Pink Flamingos, and six more movies



Dec. 27, 2022

Today we'll visit a prison with more escapees than inmates, the filthiest person in the world, high school kids singing about zombies and love, a family of thieves, an ex-POW pushed too far, an escaped prisoner who becomes a millionaire, and Martin Luther King and J Edgar's FBI.

A Nous La Liberté (1931)
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
Escape from Absolom (1994)
MLK/FBI (2020)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Rolling Thunder (1977)
Shoplifters (2018)

It's hard to pick the best of this batch. I loved the first 2/3 of Shoplifters, there's a lot to like about A Nous La Liberté, and Rolling Thunder got my adrenaline pumped, but you're missing out most, I think, if you've missed Pink Flamingos. 

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A Nous La Liberté (1931)
a/k/a Freedom Forever

Two inmates plot a prison escape, but only one gets out. The other escapes later, though, so you gotta wonder about the prison's security.

The first one over the bars starts selling used (phonograph) records, and soon becomes a millionaire owning a giant record factory. The second one has a much funnier escape, jumping from a window and landing on a crippled beggar — you'll have to believe me, it *is funny.

Things get wackier after that, in this classic French musical comedy by René Clair. It's 90 years old and in French, so some of the subtleties are no doubt lost on me, but what's left is both funny and intelligent, and tilted toward working stiffs as opposed to the monied class. I especially liked the poetry reading toward the end.

The prison sequences are oppressive, of course, but compared to American prison movies this French jail looks like swell. The inmates are all locked up under the eyes and billy clubs of cruel, sadistic guards, but that's all they have to worry about — the inmates aren't trying to kill each other. Maybe that's only part of prison life in America? Or only in American movies?

The comedic musical score has not aged well, and sounds like something from a Saturday morning cartoon. Typically shitty subtitles by Criterion, so go to Google Translate if you want to read the credits, dedication, or any signs in the movie. Overall, though, the movie deserves its great reputation. The two leading men are great together, and I liked the songs, even in French.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

It's just a coincidence that this is another musical. I'm not on an intentional musical kick.

This is a Scottish musical zombie flick set in high school. The first half of it is reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, except with kids singing and dancing while apocalypse symptoms accumulate behind them. The second half is more of an ordinary horror movie, but still with singing.

The comedy parts are good, and the songs are better. Almost all are catchy light-pop ditties, and the cast is full of very good professional singers. Some are better singers than they are actors. There's not a flat note in the show, and the dancing is major league too. 

The only problem is that when they're not singing, these characters are high school kids. Like real kids of that age, most of them are annoying, and like most movie kids, they're all adults, and act like adults.

Thumbs up for the music, and thumbs sideways for the story, which reminds me of WB melodramas.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Escape from Absolom (1994)
a/k/a No Escape

Ray Liotta plays Robbins, a prisoner at a sci-fi prison for the worst of the worst, which is cleverly called Leviticus, and run by warden Michael Lerner. The warden says he'll execute any troublemakers, but you know it's a stupid movie when twice in mere minutes he leaves himself vulnerable to attack from Robbins. The second time, Robbins attacks, but the punishment isn't death.

Instead the warden has Robbins flown by helicopter to an island populated by what look like indigenous people, but no; they're all escapees from Leviticus — not dozens of escapees, hundreds. So it's not much of a super-prison, after all.

The escapees capture and prepare to kill Robbins, but their leader stops them, because he wants to put Robbins into a death match against some big dude. Robbins kills the big dude, of course, because he's Liotta and he's the star of the movie. 

Then he runs off, and gets chased over a cliff into the water below. The water sucks him downstream, and he's dragged ashore by Ernie Hudson, who takes him to Lance Henrickson, who's running a shangra-la sanctuary for even more (!) escaped prisoners. 

What I've recounted is only the first twenty minutes or so. After that, there's all sorts of action and explosions and stuff, but nothing to make you care about any of it, so my mind began to wander…

Liotta's blank face gets tedious, and his blank face is what he shows 98% of the time here. It's rare that he shows any emotion or expression, and maybe that's the character, but it looks familiar. It looks like Liotta in any number of movies. Was he ever a good actor, or did he just luck into a few roles where his blank look sorta worked?

Ernie Hudson is in this, and despite all the truly stupid stuff going on all around him, despite the ridiculous dialogue he's given, he's quite good. Why has he so rarely been in anything but B-movies and deep supporting or sidekick roles? Dude needs a better agent.

The movie keeps rolling, and my mind keeps wandering...

All action movies vary the volume, so you keep a finger on the controls, but this movie is the worst ever in that regard. The battle and death screams and explosions are louder than usual, and then half the non-action dialogue is whispered very softly.

How come nobody manufactures an affordable volume leveler to solve this problem? Sell me a device that quiets or amplifies the sound as necessary, so you can hear an entire movie without tweaking the volume constantly.

I've looked (while the movie continues) and the only device that even claims to do it costs like $400. Screw that.

And is this movie over yet?

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

MLK/FBI (2020)

This is a dive into the federal surveillance of Martin Luther King, but it's not a deep dive.

Of course, we know the basics: King stood for non-violent protests, trying to make America live up to its professed ideal of equality. The FBI, personified by its leader-for-life J Edgar Hoover, was against that sort of thing, and worked very hard in the shadows to intimidate, embarrass, and reduce respect for King. 

Toward the beginning of this documentary, the screen announces, "Now, thanks to newly declassified documents, much of [the FBI's] intelligence [on King] is available to the public." The film was made in 2020, and I do pay some attention to the news, so perhaps the time lag is why there is simply nothing in the film that I didn't already know.

If you don't know that the FBI had bugged King's phones, learned of his extramarital affairs, and used this info to try nudging him toward suicide; that one of King's top advisors had been a communist, and that King was pressured to fire the guy but didn't; that Hoover and King despised each other; that King's outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war cost him, politically; or that King was working on a broader "poor people's campaign" at the end of his life, then you will find this film enlightening.

It disappointing to me, because it promises some revelation "thanks to newly declassified documents" but it's really just another documentary about King's latter years, a story that's been far better told than it's told here.

The film is overproduced, with flourishes even in the opening credits, all of which distracts from the information being presented.

There are lots of clips from old movies and TV, to provide a feel for the period, but it's way too many clips, comprising about 10% of the film. Even as someone who loves old movies, enough already. Tell me about MLK and the FBI.

Verdict: MAYBE at best.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Pink Flamingos (1972)

In his old age, John Waters has become the Kindly Grandfather of Gay, but his pre-mainstream films still stand as monuments to bad taste. This one's especially disgusting, and it's my favorite from the Waters filmography. 

Divine stars as herself, "the filthiest person alive," but Connie (Mink Stole) and Raymond (David Lochary) challenge her for the title. To start the competition, they mail a turd to Divine, and she responds by going to their house and licking everything in it. Then they come to Divine's gaudy pink trailer with a can of gasoline, and that's hardly a fraction of the fun.

If you're new to Waters, perhaps words like 'filthy' and 'disgusting' aren't enough to convey what you'll see: A man flexes his sphincter, and you are there. Another man flashes two women on a picnic, while a sausage is tied to his penis. Divine gives her son a blowjob. A man rapes a woman, while two live chickens are squished between their bodies. We watch a dog take a shit on the sidewalk, and Divine scoops it up and eats most of it, only vomiting a little. There's been no 'cut', so that's real dog shit she's eating, and she wasn't even nominated for an Oscar!

The rape is not a real rape, because Mr Waters is a gentleman. Everything else, though, is authentic — the penis, the sausage, the blowjob, the chickens, the dog shit — all of it, and more.

Written, produced, directed, filmed, and edited by Mr Waters, and in his hands, all these grotesqueries are not merely forgiven but appreciated. They're the point, and the pleasure of this. You will laugh, provided that you come to it with the improper attitude.

In addition to the shits and giggles, there's something important happening here, too. Pink Flamingos is an enthusiastic slap in the face to all that is ordinary, to everyone who says "You shouldn't do that," whatever 'that' might be. It's a message that was needed fifty years ago, and if anything it's even more needed now.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Rolling Thunder (1977)

William Devane usually plays someone who sits in an office. It seems unlikely that he'd play the bad-ass lead in an action movie, but here's Rolling Thunder.

Devane plays Major Charlie Rane, an Air Force officer who's just been freed after seven years of torture in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. It's left him wounded as of course it must, and he's ill-at-ease at his hero's welcome home, with speeches by local dignitaries and a high school marching band playing "Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue."

He salutes his superior officers, says a few words to the microphone, and tries to get on with his life, but it won't be easy. His wife confesses to a long affair while he was gone, and she's engaged to marry the man she's been boinking. Their son, who looks about 8, is a stranger to Rane. On perhaps the bright side, a pretty blonde woman developed a crush on him based on the coverage of his imprisonment, and she wants to be his "groupie."

It's hard to get a word out of Charlie Rane. He's been through a lot and he's holding all of it inside, with taciturn and limited dialogue that adds to the tension. The pace is not slow, but also not lickety-split. It's an action movie, but you'll wait a long time for the action, and actually, there's not much of it — but it's something wild when the action comes.

"What the fuck are you doing?" 

"I'm gonna kill a bunch of people."

It's all plausible — Rane's mental injuries and silence, the blonde being attracted to him, his responses to stress, her responses to him, the plot spark in the middle, and the way everything's resolved. Any number of things could go wrong and do, and Rane is no Rambo. He's a plenty flawed protagonist.

Devane is perfect, and nobody could've played the part better. Tommy Lee Jones id his best buddy/sidekick, and he's damaged and quiet too, but says a lot with a sly smile as the violence comes due.

Written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ), and directed by John Flynn. Never heard of Flynn before, and there's nothing familiar on his IMDB page, but I'll be seeking out more of his films. This one's splendid.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Shoplifters (2018)

Sorta similar to Parasite, here's an Asian family of kinda lowlife criminals, only they're shoplifters instead of con artists.

The twist, though, is that you're expecting a movie about shoplifters, and there's plenty of that, and it's charmingly executed, but the thrust of the movie is more about a little kid.

She's been abused and then abandoned by her family, and informally adopted into the shoplifting family, where, of course, she's expected to do her fair share of the shoplifting.

Comes eventually the question: To which family should this girl be entrusted? Her biological parents have beaten her, ignored her, treated her like they wish she wasn't there, and when she's gone they don't even report her missing. The shoplifters, while criminal, have given this child an otherwise decent home, and some genuine affection.

Dry your eyes when, in the middle of sneaking several layers of clothes onto themselves in a department store changing room, the shoplifting family's mom explains to the kid, "I'm not going to hit you."

The story is eventually bigger than the little girl, including some scenes juxtaposing poverty, emergency, and heartbreak.

The point of the film, for me, is that despite a billion things society says are right and wrong, often the actual distinction… depends.

Unfortunately, the movie goes all Judging Amy in the third act, embracing and endorsing the rules no matter who gets hurt. It's realistic, certainly, but it's a reality that sucks.

Verdict: YES, I suppose.

♦ ♦ ♦

Coming soon:

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
Countdown: The Sky's on Fire (1999)
The Falling (2014)
The Fat Black Pussycat (1963)
I, the Jury (1982)
Silverado (1985)
Troll (1985)


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. John Flynn:

    The Outfit (1973) and Defiance (1980) are both excellent, though not quite as good as Rolling Thunder.

    Prison break films:


    1. As always, thanks for the list.

      Weird that you gave me a list of prison movies, because I chopped the first paragraph from my already-overlong review of Escape from Absolom, where I'd said how much I love cruel-warden prison-uprising movies. You made me doublecheck, and yeah, I *did* cut that paragraph, but you knew what I wanted anyway.

      Saw The Outfit a week or so ago, and I'll add Defiance, too.

    2. Claude Reigns, SolitaryDecember 27, 2022 at 10:23 PM

      Oh man, you gotta watch Dassin's Brute Force, then. Hume Cronyn - doesn't play the warden, but a sadistic guard, a real classic bastard. The prisoners go wild!


      Jules Dassin also directed Rififi, which - surely you've seen it? - can legitimately claim the title as best heist film ever made.

      Of that list, I also especially recommend The Hole/Le Trou. Just a clear-eyed look at the mechanics involved in breaking out of a prison... filing bars, hiding their work... lots of "watching people do things" which is what film is good at.

      Not on the list above - Brawl in Cell Block 99 - over the top but also pretty disturbing and extraordinarily violent. Honestly the director's more recent film - Dragged Across Concrete - is where I'd start, but all three of his flicks are amazing. You may hate his stuff, lots people do.

      Also not on the list above - Melville's Army of Shadows - Not entirely a prison break film, but about the French Resistance in WW2. Lots of snooping around, trying to escape camp, interrogations, the like. Stunningly well-made, like all of Melville's work. I think you'd go nuts for his stuff. Le Cercle Rouge might also be the greatest heist film... The Driver (Hill) was essentially based on Le Samourai...


      Have not seen, but want to - Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11. Love Siegel, and it's supposed to be great.

    3. You're recommending movies faster than I can watch them, but if I live long enough I'll watch them all.

      Well, except Dragged Across Concrete. Never heard of it before, but I'm not seeing that, and probably not seeing anything by someone who'd make a movie called Dragged Across Concrete.

      The suggestions are appreciated, though, and three of them are downloading at this very moment. I need to see everything Don Siegel made.

    4. Dragged isn't as violent as its title. It's almost austere, actually. It's 99% talk. Very theatrical camera set-ups. A lot of people describe Zahler (writer/director) as a right-wing Tarantino, which I'm sure is no recommendation to anyone. But I think he's better than Tarantino at this point. More ambiguous, less derivative. Very Siegel-ish, actually.

      Siegel is one of the best genre directors ever. Total lack of pretense, but the kind of dramatic intelligence that has disappeared from modern storytelling. The Beguiled is definitely one to see, if you haven't.

    5. Your recommendations rarely disappoint, so I'll take your word for all of it.

      Siegel has never yet disappointed me.

      Tarantino gets on my nerves, but I don't think I've yet out-and-out disliked any of his stuff.

    6. Running behind, but John Waters is credited with two cameos in the TV show Homicide, Life on the Street, which I've almost finished rewatching episode by episode. It was mostly filmed in Baltimore, so Waters makes sense. But I swear he had a couple of additional walk-ons.

      It's a terrific series by the way. Too good for the TV business so they had to fuck up the last few seasons by hiring a few pretty faces. The first three or four seasons, though, are some of the best television ever aired.


    7. Wife liked it, so we watched it, and I liked it too. All I really remember is that Munch started there, and then the show got cancelled and Munch jumped from Baltimore to New York and one of the CSI: Forever shows.

      Long forgotten fact: Richard Belzer used to be a comedian.

  2. William Devane? Ah, he was there for the second Bad News Bears film, BNBs In Breaking Training, where he replaces Walter Matthau as the team's coach. Not as awe-inspiring as the first film -- not surprising -- it's still better than expected. It's the third in the trilogy when the BNBs go to Japan that things go sideways, shitty and bogusly 'romantic.' (Yeah, the original audience for these movies was growing older and more mature but that meant they weren't going to watch any BNB movies, not that they'd hang around to see one of them 'mature.') All I can about In Breaking Training is obvious: LET THEM PLAY!!!

    1. The Bad News Bears got romantic? As I recall, wasn't there only one girl on the team? Sounds much more interesting than Little League...

      The original is on my watchlist, but it'll have to be exponentially better than I remember or even than I'm hoping, to make me want to watch a sequel...


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