Abigail’s Party (1977) dir. Mike Leigh
written by Mike Leigh
w/ Alison Steadman, Tim Stern, Janine Duvitski, John Salthouse, Harriet Reynolds
One of several Mike Leigh movies made for the long-running BBC series Play for Today, it’s a 1970s spin on the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? scenario. In a Guardian article celebrating the 40th anniversary of Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh writes how his play-turned-teleplay “came from a growing personal fear of, and frustration with, the suburban existence.” Tall, overbearing Beverly (Alison Steadman) and short, overworked Laurence (Tim Stern) have been married three years and are hosting a cocktail party for their neighbors. Angela (Janine Duvitski of Waiting for God and Grown Ups) is a nice but dim chatterbox and her husband Tony (John Salthouse) rarely says more than yes or no while pulsing with rage. As for middle-class divorcée Sue (Harriet Reynolds), whose punk daughter Abigail is home throwing a party for her own friends, she’s apprehensive to the point of becoming ill. Steadman is phenomenal with her shrill, nasally delivery and her condescending airs, never without a cigarette. A very real evening in real time, more painfully real than any reality show. The marital tensions bubble up like sulfurous gas, sparing no one. It is a “tragi-comedy” according to Leigh, a play about us not them: “It is obviously sympathetic to all the characters, whatever their foibles, not least Beverly. And if it works, it does so precisely because the audience experiences them in a real, three-dimensional way. These are people we recognize and understand. The play is a lamentation, not a sneer.” It aired to become an instant classic. The British Film Institute ranked it #11 on a list of the 100 best ever TV programs. ‘80s band ABC honored the film with the “Abigail’s Party Mix” of their song “Vanity Kills.”
The Amazing Mr. No Legs a/k/a Mr. No Legs (1979)
dir. Ricou Browning
written by Jack Cowden
w/ Ted Vollrath, Richard Jaeckel, Ron Slinker, Lloyd Bochner, John Agar, Rance Howard, Luke Halpin, Billy Blueriver, Jim Kelly, Tiny Kennedy
Raymond Burr played a wheelchair-reliant cop on the TV series Ironside from 1967-’75. Mr. No Legs, otherwise called Lou, is a bad guy and much tougher. The arms of his wheelchair are shotguns and the wheels are affixed with ninja throwing stars. Also interesting is that Lou hangs out at a trashy bar patronized by a variety of lowlife men, some cat-fighting women, a transvestite, and an African-American dwarf. Lou’s boss is drug kingpin D’Angelo (Lloyd Bochner of Lonely Lady) who threatens trigger-happy Lou to shape up or he’ll “wind up on a street corner with a tin cup and a handful of pencils!” Lou gets his revenge but it’s not a happy action flick. Ted Vollrath, who plays Lou, lost his legs in the Korean War and went on to become a karate Grand Master, founding the Martial Arts for the Handicapable in 1971. He certainly does some fine chopsocky here. Deserves re-mastering. Currently on YouTube. 75 minutes.
Angel (1984) dir. Robert Vincent O’Neill
written by Robert Vincent O’Neill, Joseph M. Cala
w/ Donna Wilkes, Dick Shawn, Susan Tyrrell, Rory Calhoun, Cliff Gorman, John Diehl, Steven M. Porter, Graem McGavin, Donna McDaniel
Molly a/k/a Angel: 15-year-old prep school student by day, street-smart hooker working Hollywood Boulevard by night. This has been Molly’s life since her parents abandoned her three years ago, which Molly’s kept secret to stay out of the foster care system. Even with a 25-year-old like Wilkes as Molly, this likeable trash classic probably couldn’t get made today. Molly’s pseudo-parents are her lesbian punk landlord Solly (Susan Tyrrell), a mature transwoman named Mae (Dick Shawn), and an old movie cowboy known as Kit Carson (Rory Calhoun). But when her fellow hookers become targets of a serial killer (John Diehl), her quasi-idyllic double life is overturned. This movie has far more personality than credibility, which is fine by me. Susan Tyrrell (Queen Doris in Forbidden Zone and Ramona Rickettes in Cry Baby) is one of my personal heroes, a fabulously cranky nonconformist of the highest order. Dick Shawn (Good-bye Cruel World, A Year Without a Santa Claus) was similarly way-out-there as a comedian and singer. Rory Calhoun, a dark-haired hunk back in the 1940s-50s, known for westerns, later achieved cult status in Night of the Lepus (1972) and Motel Hell (1984). Kudos to Wilkes for managing to shine amongst such scene-stealers. Go Angel! Theme song “Something Sweet” is by The Allies. Look for the multi-disc Angel Collection, with all three Angel movies, from Anchor Bay.
Angel II: Avenging Angel (1985) dir. Robert Vincent O’Neill
written by Robert Vincent O’Neill, Joseph M. Cala
w/ Betsy Russell, Rory Calhoun, Susan Tyrrell, Ossie Davis, Steven M. Porter, Barry Pearl, Tracy Robert Austin, Michael A. Andrews, Robert F. Lyons, Liz Sheridan, Estee Chandler, Paul ‘Mousie’ Garner
Molly’s back, played this time by Betsy Russell of Tomboy (1985) and several Saw movies (2006-2010). Now a law student, she dons her old Angel heels and hits Hollywood Boulevard, a pistol in her garter, to avenge the murder of the cop who helped her in part one. Again the straight violence, gritty with a body count, is counterpoised against high camp, screwball comedy, and quirky/queer characters. Also noteworthy is how the straight cop’s murder in the movie’s opening is scored by Bronski Beat’s dead serious “Can You Tell Me Why?”, a song about gay bashing. Molly and Solly (Tyrrell) break cowboy Kit (Calhoun) out of an old age home and the adventure begins. Solly, by the way, has adopted a baby named Little Buck and is helped out by two queens Pat (Tracy Robert Austin) and Mike (Michael A. Andrews). Veteran actors in bit parts include Ossie Davis (Purlie Victorious, BubbaHo Tep), Liz Sheridan (Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld), and Mousie Garner (a vaudeville legend). Angel III: The Final Chapter followed in 1988 but seems almost unrelated, with none of the original cast.
An Angel at My Table (1990) dir. Jane Campion
written by Laura Jones
w/ Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Churn, Kevin J. Wilson, Melina Bernecker, Glynis Angell, Eddie Hegan, Natalie Ellis, Virginia Brocklehurst
A cinematic masterpiece produced for Australian TV, it’s based on Janet Frame’s trio of autobiographies about growing up in New Zealand and finding her way as a writer. Alexia Keogh (her only film role) is endearing as Frame the chubby kid with low self-esteem and a poetic sensibility. Kerry Fox plays adult Frame, thinner but retaining the red curly hair; it’s a testament to Fox as an actor that the transition away from Keogh is so smooth. After pathological shyness undermines her life at college, Frame is misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and endures over 200 electroshocks. Her first book being published leads to travels abroad, experiences giving her perspective and confidence. Roger Ebert says An Angel at My Table “is visually beautiful, and, yes, it is well-acted, but it doesn’t call attention to its qualities. It tells its story calmly and with great attention to human detail.” 158 minutes. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh and editing by Veronika Haeussler-Jenet, both of whom worked on The Piano (1993). Laura Jones wrote the Aussie classics High Tide (1987) and The Well (1997). Look for the Criterion COllection DVD.
Assisted Living (2003) dir. Elliot Greenebaum
written by Elliot Greenebaum
w/ Michael Bonsignore, Maggie Riley, Nancy Jo Boone, Malerie Boone, Clint Vaught
A pothead named Todd (Michael Bonsignore) is neither committed to nor very good at his nursing home job. That does not mean he is unfeeling, though. In fact, he fakes phone calls from Heaven to reassure less coherent patients, a good intention that backfires for Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley). With dementia setting in, Mrs. Pearlman becomes desperate for her son to come get her, a long-lost son whom she claims studies coral reefs in Australia. Slipping in and out of lucidity, she clings to Todd whose position at the home is tenuous at best. Greenebaume’s low-budget masterpiece is the most realistic dramedy about a nursing home ever made, due not only to its docu-style (featuring staff and residents of Masonic Homes of Kentucky) but also its perfect mix of daylight and despondency. As well he refuses to make his characters easy to like. His one-off won a Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at Sundance.
Baadasssss! (2003) dir. Mario Van Peebles
written by Mario Van Peebles, Dennis Haggerty
w/ Mario Van Peebles, Khleo Thomas, Rainn Wilson, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, Nia Long, Terry Crews, Saul Rubinek, Paul Rodriguez, Karimah Westbrook, T.K. Carter, Sally Struthers, Adam West, John Singleton, Vincent Schiavelli, Joan Blair, Jazsmin Lewis, Glenn Plummer, E.J. Callahan
An exhilarating docudrama about Melvin Van Peebles (played by son Mario) struggling to make his breakout indie hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). More revolutionary than the majority of blaxploitation flicks it spawned, evident in its original title How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass, Van Peebles’s film demanded the bypassing of regulations like SAAG actors (he played the lead himself), union crew (unions then were “lily white”), and the MPAA (an “all-white jury” that assigned SSBS an X-rating). The relationship between Melvin and his often silent 12-year-old son Mario (Khleo Thomas) reminds us just how high the stakes are as dad gambles everything he’s got. The massive ensemble cast is teeming with the most distinctive character actors. The renowned Ossie Davis (Purlie Victorious, BubbaHo-Tep) is Melvin’s dad. Rainn Wilson (House of 1,000 Corpses, Six Feet Under) is his white hippie friend with counterculture connections. Saul Rubinek (Bad Manners) and Sally Struthers (a/k/a Gloria on All in the Family) are his agents who politely discourage his project. 108 minutes.
Bad a/k/a Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977) dir. Jed Johnson
written by Pat Hackett, George Abagnalo
w/ Carroll Baker, Susan Tyrrell, Perry King, Geraldine Smith, Cyrinda Foxe, Brigid Polk-Berlin, Stefani Cassnini, Gordon Oas-Heim, Mary Boylan
I have great affection for this underrated Factory Production. Much like Polyester (1981) is a tempered, more accessible version of John Waters’ earlier films, Bad is a tempered, more accessible version of Warhol’s earlier films. Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, Baba Yaga) plays electrolysist Hazel who hires out female hit men as a side business. The hit men, including Brigid Polk-Berlin (subject of the 2000 documentary Pie in the Sky), are hilarious. Susan Tyrrell is endearingly repulsive as the put upon daughter-in-law. Check out her Oscar-nominated performance in John Huston’s Fat City (1972). Also noteworthy is NYC icon Cyrinda Foxe, once married to David Johansen of the New York Dolls. In an over-the-top splatter scene, a baby is thrown out a second-floor window and a dog sniffs at its bloody corpse on the sidewalk. Classy. The movie ends on a serious note, however, unexpected and grim. I love Baker but I can’t help but wonder what Bad would be like if Vivian Vance (a/k/a Ethel Mertz of I Love Lucy) had been cast as initially planned. Originally X-rated. 105 minutes. Note: Bad’s writer George Abagnalo wrote a searing and sexually explicit coming-of-age novel titled Boy on a Pony, published in 2001. As for Bad’s other writer, Pat Hackett served as Warhol’s secretary and after his death edited his 20,000 diary pages into the 800-page Andy Warhol’s Diaries, published in 1989.
Bad Boy Bubby (1993) dir. Rolf de Heer
written by Rolf de Heer
w/ Nicholas Hope, Claire Benito, Ralph Cotterill, Carmel Johnson, Syd Brisbane, Audine Leith, Natalie Carr, James Ammitzboll
Bad Boy Bubby is like a twisted version of Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) with Bubby (Nicholas Hope) a balding 35-year-old who’s never been allowed to leave his mom’s (Claire Benito) grimy apartment, tricked by her into believing the air is toxic. So Bubby spends his time playing with cockroaches and torturing his cat. After his long-lost father (Ralph Cotterill) arrives, he kills both parents. He can then don Mom’s gasmask to go outside. And so the story really begins. With the mental capacity of a child, however, he imitates rather than communicates, leading to all kinds of trouble as well as important new relationships. Recorded in an unconventional way, with microphones sewn into Hope’s hairpiece, we hear what he hears as he hears it. Bad Boy Bubby was nominated for six Australian Film Institute Awards, winning four (director, actor, screenplay, and editing). 112 minutes. The DVD includes Confessor Caressor, a 20-minute mockumentary about a serial killer, starring Hope. Defying expectations, de Heer’s next feature film is The Quiet Room (1996) about a morbidly adult-like child who refuses to speak out loud.
Bad Manners (1997)
dir. Jonathan Kaufer
written by David Gilman
w/ Bonnie Bedelia, David Strathairn, Caroleen Feeney, Saul Rubinek, Julie Harris
To the degree that quirks are externalized for working-class characters in films, they are internalized for the middle-class, becoming apparent over time. Bad Manners presents us with a brilliant case in point. Bonnie Bedelia (Sordid Lives) is Nancy, a tenured Musicology professor, and David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) plays her husband Wes, a less accomplished professor of Religious Studies. Their placid life in New England is disrupted by a visit from Nancy’s former boyfriend, a Musicologist named Matt (Saul Rubinek), and his game theorist girlfriend Kim (Caroleen Feeney). A $50 bill goes missing and suddenly we’re caught in a web of suspected lies and ulterior motives. Julie Harris (The Haunting) has only one scene but it cuts the plot open like a laser beam. Well-liked by the critics, Gilman’s adaptation of his own play proved too play-like for the mainstream and slipped into dollar bin oblivion. For years following her powerhouse role as Shirley Muldowney in Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Bedelia got few chances to show her stuff, becoming known—I’m sorry to say—for her wife role in the Die Hard movies. Bad Manners lets Bedelia exhibit the full range of a complex lead character. The movie’s final moment with her is magnificent.
Bagdad Cafe a/k/a Out of Rosenheim (1987)
dir. Percy Adlon
written by Percy Adlon, Eleanor Adlon
w/ Marianne Sagebrecht, CCH Pounder, Jack Palance, George Aguilar, Christine Kaufmann, Monica Calhoun, Darron Flagg, G. Smokey Campbell, Apesanahkwat, Mark Daneri, Hans Stadlbauer
Before turning his hand to cinema, Percy Adlon made well over 100 documentaries for Bavarian TV, forming a production company with his wife Eleanor in 1978. Bagdad Cafe, the second in their trilogy featuring Marianne Sägebrecht, proved an international hit, grossing over thee million in the US alone. Not near enough to compete with the year’s blockbusters, but enough to become available to rent even in my small hometown. The opening scene offers us a marriage-ending fight between German tourists (Sägebrecht, Stadlbauer) in the Mojave Desert, a montage of odd angles, jerky pacing, unexpected colors, and lights-in-sky mystery. The hausfrau, Jasmin, leaves her husband, walking until she comes to the titular cafe-motel where African-American owner Brenda (CCH Pounder), all bluster and growl in an apron, has also just split up with her husband. Jasmin and Brenda don’t know what they have in common as Jasmin rents a room; they only know how totally foreign they seem to each other. The few residents and cafe employees, as well as Brenda’s kids, make for a quirky chaos and yet the cafe is still the only place around for miles, a place wide and bright with longing, a longing heightened by the recurring theme song that cries “I-I-I-I am caaahling you.” The ensuing arc of the story toward harmonious community is too perfect, really, trading out experimental style for feel-good magic and a finale better suited to a musical. Nonetheless, this structure from weird to uplifting may well have been key to the film’s popularity, helping to broaden people’s sense of film without leaving them alienated. Even when the film tumbles into idealism, the Adlons thankfully pull back to offer with something subtle. Veteran actor Jack Palance brings an understated quality to the film with his performance as a cowboy who paints increasingly nude portraits of Jasmin. By the way, the first movie in the Adlons’ Sägebrecht trilogy is Zuckerbaby (1985) and the third, my favorite, is Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989). A short-lived sitcom version of Bagdad Cafe starred Jean Stapleton and Whoopi Goldberg. As for CCH Pounder, she makes the most of her supporting roles (ER, West Wing, Orphan) but she has never had another chance to shine like she does in Bagdad Cafe.
Bass Ackwards (2010) dir. Linas Phillips
written by Linas Phillips, Davie-Blue, Jim Fletcher, Paul Lazar
w/ Linas Phillips, Jim Fletcher, Paul Lazar, Davie-Blue, Alex Karpofsky, Sebastien Scandiuzzi
The tale of aspiring filmmaker and prodigal stumblebum Linas, played by Linas Phillips himself. No wonder the acting seems so natural. Linas is a good guy who claims to have had a great childhood. Life as an adult, however, comes down to raking up shit on a llama farm. In a borrowed van too rundown for the interstate, he returns to his family’s home in Boston. Along the way he gives a ride to mysterious Jim (Jim Fletcher) and meets sad gas station attendant Vic (Paul Lazar) who offers a stellar monologue (many know Lazar as the cross-eyed smart guy in Silence of the Lambs). The tagline is “When life gives you a lemon, drive it cross country.” Mumblecore pioneer Mark Duplass served as an executive producer. Score by moody instrumentalist Tara Jane O’Neil and former Nirvana cellist Lori Goldston. 103 minutes. Next up for Phillips is Walking to Linas (2012) and Rainbow Time (2016).
Being There (1979) dir. Hal Ashby
written by Jerry Kosinski, Robert C. Jones
w/ Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Ruth Attaway, Richard Dysart, David Clennon, Richard Baseheart, Alice Hirson, James Noble
The great Peter Sellers himself obtained the rights to Kosinski’s 1971 novel Being There so he could play mysterious central character Chance. His whole life Chance has lived in a stately home with “the old man.” He’s never left the estate nor been educated, spending his days contentedly watching TV and tending the garden. When the old man dies, our quirky hero makes his way out into the world. Wearing one of the old man’s suits, no one pegs him for homeless. He finds himself, through a fluke of circumstance, hosted by a dying mogul (Melvyn Douglas who won a Best Supporting Oscar) and his wife (Shirley MacLaine) who mistake his simplicity of mind for intuition or even profundity. “I admire your good, solid sense,” he’s told. “That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.” Being There, generally considered Ashby’s best film after Harold and Maude (1971), earned him the Palm d’Or at Cannes and too many other awards to name. 130 minutes with an iconic ending moment.
Best Friends (1975) dir. Noel Nosseck
written by Arnold Somkin
w/ Doug Chapin, Richard Hatch, Susanne Benton, Ann Noland
Friends—or more?—since childhood, Jesse (Richard Hatch) and Pat (Doug Chapin) are back safely from Vietnam. Pat wants them to ride off together, just the two of them, on motorcycles. But Jesse is in love with Kathy (Susanne Benton) and all go on vacation in a campervan with Pat’s girlfriend Jo Ella (Ann Noland) about whom Pat is clearly indifferent. Pat sabotages the trip, ultimately terrorizing his friends. Chapin’s ending monologue is desperate but restrained and even a bit touching. He improvised enough to get a writing credit for additional dialogue. Released by Crown International, Best Friends played both on 42nd street and at drive-ins and is now on a CI compilation DVD. The tagline “She Became The Ravaged Victim Of A Century Of Revenge!” is totally irrelevant. Chapin stopped acting to produce movies, including When a Stranger Calls (1979) and Pandemonium (1982). Hatch went on to TV supporting roles like Battlestar Galactica’s Captain Apollo.
Best in Show (2000) dir. Christopher Guest
written by Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy
w/ Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Michael Hitchcock, Lewis Arquette, Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Don Lake, Deborah Theaker, Rachael Harris, Linda Kash, Larry Miller
Guest is known in Britain as The Right Honorable 5th Baron Haden-Guest of Saling in the County of Essex. He is also Jamie Lee Curtis’s husband. Above all he’s the genius behind—and starring in—the mockumentaries Spinal Tap (1984) and Waiting for Guffman (1997). The latter’s ensemble cast returns to play the various people involved in a national dog show. O’Hara and Levy are coupled again, this time as dog-owners for whom everything goes wrong. According to The Guardian, Guest “shoots 10-minute scenes, to let the improvisations unfold organically, and ends up with about 60 hours of film, which is then edited down over a year and a half to 90 minutes. No one else is making films in quite this way. Both Mike Leigh and Robert Altman use a degree of improvisation, but they also use rehearsals and a script.” It’s a recipe for gold. Fred Willard won several awards and honors for his portrayal of the event’s commentator Buck Laughlin, an irrepressible bungler with a microphone. Willard’s career dates back to even before his host turns on Real People (1979) and the Mary Hartman spin-off Fernwood Tonight (1977), a mock talkshow hosted by Willard and Martin Mull who were later paired as a happy couple on Roseanne (1995-1997).
The Big Lebowski (1998) dirs. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
w/ Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Flea, David Thewlis, Ben Gazarra, David Huddleston, Irene Olga Lopez, Jack Kehler, Sam Elliot
The Coen brothers’ Bush-era take on Raymond Chandler, as Metroactive.com reflects, “quickly fell off the pop-culture radar at the time of its release, dismissed by many critics as confusing, overly complicated and in general a massive artistic failure.” It barely made back its budget and so its current status as “the last great cult film of the 20th century or the first great cult film of the 21st” was earned on VHS/DVD. Now there are annual Lebowski fests and even a Tao of Dudeism. Dude is, of course, the film’s zen—i.e. underachieving—hero (Jeff Bridges at his best) who shares the same last name with an overachieving millionaire (David Huddleston) whose daughter (Tara Reid) is missing. Dude and his bowling teammates (Buscemi, Goodman) become embroiled in quirky cross-conspiracies, narrated by Sam Elliot as a cowboy. Very re-watchable with a dynamo soundtrack making buoyant use of songs like Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” 119 minutes.
Blues for Willadean (2012) dir. Del Shores
written by Del Shores
w/ Beth Grant, Octavia Spencer, Dale Dickey, David Steen, Debby Holiday, Louise Beard
Del Shores’ Sordid Lives (2000) is a white trash comedy about a family coping in the aftermath of their Grandma Peggy’s death (she tripped over her lover’s prosthetic legs in a dark motel room). Its cult following, however, has not so quickly found Blues for Willadean, a white trash drama not without its share of knee-slapping comedy. Based on Shores’ stage play The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife and reuniting its original actors, its plot may be familiar—abused housewife Willadean finding the courage to liberate herself—but Beth Grant with all her skill and heart brings total nuance to the titular character. The same can be said for Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) who play LaSonia and Rayleen, Willadean’s allies in the trailer park. Steen offers a brutal performance as the husband, his character saved from one-dimensionality by a script that allows us to see him through Willadean’s eyes—and only she can see his humanity. What captivates me most are the long scenes between Willadean and one other character, be it her husband, LaSonia, or Rayleen, scenes developing realistically and hitting on a full range of emotions. This is the best play-like element to be retained by Shores’ adaptation. The heavy-handed song interludes, however, which may have worked on stage, in the film only disrupt the plot. I found this easy to forgive, unlike critics who panned the film. Real viewers tend to love it, so far earning 79% approval from rottentomatoes.com users. The film was funded by two of Beth Grant’s cousins and it finally found distribution on DVD in 2014. 113 minutes.
Bone (1972) dir. Larry Cohen
written by Larry Cohen
w/ Yaphet Kotto, Andrew Duggan, Joyce Van Patten, Jeannie Berlin, Brett Somers
Cohen’s scathing debut film didn’t appeal to black or white audiences in the early 1970s, not even with alternate titles like Beverly Hills Nightmare, Dial Rat for Terror, and Housewife. The latter, geared toward sexploitation fans, had the misleading tagline “She’ll try anything.” Bone is the right title because it’s what Cohen gets down to in terms of the politics of race and economic class in the first years after the Civil Rights Movement. It’s also, of course, the name of the film’s antagonist, a “big black buck” riddled with a “nigger mystique” who is “just doing what’s expected” of him. He holds a Beverly Hills housewife (Joyce Van Patten) hostage while her car dealer husband (Andrew Duggan) goes to the bank to withdraw $5,000. Yaphet Kotto (Blue Collar, Alien, Homicide) plays Bone with equal parts control and madness. Robber, wife, and husband, all three are driven by internal conflicts—some radioactive contradiction in their desires—and in the course of 95 minutes the actors act their characters raw. Shockingly human. Jeannie Berlin (Heartbreak Kid) and Brett Somers (of Match Game fame) make the most of their bizarre supporting roles. As well, the film owes much to George Folsey Jr.’s audacious editing. Cohen tagged the film a “tough comedy” and it’s apt. On DVD from Blue Underground. Cohen next directed the blaxploitation features Hell Up in Harlem (1973) and Black Caesar (1973), then his horror classics It’s Alive (1974) and God Told Me To (1976).
Brother from Another Planet (1984) dir. John Sayles
written by John Sayles
w/ Joe Morton, Daryl Edwards, Tom Wright, Rosanna Carter, Steve James, Bill Cobbs, David Strathairn, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Leonard Jackson, Maggie Renzi, John Sayles
John Sayles’ commitment to social issues goes back to his first film Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979). His controversial film Lianna (1983) dramatizes a housewife’s coming out after a lesbian affair. And Matewan (1987) is a period piece about exploited coalminers starring Will Oldham. In BFAP he represents a minority indeed: a mute, three-toed extraterrestrial (Joe Morton). With shoes on he looks like an ordinary black human so he’s lucky his ship crashes in Harlem. The regulars at a nearby bar, including a social worker (Tom Wright), take him under their wing. He gets a repair shop job, makes it with a singer named Malverne (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and takes on a drug kingpin. All the while, he’s being pursued by white men in black suits from his home planet (Sayles, Strathairn). I like the realism more than the absurdity yet I’m sure some viewers will feel the opposite way. Made for $350,000.
Bury Me an Angel (1972) dir. Barbara Peeters
written by Barbara Peeters
w/ Dixie Peabody, Terry Mace, Clyde Ventura, Joanne Moore Jordan, Dan Haggerty, Stephen Whittaker, Marie Denn, Corky Williams, Dennis Peabody
Barbara Peeters’ first film, Just the Two of Us (1970), is about two housewives who have an affair that goes bad. As for Bury Me an Angel, the VHS cover describes its female biker protagonist Dag Bandy as “red-hot passion and cold steel anger all rolled into one explosive six-foot frame—a howling, humping hellcat with a major score to settle.” She’s after the man (Stephen Whittaker) who shoots her brother in the opening scene. Dixie Peabody as Dag is stiff yet out-of-control, brooding yet Amazonian—indeed, her freak-outs are worthy of early John Waters. Dag and her sidekicks Jonsie and Bernie (Mace, Ventura) search for the murderer in one desert town after another, sleeping platonically under the stars. In the film’s most interesting scene, the three friends meet a Wiccan psychic (Marie Denn) who serves them cannabis stew. They also cross paths with studly Dan Haggerty (star of Grizzly Adams) not as his usual gruff type but a carefully spoken abstract artist. The ending is ambiguous and depressing, typical of era indies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Joe (1970), and the gayest of road movies The Pink Angels (1976). The first and only female biker film written and directed by a woman, that alone makes it worthy of a DVD release. And then Peeters would have a chance to be remembered for something other than Humanoids from the Deep (1980).
Car Wash (1979) dir. Michael Schultz
written by Joel Schumacher
w/ Ivan Dixon, Sully Boyar, Antonio Fargas, Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, Melanie Mayron, Garrett Morris, Pepe Serna, George Carlin, James Spinks, Irwin Corey, Jack Kehoe, Clarence Muse, Lauren Jones, Lorraine Gary, Tracy Reed, Jason Bernard, Ray Vitte, Leonard Jackson, Richard Pryor, The Pointer Sisters
It’s a typical summer day at an LA carwash. The employees are mostly men of color, and diversely so. The central character in this Altmanesque ensemble is a deep-voiced ex-con named Lonnie, played by Ivan Dixon (aka Kinch on Hogan’s Heroes). The militant Abdullah (Bill Duke), like Lonnie’s character, adds gravity to the plot. Keeping things playful are The Fly with the ‘fro (Franklyn Ajaye), cutie Chucu (Hispanic fave Pepe Serna), goofy/busty Marsha (Melanie Mayron of Thirtysomething), the cabbie (a classic George Carlin role), and televangelist Daddy Rich (Richard Pryor). Most notable for Queer Cinema fans is rail-thin Lindy (Antonio Fargas a/k/a Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch), a gay man wearing makeup and a flammable scarf—not necessarily a drag queen or transvestite as often described. Lindy is simultaneously on the margin of and fully integrated into the working-class group, an iron-willed, dignified queer. It’s doubtful such an openly gay character would’ve been written into this film if not for Shumacher being openly gay himself. Nonetheless, censors cut Lindy out of the movie altogether when it aired on TV. Tying Car Wash together is one of the biggest-selling soundtracks of the era. The director, Schultz, made several race-conscious films like To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1972), Cooley High (1975), and Richard Pryor’s Which Way Is Up? (1977).
A Christmas Story (1983) dir. Bob Clark
written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, Bob Clark
w/ Peter Billingsley, Jean Shepherd, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Scott Schwartz, Ian Petrella, Tedde Moore, Zack Ward, Dwayne McLean
Bob Clark (Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Porky’s) teamed with author Jean Shepherd to do this beloved adaptation—now played annually on TV and considered one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Casting is a major contributor to the film’s appeal. Darren McGavin, the vampire hunter in Night Stalker (1971), plays the crusty, cuss-prone father. Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is the mom opposed to B-B guns. Peter Billingsley, at that time a co-host on the hit show Real People, is most iconic as their eldest kid Ralphie. Often unacknowledged is the role of Shepherd’s narration, crucial in creating intimacy and momentum. Subplots deal with Ralphie’s Little Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin and neighborhood bully Scut Farcus (Zack Ward). Sadly, A Christmas Story marks the end of the indie part of Clark’s career. Fans of his early movies should see the documentary Clarkworld (2009) to get a sense of what a compassionate person he was, smart and offbeat.
Chuck & Buck (2000) dir. Miguel Arteta
written by Mike White
w/ Mike White, Chris Weitz, Lupe Ontiveros, Maya Rudolph, Beth Colt, Paul Weitz, Mary Wigmore
Buck is 27 and he’s lived with his mother his whole life. When she dies, he moves to LA to be close to his childhood friend Chuck. Too close, really. “Chuck and Buck suck and fuck,” Buck reminisces innocently—simpleminded but not without sexuality. Chuck (Chris Weitz), now a successful music producer with a classy fiancée named Carlyn (Beth Holt), wants only to avoid Buck. And so Buck writes a play titled “Hank & Frank” for a kids’ theater run by Beverly (Lupe Ontoveros) who describes it as a “homoerotic misogynistic love story.” He insists it’s a fairy tale and invites Chuck and Carlyn. It all takes a surprising turn and the ending is a piece of cake. White had been writing and producing the show Dawson’s Creek and admitted, “I was tired of writing about people who are too wonderful to exist.” White has continued to write quirky films about underdogs who go too far, like The Good Girl (2002), Year of the Dog (2007), and Enlightened (2011-2013). He’s earned a spot among the Saints of The Quirky.
Claudine (1974) dir. John Berry
written by Lester Pine, Tina Pine
w/ Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens, Adam Wade, Elisa Loti, Stefan Gierasch, Roxie Roker
A classic in African-American Cinema with a dynamite soundtrack by Gladys Knight & the Pips, Claudine could be considered the original Crooklyn (1994). Diahann Carroll’s glamour almost cost her this role, the first since her lead on TV’s Julia (1968-71). She’s convincing, though, as a single mom barely getting by in the Bronx. At the time, it was routine for social workers to invade the privacy of welfare recipients, especially mothers suspected of dating (i.e. receiving gifts or financial assistance from men). So Claudine doesn’t think dating a man is worth it, despite what her fellow maids talk about on the bus. And then she’s asked out by garbage man Roop, played with complex gusto by James Earl Jones. The chaos of life in a small apartment packed with siblings is captured very well, letting each kid in turn come into focus—particularly the eldest son (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs of Cooley High and Welcome Back Kotter), who is bitter and rebellious, and the eldest daughter (Tamu Blackwell) who winds up pregnant. As Gladys Knight sings: “It’s All Over But The Shoutin’!”
A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts (1975) dir. Jan Oxenberg
written by Jan Oxenberg
w/ Evan Paxton, Sue Talbot, Susan Hock, Alice Bloch, Jan Oxenberg
Oxenberg’s most well-known film is Thank You and Goodnight (1991). Even harder to find is her experimental movie A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts that challenges stereotypes as it captures the spirit of marching/dating lesbians in 1970s NYC. Act One is about a hetero dance and ends with a female couple leaving together. Act Two opens with a drag king greasing his hair; he meets another drag king to go out on a date and they offer flowers to each other. Act Three I liked best. Oxenberg zooms out from two old-fashioned portraits of women on a living room wall to encompass a date scene between modern-day lesbians. Several other women set the stage or play violin, all leading to a dance sequence around a hot tub. Act Four is a Jan Oxenberg monologue about “non-monogamy”—while she juggles. Act Six has a John Waters feel as a stompin’ dyke shocks or scares people on a public street. The dyke walks into the ocean and the waters part for her. Ruby Rich says the film’s success “has been demonstrated by its raucous cult reception and, more pointedly, its tendency to polarize a mixed audience.” 76 minutes. You might try the VHS stacks in a big library.
Cooley High (1975) dir. Michael Schultz
written by Eric Monte
w/ Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris, Cynthia Davis, Corin Rogers, Maurice Leon Havis, Joseph Carter Wilson, Rick Stone, Norman Gibson, Maurice Marshall, Yvonne Johnson, Steven Williams, Jackie Taylor, Christine Jones, Lynn Caridine, Mary Larkins
Eric Monte wanted to convey to a wide audience that life as he knew it growing up in the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago was hard but, actually, it was also a lot of fun. Glynn Turman plays Preach, geek chic way before its time, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Cochise is so fresh-faced it’s hard to imagine him playing a Sweathog on Welcome Back Kotter (1975-79). Their onscreen chemistry together gives the movie its energy and its weight. Eric Monte is known to many as the co-creator of Good Times (1974-79) and Cooley High was adapted into another popular show What’s Happening? (1976-79). A true groundbreaker who apparently did not conform well to the ways of TV, Monte lost all his money and was reported homeless in 2006. According to the L.A. Times, at 62 he was living in an L.A. shelter: “Meanwhile, reruns of his shows continue to be broadcast daily on TV Land and other channels worldwide. When one of his episodes airs on the shelter’s wide screen, Monte doesn’t watch.”
Cyrus (2010) dirs. Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
written by Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass
w/ John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh
The character actor guide Hey! It’s That Guy tags John C. Reilly as “that lovably inept schmuck” and it’s true enough here. He plays a lonely divorced man named John who begins an unlikely romance with Molly (Marisa Tomei)—and by default with her possessive, 22-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill of I Heart Huckabees, Superbad). One tagline goes: “Seriously, don’t f***k his mom!” Hill is awesome as Cyrus, described by the L.A. Times as “A kind of overweight sphinx” who “presents himself as honest and friendly, but, under the guise of ‘I was just messing around,’ he almost at once starts to needle John. And it gets worse.” The first studio production by the mumblecore-rooted Duplass brothers proves to be a winner. And it just gets better with their next film Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011).
Daddy Longlegs a/k/a Go Get Some Rosemary (2009)
dirs. Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
written by Joshua Safdie, Ben Safdie
w/ Ronald Bronstein, Sage Ranaldo, Frey Ranaldo, Ted Barron, Jake Braff, Abel Ferrara, Dakota Goldhor, Eleonore Hendricks, Lee Ranaldo
Bronstein wrote and directed Frownland, released later in 2009. Here he plays divorced hipster Lenny. A projectionist at a Manhattan theater, Lenny just can’t get his shit together. A visit from his two sons (the Ranaldos, spawn of Sonic Youth) is at first adventurous for them, dashing about the city and dodging the homeless. Lenny’s infinite energy seems thoroughly organic, as if Bronstein is playing a variation of himself. Though he does everything he can to please his kids, including walking on his hands down a busy sidewalk, Lenny’s judgment as a parent is way off and the plot takes some dark, very ambiguous turns. “Only in the world of jokes are there mosquitoes that big,” Lenny tells them. 100 minutes.
The Dead Girl (2007) dir. Karen Moncrieff
written by Karen Moncrieff
w/ Brittany Murphy, Toni Collette, Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Rose Byrne, Piper Laurie, Nick Searcy, Kerry Washington, Bruce Davison, Mary Steenburgen, Giovanni Ribisi, Josh Brolin, James Franco
Karen Moncrieff presents us not with murder mystery or crime drama but a character study of the darkest kind. Each ‘chapter’ focuses on different persons whose lives are affected by the vicious killing of a young prostitute. Toni Collette’s character discovers the mutilated body in a field near the home she shares with her domineering mother (Piper Laurie’s most grotesque role since Carrie). Rose Byrne is a coroner who suspects the victim may be her long-missing sister. Mary Beth Hurt brings real depth to the killer’s wife who becomes suspicious. Marcia Gay Harden’s portrayal of the victim’s mom is emotional yet restrained, tangled yet accessible—she got tears out of me that I didn’t anticipate. Only in the film’s conclusion do we go back, to the eve of the murder, to meet the victim herself. The role carries the weight of the entire movie and Brittany Murphy delivers with every fiber of her talent. In 2009, Murphy died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of 32. Underdog in Clueless (1995), bulimic cutter in Girl, Interrupted (1999), and voice of Luanne on King of the Hill (1997-2009), she’s greatly missed.
The Driver’s Seat a/k/a Identikit (1974)
dir. Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
written by Raffaele La Capria, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
w/ Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Ian Bannen, Guido Mannari, Mona Washbourne, Luigi Squarzina, Maxence Mailfort
“Was she really mad enough to plot her own murder?” asks the tagline of this forgotten Muriel Spark adaptation. It feels a lot like one of her novels, too: modern, cool, detached, with eccentric turns and undefined tension. Lise (Elizabeth Taylor) is our protagonist, a mysterious bitch in conspicuous stripes who’s visiting Rome. Her plan, it seems, is suicide. She meets a series of people, like a macrobiotic yutz who must have one orgasm everyday (Ian Bannen of Waking Ned Devine), a funny old broad shopping for slippers (Mona Washbourne of Stevie), a stoic English Lord (Andy Warhol) and the one who is truly her “type” (Maxence Mailfort). With its lingering score, cinematography by the great Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor), and scandalous finale, this movie is far from the cheezy flick I expected—since it’s on DVD from Cheezy Flicks. Deserves to be remastered. Check it out when in a patient, somber mood. 105 minutes.
Drowning Mona (2000) dir. Nick Gomez
written by Peter Steinfeld
w/ Bette Midler, Casey Affleck, Jamie Lee Curtis, William Fichtner, Danny DeVito, Marcus Thomas, Neve Campbell, Kathleen Wilhoite, Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy
“Drowning Mona drowns itself in humor that never rises above sitcom level,” says a typical review. As if there’s only one quality of TV sitcom. I find the characters in Drowning Mona immediately engaging, real hoots each one, caught in the mean web of small town life. Curtis and Fichtner are tops, as is Marcus Thomas as the no-good Dearly son. Midler plays shark-like matriarch Mona Dearly, the murdered title character, and gets to be really crass—a genuine nastiness Disney disallowed of her in the 1980s. And Affleck’s cuteness plays right into Mona’s constant berating of him as an “ass-kiss.” Look for Melissa McCarthy’s cameo at the diner. Kathleen Wilhoite (Witchboard) proves she deserves more film roles. There’s so much personality in every scene as the quasi-mystery plot zips along, rich with color and clever details.
Eating Raoul (1982) dir. Paul Bartel
written by Paul Bartel
w/ Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, Susan Saiger, Lynn Hobart, Edie McClurg, Richard Paul, Buck Henry, Hamilton Camp, Ed Begley Jr., Billy Curtis, John Paragon, John Shearin, Allan Rich, Darcy Pulliam,
Like the idea of a 1930s screwball comedy with disco era vices? Then seek out this trashy classic. Cult icons Bartel and Woronov, who co-starred in Rock’n’Roll High School (1979), play Paul and Mary Bland. He’s a sommelier in a cheap liquor store. She’s a nurse tiring of bedpans. They need serious money to kick-start a new life in the restaurant business. When Paul kills a swinger attempting to rape Mary in their apartment, they discover that swingers carry lots of money (“cash for gash”). So they lure and kill swingers (Rich, Begley Jr., Curtis, et al) and split the profits with a burglar named Raoul (Robert Beltran) who disposes of the bodies. Raoul attempts to squeeze Paul out of the picture and in the end the title will make delicious sense. The supporting cast seems to be having a lot of fun. Buck Henry, who co-wrote The Graduate, What’s Up Doc, and TV’s Get Smart, is the lecherous loan officer Mr. Leech. Edie McClurg (Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie) is a bubblehead at a swingers’ party. Allan Rich, who played Solly the Survivor on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, is a Nazi fetishist. The Blands returned to do a cameo in Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986).
Ed Wood (1994) dir. Tim Burton
written by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
w/ Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Max Casella, Juliet Landau, Ned Bellamy, Mike Starr, Stanley DeSantis, Rance Howard, Vincent d’Onofrio, G.D. Spradin, Korla Pandit
Almost a decade after his full-length debut Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), back when word of a new Tim Burton film still prompted unspoiled wonder, his b+w masterpiece Ed Wood fumbled at the box office. Fittingly, perhaps? A badge of honor for a cult movie about a fumbling pioneer of cult films? Or as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers put it: “a successful outsider’s tribute to a failed kindred spirit.” With tenacity and a big heart, “worst director of all time” Ed Wood managed to make a string of campy, low-budget stinkers like Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955) , and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Burton neither downplays nor exploits Wood’s transvestitism, instead landing the film’s focus on the professional and personal relationship between Wood and classic horror actor turned down-and-out drug addict Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls, White Zombie). Martin Landau delivers an Oscar-winning performance as Lugosi in exile, his faded glory a poignant counterpoint to the glow of Wood’s offbeat optimism, precisely realized by Johnny Depp. The “serious actor” phase of Depp’s early career began with Burton’s beloved classic Edward Scissorhands (1990); more specifically Depp began to show that he is a fully embodying actor, the kind who seems to get “lost” in his characters. True here. The physicality and overall “tone” he achieves for Ed Wood is phenomenal: wide-eyed, deep-seated, self-absorbed, open-armed, will-powered. For Lugosi, being cast in an Ed Wood movie might seem the depth of his failure and yet—anti-heroically—it proves to be a bright spot at the end of his life. Everyone around these two is also fascinating, a quirky cast playing the quirky casts of Wood’s cheapies—Lisa Marie as Vampira, Jeffrey Jones as psychic Criswell, Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge, George “The Animal” Steele as wrestler Tor Johnson. Reportedly, the budget for Burton’s film was 100 times larger than the budgets of all Ed Wood films combined. Try a double feature with the Ed Wood documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (also 1994). (See Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora in Documentary A-L; see also Glen or Glenda in Classic Era A-L.)
The Effect of Gamma Rays
on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)
dir. Paul Newman
written by Alvin Sargent
w/ Joanne Woodward, Nell Potts, Roberta Wallach, Judith Lowry, Ellen Dano, David Spielberg, Richard Venture, Carolyn Coates, Lynne Rogers, Roger Serbagi
Newman and Woodward were nominated for Oscars for Rachel, Rachel (1964), their previous film together as director and star. Other than being a middle-aged woman without a husband, Beatrice is nothing like Rachel. “One day you can be the best dancer in the whole school, make a great cheesecake,” Beatrice reflects on her life, “and the next day you’re history. Do you know what it’s like to be history, Mathilda?” Mathilda, her youngest, is obedient yet walled-up. She doesn’t hate the world like mom does. Older sister Ruth, because of her epileptic fits and night terrors, is more dependent on mom, a factor Ruth resents. When Mathilda wins the science fair with her presentation on the effect of gamma rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Beatrice bursts in and drunkenly proclaims, “My heart is full!” Words that conceal a heartless act of cruelty. Woodward won Best Actress at Cannes in 1973. In her only film role, Nell Potts—daughter of Newman and Woodward—is perfect as Mathilda. And Roberta Wallach, daughter of actor Eli Wallach, is thoroughly natural as Ruth. Based on the Pulitzer-winning play by Robert Zindel. 100 minutes. That it’s so rare, on VHS only or Non-US DVD, is a great shame.
Fall From Grace: The Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker Story (1990) dir. Karen Arthur
written by Ken Trevey
w/ Bernadette Peters, Kevin Spacey, Richard Herd, Beth Grant, Richard Paul, Jon Lindstrom, Annie Wood, Randy Crowder, Jean Kasem
Kevin Spacey and Bernadette Peters as Jim & Tammy Bakker! Tabloid TV at its best. An early dialogue between the televangelism pioneers, in a luxurious new house, establishes a playful rapport while revealing their Appalachian origins. Jim becomes addicted to his telethon-funded worldwide ministry, however, and Tammy to shopping, Atavan, and mascara. When Tammy breaks down, she mocks herself as a religious figure: “Wind her up and she bears witness! Wind her up and she sings!” Peters is smartly cast, acting her heart out and singing a heart-wrenching “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Yet she never fully captures Tammy Faye’s unique mix of sincerity and delusion, childishness and professionalism, affected glamour and backwater buffoonery. Who could though? Tammy Faye’s story is in good hands with feminist TV director Karen Arthur (A Bunny’s Tale, The Mafu Cage). Jim, though, who cheated with a woman named Jessica Hahn (Wood) and was indicted for fraud, gets little sympathy. Spacey brings complexity to the character more than the script does. Supporting cast includes always-reliable Beth Grant (Sordid Lives, Donnie Darko) as Tammy’s closest friend and Richard Paul as Reverend Jerry Falwell (he also played Falwell in The People vs. Larry Flynt). 100 minutes. Look for it on VHS.
Family Plot (1976) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
written by Ernest Lehman
w/ Barbara Harris, Karen Black, Bruce Dern, William Devane, Katherine Helmond, Cathleen Nesbitt, Edith Atwater, Marge Redmond, John Steadman, Fran Ryan,
Hitchcock’s fifty-third and final film is a comedy-thriller about a fake psychic Blanche, played with screwball charm by Barbara Harris (Nashville, Freaky Friday) and her fiancé George played by well-known Bruce Dern (fresh from the beloved ‘70s classic Smile). They’re hired to look for a long-missing person; they end up bumbling into a serial kidnapping scheme. Their cool, classy, controlled counterpoint are the jewelers-turned-kidnappers, cult cinema icon Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror, House of 1,000 Corpses) and William Devane (Knots Landing, Poor White Trash), who take their ransoms in diamonds. Watch for dignified Catherine Nesbitt (The Haunting of Julia, Promise Her Anything, Upstairs Downstairs) in the perfectly timed opening scene, the idiosyncratic Katherine Helmond (Soap, Brazil, Shadey) in the cemetery and, interviewed by George, the likeable Margaret Redmond (Sister Jacqueline of The Flying Nun). Family Plot has been described as a witty charade and a deviously complicated tale, a relaxed lark and a rolling boil. How fitting for Hitchcock’s last film, his career, to end on an ambiguous wink from Barbara Harris whom he’d wanted in the role more than a lineup of bigger name stars.
Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965) dir. Russ Meyer
written by Jack Moran, Russ Meyer
w/ Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams, Stuart Lancaster, Paul Trinka, Susan Bernard, Dennis Busch, Mickey Foxx, John Furlong
The racially ambiguous sexpot Tura Satana who, tellingly, owns the rights to her own image, plays Varla: a greedy sadist with 36D bust and an ego bigger than any dick on earth. She is the leader of a criminal trio including Rosie (Haji), who may be in love with Varla, and Billie the blonde having more fun (Lori Williams). All three drive sports cars, kidnap a twit (Susan Bernard), and take on an old man sitting on a lot of cash (Stuart Lancaster of Mudhoney). Adding to the primary thrill of witnessing these characters in action are a very forward-moving plot and the timeless desert landscape in b+w. Perhaps because John Waters has always claimed it as a favorite, Pussycat’s become a favorite among post-sexploitation videophiles. On an episode of Reel Wild Cinema, host Sandra Bernhard says to Meyer how much she loves his movies and he’s taken aback. “No?” he said. “A lady?” So how gay men could love Pussycat may be lost on him too. Further evidence of how a movie means differently to different people in different eras.
Fat City (1972) dir. John Huston
written by Leonard Gardner
w/ Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrrell, Jeff Bridges, Candy Clark, Nicholas Colasanto, Curtis Cokes, Sixto Rodriguez
Huston’s Fat City is coarse, bleak, and gripping, his most powerful film since Night of the Iguana (1964) or The Misfits (1960). Set in Stockton, California, it juxtaposes a former boxer’s comeback attempt and an up-and-coming boxer’s first big chance. The former boxer, named Tully (Stacy Keach), hooks up with drunkard Oma (Susan Tyrrell) and their rapport is persuasively offbeat and heartfelt. They’re doomed, of course. Those who like Tyrrell in Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977) and John Waters’ Crybaby (1990) should see her—should feel her screen presence—in this straight-up drama. Her “hoarsely imperious” performance as “a high-falutin’ dipso,” as described in Village Voice, earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Keach embodies down and out equally well. He’d secure his cult status by playing Sgt. Stedenko in the Cheech & Chong movies. The cinematography by Conrad Hall (The Day of the Locust, In Cold Blood) brings out a human glow in the characters and a timeless grit in the setting.
Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989) dir. Todd Solondz
written by Todd Solondz
w/ Todd Solondz, Jill Wisoff, Max Cantor, Alexandra Gersten, Stanley Tucci, Jane Hemper, Anne De Salvo
Several years before his indie classic Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Solondz’s first feature-length movie offers all the quirky characters without the emotional devastation. Akin to Woody Allen, Solondz seems to be playing himself—and laughing at himself—in his own fantasy of urban banality. He’s Ira Ellis, a Becket-influenced playwright on the verge of having to work at his dad’s string factory. His devoted girlfriend (Jill Wisoff) is even dorkier than he is and becomes suicidal when he falls for a performance artist named Junk (Jane Hamper).
Female Trouble (1974) dir. John Waters
written by John Waters
w/ Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller, Susan Walsh, Michael Potter
As with Pink Flamingos (1972), there’s not much new to say about this cult classic from the 20th Century’s most celebrated purveyor of filth. It’s about Dawn Davenport. From juvenile delinquent who wants her cha-cha heels to anti-beauty model and mass murderer who fries in the electric chair, Dawn is the original fame monster. Underground filmmaker George Kuchar, with tongue in cheek, called Female Trouble “a quite magnificent and sweeping saga, worthy of Edna Ferber” who wrote famously adapted novels like Showboat and Giant. I can’t help but wonder what’s the Ferber equivalent of shooting up with liquid eyeliner?
written by Paul Morrissey
w/ Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D’Arbanville, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Geri Miller, John Christian, Maurice Braddell, Louis Waldon
Flesh opens and ends with an ass-shot. Joe Dallesandro’s ass. This is his movie. He plays Joe the Hustler. His wife (Geraldine Smith) sends him out to the streets to make her some money. All the footage of him hustling, with his red bandana headband and a boyish Goldin glow, meaning Nan Goldin’s early photos with their snapshot-like realism. One quasi-vérité scene involves him and two other male hustlers on the street discussing sexuality, sexual identity, and how much they charge. Joe’s tricks are also fascinating, especially the asexual artist (Maurice Bradell). Later we’re privileged to see a spot-on scene improvised by Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. Geri Miller, who shows her tits in Trash (1970), is cute even during her awkward rape confession. Dallesandro has revealed in interviews that he had and still has no genuine appreciation for gender-bending. For Curtis, Darling, and Woodlawn, however, their performances came from the very heart of their desire for transformation. That Dallesandro doesn’t understand hardly compromises his movies, though. In a way it makes him even more like the semi-mercenary hustler he plays so naturally. 105 minutes.
Flirting (1991) dir. John Duigan
written by John Duigan
w/ Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman, Bartholomew Rose, Felix Nobis, Josh Picker, Kiri Paramore, Marc Gray, Gregg Palmer, Marshall Napier, Kym Wilson, Naomi Watts
Marking Noah Taylor’s debut, Duigan’s autobiographical classic The Year My Voice Broke (1987) is about a rural Australian boy named Danny Embling who is in love with an older girl. In this sequel, Danny is the stuttering underdog at a boys’ school who is in love with a Ugandan girl at the sister school across the lake (Thandie Newton in her debut). Nicole Kidman plays alpha-bitch Nicola, bringing unexpected complexity to the character. She’d already achieved visibility in Dead Calm (1989) and Days of Thunder (1990). Also notable is Naomi Watts as Janet. It veers into poignant drama and an ending sentimental enough to eclipse Flirting’s quirky comedy, which is what I love most, but since the performances are so sincere this is easy to forgive. The film won three AFI awards including Best Film. 99 minutes. Try a boys’ school marathon with The Chocolate War (1988) and Another Country (1984).
Forbidden Zone (1980)
dir. Richard Elfman
written by Matthew Bright, Richard Elfman, Nick James, Nick L. Martinson
w/ Susan Tyrrell, Hervé Villechaize, Gisele Lindley, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Jan Stuart Schwartz, Danny Elfman, Viva, Virginia Rose, Ugh-Fudge Bwana, Phil Gordon, Hyman Diamond, Toshiro Boloney, Joe Spinell, The Kipper Kids
Hervé Villechaize (a/k/a Tattoo on Fantasy Island) and Susan Tyrrell (of the Angel movies) play King and Queen of the Sixth Dimension, which you get to through someone’s basement door. Fleischer-style animation and elaborate b+w sets provide the movie with nonstop trip-toy spectacle. While the bizarre, often anarchic, musical numbers inspire one to go out and disrupt the social order! Especially the schoolroom song (inspired by a Three Stooges short) and Tyrrell’s tour de force “Witch’s Egg.” One IMDb reviewer commented, “It’s as if David Lynch had directed Betty Boop.” In the DVD’s special feature interview, Tyrrell describes her relationship with Villechaize as “lovers and buddies,” offering details about their two-year relationship that are both funny and touching. Long live Queen Doris!
Frownland (2009) dir. Ronald Bronstein
written by Ronald Bronstein
w/ Dore Mann, Paul Grimstad, David Sandholm, Carmine Marino, Mary Bronstein
It’s a mumblecore freakout. Splotchy-faced, twitchy, stuttering and pathologically apologetic, Keith (Dore Mann) is a walking train wreck. His friends avoid him. His roommate (Paul Grimstad) despises him. He seems the least likely candidate for door-to-door solicitor, setting himself up for rejection over and over again. What’s more, his whole coupon deal seems fishy, relating vaguely to some charity. There’s no story arc, only downward spiral. Grimmer than grim. Tears and snot. Hard to watch. Unforgettable! Initially self-distributed, it won the Gotham Awards’ Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You. Now available through Netflix. 106 minutes.
Funny Ha Ha (2003) dir. Andrew Bujalski
written by Andrew Bujalski
w/ Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Herlehy, Myles Paige, Jennifer L. Schaper, Lisa Patton Rudder, Justin Rice, Morgan Faust
A very amiable movie about post-college drift. Thoughtful and lo-fi describe it. As do intimate, uncomfortable, authentic. More character-study than structured plot, it follows Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) through a summer of crap jobs and painful crushes—both her crush on cool guy Alex (Christian Rudder) and dweeb guy Mitchell’s (Andrew Bujalksi) crush on her. The opening scene with drunk Marnie in a tattoo parlor underscores decision-making skills and permanence. She doesn’t get a tattoo but she doesn’t really get anything else either. Funny Ha Ha inaugurated the mumblecore movement, a subgenre of indies that are heavy on improvised dialogue between twentysomethings who tend to mumble. Or at least fumble their sentences, as we do in real life. Dollenmayer and Bujalski are especially good. Several critics named it a top ten film of the year yet it didn’t find its following until its DVD release. Bujalksi next directed Mutual Appreciation (2005) and starred in Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007).
The Future (2011) dir. Miranda July
written by Miranda July
w/ Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Isabella Acres, Joe Putterlik, Angela Trimbur, Mary Passeri, Kathleen Gati, Clement von Franckenstein, Tonita Castro
July’s follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) is about floundering thirtysomethings Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They have one month until the special needs cat they’ve committed to adopt is ready to bring home from the shelter. Realizing their lives as they know it will be over, they decide to give up the internet and spend those four weeks more meaningfully. She aspires to make daily dance videos and he to go door-to-door raising money to plant a million trees in L.A. The moon talks. A shirt crawls. Time stops. The cat narrates. I appreciated it even more the second time I watched it. It evolved out of a performance piece July did called Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About. Check out the ‘making of’ special feature to see July develop her bizarre shirt dance, the film’s highpoint that reminded me of Martha Graham, modern dance pioneer, and also Elaine May in her memorable head-through-the-arm-hole scene in A New Leaf (1971).
Gayniggers from Outer Space (1992) dir. Morten Lindberg
written by Morten Lindberg, Per Kristensen
w/ Coco C.P. Dalbert, Sammy Salomon, Gbatokai Dakinah, Konrad Fields, Gerald Hail
I just don’t know what to think about this underground short from Denmark that spoofs ‘50s sci-fi and ‘70s blaxploitation. The all male crew of Gayniggers, from the planet Anus, have names like Capt. B. Dick, Sgt. Shaved Balls, and Agent ArmInAss. They’ve all been to Gay Agent School and their maxim is: “Wherever there is a male race oppressed by females, we’ll come and free them. For a Gay Universe!” Beamed down to countries all over Earth, they really “show those yellow girls” in Asia and say things like “Die, bad-smelling female!” Fantastic use of music and a warped, p.c.-oblivious sensibility are two reasons to watch, now available on YouTube. The title supposedly refers to what cynical gay black men living in Europe call themselves. I don’t know about that but the director is a white media personality known in Denmark as Master Fatman. 26 minutes.
Girl Stroke Boy (1971) dir. Bob Kellett
written by Caryl Brahms, Ned Sherrin
w/ Joan Greenwood, Michael Hordern, Clive Francis, Peter Straker, Patricia Routledge, Peter Bull, Rudolph Walker, Elisabeth Welch
Based on David Percival’s play Girlfriend. We spend the first 15 minutes of this obscure British comedy with a middle-class couple (veteran actors Greenwood, Hordern) having pre-dinner drinks and anticipating their son’s (Clive Francis) arrival. That his first ever girlfriend Jo (Peter Straker) is from the West Indies is a factor the parents address with condescending liberalism. Mom says, “On the color question, I am a pioneer,” claiming that the protagonist in her next novel is an octoroon. But mom and dad are shocked to find themselves unable to discern Jo’s sex and do everything but cartwheels to avoid confirmation of their son’s homosexuality. All the while everybody sweats because the broken central heating has turned their home into a hothouse. Good performances, sharp dialogue, comic tension akin to Mike Leigh, it’s a neglected Queer Cinema classic that deserves to be on DVD. Filmed in Faggots End. Seriously! From the director of the Brit comedies Our Miss Fred (1974) and Are You Being Served?—The Movie (1977).
Goliath (2008) dir. David Zellner
written by David Zellner
w/ David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Caroline O’Connor, Carlos Aguirre, Charles Bryant, John E. Bryant, Andrew Bujalski, David Finch
Several riveting movies have been released in the last decade concerning the loss of pets: Good Neighbors (2010), Wendy & Lucy (2008), Red (2008), and Year of the Dog (2007). This one is a male-with-cat version of Year of the Dog. David Zellner plays our likeable loser protagonist. His wife leaves him, he works with idiots, and now his cat Goliath is missing. Life couldn’t be bleaker and someone’s got to take the blame for it all. Perhaps the sex offender (Nathan Zellner) who just moved into the neighborhood? Grief can be unreasonable and this movie masterfully toes the line between harsh and humorous. David Zellner offers an intensely real performance, typical of the mumblecore genre. Other films by the Zellner Brothers are Kid-Thing (2012) and their first film Plastic Utopia (1997).
The Gong Show Movie (1980) dir. Chuck Barris
written by Chuck Barris, Robert Downey Sr.
w/ Chuck Barris, Robin Altman, Brian O’Mullin, Mabel King, Lillie Shelton, Rip Taylor, Tony Randall, Patrick Cranshaw, Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan, Rosey Grier, Phil Hartman, Danny DeVito, Kitten Natividad, Harvey Lembeck, Melvin Presar
Chuck Barris achieved massive success in the 1970s as the creator of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. Maybe because I was a kid, I preferred The Gong Show that celebrated dud novelty acts. Even more popular in syndication than it was during its first two years on NBC, The Gong Show allowed any talentless nobody to come up with a gimmick that might win the prize. If not, it’s as big an honor for the judges to gong you off the stage. The movie takes us behind the scenes where we see auditions and clips from the show too risqué for TV. We also follow Barris outside the studio to see him barraged with unwanted auditions everywhere he goes. Many critics gonged The Gong Show Movie, tagging it the worst movie ever made, but that is a response the movie seems to beg for, right? The only version to be found on DVD at present is a decent quality transfer from Cinema de Bizarre. Check out my article “To Gong or Not To Gong the Gong Show Movie” in PopMatters. Note: In the campy porn Candy Goes To Hollywood (1979), likeable bimbo Candy gets a gig on a naked version of The Gong Show called The Dong Show on which Wendy O. Williams (of The Plasmatics) shoots ping-pong balls from her vagina.
Good-bye Cruel World (1983)
dir. David Irving
written by Nicholas Niciphor, Dick Shawn
w/ Dick Shawn, Cynthia Sikes, Pierre Jalbert, LaWanda Page, Allan Stephan, Barbara Pilavin, Alan Spencer, Brad Harris, Dan Frischman, Toni Attell
This stinker is a particularly crass vintage of sketch comedy akin to The Groove Tube (1974), as obscure as it is absurd. The force behind Good-bye Cruel World is comedian Dick Shawn, as obscure as he is absurd. Shawn’s most notable supporting roles include Lorenzo St. DuBois in The Producers (1968), Mae in the cult classic Angel (1984), and, beloved above all, the voice of Snow Miser in The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). Here he has the lead as Rodney Pointsette, a suicidal news anchor making a film about his life instead of just leaving a note. These segments alternate with sketches, mock ads and movie trailers (e.g. An Officer and an Elephant Man). The big finale number, in Dick Shawn’s campy nightclub style, is titled “Life Is a Mammy-Jabber.” Super low-budget and dated in many ways, it is to suicide as Airplane! (1980) is to flying. Note: In 1987, Dick Shawn had a heart attack onstage and died. His audience laughed, thinking it was part of his act. At least he died doing what he loved to do: making people laugh and making people uncomfortable at the same time.
The Good Girl (2002) dir. Miguel Arteta
written by Mike White
w/ Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, John Carroll Lynch, Tim Blake Nelson, Zooey Deschamel, Mike White, Deborah Rush, John Doe, Roxanne Hart
Another winning black comedy from Arteta and White, the team who created Chuck & Buck (2000). Though I had my doubts about casting mainstream superstar Jennifer Aniston as a stoic Retail Rodeo employee married to a pothead housepainter (John C. Reilly), her performance is sincere and believable. Variety describes Anniston’s Justine as “smart enough to yearn for a better life but not so smart as to seem alien to her surroundings, keeping her sympathetic even in her most confused and duplicitous moments.” She falls for a sullen young cashier named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal) because he hates the world as much as she does. Gyllenhaal and Reilly embody similarly childlike male characters but it’s the bromance between hubby and his smoking buddy (Tim Blake Nelson of O Brother Where Art Thou?) that gives Reilly’s performance more dimension. According to the Retail Rodeo store manager, the lesson we can learn from this tragedy is “Don’t steal. And don’t be disturbed.”
The GoodTimesKid (2005) dir. Azazel Jacobs
written by Azazel Jacobs, Gerardo Naranjo
w/ Gerardo Naranjo, Azazel Jacobs, Sara Diaz, Lucy Dodd, Pat Reynolds, Gill Dennis, Melissa Paull
From the writer-director of Momma’s Man (2008), Terri (2011), and the British TV series Doll & Em (2013). I feared it might be too plotless but found it a healthy ratio of forward momentum and long, watchful takes. Up-and-coming Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo and son of an experimental filmmaker Azazel Jacobs play two guys with the same name—Rodolfo Cano—whose paths cross when one enlists in the army. Jacobs’ Rodolfo is a brooding punk looking for a fight even on his birthday, his quirky bed-hog of a girlfriend Diaz (Sara Diaz) loyal to him for reasons unclear; she must like “Damaged Goods” given the Gang of 4 song’s role in the conclusion. Naranjo’s Rodolfo has an endearing mustache and lives in a docked boat. He ends up spending the bulk of the movie with Diaz, who is magic on the screen (one review referred to her as a Latina Olive Oyl), and she nicknames him Depresso. It’s not fair to reduce it to a grungier Hal Hartley but neither is it inaccurate. Every pretense feels organic. Filmed in Echo Park. 77 minutes.
Grown Ups (1980) dir. Mike Leigh
written by Mike Leigh
w/ Brenda Blethyn, Lesley Manville, Philip Davis, Janine Duvitski, Lindsay Duncan, Sam Kelly
Her role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996) earned Brenda Blethyn seven major awards for Best Actress plus an Oscar nomination. Sixteen years earlier, though she won no awards, she offered an equally brilliant performance as Gloria in this teleplay for BBC2 Playhouse. Gloria, unappealing to the eye and to the ear, annoys her sister Mandy and brother-in-law Dick (Manville, Davis) so much that just her knock on the door prompts groans, curses, and mumbled death threats. Newlyweds in a new apartment, they just want to be alone. Gloria has no life of her own, though, and horns in to a pathological degree, never calling first and often staying over. Dick is the quiet but explosive type, a hilarious performance by Philip Davis (of Leigh’s films Who’s Who and High Hopes) while Mandy’s diplomacy turns curt and resentful (Manville scored big recently as Lydia Quigley in Harlots). A climactic family showdown—in the house of uptight neighbors (Duncan, Kelly)—counts as one of Mike Leigh’s most unforgettable scenes.
Happiness (1998) dir. Todd Solondz
written by Todd Solondz
w/ Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Jon Lovitz, Camryn Manheim, Cynthia Stevenson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Molly Shannon
Todd Solondz plays a version of himself in his debut film Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989). In his critically acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), the outsider protagonist Dawn Weiner is an obvious channel or stand-in for him. Happiness, just as acclaimed, gives us Joy (Jane Adams) as the most Solondz-like character and the closest thing to a protagonist in this brilliant cast that received a National Board of Review award for best ensemble. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a chronically masturbating obscene phone caller. Dylan Baker is a family man and pedophile. Cynthia Stevenson his wife. They are so real it’s painful to watch. And I’m always glad to see Louise Lasser (a/k/a Mary Hartman). Only Camryn Manheim’s character seemed too warped, a problem in the script not the performance. Ends with a controversial shot you won’t expect. 134 minutes. Life During Wartime (2009) is Solondz’s unusual sequel.
Harold and Maude (1971) dir. Hal Ashby
written by Colin Higgins
w/ Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer, Eric Christmas, G. Wood, Judy Engles, Shari Summers, Tom Skerritt
“There are a lot of people in show business,” Rex Reed once quipped, “and then there is Ruth Gordon.” He describes her as “103 pounds of laser beam” and reminds us that, long before her Oscar-winning role in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), “whole Ruth Gordon cults were formed by men like Charles Laughton, Thornton Wilder and Alexander Woollcott.” She confirmed her Saint of The Quirky status playing Maude, a 79-year-old revolutionary who has an affair with pseudo-suicidal young heir Harold (Bud Cort). Harold and Maude was named one of the top five cult movies of all time by Entertainment Weekly, and one of the top ten romantic comedies by the American Film Institute. The Cat Stevens soundtrack is also much loved. Colin Higgins adapted his screenplay into a novel of the same title, used copies of which aren’t too difficult to find. He would go on to write and direct the quintessential ‘80s feminist comedy 9 to 5 (1980) and, alas, he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988.
Heat a/k/a Andy Warhol’s Heat (1972)
dir. Paul Morrissey
written by Paul Morrissey
w/ Joe Dallesandro, Sylvia Miles, Andrea Feldman, Pat Ast, Ray Vestal, PJ Lester, Eric Emerson, Gary Koznoch, Harold Childe, John Hallowell
It’s all about what one washed-up loser can get from another washed-up loser, masked as what washed-up losers can do for each other. That’s how the rulers of NYC’s underground, Morrissey and producer Warhol, represent sunny L.A. in Heat. The exquisitely nippled Joe Dallesandro plays Joey, a former child star living in a motel run by horny, warden-like Lydia (the incomparable Pat Ast of Reform School Girls). He pays rent with his body while laying an aging star named Sally (Sylvia Miles of Midnight Cowboy and Funhouse) who’s still got connections. Sally’s unstable daughter Jessica (Andrea Feldman) seduces Joey, giving up her lesbianism to do so. Her delivery is matchless—perversely childlike, intensely grating, ultimately endearing. Her funniest line is: “Hmm, what a pickle!” A few week’s before Heat’s release, Feldman arranged a small gathering and then jumped to her death from a 14th floor window. According to writer Bob Coacello, Feldman’s suicide note “wasn’t to everyone and it wasn’t about love; it was to Andy and it was very, very nasty.” The Heat DVD includes three of Morrissey’s short films.
Humble Pie a/k/a American Fork (2007) dir. Chris Bowman
written by Hubbel Palmer
w/ Hubbel Palmer, Kathleen Quinlan, Geoff Hansen, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Bruce McGill, Vincent Caso, Nick Lashaway, William Baldwin
Palmer plays Tracy, an introspective, 300-pound stockboy. Exploited by friends and passed up for promotions, life only gets worse for him. Even when bitten by the acting bug he ends up getting stung by his acting coach (a perfectly smarmy role for William Baldwin). The film’s character-driven humor is right on, every step of the way. Performances by Quinlan, Rajskub, and above all Palmer—plus so many subtle details—help to transform a pity party into a very human comedy with a unique, unsentimental perspective. It feels a lot like a mumblecore film but it is defintiely written; as efilmcritic.com notes: “The writing is detailed, focused, and provides incredibly in-depth insight into the minds of the characters without a lot of talking. Viewers are taken into the life of an average person who, through a series of good but misplaced intentions and poor choices, ends up in places and amongst people he clearly never imagined he would be.”
Humpday (2009) dir. Lynn Shelton
written by Lynn Shelton
w/ Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore, Lynn Shelton, Trina Willard
I think Duplass (Puffy Chair) and Leonard (Blair Witch Project) are both kinda hot. But as old friends Ben and Andrew they’re not hot for each other. Other reasons much more interesting, however, compel them to make a “dude-on-dude” porn for a Seattle film festival called HUMP! Andrew, whose Kerouac-style life on the road may not be the free-for-all it seems, is visiting a now settled down Ben who wants to prove he’s not so settled down as it seems. Drunk at a party where queer is the new punk, the two find themselves daring each other to fuck on camera as a paradigm-pushing “art project.” Ben’s wife (Alycia Delmore) is confused, to say the least. And getting hard for each other ultimately proves too hard. The conversations about sexuality are breakthrough but Humpday is more so about thirtysomethings testing the limits of their conventionality. In this way it has something in common with the 1969 classic Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
The Incident (1967) dir. Larry Peerce
written by Nicholas E. Baehr
w/ Tony Musante, Martin Sheen, Victor Arnold, Beau Bridges, Brock Peters, Ruby Dee, Robert Fields, Jack Gilford, Thelma Ritter, Mike Kellin, Ed McMahon, Diana Van der Vlis, Gary Merrill, Robert Bannard, Donna Mills, Artie Connors, Jan Sterling
What a riveting movie! Tony Musante and Martin Sheen play speeding sadists who terrorize a subway car full of late-night passengers, all too self-involved to band together. Remember this is long before subways installed security cameras. Nicholas Baehr’s script is structured to give each hostage his or her own apocalyptic moment, allowing us to respond to the group both individually and as a NYC microcosm. Jack Gilford and Thelma Ritter, two of the mid-century’s most beloved character actors, play a bickering elderly couple. Robert Bannard and fresh-faced Jeff Bridges are army privates, the latter with a broken arm. Highly revered Ruby Dee (Raisin in the Sun, Purlie Victorious) and Brock Peters (Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird) play an idealistic social worker and her bitter, “whitie”-hating husband. Robert Fields is a lone homosexual, harassed by the thugs in a creepily sexual manner. Gary Merrill (a/k/a Mr. Bette Davis) is a recovering alcoholic, the first to speak out—and regret it. The rest, including later TV stars Ed McMahan and Donna Mills, play dysfunctional couples, one with a kid. The thugs’ cruelty goes too far, though, leading to a violent ending and a disheartening comment on society. From the groundbreaking director of the interracial marriage drama One Potato, Two Potato (1964). My copy of The Incident is a bootleg from years ago. It remains hard to find on DVD (check the region!) and rare on VHS. Try YouTube.
Irina Palm (2007) dir. Sam Garbarski
written by Philippe Blasband, Martin Herron, Philippe Blasband
w/ Marianne Faithfull, Predrag Manojlovic, Corey Burke, Siobhan Hewlett, Jenny Agutter, Kevin Bishop, Dorka Gryllus, Meg Wynn Owen, Jonathan Coyne
Marianne Faithfull’s persona has evolved from Mick Jagger’s girlfriend singing a hushed “Go Away from My World” in the 1960s into a poetic addict singing “Broken English” in the 1970s into a gravelly voiced, art-house chanteuse singing Brecht-Weill in the 1990s. She’s perfectly cast as Maggie, a frumpy suburban widow raising money for a sick grandchild. With no skills or experience, she takes a job “wanking” men at a sex club run by Miki (Predrag Manojlovic). Maggie is a lot better at it than she expects to be, earning the ‘stage name’ Irina Palm. It’s a brilliantly perverse drama, as frank about sleazy sexual matters as it is subtle in its representation of them. And the relationship between Maggie and Miki is like icing on the cake, so to speak. So great to see the ageless Jenny Agutter (American Werewolf of London, Equus) and Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel on Upstairs, Downstairs) who get the most out of their uptight neighbor roles. From the director of Rashevski’s Tango (2003). 103 minutes.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) dir. Patricia Rozema
written by Patricia Rozema
w/ Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Richard Monette
I loved this movie as a teen and I love it still but it’s certainly not for everyone. Sheila McCarthy, a Canadian TV actor, is iconic as Polly. A “girl Friday” at the end of the New Wave era, she has a crush on her curator boss Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon) whose lesbian lover (Ann-Marie MacDonald) is butch chic. They all get mixed up in an art scheme that involves white-glowing paintings and leads to a disheartening betrayal. It shares a quirky, fantastic sensibility with queer movies like Shadey (1985) and Chuck & Buck (2006). In some ways it also anticipates Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). Patricia Rozema is a beautiful, smart woman who’s directed only two other films: When Night is Falling (1995) and Mansfield Park (1999).
Jacuzzi Rooms (2006) dir. Giuseppe Andrews
written by Giuseppe Andrews
w/ Walt Dongo, Bill Nowlin, Sparky Sparks, Dennis Taylor
Four lower-class men rent a motel room expecting a jacuzzi as advertised. But it’s a cheap motel and all they get is a blow-up kiddie pool and the chore of transferring water from the bathtub with a trashcan. Beers are chugged as they compare dick sizes and chide each other to the point of fighting. Four of the trailer park residents whom Andrews cast in Trailer Town (2003) and Period Piece (2006) play themselves in this 78-minute scene. It’s all filmed in a fly-on-the-wall vérité style and it’s crass but not absurd as per usual for Giuseppe Andrews. It’s his personal favorite of his movies, and mine too. Included as a special feature on the Period Piece DVD from Troma.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) dirs. Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
written by Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass
w/ Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis, Evan Ross
I don’t love the alien invasion movie Signs (2002) but I do love that 30-year-old Jeff, who lives in his mom’s basement, takes it to heart and even sees signs in his own life. “Something really big is happening here,” he says. And he’s not wrong. Jeff is a bit like an out of shape, adult version of Jason Segel’s beloved character Nick on Freaks & Geeks (1999). The mere mention of weed makes him smile. Ed Helms (a Daily Show correspondent for six years) plays Jeff’s ambitious brother Pat and Susan Sarandon their mom. It’s a day-in-the-life plot, tenderly layering character-driven comedy before offering its high drama climax. The Duplass brothers (pictured) have polished their mumblecore anti-format since their debut The Puffy Chair (2005) and this little gem is the result. Score by Michael Andrews (Donnie Darko).
Judy Berlin a/k/a Babylon USA (1999)
dir. Eric Mendelsohn
written by Eric Mendelsohn
w/ Edie Falco, Aaron Harnick, Barbara Barrie, Madeline Kahn, Bob Dishy, Bette Henritze, Julie Kavner, Anne Meara, Novella Nelson, Carlin Glynn, Judy Graubart
If I wasn’t already an Edie Falco fan then my loyalty kicked in with her title role in this low-budget, exceptionally well-cast movie set in a New York suburb. It’s about Judy and David (Aaron Harnick), both 32. Just as he’s returning home to struggle through his postgraduate identity crisis, she’s finally leaving to pursue an acting career. Their lives overlap for a day, a day on which their middle-class parents (Barrie, Dishy, Kahn) face some harsh truths about their own lives. Is it all a matter of ‘too little, too late’ for everyone concerned? Mendelsohn’s stroke of genius is countering his b+w realism with the magical realism of a prolonged eclipse. Barbara Barrie (One Potato, Two Potato) is especially good. As is Madeline Kahn (Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein) in her last role. She’s a Saint Of The Quirky for her generation just as Falco is now. Check out Falco in Mendelsohn’s 3 Backyards (2010).
Just the Two of Us a/k/a The Dark Side of Tomorrow (1970)
dirs. Barbara Peeters, Jacques Deerson
Writers: Barbara Peeters
w/ Elizabeth Plumb, Alisa Courtney, John Aprea, Wayne Want, Marland Proctor
It’s the 1970s in a subdivision called Rockpointe Patio Homes and the relationship between the furniture and the wallpaper is really swinging. As is the relationship between neighboring housewives Adria (blonde Alisa Courtney) and Denise (brunette Elizabeth Plumb) whose military husbands are frequently away. “Lonely people fall in love with other lonely people,” Denise says to Adria. “No matter who they’re in love with, it’s good and it’s beautiful.” Adria’s sincere but unsure about their affair, alas, and Denise’s jealousy proves to be neither good nor beautiful. So Denise on her own explores the gay counterculture, getting high with a lipstick lesbian, yet she can’t shake her feelings for Adria. Producer Harry ‘Sultan of Sexploitation’ Novak wanted a film for a horny male audience but what Peeters delivers instead is a fairly respectable melodrama with little nudity and a happy ending. Peeters also directed the female biker movie Bury Me an Angel (1972) (see above), which is more straight-up camp than this one. This is a very sincere movie. That means it will be poignant for some viewers and boring for others. On DVD from Wolfe Video. Check Netflix. 75 minutes. Its suburban feminist theme would make for a good double-feature with Romero’s Season of the Witch (1972).
Killer of Sheep (1977) dir. Charles Burnett
written by Charles Burnett
w/ Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Jack Drummond, Angela Burnett, Charles Bracy, Eugene Cherry
Burnett’s stunning b+w debut, shot in Watts, earned him an MFA from the UC School of Film in L.A. Just google “killer of sheep images” and immediately you’ll recognize their stark beauty, their vitality. The plot, elliptical as it is, centers on a slaughterhouse worker named Stan (Henry G. Sanders), his wife (Kaycee Moore) and kids (Burnett, Drummond). Film Comment critic Megan Ratner says nothing in Burnett’s early films is forced. He achieves a realism that “verges on stylization, the dialogue snatched from conversations apparently underway before the scene begins…Burnett is often compared to non-American filmmakers, but his cadences and rhythms are strictly homegrown, as indigenous as the gospel, soul, and blues on his soundtracks.” Burnett’s next films are My Brother’s Wedding (1983) and the more accessible To Sleep with Anger (1990) with Danny Glover.
The Landlord (1970) dir. Hal Ashby
written by Bill Gunn
w/ Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Pearl Bailey, Diana Sands, Louis Gossett Jr., Marki Bey, Walter Brooke, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein, William Mackenzie, Marlene Clark, Gloria Hendry, Hector Elizondo, Trish Van Devere, Florynce Kennedy
After winning an Oscar for editing Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), Hal Ashby made his directorial debut (produced by Jewison) with this equally race-conscious film about integration and gentrification. Bridges had proven himself in comedy (Valley of the Giants in 1965) as well as intense drama (The Incident in 1967) and calls upon both skills to play privileged 29-year-old Elgar who still lives at home with his very conservative parents (Grant, Brooke). He runs away to buy an apartment building in a colored neighborhood but his “new left” ideals prove hollow when faced with the “new black” sentiments of tenants like tough ol’ Marge (played by legendary Pearl Bailey) and activist Coppee (Louis Gossett Jr. of Officer and a Gentleman) who greet him with a shotgun and a bow and arrow, respectively. He develops two relationships in the film, first with Coppee’s wife Francine (played superbly by Diana Sands of A Raisin in the Sun, Willie Dynamite) and then with a biracial go-go dancer (Marki Bey of Sugar Hill). The most memorable scene, however, is Grant and Bailey getting drunk together. 112 minutes. Next up for Ashby is his most beloved film Harold and Maude (1971).
Léolo (1993) dir. Jean-Claude Lauzon
written by Jean-Claude Lauzon
w/ Maxime Collin, Ginette Reno, Julien Guiomar, Pierre Bourgault, Andrée Lachapelle, Denys Arcand, Germain Houde, Gilbert Sicotte
In the first minutes of this French-Canadian masterpiece, Leo (Maxime Collin), who insists on the Sicilian name Léolo, tells us the clearly mythical tale of his transatlantic conception. We’re shown a man jerking off into a crate of tomatoes, declaring “This load’s going to America!” And so in America, Leo’s ponderous mother, who has “the strength of a frigate plunging through troubled water,” crashes into a vegetable stand and a sperm-loaded tomato gets lodged in her vagina. In real life, however, Leo is not Sicilian. What’s worse, his parents dole out laxatives like Eucharist and obsessively inspect their children’s stools. Leo and his siblings pursue privacy in bizarre ways, and each spends time institutionalized. From comical scenarios (Leo masturbating with meat to be eaten by the family) to one of the grimmest images of childhood ever filmed (fucking a cat on a dare), Léolo is an unforgettable experience. Time Magazine named it one of its All-Time 100 Movies. Lauzon died in a plane crash in 1997, making this semi-autobiographical film his last. 107 minutes.
L.I.E. (2001) dir. Michael Cuesta
written by Michael Cuesta, Gerald Cuesta, Stephen M. Ryder
w/ Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, James Costa, Tony Donnelly, Walter Masterson, Adam LeFrevre
Some viewers may be quite shocked by the innocent lack of innocence this film captures so unflinchingly. The plot centers on 15-year-old Howie (Paul Dano) and the year following his mother’s fatal car crash on the Long Island Expressway. His father (Bruce Altman) is distracted by a new girlfriend as well as legal troubles and so Howie is set adrift in his motherless days. He and his mates break into houses along the L.I.E., generally flirting with danger. For Howie, flirting with pal Gary (Billy Kay) is also dangerous, especially once we find out that Gary secretly hustles “chicken hawks” for cash. Howie gets to know one of these older men, named Big John, and their relationship develops in a most believable way from troubled to charmed to intimate. In Red (2008), Brian Cox gives a tour de force performance as a man at his lowest. In this movie he’s even better as what most would consider the lowest kind of man. Dano is just as compelling, which is saying something. He went on to great visibility as the mute brother in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and beyond, directing his own films.
The Lie (2011) dir. Joshua Leonard
written by Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, Mark Webber
w/ Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, Mark Webber, Kelli Garner, James Ransone, Holly Woodlawn, Jane Adams, Lola Blanc, Kirk Baltz, Gerry Bednob, Michael McColl, Matthew Newton, Allison Anders, Tipper Newton
Are you monogamous in your thirties with a ‘real’ job and maybe even a baby so you can’t leave your ‘real’ job to, say, smoke pot and start a band? Lonnie (Joshua Leonard of Humpday, Blair Witch Project) is just such a schmuck in this NY Times Critics’ Pick: “The Lie unfolds with calm sincerity, every low-key conversation echoing with an unspoken awareness of the pain of compromise.” Watch for the scene during which Lonnie’s wife Clover (Weixler of Teeth) listens to his new song, supportive even as she cringes. It’s hilarious. When Lonnie skips work, however, he calls in with an excuse that brings drama down on him like a ton of bricks. Adams (Joy in Happiness) is Lonnie’s doctor and Webber (Scooby in Storytelling) a slacker friend. Based on a T.C. Boyle short story. 80 minutes.
Life Is Sweet (1991) dir. Mike Leigh
written by Mike Leigh
w/ Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, Claire Skinner, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Moya Brady
Jane Horrocks first got noticed in the WWII drama The Dressmaker (1988) and later achieved cult status as Bubbles on Ab Fab. Here she plays grouchy bulimic Nicola, her quirkiest character—and that’s saying something. Nicola and twin Natalie (Claire Skinner), a boyish plumber, still live at home with working-class mum and dad (Leigh’s wife Alison Steadman and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent). Subplots involve a doofus restaurateur (Timothy Spall), dad’s drunk pal (Stephen Rhea) and Nicola’s secret lover (David Thewlis). Everyone is spot on. It all tumbles gently toward one of the realest, most powerful mother-daughter scenes ever filmed. The sweet, lazy day score by Rachel Portman adds the perfect touch of sentiment to this performance-centered masterpiece. I noticed that several online reviewers described how seeing this indie in the early ‘90s totally changed the way they think about movies. It was a breakout experience for me too, leading me backwards to Leigh’s many brilliant teleplays like Grown Ups (1980) and The Kiss of Death (1977). Next up is his grimmest film Naked (1993) with David Thewlis. 103 minutes.
Little Laura & Big John (1973) dir. Luke Moberly
written by Luke Moberly
w/ Fabian, Karen Black, Ivy Thayer, Paul Gleason, Ken Miller, Cliff Frates, Phil Philbin, Margaret Fuller, Lee Warren
John (Fabian) and Laura (Karen Black) are outlaws during the prohibition years, running rum and robbing anybody they come across. No one behind the scenes, from producer down to art direction, had previous filmmaking experience—or further filmmaking experience for that matter. I can’t help but wonder how they got Fabian and Karen Black to star—blackmail, perhaps? But Moberly’s casting coup is not what wins me over to Little Laura & Big John, it’s the full throttle haphazardness of it all. I know I’ll watch this one again for the great montages featuring Woodburn & Walker’s “Goin’ to Jacksonville” and their ironic ode to prison life “Everybody Likes it Up at Raiford.”
The Lonely Lady (1983) dir. Peter Sasdy
written by Ellen Shepard, John Kershaw, Shawn Randall
w/ Pia Zadora, Lloyd Bochner, Bibi Besch, Joseph Cali, Anthony Holland, Jared Martin, Ray Liotta
Pia Zadora’s follow-up to Butterfly (1981). She plays good girl and aspiring novelist Jeri Lee Randall who is raped (by Ray Liotta) with a garden hose. Then she marries Thornton (Lloyd Bochner), a Hollywood screenwriter three decades older than her. Like an ‘80s version of A Star Is Born, the movie’s cautionary message is that a woman must pay for her rise to the top with her own self-respect. In order to sell her scripts, Jeri Lee is subjected to a series of sexual trade-offs with men and women. The abortion symbolism is so…weird! Just as Jeri Lee’s nervous breakdown is so Hollywood, rewarding even on its own as a YouTube video. Anthony Holland plays Jeri Lee’s gay pal; a familiar face on TV in the 1970s-80s, his long struggle with AIDS ended in suicide. As for Bibi Besch, who plays Jeri Lee’s unsympathetic mother, she’s mother to a mutant son in The Beast Within (1982) and a gay son in Doing Time on Maple Drive (1992). The Lonely Lady received a record number of Razzies in 1983 and is described with seemingly genuine affection by The Razzie Movie Guide as “an almost nonstop barrage of visual, verbal, and cinematic garbage that makes for one of the all-time great bad-movie-watching experiences.” This Trash Cinema classic needs to be released on DVD right now!
Lonesome Jim (2006) dir. Steve Buscemi
written by James C. Strouse
w/ Casey Affleck, Liv Tyler, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Corrigan, Seymour Cassel, Mark Boone Junior, Jake La Botz, Pam Angell
Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut was Trees Lounge (1996) starring himself and Mark Boone Junior. This is his third film, made for a mere $500,000, and it’s a gem. Caset Affleck stars as the prodigal son Jim, a selfish, apathetic loser returning from NYC to his Indiana hometown. He idolizes Richard Yates for writing “sad stories about sad people with pathetic dreams.” This is how he sees his family, whom he disdains, particularly his chirpy, repressed mother. Mary Kay Place’s performance, the hub of the film, brings real depth to the mom who’s always been there for her kids but has never been anywhere else. “What did we do to make you kids so unhappy?” she asks Jim earnestly. His response devastates her. Jim’s brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan) attempts suicide and his cousin’s (Boone Junior) dope-dealing leads to an unanticipated arrest. Yes it is a comedy.