Tag Archives: Gangster

LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

Keyhole has been upgraded to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. This initial review is kept here for archival purposes. Please leave comments on Keyhole‘s official Certified Weird entry page.

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Jason Patric, , Louis Negin, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner, Udo Kier

PLOT: Gangster Ulysses journeys through his immense mansion searching for his wife who is

Still from Keyhole (2011)

hiding on the top floor; along the way he uncovers tragic family memories.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got Loius Negin as a naked grandpa ghost tied to his daughter’s bed by a long chain who likes to run around his haunted house whipping mortal intruders, for one thing. There’s more than enough soft-focus weirdness here to justify a position on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies Ever Made. The only problem is, icons like Guy Maddin make things difficult on themselves by raising their own bar so high. Keyhole would stun us if it were the work of a first or second time director, but we’ve watched Maddin creep about similarly maddening psychoscapes before—and seen him do it better.

COMMENTS: I think there are four possible reactions to Keyhole. The average moviegoer who has never seen a Guy Maddin movie before will despise it as incomprehensible trash. A tiny minority of newcomers will be astounded and think it’s the most visionary movie they’ve ever laid eyes upon. If you’re already initiated into Maddin’s esoteric world, there are two further possible responses: either an enthusiastic “Guy’s done it again!” or the more muted “Guy’s done this before.” I’m afraid I’m leaning towards the last camp. For this outing, Maddin sets his genre renovation sights on 1930s gangster movies, but we don’t stay in mob mode for long—the film quickly morphs into a unique, psychological haunted house piece. Crime boss Ulysses Pick has assembled his gang at his Gothic manor while he attends to a personal matter. The thugs wait on the first floor while Ulysses takes a blind girl and a kidnap victim through the house, peering through various keyholes and re-enacting a ritual with his (dead?) wife (they exchange a verbal formula, then he extracts a bit of hair from the keyhole and remembers an incident involving one of his four children, all of whom came to tragic ends). Meanwhile, various ghosts roam the home annoying the gangsters, and Udo Kier shows up as a doctor to pronounce some of the characters dead. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: KEYHOLE (2011)

101. SKIDOO (1968)

“It is the gassiest, grooviest, swingingest, trippiest movie you’ve ever seen… Anybody that don’t like that, daddy, don’t like chicken on Sunday.”–Sammy Davis, Jr. recommending Skidoo to the younger generation in the film’s trailer

DIRECTED BY: Otto Preminger

FEATURING: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, , Alexandra Hay, , Austin Pendleton, Frankie Avalon, Arnold Stang, , , , Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, George Raft, , Harry Nilsson

PLOT: Tony is a retired mobster living in the suburbs with wife Flo and daughter Darlene, who has an unwelcome (to Tony) interest in dating hippies. A crime kingpin known as “God” pressures the ex-hit man into doing one last job—going undercover in Alcatraz to assassinate a stool pigeon.  When Tony accidentally ingests LSD in the pen, his entire worldview is flipped and he decides to ditch the hit and break out of the clink; meanwhile, Flo and Darlene have taken it upon themselves to track down God with the help of a band of flower children.

Still from Skidoo (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Otto Preminger had been nominated as Best Director for two Academy Awards (for Laura and The Cardinal).  Known for pushing the envelope on taboo topics, Preminger was instrumental in breaking the back of the Hollywood Production Code by releasing The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which dealt with the then-forbidden topic of heroin addiction, without MPAA approval.
  • Skidoo was a giant flop sandwiched between two other Preminger flops, Hurry Sundown (1967) and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).  Despite its notorious reputation, Skidoo was part of a series of failed films and was not solely responsible for Preminger’s fall from grace.
  • Two years after Skidoo, screenwriter Doran William Cannon penned the exceedingly weird Brewster McCloud (1970).
  • This was Groucho Marx’s final film.  He dropped LSD (with writer Paul Krassner) in preparation for the role.
  • Preminger also took LSD, supposedly under the guidance of none other than Timothy Leary (who promoted the film in the trailer).  Preminger had originally been slated to make an anti-acid movie, but had decided that he should experience the drug before condemning it.  After his trip he decided to make Skidoo instead.
  • Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, and Cesar Romero, who all have cameo bits in Skidoo, had also appeared together in the same movie just two years before: as the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Joker in Batman: The Movie (1966).  Director Otto Preminger had a rare acting role as Mr. Freeze in two episodes of the “Batman” TV show in 1966.
  • After flopping in 1968, Skidoo became virtually a lost film—not because it was suppressed or the prints were unavailable, but because no one seemed interested in exhibiting it.  A Turner Classic Movies screening in 2008 was the first opportunity most people had to view the movie since its release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jackie Gleason’s acid trip is one for the ages, particularly when he sees Groucho Marx’s cigar-puffing head affixed atop a rotating wood screw.  His response to the apparition, naturally, is to say “Oh no, I’m not playing your game… go ahead, drop,” at which point the screwball vision slips down the prison sink drain.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Like an onion soaked in high-grade acid, Skidoo contains layers upon layers of weirdness. In 1968 it was not that far out for a movie to take us on a swirly psychedelic journey to check out that purple haze all in our brains. What was freaky was for establishment icons Otto Preminger, Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing and Groucho Marx to serve as our tour guides. Add to that the fact that the film is a notorious flop full of painfully strained attempts at comedy, jaw-dropping left-field musical numbers, scattershot satire, and Harry Nilsson singing the closing credits, and you have a singular pro-drug oddity that mines rare camp.


Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski discussing the trailer for Skidoo (1968)

COMMENTS: Watching Otto Preminger’s Skidoo is like listening to a cover version of the Doors’ Continue reading 101. SKIDOO (1968)

LIST CANDIDATE: TO DIE FOR TANO [TANO DA MORIRE] (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Roberta Torre

FEATURING: Ciccio Guarino, Mimma De Rosalia

PLOT: The movie tells the story of the life and death of Palermo mafioso Tano Guarrasi—and

Still from To Die for Tano (1997)

of the newfound freedom of his four ugly sisters who stayed spinsters because no man was brave enough to marry them—in song and dance.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  It’s weird, but given its status as an almost completely unknown movie, it’s not quite outrageously outlandish enough to earn a spot on the List on the first ballot.  A musical production telling the life story of a contemptible macho bully in styles ranging from disco to “gangsta” rap would be strange enough, but director Roberta Torre adds in bizarre dream sequences involving dancing chickens and every 1970s LSD drug trip camera effect she can afford, and films the entire mess as if she’s the long-lost love child of Maya Deren and George Kuchar.  It’s rambunctious and the energy gets to you, but it’s held back by its extreme amateurism (bad singing and choreography can gets wearisome over an hour’s time), and also by the fact that no compelling story or characters ever emerge from the sketch-upon-sketch structure.  Still, it’s one of those movies you may want to track down just so you’ll have something to make your co-workers’ eyes bug out on Monday morning when you talk around the water cooler about what you watched over the weekend.  Recommended for those hunting the obscurest oddities, and anyone who reads this site regularly is likely to find it at least amusing.

COMMENTS:  There’s something gratifying about seeing Sicily’s murderous thugs depicted as a crew of mincing ninnies.  The fact that this gangster spoof is enacted by residents of the city that suffered during the mob’s gangland wars only adds to the elation; their open mockery of their criminal overlords feels brave and subversive, and transmutes the silliness into a strange sort of grandeur.  Though shot in 1997, Tano almost looks like a 1970s production, from the washed out color to the grotesque-looking amateur actors, cheap props and camera tricks, and general “pop avant-garde” feel of an Andy Warhol or John Waters production.  The story (based on real-life events) jumps about in time, usually for little obvious reason, and there are numerous digressions for flashbacks and the absurd musical numbers that are the film’s raison d’être.  The translator earns extra credit for rendering all the songs in rhyme, especially since that practice often results in odd-sounding couplets like “I’ll beat up guys Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: TO DIE FOR TANO [TANO DA MORIRE] (1997)

70. PERFORMANCE (1970)

PHERBER: What do you think Turner feels like?
CHAS: I don’t know. He’s weird, and you’re weird. You’re kinky.
PHERBER: He’s a man, a male and female man!

–dialogue from Performance

DIRECTED BY: , Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton

PLOT: Chas, a sadistic associate gangster who terrorizes local businesses for London crime kingpin Harry Flowers, is forced to go into hiding when he kills one of his boss’ allies. He rents a basement from Turner, a former rock icon caught in creative doldrums, now living as a hermit in a luxurious town house with two beautiful live-in girlfriends and a never-ending supply of dope. Turner initially wants to get rid of Chas but gradually grows fascinated by him, sensing that the thug’s energy might help him break out of his artistic slump, and he begins to make over Chas in his own image.

BACKGROUND:

  • Donald Cammell, a former painter turned screenwriter, wrote the script and directed the actors. Nicolas Roeg, already a sought after cinematographer for his work on films such as The Masque of the Red Death and Fahrenheit 451, supervised the film’s visuals. It was the first directing credit for either.
  • Donald Cammell took his own life in 1996 with a bullet to the head.
  • Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the movie solely because rock star Mick Jagger was attached to the project.
  • The role of Chas was written with Marlon Brando in mind. Depending on whom you ask, Brando either declined the role, or the producers decided he could not play a convincing lower-class Brit. James Fox, a rising young actor known for his posh upper-class persona, studied actual London gangsters to get down the Cockney accent and criminal mannerisms.
  • Fox, in his acting prime at the time of Performance, suffered a nervous breakdown after filming (reportedly brought about by a the combination of his father’s death and smoking the powerful hallucinogen DMT with Jagger) and did not act again for 8 years after completing the movie.
  • Tuesday Weld and Marianne Faithfull were the original choices to play Pherber, but Pallenberg, a model and Rolling Stones groupie (then Keith Richards’ girlfriend), was brought in after Weld was injured and Faithfull became pregnant.
  • Nicolas Roeg recalls seeing members of the film development lab destroying “intimate” scenes of the film “with a fire axe,” apparently believing they had mistakenly been sent illegal hardcore pornography to develop.
  • Jack Nitzsche composed much of the score on the ninth Moog synthesizer ever built (the Moog probably belonged to Jagger: the Rolling Stones had beenone of the first rock groups to include a synthesizer on their 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”).
  • The movie was completed in 1968, but shelved for two years after a disastrous test screening at which audiences yelled at the screen and walked out of the theater. A studio executive’s wife reportedly vomited from viewing the graphic violence, and audiences were offered their money back. The movie’s eventual release was delayed for two years while the film was re-edited; much of the violence was trimmed, and Mick Jagger’s first appearance was moved forward in the film to appease Warner Brother executives. Roeg has already left for Australia to make Walkabout and was not involved in the final cut.
  • In order to compress the beginning of the film, partly so that Jagger would appear onscreen earlier, editor Frank Mazzola created the fast crosscutting montage that begins the film. “I knew I’d have to slide things back and forth or extend something to make it hit on a note or a frame,” the editor recalls. “I could do three or four or five of those cuts and bang!, it was perfect, like a beat… You could do anything to that film and it would work, because of the way it was happening. It was poetry, it was organic…”
  • Among the cuts later demanded by the British censors was a scene of Fox being flogged, intercut with a scene of him making love to a woman digging her fingernails into his back.
  • Performance was savaged by critics on its initial release, but its reputation has improved over the years. In 2009 Mick Jagger’s Turner ranked number one in Film Comment’s poll of top film performances by a musician.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Turner is dancing around with a large fluorescent tube before a stoned Chas when he suddenly howl and thrusts the glowing cylinder at the mobster’s ear; a tracking shot through his auditory canal reveals Chas’ mob boss imprinted on the tympanic membrane. The camera plunges past this barrier and suddenly Jagger replaces the crimelord in the scene; he launches into an taunting song aimed at Chas and assembled gang lieutenants.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before Anita Pallenberg feeds James Fox hallucinogenic amanita mushrooms on the sly near the climax, the crazed editing of the first half, which cuts back and forth across time and space without warning while setting up the tale of Chas’ fall from gangster grace, is so trippy that it’s almost completely disoriented us. Performance is almost exactly what you would expect to see if you matched a couple of smart, artsy, experimental directors to an eccentric half-amateur cast of drug addicts in 1968 and the set’s caterers fed the crew a diet of nothing but hash brownies and magic mushrooms for the entire shoot.


Original trailer for Performance (trailer contains brief nudity and sexuality)

COMMENTS: When you notice a bullet shattering a portrait of Jorge Luis Borges on the way Continue reading 70. PERFORMANCE (1970)

CAPSULE: 44 INCH CHEST (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Malcolm Venville

FEATURING: , Ian McShane, , Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Whalley

PLOT: Four men (presumably gangsters, though it’s never made explicit) kidnap the lover of a cuckolded mate’s wife and try to goad the bereaved man into killing him for revenge.

Still from 44 Inch Chest (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, although it is an example of how an isolated weird scene can creep into a mainstream drama.

COMMENTS44 Inch Chest sets up an intriguing conflict that captures our interest, but it fails to capitalize on the inherent drama and its force gradually dissipates into a wisp.  When sexy Liz (Whalley) announces she’s leaving Colin (Winstone), he first pleads with her not to go, then winds up beating the name of her lover out of her.  Afterward, Colin is so emotionally spent he can’t even get up off the floor or stop listening to Harry Nilsson wail “I can’t live, if living is without you” over and over. His four friends, shady characters at best, kidnap the adulterer and deliver him to their comatose mate so he can extract his vengeance.  There’s no evidence that Colin ever asks for their assistance or that his buddies kidnap the loverboy as a favor to him.  They are prodding him to do his duty; they take it upon themselves to set up the ritual revenge, and as they egg him on, it becomes clear that if the cuckold fails to conform to the code of gangster honor and kill the man who disrespected him, their value system will be undermined.  The problem is that Colin is a clinically depressed, blubbering, lovesick mess who’s barely capable of lighting his own cigarette, much less pulling a trigger and taking another man’s life.  The conflict isn’t between between Colin and his wife’s helpless lover (who spends the movie stuffed into a wardrobe or tied to a chair), but between Colin and the bad angels standing two on each shoulder, each using a different tactic to convince him to uphold his “honor.”  An actor’s movie, 44 Inch Chest unspools like an overextended one-act play, with each of the major characters getting a monologue and a turn in the spotlight.  Winstone’s performance is nuanced, burly and scary, but even more pathetic.  As a suave homosexual, Ian McShane dominates whenever he’s onscreen; despite his sophistication and questionable sexuality he’s one of the gang, as crudely masculine as any of them at bottom (in fact, his “love ’em and leave ’em” sexual philosophy is, if anything, the most authentically guy-ish).  John Hurt is also excellent as the bitter and shriveled “Old Man Peanut,” who’s as dried up a bundle of bigotry and spite as you’d ever have the misfortune of encountering outside of a Mafia nursing home.  Tom Wilkinson does well as Archie, the regular guy of the group and frequently the mediator among clashing egos, and Stephen Dillane is fine, if underused, as the youngest member of the group.   As Liz, Whalley is sexy, elegant and distant; the unknowable (to these guys, at least) feminine.  The F-word and C-word laden dialogue strives for profane poetry and strikes a reasonably nasty rhythm, though it never sails to the heights of a David Mamet.  The problem is the plot, which peters out long before the end and winds up in a philosophically sound but dramatically unsatisfying anticlimax.

A couple of fantasy sequences explain why this vulgar gangster drama is being covered on a weird movie site.  When Colin is left alone in a room with his bloodied-up romantic rival, he begins to hallucinate.  The visions elucidate his psychology and provide somewhere for the movie to go when the droogs seems to have run out of misogynist arguments.  Even when you’ve been warned they’re coming they may catch you by surprise, as its not always completely obvious where the objective world ends and Colin’s internal fantasies begin.  Nonetheless, they’re a diversion and don’t really substitute for a more thoughtful plot resolution.  Watch 44 Inch Chest for the performances by a superlative collection of British actors, and for the brief glimpse a John Hurt in a black cocktail dress; don’t watch it for the story, or for weirdness.

Louis Mellis and David Scinto, co-writers of the 2000 hit Sexy Beast, wrote the screenplay for Chest.  The movie also stars Beast‘s Winstone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors go at the material with obvious relish… On the debit side, and it’s a doozy, the picture’s narrative trajectory fails to deliver a third act that takes the story anywhere of note except into a silly realm of cut-rate surrealism. Final reel ends not with the expected bang but with an almost inaudible whimper.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MALICE IN WONDERLAND (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Simon Fellows

FEATURING: Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer

PLOT:  American Alice gets amnesia after being hit by a taxicab while fleeing unknown

Still from Malice in Wonderland (2009)

pursuers; she tries to figure out her identity while traveling through a hallucinatory Wonderland of London gangsters.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a diverting weird movie and a must for Alice-adaptation completists, but it’s neither weird nor good enough to be on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS: Malice in Wonderland may not be the ultimate trip to Wonderland, but you have to give scripter Jayson Rothwell major props for one thing: unlike other “Alice in Wonderland” updates (*cough*, Burton, *cough*), he doesn’t shy away from wordplay and nonsense.  A riddle (delivered by a talking billboard) serves as a major plot point, although the answer is a bit bungled at the end.  Puns are scattered throughout the movie (check out the way Alice steals the tarts), and some characters speak only in rhyming couplets.  Whitey addresses Alice as “Britney,” and when the amnesiac objects that that’s not her name, he shoots back with the Humpty Dumpty-esque rejoinder, “You don’t know who you are, so you don’t know who you aren’t.”  There’s a cleverness to this script and a love of nonsense that goes beyond just re-imagining the beloved characters in a novel setting.  That part’s admirable, but the script also falls into one of the more annoying rabbit holes that plague Alice adaptations; giving Alice a romantic interest (or a platonic boyfriend to serve the same purpose, like Johnny Depp‘s Mad Hatter in the latest Disney version).  Ideally, Alice should wander through Wonderland meeting bizarre entities who help and hinder her in equal parts, with no way of predicting which will come next.  The romantic anchor, always ready to lend Alice his aid and rescue her when things get tough, is an unnecessary safety net and an unwelcome intrusion of Hollywood reality.  In Malice‘s case, the misstep is aggravated by the fact that there’s no real chemistry between leads Maggie Grace and Danny Dyer, and no motivation for them to get together; in fact, their dalliance only distracts from Alice’s quest to rediscover her identity.  Grace’s performance (or her direction) can also be faulted for not being beleaguered and bewildered enough; she’s suddenly thrown into a world of grimy, loony London lowlifes, and accepts the insanity too easily, never seeming the slightest bit endangered or even very concerned.  True, that world seems only a tad bit more off and dangerous than a typical Guy Ritchie movie—the gangsters’ extreme quirkiness defangs them—but a little more fear and urgency would have helped involve the viewer in her plight.  One last criticism: when the movie reverts to reality to wrap up the psychological loose ends, the transition from the psychedelic London underground of hoodlums to the physical London Underground of mass transit is awkward and arbitrary.  Malice may not go very deep, but it’s entertaining, clever, colorful, and zips along at a nice clip.  And what lover of light absurdity won’t respond to a smoky midnight ride with a rapping Rastafarian and a hooker, a mobile brothel in the bed of a sixteen wheeler, continuous trippy flashbacks, and a competition among thugs and con-men to deliver an impressive gift to the gangland kingpin who has everything?

Malice in Wonderland received shockingly low marks from the critics (only a 10% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes?)  A quick analysis of that data reveals the negative reviews coming from the United Kingdom, and they seem to be largely related to some sort of national Danny Dyer fatigue.  Dyer wasn’t spectacular (which may be as much the fault of his part being underwritten as his talent), but I had no objection to the bloke other than his sometimes incomprehensible Cockney accent.  Looking at his résumé, it appears he may be a bit overexposed at the moment, and if he’s repeating basically the same shtick in every BBC role as he does in this movie, I can see how he might grow tiresome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite its faults, for fleeting moments the movie is both visually striking and enjoyably bizarre, although all too often positioning the camera at a jaunty angle is mistaken for a surreal perspective leading you to spend much of Malice In Wonderland’s 90 minute duration wondering whether a broken tripod is responsible for your skewed view of proceedings.”–Daniel Bettridge, Film 4 (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “alexis.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)