Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cul-de-sac, Reds, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Since these multiple review columns that I was originally doing to play catch up have become the norm, I've decided to drop the dumb "Grab Bag" title. I'm sure everyone will miss it.

, by Roman Polanski, 1966

I haven't seen many of the old Roman Polanski films, but I hold Chinatown in very high regard (as one should), so I thought I'd take a look at something else. Cul-de-sac is Polanski's third film, a home invasion thriller-comedy of sorts, about a married couple who live in a castle on an island taken hostage by a fugitive criminal stranded there by the high tides. Donald Pleasance stars as the timid, emasculated husband.

I don't know, there was some interesting stuff in the film, but I have to say, I didn't really care for it. I had a hard time liking, or even sympathizing with any of the characters. Donald Pleasance built a career out of playing pushovers and weak men like this, but I've liked him more in other movies. I did like the setup of the criminal's car breaking down in the middle of a rising tide, forcing him to abandon his accomplice, dying of a gunshot wound, but the story gets more and more improbable and labored as it continues. It gets to the point where company comes to visit and the criminal pretends to be their butler. If it were just a wacky comedy, that might work, but the movie presents it semi-seriously, and it didn't work for me.

I'm not giving up on Polanski just yet. There are still a couple of big ones I should look into. I haven't even seen Rosemary's Baby! But Cul-de-sac just didn't cut it for me.

Reds, by Warren Beatty, 1981

Now this, I liked. Reds is Warren Beatty's epic, about Jack Reed, an American communist journalist and writer who helped out with the Russian Revolution in the 1920's. The narrative is tied together through interviews with the actual surviving colleagues and contemporaries of Reed, at that point in their 80's and 90's. Beatty was always a smart and capable director and producer, and had a hand in the development of many of his most memorable starring roles, often nurturing them for years before they got made. Reds may be his crowning achievement.

With a cast including Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Gene Hackman, Reds feels like the dying breath of the stellar auteur-driven Hollywood of the 1970's, which had collapsed under the weight of bloated disasters such as Cimino's Heaven's Gate (which I haven't seen) and Altman's Popeye (which I love, warts and all), and the massive success of mainstream blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws.Link
I love that Reds was about a group of American communists, which was very much a serious movement in the America of the early 20th Century, though it wasn't something anybody wanted to talk about after the 1950's. That this movie came out in the Reagan administration is a wonder unto itself.

The 3 hr 15 min run time is a bit of an obstacle, but I was never bored. The movie spans years, and is filled with action, drama, romance, and tragedy, like all good epics. It won Oscars for directing, cinematography, and supporting actress (Maureen Stapleton), and was nominated for many more, yet Reds isn't discussed much today, is it? It's strange how so many of the 1980's Oscar winners have been overshadowed by all the sci-fi/fantasy movies and comedies of the era that we grew up watching. Anyway, Reds is worth setting aside a sizeable chunk of your time for.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Robert Aldritch, 1962

I am so glad I have finally seen this crazy movie. An aging Bette Davis runs rampant as Baby Jane Hudson, an over-the-hill child star, driven mad by her jealousy over her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), a beloved screen actress, now wheelchair-ridden from a car "accident" and held captive in her bedroom.

Director Robert Aldritch and screenwriter Lukas Heller give the film a noirish, stylized look and a macabre sense of humor, while Davis and Crawford act their hearts out. I should also mention Victor Buono's hilarious performance as Edwin, a piano player hired by Jane to help revive her "career".

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a true classic movie that has all the markings of a cult classic. The movie is so dark, twisted, weird, and disturbing, by 1962 standards, that I'm surprised it ever made it into theaters, let alone to so much acclaim and success. Things were just starting to loosen up around then, so I guess Baby Jane made it through, and I'm glad that it did.


So that's all for now. I'm very slowly catching up. It's my hope to be close to current by October, but I'm like 30 movies behind right now and I've been watching movies every day. Of the above three, I would most recommend Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, though Reds is great too. You can skip Cul-de-sac and watch Chinatown again instead.

Thanks, everyone!

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