Fritz the Cat and The Front, and a few more films

The Frightening (2002)

A new kid in a new town goes to his first day at Hallows End High School, where there's been a murder, but the principal won't cancel classes even for a day. A teacher goes snooping around in the basement, and she's killed by students wearing cheap ninja outfits — black t-shirts, black caps, black tights. 

"Look around, new kid. This whole place is based on squeaky-clean appearances. It's kinda freaky, huh? Everybody's a robot. How many high schools have you been to where everybody's normal? We get tons of new students at this school… Sometimes they disappear off the face of the earth."

#279  [archive]
APR. 19, 2024

I'm not sure what the new kid's name is, because everyone calls him 'new kid'.

Also not sure about the film's seriousness — it's 100% hyped-up horror clichés taken to nearly the point of camp, but it never crosses the line, and has a few sorta scary moments. There's also a nifty steel guitar soundtrack. 

Also, wild guess, the director and/or scriptwriter have gotta be gay. Schlocky movies like this sometimes have girls topless, but this one has the boys nearly nude. And new kid, are you sure you don't want to try out for the wrestling team?

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Fringe Dwellers (1986)
Streaming free at Vimeo

"What are you tryin' to be, white?"

I'm a sucker for any flick where people strike back at their oppressors, so this won me over soon as Trilby Comeaway smacked the blonde girl who'd been taunting her (and that's a great name, ain't it?). She's a high school kid, Australian Aborigine, raised in what most of us would call a shack, but she dreams of moving her huge, extended family into a house with a stove, plumbing, and electricity.

Wherever there are humans there's racism, and Aborigines are the blacks of down under. Trilby is angry at the day-to-day racism, at her parents for their apparent acceptance of it all, and even at white liberals with their patronizing attitudes and gifted second-hand clothes.

The story wanders and loses itself a few times, driven more by mood than plot, but it's warm, sweet, funny, and authentically dark. Directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant).

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Fritz the Cat (1972)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This is a full-length cartoon, but not for kiddies. Written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, based on characters by R. Crumb, it's outrageous and sexist, occasionally funny, and probably better if you're stoned. I'm not. 

The animation is beautiful, and the story line crude but amusing. Fritz, who is indeed a cat, picks up human women, has an orgy in a bathtub, outsmarts dumb cops, hangs out with black people (represented here as crows), and eventually starts a race riot.

The film both celebrates and satirizes underground culture and liberal politics, and has an utterly non-PC spin on race and gender and religion and everything else, but for my lack of money it runs tired by midway through, and begins to feel repetitive. 

Mr Crumb disliked the film so much, he killed off Fritz in his printed comics, but that didn't prevent a sequel to this movie two years later.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Frogs for Snakes (1998)

Not often do I watch a movie and say to myself, "Never seen anything like that before." 

Zip (John Leguizamo) is a criminal who wants to be an actor, and performs a long and painful impression of Marlon Brando from The Godfather. It's excruciating, so awful yet ongoing for a minute and a fucking half, that it caused me to question the filmmaker's competence and humanity. But I didn't give up, and I'm pleased to report that Zip the faux Brando is killed in the next scene.

Barbara Hershey plays a 'collector', the person a loan shark sends if you fall behind on payments. She likes shooting people in the foot. And she used to be an actress.

Seems all the criminals in this film are actually actors, or yearn to be, and low-level mobster Robbie Coltrane is staging David Mamet's American Buffalo. Harry Hamlin, Ian Hart, Debi Mazar, Ron Perlman, Justin Theroux, and Clarence Williams III would die for a role, but they'd rather kill. 

Frogs for Snakes is audacious and pretentious, and whether you'll dig it depends on your willingness to suspend the ordinary rules of the movies. I surrendered after Zip got shot, and enjoyed all the thug-thespians quoting dialogue from The Apartment, Raw Deal, The Third Man, even I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

It's a gangster movie powered by who'll get which part in the play, instead of by stolen diamonds or a doublecross, and Brando notwithstanding, writer-director Amos Poe knows exactly what he's doing. 

The film's title, by the way, is an allusion to this fine song from the Larks.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

From Stump to Ship (1930)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This silent documentary was funded and filmed by Maine timber baron Alfred Ames in 1930, to show how the industry worked. 

It's almost time travel — we see men drop trees with hand saws, horses pull wagons loaded with freshly-dropped tree trunks, the trunks being milled into lumber. We hear stories of the almost unfathomable dangers in this work, and see the literal meaning of the word 'logjam'. 

What's most surprising is that that Ames knows his employees by name, telling us who's sawing trees and working the saw, etc. Then again, it's a publicity film, so everything was probably staged.

There's even a brief acknowledgment of environmental concerns — they've been lumberjacking for 169 years, Ames explains, but "by exercising common sense and practical forestry, we have the finest stand of timber in the northeast United States."

In the movie's first run, Ames brought the reels and a projector and narrated the film in person, but there's no recording of that, so in this version an actor reads the script Ames read on tour. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

From the title I was expecting golden age science fiction akin to When World Collide or Them or They Came from Beyond Space. No, it's based on a Jules Verne novel, and faithfully set in the 1860s, with horsedrawn carriages and elaborate era costumes and all, and oh my, what an extended yawn. 

Weapons-maker Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotten) is in a financial decline, since the Civil War has ended and there's less demand for guns and ammo. So he proposes a super-cannon, allowing any country to fire missiles at any other, regardless of distance. To test it, he announces he'll fire a projectile to the moon. People will be aboard, including Barbicane and his rival, Stuyvesant Nicholl (George Sanders).

From there, the plot diverges from the book (which I read in childhood) and the changes are not improvements, but it matters not — the movie was less than fascinating even before leaving the book behind.

It's a dull historical drama crossed with a melodramatic soap opera, with the added subtraction of what's possibly the worst performances I've seen from both Cotten and Sanders.

In a long dramatic scene, there's spacy background music so odd it took a minute to recognize that it's... "Yankee Doodle." Why?

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

From Time to Time (2009)
Streaming free at YouTube

My wife and I used to watch Downton Abbey on TV — stiff upper lip, what what, a very British drama of fancy people in a castle and their chauffeurs and butling staff. The Mrs enjoyed it more than I did, but I enjoyed it. Verdict for that show: YES.

Julian Fellowes made Downton Abbey, and he made this movie, which seems rather like it at first. It's set in a castle in the sepia-toned 1940s, and it's called 'Green Knowe', because nobody calls their castle 'the castle'. Same as Downton Abbey, times have changed and running a castle is expensive, so they might have to sell the place.

A tart-tongued teenage boy comes to Green Knowe, sees a ghost, and soon there are apparitions from the family's past, involving a blind girl, an escaped slave, and a dastardly butler.

"There's no such thing as always, not on Earth."

It's nostalgically overlit, familiar from other fairy tales, and contains unsafe quantities of saccharin, but with Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Dominic West, and Hugh Bonneville, it's watchable.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Front (1974)

Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is a TV writer, but he's been blacklisted as a "communist sympathizer" — the networks have stopped buying his scripts. He still needs to eat and pay rent, and writing is the only work he knows, so he asks childhood friend Howard Prince (Woody Allen) to act as a "front," submitting his scripts as "by Howard Prince."

Howard is a hopeless schlemiel, not at all political, and he's willing to be the pretend-writer, especially since he gets a 10% of every sale. "I'd be paying that much to an agent, anyway," Alfred explains. Always in debt and low on funds, Howard's doing it for the money at least as much as for friendship.

When the topic comes up, some people under a certain age don't even know what McCarthyism or the Hollywood blacklist was, or if they do, they think it was a minor inconvenience. At least, that's been my experience, the few times the topic's come up. This is a good primer on the blacklist, and also a good movie.

Written by Walter Bernstein (Fail Safe, The Molly Maguires, Paris Blues), directed by Martin Ritt (Edge of the City, Norma Rae, Sounder), and co-starring Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Panic in the Streets, The Producers), Herschel Bernardi (Irma la Douce, Murder by Contract, The Savage Eye), and Lloyd Gough (Storm Warning, Sunset Blvd., Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here), all of whom were blacklisted through most of the 1950s.

What Allen does for the movie is somewhat akin to what Howard does for his friend. The Front tackles a very serious matter — lives and careers were ruined, without even charges or proof, only on the insinuation of even a tenuous connection to communism. A movie made by people who lived through it could easily slip into gloom or self-righteousness, but with Allen in the title role there's a lighter touch, and even some laughs (though this is no comedy).

Verdict: BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

The Front Page (1931)
The Frozen North
The Fugitive
Fugitives for a Night

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
Now accepting recommendations for movies,
starting with the letter 'G'.
Just add a comment, below.
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. 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. Holy shit, the director of "The Frightening" has directed 180+ movies according to IMDB. He's directed 3 movies so far this year!

  2. David DeCoteau... 180+ movies, none of which I'd seen and exactly one of which I *may* have heard of. Had *you* ever heard of the guy before?

    And yet, The Frightening had enough going on that I've added half a dozen DeCoteaus to my watchlist.

    1. I'm almost certain I would have seen one of his Skinemax softcore movies he shot back when they were still on Cinemax. He seems to have gone from that and making like 6 to 10 horror movies a year to his most recent work doing Christmas movies for Lifetime or Hallmark. Few years ago I stumbled across what I can only call "cable cheerleader snuff films" on basic cable, a weird niche that seems to have a following online. Essentially they're made-for-cable movies that feature what are very obviously adult actors playing high school kids, usually cheerleaders, and usually one or more are murdered. They dress wildly inappropriate and what not and are aired at a time and on a channel which makes it obvious they're intended for adults. It seems like he's had his hand in this too.

    2. He's very much a hired hand in most of his movies, I think. You want something sexy for cable, he'll make it, and if you want something schmaltzy for Hallmark, he'll make that, too. He's also made dozens of movies that seem to be sequels to his other movies, and I doubt I'll ever go too deep into that pile.

      I sure want to see more like The Frightening, though, or anything where he's not going full formulaic.


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