Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

“When I watched him die and suffer like he did with that black lung disease, I knew that something could be done about it. I told myself then, if I ever get the opportunity to get those coal operators, I will.”

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Synopsis:
A group of poverty-stricken Kentucky coal miners seeking representation by the United Mine Workers go on strike until the Duke Power Company agrees to sign a contract with them.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “stirring, Oscar-winning documentary by Barbara Kopple” — “covering a successful, bitterly fought 13-month strike in 1973-74 at the Brookside mine in Harlan, Kentucky” — is “one of the most incisive portraits of America and the ever struggling labor movement”, and remains “as exciting as good fiction”. He describes how “Kopple and [her] crew befriended the striking miners and were allowed to enter their company-built shacks (which have no bathrooms) and their jail cells when they were arrested for obstructing scab workers who were driving to the mine; to attend organizational meetings; and to join them on the dangerous picket lines”. As Peary points out, Kopple “makes no attempt to disguise she’s on the miners’ side;” indeed, she and her crew put their own lives at risk numerous times. Peary writes that “emphasis is placed on the many women who picket on behalf of the male miners (who were limited to six pickets) and the old women who emotionally relate tragic stories about the suffering their fathers, husbands, and sons have endured as non-union miners”. In addition to current footage, we also “learn about the miners/people of Harlan County, their violent history, and their hope”. He asserts that “we are most impressed by their bravery, their obstinacy about not giving in, and, though they aren’t that educated, their tremendous grasp of the issues that brought about a strike”.

Peary’s review is spot-on: this film remains as exciting, informative, distressing, and relevant now as it was 40 years ago, and it’s impossible to forget many of the faces, images, and sequences on display. Kopple may not have intended to make a feminist film, but the grit and fury of these wives and mothers makes it clear that coal-mining is very much a family affair despite its deeply gendered history (no female coal-miners are shown). Thankfully, Criterion Films has not only preserved and digitized this movie but added informative supplements to the DVD, including a “making of” documentary, outtakes, and commentary by Kopple and editor Nancy Baker. John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) was directly influenced by this film, and he appears briefly on the disc as well. Click here to read an update on the ongoing labor realities of Harlan County citizens, who now face closing mines.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive ethnographic footage of mining families’ lived realities and struggles
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  • Many powerful and/or frightening moments caught on film
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Must See?
Yes, as a still-riveting American documentary classic.

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Dr. Cyclops (1940)

“Now I can control life — absolutely!”

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Synopsis:
A doctor (Albert Dekker) with failing eyesight invites three scientists (Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, and Charles Halton) to his laboratory deep in the South American jungles, hoping to seek their input on his work with radium. Soon the scientists, a muledriver (Victor Kilian), and Dekker’s assistant (Frank Yaconelli) find their lives at stake when the power-hungry Dekker miniaturizes them.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “conventional juvenile horror story benefits from solid special effects: it was the first time transparencies, split screens, and double exposures had been used in a color film”. As he notes, “the tiny people look authentic” — but unfortunately, that’s about all one can say about them, given that they barely have a chance to emerge as full-fledged characters (and rather uninteresting ones at that) before being reduced to doll-like figurines. The bulk of the movie involves the tiny group attempting to escape from hulking Dr. Thorkel (Dekker) and other menacing threats (a cat, cacti, etc.). It’s all very impressively filmed, but doesn’t offer enough narrative grit to hold one’s interest. Made in between The Devil Doll (1938) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Dr. Cyclops is less successful than either of these outings, but worth a look for its impressive early special effects.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel
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  • Excellent special effects
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  • Fine Technicolor cinematography
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Must See?
No, though film fanatics should check it out once for the special effects.

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Destry Rides Again (1939)

“Every time I mention his name, it’s sort of like I’m talking about a ghost.”

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Synopsis:
The son (Jimmy Stewart) of a famed sheriff is hired to work with the newly appointed sheriff (Charles Winninger) in a lawless town run by a murderous bully (Brian Donlevy), his two henchmen (Allen Jenkins and Warren Hymer), and a corrupt, tobacco-chewing mayor/lawyer (Samuel S. Hinds). Destry (Stewart) surprises citizens by refusing to carry guns, but shows his strength in other ways — including initiating a relentless search to learn what happened to the former sheriff (Joe King). Soon the local chanteuse, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), falls for Destry — but can she convince him that his life is in imminent danger?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this “unbeatable western-comedy teaming James Stewart and… Marlene Dietrich” — based in-name-only on a 1930 novel by Max Brand, and directed by George Marshall — Peary writes that “Frenchy is one of Dietrich’s best post-Sternberg roles”, a “bit like her character in Morocco, only funnier and sassier”. Indeed, despite initially being leery of starring in a western, this was an excellent career move for Dietrich, who would later star in another beloved western classic, Rancho Notorious (1952). Stewart, meanwhile, had a banner year in 1939, starring in both this and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Peary nominates him as one of the Best Actors of the Year for both roles in Alternate Oscars. Stewart’s Destry is an enigmatic pleasure to watch on screen: his decision not to bear arms (despite being an amazing sharpshoot) is both admirable and somewhat foolhardy. He maintains order and safety through creative alternatives, demonstrating preternaturally quick reflexes, and coming across as savvy, compassionate, alert, and pragmatic — very much a “super”-man you’d want watching over your town.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Stewart as Destry
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  • Many memorable scenes
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  • Hal Mohr’s cinematography
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Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Christmas Story, A (1983)

“Oh, life is like that: sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

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Synopsis:
A writer (Jean Shepherd) reminisces about his most memorable Christmas, when — as a young boy (Peter Billingsley) in 1940s Indiana — he was desperate to get a Red Ryder Ranger Model Air Rifle for Christmas, and tried every tactic possible to get his parents (Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin) to fulfill his wish.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that it’s “hard to believe the same Bob Clark who gave us Porky’s produced, directed, and co-wrote this charming little film”, based “on radio humorist Jean Shepherd‘s witty nostalgia novel, In God We Trust, All Other Pay Cash.” He notes that the “film is full of delightful, recognizable episodes”, which he spends the bulk of his review outlining: “Billingsley’s best friend gets his tongue stuck to a pole after being ‘double-dog dared’ to put it there; Billingsley decodes his secret message from radio’s Little Orphan Annie only to have it be a commercial for Ovaltine; Billingsley lets slip the ‘F’ word in front of [his] father and has his mouth washed out with soap…; Dillon coaxes his little brother (Ian Petrella) into downing dinner by getting him to imitate a pig’s disgusting habits; Billingsley and his pals repeatedly flee the red-haired school bully until one day Billingsley is so depressed for getting a C+ on his paper about his desire for a BB gun (the teacher wrote he’d get his eye shot out) that he gives the boy a whipping; McGavin wins a hideous lamp that has a plastic female leg for a base — he loves it, Dillon is aghast; and Billingsley and his brother are terrified by a kid-hating department-store Santa and his mean helpers — a scene that really hits home.” He further writes that “you’ll be touched by the warmth the members of Billingsley’s family feel for one another, and amused by their various idiosyncracies”, and he praises the “truly believable” characters and “consistently funny” script.

Peary’s review is spot on: despite being written just three years after the film’s release, he accurately predicts its cult-potential, noting “there’s no reason this unique film should play only in December” — though of course, that’s exactly when most people watch it, again and again and again, as it plays in marathon mode on television throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Its cult status is somewhat legendary, with numerous websites devoted to it — including one by road-tripper fans determined to visit every site in the movie, an online merchandise store, and a non-profit foundation dedicated to preserving the neighborhood and houses where the film was shot. Clearly, this film hits a nerve for many — perhaps because of how many potent childhood milestones and concerns it covers: menacing bullies, dangerous dares, strict but loving parents, and a lack of agency over gaining one’s most coveted wish. Billingsley is perfectly cast in the lead role: he’s nerdy but no pushover, and, as the oldest child, capable of showing maturity most of the time (unlike his younger brother). This film is a treat, and I can’t imagine any film fanatic not enjoying it at least once (if not many more times).

Note: In 2012, A Christmas Story was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Billingsley as Ralphie
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  • Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin as Ralphie’s stern but loving parents
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  • Many humorous, memorable sequences
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Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable cult favorite.

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Born Yesterday (1950)

“A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”

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Synopsis:
An abusive, controlling businessman (Broderick Crawford) hoping to impress a congressman (Larry Oliver) in D.C. hires a reporter (William Holden) to give private tutoring lessons to his not-too-bright fiancee (Judy Holliday), hoping she’ll learn how to act appropriately in a political climate. However, Holliday and Holden fall for each other, and soon Holliday realizes she wants no part of Crawford’s corrupt schemes.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is rather dismissive of George Cukor’s adaptation of Garson Kanin’s Broadway play, which gave Judy Holliday her break-through role both on stage and on-screen. He writes that “the scenes in which Holliday visits the historical monuments [in D.C.] and becomes excited by what America stands for are like bad Capra”, and he questions, “Why all the civics lessons? Does it take Thomas Jefferson’s words against tyranny to get Holliday to realize that Crawford hasn’t been treating her well?” He further argues that Cukor’s direction “is too theatrical (as is Holliday’s performance at times) and the script… is clever but has only a few bright moments”. He states he doesn’t “like the way Kanin uses Crawford comically through much of the film yet, when it suits his purpose, makes him a real heavy.” He concludes his review by noting that the “best scene is the most famous — when Holliday beats Crawford at gin rummy”.

I think Peary undersells this film. Sure, its theatrical roots are apparent, but Cukor nicely opens up the set, and Holden’s choice to provide civics-lesson field trips in D.C. doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me; gaining insights into your own challenges and blind-spots is sometimes easiest through “safe”, external topics. Holliday’s consciousness-raising comes across as both realistic and witty, and Kanin and Cukor’s decision to leaven Crawford’s sociopathic bully with humor is a smart one: sadly, he’s highly believable, and deserves to have plenty of fun poked at him while he gets his come-uppance. I like the fact that Cukor and Kanin are brave enough to show Crawford not only psychologically but physically abusing Holliday; her need to leave the relationship is ultimately about her own survival. Kudos should also be given for the relative maturity of the script, with Holliday openly propositioning Holden despite being engaged.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn
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  • Broderick Crawford as Harry Brock
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  • A witty screenplay
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Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable classic.

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Easy Living (1937)

“You’re a sight for an eyesore!”

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Synopsis:
A millionaire (Edward Arnold) upset that his wife (Mary Nash) has purchased yet another expensive fur coat drops it from his building, where it lands on the head of a woman (Jean Arthur) riding to work on a double-decker bus. Arthur quickly finds herself the center of attention by a clothes designer (Franklin Pangborn) and hotelier (Luis Alberni) who assume she is Arnold’s mistress, and are eager to use her as a marketing pawn. Meanwhile, Arnold’s son (Ray Milland) — attempting to earn his own money by working at an automat — meets Arthur and the two fall in love, not realizing each other’s true social status.

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Review:
Preston Sturges scripted this madcap screwball comedy predicated entirely on mistaken identities, with characters making countless assumptions while literally shoving a penniless young woman into wealth and comfort she never asked for (what a dream for Depression-era audiences!). Arthur is as appealing as always (I especially enjoy the scene where she carefully covers her ceramic piggy bank’s eyes with a tissue before smashing it), and she’s surrounded by a game cast who take full advantage of the absurd comedic potential — most notably Pangborn and Alberni as men whose livelihood revolves around catering to the uber-wealthy. Unfortunately, director Mitchell Leisen keeps the pace a little too frenetic, mostly showing non-stop chaos — including plenty of (too much?) physical comedy (characters trip and fall constantly), repeated malapropisms by Alberni (see quote above) and a lot of shouting, especially in the final third.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Arthur as Mary Smith
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  • Franklin Pangborn as Van Buren
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  • Memorable sets
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  • Sturges’ witty, madcap script

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for fans of Sturges and/or Arthur.

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Yearling, The (1946)

“That’s life, Jody: gettin’ and losin’, losin’ and gettin’.”

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Synopsis:
A young boy (Claude Jarman, Jr.) living with his grieving mother (Jane Wyman) and overworked father (Gregory Peck) in backwoods Florida longs for a wild pet, and is finally allowed to adopt a fawn he names Flag — but when Flag gets older, his natural tendency to graze on crops puts the family’s livelihood at stake.

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Review:
MGM’s Technicolor adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning 1938 novel could have looked much different: back in 1940, it was being helmed by Victor Fleming and starred Spencer Tracy, but “after only three weeks, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood” and the project was shelved until after WWII, when director Clarence Brown took over and a new cast of humans and animals was slated. The result is a surprisingly non-cloying studio picture featuring excellent use of on-location shooting in Florida’s Ocala National Forest and a stand-out performance by unknown Claude Jarman, Jr. — found “in his Nashville, Tennessee elementary school” — as young Jody. Equally noteworthy is Oscar-nominated Wyman, playing a woman whose previous children (six in the original novel) all died, and who epitomizes the harsh reality of survival in 1870s backwoods Florida. She struggles to find much to celebrate in her challenging existence, and her rare smiles are notable — yet she achieves the near-impossible in making viewers sympathize with her stance even as we (naturally) feel most invested in Jody’s coming-of-age dilemma.

Note: This interesting bit of trivia from IMDb is worth sharing:

During the ten months of filming, 32 trained animals were used, including five fawns. The fawns needed to be replaced as they aged in order to conform to the description of the title animal. The fawn found by Jody, as he pulls back the foliage, was three days old and had been rescued from a forest fire. Other animals used in filming included 126 deer, 9 black bears, 37 dogs, 53 wild birds, 17 buzzards, 1 owl, 83 chickens, 36 pigs, 8 rattlesnakes, 18 squirrels, 4 horses & 17 raccoons. The quantity of “critters” total is 441.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claude Jarman, Jr. as Jody
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  • Jane Wyman as Ma
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  • A lovely depiction of a close father-and-son relationship
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  • Fine Technicolor cinematography
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  • Excellent use of location shooting in Florida
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Must See?
Yes, once, as a fine children’s classic.

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Halloween (1978)

“Death has come to your little town, sheriff.”

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Synopsis:
A psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) is deeply disturbed to learn that his “evil” patient (Tony Moran) has escaped from an asylum and returned to his home town, where he killed his sister (Sandy Johnson) 15 years earlier as a six-year-old (Will Sandin). On Halloween, masked Moran quickly sets his murderous sights on a trio of friends: bubbly Lynda (P.J. Soles), wise-cracking Annie (Nancy Loomis), and straight-laced Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
While he’s “not as sold” on John Carpenter’s cult “horror thriller” as are “many of its cultists,” Peary nonetheless asserts that Halloween is the “scariest horror film since Psycho and the most imaginatively directed”. He describes how Carpenter “builds tension by repeatedly using a subjective camera; quick editing; driving, piercing music (which he composed); and the creative use of light and shadow and color (particularly black and white).” He adds that Carpenter “blends the dark, spooky atmosphere essential to Val Lewton; the humor and suspense that go hand in hand in Hitchcock; the cheap — but fun — tricks and shocks found in William Castle films; and the graphic violence that is the staple of the post-Night of the Living Dead American horror film.” He writes that while he finds it a treat “watching the three Middle American teenagers” — who are “smart… witty, and appealingly unconventional” — “jabber away about boys, school, dates, sex, etc.”, he finds it “regrettable that even this film — like its many inferior imitators — thrives upon the deaths of sexually promiscuous, half-dressed young women”.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s review — and I appreciate his intriguing analysis of serial killer “Michael Meyers” (who would return again and again — and again — in most sequels and remakes to come). Peary writes that he doesn’t “think the intriguing Michael is evil, just insane. There’s that six-year-old inside a man’s body, and everything he does — including his murders — is part of a mischievous game.” He points out that while Michael “could kill his victims quickly… he prefers to hide behind bushes and in closets, peer into windows, scare them, tease them with loud noises” — and, in a notable scene, “before he attacks Soles, he stands in the bedroom doorway with a sheet over his body and glasses on his covered face” (see still below). Meanwhile, “in his never ending struggle with Curtis… he pretends to be dead several times, only to rise and resume his attack” — a decidedly unique take on the “never assume he’s dead” trope of horror movie victims.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie
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  • Highly atmospheric direction and cinematography
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  • Many effectively scary moments
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Must See?
Yes, of course, as a classic of the genre.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Suspiria (1977)

“It all seems so absurd… So fantastic!”

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Synopsis:
An American ballerina (Jessica Harper) arrives at an elite European boarding school and is unnerved to learn that one of her classmates (Eva Axen) has just been killed. Harper’s roommate (Stefania Casini) suspects that the headmistress (Joan Bennett) and her lead instructor (Alida Valli) are involved in witchcraft, but their investigation puts their lives in danger.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is rather humorously dismissive of this cult gothic-horror flick by Italian director Dario Argento, noting that while it “has a promising beginning”, “it’s done in by too much visual flair (at the expense of content); a trite plotline and unsatisfying conclusion; poor dubbing; and deafening music supplied by [Goblin] and Argento”; he adds that “one begins to suspect that the unseen murderer walking about is an avant-garde rock musician” (!!). Peary’s review is spot-on: Suspiria is a “love it or leave it” type of film, with diehard fans and bored haters at either extreme. Argento purportedly stated he “would rather see a beautiful girl killed than an ugly girl or a man”, which sums up what you get here — though there is also an elaborately staged killing of a blind man by his guide dog in an empty plaza, so he’s not entirely one-sided about the matter. Harper is an effectively plucky heroine, but given far too little to do (and never gets to dance; ballet is noticeably missing from this flick). One mostly pays attention to the inspired sets and production design, as well as how frequently (and randomly — as in a dream) the color scheme shifts. Be forewarned that you will NEVER get the repetitive theme song of this movie out of your head once you’ve heard it — ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • DP Luciano Tovoli’s rich cinematography
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  • Effectively stylized sets and production design
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  • Goblin’s (in)famous score

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Baron of Arizona, The (1950)

“Gentlemen, it has the stench of swindle.”

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Synopsis:
In late-1800s America, a talented con-artist named James Reavis (Vincent Price) plots an elaborate scheme to establish young Sofia (Karen Kester) — a peasant girl cared for by her adopted father (Vladimir Sokoloff) — as a Spanish baroness whose ancestors held a claim on Arizona territory. Reavis becomes a monk and then a gypsy in Spain in order to forge original land-grant documents, then returns and marries Sofia (now Ellen Drew) — but his claim to be Baron of Arizona infuriates all citizens, and sparks an investigation by a known forging expert (Reed Hadley).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, Sam Fuller’s second directorial feature — made after I Shot Jesse James (1949) and just before The Steel Helmet (1951) — is a “weird film even for [Fuller].” Peary argues that the “film is too claustrophobic and slow-moving, but keeps attention because [its] premise is so unusual”, and points out that “despite being set in gorgeous Arizona, [the] low budget of the film required that scenes take place indoors or at night” (a backdrop of an enormous map of the Arizona Territory serves as a pivotal visual in many scenes). I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s assessment: despite its limitations, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by this fantastic tale given its historical basis and the inspired casting of Vincent Price in the lead, who inevitably heightens the surreality and melodrama of the proceedings. There’s some truly ripe dialogue:

“I’ll want you until the day I die. It is not death, it is dying that alarms me. It is not your crime, it is your weakness that alarms me.”

which somehow doesn’t feel entirely out of place. James Wong Howe’s cinematography adds to the atmosphere of this hard-to-classify low-budget western crime-caper love-story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling and unusual storyline
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  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
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Must See?
Yes, once, as a novel story by a unique director.

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