Plot Summary for Freaks (1932) by Claudio Carvalho

“In a side-show circus, where the greatest attractions are deformed people, the gorgeous trapeze artist Cleopatra is the lover of the strong Hercules. She plays as if she liked the German midget Hans, who is in love with her, to borrow his money and get expensive gifts he gives to her. When the jealous German midget Frieda , who loves Hans, asks Cleopatra to spare Hans from a great deception, she accidentally discloses that he is an heir of a great fortune. Cleo decides to get married with Hans to poison him and get his inheritance. In the wedding feast, Cleopatra openly flirts with Hercules and mocks the side-show performers. When a very ill Hans is saved by a doctor that tells that he has been cruelly poisoned, the other freaks snoops in Hans trailer and they find what Cleopatra is doing with him. In a stormy night, all the freaks join forces and transform Cleopatra in the Feathered Hen. Although not shown in the DVD, which has the commercial alternative version, in the original story Hercules is castrated and becomes a soprano singer” 
        "Freaks" is one of the most controversial horror films from the 30's, mainly because director Tod Browning hired real sideshow freaks as the actors. It does have a rather unsettling effect, but I think that really does work for the film. Browning builds up a great amount of suspense with the good use of locations, story and lots of atmosphere. The ending, where we see freaks crawling in the mud, is pretty creepy. Anyway check this one out-it's worth watching.”  IMDB
        “Born to a barmaid, Violet and her conjoined twin sister Daisy Hilton were raised by the midwife who delivered them. This woman, Mary Hilton, saw her meal ticket in the curly-haired babies and trained them to perform. The girls were ill-treated and kept in a state of poverty until they arranged a private meeting with a lawyer at the age of 23. They then became their own managers and remained popular vaudeville performers until live shows were replaced by motion pictures. After performing in Freaks (1932) and Chained for Life (1951), Violet and Daisy fell into poverty and obscurity. They were found dead in their apartment when their employer, a grocer, reported that they hadn't shown up for work. They left no known survivors” IMDB Back to topics

It's My House by Donna Lenz Wright The Week

Indie filmmaker goes inside the walls of area's quirky homes (Published Jan. 3, 2007, 10:38 a.m.)

Regular Week readers may remember the last film created by independent filmmaker Jim Muraco, Born and Bred, featuring dozens of Wisconsinites who made it big including Orson Wells, Steve Miller, Harry Houdini, Ellen Corby, Al Jarreau and Liberace.
        Well, Muraco has been busy and has just completed his next film, It's My House.
        "It's a documentary on unique and eccentric homes throughout Wisconsin highlighting not just homes, but the stories behind the homeowners," he said.
        The idea for the film came while Muraco was watching the news. Photo: The Packer house is the home of Bill Lennon and his color-blind wife.
        "I watched a news story on Al Emmons, an artist from Greendale, who had a big blue bird on his chimney," he said. "The neighbors complained and the city ordered him to take it down. I thought, 'It's his house, he should be able to do what he wants with it.'
        "Then I noticed other homes with unusual artwork outside-lawns with Cadillacs half buried in the ground, a boathouse-and realized how ripe Wisconsin is to have this topic captured on film."
        A few of the featured homes are:
• N. Eisenberg, who had his French horns stolen off the tree in his front yard. Then music stores donated replacement horns.
• Bill Lennon, who painted his home green and gold-a Packer House. His wife is color-blind so she didn't even realize it.
• Bob Watt, whose entire lawn and outside of his home is entirely dedicated to folk art.
• The witches' house, formerly owned by the late Mary Nohl.
        It's My House, a visual/pop/comedy, and the soundtrack and narrators contribute as much to the film as the houses themselves, Muraco says.
        There is a variety of music within the body of my film. Most importantly, the theme song, written and performed by "one of the most clever songwriters in the Midwest, Pat McCurdy," he said. Other music includes Pat Nettesheim's masterpiece, "Coven," that will be the theme throughout the witches' house segment, Lovin' Kind, Orphonic Orchestra and special guest Jesse Guten performing "Find My Way Home."
        "I found incredible narrators, a mother-daughter team, Barbara Meyer-Spidell (mom) and Lauren Meyer (daughter) that have spiced up the entire film with their chemistry," he said. And Mark Borchardt and Mike Shank of American Movie narrate the witches' house segment.
        Two things stand out in Muraco's mind that he discovered while making this film.
        "That the homeowners are even more interesting and unique than the homes themselves; and that just because you own a home doesn't necessarily mean you have the right to do what you want with it."

Also see "It's My House" by Jim Muraco

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Middle-earth Comes to Omniplex by Peter Fraser

There is much good in Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy The Lord of the Rings. My ten-year-old son said the film was “awesome,” and from what I can tell, all his school-fellows agree. Yet, anyone who genuinely loves Tolkien’s work and understands what lay behind it, all the labor and all the faith, will certainly be mildly disappointed in our latest blockbuster.
        There is an old adage that to reproduce a masterpiece requires a talent equal to that of the originator. Tolkien may well be the single most significant author of the twentieth century. No other books of the past century have had the audience of The Lord of the Rings. To find a work with comparable shelf life and literary influence, you must pass back to the 19th century and name the giant books, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Tolstoy’s War and Peace or even Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”
        Peter Jackson may be a very fine filmmaker with remarkable representational tools at his disposal – the special effects in the film are marvelous-- but he is not near the level of Tolkien. There were very few moments in the film when I felt completely taken in to this “Middle-earth.” In fact, I found myself losing interest in the characters and glancing at my wrist watch around the 90-minute mark.
        Elijah Wood as Frodo looks like a hobbit, and so does Ian Holm as old Bilbo, although Wood’s Frodo lacks some depth. Likewise the other hobbits look right. Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee, Frodo’ faithful companion, and arguably the best character in the story, even acts right. His final scene, chasing down Frodo to stay with him as the journey continues (into the next film), was genuinely moving. But this moment was only a moment.
        Ian Mckellen’s Gandalf is believable in many scenes, but Christopher Lee’s Saruman came off the Hollywood evil villain shelf. And so it goes through most of the cast. Liv Tyler is okay as the elf Arwen, overcoming a rather silly rendering of her romantic commitment to the hero Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen. Cate Blanchett is excellent as the elf Queen Galadriel, despite the hysterical special effects around her scene. John Rhys-Davies is fine as the dwarf Gimli. Hugo Weaving, on the other hand, is awful as Arwen’s elf father Elrond.
        This unevenness broke the spell for me. As did the soundtrack, which blended the best of Disney with Titanic. The music gave away the manipulative intentions of the film producers, who perhaps need to think hard about the lesson behind “one ring to rule them all.” Like all manipulative art, real emotion gives way to sentiment in much of the film. I don't recall so much crying in the Tolkien books. A lively faith and moral strength, Tolkien’s great virtues, do not translate into emotional exultation. 
        But I sense that, like many viewers, I am prone to criticize this film more harshly than it deserves, because The Lord of the Rings made such a profound impression on me as a young man. This is always the problem when the masterpieces are put on film, especially the long ones.
        Tolkien’s work is highly episodic. Compressed into even a lengthy 178 minutes, it overpowers the medium. Every five minutes a new adversary appears on screen, and you are tempted to think you have stepped into a remake of Jason and the Argonauts. What was needed, perhaps, was a mini-series format like the great BBC version of War and Peace with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre or the television versions of Brideshead Revisited and Nicholas Nickleby. With more time the characters might have gained depth and Tolkien’s prose descriptions might have been used more to convey the lyricism of his world.
        Where Jackson’s film succeeds best is in some of the remarkable visual effects. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ hobbit-hole in the agrarian shire makes believable and delightful an aspect of the book hard to imagine--a comfy home built into a hillside with a round door. Likewise Gandalf’s fireworks display and playful smoke rings made everyone in the theater lean forward. The orcs and goblins, despite a bit too much sliminess, likewise worked for the most part.
        Yet, he who lives by the sword dies by it. Certain to date terribly is the scene of Gandalf’s battle with a demonic Balrog, which is just too cartoonish, and the battle scenes that depict the fall of the evil Sauron and first passage of the ring of power.
        My guess is that in another generation this version of The Lord of the Rings will show its wrinkles like Excalibur, the 1981 Arthurian film, has done, and there will be movement toward a remake. One good thing here is that unlike, say, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings can be remade repeatedly. And eventually a great film version should emerge.
        Until then, this film will be enjoyed for awhile by many people, especially hobbit-sized ones, some of whom will pick up Tolkien and read. Which is one more very good thing.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Dept. of English at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. He has authored two books on film and culture.   Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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How Those Nuns Used to Whack Me… by Peter Fraser

The Magdalene Sisters is to Irish nuns what Mommy Dearest is to Hollywood mothers.

Peter Mullan’s controversial, occasionally brilliant, exposé of the horrifying trade in female flesh perpetrated in the 1970s by Catholic nuns in Ireland drags us through a series of atrocities that conjure images from Schindler’s List. Only, where the Speilberg film did not elicit a boycott out front of Maders or Karl Ratzsch’s, Mullan’s film may tend to encourage even more Catholic bashing than we have hitherto witnessed in this fast-paganizing land.
        Mullan describes one part of the large tragedy by following the plight of four girls “imprisoned” as laundry servants in a Magdalene Asylum in 1976. Over the course of four years, they suffer the twisted tyranny of a cabal of repressed, sex-obsessed nuns and the lecherous priests who support them. The girls are shut up in this holy hell by their parents, who, cowed by the local clergy (and that nasty Catholic religion), think the nuns will make saints of their wayward girls. Actually, only two of the girls are technically “wayward.” Two others are true victims: one raped at a wedding by a popular local boy, the other spirited away from an orphanage before causing scandal, as she is too fully formed and boy-curious.
        The girls (played with great conviction by Anne-Marie Duff, Nora-Jane Noone, Eileen Walsh, and Dorothy Duffy) suffer deprivation, beatings, verbal humiliation, and sexual abuse. Awful material to sit through for two hours. Especially as the sadism gets dished out under the “guidance” of one of the most villainous female characters I have ever seen in film – the pinched, thin-lipped matriarch in this dark palace of the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Bridget (played with demonic intensity by Geraldine McEwan), a figurehead who makes Big Nurse seem like Ingrid Bergman. 
        As a social problem film, this one has all the purgative qualities of Requiem for a Dream. It details the horrible descent into Chaos of these girls with unflinching accuracy, allowing the viewer not a single moment to take a refreshing breath. When one of the girls is rescued by her brother, instead of a sigh of relief, we get her turning on him with the line, “Where were you four [expletive] years ago.” In fact, the film’s postscript continues to ply the thumb screws, informing us that the girls all met bad ends after leaving the Asylum – one growing old, bitter, and single; one passing through three failed marriages; one descending toward madness and dying of anorexia at twenty-four; and the last marrying and living as a contented and devout Catholic.
        Yes, the film suggests as much. Damn those Catholics, bad lot all. This ugly little window into a genuinely rotten chapter in the history of the Church allows no exceptions – not a single humane priest or nun so much as wipes the brow of one of the girls. All are lecherous, penurious, small-minded hypocrites who use religion as means to exploit the weak. This part stands for the whole, Mullan more than suggests.
        And just there, at the self-righteous heart of this well-crafted bit of propaganda disguised as history, all sane people should pause and say, “Stop!”
        Were The Magdalene Sisters a film about other groups, be they religious groups like Muslims, Jews, and New Age neo-hippies, or racial, ethnic and social groups like blacks, the Polish, and gays – we would say “stop.” But it is apparently open season on Christians now, Catholic Christians here. And, apparently, two thousand years of persecution directed against Christians throughout the world is not example enough for we enlightened Americans to learn that civilized nations can become uncivilized very rapidly.
        The cruelty of this little sect of Magdalene sisters deserved to be exposed. May those who do such things to other human beings be damned, especially those who do it in the name of God.
        But we had better start measuring our blows, lest in our blustering rage we strike down the virtuous with the vicious.
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. He has written two books and numerous articles on film and popular culture.   Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Video Pic – Quite a Memento by Peter Fraser

Arguably the best film from last year’s crop was, of course, overlooked in the Academy nominations for Best Picture. Memento, a remarkably innovative film by Christopher Nolan dazzled the crowd at its Sundance release and has won over just about everyone I know, except my eighty-nine-year-old father, who likes stories that travel neatly from point A to point B. Memento does everything but that.
        The story takes traditional noir elements in a completely original direction. Guy Pearce plays an insurance investigator pursuing the man whom he believes murdered his wife. The pursuit, set in Burbank, takes him through a dirty underclass community and the obligatory meeting with a beautiful dark-haired femme-fatale, played by Carrie-Anne Moss. So far, familiar territory. But add that Leonard has acute short-term memory loss, forcing him to rewrite the past in order to remember and understand it on slips of paper and even tattoos. And add that Nolan presents the sequences of the story in reverse, so what we see first, happened last – the final sequence begins with its conclusion followed by the events leading up to it; the penultimate sequence then starts with its conclusion, the beginning of the previous sequence, and goes from there... You really need two times through the film to understand its structure.
        In creating so original a narrative, Nolan advances the noir tradition, which has grown darker and darker since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Beyond probing the moral and psychological ambiguities of life in the modern world, Memento says that we can’t even tell the story of these ambiguities with certainty – all of our perceptions get filtered through our fragmented consciousness, which itself is conflicted by our deepest desires. Mr. Kant, meet Mr. Freud.
        That being said, the film holds our attention with its moodiness and crisp pacing even if we can’t define the term “postmodernism.” Everything about this film is good; except perhaps the characters, but they are all damned souls, so what do we expect.   Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Several Monsters, No Ball by Peter Fraser

Given the wave of mega-movies that swept over us recently – The Lord of the Rings, Blackhawk Down, and Harry Potter, to name just three – the smallness of Monster’s Ball is refreshing. The unwritten Hollywood creed used to be: Just tell a good story, tell it simply, and tell it well. No longer. The deep pockets behind the movie business like guarantees, and guarantees mean large-scale marketing. This, despite the fact that the good little film still tends to be the one that lingers in the mind.
        In the past year, only four films stand out in my memory, all little films – the Nolan brothers brilliant film noir, Memento; Terry Zwigoff’s thoughtful sleeper about lost teens, Ghost World; Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s delightful comedy, Amelie; and now this hard-edged melodrama directed by Marc Forster about broken people fighting for equilibrium, Monster’s Ball.
        Here is a film that gets under your skin, even when you try to keep it out. Yes, it’s a melodrama with all the characteristic weaknesses of that genre – the plot runs toward the extreme, the characters shade toward caricatures, the tone is intensely emotional; yet, all of these tendencies are muted enough that the power of the drama’s conclusion remains authentic.
        Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer in New Orleans caught between a racist with a capital “R” father (Peter Boyle) and a sensitive, morbid son (Heath Ledger). Hank oversees the electric-chair execution of a black man, played by rapper Sean Combs, whose wife, Letitia (Halle Berry), will eventually become his love interest and the catalyst breaking his ties to an emotionally sterile past. Hank and Letitia’s broken lives mirror one another and reflect larger relational breaks in the culture.
        Once knit together in an intensely intimate, almost desparate consummation, Hank and Letitia develop trust quietly and convincingly – the plot is reminiscent of  Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies, in which a down-and-out country musician puts his life together through an unlikely romance with a Baptist woman. In Monster’s Ball, Hank goes from crusted bigot to human being, and Letitia is saved from the bottle and, the film implies, a future offering little beyond prostitution.
        Despite these heavy developments (the title, after all, is slang for a condemned man’s last night), the conclusion of the film comes slight and tender. Instead of going the way of preachiness and sentiment, the bane of recent film, Monster’s Ball offers us that gentle mix of love and friendship that produces the best in all romances. I went away from this film thankful for my wife and what we have been given.
        I also went away thinking about the casting of Halle Berry as the down-and-out Letitia. Her performance has rightly been praised, but her stunning good looks, so much a part of the viewing experience despite attempts to play them down, throw into question the plausibility of her character. Director Forster, an NYU product with only one significant independent production on his resume, does indeed tease the viewer with the actress; yet, he shows just enough restraint to make the whole thing work – especially at the end.  Helpful in this regard is that we are allowed to see Letitia (Berry) in a very ugly, very cruel moment with her overweight son, Tyrell, that reminds us that all that glitters is not gold.
        And with the film itself, alas, where we again witness a recent, ugly Hollywood trend – the corrections officers engage in a Bible-reading just before their graphically-played execution, and Hank’s Racist father has what looks like a cross on the back wall of his home; of course, the racism is played out in the most extreme of terms, too. I wouldn’t mind these moments of anti-Christian, political correctness as much if I didn’t sense that I was being offered them with a slightly raised eyebrow.
        Despite this, and the obvious fact that this film is for mature audiences only, Monster’s Ball offers us hope. We need more films of this particular size and weight. Independent filmmakers with personal stories to tell that tap into the pathos of fallen humanity, and need no computer graphics, should take heart. The weather may be good for sailing. 
        Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. He has authored two books on film and culture.  Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.

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Ghost World by Tim Lambrecht

Terry Zwigoff's small film Ghost World is an excellent character study of alienation, fear and acceptance.
Enid (Thora Birch), a recent high school grad doesn't know what to do with her life: should she pursue an artistic career which she desires, yet does not want to work for? Or should she just enjoy her life by just living it day-to-day and hanging around and making fun of her hometown and its inhabitants. Constantly critiquing everything around them, Enid and her best friend Becky, (Scarlett Johansson), find their biggest challenge is trying to decide what is "cool" and what isn't.
        Becky finds a job at a coffee shop, and pushes Enid to get one so they can move out together. Enid works at a movie theatre and a computer store but quits both. Her sarcastic personality will not allow her to adapt to the working world.
        One day, they find a newspaper, which includes personal ads. As a joke, they respond to an ad placed by Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and watch from a distance as he waits for his date in vain. But to her dismay, Enid discovers she actually feels bad about teasing him.
        Seymour, a record-collecting social misfit is an easy target for the two girls. After stumbling upon his weekly rummage sale, Enid discovers to her surprise that he is not the loser he appears to be, but in fact is actually an interesting guy, "He's the exact opposite of everything I hate. In a way, he's such a clueless dork, he's almost kind of cool."
        Enid and Seymour have much in common, including a shared feeling of not fitting in with the world around them. Enid tries hard to find Seymour a date, but he is so far removed from the dating scene, it does not work. Meanwhile, their own relationship grows stronger as the two spend more time together. At the same time, Enid and Becky's friendship wanes. This film treats relationships as they are: multileveled, constantly evolving and confusing.
        There are some great performances here. Thora Birch’s performances as the sarcastic Enid is right on target. Bob Balaban, as Enid's meek father does not know how to relate to his daughter. His performance is reminiscent of Jim Backus' performance with son James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Ileana Douglas plays Enid's summer school art teacher who has many grandiose thoughts on art. And the fact that Steve Buscemi was not nominated for Best Supporting Actor is yet another blemish on this year's Oscars.   Back to topics

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