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Alice (1990)
Mediocre and Vampiristic
25 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
ALICE is a mediocre film that could have been a good film. This is because Woody Allen likes to dabble in themes such as self-discovery and the angst of relationships with others and with the self, but he frames everything in schtick, so that everything that happens is basically the setup for jokes. This works well when he sticks to comedy and satirizes wealthy Upper West Side New Yorkers, but you can't have a film about self-discovery when everything that is about to become serious deteriorates into schtick.

Male directors have a long history of fetishizing actresses and trying to squeeze their female secrets out of them, and Allen is no exception. But Allen goes one further, and makes his actresses like ventriloquist dummies who adopt his own neurotic self-deprecating style. So rather than trying to get into an actress's soul, as Rosselini or Bergman did, he inserts his own soul into them and has them be him. It's a sort of vampirism. Psychologists have noted that compassion lies in the ability not to understand how YOU would feel in another person's situation, but to understand how THEY feel, as THEMSLVES, as a person who is NOT you. Allen lacks compassion in that sense, and that is a strange handicap for a writer who is attempting scripts that deal with issues of identity.

His vampirism causes him to create a world where his own values predominate: that is, where everyone has the hots for everyone else, and where the activity du jour is for people to jump in bed with one another. Mia Farrow's character Alice is originally drawn into this world, but in the end rejects it for higher spiritual needs (going to Calcutta, working with Mother Theresa, giving up her wealth and selfish lifestyle and servants, and doing her own cooking and cleaning). Female socialites gossip at the end of the film about her remarkable transformation, and include in the same breath the transformation of another friend who has had plastic surgery. While Allen seems to be making fun of these gossipy women, he is also shares their view of Alice: that her transformation is as shallow as having a facelift.

He always takes a tone of petulant jealousy in his films when women reject him in favor of something else. He seems to feel most abandoned not when they are leaving him not another man, but when they are leaving him for a place where they can hide away from him in their own soul - to "find themselves." His most famous films - Annie Hall, Manhattan, and others - all deal with this theme of being rejected by a woman when she goes into herself. He makes fun of women when they do this. They are seen as flaky, self-involved, being attracted to new-agey forms of self-discovery that are beneath him. For me what is really deflating about his movies is his jealousy of the spiritual center of women, and his attempt to trivialize and belittle them for having deeper souls than him. It's as if he doesn't want anyone to feel anything beautiful if he can't. For Allen, women are disappointing because they have to go on these spiritual journeys and won't just go with romance (which for him means that everyone gets to bed everyone all the time). Even where there are opportunities for something really interesting to happen - such as when characters are given a magic potion that allows them to be invisible for a time - the only way they take advantage of this is to watch other people having sex, voyeuristically gaze at models undressing, or listen to people engaging in gossip about love affairs. So nothing ever rises above the level of a sex comedy.

Most viewers will miss the references in the mostly 1930s soundtrack. Over the opening credits "Limehouse Blues" plays, a song from the '20s about the ghetto in Chinatown: "In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play, In Limehouse, where you can hear those blues all day…" This song is the setup for Alice's visit to the weird Chinese herbalist/ hypnotist doctor, and plays whenever Alice visits his exotic den in Chinatown. It's a type of racist humor that may have played well in the '50s, but not so well today. "I Remember You" plays when her dead husband pays her a visit, another gag. And "Alice Blue Gown" plays during Alice's moments of self-discovery and over the ending credits, and may even be the inspiration for the title and character name. This song is from around 1919, and is about a girl singing wistfully about a "beautiful Alice blue gown" that she used to have. Here are some of the lyrics: "In my sweet little Alice blue gown, When I first wandered down into town, I was so proud inside, As I felt every eye, And in every shop window I primped, passing by." This indeed is the way Allen looks at his Alice character: as a sweet girl proud to wear a lovely gown, primping and trying to catch men's eyes. He plays this song when Alice is going on her spiritual journey, which would seem inappropriate. It's as if he is saying that she is not a grown woman with children and her own inner life, but only a lovely young girl in a gown, a girl who exists only to be loved and admired but who is stupid enough to reject love for her own silly pursuits.

In the end Allen makes fun of Alice's purity and refusal to wallow in bereft values like the others with the song, and by framing her selfless actions as a form of fanaticism. This is actually how sociopaths feel: jealous of people with real feelings and real love. Allen appears to have a voracious appetite for youth and innocence, which he merely tries to corrupt.
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Missed Opportunity for Creating an Interesting Satire
19 July 2010
I think if Coppola had been conscious of making a satire of modern, vapid, bored Hollywood royalty, then this could have been a great film, almost a Buñuelian effort. But as it is, her inability to judge her characters, or to comment on their lifestyle and politics, makes this not only a bad film, but an offensive film. Her comment in an interview sums up her attitude: "I was reading Antonia Fraser's biography, and I found out that Marie Antoinette was just a lonely, misunderstood teenager when she came to Versailles!" To recognize the parallel between her own life and Marie Antoinette's is interesting. To fail to draw any conclusions about what that life means is a failure of imagination and intelligence. All I could really get from it was that it's fun to live in a palace and to have pretty cakes and clothes. Such a premise could actually make for an interesting art film that flouts history, but it doesn't work on this level, partly because it was made as a straight historical biography rather than as a personal art piece.
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Nice Looking Nihilistic Movie
30 May 2010
My favorite scene in this movie is the scene where the "squares" are watching the girl band at a dance, because there are so many young people and pretty girls wearing frilly frocks in confectionery colors with nicely coiffed hair and beautiful smiles, and the music is fun and the color cinematography is bright and clear. But I am aware that what I am actually admiring is the fresh youthfulness and energy of an era that's captured nicely with good color photography, and the casting of pleasing-looking actors, Playboy models with great figures, talented singers, and so forth. People often use words like"camp" and "satire" indiscriminately, applying it to any retro vehicle that's excessive. But this movie has no meaningful referents, containing as it does a lack of dimensional characters or any ideas or emotions about anything it depicts (a campy movie is always passionate about its subject matter, and a satire is clear about what it is mocking), plus it is also staunchly heterosexual in its sensibilities and status-quo about sexuality. So it's not actually camp or satire, it's more just unfocused gleeful nihilism. It's a Russ Meyer world where women contain none of the feminine complexities they contain in life, and where the characters seem less than the actors portraying them. It ends with a "blow up the world and the film and the plot because nothing matters" sort of ending, which for me sort of sums up the attitude of the movie as a whole to its audience and cancels out some of the previous pleasures of its mise en scène. But for those to whom nihilism equals a rollicking good time, this is the perfect cocktail.
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Sarno's Erotic Camera
4 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a striking feature by Joe Sarno that displays to the full extent his skills in high-key black and white lighting, effective mise en scène, and casting and directing actors. The series of models parading in and out of fashion photographer Henning's life and bedroom (in a not so subtle reference to the film BLOW UP), offers the perfect opportunity for a cinematic and erotic exploration of the ideal male fantasy, which is total artistic and sexual command of a stable of beautiful and willing women. The nymph who enters his life, occupies his spare room, and slowly turns his ideal setup upside down is yet another component to this fantasy, at at least for the viewer, as it allows for girl on girl scenes in which the models are further dominated sexually, and in which there is more sexual variety and kinkiness at play. Sarno's use of the female face captures the erotic more fully than many films which are fully graphic, and the psychological components of sexual desire are both varied and realistic.

Indeed, viewing the film made me understand fully what it would be like to be a male with the desire to sexually dominate a series of women, as it presents such a fantasy outside of moral concerns or even social concerns, but purely as a giddy lifestyle of pleasure from which no escape would ever be desired. Oddly enough, this also gives the women, who are otherwise so individual and so uniquely beautiful, an interchangeability that can be chilling to the heart of a romantic. There is a Sadean dimension to the pleasure that erases the importance of the women, even as they are made full subjects in terms of their equal and complicit engagement in the acts which they crave.

The man always remains intact and individual, insofar as he is the only male on screen in a sea of women, and because he is a complete person and an artist in his own right, liking sex but not needing it to complete and define him. The women, on the other hand, have no identity separate from what sex gives them (their inside dimension) or what their appearance offers to the screen and to his camera (their outside dimension). They are eaten up by both cameras and by the male gaze, in such a voracious way that there is nothing left to hide, and in this feat lies Sarno's skill as a director, that he can lay this vulnerability bare and get these actresses to go to places that you normally don't see women go in movies.

Therefore, the goal of the photographer in this film (to capture something in women that is fully erotic, fully female in the darkest sense), is met successfully by the protagonist's camera, and also by Sarno's camera. Even as the photographer in the film complains that he can't capture on film the expression that his lover has when she is transported by pleasure, Sarno's camera shows us this expression, and tells us at the same time that we are watching something extraordinary.
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Important Feminist Drama
24 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a wonderful film, psychologically complex, well-made, written, paced, edited, and acted. It tells a compelling tale of a housewife's experimentation with witchcraft as she tries to free herself from a monotonous and unfulfilling life. The off-the-cuff, naturalistic acting and camera-work are refreshing and feel very real and palpable. Jan White is beautiful and competent as the lead. This is an important '70s feminist drama, and my favorite Romero film. It deals with the real reason that women get into witchcraft, which is to find meaning for themselves in a man's world. Some of the dialogue sequences are reminiscent of Cassavetes' work, as characters talk in an improvisational style and emotions fly high. Especially chilling is a scene in which the jerky young college professor turns a middle-aged woman on to pot and then needles her about her insecurities until she is hysterical. The protagonist and the other women she knows are trapped in dead-end suburban lives with controlling husbands, and witchcraft here is equated with women's lib and the taking back of their own freedom, feminine energy, and sexual power.
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Great Star Destroyed by Cheap Campy Soap Opera
14 October 2009
It's disgusting how a fourth-rate, cheap, exploitative soap opera of a movie like this can erase the entire oeuvre of a truly gifted, truly remarkable film star such as Joan Crawford. Written by an envious little brat with no beauty or talent who hated her glamorous mother for having what she could never have, this movie and the book it's based on appeal to the lowest instincts of the human character. We love to hate celebrities, we love it when the powerful and talented fall, we love tawdry stories of abuse perpetrated on helpless victims by the powerful, we love stories about horrible mothers, and especially about horrible WOMEN. Regardless of Joan Crawford's apocryphal flaws as a mother (which are not corroborated by her other children), she was a richly talented star, and anyone can gain a hundred times more entertainment from watching any one of her movies than by watching this dreck. People who blame Dunaway's horrible performance on the fact that she was merely mimicking Joan Crawford herself are dead wrong. One only has to view Crawford on screen or in interviews to clearly see this. Dunaway alone is responsible for her ludicrous scenery-chewing performance, the awfulness of which is the main thing that pulls this film out of oblivion into camp notoriety. I normally wouldn't care enough about such a worthless movie to write about it, except that it has all but ruined Joan Crawford in the eyes of audiences, who often know the star only by this movie. I blame the stupidity of audiences who continue to support this movie as much as the movie itself, Christina's book, the script, the directing, or Dunaway's performance. But of course trash is drawn to trash.
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Turning Bergman into Shtick
28 September 2009
This movie features shallow characters, mildly amusing shtick, and early 1980s New York acting school pseudo-intellectuals placed back in 1900 for a weak parody of Bergman's "Smiles of Summer Night. " The title, score, and some silly supernatural effects suggest fairies or spirits to add a nod to Shakespeare, but the themes that both Shakespeare and Bergman delineate in their wonderful works are not even remotely touched on by Allen, who turns the magic of sex and love and its attendant pain into...shtick. Allen once admitted that in his lifetime he would never make a film as good as any film Bergman made; at least he knew his limitations. Allen was a comedian working in a post sexual revolution era where sex had to be covered up by jokes and special effects, the way it's been for any mainstream American movie of the past 35 years. This parody of Bergman thinly disguises a love of Bergman, and only serves to highlight the glaring differences in scope between Bergman's film and Allen's film. It follows in a Hollywood and vaudeville comic tradition of mocking the highbrow for the benefit of middlebrow tastes, but is not irreverent or incisive enough to produce real laughs. This may be partly because it's so one-sided, with all of the fantasies and neuroses coming from a male consciousness, whereas Bergman and Shakespeare (not to mention the great farce writers, such as Feydeau), always gave men and women equal representation.
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Jerry Lewis' "Limelight"
23 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I just saw the Jerry Lewis movie "Hardly Working." I must saw, I was completely floored. I was instantly reminded of Chaplin's "Limelight." Some would say this is an outrageous comparison, but I don't think so. They are both films wherein great aging clowns take a bitter and poignant look at themselves, and at their lives spent as clowns in the midst of a changing audience and landscape.

Lewis' film is an abject fantasy about what would happen if he could no longer be a clown. Here is a middle-aged man who has spent his whole life as a clown, and realizes he has no other skills, there is nothing else he can do. So he takes a bunch of odd jobs where he enacts the clown role by default, hilariously causing havoc and chaos everywhere he goes.

But the genius in the film comes from its "serious" parts. The way he cries when he finds out that he lost his job as a clown, his depression when humiliated by his brother-in-law or mean bosses, etc. There is a strange spirit of defiant anger that runs throughout, from the grotesque depictions of people in the world and their banality and small-mindedness, to Lewis' occasional bouts of defiance towards authority figures. It's all about how humiliating and absurd it is to live in the world and have a job, and about all the little moments that make life unbearable.

In this world of unspeakable awkwardness and grotesqueness, women and girls are his allies, and boys and men his enemies. Women and girls laugh at his jokes, seek to help him, find him endearing, and want to grow up to be like him, whereas men and boys find him to be a pathetic loser and try to oust him at every turn. From the young son of the woman he's dating ("You're happy to see HIM??") to his sister's husband, to his many bosses, males are out to get him, threatened by his affinity with women and animals and jealous of his ability to evade the rules.

When he finally quits his job at the post office (it's the only job he can hold; as one of the character states, "no one loses a civil service job unless he wants to"), it's because he has been asked to "take care of" some rabbits that have ended up in the post office, ostensibly by destroying them. The film thus begins with an act in which his partner is a kitten, and ends with him rescuing rabbits.

In one strange scene in the film, he suddenly stops being klutzy and does everything right when he is being watched by a superintendent. Before this he could not touch anything without making it fall over, now he is perfectly in command of himself. There are more "serious" moments, such as when he is gracious and adult when evaluating the performance of his boss. The tables have now turned. Instead of being the lowest scum of the earth, kicked around by everybody, he is now his own boss. And he proves it by delivering the mail dressed as a clown, freeing the rabbits, and quitting his job.

The film ends with him going back to being a clown, and his journey into the abject world of random jobs remains as a dream, a nightmare. It's as if his perfect performance at his job at the post office was a way of suddenly saying, "All right, the farce is over now. I'm really a professional clown, I'm Jerry Lewis, I'm a physical comedian with full control over my faculties, see, I can do this job if I want to." It's like that moment in the dream where you are just about to wake up, or that moment when the actor takes off his makeup and reveals himself to the audience as his true self. But in this case he is taking off one kind of makeup— the clown he's playing in the film, which is a "non-clown" who's a regular person—and putting on another kind of makeup, his "literal" clown makeup, in which he can finally be himself—Jerry Lewis!

So we have to wonder: who is Jerry Lewis? Is it the actor-writer-director Jerry Lewis we are looking at, or are we simply watching a character in a movie? We see both at once, and that's the genius of the movie. It's an actor watching himself, watching his whole career and also watching the end of a career. As in the move "Limelight," the wrenching sadness we feel is in knowing the history of his earlier work, and how the ugliness of the world he is depicting is a world in which he can no longer thrive, as a clown from another era who is losing his audience to newer tastes, younger entertainers.

Some of the sight gags in the movie are brilliant and get quite surreal, as in one where he delivers mail to a Goodyear blimp and ends up taking the blimp for a ride, and another where a housewife offers him a beer and the Clydesdale-drawn Budweiser truck drives by and tosses him a six-pack. But in spite of its rampant silliness, the movie is strangely subversive and sad, and is Jerry Lewis' comic and reflective tribute to his own brilliant career.
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Vulgar and Empty
12 November 2007
This was a vulgar and empty film. There was no content, only "emotions," for most of it, and very flat characters. It was exploitative in the extreme, so much so that emotional intensity the film was striving for ended up seeming a bit like a joke, and had no actual pull.

If you take away all of the psychology from characters and reduce them to "basic emotions" such as love, pain, sadness, fear, etc., but those emotions are not motivated by the story, then what you have is an empty spectacle, a bit like a live show at Disneyland. Not to mention the painful and unintentional mix of gritty realism and artifice, such as characters aging at different rates, having glued on mustaches that look like they're going to fall off, having an old head and a young body in a nude shot, or one character having a New York accent while the rest have Spanish accents (why wasn't the film in Spanish to begin with)?

Lots of gratuitous titties, done in an offensive way. And anachronisms such as the use of the word f**k in 1890, as in "your father f**ked everything in sight!" Ridiculous. In its favor the film has nice cinematography and some good costumes, and I think some of the actors made a valiant effort, but I still have to give it a 1 for being so condescending to its audience and for ruining the Marquez novel.
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Shallow, Mainstream and Sentimental
4 October 2007
This film is a shallow treatise on the problems of locating love for a young woman in the city. The main character is self-centered, and yet seems to have no real interests. She is desperately looking for someone to love her in order to save her from herself. She is not really interested in other people, only in their ability to "love" her, even if they are assholes and total strangers. The movie takes the position that her attitude is normal, and in doing so misses an opportunity to be interesting. The movie fails to make an assessment about the existential problems of the character, or to question her myopic vision and lack of center and dignity. The film, like its characters, is a surface without a center, and ends up being mainstream, shallow, hollow, and sentimental. It's no wonder that's it's safe for audiences today, for it reinforces the popular idea that women are dependent on men for their happiness and to fill a hole or void. The film is indeed a fairy tale, for a woman who behaves like a depressed, mopey, self-hating dishrag all of the time would be very lucky to find a man to love her.
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Another masterpiece by Fritz Lang
21 January 2005
Really excellent film, elegant, well constructed and atmospheric. Beautifully written script, directing, photography, art direction, soundtrack editing, performances, etc. A real masterpiece. I am surprised that so many people who review it here seem not to grasp it. They complain about lack of suspense because it doesn't use hackneyed noir film devices, but the film is not about that. It's about Anne Baxter, the world through her point of view. Her life is a beautiful dream of hopes of love and happiness for the future, which turns into a horrible nightmare that spirals downward with sickening realism and pathos. Snappy characters throughout, but they are not "wasted", miscast or otherwise ill-used. They are perfectly balanced in a skilled script that is not about actors chewing the scenery, but is a real film, an art film, by the master Fritz Lang, whose every decision in creating this film up to the smallest detail seems to me to be highly intentional. Highly recommended.
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Calamity Jane (1953)
Fabulous Musical
7 November 2002
One of the best filmed musicals in the history of cinema. Gorgeous Technicolor cinematography and a great script, book and lyrics, along with knee-slapping gender-bending comedy routines and a stellar cast make this film a masterpiece of stylish entertainment. Doris Day gives one of the finest performances of her career as the rough-and-tumble Calamity Jane, a sharp-shootin' lass who can shoot and ride better than any man and has bravery to spare, along with other more feminine talents that she develops along the way. As Calamity learns to be a "lady" and wins the love of Wild Bill Hickok, this in no way diminishes her "masculine" side. With Howard Keel masquerading as a squaw with a baby, Doris Day running around in men's clothes, an actor who does a drag act, and a lady's maid who assumes another identity to make it on the stage, this film mixes show business, camp and glamour with the rowdy energy of the Old West like nothing you've ever seen before. Not to mention the velvety-smooth voices of Keel and Day, with some of the wittiest songs ever written! Not to be missed!
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