Film Review: Flashdance (dir by Adrian Lyne)


Instead of getting any sleep last night, I decided to stay up and watch the 1983 dance film, Flashdance.  As a result, I’m not only very tired but everyone I see today, I’m just like, “You’re not really a welder, are you?”

In the film, that question is asked by bitchy Katie Hurley (Belinda Bauer) to 18 year-old Alex (Jennifer Beals) and the answer, by the way, is yes.  Alex is a welder.  Judging by the way the film handles the topic, it appears that audiences in 1983 were really stunned that a woman could be a welder.  (I kept expecting to hear someone say, “She’s one of those lady welders, like you read about in the Reader’s Digest.”)  Myself, I’m more amazed that an 18 year-old in Pittsburgh could get a high-paying union job.  Then again, we never really see any evidence that Alex is really doing much as a welder.  We do see her at a construction site holding one of those torch things but that’s pretty much it.  Last night, I started Flashdance with no idea what a welder does and I ended the movie with even less of an idea but then again, the movie really isn’t about welding.

Instead, it’s about dancing!  And love!  And holding onto your dreams!  And living in a big warehouse with a dog and a handsome boyfriend!  As one character puts it, when you give up your dreams, you die.  Of course, most people have multiple dreams so what happens if you only give up one but hold onto the others?  I guess you just lose a toe or something.  But anyway….

Actually,  before we move on, how much money did welders make back in 1983?  Because seriously, Alex lives in a gigantic and very nicely decorated building and her only roommate is a dog.  As Alex explains to her boss and boyfriend, Nick (Michael Nouri), the building was an abandoned warehouse before Alex moved in.  So, does Alex own the building?  Does she just rent it?  It’s a great place and I love what Alex does with it but seriously, it’s hard to believe that any 18 year-old — even one who is working two jobs — could afford it.

Yes, Alex has two jobs.  Such is the price of independence.  When she’s not welding, she’s dancing at a dive bar.  Her routines are amazingly filmed and a lot of fun to watch but they’re also so elaborate it’s hard to believe that they could be performed in such a run-down establishment or that the bar’s blue collar clientele would have much patience for them.  She’s an exotic dancer, which means she doesn’t take off her clothes.  The sleazy owner of local strip club (Lee Ving) keeps trying to encourage Alex and her friend, Jeanie (Sunny Johnson), to come dance at his place but Alex has no interest in that.  Jeanie, on the other hand, accepts the offer.  Fortunately, Alex is there to run into the club and yank her off stage and then yell at her.  Alex spends a lot of time yelling at people.  She also throws a rock through one of Nick’s windows when she sees him talking to his ex-wife.  One could argue that Alex has rage issues but no one in the film seems to take them personally.  How could they?  Alex is pursuing her dreams and the good thing about pursuing a dream is that you can do whatever you want while doing so.

(Interestingly, you can tell that the filmmakers were a little bit concerned that audiences in the early 80s might view Alex as being a bit too independent and confrontational.  In between the scenes of Alex yelling at people and casually reaching underneath her sweatshirt to remove her bra while Nick watches, there are also scenes of Alex going to confession.  It’s as if the film’s saying, “Yes, she welds!  Yes, she has a temper!  Yes, she’s flirty!  But fear not, she’s a good girl!  So, it’s okay for you to be on her side….”)

For a film that was shot on the streets of Pittsburgh, there’s not a gritty moment to be found in Flashdance.  This is the type of film where Alex rides her bicycle across the city and it never once gets stolen, despite the fact that she never actually locks it up.  In the world of Flashdance, all conflicts are easily resolved, all insecurities are ultimately conquered, and all dreams come true.  It’s a world where Alex can become a great dancer despite having never had any formal training just because, as she puts it, she’s “watched TV and read books.”  (My old dance teachers probably hated this movie.)  It’s a fairy tale and, like most fairy tales, it’s deeply silly and yet oddly compelling at the same time.  Never once do you buy that Alex is a welder and it’s pretty obvious, from all the quick cuts and the skewed camera angles, that Jennifer Beals did not do her own dancing.  But it doesn’t matter because it’s hard not to get pulled into the film’s glitzy fantasy.  Flashdance may technically be a bad movie but I dare you not to cry a little when Alex leaves her audition and finds Nick waiting for her.  Not only does Alex achieve her dreams, but she also get a rich, older boyfriend, the type who gives her flowers and puts a bow on her dog.

It’s interesting to note that the two films that practically define the early 80s cinematic aesthetic, Flashdance and Scarface, were both released in 1983.  (Not only was Flashdance initially offered to Scarface director Brian DePalma but Al Pacino was also offered the role of Nick.  Pacino, of course, turned it down and played Tony Montana instead.)  To be honest, I think you can argue that Flashdance and Scarface are essentially the same film.  They’ve both got neon opening credits.  They’ve both got a score from Giorgio Moroder.  They’re both elaborate fantasies about someone who won’t surrender their dream.  Just replace all the cocaine that Tony Montana snorted with Alex’s love of dancing.

Finally, I have to mention Flashdance‘s music.  The score and the song may be totally 80s but it still sounds good in 2019.  The theme song won an Oscar and let me tell you, if you can listen to this song without dancing around your house in your underwear, then you obviously have a lot more self-control than I do.

Embracing the Melodrama #20: Ship of Fools (dir by Stanley Kramer)


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The 1965 best picture nominee Ship of Fools follows a group of passengers as they take a cruise.  The year is 1933 and the luxury liner, which has just left Mexico, is heading for Nazi Germany.  Both the passengers and the crew represent a microcosm of a world that doesn’t realize it’s on the verge of war.

There’s Carl Glocken (played by Michael Dunn), a dwarf who has the ability to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience about all of the fools that have found themselves on this ship.  He alone seems to understand what the future holds.

There’s Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), an aging Southern belle who spends almost the entire cruise flirting with the crew and other passengers, desperate to recapture her fading youth.  That also seems to be the main goal of Bill Tenney (Lee Marvin), an unsophisticated former baseball player who spends most of the cruise brooding about his failed career.

There’s the Countess (Simone Signoret), a political prisoner who is being transported to an island prison.  She falls in love with the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner).  The doctor’s dueling scar suggests that he is a member of the old aristocracy and he is literally the film’s only good German.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he is also in the process of dying from a heart condition.

And then there’s David (George Segal) and his girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley).  David is a frustrated and depressed painter while Jenny is far more determined to enjoy life, which should be pretty easy because the boat is also full of performers and dancers.

Finally, there’s the buffoonish Rieber (Jose Ferrer), a German industrialist whose dinner table talk hints at the horrors that are soon to come.

Ship of Fools is a big, long film in which a large cast of stars deal with big issues in the safest way possible.  In short, it’s a Stanley Kramer film.  As one can tell from watching some of the other films that he directed (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and R.P.M.), Stanley Kramer made films that were often easier to admire than to actually enjoy.  As the critic Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and he retained the sensibility of a producer even after he stared directing.  As such, his films would address issues that were certain to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, he would never run the risk of alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues.  His films would have the type of all-star casts that would, again, bring in an audience but Kramer rarely seemed to give thought as to whether or not an all-star cast would distract from the film’s message.  Finally, unlike the truly great directors, Kramer never really figured out how to tell a story with images.  As a result, his movies were often full of characters whose sole purpose was to explain the film’s themes.

Does that mean that Stanley Kramer never made a good film?  No, not at all.  Judgment at Nuremberg remains powerful and R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure of mine.  Kramer was usually smart enough to work with talented professionals and, as a result, his films were rarely truly bad.  Some of them even have isolated moments of greatness.  It’s just that his films were rarely memorable and truly innovative and, therefore, they are easy for us to dismiss, especially when compared to some of the other films that were being made at the same time.

With all that in mind and for reasons both good and bad, Ship of Fools is perhaps the most Stanley-Kramerish of all the Stanley Kramer films that I’ve seen.  The film was apparently quite acclaimed and popular when it was originally released in 1965 but watched today, it’s an occasionally watchable relic of a bygone age.  How you react to Ship of Fools today will probably depend on whether or not you’re an admirer of any of the actors in large cast.  For the most part, all of them do a good job though you can tell that, as a director, Kramer struggled with how to make their multiple storylines flow naturally into an overall theme.  Not surprisingly, Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin give the two most entertaining performances and Jose Ferrer makes for a wonderfully hissable villain.  Oddly enough, I find myself most responding to the characters played by George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley.  I’m not sure why — their storyline is rather predictable.  Maybe it was just because Elizabeth Ashley’s character goes wild and starts dancing at one point.  That’s what I would do if I found myself stuck on a boat with a tortured painted.

(What is especially interesting is that neither Oskar Werner or Simone Signoret are particularly memorable and yet they both received Oscar nominations.  Perhaps 1965 was a weak year for acting.)

In the end, Ship of Fools is a movie that will be best appreciated by those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM and take a special delight in spotting all of the wonderful actors that, though they may no longer be with us, have at least had their talent preserved on film.  Ship of Fools may not be a great film but it does feature Vivien Leigh doing an impromptu and joyful solo dance in a hallway and how can you not appreciate that?

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Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar-Winning Films: Charly (dir by Ralph Nelson)


It’s February and we all know what that means!  It’s Oscar month!  TCM is doing its 31 Days of Oscar and self-important film bloggers across the world are devoting themselves to reviewing the Oscar-winning films of the past.  That includes me because, as our longtime readers know, I love the Oscars and nobody is more self-important than me!

This month, I’m going to be devoting myself to reviewing films that were nominated for an Oscar.  Some of them won, some of them lost but all of them will forever be known as an Oscar nominee.  I am going to start things off by reviewing the 1968 tear-jerker Charly.

Charly_titleCharly opens with Charlie Gordon (Cliff Robertson) playing in a playground with a bunch of children.  Though Charlie appears to be middle-aged, it quickly becomes apparent that, in many ways, he’s still a child himself.  Charlie is mentally handicapped, an introverted man who works at a bakery where he’s frequently ridiculed and taken advantage of by his co-workers.

Charlie lives an isolated existence but he’s determined to better himself.  As the film begins, he’s been attending night school for two years and he had been taught to read and write by a sympathetic teacher named Alice (Claire Bloom). One night, Alice takes Charlie to the Nemur-Straus Clinic, a research lab run by the cold Dr. Nemur (Leon Janney) and the much more compassionate Dr. Straus (Lilia Skala).  Nemur and Straus think that they’ve discovered a surgical procedure that can increase human intelligence.  Though both doctors are initially reluctant, Alice convinces them to use Charlie as a test subject.

The surgery is a success and Charlie suddenly finds himself intelligent.  For the first time, he can understand a world that had previously only been a mystery to him.  Charlie finds himself falling in love with Alice but he also has to deal with the possibility that his newfound intelligence might only be temporary.  Even as the new Charlie starts to enjoy his life, he’s aware of the ghost of the old Charlie waiting behind every corner.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Charly as a film.  On the one hand, it’s a generally well-acted film and it doesn’t shy away from considering the conflict between science  and nature.  On the other hand, Ralph Nelson directs the film in such a glib and showy manner that Charly often feels like a rather shallow exploration of some very deep issues.  As such, you’re often left feeling as if both the film and the title character deserve better than what Nelson gives them.

The 60s were transitional decade for cinema in general.  While European filmmakers were proving that a movie could be a work of art, American directors found themselves struggling to keep up.  Far too often, this led to American directors copying the techniques of their European counterparts without necessarily understanding what made those techniques were so important in the first place.  Whereas directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Federico Fellini used showy cinematic techniques to comment on the act of watching the movie itself, many of the older American directors used those same techniques simply because they felt they had no other choice.  One of my favorite games, when watching a mainstream American film from the late 60s, is to spot the random psychedelic moment that, as out-of-place or unnecessary as it may feel, was obviously put into the film “for the kids.”

Charly is full of such moments and very few of them add anything to the film.  Ralph Nelson, a veteran of television who was previously nominated for an Oscar for directing the extremely straight forward Lilies of the Field, comes up with several  self-conscious moments that seem to be there “for the kids” but which don’t necessarily move the story forward.  The film is full of random slow motion, still shots, and split screens and, unfortunately, they serve to distract from a very simple and very effective story.

The film’s saving grace, however, comes in the form of Cliff Robertson.  If you had asked me, before I saw Charly, just who exactly Cliff Robertson was, I would have told you that he played Uncle Ben in the first Spider-Man films and Hugh  Hefner in a disturbing film called Star 80.  However, after seeing Charly, Cliff Robertson will always be the tragic Charlie Gordon to me.

The genius of Robertson’s performance is that he not only captures Charlie’s sweet nature and desire to better himself but he captures Charlie’s anger as well.  As Charlie becomes more intelligent, he also becomes more aware of just how poorly the world has treated him up until that point.  When he can suddenly spell his own name and articulate his own feelings, it’s not just an individual triumph but a triumph for everyone who has ever been told that they can’t do something or that they should just be happy with whatever they’ve been given in life.  Robertson makes Charlie Gordon into a very real and very sympathetic character and, as a result, you care about whether the result of the surgery are permanent or only temporary.  Robertson’s performance is so strong and honest that it transcends the showiness of Nelson’s direction.  Charly works because Cliff Robertson gives the film a heart.

Given the power of his performance, it’s not surprising to discover that Charly,  as both a film and a role, was very important to Cliff Robertson.  It was so important to him that he bought the rights to the film’s source material (the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes) because he wanted to make sure that Charlie Gordon would never be played by anyone but him.  For both his performance and his determination to get the film made, Cliff Robertson won the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1968.

Charly may not be a perfect film but I’m not ashamed to say that I cried at the end of it.  Cliff Robertson’s heart-felt performance as Charlie Gordon transcends whatever other flaws the film may have.  If you haven’t seen Charly, you really should.