Brick and Diary of a Mad Housewife, and five more movies

For your motion picture enjoyment today: a movie in a madhouse, a time traveling bartender, a teenage hooker on the run, a documentary about a beloved character from children's books, the misery of being a married woman, a gritty adolescent crime drama, and a solution to the eternal question of who shot JFK.

• 10 Days in a Madhouse
• Brick (2005)
• Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
• Executive Action (1973)
• Monkey Business (2007)
• Predestination (2014)
• Streets (1990)



The best of these is Diary of a Mad Housewife, and the most enjoyable is Brick. The big disappointment is 10 Days in a Madhouse.

Can someone get the lights, please?

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10 Days in a Madhouse (2015)

A week ago, I reviewed the non-fiction book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, by Nellie Bly. She's the reporter who feigned insanity and got committed to a mental institute, then wrote about the inhuman and subhuman conditions there. 

What Ms Bly did is terrifying, and deserves a better movie than this.

The first problem is the script, which seems to focus on the least outrageous moments from Bly's coverage, or takes gruesome elements and makes them milder. The second problem is Caroline Barry, who plays Bly as if she's Pippi Longstocking.

Christopher Lambert is the movie's only known actor, playing the asylum's administrator, and I'll simply say that Christopher Lambert plays the asylum's administrator. It ends with a Schoolhouse Rock-style pop song about Nellie Bly. 

This movie feels like an earnest play, written by someone who read the CliffsNotes instead of the book, staged for community theater, and filmed by a volunteer.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Brick (2005)

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper), this is a strange but intriguing juxtaposition of two genres, film noir and high school drama.

That's an unlikely mashup, really — nobody has the self-confidence at 16 or 17 to pull off dialogue like this — but it doesn't matter. It's cool as an autumn breeze through the gym doors.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, but he's actually playing Bogart, looking for his ex-girlfriend, who's not been seen in class. She's been hanging with the wrong crowd, but Brendan's a stand-up boy, still there if she needs him, and she's called him and said she needs him. Finding her involves snappy dialogue and two-fisted retorts. 

Brendan, losing his patience with vice principal Richard Roundtree:

"And no more of these informal chats, either. You got a discipline issue with me, write me up, or suspend me, and I'll see you at the parent conference."

Change a few words and that's George Raft or Robert Mitchum lipping off to a police lieutenant. Really, the only noir elements missing from Brick are a butt dangling from Gordon-Levitt's mouth and a scene where he drowns his regrets in whiskey.

Filmed on location at San Clemente High School, in Orange County, California. It's great that they let the cameras in, but did school administrators see the script? There's sex, drugs, and violence here, and no algebra at all.

We never see any of these kids' parents, except one boy's mother, willfully clueless to everything going on, who offers Brendan an lemonade.

The story moves fast, gets almost Big Sleep-complicated, the girls are femme fatales, it's bloody, and the end is brutal and bleak, baby. Some kids don't graduate.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

Carrie Snodgrass is the titular housewife, and Richard Benjamin is her husband. He's insufferable from the movie's first moment, their kids are quite awful too. There seems to be nothing in this lady's life except honoring and obeying the man she's shackled to until death do them part. 

She gets back at her husband by having an affair with a man almost as boorish (Frank Langella, younger and suaver that I've ever seen him), and if Snodgress's character went bonkers and shoved both men down an elevator shaft, she could plausibly plead insanity, or mental self-defense.

She never really does go mad, at least not in the movie, but damn, the tension builds, and by the last scene she's on the brink. I hope that as soon as the closing credits have rolled she's going to do something big and bonkers.

"I don't understand her problem," says a man in her therapy group. "Your husband works hard to support you, in return for which he wants the house cleaned, the buttons sewn on, and a modest amount of sexual intercourse. I mean, what's your problem?"

This is the life a lot of women had to put up with before the bra-burning era, and it's no life at all. Putting it on screen makes this maybe the most feminist mainstream movie I've ever seen, and it had to open some eyes.

Diary of a Mad Housewife is based on a novel by Sue Kaufman, with a screenplay by Eleanor Perry, co-writer of The Swimmer and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. She was also the wife of this film's director, Frank Perry, and in clicking through her brief bio at IMDB, I see that they divorced right after this film came out. You go, girl.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Executive Action (1973)

With a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, this is a cold, hard look at conspirators planning JFK's assassination. It's fictional, not a documentary, but nine people are listed in the opening credits as "Research." Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Will Geer star.

So who done it? Rich Republicans, with help from all the usual suspects. That's what the movie believes, anyway. I don't know what I believe about JFK's assassination, except that whoever did it got away with it, and I'm tired of hearing about it.

T is dry, with lots of clandestine conversations and people pointing at diagrams on overhead projectors. It's important stuff, certainly, and when it came out — ten years after the assassination — it was probably riveting.

After hearing a thousand wingnut theories about JFK's murder all my life, though, to me it feels like a rerun even though I'd never seen it before.

The film's version of events is certainly more probable than some kooky theories I've heard, like the Warren Commission, but it's irrelevant. Rich Republicans still get away with whatever the hell they want, and they always will.

Verdict: YES, but also MEH.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Monkey Business (2007) 

This documentary is about "Curious George" creators Margret and Hans Rey. Early on it's revealed that  Margaret was a very difficult woman who didn't like children, and casually treated people like shit. Their housekeeper admits that she quit several times, outraged at Margaret's cruelty.

The film is narrated by an unseen Sam Waterston, with comments from several people who knew the couple, and numerous clips from interviews with Margaret. 

Its story is largely about the couple's travails escaping Germany during Hitler's rule, and then escaping Brazil where everyone suspected they were spies, and then returning to Europe and escaping there, back to Brazil, and eventually coming to America. It's illustrated with cartoons, drawn in the style of Curious George, and the cartoons are charming.

It's revealed that Hans lied on all his "about the author" pages — nope, he never sold bathtubs along the Amazon River. And I chuckled at the part where we're told that Margaret acted as the team's agent, negotiated all their business dealings, and sold the rights to Curious George to Houghton-Mifflin for $1,000.

Margaret learned from the mistake of undervaluing Curious George, and spent her last 19 years after Hans' death marketing the monkey's likeness on dolls and bathtub toys, hoodies, t-shirts, baseball caps, and kaleidoscopes.

The moviemakers seem to love Margaret, Hans, and Curious George, and if you're a fan of the man with the big yellow hat and a simian little buddy, you might like this.

To me, Curious George is a smiling memory from childhood, but I wasn't charmed by the film, and it often felt smothered in cutesy. There's tinkling piano music all through it, interrupted a few times by someone singing a kiddie song so cloyingly that I clicked the volume off. There's nothing compelling or surprising here, except that Margaret Rey was a bitch.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Predestination (2014)

Based on a short story by Robert A Heinlein, which I remember reading decades ago, but wow, I didn't remember it being so complicated. 

It stars Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook. Hawke is a time traveling cop who's working undercover as a bartender, and Snook is Hollywood ugly — she wears glasses and everyone tells her she's funny looking, so we're supposed to think she's funny looking when actually she's beautiful. She also plays the same character as a man, after an involuntary sex change operation.

The surgery isn't presented as a cruelty, but as a medical necessity, which I didn't understand, but hey, it's all about suspension of disbelief and we've already accepted Snook as ugly, which seems a far greater leap.

I can't describe the plot beyond these basics, not due to decorum or restraint, but because it's complicated. The story keeps slipping through my fingers as I type, which gets the keyboard messy. Let's just say, I watched this film twice, enjoyed it twice, and get the gist of it but not the details. It could've used a few more nudges from the script explaining what was going on, but this is a good movie. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Streets (1990)

Roger Corman presents 18-year-old Christina Applegate as a hooker being stalked by a crazed policeman but protected by a boy with a musical keyboard. Somehow, it's not as good as it sounds.

Applegate is fine, the boy she falls for is vapid, the storyline is plausible, the dialogue is shit, and it's further weighted down by a maudlin piano score.

Verdict: NO.


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. I really like all of Frank Perry's films up through Mommy Dearest.

    It's arguable that his films suffered when his wife stopped writing them.

    Some of his flicks seem like 90-minute Twilight Zone episodes, which may or may not be a problem for some people. Ladybug Ladybug and Man On A Swing and The Swimmer are all like this, but are still fantastic.

    I love Snodgrass's performance in DOAMH, but honestly didn't care for Benjamin and Langella. I can't decide if it's because I dislike them as actors (which is true) and/or if their roles were cartoonishly conceived, even for males in 1970. In a way this seems an update of "women's pictures" from the 50s, but somehow it doesn't seem as complex as many of those older films. I think it's a sad, angry film, but lacking something. I should watch it again I guess.

    Perry was great with actresses. Snodgrass in DOAMH, Weld in Play It As It Lays, many others. Last Summer has a stunning turn from Catherine Burns, about whom this is a remarkable article:


    I suppose my favorite Perrys are Swimmer, Rancho Deluxe, Doc, Man On A Swing, etc.


    Had the exact same reaction as you to Executive Action. Good, but "Meh."

    David Miller, the director, did make some very interesting, unusual films. Lonely Are The Brave is maybe Kirk Douglas's best film (Saturn 3 close second) and perhaps the best western set in the 20th Century (well, the best western set in the 20th Century and not named The Wild Bunch) and Midnight Lace is simultaneously silly and great. Here's Dan (Whole Wide World) Ireland on ML:



    Thus ends today's sermon.

    1. Every day's sermon from you is better than any day's sermon from a preacher.

      At that Hollywood Reporter article on Cathy Burns, it's mentioned that "in the intervening years, she had penned a children’s book — The Winter Bird, about one bird who stays behind when all the others go south," and holy crap, man, I either owned that book as a kid or checked it out from the school library more than once.

      Never once connected it with the woman who played the girl in that movie, Last Summer, which I saw on TV in high school and I can't tell ya how much I hated it. She was great, though.

      Are you *seriously* saying Saturn 3 was Kirk Douglas's second best movie? Nah, you're pulling my lame leg. Paths of Glory? Ace in the Hole? Spartacus? Out of the Past? I will concede that he was good in Saturn 3, but seriously?

      As always, just about any flick you mention favorably goes onto my watchlist, which you're filling up almost as fast as I can watch 'em. Keep 'em coming.

      Right this moment I'm watching an early Roland Emmerich sci-fi I'd never heard of, Moon 44. It's about 2/3 finished and so far, it's twice as good as I could've predicted.


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