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Grey Gardens (1975)
The documentary "Grey Gardens" is now retrospectively regarded as the inception of what would later be termed "reality" programming, and as such, does contain some element of exploitation. The mother and daughter team featured here, former socialites cast adrift from their well-heeled pasts decades earlier, can both be described as 'eccentric', but that's the polite term. They co-exist in a once-grand, now crumbling, trash-strewn, urine-stained oceanside mansion where they exhibit very questionable survival skills. Their relative sanity is also constantly in question. The film, in every sense of the term, is the proverbial car wreck you cannot look away from.
Perhaps it wouldn't seem this way had it made some effort to give the viewer a more focused glimpse of who they once were and the circumstances which brought them to their squalid, delusional situation. Therefore, the viewer would be better able to put some needed perspective on what they are watching. There apparently exists some history of family members' attempts to remedy their plight, but we're only made aware of them through random shots of newspaper clipping which are never elaborated on.
Instead one has to rely on the often incoherent ramblings of two women attempting to tell their own skewed versions of their lives, almost always while stepping on each others' conversations. Overlayed onto this are episodic bursts of anger, regret, sorrow, seemingly constant bickering, and unintended whimsy. The few 'outsiders', briefly seen, don't get to add their perspectives either, even though they likely have an incredible amount they could tell us...and they seem to want to.
This is a fascinating story, to be sure, but we don't really develop any feeling of sympathy for these seemingly deranged women because there's no foundation in which to anchor any emotion, making the proceedings more pointless than they ought to be.
Witness For The Prostitution
Well-mounted, stylish and evenly paced, "Scandal" expertly tells an interesting story with much flare and good dramatic sense. Joanne Whalley, Bridget Fonda and John Hurt are wonderfully cast in their respective roles and the narrative moves along with much interest and seldom sags.
A quick read of the events and personalities related to the real-life events surrounding the British sex scandal of 1963 will attest to the good effort made to make the film largely accurate yet entertaining.
Although the three leads are portrayed as callow and opportunistic throughout most of the action, their human vulnerability remains only slightly obscured; and especially in the case of Whalley's and Hurt's characters, the viewer is compelled to look at them sympathetically once the music stops. Good viewing all around.
The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)
Miss Brain Beautiful - 1962!
How on earth did American cinema survive the three-year wait for the release of this motion picture epic??? For those who have a soft spot for really awful low-budget horror films, The Brain That Would't Die (1962) delivers in spades! It's all here: cheese, sleaze, terrible dialog, amazingly inept delivery, and just plain bad acting. Yet, it's all surprisingly entertaining.
A surgeon with a really serious god complex gets in over his head when he causes a car accident that "kills" his future bride. But being an early proponent of 'repurposing' he sets up some comfortable Corning Wear in his lab in which she can rest her head while he searches the finest stripper dives and swimsuit competitions for a hottie who will (involuntarily) give her body to him.
He finally settles on a K-Mart Elizabeth Taylor who herself is trying to save face. But back in the lab, his basting beauty proves she has a good head on her shoulders (minus the shoulders) as she strikes up a kinship of sorts with one of the doctor's failed earlier experiments, whom he keeps locked in 'the closet'. These two take head games to a whole new level, with a predictably tragic but morally sound conclusion.
Actress Virginia Leith is actually quite good as the disembodied fiancé of the mad doctor. Her character displays not only intelligence and wisdom, but also a compelling capacity for evil. Her performance here is head and shoulders above the rest.
The quick and dirty answer: put your brain on hold and just enjoy all of the unintentional humor of a true guilty pleasure.
Dementia 13 (1963)
Norman Bates' Irish cousins
Certainly noteworthy for being the first directorial credit for Mr. Coppola, Dementia 13 stands on its own as a pretty decent horror chiller who's famously low budget actually comes through as an asset. There are some obvious references to Psycho, but hey, if you're gonna take a cue from a landmark horror film, Hitchcock's touchstone is a good one to be influenced by.
A dreary castle in the Irish countryside is inhabited by three brothers, their somewhat unhinged mother, and a lady in the lake, so to speak. Two of the three sons seem to have a penchant for taking American-born women for their wives, none of which Mother approves of. There are familial tensions, not the least of which involves the mother's will, and someone in the bunch likes to wield an ax with fatal results.
A brilliant film? Certainly not. But it has many good points considering the genre and the era in which it emerged. Acting is both good and bad. The overall chilling atmosphere, aided by some impressive lighting and handsome b&w photography, is a major strong point. Dementia 13 deserves its position as a minor horror classic.
The Passionate Friends (1949)
A darker not-so-brief Encounter
Although it bears many similarities to David Lean's excellent Brief Encounter (released in 1945), this effort adds a decidedly darker dimension to the familiar tale of illicit lovers. The Passionate Friends contains a wonderfully creepy Noir feel, with an almost Hitchcock-like suspense, especially in the way the camera angles in on the characters, emphasizing the inherent volatility of their situation.
Much of the foreboding Noir doom can be attributed to the wonderful Ann Todd, who can't help but possess the dangerous look of the quintessential femme fatale, even when she's happily drinking in the excitement of a speedboat ride on a sun-drenched lake. She in fact might well have made the perfect "Hitchcock Blonde" ten years later.
The venerable Claude Rains and Trevor Howard suit their roles to good effect, especially Rains as Todd's suspicious husband. The film ends predictably, with a production code-approved resolution. But it's well worth a look, and stands up well alongside Lean's earlier Encounter.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A Monster For Prime Time
Like the film "Network", this 1957 release grows more relevant with each day. It packs a real punch, with Oscar-worthy performances from a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith as the conniving, morally bankrupt Lonesome Roads, and what is arguably the best role/performance ever by Patricia Neal.
Can-do-no-wrong Walter Mathau is equally excellent in a restrained and subtly comic dramatic turn; Anthony Franciosa is perfect as the wheel-greaser who's always in position to receive the first slice. Perhaps the film may seem a bit over-the-top in spots, but the handling is first-rate, with a story that hasn't aged a day. A must-see film.
Lady in the Lake (1947)
Quirky crime Noir overcomes distracting gimmick and scores
This may be the poor man's "The Big Sleep", with its confusing plot details and numerous barely-discernible motives. Having the camera take the first-person perspective might have been a novel idea on paper, but it only serves as distraction, and seems to slow down the action in some scenes to a crawl, literally!
But the film is definitely a worthy novelty in the Noir tradition, and femme fatale Audrey Totter is excellent right through to the end. While Robert Montgomery is workable in the role of Phillip Marlowe, perhaps in retrospect he should have stayed behind the camera and let another actor have the part.
The final revelation is well handled, with a multi-layered surprise ending; because, what's a good Noir wrap-up without at least one false identity revealed and sinister motive acted upon. It's a long twisted path, but it's fun once the viewer gets beyond the film's limitations.
Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)
The Rat Pack's screen swan song
According to a Trivia entry on this film, much gloom hung over the production of "Robin And The 7 Hoods", on which filming had commenced just prior to the assassination of President Kennedy, followed closely by the kidnapping of Sinatra's son, Frank Jr. Camelot was dead, and the effects of that showed through here.
What was intended to have been a frothy, witty fable of Chicago mobsters in the roaring 20's instead sadly comes off as forced and overly contrived. That's not to blame the cast, who surely carried on as best they were able to. But still, everyone looks embarrassed, and most of them seem to be phoning-in their performances. Some of the dialog is badly wilted even by early '60's standards.
Overall production quality is good though, with colorful and clever sets, and the proceedings manage to rally around a few memorable, well-executed songs. Motion picture studios did not consider Sinatra to be especially easy to work with, and the influence he wielded had already dictated cast changes early-on. Conspicuously missing are fellow Rat-Packers Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, who's roles were filled by Bing Crosby and Peter Falk. It's still enjoyable if you're a fan of the cast, but try as they may, the film is lacking something vital, having become a victim of history.
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
Art imitates Death
If you have an hour of your life to spare, this is definitely worthy of your time: a classic Corman black comedy! Nerdy beatnik coffeehouse busboy Walter (played by Dick Miller) takes a stab at being an artist, with amazingly good results. Now an overnight sensation in the art world, things get out of hand when he needs to advance his craft with new subjects.
One of the film's strong points is its hilariously droll skewering of the Folk movement and of the Beat lingo and attitudes which so characterized a certain fringe of society in the late 1950's. It's the kind of treatment one would later see in a Christohper Guest "mocumentary" in the 2000's.
There's no bucket, very little (if any) blood, but it's bloody humorous.
Night of the Eagle (1962)
Samantha and Darren: The Dark Years
Originally titled "Night Of The Eagle", this is a very effective chiller with fine acting throughout. Linda..err..Janet Blair plays a housewife with a hobby that proves too strange for her professor husband (Peter Wyngarde) to turn a blind eye to. When hubby makes his wife give up her spooky pastime, things start to hit the fan in short order. There are some nice touches here that foreshadow later horror masterpieces, "Rosemary's Baby" in particular.
Faculty life at the quaint northern England college is rife with not-so-petty jealousies and a back-stabbing or two. The main um...(pot)stirrer on the staff, wonderfully played by Margaret Johnston, makes it known early on that she's a witch with a capital "B".
A very attractive and more-than-capable cast, a good atmospheric production that does itself proud in black & white; and just when the suspense begins to sag a bit, a very good surprise twist. It's all here, and well worth your time.