Emperor Jones, The (1933)

“It takes a silver bullet to kill Brutus Jones.”

Synopsis:
When Pullman porter Rufus Jones (Paul Robeson) accidentally kills a friend (Frank Wilson) in a craps game, he’s sent to a prison chain gang, but manages to escape to a Caribbean Island, where he’s bought by a white trader (Dudley Digges) and eventually comes to rule the island — for awhile.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “curious adaptation of Eugene O’Neill[‘s] play” — inspired by the United States’ occupation of Haiti and the rise to power of repressive President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam — suggests “that one of [Jones’] crimes is that he comes to regard himself as better than his people, but in fact this character is shown to be better than the rest,” given that “of the blacks in the film, Jones is the only one with dignity or intelligence”, and he “certainly doesn’t fit in with the blacks in Harlem or the equally uncivilized natives.” He adds that “it’s good seeing a defiant black man on the screen, particularly in 1933, and one wonders how white audiences of the day reacted to Jones — or, more likely, Robeson — standing up to a white guard and outsmarting the others”. (According to an unsubstantiated claim on Wikipedia, “particularly in the South, the response [to the film’s release] was virulent: more than forty lynchings erupted in its opening week across the South where it wasn’t showing yet.”) Peary notes that “this is one of Robeson’s few opportunities to play a black man whose role isn’t to improve the lot of whites” but “it’s probable Jones is punished at the end because he overstepped his bounds when he didn’t kowtow to whites.”

It’s truly challenging to know how to respond this film, which paradoxically broke new ground by starring an African-American in a strong leading role while simultaneously presenting countless problematic elements — including ample use of the “n” word and stereotypical presentation of most blacks as either religious naifs, clueless natives, or wily hucksters. Jeffrey C. Stewart‘s “academicky” but insightful commentary on the Criterion DVD release helps contextualize the story as one of internalized colonialism, with whitewashed Jones eager to take an imperial stance rather than work with and for “his people” (especially ironic given Robeson’s notorious Communist leanings in real life), and is recommended. This curious tale of ambition run amok remains troublesome on multiple levels, but Robeson’s commanding performance is well worth a watch, and film fanatics will want to at least be familiar with this pre-Code oddity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography and art direction


Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance.

Categories

Links:

Coming Home (1978)

“We don’t have to go to Vietnam to find reasons to kill ourselves.”

Synopsis:
The wife (Jane Fonda) of a marine heading overseas to fight in the Vietnam War volunteers with her new friend (Penelope Milford) at a local vet hospital, where she meets and falls in love with a paraplegic (Jon Voight) — but what will happen to their romance once Dern returns home?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Hal Ashby-directed “breakthrough anti-Vietnam War film” also “makes a persuasive plea for more sensitive treatment of returning vets… whether they are physically injured, thoroughly disillusioned by their experiences, or having difficulty with readjustment to wives, the rhythm of civilian life, and a country filled with war protestors”. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary names this film Best Picture in place of The Deer Hunter, writing that Coming Home “deals with issues that are still timely, such as our government and military’s insensitivity and indifference toward… vets with physical and/or psychological problems”. In GFTFF, he notes that the “Oscar-winning script” is “powerful, yet sensitive to all the major characters, including Dern” — indeed, the complexity of their relationship (he’s far from a one-dimensional “hawkish career marine”) is key to our engagement with the story: while it’s impossible not to root for Fonda and Voight’s romance, we also feel genuinely terrible for Dern when “he learns about Fonda’s infidelity”. Indeed, in Alternate Oscars, Peary adds that “startingly, we end up with more sympathy for Dern — his pain breaks your heart — than for anyone else. Unlike Voight, whose anger was tempered by Fonda’s understanding, Dern hurts too much to wait patiently for Fonda to heal him”.

In GFTFF, Peary writes that “Fonda won an Oscar with her appealing performance, playing one of her naive women who bravely step into unknown territory and become politicized” — but he adds that “Voight is even better in his Oscar-winning performance”, playing “his character with amazing intelligence, sensitivity, restraint, and lack of pretension”. In Alternate Oscars, he writes that Voight’s “role was hard to play for several reasons. Luke [Voight] is in a wheelchair yet must come across as physically fit and sexually desirable. He must display hostility and rage, yet still seem reasonable and not scare viewers into thinking he shouldn’t be welcomed back into society. He must elicit audience sympathy for all disabled vets by complaining about his own treatment, yet not display self-pity” (the latter takes time, but we can see his transformation through the arc of the storyline). Peary adds that he “turns out to be one of the nicest, most admirable, most desirable of movie heroes”.

There are many memorable scenes in Coming Home, including “one of the cinema’s most famous erotic scenes”, in which Voight “and Fonda make love in bed”, and “Voight speaking to a high school about the amoral war” — but other moments stand out as well. Near the beginning of her volunteer work, for instance, Fonda attempts to communicate with a black veteran without realizing he needs his voice box plugged in; when she begins to feed him, she drops his first mouthful of food, and then they engage in an awkward back-and-forth over whether she’ll give this piece to him or not — it’s a version of two people attempting to walk by each other and getting the direction wrong each time. Robert Carradine as Milford’s emotionally damaged brother is also memorable, showing how trauma manifests in mysterious ways; his suicide scene is deeply disturbing. Coming Home isn’t a film one can watch easily, but it’s well-worth viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Sally (nominated by Peary as one oof the Best Actresses of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Jon Voight as Luke (selected by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Haskell Wexler’s fine cinematography and good use of natural locales

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring post-war classic.

Categories

Links:

In the Year of the Pig (1968)

“The one I fly is known as birth control.”

Synopsis:
After years of colonial governance by the French, North Vietnamese soldiers fight back against an American military presence that supports the corrupt South Vietnamese government.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Emile de Antonio’s sober documentary account of what was happening in Vietnam, and how the war had escalated to such a point, was required viewing among war protestors in 1969 and the early seventies”. He makes note of the lack of narration as well as the highly deliberate editing “showing us our higher-ups in government… making speeches about our policy in Vietnam and then showing footage that contradicts what they said”. Much of what’s here may feel or look familiar to modern viewers who’ve seen other documentaries about the war, such as Hearts and Minds (1974) or the recent docu-series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (2017); unique to this film are “interviews with Wayne Morse and Ernest B. Gruening, the only senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that really escalated the war”, as well as other individuals (primarily white males) solicited to share their talking-head thoughts.

To a certain extent, In the Year of the Pig is a documentary very much of-its-time: it had a certain power in 1969 when we were still deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, and decisions discussed on-screen related to current life-or-death outcomes. However, Peary argues that while the “film has an undeniable fascination… too much serendipity is evident in the choice of footage and interview subjects”. He notes his frustration that “we never feel we’re getting a full story about any aspect of the war”, and shares that “even in 1969 [he] thought the film was weak”, given de Antonio’s clear bias in favor of the North Vietnamese. I disagree: it was de Antonio’s prerogative as a creative montagist to pull together clips that supported his argument, and his documentary — while certainly not comprehensive — prompts us to interpret the conflict in a unique and provocative way.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many powerful, heartbreaking images and scenes






Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as a seminal anti-war film.

Categories

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

Links:

Hearts and Minds (1974)

“We weren’t on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”

Synopsis:
Veterans and others involved in the Vietnam War share their memories and thoughts on this devastating era of recent history.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “Oscar-winning documentary” by Peter Davis “builds a strong case that the U.S. presence in Vietnam was based on false assumptions (that the domino theory made sense, that the North Vietnamese could be vanquished by American might, that the South Vietnamese supported their government and desired American assistance) and that American soldiers in Vietnam were conducting an amoral war”. He notes that we “see interviews with pilots who dropped napalm and defoliants on the North Vietnamese; terrified napalmed children running down a road, their bodies burned and skin hanging off their limbs; soldiers burning villages; [and] soldiers rifle-butting prisoners”. He argues that “Davis’s contention is that America’s leaders have been responsible for both our misguided presence in the Vietnam War and the type of war being conducted; but the major theme is that they are the type of leaders Middle Americans want and deserve.”

Having just finished watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s powerful 18-hour docu-series entitled The Vietnam War (2017), I recognized many of the themes presented in Hearts and Minds — though I appreciated seeing them from a much fresher and rawer perspective, before the war itself had come to an end. Indeed, this film was considered “too hot to handle” by financing Columbia Studios, and had to be bought back by producer Bert Schneider in order to be screened. As Peary points out, it’s filled with “much unforgettable footage, properly manipulative editing (such as Vietnamese grieving over their dead, followed by a scene in which [General] Westmoreland says how the Vietnamese don’t care about death the way we do”). Westmoreland’s quote is the most memorably egregious, but others include:

Col. George S. Patton III (reflecting on the American military): “They’re a bloody good bunch of killers!”

Lt. George Coker, returning POW (to a group of Catholic school kids): “What did Vietnam look like? Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive and they just make a mess out of everything.”

Peary argues that the film makes a strong case for “how deeply rooted are our racism, anti-communism, [and] need to battle an enemy”, and that it’s “not surprising that our solders acted as they did when sent to Vietnam.” Burns and Novick’s mini-series — which all film fanatics (and Americans) should be sure to check out — adds invaluable insight into the soldiers’ perspectives many years later, as they reflect even more deeply on how and why they were able to commit the atrocities they did. Given that Hearts and Minds was made the year before the war finally ended, there were many more years of healing and understanding to come — but as Peary writes, while “today the picture may seem tame… it was as powerful an anti-Vietnam film as had been made until then”, and is certainly must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many impactful moments


Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning historical classic.

Categories

Links:

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

“We don’t know why we do all these things… We don’t know how it all started.”

Synopsis:
Two orphans (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann) with psychic powers and vague memories of surviving a watery crash are discovered by a man (Donald Pleasance) working for a greedy tycoon (Ray Milland) eager to exploit the kids’ powers to earn more money. When the siblings learn they’re trapped in Milland’s house, they engineer an escape to a mysterious place shown on the top of Richards’ special box, relying on help from a curmudgeonly trucker (Eddie Albert).

Genres:

Review:
This live-action Disney filmed received a not-so-resounding review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who noted that “Escape to Witch Mountain is a Walt Disney production for children who will watch absolutely anything that moves.” Forty-three years later, the film doesn’t really hold up well as sci-fi/fantasy (the Harry Potter franchise has outdone it by a long stretch), but it possesses a charm that’s of-its-era — and it’s easy to see why it appealed to young audiences at the time. Richards and Eisenmann are plucky, resourceful, insightful kids who find ways to survive in a world with questionably motivated adults around every corner. Richards’ flashbacks to an event she can’t quite piece together but knows has something to do with their origins are nicely interspersed throughout the screenplay, with images literally gaining more clarity as more is revealed. None of this is to say that Escape to Witch Mountain will hold much interest to adults; it likely won’t. But it’s reasonably effectively made (for its time), and film fanatics may enjoy seeing Albert in a critical role as the kids’ eventual accomplice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective direction and cinematography

  • An appropriately eerie score

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless it brings you fond memories.

Links:

Wetherby (1985)

“I thought I could get over it — but now, everywhere, the darkness beckons.”

Synopsis:
When a mysterious young man (Tim McInnerny) shows up at her house after a dinner party with friends (Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Marjorie Yates) and shoots himself, a schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) reminsces on her past as a young woman (Joely Richardson) dating a soldier (Robert Hines) about to head off to war. Meanwhile, a detective (Stuart Wilson) attempts to unravel the mystery of the suicide, in part by sending a young college acquaintance (Suzanna Hamilton) of McInnerny to Redgrave’s house for a visit.

Genres:

Review:
Playwright David Hare wrote and directed this enigmatic flashback mystery about the entangled lives of a spinster teacher (Redgrave) and an odd young man (McInnerny) who commits bloody suicide in front of her for no apparent reason. It’s truly difficult to know where the plot will go from moment to moment, given the asynchronous timeline, the gradual unveiling of how the various players know one another, and the (intentional) lack of full clarity around certain characters’ motivations. It’s clear that Redgrave is still mourning the loss of her youthful lover (Hines); that she believes in (or craves) uninhibited passion; and that she’s almost eerily accepting of whatever life sends her way. Wilson, on the other hand, is oddly determined to get to the cause of MccInnerny’s actions, even when his obsession compromises his own romantic relationship. McInnerny is perhaps (not surprisingly) the biggest enigma — and the inclusion of how McInnerny’s college acquaintance (Hamilton) suddenly impacts Redgrave’s life is an intriguing narrative choice. Ultimately, this character-driven film will be most enjoyed by those who enjoy literary screenplays with much to chew on and few direct “answers”. As DVD Savant writes in his laudatory review: “The strength of the show is that the behaviors of its characters are so interesting, we don’t mind that the loose ends of the mystery do not neatly resolve themselves. Learning more about these people is reward enough.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances across the board

  • Stuart Harris’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s strongly recommended if you enjoy this type of film.

Links:

‘Gator Bait (1974)

“Ain’t much different killin’ gators and killin’ coonies — just messier, that’s all.”

Synopsis:
When the son (Clyde Ventura) of a backwoods sheriff (Bill Thurman) accidentally kills his friend (Ben Sebastian) while attempting to rape a Cajun poacher (Claudia Jennings), he lies and claims Jennings was the murderer. Thurman, Ventura, Sebastian’s father (Sam Gilman), and Ventura’s brothers (Don Baldwin and Douglas Dirkson) seek vengeance on Jennings’ family — including her beautiful sister (Janit Baldwin) and mute younger brother.

Genres:

Review:
This swamp-set exploitation flick — co-directed, written, produced, and scored by husband and wife team Ferd and Beverly Sebastian — was clearly designed with one goal in mind: to showcase Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings in denim shorts wielding a rifle and zooming through swampy rivers in a motor boat. There are countless repetitive scenes of Jennings being chased by backwood hokums intent on rape; and while we’re confident Jennings herself will be okay (she has a permanent look of steely determination on her face), it’s deeply unpleasant watching her doe-eyed sister being brutally terrorized. While the men in this flick are ultimately rendered pathetic and useless, this doesn’t redeem the journey.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshingly bold and self-sufficient female protagonist
  • Nicely shot live action footage in the swamps of Florida

Must See?
Nope. You know who you are if this type of film appeals to you.

Links:

Out of the Blue (1980)

“If you don’t shut up and get out of here, I’m going to take you out of the blue and into the black.”

Synopsis:
The punk-loving daughter (Linda Manz) of a convicted trucker (Dennis Hopper) tries to survive life with her drug-addicted mother (Sharon Farrell), and lives in anticipation of the day her dad is released.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “low-budget film” about the “lonely, miserable life” of a scrappy teen whose alcoholic dad is in jail after he “rams his truck into a schoolbus, killing all the children” got made only because “Hopper assumed directorial chores in mid-film”. However, the “acting is good; [and] the terrible family life is authentic, as is the brutal world outside the home”. He adds it’s “too bad the film’s as messy as Manz’s life because it delivers a strong, important message about how adults can destroy the lives of their children.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment. While the film doesn’t quite cohere as a compelling narrative, there are numerous well-shot scenes which convincingly convey how lost and angry Manz is, and what a truly hopeless situation she’s in. The “final scene between Manz and Hopper”, which “will make your skin crawl” — and which is followed immediately by another unexpected doozy — seem like an appropriate denouement to this relentlessly tragic tale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Manz as Cebe
  • Sharon Farrell as Kathy
  • Many powerful and/or disturbing scenes

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look.

Links:

Vice Squad (1982)

“Come on scumbag, make your move — make my day.”

Synopsis:
A gutsy prostitute (Season Hubley) assists a detective (Gary Swanson) in cornering a psychopathic pimp (Wings Hauser) — but when Hauser breaks loose from his captors, Hubley’s life is on the line.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “sleazy sexploitation film” is “another film which gives the wrong impression that all street hookers are model types” — but this doesn’t quite ring true; yes, Hubley and her close friends are beautiful, but director Gary Sherman includes plenty of panning shots depicting the array of deglamorized activity going down at night on the streets of Hollywood, and Hubley’s murdered friend (Nina Blackwood) is shown in quite a sorry state. Hubley herself is actually a refreshingly (if foolheartedly) bold female protagonist who more than holds her own with “Hauser’s scary villain” — “someone you’ll love to hate” (indeed, he seems to have a minor cult following based on this flick alone). Peary accurately notes that the film is “extremely brutal and unpleasant, particularly the finale” — though I believe modern film fanatics won’t find it particularly over-the-top. Favorite odd scene: the toe-sucking request.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Season Hubley as Princess
  • John Alcott’s cinematography of sleazy Hollywood

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for its cult status.

Links:

Lords of Flatbush, The (1974)

“Don’t ever tell me what to do and what not to do. You understand me?”

Synopsis:
A group of leather-clad friends (Sylvester Stallone, Perry King, Henry Winkler, and Paul Mace) hang out and wreak mild havoc while King ditches his girlfriend (Renee Paris) for a new blonde (Susan Blakely) in school, and Stallone learns his pregnant girlfriend (Maria Smith) is desperate to put a ring on it.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary only seems to include this “unexceptional, uninvolving film about four leather-jacketed high-school buddies in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in the mid-fifties” because it “became a surprise commercial hit”. As he points out, its success was certainly not due to the “skimpy and trite” storyline or the “bad” sound quality, but rather because “its youth audience recognized the star quality of the unknown leads… who were… destined for stardom”. I agree with Peary that “Stallone is particularly good, playing a tough talker who’s pushed into marriage by his pregnant girlfriend” — but the problem is, not a single one of these characters is likable, and their actions are uniformly ill-advised. Blakeley’s (underdeveloped) “Jane” is right to be ambivalent about “Chico” (King), and Smith seems destined for a lifetime of dominance by chauvanist Stallone. A scene of Stallone in a rooftop pigeon coop seems to want to remind audiences of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront — but it simply made me want to rewatch that classic instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Evidence of early star power

Must See?
Nope; definitely feel free to skip this clunker.

Links: