Category: Oldies

Freaks1

 

You are walking down the street and you suddenly catch sight of the most morbidly obese woman you have ever seen.  She must weigh 600 pounds.  As you pass by her, how do you react?  Do you snicker at the fat lady?  Are you filled with compassion, thinking:  “There but for the grace of God …”?  Or maybe you feel disgust, wondering how many of your tax dollars, through this woman’s welfare check, went to McDonald’s.

Now let’s say you are deformed yourself; you have lost your arms.  When you pass by the fat lady, how do you react this time?  According to people who know and have worked with sideshow “freaks,” your reaction, whatever it might have been when you were “normal,” would be unchanged.  We are all of us curious about the unusual.

Tod Browning’s Freaks might be the most curious movie ever made.  It is a study in contradictions.  The plot, about a circus midget who is used and abused by a wicked, physically beautiful aerialist, is old-hat soap opera – but it’s absorbing stuff.  The actual sideshow performers Browning imported for his movie – Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, “Half Boy” Johnny Eck, et al – reportedly enjoyed their brief flirtation with the Hollywood lifestyle, circa 1932 – but nearly all of them were upset with the final film.  Browning’s script seems to exploit the freaks for sordid thrills, especially near the end – but the movie’s message of tolerance resonates 80 years later.  The climactic shot in Freaks is preposterous – but it’s a visual you won’t soon forget.

Freaks was made just before the Hays Code was introduced in Hollywood, during a brief period when the “talkies” dared to be different.  The story is simple, some of the acting is amateurish, and the film quality leaves much to be desired.  But it’s an astounding movie; there’s never been anything else quite like it.      Grade:  A-

 

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Director:  Tod Browning   Cast:  Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Roscoe Ates, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck   Release:  1932

 

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Sweet1

 

Some movies are like discovering, in the attic, a box with brittle, eight-millimeter film footage shot by a long-dead relative.  The movie is grainy, the camerawork is amateurish, and the color is faded – but the content is fascinating.  Hey, who knew that your Uncle Zack was such a wild guy?

Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song is like that.  Everything corny and dated about 1970s cinema is on display:   self-conscious, artsy camera angles; reverse negatives; split screens; cheesy music; clunky fashion and some god-awful acting.  But the movie is never dull.  In fact, were it made today, some of it might be downright illegal.

Sweetback was embraced in 1971 by the Black Panther Party and other militants because of its ostensible message of “sticking it to The Man.”   Van Peebles, who wrote, produced, and directed, also stars as Sweetback, a black street hustler who rebels against the oppressive white establishment in Los Angeles.  He assaults some cops and spends the rest of the movie on the run – that’s the plot.  But it’s Sweetback’s outrageous sex scenes, not so much its politics, which resonate 40 years later.

 

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The film opens in a whorehouse.  Young Sweetback (played by Van Peebles’s real son, Mario, then 14 and decidedly underage) loses his virginity to one of the working girls in a bizarre scene in which the woman simulates passionate sex while young Mario seems to be thinking, “What the hell?”  In a jump-cut, Mario is replaced from his position between the woman’s legs by father Melvin.

In an interview about his X-rated movie, the elder Van Peebles is refreshingly honest about “my most infamous scene”:  “The critics are giving me credit for this scene as ‘a well-thought-out metaphor, a tableau of the rites of passage.’  That wasn’t what happened.  The truth of the matter is … I was just being my horny self,” he says.  “What the hell, I’m only human.”

That’s evident in several later scenes, especially in what is likely Sweetback’s second-most infamous sequence, when Van Peebles does some unsimulated pumping of a white biker chick in front of an appreciative crowd of Hells Angels.  Uncle Zack was never that outrageous.       Grade:  C+

 

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Director:   Melvin Van Peebles   Cast:  Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, Hubert Scales, John Dullaghan, Rhetta Hughes, John Amos, Niva Rochelle, Lavelle Roby, Mario Van Peebles, Sonja Dunson, Marria Evonee, Joni Watkins, Maggie Bembry   Release:   1971

 

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Sweet12

 

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Queen1

 

How you feel about The Queen will likely depend on how you feel about a whole host of issues:  What do you think of the British monarchy?  What did you think of Diana Spencer?  The Prince of Wales?  Do you think movie “biopics” do a good job depicting real people?  Are projects like The Queen hopelessly biased?

I have strong opinions about a number of those questions, but I’m willing to concede that – being no English historian, and certainly no royal insider – I could be dead wrong on a number of counts.  All I can do is go by what I see.  What I see in The Queen is a captivating performance by Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, a woman charged with upholding tradition in a changing world.  When Diana dies in a car accident, Elizabeth is faced with a dilemma:  honor traditional protocol, or cave in to the will of the people?

Is Mirren’s portrayal accurate?  I have no idea.  Is it eminently watchable? Oh, yes.  In fact, Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn is the best reason to watch The Queen.  Most of the other characters are either unbelievably white (Michael Sheen as a too-good-to-be-true Tony Blair; you can practically see his teeth sparkle), or implausibly black (James Cromwell as a homophobic, misogynistic, bombastic Prince Philip).  Director Stephen Frears, who generally handles this material well, indulges in a bit of heavy-handed symbolism involving a hunted animal; who knew that traditional England had so much in common with a doomed stag?

For the record, I personally think that the monarchy is a ridiculously outdated institution.  But there are worse things.  The world has changed, whether we – and the queen – like it or not.  But as Elizabeth puts it to Blair: “That’s the way we do things in this country:  quietly, with dignity.  That’s what the rest of the world has always admired us for.”  If you buy that, is it something you really want to change?      Grade:  B+

 

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Director:  Stephen Frears  Cast:  Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms, Helen McCrory  Release:  2006

 

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Blow1

 

Brian De Palma gets no respect.  De Palma directed Carrie, which some people think of as “the Stephen King movie.”  He also helmed Scarface, which fans will tell you is “the Al Pacino movie.”  And when De Palma wrote and directed a string of devilishly amusing, sexy thrillers in the 1980s, critics accused him of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock.

I‘m going to defend De Palma.  I want to do this because I am filled with righteous indignation.  De Palma, you should know, not only gave us stylish suspense:  The man probably did more for the titillating shower scene than any other filmmaker in history.  (Okay, with the possible exception of Bob Clark and Porky’s.)

Blow Out, which puts a movie sound-effects whiz played by John Travolta in the middle of a political assassination and cover-up, is certainly Hitchcockian.  We have the hero (Travolta) whom no one will believe; the attractive, none-too-happy love interest (Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife) who is tricked into a conspiracy; and a MacGuffin who, exactly, is responsible for the crime?

The plot may be Hitchcock, but the movie’s striking visuals are pure De Palma.  No one utilized slow-motion, tracking shots, split screen, and color quite like he did.  It’s a compliment to the director when a viewer can absorb five minutes of a film and conclude, “This must be a De Palma movie.”  And, oh, the dramatic music in this film.  Composer Pino Donaggio’s soaring strings are ear-popping, yes, but they gel perfectly with the operatic visuals.

Blow Out isn’t De Palma’s best thriller (my vote goes to Body Double).  Allen, as Travolta’s ditzy comrade-in-arms, is no Eva Marie Saint.  The story’s frantic climax is a feast for the eyes but it’s also over-the-top silly.

But when you watch a De Palma production you tend to forgive his indulgences because you feel like you’re watching a Hollywood movie well-crafted and meant to be enjoyed.  And did I mention that no did better shower scenes?         Grade:  B

 

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Director:  Brian De Palma   Cast:  John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden, Missy Cleveland, Cindy Manion, Missy O’Shea, Marcy Bigelman, Ann Kelly  Release:  1981

 

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Arrival1

 

One critic described 1996’s The Arrival as an update of the 1950s science-fiction B-movie, and I think that’s an apt comparison.  What elevates The Arrival above the likes of Killers from Space and Devil Girl from Mars, however, is Charlie Sheen.

Paunchy, bearded, and bespectacled, Sheen in this film is no macho Arnold, Sylvester, or Jean-Claude; he is more like the poor man’s Cary Grant.  Sheen’s “Zane Zaminsky,” a radio astronomer who stumbles upon an intergalactic plot by aliens, is forever befuddled, belittled, and beset by co-workers, authorities and, well, by life in general.  But Zaminsky has charm and – as the real-life Sheen has discovered – a little bit of charisma can take you a long way.

The Arrival is a frenetic action flick with a story that begins promisingly but eventually sinks into plot holes and head-scratching hokum as Zaminsky tries to expose an alien scheme to “terraform” Earth.  The technologically advanced aliens –they can morph into human form and communicate light-years in a matter of seconds – for some odd reason seem to favor 18th-century methods for exterminating their human foes.  Why laser a threat when you can plant scorpions in her bed?  Why vaporize Zaminsky when you can concoct a Rube Goldberg-like assassination using bathtubs and collapsing hotel floors?

All of this is claptrap, but it matters not because it’s so much fun watching Sheen as he bumbles, stumbles and freaks out over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are thrown in his direction.  It’s a “winning” formula for Charlie, if not the movie itself.       Grade:  B-

 

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Director:  David Twohy   Cast:  Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Crouse, Richard Schiff, Ron Silver, Teri Polo, Tony T. Johnson, Phyllis Applegate   Release:  1996


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Swept1

 

On the surface (and in the water), Italian director Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away seems a rather traditional, comic battle of the sexes.  The African Queen with subtitles, perhaps, or The War of the Roses with prettier scenery.

But Wertmuller’s 1974 film has some radical takes on some old ideas:  Does “no” always mean “no” when it comes to sex?  Is feminism a desirable progression for humanity – or does it upset the “natural” scheme of things?  Does capitalism rock – or does it knock down the little guy, creating an undeserving, privileged upper class?

Rafaella (Mariangela Melato) is a wealthy industrialist’s wife enjoying a Mediterranean yacht expedition with friends when a mishap maroons her on a desolate island with Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a left-leaning, lower-class deckhand.

Rafaella, who makes no secret of her political views, could be described as 1) a beacon of feminism, a go-getter with little sympathy for anyone lacking her ambition and drive, or 2) a pampered bitch.  Gennarino, who must (grudgingly) cater to Rafaella’s every whim, could be described as 1) a victim of an unfair social system, a hard-working “man of the people,” or 2) a male chauvinist pig.

 

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When this political odd couple is stranded on an island, hilarity ensues – but not for long.  Swept Away takes on a darker, more serious tone when the two castaways find their roles reversed, with newly liberated Gennarino more than happy to turn class warfare on its head.  The deckhand quickly turns to physical intimidation – including sexual assault – in his attempts to induce Rafaella’s submission.

At this point, political correctness tells us that we should clearly side with the woman, right?  Not so fast – because as I’ve said, Wertmuller (who also wrote the script) has some unorthodox views of the situation.

In the end, the real battle is between realism and romanticism.  I’ll let you guess which character turns out to be the romantic, and which the realist.         Grade:  A-

 

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Director:  Lina Wertmuller   Cast:  Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato, Riccardo Salvino, Isa Danieli, Aldo Puglisi  Release:  1974

 

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Swept9

 

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Bobby1

 

We can argue till we’re blue in the face whether chess is a “game” or a “sport,” but maybe we can agree on this:  Searching for Bobby Fischer, the 1993 drama about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, might be the best movie ever made about … well, let’s call it “competition.”

When the real-life Waitzkin was very young, he was given conflicting advice about how to succeed.  “You have a good heart – and that’s the most important thing in the world,” Josh’s mother (Joan Allen) tells him.  His chess instructor (Ben Kingsley), on the other hand, tells Josh the secret to what made Fischer the best chess player on Earth:  “Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt.”

Writer-director Steven Zaillian’s low-key approach to the universe of chess masters and child competitions yields high humor (especially from misguided parents) and nail-biting drama.  Never before, nor since, have scenes involving two people seated at a game board been so deliciously suspenseful.

In the end, young Josh has to make a choice that faces all of us.  Should he emulate the explosive Fischer, winning at all costs, developing a “killer instinct” and playing only to succeed?  Or did his mom have the best advice?

Turns out Bobby Fischer might not have been worth looking for, after all.   Grade:  A

 

Bobby

 

Director Steven Zaillian   Cast:  Max Pomeranc, Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Nirenberg, David Paymer, Robert Stephens, William H. Macy, Laura Linney   Release:  1993

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Repulsion1

 

Some people you should never leave alone.

Poor, beautiful Carole is one of those people.  When Carole peers into the hallway of the apartment building where she lives with her sister, she sees one example of the sort of life she herself might one day live:  her elderly neighbor, a pudgy battleaxe who likes to walk her dog – and spy on fellow apartment dwellers.  When Carole instead looks out her bedroom window and across the street, she sees another possible future:  the cloistered, celibate nuns at a nearby convent.  When she is older, Carole will likely become an eccentric dog-walker or a nun.  This much is certain:  Carole will not live a typical life, because Carole is batshit crazy.

She is sexually repressed, lord knows why, and painfully shy.  She is repulsed by men, which is easier to explain:  the construction workers who ogle her as she walks to her job as a manicurist; her sister’s boorish boyfriend, whose takeover of Carole’s bathroom space she finds unforgivable.  And then there are the horror stories older women at the beauty parlor relate about the beastly behavior of males.

 

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Carole is stunningly good-looking, but she is also quite insane.  When her sister and the boyfriend go on holiday, leaving her alone for ten days, what on earth will she do?

Roman Polanski, at his obsessive and stylish best, pulls the audience along as Carole descends deeper and deeper into madness, utilizing a master storyteller’s grab-bag of tricks:  distorted lenses, a ticking clock, the girl’s obsession with cracks, the distracted way in which she keeps brushing at her face.

Catherine Deneuve, the ravishing French actress, is a revelation in Repulsion.  Her Carole is mousy most of the time, but when she gets a certain gleam in her eye ….

Some of this 1965 film’s shocks are no longer very shocking.  Others hold up quite well.  But it’s Deneuve’s performance and Polanski’s direction that make Repulsion such a superb psychological thriller.       Grade:  A-

 

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Director:  Roman Polanski  Cast:  Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston, Valerie Taylor, James Villiers, Helen Fraser  Release:  1965

 

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Repulsion8         Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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Ring1

 

Probably I’ve been ruined by too many American films in which the ironclad rule seems to be that something must “happen” in the story every few minutes, lest the audience get bored.  But The Ring Finger leans too much in the other direction.  There are long stretches with little or no payoff, psychological or otherwise.  It’s a lushly photographed but at times deadly dull affair.

The plot concerns young Iris (Olga Kurylenko of Centurion), a factory employee who, after an accident in which she loses part of her finger, finds a new job with a mysterious scientist at his conservatory, a converted schoolhouse near the waterfront.  Are there ghosts in the building where Iris now works as a secretary?  Is it wise for her to conduct an affair with her reserved employer, or is he bad news?  And what, exactly, is this man “preserving” for his clients?

Too much of this is left to the imagination.  What is not left to the imagination is Ms. Kurylenko’s attractive body, which is on display in several scenes.  Nothing mysterious about that.       Grade:  C+

 

Ring2

 

Director:  Diane Bertrand  Cast:  Olga Kurylenko, Marc Barbe, Stipe Erceg, Edith Scob, Hanns Zischler, Sotigui Kouyate, Doria Achour, Anne Benoit, Louis Dewynter, Anne Fassio  Release:  2005


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Ring5     Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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Invite1

 

The Uninvited, a 1944 black-and-white ghost story, is by no means a “scary movie,” although it might once have been.  But this mystery about a brother and sister who buy a house on an English seaside cliff is something better than scary:  It’s haunting, and in a good way.  The Uninvited is perfect for rainy-night viewing, with its séances and ghostly apparitions and atmosphere – above all, its atmosphere.  The film features dancing shadows and candlelight and a theme song forever associated with one tragic actress, the beautiful “Stella by Starlight.”

The actress in question was named Gail Russell.  Just 20 years old when she was cast in The Uninvited as Stella, Russell was a painfully shy, doe-eyed beauty who should never, ever have gone into the motion picture business, even though films like The Uninvited might have been the poorer.

Hollywood lore has it that Russell began drinking on the set of this film to overcome her debilitating stage fright, and that’s when the trouble began.  Well-publicized run-ins with the law, a divorce, rumored adultery – just another day at the office for modern playgirls like Lindsay Lohan, but no joke for an actress in the 1950s.  By the time Russell was 36 in 1961, she was dead from liver damage and malnutrition, found on the floor of her studio apartment, alone and surrounded by empty bottles of booze.

“I didn’t believe I had any talent,” Russell once said.  “I didn’t know how to have fun.  I was afraid.  I don’t exactly know of what – of life, I guess.”  There’s your scary movie.       Grade:  A-

 

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Invite2

 

Director:  Lewis Allen  Cast:  Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Gail Russell, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest, Alan Napier  Release:  1944

 

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Invite6   Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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