#73 Freaks (1932)

Loosely based on the short story Spurs by Tod Robbins and directed by the same mind that brought the definitive Dracula to the screen, Freaks is a film that blurs the lines between fiction and reality, drama and comedy, and horror and exploitation. This “alarming yet profound movie” is a difficult movie to classify as it seems to run a wide spectrum of achievements and genres in its sixty-two minutes (Schneider). It is an amazingly beautiful film, underappreciated because of sheer stomach-turning concerns for the performers, but still seems to hold some amazing messages about community and relationships in a very pre-Tarentino Tarentino way…Or a David Lynch way… It is Tarentino mixed with Lynch with a little dash of Paul Reubens’ camp mixed in. Original and strange, Freaks is a film that holds a special place in our cinematic experience as we could truly say afterward that we had certainly never seen anything like it before, but that we loved it. The version of the film we watched came with some really excellent special features, including a well-researched documentary that offered a biography of all of the performers in the film and convinced us that, even though it is very much an exploitation film, surprisingly everyone except the bearded lady seemed to enthusiastically enjoy their time and experience on set.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freaks

A note on our photo – we really had a hard time conceptualizing what we should shoot for this one as we were afraid of the boundaries of taste (as the filmmakers weren’t). So, we shot us as Cleopatra and the strong man feeling uncomfortable about being anything else..And I managed to completely photoshop my hair out of the picture by accident. This is the first of many films in the book where we are realizing we may have to balance ethics with imagination. We’re completely happy, however, that we live in a world where we have these concerns as there is truly nothing better than having to think about these things as a result of our freedoms of speech and expression. Thanks for raising these questions with your really weird film, Tod Browning!

Garrett

Freaks is a very troubling sixty-two minutes that devolves into a horrific denouement of violence and terror, and perhaps the most shocking and incredible part of this film is the fact that there is a strange balance between the lens that I am seeing it in 2016 and the cultural and historical lens through which the original audiences viewed it in 1932 – and I personally think both seem to work. We have made a great deal of progress in terms of acceptable entertainment, the equal rights in terms of both taste and cognitive expectations of those with disabilities, and what we consider to be tasteful. In Freaks, we see a film that was once likely intended to be a horror film of nightmarish revenge, and today could easily hold its ground against any Tarentino underdog revenge flick.

I thought this film was incredibly interesting. I was really worried about the troubling implications of this film. It is literally built on the premise that these characters, with little effect on what today would include many calls for boycott that the ADA and any number of other organizations would rightfully raise, have some inherent difference between themselves and normal people. Historical exploitation aside, they are the strongest characters, the most ethical, and the ones who make mistakes and need to atone for them. The regularly-abled characters aside from the clown are monsters. Who suffers? At the beginning of the film the director suggests that it is the audience who is allowed to laugh and criticize the “freaks” because of what was likely socially acceptable at the time (heck, there is even a frame story that culturally sets the scene for us), but by the end we’ve seen these unlikely characters humanized by observing their human struggles on the micro level that easily transposes to us on the macro level. Questions about infidelity, honesty, violence, acceptance, and pain as a result of these mistakes are all raised in the lives (no pun intended) of the small but beautifully interconnected community of this travelling circus are raised and followed to their end, and in a way that feels incredibly cathartic for those rooting for the people

So who suffers? At the beginning of the film the director suggests that it is the audience who is allowed to laugh and criticize the “freaks” because of what was likely socially acceptable at the time (heck, there is even a frame story that culturally sets the scene for us), but by the end we’ve seen these unlikely characters humanized by observing their human struggles on the micro level that easily transposes to us on the macro level. Questions about infidelity, honesty, violence, acceptance, and pain as a result of these mistakes are all raised in the lives (no pun intended) of the small but beautifully interconnected community of this travelling circus are raised and followed to their end, and in a way that feels incredibly cathartic for those rooting for the people in this small community of genuinely beautiful souls.

Did the writer and director – whose career was famously ruined for this film – intend for some overtly progressive cultural commentary on community and the humanity of “freaks?” A genius irony that presents the traditionally objectified in a new context of a community with passions, fears, desires, and best of all, revenge for screwing with them? Perhaps we’ll never know – but it might offer a clear message to the audiences of 1932 that the film was banned in Great Britain for the next thirty years. I will say this – there’s nothing more empowering and satisfying than to watch Prince Randian stalk his villainous prey in the rain with a knife in his teeth at the end of the film, and it was quite a feeling when the desire for justice and bloodthirst welled in my throat and the action in the final ten minutes devolved into a soaked frenzy.

Jennifer

I was not sure what to expect from this film.   I was very wary of the movie and the exploitation of the actors of the film (“Freak”).  Surprisingly, for a movie from 1932 this movie really portrays the ugliness of the mean and hateful “beautiful” characters. There is an exceptional strength and community of the physically different circus performers.  One of the most interesting aspects for me was learning about the real performers in the movie in the short bio that was included in the special features with the DVD.  This movie was banned in the U.K until the 1960’s, and MGM actually removed their name and symbol from the movie itself.  Critics note that one of the most shocking elements of the movie was that the director forces the viewer to really “see” the circus performers not just as an act or entertainment, but as real yet very physically different people.  When the movie was first viewed this caused incredible scandal and practically ruined the professional life of the director.

This movie was a fascinating watch from so many different perspectives and absolutely worth a view.

#821 Die Hard (1988)

When Die Hard hit the big screen, Bruce Willis wasn’t much of anyone in Hollywood. After this movie premiered in 1988, he became a household name and one of the biggest box office draws of the late 20th century. In addition to his performance that evoked heroism, drama, and humor, Alan Rickman’s performance as Hans Gruber was also a legendary intro to Hollywood after similarly only appearing in some small television dramas (however his impact on the stage prior to acting on film is undisputed). As each seemingly incidental story arc and setup unfolds in this heart-pounding action flick, we are rooting for the good guys to come out on top and find that all of the little setups have a rewarding place later in the film.

Repeated viewings over the past thirty years, and this “one-man-army…rollercoaster ride of a movie” (Joanna Berry, Schneider) has certainly kept its charm and not gotten old. It is simply one of the greatest action movies ever made, from its opening frames in a turbulent airplane to the unforgettable final sequence outside the doomed Nakatomi Plaza. A true edge-of-your-seat popcorn classic.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Hard

Jennifer

As one of two Christmas movies my husband is willing to watch with me, I was excited to get the holiday spirit rolling at our house.

It’s Christmas eve in L.A., and evil terrorist Hans Gruber and his minions storm the corporate holiday party, kidnap the employees, and work to carry out their plan to steal six-hundred million dollars.   They are all blond, probably Russian, but none of them thought ahead to pack a hair elastic for this mission? I think a ponytail would have served them well.  The fly in their ointment of a perfect heist is  New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis). This move has some almost silly gratuitous violence and bloodshed, along with some great comedic performances and impressive practical effects.

Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman are great as the hero and the villain, but my favorite character in this movie has to be Reginald Veljohnson as Sgt. Al Powell.  The dynamic between his character and Bruce Willis’s, although they only appear on screen together once, helped to propel the plot forward and added some great comedic dialogue in the midst of all the machine guns blazing and knee cap shootin’.

In our book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,  the author notes, ” When McClane takes his shoes and socks off in the beginning, you just know that’s going to be a plot device later…”   This and the evolution of his white undershirt throughout the movie can’t be missed.

“Yippee-ki-yay!”

Garrett

As a kid that grew up in the midst of all of these incredible films as they came out,  Die Hard evokes some real nostalgia when I watch it. As a trained writer years later, I am in awe of all of how well this film is able to inject little plot and story elements that eventually pay off by the end of the film. I have probably literally watched this movie a hundred times, and not only has it has not gotten old, but it manages to surprise me with some new elements of wonder every time I watch it.

From sets and costumes that are surprisingly not (that) dated (somehow), to the personalities of even the smallest actor having a convincingly fleshed-out idea of their motivations and character, Die Hard is the yardstick by which every action film that came after it is measured. The sequels are even more fun, my favorite in the original trilogy being …with a Vengeance which actually bucked the trend of bad sequels happening to good movies. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t seen the fourth or fifth yet for fear that it will turn out like my experience with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – as The Last Crusade came out in 1989…  Those were the years of good movies, folks, and apparently the ones we’re living in now are the years of the bad, too-stretched-out sequels.

Anyway, Die Hard remains one of my favorite film staples with good reason. It was a pleasure revisiting it for Before We Die Films. Side note, it is only one of a handful of Christmas films I can actually stomach. It shares a spot on the list with Gremlins, Bad Santa, Lethal Weapon, Harry Potter, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which, let’s face it, is a Halloween movie), and RENT (which I would say I prefer the filming of the stage musical to the actual feature film).

This is a movie based on a book, but not one I will likely be picking up.

#727 Terms of Endearment (1983)

Terms of Endearment swept the 1983 Academy Awards as a “successful Mainstream American weepie” (Schneider) that combines comedy, fun, romance and tears into a two-hour thirty-year mother-daughter spectacle. Based on the novel by Larry McMurty, this film features some top-notch performances that carry a script that we didn’t entirely agree on whether it was successful or not. While we enjoyed it, it was overly sentimental and melodramatic and times, and we feel like we want to scoff at Joanna Berry’s suggestion that it is a “tearjerker of the highest order” and “keep(s) sickly sentiment at bay.” Some of the directorial decisions made us ‘meh’ quite a bit, even though as a whole it is a fantastic ensemble piece that is carried by the acting much more than the script and unfortunate editing choices.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terms_of_Endearment

Garrett

After watching this film, I decided that I loved the idea of it, but the execution of it was all wrong. The primary thing I have with it is that it was a huge missed opportunity for the director and screenwriter in terms of what my expectations of the piece are from a storytelling standpoint, and it was the performances of the actors that carried this disjointed and sometimes ridiculously melodramatic piece. That is somewhat of a tragedy since the time that we are watching this film is exactly the time of our lives we are living – it had a lot of potential in terms of the emotional and mental position of us as audience members, but when the end came (and I knew it was coming) my reaction was a simple, “well, that’s sad for them,” some more disjointed scenes, and then roll credits. I mean, I should feel like I am just like Jeff Daniels’ character in age, profession, stress, fatherhood, etc, but honestly, I found myself caring for and identifying more with Garrett… because who else would you want to be? Besides, we share a name (don’t even get me started on the heavy-handed use of aptronym).

To begin, the transitions in the film were so off that I found myself wondering how much time had gone by and whether or not characters were even still in a relationship at all. In one scene, Emma is drinking wine and moving out of their house, and in the next she is six months pregnant, but they aren’t unpacked yet and there was nothing in the transition that suggests any time went by at all. In another, Emma leaves forever and is happy, and a week (or month, or six months) goes by, but in the next scene it appears she actually wasn’t leaving forever and it has only been a few days. And what’s with Danny DeVito?

The dramatic moments are sometimes too much, and sometimes things that should be too much are shaken off by Emma’s character with a joke and a titter. This says a lot about her character, in a good way, but the elemental overarching fall-to-the-floor crying and devastation was never convincing to me. Nor were the characterization and lines of Flap and Aurora as well. Was Flap cheating? The movie ended and I was convinced he wasn’t until he said in the hospital room… but he didn’t really say he was, he just said it was an issue in their relationship. What? Honestly, this might just be an editing issue, but I was confused, and that made me care less at the end.

Now, the thing about the film is that while I think the story could be told a lot better (this movie had some great scenes, but it would essentially be The World According to Garp if The World According to Garp sucked, but I am convinced that the book is a great deal better because the medium matches this kind of disjointedness and it would make sense), it is the performances that truly carry this film. MacLaine, Nicholson, Winger, and Daniels were stellar, and they took a script and a concept and embodied the complexity of characters that may not have had that complexity on the page.

That says a lot about Hollywood and casting decisions as a whole anyway. That even with a bad script, one can make a touching and believable movie with the right ensemble, and that is what you have here. I can forget about the parts I didn’t like, but I won’t forget what I saw come out of the actors. They believed their roles, they embodied them, and it was real.

Two last things. While my opinions may not be popular, the commerciality of the flick without a clear handle on the execution is best summed up with The fact that a sequel followed it up thirteen years later that lost $8 million – that the production wouldn’t work without the same cast, even if everything else was the same. Second…The opening scene? I laughed for ten minutes… until I saw the look I was getting from my wife. Dads and husbands, take note.

Jennifer

I have to say I love discovering older movies with some of my favorite actors.  Jeff Daniels and Jack Nicholson deliver terrific performances in this movie, and similarly, Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are stellar.

The transitions and some of the editing in this movie is disorienting and did leave us speculating about what did or did not happen in the plot, but the performances by these actors were so powerful and astonishing that you continue to love and care about them even if you’re not too sure what’s going on in the film.   I really feel like the cast carries the whole movie.  Even the supporting actors like John Lithgow and Jack Nicholson were terrifically fun to watch.

This movie does have some dated elements, like the horrible “soft touch” effects in the beginning.  Also, as soon as Emma found the lump under her arm you just knew exactly where the plot was making a beeline for.

I really enjoyed most of the middle of this movie, but I did find the ending overly sentimental and somewhat emotionally manipulating.  The beginning is such a jerky start/stop of flashbacks and flashforwards that it takes a while to get your bearings in the film.  To echo Garrett,  what’s the deal with Danny DeVito?

This movie delivers some unforgettable performances.  It delivers a mix  of comedy and drama with some overly saccharine scenes, but in the end absolutely worth a watch.