Fifteen fallible films with tremendously tempting trailers

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Aren’t trailers an essential element of the cinematic experience?  The brief window before a movie comes out is unique, when we have this impression of the movie based entirely on publicity.  Especially if we aren’t paying attention to “entertainment news” and internet buzz.  If we just look to the trailers for clues, we can get an impression of which movies the studios are counting on, and which ones they are dumping, and which ones they think people will actually like.

And a lot of the time this changes by the time the movie finally comes out.  The marketing campaign might change, the film might be not what the studio was expecting 8 months earlier, or they might just re-orient the focus of their precious and potent promotional powers.

The following is a partial list of films whose trailers, in the absence of any other knowledge about the film, convinced me that they would be…not necessarily a massive financial juggernaut, but a major success by the standards of whatever genre they were.  I’m not saying these were disappointing in any particular way.  But for each of them, I was preparing for it to be a significant cultural event on which I might want to have an opinion.

  1. Tears of the Sun [Antoine Fuqua, 2003]

    The trailer made this look like literally the most expensive movie ever made.  More expensive than Titanic.  Yes, for Titanic they created a 90% scale model of the ocean liner…and from the ad I saw, it appeared that for Tears of the Sun they created a 90% scale model of the Liberian civil war.  The trailers for this ran forever.

  2. Stop-Loss [Kimberly Peirce, 2008]

    Finally, an Iraq War movie relevant to young people! From MTV Films!

  3. Get Low [Aaron Schneider, 2010]

    I saw the trailer for this twice at my small small-town multiplex, attached to Inception and The American.  It looked mainstream-friendly, quirky, completely original premise-wise, and definitely a  source of best-actor nominations even if it only earned, say, three times the revenue of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.  Then Get Low didn’t even play my localplex, or anywhere within 50 miles except one of the tiny screening rooms at Harrisburg’s Midtown Cinema.

  4. Run Fatboy Run [David Schwimmer, 2007]

    Another one that came out about two years after the trailers started running.  The idea that it was Edgar Wright who should be counted on for comedy gold, not Simon Pegg, was not intuitive in the least.

  5. Eye of the Beholder [Stephan Elliott*, 1999]

    The plot of this movie is utterly bizarre.  It stars Ashley Judd as a serial killer and Ewan McGregor as a hit man only known as “The Eye”.  It turned out to be not quite unavoidable enough to spark a controversy.

  6. Windtalkers [John Woo, 2002]

    This film must have been such a letdown, to literally everyone who saw it — on a Phantom Menace or Seinfeld-finale level of disappointment — for it to be such a flop, because up until its release it looked like a combination of all the best elements of Saving Private Ryan and Dances With Wolves.

  7. A Man Apart [F. Gary Gray, 2003]

    Maybe it wasn’t so much the trailer as the fact that this movie probably had more promotion on my college campus [posters, postcards, one-sheets slipped into the college newspaper] than any other movie ever.  Maybe more than any thing ever.  More than Vault soda, Wiz Khalifa, and the Steel City Derby Demons put together.

  8. Hollywoodland [Allen Coulter, 2006]

    What happened?  Was this ever released?  Or did they just play trailers for it for years at the Squirrel Hill theaters to put us in a glamorous Hollywood mood?

  9. Waist Deep [Vondie Curtis-Hall, 2006]

    The trailer I saw for Waist Deep made it look more like Training Day or Donnie Brasco than a formulaic project starring someone who became famous before he became an actor [albeit someone who impressed a lot of critics in Baby Boy].  I remember thinking “Wow, Tyrese is taking on an ambitious project here.  Looks interesting.”  They must have designed that particular trailer wrong, because it turned out it was supposed to be marketed to the audience for Cradle 2 the Grave and Never Die Alone.  Maybe it’s a good movie, I’m still curious.

  10. The Story of Us [Rob Reiner, 1999]

    This wasn’t what every adult wanted to see?  As a 16-year-old I was shocked.

  11. A Smile Like Yours [Keith Samples, 1997]

    I was under the impression that My Life, in which a terminally ill Michael Keaton, under the guidance of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, makes videos for his unborn child, was one of the seminal films of the nineties, and this looked just like that, but without all the cancer.  Now I’m wondering what movie I was watching that A Smile Like Yours was one of the trailers.  Jack, maybe.

  12. Woman on Top [Fina Torres, 2000]

    So, it’s like Like Water For Chocolate, but sexier, about Brazilian people, in English, involving some glamorous settings, and starring Penelope Cruz.  It even got good reviews.  And how can you ignore that title?  But it did worse than Picture Perfect or Sliding Doors.  Maybe people just refused to believe it was in English.  Cruz needed to have Courteney Cox as her sassy friend or something.

  13. Dragonfly [Tom Shadyac, 2002]

    I have never had any idea what this movie is about, but the trailer was edited really, really well and it looked like it was from about two years in the future.  The same can be said about The Glass House starring Leelee Sobieski, and The Minus Man starring Owen Wilson.

  14. Perfect Stranger [James Foley, 2007]

    This might be the present century’s most intriguing, cool, snazzy trailer for a Hollywood movie.  Trying too hard to be stylish, and yet committing entirely to one brand of stylishness in an admirable way, I was looking forward to being immersed in this movie.  THEN it revealed that yes, it had Bruce Willis and Halle Berry in it.  Oh, wow.  There is no way this will be less popular than, say, Kiss The Girls.

  15. Secondhand Lions [Tim McCanlies, 2003]

    The music swelled, and then it swelled again, and there was laughter, and there were reminiscences, and we saw that the little boy we loved from those other movies was growing up, and the Michael Caine we loved from all those movies where he shot people was accepting his grandfatherliness.  This just looked like the most epic family movie ever made, a whole evolutionary level above Fly Away Home.  It looks like it did make a profit, but is it anyone’s favorite film?

Honorable mention

Note: Jack starred Jennifer Lopez, Fran Drescher, and Bill Cosby.  I don’t remember any of that.

Note: The film whose trailer instilled the most confidence in its inevitable failure?  Aside from the obvious correct answer, candidates include What Planet Are You From?, Lucky Numbers, Mr. Woodcock, about 50 other misbegotten comedies, and Surrogates.

* Stephan Elliott also directed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Welcome to Woop Woop, which was one of the worst movies I’ve ever watched with my dad.

Conclusion: if Bruce Willis is in it, and I think it will be a hit, it won’t.

Aside from that, are there any patterns here?

And I wonder if most others experience this…having a strong feeling that the movie will be one thing, and then wondering how you ever got that impression.

Baseball Movies: Death on the Diamond


Death on the Diamond [Edward Sedgwick, 1934] is unique among baseball movies.  It isn’t about a rookie’s struggles fitting in.  It isn’t about underdogs struggling to win the pennant.  It isn’t about the struggles of a veteran losing his skills.  It isn’t about the relationship between different generations of men.  Is it about baseball?  Every bit of it takes place at baseball facilities.  But this is 100% a murder mystery, and the baseball workplace is the setting.  Part of a gimmicky series of whodunits by Cortland Fitzsimmons [tremble with fear as your mind’s eye envisions the inanity of The Girl in the Cage, co-written with a consulting magician, and Crimson Ice: A Hockey Mystery!], the original book probably handicapped the filmmakers quite a bit.  The movie’s plot is significantly LESS complex and preposterous than the original story, which involved more than one woman, more than one team, and a protagonist who’s different in every way except for being named “Larry”.  Even so, it’s hard to successfully adapt a book whose only positive quality is its breakneck pace and unputdownability.

The preposterosity of the whodunit genre is highlighted when you see it taking place in a non-classical setting like this.  Maybe at an isolated country house in Shropshire people would keep going about their business as one of them gets murdered every three days.  Maybe that would happen at a small-town theater company or at an idyllic fishing town in the Thumb of Michigan.  But I refuse to believe a baseball game would resume ten minutes after a baserunner was killed by a sniper.  And after the second or third attempted murder, if the team just continued with its schedule, the local paper’s headline would be “CARDINALS DEFY KILLERS!” as it is in Death on the Diamond, but there would be plenty of subheads* asking what the hell they are thinking, or maybe asking who the killers are, instead of treating a spate of murders like a spate of injuries.

* The next words below that headline are “LIVER’S HEALTH DETERMINED BY GLYCINE TEST” and “POLICE TO ENFORCE CLOSING LAW FOR BEER PARLORS“.  Not quite as big, but big news.

After every horrifying incident, the players grit their teeth and say they’re not going to give in to terrorism.  Manager Pop Clark gives an impassioned speech at one point about how the American people simply cannot be asked to do without baseball, and he doesn’t want to think about the effect it would have on the average joe if the Cardinals postponed a few games.  The plot of this movie literally is the following. Baseball team is bad investment that loses money, crime lord wants to take over team, first he tries to get team’s new ace Larry Kelly to throw a game, and then he starts ordering hits on their players.  Basically everyone knows he is doing this because he’s the only mob figure in the movie and the only other potential owner, so the mystery is more about  who he’s hiring to do the killings.  The movie’s universe also has exactly one reporter, one umpire, and one woman.

For more details, I’ll turn to synopses from a beloved figure at Baseball Think Factory who has recommended this movie regularly and vociferously.

A sniper kills a St. Looie Cardinal as he rounds third base in Sportsman’s Park (it was filmed on location)—and the game goes on!

A pitcher is called into the clubhouse just as the first batter of the game is stepping up to the plate. He doesn’t come out, and they find his dead body stuffed in a locker—and the game goes on!

And a lovable catcher is poisoned by a hot dog—and the game goes on!

And the Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant!

Now how in the f*ck can anyone not love a movie like that?

Death on the Diamond blows every other cheesy Hollywood baseball flick out of the water. Forget your stupidly sentimental Field of Dreams and your ####### literary stretches. This is the Reefer Madness of baseball movies, with three murders, an aborted scheme by the mob to take over the St. Louis Cardinals (filmed in part in Sportsman’s Park), and with perhaps the greatest character actor of all time in one of the leading roles. Of course I can only be referring to the mighty Nat Pendleton, recognizable from The Thin Man and an infinite number of other movies. Nat Pendleton alone makes any film worth watching.

And he doesn’t even mention the non-fatal plots, including Medea/Creusa-style poisoned gloves, and mobsters shooting out the tires leading to Larry’s minor wrist injury and estrangement from the team (Pop: “Costs money to carry disabled men on this trip”).

"When it comes to the hot dogs, I'm an epigram!"

Being in the whodunit genre, Death on the Diamond doesn’t move along at a rapid clip, since the audience needs to be confident that every potential piece of evidence was clearly presented.  There’s multiple opportunities for dramatic actors to really ham it up [see the end of this post for examples].  For comic relief, the aforementioned Pendleton plays a really dumb guy who feuds obsessively with the umpire who apparently travels with the team, played by legendary Three Stooges impresario Ted Healy (see picture at right).

When Larry Kelly shows up to lead the team he has some “first they hate each other, then they love each other” snappy banter with the woman, Pop Clark’s daughter and the team secretary.  This snappy banter is utterly cringeworthy, the “then they love each other” part of the equation is more like “then she loses enough brain cells that her revulsion turns to indulgent fondness”, in the effervescent romantic tradition of Mr. Deeds and Me, Myself and Irene, and I really didn’t like the guy.  He’s played by Robert Young, future titular protagonist of Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.  All I know about either of those shows is that the Robert Young character was kind, trustworthy and beloved by all, so he shows some range as the cocky airhead Larry Kelly.

Is it a period piece? Oh, no.  Ripped from the headlines.  At least the teams’ uniforms are.  According to the Hall of Fame, 1934 was the ONLY year that the Reds had an odd little touch on their tops — the word “REDS” written at the end of the sleeve parallel to the cuff.  If you want to see every detail of the Cardinals’ flannel bird-on-bat jerseys and red-white-and-blue striped stirrups from the Gashouse Gang era, this movie is for you.  Also if you want to see the Reds wearing weird hats with “CR” on them, which the Hall of Fame denies ever happened.

Cameos from big-leaguers? Several Cardinals are extras and stand-ins, including Ernie Orsatti [father of legendary TV stunt coordinator Ernie Orsatti] as the baserunner who gets shot.  But the spotlight is on a big-league stadium, not a player.  In an unusual move for the time, especially for a cheapo genre movie like this one, some of it was shot at the Cardinals’ home field, Sportsman’s Park.  You can see the St. Louis Globe-Democrat ad on the centerfield wall.  In fact, during the first Reds-Cardinals game, you can see the brick building advertising Lackner signs behind left-center, indicating that it’s Cincinnati’s Crosley Field…although that may be from stock footage.

Shooting was divided between Sportsman’s Park and, of course, L.A.’s Wrigley Field.  I wonder which one had the “THEY CAN’T BEAT US” sign above a doorway in the locker room — that’s a nice little detail.

What are ballplayers like? There’s a couple really dumb guys who say goofy stuff.  Otherwise, they’re smug bastards who have fake smiles all the time and try to one-up each other in front of girls. Larry Kelly is particularly smug, and the reporter played by Paul Kelly is even worse.  Even the brim of his reporter hat looks like a smirk.  This creates tension and brings more heat to the obligatory “Someone in this room is a murderer.  We’re all suspects.” scenes than you would get from a jovial bunch of buddies.

Can the star play baseball? No.  On some of his pitches the film is clearly sped up at the moment when he releases the ball.  For a 27-year-old in 1934 this is not impressive.  Ex-Olympic wrestler Nat Pendleton looks like a ballplayer, though.  The Hack Wilson type.

What are managers like? Pop Clark is sort of a Jimmy Stewart type, with a hangdog look and a paternal, ever-patient demeanor.  He looks like Jesse Haines, whose nickname was “Pop” at this stage of his career, and who was in his 15th of 18 seasons with the Cardinals in 1934.  Actually the team owner, Pop is running out of money and had to fire the coach and take over himself.  The players admire and adore him.  They were really bad last year, they got worse except for adding Larry Kelly, their stars keep getting murdered, but they’re intent on winning the pennant so Pop stays afloat and doesn’t need to sell the team to someone with money.

David Landau, seen here in Union Depot (1932). As Pop Clark he looks just like this but with a baseball cap.

One of the most dignified and humorless managers I’ve seen in a baseball movie, Pop is played by the tall, sonorous stage actor David Landau, who was the villain in Horse Feathers, Wallace Beery’s frustrated rival in She Done Him Wrong, and the warden in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.  Unlike a lot of the actors, both he and Madge Evans as his daughter look like they’d rather be in a less ridiculous movie.

What are umpires like? I didn’t think this question would be needed.  Aren’t all movie umpires the same?  Gruff and impatient?  But in this movie the umpire has some odd emotional weaknesses.  Basically he spends all his time arguing with Nat Pendleton.  He is ALWAYS in the Cardinals’ clubhouse.  He flies off the handle when someone calls him “Crawfish”, which is all the time.  His name is Terry O’Toole!  Terence Cartwright O’Toole!  And then…oh boy…at a crucial moment he says “I’ll go to the commission, as sure as my name is Crawfish!”

Is William Frawley involved? No.  He was probably insulted by the lack of verisimilude, and by the suggestion that L.A.’s Wrigley Field wasn’t sufficient to film every baseball movie imaginable.

Climactic game? Of course.  And this time…not just pride is at stake.

Will it wow me, the modern viewer, with its documentation of a bygone age, and if so, how? Getting a look into Sportsman’s Park and Crosley Field, and that’s about all.  The players spend some time doing fielding drills, and they casually do bare-handed grabs that everyone would use a glove for nowadays.  You’ll enjoy the scene-stealing attempts of Nat Pendleton, DeWitt Jennings, and as the unhinged umpire, Ted Healy, who was best known for things other than acting.  Click here to read the monologue he declaims after the poisoned mustard attack.

Click here [SPOILER ALERT] to read the monologue by which the murderer confesses, when he regains consciousness after being spotted skulking around in the dugout by Larry Kelly, who then knocked him out with a fastball thrown from the mound.

And here’s some amazing repartee between Pendleton and Healy early in the film.

– [To a batboy] Now you run along and don’t bother us ballplayers.
– Ballplayer! [chuckling] Get him!
– Don’t tell me they’re lettin’ you empire again this year!
– Whad’ya mean, lettin’ me?  They begged me to empire.
– About time this league got some empires what’s got eyesight.
– What’s the matter with my eyesight?
– Nuttin’.  Only you can’t see.
– Oh…
– A man’s gotta settle down on first base and raise a family before you call him safe.
– How do you know?  When did you ever get to first base?
– What?…Everytime you wasn’t empiring, that’s when.  Every time.
– Ya know, they don’t call you Truck Hogan for nothin’.  You couldn’t run out a two-bagger without slipping your gears. [chuckling]
– Hey, listen.  Let me tell you something, Crawfish.
– Now wait a minute.  Get this straight!  My name is not Crawfish, you hear me?  My name is Terry O’Toole!
– Yeah, and mine’s Santa Claus.  Listen, your name’s Crawfish.  K. R. A. W. F. I. Ish.  Crawfish.  And no credit to the Crawfish family.
– Keep it up, keep it up.  I guarantee I’ll fine you fifty dollars.
You fine me fifty dollars?  What are you talking about?  Say, you ain’t empirin’ yet!  Besides,[gesturing aggressively] your name is Crawfish, see –
– That’s all I want you to do, hit me.  Do me a favor, will ya!  Do me a favor! Hit me!  That’s all I want you to do!
– [smiling] Aw, no.  It’ll never be said of Truck Hogan that he ever struck a blind man.  But I’ll drop ya a hint!  [he drops a bat on umpire’s foot]
[they start shouting incoherently]

Rating? 3 Jesse Haineses out of 5.

“When your partner gets inked, you do something about it.”

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit [Robert Zemeckis, 1990]

As an 8-year-old, I knew Roger Rabbit was one of the greatest movies out there, up there with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Home Alone, The Neverending Story, Fievel Goes West, and its prequel Fievel.  But I come at it now from a very different perspective than Brendon Bouzard — I never saw Roger Rabbit, and the Roger Rabbit paraphernalia he loved was Ghostbusters stuff in my house.

Obviously I did know a lot about Roger Rabbit at the time from hearing the word on the street among my cronies, and a few stabs at playing the NES game.  I also knew there was a pale imitation of Roger Rabbit called Cool World, which nobody had watched and which had an even worse Nintendo adaptation that nobody could find.  By the 21st century I had learned that the title was Who Framed Roger Rabbit*, and put it out of my mind because everyone had already seen it and gotten over it by 1992.  And because the lack of a question mark was irritating.

"Hey Doc, I don't know if I should be in this here pitcher, because I kinda distract from the story. Aintcha think so?"

Last week, just like in 1992, I knew to expect Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, the guy who played Mario in the Super Mario Brothers movie dressed like Colombo, and a bulbous talking taxi [though I thought it would sound like Chris Tucker].

What was unexpected was the villain.  He’s a combination police chief, judge, monopolistic industrialist and urban planning visionary, and he’s played by Christopher Lloyd, looking like a cross between Alucard, Max Headroom, and Father Lankester Merrin, with a prosthetic chin that Zemeckis would reprise on Jim Carrey’s CGI Scrooge.  This guy is the ultimate retro-cool villain for 1988.  He comes up with gadgets like he’s Professor Pat Pending.  He uses filthy barrels of neon liquid to dispose of his enemies.  He stocks the police force with his corrupt cronies.  He surreptitiously buys up huge tracts of Southern California land to profit from control of resources that will be needed for an ever-growing population, and all without committing incest.

To quote a sentence that appears in identical form in two sections of this Wikipedia article: The 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit is loosely modeled on the alleged conspiracy to dismantle the streetcar lines in Los Angeles.

And like so many larger-than-life characters we met around 1990 or so, Judge Doom is preparing to retire from public service and start a new peaceful life.  [Although it’s Benny the Cab who says “I’m too old for this”.  I guess he couldn’t say the S-word even once, unlike The Transformers: The Movie — WFRR is already rated PG-13 because of the “dinky” reference, the patty-cake scene, and various other sexual innuendo that can also be found in Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood” of 1943.]

I also didn’t realize actual Looney Tunes and Disney characters would make cameo appearances throughout, instead of having a separate world based around Roger Rabbit, Baby Herman, the talking cab, and the giant ape bouncer.  And in fact, these cameos are insipid.  It would be better to see nothing but knock-offs than to see Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig, etc. distract from the plot by uttering a catchphrase and then going away, like Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special.  It would also be better to give those speaking roles to people like Slowpoke Rodriguez and Zé Carioca the dapper parrot, or whoever else would actually fit the roles into which M. Mouse and P. Pig are shoehorned.

But that’s a minor gripe.  Bob Hoskins is a great sport here, and the rest of the cast are fairly cartoonish character actors with distinctive voices.  Joel Silver does what I would describe as a horrible job playing himself.

Cool World [Ralph Bakshi, 1992]

I know that when I approach Movie B thinking “Movie B is the poor man’s Movie A”, I always end up being disappointed by my own closed-mindedness.  Clearly Cool World isn’t the poor man’s WFRR – it was conceived and directed by the Copernicus of cartoon films inappropriate for children, Ralph Bakshi.  Is it an adult answer to WFRR, without the juvenile fluff and nostalgia?  Again, no real movie fits a description that simple.  Bakshi had a quite dark story in mind, it was extensively and quickly edited, and it ended up being basically nonviolent and focussed on a character who must be partially intended as an edgy and un-romanticized answer to Jessica Rabbit.

They certainly don’t try to lure people into the movie by seeming family-friendly at first.  The credits look really cheap and they’re set to a pounding piece of rave music.  I expected the first scene to have Eric Roberts strangling a cartoon prostitute or something, but in a bizarre transition we see Brad Pitt coming home from World War II to the loving arms of his mother in a small town in Nevada.  He ends up in Cool World [the cartoon universe] soon enough.

This movie doesn’t meld its world with iconic branded properties, and mostly takes place in Cool World.  WFRR is almost all set in the human world with a few cartoon characters here and there, and the brief excursions into Toontown don’t suggest a lot of world-building.  The greatest artistic accomplishment in Cool World is the cartoon backdrops, which sometimes look drawn, sometimes look real, sometimes look 2D and sometimes look 3D.  If you watch on Netflix On Demand like I did, this effect works even better because of the terrible transfer.

The odd thing about Cool World is that although it’s a comic book universe, not a refuge for animated cartoons, it’s pretty similar to Toontown.  There’s cats and chefs and giraffes, running around dropping anvils on each other and bouncing rhythmically like Toby the Pup and his pals.    Cartoon characters are called “doodles”, and humans are “noids”.  There’s a great scene where the Goons pile up furniture, elephants, etc. Goofy- and Mickey-style to get a view of the reproductive act through a millionth-floor window.

Amid the cute and wacky characters, who gamble and swear a lot, we have a few human “doodles” including the Jessica Rabbit analogue, Holli Would.  She’s certainly seductive, but since we’ve gone from Golden Age Hollywood to a world created by an ex-con living in a mobile home near Las Vegas, she’s also trashy and desperate.  And like Toby the Pup and Bosko, her default mode is standing in one place dancing.  That’s her character. She stands there dancing erotically to music by Moby and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, brimming with sexual frustration [as are all “doodles”, especially the hot babes].  Kim Basinger makes a valiant effort at translating this to the live-action world, including a hilariously botched torch song.  Gabriel Byrne [second-billed] and Brad Pitt [third] are impressive as the inarticulate artist tortured by longing for the world he created, and the cocky sullen noir cop guy.

This is Brad Pitt's police partner, Nails. I loved this guy. He's the only un-jaded character.

20 minutes from the end, I’d all but checked out of the movie and started reading this.  Boring chase scenes lead us to the nexus of the two universes, at which doing something would reverse whatever had happened, unless someone else does something.  It’s definitely not clear why the threat of Cool World’s disruption is a terrifying prospect.  Personally I thought we were going to learn that noids and doodles need to intermingle and not be so uptight.

But then there’s a collision of worlds, which is creative and funny, one of two really kinetic and exciting sequences in Cool World**.  The logic falls apart even more, and suddenly we’re hearing Maurice LaMarche.  Overall, it’s frustrating that during the window when movies like these had become possible but didn’t look obsolete compared to CGI, more wasn’t done with the possibilities.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit stands alone, as far as most of us know.

* Remembering when I thought there was one movie called “Star Wars”, or one movie called “Indiana Jones”, and wasn’t really bothered when one viewing of “Indiana Jones” had scary German guys looking for Egyptian stuff, and the next viewing had scary Indians with crocodiles … it makes me mad when they make bargain-basement sequels to things like Bambi.

** The other exciting sequence is a completely nonsensical car chase set to My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheels”.  And I mean nonsensical in that it ends with different characters being involved than were at the beginning.  The music in Cool World is really good, and I can imagine that amid all the compromises on the film’s content, the filmmakers got some solace from assembling the most cutting-edge collection of sleazy and serious dance music they could.  Moby, Future Sound of London, Ministry, this great song by the guy from the Smiths, the guy from New order, and the guy from the Pet Shop Boys, DAVID BOWIE in a preview of his Black Tie White Noise era, and of course, MLWTTKK.  Please watch the “Sex on Wheels” music video. It exemplifies 1991 more than the “Groove Is In The Heart” and “Cherry Pie” videos put together.  Because it basically is those two videos put together, set to a style of music that was popular for about eight months [think Ministry lite crossed with Nine Inch Nails lite — see Nitzer Ebb for more examples].  And it’s really catchy.

Partial Filmography: Richard Attenborough

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  • The Human Factor (1979)
    Col. John Daintry
  • The Chess Players (1977)
    General Outram
  • A Bridge Too Far (1977)
    Lunatic wearing glasses (uncredited)
  • Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
    Maj. Lionel E. Roach
  • Brannigan (1975)
    Cmdr. Swann
  • The Last Grenade (1970)
    Gen. Charles Whiteley
  • The Sand Pebbles (1966)
    Frenchy Burgoyne
  • Guns at Batasi (1964)
    Regimental Sgt. Major Lauderdale
  • The Great Escape (1963)
    Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett ‘Big X’
  • Whistle Down the Wind (1961)
    Man with sack (uncredited)
  • SOS Pacific (1959)
    Whitey Mullen
  • Breakout (1959)
    Capt. ‘Bunter’ Phillips
  • The Baby and the Battleship (1956)
    Knocker White
  • Private’s Progress (1956)
    Pvt. Percival Henry Cox
  • Glory at Sea (1952)
    Dripper Daniels
  • Operation Disaster (1950)
    Stoker Snipe
  • Stairway to Heaven (1946)
    An English Pilot
  • Journey Together (1945)
    David Wilton (Navigator)
  • Brighton Rock (1942)
    Pinkie Brown
  • In Which We Serve (1942)
    Young powder handler

After advancing all the way up the military hierarchy in 35 years, the only thing left to do was leave acting for directing.  And once those worlds were conquered, bring dinosaurs back to the world and become Santa Claus.


Mixed bag: What freaked people out in the 1930s?

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When Were You Born? [William McGann, 1938]

Although it’s an interesting time capsule, this is a painfully earnest movie with a limited plot done in a flat way.  The early sequence onboard a luxury liner is fascinating in a time-capsule way, but after the murder the film gets really slow for an hour as Anna May Wong gradually convinces the cops that this obscure “ancient Chinese astrology based on the Greek zodiac” technology can really uncover somebody’s secret criminal nature more reliably than old-fashioned police intuition.  After the 5th or 6th revelation that this modest Asian lady’s connection to the stars lets her know more about the rest of us than a clean and sober Sherlock Holmes equipped with Batman’s cell phone spy network, the cops start doing what she suggests — and there’s a pretty cool chase through Chinatown followed by justice.

The introductory spiel by Rosicrucianologist, motivational speaker, UFO enthusiast and philosophical theorist of Masonic soteriology Manly P. Hall builds up the movie to sound about five hundred times as important as the murder mystery it turns out to be.  When you look at the introduction, the cast being listed by zodiac sign, and the random melding of incompatible cultures, you get what looks like an artifact of a fleeting intellectual fad, albeit one with an unusually benign view of the Mysteries of the Orient.

Everything about When Were You Born? is half-assed, making all the more maddening its suggestions that things which are obviously impossible are obviously possible and people are crazy not to open their minds.  How does this astrology stuff work?  Is it supernatural or not?  Why aren’t the police using Anna May Wong’s amazing powers on any other cases, now that they’re convinced?  Manly P. Hall must have been really disappointed in how this turned out.

Nice touch: the stock newspaperman is named “Juggler Barrows”.  “Juggler”, I guess, because he’s always doing a bunch of things at once, always striving, got his finger in a dozen pies and his ear to the ground and his eye out for a hot scoop.  Yeouch.

Noted style icon Anna May Wong (seen here in Nikola Tesla's cloning device) is in no way stylish or vampish in "When Were You Born?". She's the maiden aunt who uses her knowledge of human nature to figure out whodunit, except she has no knowledge if she doesn't know your birthday.

Thirteen Women [George Archainbaud, 1932]

This one is dumb too but in a captivating way, looking and sounding a lot better than WWYB?.  It’s a pretty relentless horror thriller – there’s no surprises, but there’s a lot of eerie moments, like the look in Myrna Loy’s eyes, the moment when the Swami Yogadachi becomes a pawn, the desperation of Irene Dunne when her son keeps getting suspicious gifts…the emotions are pretty intense and it’s hard to look away from the close-ups.  Donald C. Willis compares it to Village of the Damned, in that the victims harm themselves when they can’t ignore thoughts someone else is putting in their heads.  The idea of killing people by sending them really bleak horoscopes and then relying on them to commit suicide seems…like it would be a bit unreliable.  Climactic scenes are on a train and are much more exciting than anything in the first 80% of the movie.

It’s based on “Tiffany Thayer’s startling book“, which is an understatement based on Wikipedia’s description of said novel.  The Irene Dunne plot would be enough for a movie in itself, without all the other women, without the trapeze malfunction, without even the Swami Yogadachi.  I liked how amazingly implausible elements, like the chauffeur’s double life, are treated so matter-of-factly, sacrificing scary/dramatic moments for the sake of making the story somewhat believable.  Myrna Loy’s evil mastermind [being a “half-Hindoo, half-Japanese” woman who came here from India, her name is “Ursula Georgi” of all things] has some long and sincere speeches about her isolation at school, and how irrational it was that “you whites and your Kappa society” refused to accept her.  The commercial failure of this movie might have to do with how this character, who looks like a stereotypical villain, gets to explain herself in an articulate way instead of just being a target for boos and hisses.  [Kind of like Freaks.]  See Filmbrain’s “The Orientalization of Myrna Loy” for more.

She’s made up here to look a lot like Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel, albeit with warped eyes and eyebrows, and hair severely pulled back.  If Thirteen Women had been made three years later it might be better because it might have had Oberon, who was an actual mixed-race woman who came to Britain from India.  The mostly-female cast is an interesting mix and all the actresses are good.  Irene Dunne is great as a mother, I don’t remember Jill Esmond’s character but I do now know that she was married to Laurence Olivier, and I think it’s Mary Duncan whose exclamation of “Hazel Cousins!” has just stuck with me, as one of those one-person inside jokes.  Hazel Cousins herself has a strangely truncated part in the movie, which makes sense when you learn that between the time the film was shot and when it was released, actress Peg Entwhistle committed suicide in the most melodramatic way possible.

Freaks [Tod Browning, 1932]

The lasting impression you get of Freaks is all the little everyday scenes of the circus.  Bathing, gossiping, flirting, celebrating a birth, lighting cigarettes without arms or legs, wearily shooing a seal into a trailer.  Any scenes where the “freaks” seemed at ease with each other, or confident in what they were doing, were fascinating.  There’s no attempt to show any of them [other than the “pinheads”, as in Zippy — his dress is based on a microcephalic from this movie] as childlike or foolish.  They’re prepared for normal-looking people [“civilians”?  “normals”?  What’s the word?] to condescend to them, and they’re prepared for normals to treat them with respect.  Affairs and romances among freaks, and even between freaks and normals, are treated with humor, not as an insult to nature.  There’s a couple great moments with the conjoined sisters Violet and Daisy, and how one can feel it when the other’s touched.

That’s part of the legend of the movie — how it was ahead of its time in not treating the characters as monsters, how it was too ambitious even for a director coming off the success of Dracula, how it was critically wounded by cuts by the studio and ended up neither a successful drama not a successful chiller.  To my mind the failure is more in the crime story that provides its plot.  This was based on part of the story Spurs by Tod Robbins, as indicated in the credits, and much like Thirteen Women, the film’s plot is substantially less weird than the source material.  The crime story [a particularly neotenous but dignified dwarf named Hans is betrayed by Cleopatra, the normally proportioned trapezeuse who marries him for his inheritance] is hackneyed and it just isn’t affecting.  It’s melodrama transplanted from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale into the middle of a realistic and human milieu.  Amid dialogue like this…

  • Venus [wearing cute hat]: Well, make it snappy.  I’m all dolled up for the occasion.
  • Phroso [sitting in bathtub]: Sorry, kid.  Can’t do it now.  We’ll make it some other time, eh?
    [he slides through hole in bathtub, she turns away.]  Aw, don’t feel that way about it.  I just got this idea all of a sudden, I gotta finish it.  Hey, funny gag, isn’t it?
  • Venus [sarcastic]: Yeah.  I’m laughing myself sick.
  • Phroso [approaching her for an embrace]: Aw, say!  Come on.  Honey, hey!  Come on, come on, come on.  Now, now, now, now. There, much better.

…we have Frieda saying things like “Oh, Hans.  This is the first time since we have been engaged you have spoken to me so.  Why is it?”

Harry Earles was a sought-after silent star and the actor of choice for roles requiring men to impersonate toddlers [WFMU’s Beware of the Blog really is the best blog ever], but he’s not nearly as natural here as the other freaks.  He has a German accent and a very high reedy voice, his good-girl love interest [who’s obviously his sister] sounds similar, the femme fatale has a Russian accent, and the 1932 recording technology just makes the viewer strain to hear what’s going on.  I wished I was watching all the other characters instead, the creative guys and gals from Baltimore or Brooklyn or Iowa or wherever.  W.r.t. the studio’s extensive re-cutting, I think the carnival-barker framing device and the Road to Utopia-style happy ending were improvements.  Anyone would probably love to see the “number of comedy segments” that were cut, but the more graphic elements of the violent climax wouldn’t have added much.

Almost the whole film takes place during the circus’s engagement in one place, so when the wagons where they live finally start getting pulled to the next town, you get exciting action on moving vehicles. The energetic slices of life in Freaks are worth anyone’s time, and the slow and awkward exchanges between Cleo and Hans are balanced by her fun scenes with co-conspirator Hercules [the charismatic Henry Victor].  Don’t expect to be terrified, unless you think you might faint just from seeing a girl born with no arms doing everyday things.

If Netflix asked, Freaks would get “Really Liked It”, Thirteen Women “Liked It”, and When Were You Born? “Didn’t Like It”.

"Oh, Hans, don't worry about TCM. TCM will be around forever."


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