The Sugarland Express:
FREAKS (1932). Director Tod Browning, who just the previous year had a smash hit with the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, basically shortchanged his own career (as Michael Powell would do with 1960's Peeping Tom) by tackling a controversial movie that turned everyone off with its subject matter -- thanks to the fallout, he would only make four more pictures after this one. With various circus sideshow performers (midgets, Siamese twins, "pinheads," etc.) at its center, this tells the story of how a voluptuous trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) tries to dupe them for financial gain -- and what happens when her scam is discovered ("One of us!"). The debate still rages: Is this film sensationalistic or sensitive? Its various titles (Freaks, Nature's Mistakes, The Monster Show) would indicate the former, but the movie clearly depicts its unusual protagonists in a sympathetic light -- a position made even more apparent by the rarely seen "Special Message" prologue included on this DVD. Regardless, the film was heavily edited upon its original US release and banned in England for 30 years. Today, it's a cult favorite that continues to resonate -- both The Player and Toy Story have paid it homage. DVD extras include an excellent hour-long documentary, audio commentary by Browning biographer David J. Skal, and a discussion of the film's alternate endings. In addition to Freaks, Warner's home theater branch has released a handful of other vintage terror tales (each sold separately). The Bad Seed (1956) is a weirdly absorbing thriller about a mom (Nancy Kelly) who suspects her precocious 8-year-old daughter (Patty McCormack) might be a killer; bolstered by Oscar-nominated turns by Kelly, McCormack and Eileen Heckart (as the mother of a murdered classmate), it's marred only by its final scene (changed from the original stage production), surely one of the stupidest in Hollywood history. Village of the Damned (1960) is an engaging yarn about a town whose children are actually alien spawns; it's paired on the same DVD with its 1963 sequel, Children of the Damned. And Dead Ringer (1964) finds a post-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis operating in the same vein, portraying a woman who murders her twin sister and takes over her life.
KILL BILL, VOL 2 (2004). The inability to notice that the emperor had no clothes -- not even a bandanna -- helped turn Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 1 into a critical darling and a favorite of fan-boys everywhere: They saw masterful artistry where I saw only monotonous bloodletting. Yet although originally conceived as one movie until the length dictated the creation of two separate flicks, the Kill Bill volumes couldn't possibly be further apart -- in style, tone or content. In Volume 2, the emphasis is on talk rather than action, and because dialogue is Tarantino's forte, it emerges as the superior movie. That's hardly intended as a rave, since it's still obvious that a combined four hours of viewing time is too much to spend on such a trifling effort -- had Tarantino taken the kinetic energy displayed throughout Volume 1 and applied it to the more meaty script showcased in Volume 2, he might have really had something. As before, the chief asset remains Uma Thurman: It's her conviction that ultimately drives this story of a woman out for revenge, and Volume 2 allows the actress to really take the emotional reins of what eventually turns into an off-kilter exploration of -- of all things -- motherhood. It's Tarantino's attempt at a grace note, ending with hearts being filled with love rather than carved out and splattered all over the upholstery. DVD extras include a half-hour making-of piece and one deleted scene.
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