Riot in Cell Block 11, and six more movies

Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)

Neville Brand and Leo Gordon lead a prison revolt, filmed on location at Folsom State Prison, with prisoners and guards playing some of the prisoners and guards. 

After the opening sequence — kinda corny newsreel-style reports on prison riots across America — this becomes one of the all-time great prison dramas.

Unlike American prisons, the population here is mostly white, but the film is realistically dark, tense, brutal, and thrilling. The prison is overcrowded, the food is shitty, there's no rehabilitation or anything for the prisoners to do but wait their years out, the mentally crazed inmates are mingled with the mere criminals, and some prisoners seem to serve their entire term in solitary confinement, but we see these men and it's clear that they're not savages.



March 16, 2023

The prisoners have had enough, and the movie lets them state their complaints, but without making them unreasonably sympathetic. None of them claim innocence; they claim only the right to be treated like men.

The guards are not the good guys, but also not painted broadly as evil. The warden, played by Karl Malden lookalike Emile Meyer, says all the right things about needed prison reforms and such, but his body, delivery, and sheer presence announce that he's a thug.

That contradiction between the warden of the script and the warden on the screen fascinated me, and it was no accident; Don Siegel directed, and he always paid attention to detail and knew what he was doing, so he wanted that ambiguity. 

The film was written by Richard Collins, who mostly worked in television. He was a one-time commie who was blacklisted for a few years, before recanting and naming names, but he's long dead now and I ain't mad at him. I only wonder whether he might've also spent some time in prison — the film feels that real. Of course, much of the credit for that goes to the always-brilliant Siegel. 

That opening sequence, though — the newsreel bit at the beginning? There's a voiceover saying that the inmates have hung "bedsheets, scrawled with slogans," on the prison bars, but same as today's news that's a false factiod, unless you think "INVESTIGATE MASS BEATINGS HERE IN SEGREGATION, A DOCTOR WILL VERIFY" is a "slogan." Again, I don't think the contrast between what we see and what's said is accidental.

Of course, the solution to prison unrest is as simple then as it would be now: treat prisoners like you'd treat people. That's a tactic that's never been tried.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Hamlet (1946)

I've seen Hamlet before, of course, but wanted to re-watch it to refresh my memory, so I wouldn't miss any of the subtle character and plot points in the sequel, Hamlet 2

The King of Denmark has been murdered, but his ghost comes back and tells his son to kill his uncle — the new king — because the uncle killed Dad. Hamlet is kinda freaked out about the news and the haunting and having to kill somebody, so he considers suicide, but instead he does what the ghost of his pop told him to do, and plots his uncle's assassination. His uncle, though, is no dummy, and he's planning Hamlet's death, too.

And there's your drama. The story's complete ridiculousness is rarely mentioned, and instead it's considered Shakespeare's masterpiece. Lawrence Olivier's movie of it is is considered a classic too, and even I'll agree. The clouds in the background during "To be or not to be" look phony, and I've seen enough Hamlets to notice that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are missing, but this is a fine film.

I have a complaint, though. I've been told many times that mine is a stupid complaint, but I'm stupid so I'll say it again:

The language of Shakespeare is English, but it's not the English any of us speak. The language has changed so much since his time, it's hard to follow, and I know I'm missing about 20% of the meaning, maybe more.

One example among many: Hamlet says to an old friend, "Thy face is valanced since I saw thee last. Comest thou to beard me in Denmark?" and everyone laughs.

What are they laughing about? I didn't get the joke, because I don't speak the language. And there's no time to decode it, because Shakespeare has thousands of lines just as indecipherable or more so, and anyway, Hamlet's walked across the stage and now he's saying something else to someone else in his antique vernacular.

As Hammy himself says, here's the rub: When I see other movies filmed in foreign languages, they're dubbed or subtitled into English. Never Shakespeare, though. Why not?

So I went to nosweatshakespeare.com, which translates Shakespeare into English. They tell me that Hammy is saying, "You’ve grown a beard since I last saw you. Have you come to 'beard' me in my Denmark?" Which makes more sense, and might be worth a slight smile instead of the original dialogue's frustration.

I refuse to research and translate every line in the play, though. It's the moviemakers' job, not mine, to make a movie understandable, and 80% understandable isn't enough. Give me Shakespeare, but in modern-day English, please.

Is it disrespectful to old Will, who died more than 400 years ago, to call for rewrites? I say it's disrespectful not to. It cheats the audience, and I'll wager Shakespeare would want his plays presented in the audience's language, so the meaning and nuance aren't lost.

Resurrect Lawrence Olivier and film this flick again, but in present-day English.

And while we're at it, hamlet and village are synonyms, so when I was a kid I thought Hamlet was a play about a village. Nobody's named Hamlet these days, so when they translate the text, rename him Hank, please.

Give me a movie of Shakespeare's Hank.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Hamlet 2 (2008)

At last, all the dangling and unresolved questions left lingering from the original Hamlet will be tied up neatly?

Nah, this is set in present-day Arizona, with Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, a dweebish high school drama teacher. His class stages a play every year, poorly, but Marschz believes in the power of the stage, and wants this year's play to truly connect with the audience.

He writes Hamlet 2, hoping to correct the original's unhappy ending by adding a time machine to the plot.

"I just wondered why in Hamlet 1 everybody has to die? It's such a downer. I mean, if Hamlet had just a little bit of therapy, he could've turned everything around…"

What Hamlet needs is Jesus, and the Tucson Gay Men's Choir singing my favorite Elton John song, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," for a big fat happy ending.

Catherine Keener co-stars (and has she ever not been delightful in a movie role?), along with Amy Poehler representing the ACLU, and Elisabeth Shue as herself. 

This sure ain't Shakespeare, but Coogan's delightful, the movie has bit of a message, and it's fairly funny, fairly often. It's slightly subversive, but mostly good clean fun.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

This film is set in the realm of social media influencers, a topic which holds no interest for me. The idea that people can gain fame and earn a good living by being "influencers" is, in my opinion, one of the leading insanities of our era.

That said, Aubrey Plaza is always a joy, so I had to see Ingrid Goes West. She plays Ingrid, a kooky young woman who crashes an influencer's wedding. 

After she gets out of jail for pepper-spraying the bride, Ingrid fixates on another influencer, gets a makeover to look like her, and steals her dog. Then she "finds" the dog, returns it to her target, and befriends and stalks her and her husband.

This is not a comedy, although there are certainly laughs if you find idiots amusing. It's marvelously cynical drama, and Ingrid is fake in everything she does, crafting an imaginary Ingrid specifically to appeal to the people she wants to be her friends. And it works, until she finds someone who might be as crazy as she is.

Elizabeth Olsen and Ice Cube co-star, only it isn't Mr Cube — turns out it's his son, who goes by O'Shea Jackson Jr. 

Verdict: YES, and probably a BIG YES if you know or care anything about social media.

Odd trivia: There's no telling (meaning, I'm not telling) where I find the films I watch, but this one might have been leaked directly from the studio. Before the movie, there's a minute of full-color bar codes, and then a page of text that seems to be for internal use — "Universal content management, archival master file, production # 08S74," followed by a jumble of technical info, edit dates, and details about what's on all twelve audio channels. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1974)

I saw this when it first came out, and remember being creeped out by it, but I didn't remember any of the particulars. Now I've seen it again — an hour ago — and again I don't remember much except that it's creepy-looking but also kinda boring. That's an odd combination, but Nosferatu pulls it off.

Klaus Kinski overplays the vampyre, and is frequently fun to watch, while Isabelle Adjani is breathy and melodramatic all the way through. Roland Topor has a grand time playing Renfield, the count's laughing loony assistant.

Mostly, though, Nosferatu is about the atmospherics of Transylvania or wherever, with Kinski being reptillian, and when it's half over there's still another half to go.

Verdict: MAYBE.

Topor, the actor playing Renfield, wrote the novel that Roman Polanmski's The Tenant is based on.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Outlaw (1943)

This flick is less famous as a film than for the puritanical hubbub that accompanied it. Jane Russell's boobs were emphasized in the promotional trailers and posters, to the point of two years' tangling with the Hays Office, administrators of the anti-art Production Code that ruled Hollywood.

All the controversy was before my time, and there's no knowing what all went on behind the scenes. Perhaps The Outlaw was a terrific movie before getting chopped, but what's left is an oddly off-key western with cleavage.

Mr Russell has big boobies, wears low-cut blouses, and bends over a lot, so there's that entertainment. She also boinks the movie's leading man — off screen, of course, but there's no ambiguity about it.

Is that enough to recommend a movie, though? Most women have breasts, and while Ms Russell ain't ugly there are two women at work who are prettier.

What annoys me most is that she was a good actress, as demonstrated in later films, but under the direction of batty billionaire Howard Hughes here, she's flat. 

Most of the acting is ceramic, the story is languorously paced, and much of it is punctuated with music as ridiculously overwrought as YouTube's "Dramatic Squirrel," melting to wah-wah comical sounds whenever these characters crack the lamest jokes — a nudge to remind you it's funny, when it's not.

With all this going on and going wrong, The Outlaw is an early specimen of camp. 

Walter Huston plays Doc Holliday, and should've been the star of the movie — he's the only credible actor on screen. Jack Buetel (misspelled as Beutel in the credits) plays Billy the Kid as a cocky lump of adolescence. Movie nice guy Thomas Mitchell (best known as Uncle Billy with a string on his finger in It's a Wonderful Life) plays the bad guy/sheriff Pat Garrett, but his harmless screen presence works against feeling any danger or drama.

If you know the names Garrett, Holliday, and Billy the Kid, you'll know how the story ends.

Verdict: YES, but mostly as a curio.

♦ ♦ ♦   

The Red Balloon (1956)

Kid finds a balloon. It's red, tied to a string, and the kid becomes quite fond of the balloon.

There's not much more to be said about the movie's storyline.

In my untrustworthy memory from seeing this film fifty years ago, I would've sworn it was back-and-white, with only the balloon in red and everything else in shades of gray. But nope, it's in color, though there must've been some special effects involved in making the balloon stand out so very redly in every scene.

With a touch of fantasy, the film invokes childhood's innocence, then loss, then the hope of restoration. It's barely half an hour long, and you could spend hours pondering its philosophical meaning, but I won't pop the bubble by giving it that much thought. It's simply a charming little film — one of those movies you've always heard was great, and guess what? It's great.

Among many other honors, it won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, despite having only about twenty words of dialogue. Written and directed by Albert Lamorisse, whose other big hit came the year after The Red Balloon, when he invented the board game Risk.

The little kid with the balloon is Lamorisse's son.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming next: 

Bottoms (1966)
Charly (1968)
The Diane Linkletter Story (1969)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Maniac Cop (1988)
Morvern Callar (2002)
Nightfall (1988)


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 twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. Man, I love me some Herzog and Kinski, in theory. I'm always left a bit disappointed in their collaborations, with the exception of the fabulous documentary "My Best Fiend."

    Have you seen "Burden of Dreams," the Les Blank documentary about the making of "Fitzcarraldo?" You should.

    1. First I should see FITZCARALDO again. Only saw it once, and my recollection is still WOW.

    2. I love Herzog unreservedly up to about Grizzly man, which is when the wider world seems to have discovered him, and when he fully embraced - to a fault - his Teutonic-but-bemused demeanor as a public persona.

      Stroszek, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, Heart of Glass, Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser, Lessons of Darkness, dozens of shorts - all masterpieces.

      The best thematic quadruple feature of all time must be Apocalypse Now / Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse / Fizcarraldo / Burden of Dreams

    3. Hey, I've seen 75% of those 4 movies, all great.

      If you could only choose one Herzog, which one would you choose? For me it's FITZCARRALDO, though I'm really not sure why. Only saw it once, and perhaps it's not as good as I remember it, but I'd never seen anything like it and still haven't.

      I have high hopes for BURDEN OF DREAMS, because it seems like an easy slam dunk. A movie about a man with an almost impossible obsession, made by an almost impossibly obsessed man.

  2. Glad to see you found Hamlet 2 amusing -- though you left off your verdict! I throughly enjoyed it for its perversity and a love for coming up with ideas that are so shitty they're funny.

    Ingrid Goes West blew me away, too. Love Aubrey Plaza and she's perfect in this role. I kept thinking the young kid looked like Ice Cube but it never occurred to me that it would be his son. But damn, the genetics were insanely strong for Jr. I cracked up when I saw he was in fact Ice Cube's son. -- Arden

    1. Verdict added, thanks. Forgetting is a side effect of working, instead of spending all my waking and sleeping hours in a recliner — there's less time for proofreading.

      To be honest, I liked HAMLET 2 better than the original, probably because the original has been done to death for 400 years and I have it mostly memorized.

      The family resemblance between Big Cube and Little Cube is striking.


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