been wild about. I think it’s his face. Jean Simmons (Spartacus) is pretty and Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, Murder By Death) is a hammy annoying wife lady. Robert Newton (Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days) plays the most interesting character…and he’s still fairly simple. Finally Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes) is Caesar. Decent cast, no? That’s not the problem. This sword and sandal show plays like a bad Sunday school lesson. It has a very juvenile tone. I’d say maybe it’s just a kid’s movie, but then there’d still be really boring parts the kids would want to fast-forward through (the Mature-Simmons romance for one). Ultimately more cheesy than purposely funny and the tacked on spirituality schtick just does not fly or seem believable. In fact, it feels a little insulting. The lion costume at the end is pretty jarringly awful too.

“Any of you clowns seen ‘Dumbland? It’s friggin’ hilarious'”

I am a fan of David Lynch (Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) but this one I’ve never fully gotten along with. I re-watched Dune (1984) because I remembered not liking it as a kid, but a friend kept insisting I needed to see it again. I can honestly say I respect it more as an adult, and I really admire Lynch’s guts in making a totally anti-Star Wars sci-fi flick when people were only craving more Star Wars, but I still don’t think it works. This translation of the dense Frank Herbert novel is emotionless, bizarre, murky, and downright incomprehensible. It’s got some great visuals and some killer guitar riffs (particularly when they ride the sandworms into battle. That’s cool), and the cast of Lynch regulars is there, but nothing clicks with the story and the voiceover internal monologues feel really inappropriate. Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Brad Dourif (Wise Blood), Sean Young (Blade Runner), José Ferrer (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), Linda Hunt (Silverado), Max von Sydow (Minority Report), Jack Nance (Eraserhead), Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: TNG), Sting and others are all there, but more just blank faces in wild costumes than characters (except for Dourif who’s always on his own wavelength). Dune is an epic that sports incredible production design and dark tone, but Lynch is better when he’s more focused and intimate I think. Originally Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) was supposed to direct this behemoth with Pink Floyd and Salvador Dalí aiding in the production. What a gloriously surreal trainwreck that would have been! Maybe worse than Lynch’s take, but I’d want to see it.

“Snuffy? Like Snuffleupagus?”

Spike Lee is a talented guy. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing are masterpieces. I wanted to like Crooklyn (1994) more. It has a lot going for it. The story of a spunky young black girl growing up 1970s New York City directed by Spike Lee should be great. It’s colorful and actually has a gentler charm and sweetness than he’s ever used before and Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, The Piano Lesson) gives a wonderful performance as the struggling mother of five rowdy kids and wife to a deadbeat musician (Delroy Lindo, Get Shorty), but it’s also episodic, melodramatic, and contrived at times. It’s a movie I enjoyed in segments, but the whole eluded me. I still have no idea why all the footage when Troy goes down south to live with her awful aunt is squished (because the atmosphere is stifling? We get it, but it looks terrible). Not bad, just so-so and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that despite some contrivances it does seem to have a heart. I’m just sad because it could have been a lot better.

Guilty Pleasures:

“It’s a comedy!” —“No! This is serious!”

I kinda like the old hokey Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. They’re silly and dated and very cheesy, but there’s a vintage charm and weird energy about them. The film adaptation directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter) is a weird mixture that is so uneven and odd that I kinda like it. Flash Gordon (1980) is a mess from start to finish. Some of the cast and crew seemed to think it was a comedy, others a very serious drama, and still others just found great camp in it. The production, sets, and costumes (like Dune) are a lot of fun and very in step with the original series, but with a much bigger budget. I was excited when I found out Queen did the theme songs, but it sounds like they were just phoning it in. The acting goes from bad to silly to campy to deadly serious. The tone is all over the map, but that’s the main reason I liked it. Sometimes things not working really makes it work. The cast includes folks like Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Timothy Dalton (The Rocketeer), Ornella Muti (Oscar), and the king of jovial hamminess, Brian Blessed (Hamlet)—here Blessed is a boisterous winged man whose garments seem to consist primarily of strategically placed belts. Still not as good as Barbarella or Starcrash but it’s that type of movie.

“You’re happy. I hate that.” *throws folder at temp*

Today George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks (1994) would be quickly forgotten, but as an early nineties low-key indie type movie it mostly works. Kevin Spacey (American BeautySe7en) plays Meryl Streep’s character from The Devil Wears Prada. He is Buddy Ackerman, a manipulative, megalomaniacal, malevolent dingbat who happens to be an important Hollywood producer. He psychologically and emotionally bullies and abuses his naive bumpkin assistant (Frank Whaley, The Doors and Buddy Faro, remember that show? The one with Dennis Farina?) so much that eventually something must be done. The assistant fights back. Told in flashbacks Swimming With Sharks is half dark comedy and half revenge thriller and it half works as both. I liked it somehow despite it’s cliches…maybe they weren’t as cliche then. It reminded me a little of Suicide Kings with Christopher Walken. It’s a bleak and cynical view of the Hollywood system, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate. Watch it for Spacey’s delightfully wicked performance.

“I know. I know. We’ve all done better.”

I watched this next one because I like Jack Lemmon (The Apartment, The Out of Towners) and I like Walter Matthau (Bad News Bears, Hopscotch). The Front Page (1974) is a double remake (but the first screen version that kept all the swearing) directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) and if it looks and feels like a stage play…it’s because it was (although far better a transition than Rhinoceros). Lemmon is a retiring reporter about to be married to Susan Sarandon (Rocky Horror Picture Show), but his irascible chief editor (Matthau) doesn’t want to lose him. The trouble kicks in when, on his way out, he gets caught up in the story of his career and can’t let his buddy reporters get the scoop so he bounces back and forth between leaving for his woman and staying for his story. After a bumpy first act I must admit the movie picked up after about the halfway point and got more interesting. It’s a lesser Wilder picture and it does feel pretty stagey, but it has a few decent moments that make it worth it. Charles Durning (O Brother Where Art Thou?), Austin Pendleton (My Cousin Vinny), Harold Gould (The Sting), and Carol Burnett (Annie) co-star. Not great, but you could do worse.

“Good-bye, Jeeves. I die. I’ll see you at the finale.”

My last guilty pleasure was The Ghoul(1933). It’s one of those movies that’s hard for me not to like. Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is a dying archaeologist (or something) who has ensured his immortality using ancient Egyptian magic, so long as his faithful butler (Ernst Thesiger, The Bride of Frankenstein) can do what he is told immediately after his death. It’s your typical shadow enshrouded haunted house movie and it moves a little slow, but it’s got fun atmosphere and pretty solid finale. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Kathleen Harrison (Scrooge) co-star. My only real beef is that Karloff is barely in it.

Officially Good: 

“Paris blows.”

I need to watch more African movies. I say that every time I watch one. America has pretty easy access to European and Asian cinema, but Africa’s a different story. I’ve only seen a few films by celebrated Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (Xala, Moolaadè) and Black Girl (1966) was his first feature. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a solid movie. A young Senegalese girl named Diouana is hired by a white French family to be a nanny, but when they relocate back to France everything changes. Diouana was looking forward to seeing Europe, but she is relegated to the house and must be a common servant. Her pride and misfortune make her increasingly despondent and her deteriorating attitude sets her at odds with her employer. Black Girl has some delicate nuances to it that make it more interesting than it might have been. The last act is what got me the most, but I couldn’t ruin it for you.

“Silence. The ‘Munsters’ is coming on.”

Is E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire(2000) a good movie? Some might debate the point, but I sure liked it. It starts with a simple premise: what if German director F. W. Murnau had made a Faustian deal with the devil to make the world’s greatest horror movie and Max Schreck really was a vampire? The reason why this works is because it is treated with a twisted sense of humor in addition to the spookiness. It’s a weird, claustrophobic, and eerily intimate movie and if you know your movie history it’s pretty funny and entertaining. Willem Dafoe (Boondock Saints, Clear and Present Danger) gives a mesmerizing performance as Max Schreck the insatiable vampire and John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) Malkoviches away as an amoral, crazed Murnau. Udo Kier (Manderlay), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Eddie Izzard (The Cat’s Meow) co-star. In many ways Shadow of the Vampire is way more interesting than remaking Nosferatu. Besides, Werner Herzog already did a pretty great remake in 1979. This is an enticing alternate history of the making of the definitive vampire movie, Nosferatu. Creaky, spellbinding film even if it does make Murnau out to be a snuff film director. Ironic Murnau made a version of Faust in 1926?

“I agree. Madeline Kahn needs to be celebrated more today. She was a talented and underrated comedienne.”

Peter Bogdanovich made some good movies back in the day. The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and such are pretty great. What’s Up, Doc? (1972) is a charming throwback to the screwball romantic comedies of 1930s. Barbra Streisand (Hello, Dolly!) aggressively (yet playfully) tries to get the attentions Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) who is engaged to Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles) while several identical suitcases keep switching hands. Hijinks and hilarity ensue. Plenty of good one-liners, funny characters, slapstick gags, cartoon violence, and a fantastic car chase at the end make this worth a look. Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein), Michael Murphy (Manhattan), John Hillerman (Magnum P. I.), Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation), and Austin Pendleton (Finding Nemo) all make memorable appearances. If you like Doris Day/Rock Hudson comic romances and zany thirties mayhem and chic seventies style then check this one out.

Greatness Beckons: 

“I say, Billy Bob Thornton and John Heder? Well that jolly well doesn’t sound like a good time at all.”

The original School for Scoundrels (1960) is a lot of fun. I mainly watched it for the cast which included the inimitable Terry-Thomas (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Daring Young Men and Their Jaunty Jalopies), the illustrious Alistair Sim (Scrooge, The Ruling Class), and Ian Carmichael (I’m Alright Jack). Henry (Carmichael) is a lowly, innocent peon who wants to be a “one-upman” and get a degree from Mr. S. Potter’s (Sim) school of “Lifemanship.” With this degree he will never be behind and always get the girl and the last word and no one will take advantage of him because he is too busy taking advantage of everyone else. If Henry is Donald Duck then Raymond Delauney (Thomas) is Gladstone Gander in this movie. Delauney is a huge tool and master at one-upmanship and when the two of them are after the same girl (Janette Scott, The Day of the Triffids) it will take all of Potter’s tricks to help Henry be the victor, but Henry still has a stronger moral compass. A funny battle to get the girl full of wicked head games.

“Nyet. It doesn’t look like Johnny Weismuller is down there. It’s safe to drink from this stream.”

Sergei Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates) is a singularly unique voice in Soviet cinema. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) was his first big foray into film as a place to truly experiment with what the camera could do. It is an energetically photographed tale of a Carpathian villager who falls in love and is plagued by tragedy and, eventually, sorcery. It is a strange movie, but hypnotic and captivating. We are transported into an almost mythical landscape that begs us to live in the shoes of one lowly man for a spell. Those who see Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors will not soon forget its imagery or its musical rhythms. Watch this before Pomegranates; it’s a much needed stepping stone before entry into the near unclassifiable.

“‘Jurassic Park’ was the ultimate feminist movie.”

I’m a sucker for adventure and despite a slow middle act, the immediately hooking intro and exciting climax make She(1935) a worthy contender in the genre. Produced by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), She was adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s novel and features some wonderful escapism. When Leo Vincey (nonstop cowboy, Randolph Scott) is given a deliciously enthralling mission from his dying uncle he goes off to search for the lost fountain of youth that his ancestor allegedly discovered 500 years ago. Avalanches and cannibals lead them to a subterranean tribe of people who worship their never-aging female master (“She who must be obeyed”). She believes Leo to be her lover (Leo’s ancestor) from 500 years ago and refuses to let him leave. A fun production with nice sets and fun action. Co-stars Nigel Bruce (Rebecca and frequent Dr. Watson).

“Yeah. I still got it.”

Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) likes being cool and putting cool people in cool movies doing cool things and although Jackie Brown(1997) might strike one as oddly restrained for a Tarantino flick, it’s actually one of his very best. Sexy blaxploitation star Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown) is Jackie Brown, a poor stewardess who runs illegal money over the border for cocky arms dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, Sphere, The Caveman’s Valentine, Die Hard 3). When she gets busted by the fuzz she realizes she has been living in an all too precarious situation and hatches a plan to two-time the cops and Ordell and run away with a bunch of money. It’s a fantastically good crime caper movie that also features a touching love story between Jackie and a sympathetic bail bondsman played by Robert Forster (The Black Hole). Jackie Brown also showcases Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Bridget Fonda (The Road to Wellville), and a decidedly odd turn for Robert De Niro (Heat, Raging Bull). And the music chosen for this movie is great!

“Do you forgive me for ‘Pinocchio?'”

As long as we’re talking crime, how about Jim Jarmusch’s (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) movie about three men on the lam in Down By Law (1986). Shot in gritty black and white and giving us a really textured look at New Orleans, Down By Law is the story of three dudes who wind up reluctantly teaming up for  a jailbreak. Cool dudes, Jack and Zack, are played by musicians John Lurie (frequent Jarmusch collaborator) and Tom Waits (Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and manic Italian immigrant, Roberto, is Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful). It’s gritty, funny, and full of lingering shots that force you to look at them. No fast cuts here. Unyieldingly low-key and pleasantly quiet, this is not a movie for everyone. Lurie, Waits, and Benigni are a lot of fun together. “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream.”

Another Invigorating Apex:

“Don’t do drugs and stay away from The Blue Angel.”

Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, The Pride of the Yankees) directed what might just be the best teacher movie ever with Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Robert Donat (The 39 Steps) is the eponymous Mr. Chips, an aging British school teacher who is being honored for his long years of service. This somewhat sappy movie is told in flashback and hopefully  will make you think differently about all the teachers you had growing up. We see his highs and lows and we come to see Mr. Chips as a complicated person with loves, hopes, dreams, and cares as human as those of his many students. He is a tie to another time. Perhaps it has been my own brief and unexpected experiences as a teacher, but I know you fall in love with schools and kids and you always wonder if you made any difference to them. Goodbye, Mr. Chips feels like a cross between Mr. Holland’s Opus and Kurosawa’s Madadayo, but superior to both of them. It’s sweet and touching and Robert Donat’s performance makes it great. An interesting double-feature with The Blue Angel.

“I hope you like low angles.”

Michael Caine (Sleuth, The Dark Knight) is cool and Britain in the sixties was super-cool. America had westerns, China had kung-fu, and England had spy movies. The Ipcress File (1965) is a deliciously stylish sixties British spy flick with all the right moves from start to finish. It’s not as bleak and hard-nosed as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but it’s bolder and more believable than most of the James Bond movies. Cold war secrets and double-cross make it a classic tale of espionage, but it’s sumptuous style and kooky artistic angles make it a legend.

“Ah…we had a good run.”

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertoclucci (1900, Last Tango in Paris) had the rare opportunity to film an anti-communist movie inside of China in The Last Emperor (1987). John Lone (Rush Hour 2) is Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. His lifetime saw many great and terrible changes. Crowned when he was three years old he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City—he also is shocked to learn years later that his rule only extends as far as the city’s walls and that the charade continues chiefly for the servants. It’s a fine historical piece that shows the shifting of allegiances, the desperation for significance, and wild journey through many conflicting forms of government. A grand epic production with lots to look at and Peter O’Toole (Becket) and Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) co-star. Interesting double-feature with Scorsese’s Kundun.

“Not even Bruce Campbell could defeat us.”

This was a good bunch of movies overall. Army of Shadows (1969) was a masterpiece that has eluded American audiences for decades. Directed by the great Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge), this dense and methodically crafted political thriller ranks up alongside Costa-Gravas’ Z and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. During WWII the French Resistance is a shrewd and necessarily surreptitious beast, but when one of their chiefs (Lino Ventura) is betrayed it sets a whole new set of tactics into motion. We are forced to examine the harshness and mundanity of life under the big German microscope. By the end of the film you will have questioned everything. It’s beautifully shot but it’s not a glamorous film. It is a dangerous, cold, and clandestine world where you may have to kill your brother. It’s a real life 1984.

“‘Super Mario Bros.’ never happened.”

Finally—not that it is the best movie on this list, but it was my favorite—is Mona Lisa (1986) directed by Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire) and starring a personal favorite of mine, Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Nixon). George (Hoskins) gets a job driving around a beautiful call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) and he gradually develops an affection for her and agrees to help her find a missing girl, not realizing entirely what Simone is all about and how dangerous this new job is. Michael Caine (Zulu, The Italian Job) plays a seedy crime boss and Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye, Harry Potter) plays George’s artistically bent best friend. Mona Lisa is a great drama and character study and I really was rooting for Hoskins’ character (and he gives a fantastic performance—that was nominated for an Academy Award). Hoskins is always fun to watch but he is in superb form here. The film has a grimy, discomforting sexy vibe to it and it really gives the actors room to play. If I didn’t love it so much it wouldn’t be here.

Whew. I am a huge nerd.

What are the last things you saw? Anything good?

Previous list can be found HERE.