Falcon and the Snowman, The (1985)

“I had no idea the extent of the lie — the level of deception.”

Synopsis:
The son (Timothy Dalton) of an FBI employee (Pat Hingle) becomes disenchanted in his new job as a military contract clerk when he learns about America’s direct interference in Australian politics, and enlists the help of his childhood friend (Sean Penn) in selling secrets to a Soviet agent (David Suchet) at an embassy in Mexico.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the true story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee (former altar boys who became the youngest convicted spies in American history), this espionage thriller plays like a direct precursor to the travails of Edward Snowden* — albeit with less immediate relevance to current generations of film fanatics, and less sympathetic characters. As noted by DVD Savant:

“The disorganized and thoughtless way [Boyce and Lee] went about their ‘business’ makes them amateur spies, thoughtless traitors and tragic fools.”

The film itself, however, is a well-directed tale (by John Schlesinger) of how these privileged — and, in the case of Boyce, well-intentioned — kids got caught up in something much bigger than they anticipated, and how their families struggled to make sense of their choices. Interested viewers will want to check out a Dateline interview with Boyce, who was released in 2002 and now primarily spends his time with falconry. He’s admitted:

“You know, you’re not so smart when you’re 21 years old. You’re not that wise. And yeah, I was mad as hell and full of myself — and preposterous in a lot of ways. Decided to start my own one-man war against Central Intelligence. What sense does that make?”

* Snowden… Snowman… Hmmmm. Weird coincidence. Actually, “snowman” refers to Lee’s cocaine use.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Penn as Daulton Lee

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Old Maid, The (1939)

“I can’t imagine not waiting forever.”

Synopsis:
When her cousin (Miriam Hopkins) marries a wealthy man (James Stephenson) rather than waiting for her fiance (George Brent) to return home, Charlotte (Bette Davis) — who’s loved Brent all her life — has an affair with him before he heads to the Civil War and is killed. Davis secretly gives birth to a girl named Tina (Marlene Burnett), whose identity she conceals by managing an orphanage. When Hopkins learns the truth about Tina, she prevents Davis from marriage with her husband’s brother (Jerome Cowan), and convinces Davis to let her adopt the girl — but soon Davis’s resentment begins to build, especially as grown Tina (Jane Bryan) cares more for Hopkins than her strict “Aunt Charlotte”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “standard Victorian soap opera about unrequited love, sexual frustration, female rivalry, class obligations, and other sacrifices” benefits — “it goes without saying” — “from the casting of the two classy stars”. He notes that while he wishes “the two would have at least one hysterical screaming session” — and that “Davis in particular is just too restrained” — it’s fun watching Davis “young, in hoop dress and blond curls, and old in her severe old-maid hairstyle”. (I’m not quite sure why he refers to this as fun, other than comparing how Davis aged in real life with how she’s “cinemagically” aged here.) Peary adds that “you’ll smile watching the two females resolve their problems”; and it’s true that the “final few scenes — for which you should have your hankies handy”, are touching. However, this dated “suffering mama” story — based on a novella by Edith Wharton, which was turned into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Zoe Akins — is only must-see for fans of Davis and/or Hopkins (whose performance is refreshingly restrained).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as “Aunt Charlotte”

  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

Links:

Dont Look Back (1967)

“I’ve got my friends… I’m well-situated.”

Synopsis:
Young Bob Dylan is filmed both on stage and off during his final acoustic tour in England.

Genres:

Review:
D.A. Pennebaker’s cinéma vérité documentary about Bob Dylan on tour in England remains a unique and rare glimpse into his early career. From the opening sequence (essentially a music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), in which Dylan flashes homemade lyric cards while Allen Ginsberg lurks in the background, it’s clear that Dylan’s subcultural roots were strong — which is not to say he necessarily comes across as a nice or noble person. As DVD Savant writes in his review:

Dylan definitely ‘performed’, or as Pennebaker tells it, ‘was on’ every time the camera rolled… The Dylan we do see is far from flattering. He’s quiet one moment and pushy the next. He openly baits reporters who ask vague questions in vain hope of ‘drawing him out.’ He can be something of a bully, and there’s definitely a macho tone to the way he and his hepcats hold court.

At least there’s something refreshing in knowing we’re not seeing a sanitized version of Dylan. He may be performing — that is what he does — but he allows us a glimpse inside his world (including scenes with an impossibly young Joan Baez) for a few weeks, which is worth it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinéma vérité filming and cinematography
  • Many memorable moments

Must See?
Yes, as an engrossing cult documentary. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Arrowsmith (1931)

“Bugs don’t commit suicide… What killed them?”

Synopsis:
A doctor (Ronald Colman) and his new wife (Helen Hayes) move to her small town, where he starts a practice — but he’s soon wooed by his mentor (A.E. Anson) to New York for a research position, and begins work on a revolutionary serum. When he is called to the West Indies to scientifically test his serum on victims of the bubonic plague, his wife insists on accompanying him, with dire results.

Genres:

Review:
John Ford’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was likely of much greater interest to audiences of the day — presumably those who had read the novel — than it will be for modern viewers. Much about the storyline feels dated, beginning with the fact that a funded research career is so entirely out of the question for Colman (apparently that issue is explained in greater nuance in the novel). Most egregious is the (inevitably) racist depiction of black West Indies natives as less-than whites, and primitive in their rituals. The one black native (Clarence Brooks) presented as civilized has, naturally, been educated in the United States, and is lighter-skinned. Meanwhile, Colman’s infatuation (affair?) with Loy’s undeveloped character is thoroughly unexplained — again, it’s dealt with more realistically in the novel, and sanitized for the screen; and the pivotal moment when Colman makes a deadly mistake on the island is laughable in its (his) unrealistic carelessness. On the plus side, Ray June’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning throughout (there are many memorable visual sequences), and Hayes’ performance is notable as well; she imbues her challenging role with humanity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Helen Hayes as Leora Arrowsmith
  • Ray June’s cinematography

Must See?
No; skip this one unless you’re curious.

Links:

Little Romance, A (1979)

“I used to think, maybe a long time ago, like — like in the time of the pharaohs or Louis the 13th — that there was somebody made just perfect for me.”

Synopsis:
A precocious teen (Diane Lane) living in Paris with her self-absorbed mother (Sally Kellerman) and kind stepfather (Arthur Hill) meets a young movie-lover (Thelonious Bernard), and the two like-minds immediately bond. With the help of an elderly widow (Laurence Olivier), they make plans to kiss at a certain spot in Venice during sunset — but can they successfully elude their parents?

Genres:

Review:
Reviews of this youthful romantic adventure, directed by George Roy Hill and taking place on the pictureseque streets of Paris and canals of Venice, have been decidedly mixed over the years, with some considering it a personal favorite, but the New York Times calling it “so ponderous it seems almost mean-spirited.” While elements of the screenplay verge on caricature — particularly Kellerman’s infatuation with a narcissistic movie director (David Dukes), and a pair of clueless American tourists (Andrew Duncan and Claudette Sutherland) who show up in the last portion of the film — I’ll admit to being intrigued by Lane, and completely caught up in her desire for meaningful interactions with a peer who “gets her”. Her loyal friendship with a flibbertigibbet schoolmate (Semple) helps to humanize her as someone more interested in quirkiness and following her own path than anything else, and it’s easy to relate to how isolated she feels being forced to live wherever her flighty mother’s whims (and latest marital decisions) take her. Bernard’s performance is a bit rough around the edges, but he’s believable as a movie-obsessed teen who knows a good catch when he sees one — and he treats Lane with appropriate respect and classiness. (See? Classic movies do teach you something!) Georges Delerue’s score is lovely, and the on-location sets are charming.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Diane Lane as Lauren
  • Ashby Semple as Natalie
  • Good use of location shooting in Paris and Venice
  • George Delerue’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended (by me, at least). Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Female Trouble (1974)

“We have a theory that crime enhances one’s beauty.”

Synopsis:
A former juvenile delinquent (Divine) is impregnated and promptly abandoned by a man (Divine) she hitches a ride with, then raises an insufferable daughter (Mink Stole) while surviving on her own as a prostitute and thief. After marrying a hairdresser (Michael Potter) whose aunt (Edith Massey) wishes he was gay, Divine is offered work as a model by hair salon owners (Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary) obsessed with capturing her unique “beauty” during criminal acts — but Divine soon becomes enraptured by her own fame, and loses all sight of reality.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “John Waters’s wickedly funny cult film is a celebration of Crime and Beauty, both personified by Divine”. He notes that the “comedy contains child abuse, a hand being hacked off, acid thrown in Divine’s face (she’s told she looks better afterward), rapes, a woman being kept in a cage, [and] attempted incest”, but that “the really bad taste is evident in Waters’s well-chosen costumes, hairdos, furniture, decor, and, of course, cast members.” He argues that while “the picture is not consistently funny, and… Waters goes too far too often”, he appreciates that “this is the picture in which Divine really broke loose”: she is “not only unique but genuinely hilarious — even doing a deadpan tumbling act that would have made the great silent comics proud.” I don’t share Peary’s fondness for this film, or for Divine’s performance, and don’t consider it “wickedly funny” at all — though I suppose I can see how its fans might. My favorite moment is when Stole finally finds peace with the Hare Krishnas — this is the first and only movie I’ve seen where joining that brainwashing cult is made to seem like a smart and life-affirming choice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Typically outrageous and colorful sets, scenes, costumes, and make-up

Must See?
Nope; skip it unless you’re a Waters fan.

Links:

Pink Flamingos (1972)

“I love you even more than my own filthiness!”

Synopsis:
When a murderous rivalry ensues between the Filthiest Human in the World (Divine) and her competitors (David Lochary and Mink Stole), no action is too low or disgusting to enter the fray. Babs (Divine), her companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), and her son Crackers (Danny Mills) retaliate against a spy (Cookie Mueller) sent by Lochary and Stole — who employ a cross-dressing butler (Channing Wilroy) to impregnate women they kidnap in order to sell their babies to lesbian couples — to scope out their trailer, then celebrate Divine’s birthday in trashy style while Babs’ obese, baby-like mother (Edith Massey) is romanced by The Egg Man (Paul Swift), who wants to marry her — but Lochary and Stole are so consumed with envy and fury, they resort to fiery revenge.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “John Waters’s cult classic, one of the most successful midnight movies and arguably his best film, is a movie you can’t believe was actually scripted, storyboarded, acted in, shot, and shown in legitimate theaters.” He notes that “the ‘King of Sleaze’ wants to shock people out of their complacent viewing habits”, and “invariably succeeds by writing the most obscene storylines, shooting the most vulgar images, and presenting the most repulsive characters imaginable.” Peary argues that Waters “can make you laugh uncontrollably even when you’re repelled”, and that “you’ve got to respect a guy who can make ‘stars’ out of the weirdos who stock his Baltimore repertory company”. However, he concedes that “you have to be disturbed by his anything-different-is-positive theme and by the fact that he succeeds in making people laugh by depicting pain, destruction of property, and strong violence.”

So, is Pink Flamingos worth sitting through? Yes, for its cult status. However, don’t expect to be entertained, simply disgusted — again, and again, and again. As I’ve noted about Waters’ earlier films, degeneracy for its own sake — or, in this case, “filth”, defined by Merriam Webster as “moral corruption or defilement” — doesn’t offer any inherent value. The characters are ridiculous and loathsome, and one shudders to think of them existing anywhere close to real life. What’s the point? However, I don’t think film fanatics will want to miss seeing Divine (who Peary nominates as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars!) in his infamously outrageous wig, make-up, and gowns (his red mermaid dress is perhaps the most memorable). Speaking of memorable… Yes, the final scene remains as disgusting as ever; once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Be forewarned. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many classically outrageous, colorful, memorable scenes



Must See?
Yes, once, as a cult favorite.

Categories

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

Links:

They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

“From now on, you’ve got to be afraid!”

Synopsis:
A prizewinning boxer (John Garfield) whose shady manager (Robert Gleckler) accidentally kills a snoopy reporter (John Ridgely) and is then killed in a fiery car crash while making off with Garfield’s girlfriend (Ann Sheridan) is falsely accused of murder and presumed dead. Garfield goes undercover and finds refuge in a farm owned by a woman (May Robson) overseeing a group of juvenile delinquents, where he soon falls for the older sister (Gloria Dickson) of one of the boys (Billy Halop) — but will a detective (Claude Rains) hot on his trail sleuth him out?

Genres:

Review:
Busby Berkeley directed this Depression-era saga of hard luck, mistaken identities, redemptive love, and the chance for new beginnings. Garfield stars in a role seemingly tailor-made for him: an innocent man caught up in events beyond his control that send him spiraling into a life on the run. He’s fine in the role, but the script (other than intermittent doses of harsh cynicism) is primarily hokum. Thankfully, James Wong Howe’s cinematography makes the entire film gorgeous to look at. The best scenes are those involving boxing, which naturally becomes Garfield’s downfall once again (or is it his saving grace?). See also the similarly themed Dust Be My Destiny (1939), which I was equally disappointed by.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography


Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)

“I’ve promised him that we’re going to put this show on!”

Synopsis:
A hypochondriac millionaire (Victor Moore) whose business managers (Osgood Perkins and Charles D. Brown) have gambled away his savings convince him to purchase an insurance policy — secretly hoping he will die soon so they can cash in — from an agent (Dick Powell) who has just fallen in love with the new secretary (Joan Blondell) at his office. Meanwhile, a golddigger (Glenda Farrell) falls for Moore despite knowing he’s broke, and Powell wants to keep Moore alive at any cost to maintain his monthly premiums, so he can afford to marry Powell.

Genres:

Review:
So, who ARE 1937’s golddiggers — and how, exactly, are they different from those of 1935 or 1933? According to this third entry in Busby Berkeley’s series for Warner Brothers, they’re essentially good-hearted gals who actually prefer to earn their own keep (Blondell) and/or don’t truly care about a man’s wealth (Farrell) — a good thing, given that the rather unsavory storyline has two men (Perkins and Brown, effectively sinister) out to literally kill their boss (Moore) to cover up their gambling debts, and another man (Powell) incentivized to keep Moore alive for his own personal benefit. Thank goodness we’re given a fun musical break midway through (“With Plenty of Money and You”), and a typically spectacular Busby-esque finale (“All’s Fair in Love and War”). Upon its release, the New York Times was rather uncharitable in its review of this film, writing that “Mr. Powell suffers from spells of laryngeal and facial cuteness” and that “Miss Blondell” — who “combines the ox-eyed beauty of a duchess by Lely with the gratifying smoothness and symmetry of a piece of gleaming metal tubing” (!?!?) — “not only cannot sing but doesn’t” (for which we should be grateful, apparently). Ouch!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The Busby Berkeley musical numbers, naturally!

Must See?
No, though it’s an innocent enough outing if you’re in the mood.

Links:

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

“I’m a maniac that cannot be cured!”

Synopsis:
The narcissistic, murderous owner (Divine) of a “Cavalcade of Perversions” travelling show becomes enraged when she learns from a gossipy barista (Edith Massey) that her lover (David Lochary) has a mistress (Mary Vivian Pearce). With assistance from her new lesbian lover (Mink Stole), she plots revenge and true mayhem ensues, involving Divine’s drugged-out daughter (Cookie Mueller) and another troupe member (Rick Morrow).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “typically outrageous and degenerate — and funny — John Waters film” features Divine “becoming increasingly mad” (she’s literally foaming at the mouth by the end) and was “inspired by the Sharon Tate murders” (thus explaining the final massacre scene in an apartment). He notes that the “picture starts with what [he thinks] is [the] funniest Waters sequence” (I disagree) “and most revealing of him as an artist out to shock viewers through bad taste: suburbanites (representing us?) are repulsed, but don’t run away from perverted acts.” However, he argues that while “this is Waters’s own favorite film”, he doesn’t “think it reaches the heights (depths?) of Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble” because “Divine’s character is not as flamboyant or formidable as the ones she plays in those films”. He writes:

“Divine is at ‘her’ funniest when her character is constantly aggravated, dumped on, or humiliated; here, where she manages to achieve a coveted social position and retain faith in her beautiful self, she is too much in control.”

It’s been too long since I’ve seen Waters’ later films for me to compare, so I’ll judge this film on its own merits — and truly, I don’t believe it offers more than a slightly more “polished” version of earlier themes in Mondo Trasho, albeit pushing various outrage and disgust envelopes even further (and containing actual live dialogue). However, I’m not really the target audience for this kind of material, since I don’t see the point in degeneracy for its own sake. Sure, the infamous rosary scene and lobster rape scene are outrageous — but who in the world really cares about any of these folks and what happens to them?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some typically outrageous and bizarro Waters scenes

Must See?
No; while you may be curious to check it out, I think only completists need to include this one in their must-see list.

Links: