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Capsule movie reviews: 'Behind the Burly Q'

Also reviewed: 'The Human Centipede,' 'Mercy.'

May 07, 2010

At once amusing, raucous and poignant, Leslie Zemeckis' "Behind the Burly Q" is the most comprehensive documentary on burlesque ever made, smoothly incorporating rare vintage stills, interviews and footage. Zemeckis, who has performed her own burlesque show, focuses on virtually all the top strippers of burlesque's golden era of the '30s through the '50s but also includes comics, straight men, musicians and novelty acts. These survivors are a hearty, robust group with a great sense of humor and colorful, often hilarious but sometimes painful memories.

Their forthright manner belies the lingering image of burlesque performers being less than respectable. "It's not what you do, but who you are and how you account for yourself," declares Dixie Evans. A rowdier form of vaudeville, burlesque came into its own with the advent of the striptease in the late '20s.

Evans, the still stunning "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque" and the performing art's key living historian, provides the film's focal point and context for the vivid reminiscences of such legends as Betty Rowland, Blaze Starr, Sherry Britton and Tempest Storm, who is still performing. Chris Costello speaks of her comedian father Lou and his partner Bud Abbott, and Alan Alda tells of his childhood as the son of Robert Alda, who before becoming a Hollywood star, was a singer and straight man in burlesque. Relatives, friends and colleagues recall such major figures as Rose La Rose, Ann Corio, Georgia Sothern, Lili St. Cyr, Margie Hart, tassel-twirler Sally Keith and fan-dancer Sally Rand.

Oddly, Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous burlesque star of them all is dismissed negatively. And one could wish that Val Valentine got a chance to tell what performing in carnivals was like, and that Evans got to speak of her pal, the luscious Jennie Lee.

—Kevin Thomas

"Behind the Burly Q." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Sickening, disgusting and there will be a sequel

There are terrible movies and there are loathsome movies. And then there's that rare breed so idiotic, exploitative and sickening one wishes they could be scrubbed from memory. "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" is such a specimen. Would that I had 100 legs to kick it.

In it, two nubile American girls on holiday in Germany make the stupidest possible choices and wind up in the talons of a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein whose pet project is surgically joining human beings. The details of the process, central to the film, are unprintable in a family newspaper — and so nauseating that the filmmaker should personally apologize to everyone who sees it. One's soul needs a "Silkwood" shower after being exposed to this.

This is one of those movies where victims repeatedly have opportunities to escape but choose not to, guaranteeing still more grotesque degradation, full of gore, torture and sexual humiliation — and contains not an iota of wit or intelligence to justify any of it.

As the bad doctor, Dieter Laser (points for the name!) is so wildly over the top as to resemble a cross between Bela Lugosi and the lead singer from any random German '80s band. It's "Sprockets" meets "Saw" meets a coprophilia fetish video. It might draw the adventurous to test their stomachs' strength, but ultimately "Human Centipede" is really only for a (hopefully) very small community.

And yes, writer-director Tom Six is already making a sequel to this crime against cinema.

—Michael Ordoña

"The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Nuart Theatre, West L.A.

Romance, by the book

"Mercy" is a romantic drama with some good qualities — among them earnestness and strong performances — but not enough to completely overcome the strain of its clichés.

Scott Caan (who wrote and produced) plays romance novelist Johnny Ryan, crafter of well-reviewed bestsellers that only the beautiful Mercy (Wendy Glenn) sees through as shallow and uninformed by life experience. Johnny is an inveterate womanizer heretofore impervious to amour's hot bullets, having it ingrained by larger-than-life Dad (James Caan, natch) that love is a mythical beast, a unicorn that stabs you to death with its horn. Johnny can talk women into his bed but can he let one into his heart? You see where this is going.

The story is straight from the playbook, with the three-act structure, the best friends, nail-on-the-head exposition and plot points in their right places. Among the non-surprises: Johnny is a chain-smoking hard-drinker with a rough childhood (incurring Dad's wrath remains terrifying). And Johnny rocks a typewriter.

It's not as bad as it sounds, principally because of the film's generally easy feeling. The cast interacts well, although hampered by too much sitting around and talking. The score, by Mader, is occasionally exceptional.

Known best as Casey Affleck's buddy/bête noire in the "Ocean's" movies, Caan the younger delivers a charming, assured performance. He has become an interesting screen presence. Gorgeous British newcomer Glenn projects abundant sexy intelligence. Perhaps too much, as her absence is keenly felt for too much of the film.

—Michael Ordoña

"Mercy." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At the Laemmle Sunset 5 (and on VOD).

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