Beau is Afraid,
and a few more films

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Streaming free at Internet Archive

Gina Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a nice woman who's married to Nick (Peter Falk). According to the movie, she has a serious drinking problem, but it looks like more of a mental issue, as she's off-kilter whether she's been drinking or not. When she's been drinking, though, she's available for being picked up at a bar. 

Nick is about as nuts. He brings all his co-workers — ten men — to dinner at home, and gets angry when Mabel flirts with one of them, but surely he'd know to expect that from her. When he runs out of patience he gets violent with her, and says, "See what you made me do?" 

Written and directed by John Cassavetes, who maybe invented the genre of 'cringe' here. It's difficult to watch, more difficult not to. Putting this film together, Cassavetes must've done some serious research into mental illness. Mabel and Nick absolutely seem like some nuts I've known.

The flick gets points for realism and a point-after for the performances, especially Ms Rowlands. If you're yearning to watch a mentally-unbalanced couple be mentally unbalanced for a couple of hours, I'd recommend Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, but if that's unavailable, this is a pretty good backup. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Adam Clayton Powell (1989)

Streaming free at Tubi

One of my earliest political memories is the expulsion of Adam Clayton Powell from the US Congress. It seemed unAmerican to little-kid me — Powell had been elected to Congress and re-elected, and yet the House of Reps could simply kick him out?

This is a fascinating documentary about Powell, a very light-skin black man who passed as white in college, but later became as black as he could be. He was the minister at the largest Christian church in America, and routinely called on his congregation to join him in picketing for civil rights, including rallies that led New York City to begin hiring black bus drivers.

He became NYC's first black city councilman, and then he was elected to Congress, representing Harlem. In Congress, he was barred for blackness from access to the Congressional barber shop and Congressional cafeteria. 

When he became chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, he pushed through much of the 'Great Society' and civil rights legislation that's considered the hallmark of the 1960s. 

#245  [archive]
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From the excerpts from his speeches, he was a pre-MLK MLK, but when he realized that he'd been surpassed by Martin Luther King as the nation's top civil rights figure, he threatened MLK behind the scenes.

He was sued for defamation by a constituent, but refused to attend the trial nor pay the verdict, which led to criminal contempt of court charges. For fear of arrest, Powell couldn't set foot in New York, so he moved to the Bahamas — but continued serving as Harlem's Representative in the House, although he showed up more and more rarely.

When he was finally kicked out of Congress, he ran in the special election to fill the seat he'd been expelled from, and won it back. When he died, his ashes were scattered in the seas surrounding his beloved home in the Bahamas.

It still seems wrong to me, and unAmerican, for Congress to expel an elected member, whether it's Adam Clayton Powell or even such an obvious charlatan as the recent super-liar George Santos. When you're elected to Congress, it ought to mean you're in Congress.

And anyway, at least 95% of politicians are crooks. Powell was one of the crooks, sure, but he was also one of the good guys. People are complicated.

I'd vote for Adam Clayton Powell over any of the many, many crooks in Congress who are just there to be crooks. Powell could multi-task, being a crook and getting good things done.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

American Paradise (2017)

Albert is a poor white man who wants to own a boat, so he puts on a black silicone mask and robs a bank. He gets away with the money so it's the perfect crime, except he can't get the mask off.

This is from Joe Talbot, writer-director of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and it's a gruesome mini-nightmare, not even 20 minutes. It's basically Black Like Me, without the happy ending.

It doesn't have much of an ending at all, actually, but it's bizarre and overwhelming, and two days later I still can't get it out of my head.

"Now the thing about luck, is there's only so much that goes around, so if you've got it, that means you took it from someone else, like chips on a poker table."

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Assassination Bureau, Limited (1969)

Streaming free at Tubi

Jack London wrote the book, but died before finishing it. Someone named Robert Fish finished the book as 'co-author', and then came this movie, "based on an idea from the book by Jack London and Robert Fish."

The idea is: Reporter and feminist Sonia Winter (Diana Rigg) goes undercover to investigate the Assassination Bureau, a murder-for-hire business run by Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed). Here's the part that seems unlikely: she hires Dragomiloff's business to assassinate Dragomiloff, and even Dragomiloff agrees to it.

This is a very broad, somewhat creaky comedy from the 1970s. It offers elegance, humor, and stretches of head-scratching boredom, along with bad accents, smoldering pipes, tattered disguises, bloody murder, and comedic punchlines emphasized by the music, ba da boom. But cripes, it's unique, and there's no looking away when Rigg is on screen.

Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, and music by Ron Grainer, who wrote Doctor Who's theme. 

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Bachelor in Paradise (1961)

Bob Hope was perhaps the funniest comedian of my grandfather's generation, but most of his humor eluded me. The last Bob Hope movie I watched was The Road to Somewhere, perhaps 50 years ago, on channel 11 some weekend afternoon.

This time 'round, Hope plays A J Niles, world-renowned Lothario and author of best-selling sleazy non-fiction. He's rich and living in Europe, but IRS troubles bring him back to America and burst his budget, and he's forced to live under an alias in a newly-built suburban development called Paradise Village. Lana Turner runs the development, so there will be smoochy-woochy.

That's the set-up, but it must be mentioned that Hope was 58 years old when this was made, looking not at all Lothario-like, with a receding hairline, and what remains obviously dyed. Furthermore, some of this is stale, like — you'll never guess what happens when Niles puts too much detergent in the washing machine.

But you know what else must be mentioned? There are laughs here — mostly chuckles, but also some loud LOLs. It has a sparkle of sophistication that feels ten years ahead of its time, and I smiled all the way through… even in the suds scene.

Also, most of this was filmed on location, and it's fun time traveling to a 1960s bowling alley, a shopping center, a drive-in burger stand, and of course, a new suburban subdivision before such a sight became shorthand for dull.

Music by Henry Mancini, including an Oscar-nominated title song that insists 'bachelor' is a two-syllable word.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

This is a "based on a true story" movie, which opens with anti-Saddam rhetoric, and focuses on idealistic young underwear model Michael Sullivan (Theo James) who wants to be an American diplomat, to "make a difference in the world."

He's not really an underwear model, just looks like one, but he has no diplomatic background, yet he's somehow hired as the assistant to the United Nations' Pasha Pasaris (Ben Kingsley). This isn't questioned.

Pasaris is running the UN's staggeringly corrupt "Oil for Food" program, which was minimally about keeping Iraqis alive during the Clinton & Bush era sanctions against that nation, but maximally about bribery, kickbacks, and whatever money could be skimmed off the top, bottom, and sides.

The corruption of "Oil for Food" was a widely-known open secret, even before news of it was dropped into the Wall Street Journal's lap by the disillusioned diplomat, Michael Soussan (oddly renamed Sullivan here). Backstabbing for Beginners shows us this as its opening scene, deftly removing the possibility of suspense from the plot.

Jacqueline Bisset co-stars, and nearly steals the movie from Kingsley, while the leading actor, James, portrays Soussan/Sullivan as equal parts naïve and righteous, with no nuance. Watching him 'act' opposite Bisset and Kingsley is like me coming to bat against Shohei Ohtani.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Beau is Afraid (2023)

This starts out intentionally confusing, with unidentified sounds and blurry images. Then some fat guy calls a skinny old white guy into his office, he comes in, sits down, but neither man speaks. 

The skinny old white guy is Beau, and soon he's walking along an urban street scene where all manner of craziness is going on — guy dancing without music, mom screaming at her son, dude casually playing with a machine gun, stolen merchandise for sale like a swap meet, furious arguments in the background, someone suicidal atop a skyscraper while people below look and laugh and record it on their cell phones, hoping he'll jump. Et cetera.

It's the kind of place where a murder victim could lie in the street for hours, or days. But having lived in some of America's roughest neighborhoods, trust me, what we're seeing here is only ordinary people's exaggerated misconception of a low-rent neighborhood.

Ten minutes into this movie, I'd decided it was artsy-fartsy trash, but couldn't turn it off — it was too frickin' strange. The fun of it would be writing a bad review, I expected — revenge for making me endure it.

And yet, I must write a good review instead. Very good.

Beau, the movie's protagonist, could more accurately be described as the 'agonist' — he's ill-at-ease around anyone and equally uncomfortable alone, always on the edge of falling apart.

The key to grokking the flick is, most of the movie happens in his head. We're seeing everything through Beau's warped perspective, leaving reality behind to embark on a journey far beyond normal.

Telling Beau's story and backstory takes three hours, but it's never boring (at least, once you're got your grounding). It's a series of surreal events I won't even try to describe, because first comes unlikely, and then comes impossible, and after that comes no way in hell. Relaying the plot would read as ridiculous.

A bit more than halfway through the film, there's a moment when Beau briefly smiles. It's the first time he seems even slightly less than troubled, and the first time I'd realized he's Joaquin Phoenix. Jeez, he's gotten old, but also it's a superb performance, sympathetically capturing the mental heebie jeebies while mirroring the absurdity of the story.

Everything about this is different from whatever you're expecting when you watch a movie. No wonder it bombed at the box office. It's out of this world, and 99% of the world wouldn't want to go there.

But I went there twice, loved it, and the second time even figured out what was happening in the first scenes.

The cast includes Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane playing straight, Amy Ryan (from The Office), Bill Hader, and Parker Posey. According to the credits, David Mamet is in there somewhere, too.

It's written and directed by Ari Aster, whose only previous work I've seen was Hereditary, which I didn't care for, clicked off midway through, and never bothered to write a review.

Verdict: BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

Ben & Arthur (2002)
Big Sur (2013)
Black Moon Rising (1984)
Black Rain (1989)

... plus schlock and surprises

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:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • 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, or at least spoiler-warned. 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. Glad you dug Beau Is Afraid. I figured you'd at least like the first hour's modern/future urban Hellscape, haha. And glad you liked it all the way through. I also almost gave up shortly into the running time, especially based on Aster's previous two derivative turds. But it turned out real fascinating, whatever its faults. I like the first hour and the third hour best... the animation and stuff in-between, meh. Ended up being a very moving film, for something so terrifying.

    Glad you dug Bachelor In Paradise as well. Think you liked it for all the same reasons I did. It's the best sort of time capsule flick. All the asshole critics love to dump on "suburbia" but fuck them, I'd give what's left of my dick to live in this kind of place. What's up with Paula Prentiss, though? I've seen her in about a dozen films, she's smoking hot, but that voice? The weirdest voice in all of Hollywood history. I can't figure out if it's an affectation, a hormone problem, or WTF. It's especially noticeable in Man's Favorite Sport.

    Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence is my favorite female performance of all time. Any Cassavetes film with his wife Rowlands is stellar - his love and respect for her just radiates off the screen like a blazing sun. That's also one of the best films ever made about being mentally ill and living with someone mentally ill. Just a beautiful film. I have no interest in children, but the scene where she runs out into the street to greet her kids at the school bus always brings a tear to my eye:


    I also really love Cassavetes' Love Streams, maybe my all around favorite by the couple. Totally unique film, it becomes something radically different every 15 minutes: realism, fantasy, documentary, comedy, musical...


    1. I assume the Paula Prentiss voice is an affectation for comedy. At least, jeez, I hope that wasn't her natural voice. It's just 'off' enough that you can sense something's wrong, but (for me anyway) not so 'off' as to be a distraction from whatever's going on. Odder, to me, is that she was paired with Jim Hutton in movie after movie, like they were a comedy team or something.

      Yeah, Rowlands is amazing in A Woman Under the Influence. I vividly remember the school bus scene, and it had the same impact on me. Something I read after watching the movie; Cassavetes wrote it as a play, specifically for her, of course, but she thought doing eight performances a week would be more than she could bear, so he reworked it into a movie.

      I'm trying to get Love Streams now, but it keeps bombing out, so I may need to obtain it legally. (the horror, the horror)

      Thanks for all the good suggestions, Claude. You're my most reliable source.


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