Wednesday, July 10, 2019

THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2009 for DVDTalk.com.



"Love is a feeling."

"So is a toothache."

So is watching this movie! Not love, but a toothache. Long, agonizing, painful. The cover declares that Jack Cardiff's 1968 wankfest The Girl on a Motorcycle is a "A film that encapsulates the sixties." You mean it's a bunch of nonsense and self-indulgence followed by a cop-out ending?

Hmmmm...probably not what you meant, but it'll do.


Words are really wasted describing this snoozer, but I'll give it a go anyway. '60s chanteuse Marianne Faithfull stars as Rebecca, a bookseller's daughter who is one night liberated by a sneaky professor named Daniel (Alain Delon, Le samourai [review]). Moments after she rejects her fiancé's pre-marital advances, Daniel climbs in her window and makes mad, passionate love to her. As if that weren't enough, for her wedding present, he gives Rebecca a Harley and teaches her how to ride it. He is her liberator, whereas her future husband, the meek and bookish Raymond (Roger Mutton), is stifling. His idea of her being free is never putting his foot down, always saying, "Whatever you want, dear," whereas Daniel is cruel, disinterested, and selfish--in other words, manly. He is a professor who teaches grown-ups and so he does grown-up things; Raymond is a school teacher, working with children, and a child himself.

All these thoughts, all the details of her affairs, run through Rebecca's mind as she rides her motorcycle from Switzerland to Germany for the last time, determined once and for all to leave Raymond and give herself to her macho, macho man. Spurred on by a laughable psychedelic dream, she zipped her naked body into a leather jumpsuit. Once it's unzipped, look out world! Rebecca's going to make it after all!


I have no idea if Jack Cardiff and crew really had it in mind that they would create a liberated portrait of the sexual revolution, but one look at the groovy theatrical trailer for The Girl on a Motorcycle should make it pretty clear where they ended up. Marketed as exploitative trash, full of sex and co-opting the counter culture (such as it was), whoever put the campaign together really understood what they had to work with. Though Cardiff is a legendary cinematographer, he was really out of his depth with this movie. The journey on the open highway is hard to take seriously when half the time it's shot with blatantly awful rear projection and in most of the other half it's obvious the actors are being towed. The trippy scenes are silly, and the sexual innuendo even more so. It doesn't take a diabolical sex fiend to figure out what we're supposed to get out of seeing Marianne Faithfull straddle the front wheel of her bike. (Personally, I prefer the shots of her leather-clad derriere bouncing on the seat.) What about when that man sticks his gas nozzle in her tank? When is a cigar not a cigar, Mr. Freud? When it's anything in The Girl on a Motorcycle!


For fans of Ms. Faithfull, it's hard not to be curious, seeing her so young and, well, shall we say full of life? She is definitely an alluring woman, and this movie was obviously designed to exploit that. Jack Cardiff's photography skills really pay off when it comes to long, lingering shots on her visage. I have some doubts of how much we're really seeing her naked, though, since a lot of the more exposed shots are framed so we don't really see her face. In terms of acting, I suppose she pulls off a decent job. There isn't really all that much for her to do. Most of the movie is just long scenes of her riding her motorcycle, accompanied by trite voiceover (which apparently took a third writer to come up with). On the male side of things, Mutton barely distinguishes himself, and Delon pretty much sleepwalks through the picture. He probably knew what most people would be looking at and smartly decided not to waste the effort.

Cap all of this palaver with a perplexing ending, and The Girl on a Motorcycle is a whole lot of nothing. Is this really a parable of female empowerment? A woman must choose between boredom and passion, between milquetoast and bitter whiskey? Or are we to assume that it's not up to her at all, and the big finale is the brazen hussy being neutralized. It's not possible Jack Cardiff had a psychic flash forward to the comedown that was just around the corner, the disappointing end of the decade...is it? He does beat the similar ending of Easy Rider by a year [review]. At least the aimlessness of Dennis Hopper's film was kind of the point, though; here it's the unfortunate side effect.


Tuesday, July 9, 2019

SELECTED SHORTS VII: THE RETURN - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel is back, and so is my review column focusing on short films presented on the channel. Periodically I will gather together my takes on the shorter films I’ve watched. One of the fun things is looking at the variety of subjects and styles available, since a shorter film also means a smaller budget but generally more creative freedom. Low financial stakes, high creative reward.
You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.


Uncle Yanco (1967; USA/France; 18 minutes): The late Agnès Varda helmed this playful, rule-breaking documentary to chronicle meeting a distant uncle who, prior to this, had just been a legend in the Varda family. Yanco was a Greek immigrant who left the clan after a move to France, traveling to the United States and taking up residency in the years before World War II. Varda finds the painter--who previously had been mythologized by Henry Miller--living in an innovative aquatic community near San Francisco.

Blending fact and fiction, and exposing the cinematic process while doing so, Varda lets the natural raconteur share his experiences, indulging his idiosyncrasies, and giving him multiple takes to play around with the “happening.” It’s a charming time capsule, perfectly reflective of the time period, but also a great example of Varda’s propensity for improvisation.

[Also available in the Agnes Varda in California box, Eclipse Series 43.]


Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town) (1968; Belgium;13 minutes): Avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s debut, the initial spark of experimentation: a brief story about one woman, played by Akerman herself, living out her last night on Earth. She indulges herself, resorts to mundane tasks, and carries on a private internal conversation while slowly sealing herself in her apartment to isolate herself from the outside world, whatever it may hold. Akerman creates a disconcerting tone, seemingly at play within the visuals, but with an (intentionally?) fake sounding audio track distracting from the reality of the action. I am not sure Saute ma ville ultimately adds up to much, but is worthwhile for seeing a developing artist grappling with her craft.

[Also available on Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; and previously reviewed which much kinder eyes here.]


All These Creatures (2018; Australia; 13 minutes): Charles Williams tackles topics as broad genetics and hereditary madness, parental disappointment, and one young man’s existential crisis over his place in this world that is both potent and fragile, and he does so in a self-contained, personal manner.

A teenager meditates on a time his backyard was overtaken by cicadas, a portent for his father’s imminent disappearance. In the boy’s head, he ties the two things together, theorizing that the insects were summoned by his father’s foolish attempts to dig a swimming pool in their backyard, a pointless scheme he was ill-equipped to execute. It is a metaphor for the father’s suicidal tendencies, digging a hole toward something he can’t find. All These Creatures accurately captures that childhood feeling that all things are connected, and where our parents go, so shall we go. As someone who has had to contend with mental illness in his own family, it’s something I can relate with all too well. How do we break the patterns? Are we meant to? Or is there a fundamental flaw in human design that means we don’t belong on this planet at all?

Williams picks his moments carefully, showing the father’s most dangerous and troubling actions in quick glimpses, a brief snatch at lucidity, answering no questions but offering a kind of closure nonetheless. All These Creatures is dreamy and heartbreaking, a prose poem captured on film. The images are compelling, even as they strain against the narrator’s grounded explanations, hinting at an unknowable psychology, the secrets that power us all.


Tidy Up (2011; Japan; 15 minutes): When his mother dies, Akira (Kan Takashima) decides that it’s time to clean out his childhood home. Only, when he arrives, he discovers his sister Moe (Misa Shimizu) is already there, and she’s insisting they keep the place as it is, piled high with trash and the detritus of the many years the family lived there.

A quiet battle plays out over an afternoon, with each sibling pushing his or her agenda. Akira has come with movers, so his argument is more forceful, but in the end, it’s the home movies that Moe discovers that brings the pair together. The power of cinema as memory evoked!

When it comes down to it, writer/director Satsuki Okawa takes no sides, even if it’s clear which one the audience will likely take--Akira evokes public opinion and social mores to suggest hoarding is crazy. What Tidy Up comes down to, though, is how each sibling processes grief and how they choose to remember what they’ve lost, and how the distance between seems shorter when they take the time to consider the woman to whom they are both there to say farewell.


Friday, July 5, 2019

THE SKIN I LIVE IN - CRITERION CHANNEL

This post originally written in 2011 for DVDTalk.com.




I'm not one that normally buys into the whole spoiler thing. It gets a little ridiculous. Some people assume any detail about a movie is absolutely crucial and act like you've spit in their popcorn if you get specific at all. Here's a spoiler for you: the internet could stand to chill.

That said, occasionally there is a movie so off-beat, so unpredictable, so mesmerizing, that I really want to reveal as little as possible, it's so much better if you go and find out on your own. The latest from Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, is just such a film. It's very good, very creepy, and even if you've seen the trailer, most of the mysteries that this disturbing gem holds remain to be discovered.


The basics that I can tell you: Antonio Banderas has once again teamed up with the Spanish director who made him a star. Here he plays Robert Ledgard, a brilliant plastic surgeon who has been working in secret on a synthesized skin that is resistant to fire and insect bites. He lost his wife to burns resulting from a car crash, and he has been so intent on keeping others from suffering the same agony, he has been conducting taboo experiments in the private clinic he built into his mansion. He performs the skin experiments on one patient, a troubled young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya, Mesrine [review]) whom he keeps locked in the bedroom next to his and obsessively observes her via a giant-sized flatscreen, almost like he's looking through the wall itself.

Vera never leaves her room, and she never interacts directly with anyone but Robert. His staff sends her food and other things through a dumbwaiter. Most of Robert's affairs are run by the maternal Marilia (Marisa Paredes, The Devil's Backbone). She has been with Robert since he was a child, and knows him even better than her own son (Roberto Alamo), who grew up to be a criminal. No one else knows that Vera is there or has any inkling as to why. What Robert is doing will certainly have a questionable outcome, but he is blinded to the consequences by his tragic past. As more details of what happened prior become clear, what will happen next becomes even hazier.


The Skin I Live In is, essentially, a horror movie. It doesn't have ghosts or things going bump in the night, nor is it really a slasher flick. Almodóvar dabbles more in an unsettling, psychological brand of horror. I was reminded of both Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers while watching The Skin I Live In. All three of those movies made me uncomfortable in delightfully nasty ways. They all share a tradition of doctors with ice water in their veins who step away from conventional procedure in search of something more personal. The breach of ethics leads them down dangerous roads, and what they find is seriously gruesome. Banderas is splendid as the slimy scientist. His madness is in how clear his vision is. His private plan is exacting and thorough. The only thing he didn't count on is what the results stir up in himself.

Also very good is Anaya--though, again, it's hard to tell you exactly why without jumping too deep into the plot. Suffice to say, she handles the trickier aspects of Almodóvar's script (which is adapted from a novel by Thierry Jonquet). It's a credit to both the actress and her director that after we come to understand certain things about Vera, we never look at her quite the same. It's hard to say if she's really changed, but so much of storytelling is an invisible art. Perhaps Elena Anaya does do something different, perhaps she has just been different all along and our eyes are only just being opened to it.


It's an unimportant question, really. All that matters is how immersed you are in the going's on that wherever the trick lies, the illusion is imperceptible. Almodóvar's execution of the material is exacting, so meticulously designed, he could get away with almost anything. Robert's house is an incredible set, with every detail from the paintings on the walls to the seemingly limitless number of doors through which anyone could go, be they on the hunt or looking to escape, chosen in order to have as much of a visual effect on the audience as anything that happens in the narrative. It's not just about the particulars of what occurs, it's how it occurs and where. It's the pervasive mood of the piece.

The result is that The Skin I Live In does settle over the viewer like a second skin--albeit one you will quickly want to shed. It's going to be harder than you think, though. The movie will most likely follow you around for the rest of the day, if not longer. Which is exactly what you should expect from a good horror movie. If you aren't appropriately horrified, what's the point?



VOLVER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2006 upon the theatrical release of Volver and published on DVDTalk.com. (I would likely rethink those first couple paragraphs were I to write it now, but for posterity...)




Pedro Almodovar's new film Volver is a real women's picture. By that I don't mean the sudsy genre films of the '40s and '50s about the secret anxieties of housewives or the loves and losses of career girls, but a movie that is exclusively about women. I can only think of three speaking roles for men in the entire movie, and given that one of these men ends up dead barely a half an hour in, Volver was not the best script to have your agent send you if have a Y chromosome.


I need to tread delicately here before I give you the wrong idea. Volver is not an anti-male movie. It's not like Waiting to Exhale or some other such film where gals sit around dishing dirt on the men who did them wrong, nor is it even a feel-good sisters film like Steel Magnolias (though the connection of sisters is explored). Rather, it's a film about a community of women where the men are absent, and in their place, the ladies have learned to get on without them. Fathers, husbands, boyfriends--they are either deceased or they have left to pursue some other agenda. There may be more men around than we see, a lot of the women don't tell their stories or explain who they've left at home, it's not really important. Almodovar has simply set his story within a segment of the population where the women rely on each other, where they trade back and forth and share.

One thing they share is secrets. Just about everyone in the movie has something they want to hide, a secret shame that is better kept to oneself lest it hurt someone else. The main one is the aforementioned dead body, the husband of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz, Sahara), who crossed a line with Raimunda's teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo, The 7th Day), forcing the young girl to defend herself. Raimunda immediately springs to action to cover up the crime, stressing that if anyone finds out what happened, then Paula should say that her mother did it. The trade-off for this secret is another secret: Paco wasn't really Paula's biological father. Who really was is a far more important revelation than Raimunda is willing to let on.


On the same night, Raimunda's beloved Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), for whom her daughter is named, also passes. Having to deal with her own crisis at home, Raimunda must send her sister to the funeral alone. Sole (Lola Dueñas, The Sea Inside) is reluctant to go because she is terribly afraid of the dead. This isn't helped by the fright she receives immediately upon arriving: she sees an apparition of her dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura, 800 Bullets). The ghost follows her home to live with Sole, but is she actually a ghost, or is there something about the death of Raimunda and Sole's parents that the girls don't know?

It should be no surprise to any of the characters in Volver when the dead walk among them. Death is in every aspect of their lives. Everywhere they turn, there is some reminder that this existence won't last. In the village where the family comes from, the people are so aware of their own imminent demise, they buy their funeral plots while still alive and spend their lives caring for their future resting place. In fact, there is actually an urban legend amongst the villagers that Irene came back from the beyond to care for her ailing sibling. That's how important the bond of two sisters is, the mortal coil is easier to break.


Though Almodovar plays a lot of this for laughs, he never gets goofy about it. There are no spooky figures decked out in white sheets that cause things to go bump in the night. A person's connection to those who have passed is important. What has gone before informs what is happening now. No one is more aware of this than Paula's neighbor, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a terminally ill woman who sees everything and yet remains calm in the face of it all. Her own mother disappeared on the day Raimunda and Sole's parents died, and she's pretty sure the two events were somehow connected. There is another secret at the center of that--plenty of secrets, to be more precise. Agustina is convinced that the departed hold the key to these unknown events, and if Irene is appearing to her family, it's because something has been left unresolved. Until it all comes to light, neither the dead nor the living can move forward.


For as complicated as it all may sound, Volver is tightly plotted. A real character piece, there are no extraneous scenes. Every chosen moment moves the story forward and exposes more about the players. The love of mother and daughter, of sister and sister, and of friends is the sealant that keeps the cracks from showing, allowing Raimunda to take on her daughter's crime and Irene to make her sacrifices. As more of these hidden things are uncovered, the women see that the troubles they all face are universal. One woman is connected to another. While you might be able to guess some of Almodovar's mysteries, it won't matter. The director teases them out with a sly hand, revealing everything at just the right time.


Penelope Cruz is remarkable in this film. The story goes that she was growing fed-up with thankless roles in mediocre Hollywood studio pictures, and she went back to Spain and to Almodovar and asked him to giver her something juicy. He wrote Volver for her, and she returned the favor by inhabiting his heroine with a forceful presence. As a mother forced into a position where she must protect her child, she is funny, sexy, and fierce, while also managing to stay vulnerable. Some of what she has to go through is emotionally scary, but Cruz firmly maintains Raimunda's strength. Her character earns the good things that happen to her, and Almodovar's ending is like a great gift to the audience, fading out on just the right note.

I'm not sure I've adequately summed up Volver. It's many things. It's both comedy and drama, and while not a mystery per se, there is some sleuthing that must be done to sort out the family history. And while, yes, it is a story about women, it is also the blossoming of one woman, of Raimunda, who finds that when put to the test, she has more to give than she realized. The title translates into English as To Return, and it has a greater meaning than just describing the return of the dead mother, it's also about a return to one's self, to a time before the secrets became secrets and changed everything. By letting the truth out, Raimunda can change it all back and become the person she always intended to be.



Sunday, June 30, 2019

IN A BETTER WORLD - CRITERION CHANNEL

This post originally written for the Criterion Cast website in 2011.


One of the nominees for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Oscar, the Danish film In a Better World is really two movies: In a Better World and In a Crappier World. Though really, the better one is only better by comparison to the other, just as the one movie here that is decent can only be described as "better" because its companion is so not very good.

Directed by Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, the team responsible for the original version of Brothers, In a Better World is a story of two families. Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, Season of the Witch) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) are a father and son who recently moved back to Denmark from London after Christian’s mother died of cancer. At school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), the eldest son of Swedish immigrants. Both of Elias’ parents are doctors, with his mother, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, The Celebration), working at the local hospital while his father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, Everlasting Moments [review]), shuttles back and forth between home and Africa, where he takes care of refugees. Marianne and Anton are having troubles due to infidelity on his part, so even when he’s home, they are apart.


Elias is bullied at school, and by sticking up for him, Christian gets picked on, too. Except Christian fights back, revealing a calculating, nearly sociopathic penchant for revenge. The weaker boy has discovered the wrong kind of role model. In a Better World is a movie about male aggression and the cycle of violence that perpetuates itself through modern culture. When Anton breaks up a fight between his younger son and another boy, the boy’s father (Kim Bodnia, Terribly Happy [review]) slaps Anton for touching his child. Anton backs down, but when he realizes this has caused Elias and Christian to doubt him, he tries to teach them a lesson about standing up for yourself without raising your fists. He may score an intellectual triumph when he confronts the man again, but Christian still thinks he’s a pussy and that a bad guy can only be taken down with his own medicine.

The stuff between the boys is actually pretty good, with both Rygaard and Nielsen turning in excellent performances as the meek supplicant and the angry young man. Theirs is a classic dynamic, and the portrayal of the hold Christian has over his protégé is particularly effective. The family drama that motivates them is not as interesting, but the grown-up world is supposed to be a little boring, that’s why the kids are so baffled by their parents’ behavior. The coming-of-age movie is the good one.


The bad one happens whenever In a Better World goes to Africa with Anton. Persbrandt is a strong actor, and his bearish physique and clear blue eyes make for a man of peace who could pose a credible threat if he so desired. His charitable work at the refugee camp is fairly familiar territory, and honestly, was done better on a couple of seasons of ER when Noah Wyle and Goran Visnjic’s characters made regular trips with Doctors Without Borders [review]. Even worse, there is a sanctimonious streak that runs through this portion of the film, particularly as Bier and Jensen try to connect everything back to the burgeoning violence back home. Are we to take away from this that a couple of boys building pipe bombs in the garage are only a few steps away from being brutal warlords, all it takes is their father figures failing them?


Things take a turn for the worse, both in terms of quality and story, after Christian’s big plan goes wrong. The final portion of the film indulges in the worst kinds of clichés, with obvious script choices leading to easy solutions. A lot of what happens wouldn’t make the cut in even the least credible TV movies. It turns out that all Christian needed was a sturdy hug and a good cry, and the resolution sells what good material there was right down the river. In a Better World needed some careful sewing work to draw everything together, but instead the filmmakers opted to slap bright, garish patches over the plot holes. The final scene and the tranquil nature photography that shows under the closing credits are supposed to make us feel peaceful and pleased with ourselves, but the idyllic glow can’t banish the shadows of disappointment. It just makes us recognize that In a Better World is a clumsily realized fantasy despite its earnest attempts to sell itself as serious drama.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

BABY FACE - CRITERION CHANNEL


Potentially the Pre-Code film that should be held up as the dictionary example of what Pre-Code films could be, Baby Face is a scandalous delight, as knowing as its main character and star, winking at the audience with salacious glee even as it accepts a Hollywood fate it can’t yet know will be the future norm.

Barbara Stanwyck (Forty Guns [review] stars as Lily, the titular “Baby Face,” though she is only called such once (and by John Wayne, no less!). At the start of the picture, Lily lives with her degenerate father (Robert Barrat, Captain Blood), who has turned their house into a speakeasy. Lily and their African American servant Chico (Theresa Harris, Cat People [review]) serve as barmaids in the gambling saloon, but the old man would have Lily do a lot more with their male clients if given the chance. And, make no mistake, the male clients are ready to do those things, as well. Lily is too tough for any of that, though, and too tough to give up or pack it in when daddy’s still blows up, killing him and shutting down the family business. She won’t knuckle under for nobody, she just needs a new direction.


That direction springs from a surprising source. One of the regulars at the speakeasy, an old European professorial type named Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), has been encouraging Lily to leave for a better life for some time, and he’s given her the instruction manual for how to do so: Nietzche’s Will to Power. Armed with this philosophy, and Cragg’s regressively progressive insistence that women have more natural tools to conquer the planet than men, Lily and Chico head to the big city. There, Lily begins working her way up the corporate and social ladder, using the one thing she knows the fellas want. Her body becomes a bargaining chip, her charms a negotiation tool. In each situation, she spots the top man and sets her sights on him, ultimately seducing him and then setting him up for the kind of fall that will allow her to leapfrog to the next step.


The best part of Baby Face’s racy drama is how unapologetic Lily is. Stanwyck is at her fiercest here, and her sexiest. The young actress prowls each scene with supreme confidence, only showing the audience an occasional glimpse of vulnerability, a brief aside when we are the only ones looking (god forbid anyone else on the screen spot it!). This sets us up enough emotional currency for us to buy into an ending where the character finally does have a change of heart, having met her match in playboy banker Trenholm (George Brent, later the star of many Bette Davis movies like Jezebel and Dark Victory). The “crime does not pay”-style happy ending that Baby Face was saddled with was imposed by censors, a portent of things to come, but with Stanwyck’s natural nuance, it plays as intentional.


Baby Face was released in 1933, just a year before the Hayes Code would go into effect. You’d almost think director Alfred E. Green (The Jolson Story) knew what was coming and decided to get all his ya-ya’s out before it was too late.  Baby Face aims at every taboo and hits them square on the chin. There is no antidote to Lily’s bad behavior, and more to the point, no escape from similar badness in the male world. Cops, politicians, bankers, average joes--all are capable of moral corruption. Only other women seem to provide any conscience, observing Lily at work, disappointed in how predictable the male population consistently proves themselves to be. And it’s Trenholm who ends up on the wrong side of the law, despite not meaning to.


Even as the movie ends, with Lily rushing to Trenholm’s aid, Green doesn’t dull its fangs. Lily seems to act almost out of fatigue rather than a moral epiphany. At some point everyone has to settle down, she can’t keep jumping from man to man, so why not go after the one who has challenged her the most?



Wednesday, June 26, 2019

BUGSY MALONE - CRITERION CHANNEL


I remember Bugsy Malone being on television all the time when I was a kid. It was a mainstay of syndicated stations, showing up probably at least twice a year, thought it felt like more. Which makes it hard to explain why I never watched it. The opportunity was ever-present. In my memory, Bugsy Malone is classified as “drab” and “corny,” meaning something in my child’s brain clocked the commercials for the film and dismissed it. Best guess is I just wasn’t buying the conceit. I was a judgmental youngster, quick to dismiss and move on. Bugsy Malone’s game of dress-up didn’t strike me as believable.

And it starred Chachi from Happy Days. AKA “Charles in Charge.” AKA Scott Baio. I was way ahead of the curve on not liking Scott Baio. He was someone for my sister to swoon over, not me.


For those who don’t know, Alan Parker’s 1976 musical Bugsy Malone is a jazz-age gangster picture made for and starring children. All the roles are filled out by elementary and middle school-aged actors dressed in fancy suits and putting on airs. Songs are provided by maestro Paul Williams, who also wrote the score for DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise and appeared on The Muppet Show and in Cannonball Run. The kids themselves don’t sing, but are dubbed by adult voices--one of the weirder and least effective parts of the concept. I found myself watching the performers’ mouths to see how well they lip-synched, since the oversized voices never match well enough to the pint-sized belters to create a convincing illusion. (There it is. Not Buying the Conceit!)

Baio leads the film as Bugsy, a genial hustler with no allegiances. That is, until he meets Blousey (Florrie Dugger), an aspiring singer looking for a gig in the big city. In trying to help Blousey out, Bugsy gets caught in a gang war between speakeasy owner Fat Sam (John Cassisi) and his rival Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). There are also some sparks between Bugsy and his old flame, the town’s top torch singer, Tallulah (Jodie Foster)--but Bugsy stays true, even when Blousey challenges him.


Parker strives here for a blending of adult story with childish sensibilities, aiming for both audiences, juxtaposing our expectations of mob movies with the incongruous youth of the cast. One could argue that it exploits how un-innocent children really are, given that they are prone to selfishness and greed and other base impulses in a way that likewise informs the criminal minds of their elders. It’s a violent life with the teeth pulled out.  In Bugsy Malone, the gangsters shoot whipped cream and throw pies. Kids go on dates and indulge in romance, but sexuality isn’t even implied. Cars look like 1930s models but don’t run on gas, they aare driven by pedaling. No one swears, alcohol is juice or sarsaparilla, everything is safe and danger is only pretend.


Bugsy Malone is cute and probably would have charmed me had I watched it at the right age. At 47, I could only buy into it in fits and starts. Some stuff really works. Both Cassisi and Lev act circles around their castmates, making for convincing miniature gangsters. Both are character types that would be right at home in a Coen Bros. film, perfect for a kiddie matinee redo of Miller’s Crossing. Baio is even fine in his way; only Foster seems to be out of place, never looking quite comfortable miming someone else’s words or acting the grown-up.

Individual music numbers have pizzazz. The melancholy “Tomorrow,” performed by a janitor who dreams of dancing and the lonely chanteuse who believes in him, dredges up some strong emotions, mostly because its young onscreen performers bring an ageless sadness to their tapping--it’s not that the emotion transcends their young years, but that childhood is full of melancholy, too. On the flip, “So You Wanna Be a Boxer” is jaunty and fun, a perfect take on the boxing montage.


The rest I could take or leave. Just like with the lipsyncing, something about all their playing dress-up kept me at arm’s length. Maybe it’s that the script is just too conventional to consume me. Sure, Parker and his crew capture a lot of scenes just right, getting the look of other gangster pictures of the period--a romantic outing with Bugsy and Blousey would not have been out of place a few years later in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America--but it’s all simulacrum with no authenticity. The climactic pie fight is all kinds of goofy, with Jodie Foster getting the highlight, delivering an off-the-cuff “So this is showbiz?” followed by what looks like a genuine, unrehearsed laugh. But even here it feels like Alan Parker himself is only playing. Despite the appearance of chaos and the alleged record number of pies thrown, the sequence feels as controlled as everything else--an approximation of something that will only fool those who haven’t otherwise seen the real thing.