Independence Day (1983)

“Don’t let Jack make you forget what you really want…”

Synopsis:
An aspiring small-town photographer (Kathleen Quinlan) hoping to get accepted to art school in L.A. begins an affair with a mechanic (David Keith) whose sister (Dianne Wiest) is married to an abusive husband (Cliff De Young).

Genres:

Review:
Based on a script by novelist Alice Hoffman, this unfortunately-titled indie film — forever overshadowed by the 1996 sci-fi hit of the same name — features a fine central performance by Kathleen Quinlan, whose main claim to cinematic fame remains her Oscar-nominated turn as Tom Hanks’ wife in Apollo 13. However, the dilemma posed by both Quinlan’s aspirations and her romance with car-racing Keith (Will she or won’t she get into the school of her dreams? Will he or won’t he accompany her on her quest to the Big City?) is ultimately rather predictable and uninspired. Much more fascinating is the film’s secondary narrative, about an abused housewife (Wiest, giving a heartbreaking performance) who appears to simply accept her lot in life with a timid, fearful smile, yet has an audacious escape plan in mind. Director Robert Mandel should be applauded for daring to present Wiest’s situation in all its discomfiting rawness; truthfully, the film really should have been primarily hers.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dianne Wiest as Nancy
  • Kathleen Quinlan as Mary Ann

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out simply for Wiest’s stand-out performance, and for its unforgettable denouement. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Fantasia (1940)

“Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination…”

Synopsis:
Leopold Stowkowski conducts the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra as Deems Taylor introduces a series of animated vignettes set to classical music.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I was lucky enough to recently revisit this classic Disney animated feature by watching it “live” at the Hollywood Bowl, with all but two of its vignettes introduced by maestro John Mauceri and performed by the L.A. Philharmonic (and with fireworks on display in the background during Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite”). This was clearly a stellar way to enjoy this “most ambitious and conceptually daring of Disney’s features”, which remains a crowd-pleasing favorite decades after its rediscovery “in the early seventies when the ‘acid’ generation found that watching the almost psychedelic images was a sensory experience” (wine-drinking viewers at the Hollywood Bowl these days probably feel much the same way!).

Peary notes that Fantasia was Disney’s attempt “to impress the highbrow audience”, but he “was viciously attacked for taking much leeway with the music and for being so pretentious as to try to teach others about classical music when he himself was completely ignorant of the art”. Peary argues that “today one will probably be less upset by the mishandling of the music … than by the repetition of the images (characters napping, reflections on water); the lack of good personality animation (a Disney trademark) as characters of the same type tend to act identically; and the predictable way that nature goes haywire in almost every sequence… and the way scenes end as they begin, in tranquility.” Bah, humbug, Peary! In our post-modern era, the complaint that music can possibly be “mishandled” by an artist attempting to use it for secondary purposes seems naive at best — and while some of the imagery and/or thematic constructs may be repetitive, the animation is so consistently well-drawn and creatively conceived that one doesn’t really mind. Meanwhile, “good personality” isn’t exactly what one expects in a film like this.

Despite his grumpy overall attitude, however, Peary does call out a number of the film’s undeniable highlights — including “the exciting ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, starring Mickey Mouse and featuring a cosmic storm and march of the brooms; the creation of the world in ‘The Rite of Spring’ with otherworldly Kubrick-like shots of a newly formed volcanic landscape; ‘Dance of the Hours’, which has acrobatic ostriches, hippos in tutus, elephants, and alligators parodying ballet with a knockabout dance; and the spooky ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, featuring Vlad Tytla‘s magnificent demon”.

Interestingly, sixty years later, Disney Studios released Fantasia 2000, consisting of six new vignettes (and the original “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” thrown in for good measure). This is in keeping with Disney’s original intent for the film, which he envisioned as a true cult favorite which would stay in theaters permanently, with new vignettes gradually inserted over time. To that end, I should note that the Hollywood Bowl screening also included a couple of “new” vignettes — such as the Dali-inspired “Destino”, and the never-completed segment “Clair de Lune”. Very fitting, indeed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of creatively conceived, expertly rendered animation


  • The justifiably famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence
  • The truly stunning “Night on Bald Mountain” finale

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine Disney classic.

Categories

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

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Jail Bait (1954)

“This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation earlier in the day.”

Synopsis:
The son (Clancy Malone) of a renowned plastic surgeon (Herbert Rawlinson) is bailed out of prison by his sister (Dolores Fuller), but soon lured back into a life of crime by gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this Ed Wood “melodrama is ineptly made”, his “fans will be disappointed”, given that it actually “has a coherent plot”, “even has a clever ending”, and features acting that may be “mediocre” but is “better than in other Wood films”. With that said, “bad movie” fans will be happy to note that “the photography is dark, the sound and dubbing are horrible, [and] the music laughable”. (Indeed, the relentlessly repetitive, Spanish-themed guitar and piano score — borrowed directly from Mesa of Lost Women (1953) — is guaranteed to get on your nerves within about five minutes, and is far too often inappropriately “applied”.) Peary is dead wrong, however, in stating that “the women are ugly”: while Fuller isn’t necessarily a pin-up candidate, former fashion model Theodora Thurman — playing Farrell’s gun-toting mistress — is quite stunning.

Note: Sadly, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood skips over the production of Jail Bait altogether, moving straight from Glen or Glenda (1953) to Bride of the Monster (1955). While this is understandable, given its already two-hour-long running time, one can’t help but wonder what juicy tidbits would/could have been unearthed…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An amusingly inept (though occasionally surprisingly engaging) crime thriller

Must See?
No, though naturally Wood cultists will want to be sure to check it out. Available for free viewing on the Internet Archive.

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Glen or Glenda / I Led Two Lives / I Changed My Sex / He or She (1953)

“Only the infinity of the depths of a man’s mind can really tell the story.”

Synopsis:
A psychiatrist (Timothy Farrell) tells a concerned policeman (Lyle Talbot) the story of two individuals struggling with gender identity: a transvestite (Ed Wood) debating how to tell his fiancee (Dolores Fuller) about his cross-dressing predilection, and a transsexual (Tommy Haynes) about to undergo surgery.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Any film fanatic who’s seen Tim Burton’s must-see biopic Ed Wood (1994) will be keenly interested to (re)visit this “utterly perverse, personal film by Edward D. Wood, Jr.”, “making his directorial debut” and starring (under a pseudonym) in the title role. Originally intended to capitalize on the notoriety of Christine Jorgensen (whose story as the first widely known recipient of a sex change operation was later filmed as a “straight” biopic), Ed Wood saw the film as an opportunity to simultaneously address his own gender-bending predilection: transvestism. As Peary notes, “the picture’s treatment of [this issue] is serious and sensitive”, with Wood daring to “defend transvestites, saying that if allowed to wear women’s clothing they’ll be credits to their communities and government”. Peary argues that “one must be impressed by this film for the very reason that it takes a stand on a subject that surely was in 1953 not even acceptable enough to be considered controversial”.

He also points out that “Wood dares to incorporate footage that was obviously influenced by surrealists and experimental filmmakers”, noting that it’s “no matter that this footage is absolutely ridiculous”, given that “it shows Wood had an imagination”. Indeed, the surreal dream sequence occurring midway through the film is actually filled with such genuinely provocative imagery that, at the very least, you’ll sit up and pay attention — thus giving credence to the theory (espoused by some of Wood’s cult fans) that he may have been more of a maverick (amateur) auteur than merely the “bad director” he’s so frequently dismissed as. Meanwhile, those who’ve seen Ed Wood (or read about Glen or Glenda‘s production history) will know that Bela Lugosi was cast simply because of his name and his friendship with Wood, who wanted to provide him with some work. However, his role here is truly limited to that of an “absurd narrator” (“Pull the string! Pull the string!”); as Peary puts it, “Who knows what he is talking about?”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly groundbreaking look at a taboo subject
  • The impressively surreal dream sequence

Must See?
Yes, as one of Ed Wood’s most infamous cult films.

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Outlaw Josey Wales, The (1976)

“Get ready, little lady. Hell is coming to breakfast.”

Synopsis:
A Missouri farmer (Clint Eastwood) becomes a vengeful outlaw when his wife and child are killed by pro-Union Jawhawkers during the Civil War. Soon he finds himself crossing paths with a motley group of individuals, including a young pro-Confederate guerrilla (Sam Bottoms), an elderly Cherokee Indian (Chief Dan George), and a feisty Yankee woman (Paula Trueman) with a nubile young granddaughter (Sondra Locke).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this “impressively directed” Clint Eastwood film a “sweeping epic”, calling out the “epic score” by Jerry Fielding, and noting that “the violence is bloody, made all the more exciting by Bruce Surtees’s [cinemato]graphy, which gives each shot the authentic look of old Civil War photographs”. He argues that this film indicates a “mellowing” of Eastwood’s iconic “westerner… from his early days”, showing that he “was ready to put his guns away and settle down” — but this actually isn’t quite true. Despite the fact that Wales “ends up living in a communal situation with his ‘family’ of friends”, the majority of the film focuses on his relentless vendetta against the men who’ve double-crossed him; he has multiple guns ready to fire at any given moment, and never stops to rest — other than during a brief, obligatory lovemaking scene with Locke, “whom he fell in love with off screen as well as on”. Regardless, Wales remains a well-produced, rousing western with quirky performances (particularly by Chief Dan George as Wales’ new Indian companion) and a refreshingly authentic portrayal of Native Americans in general. My only quibble — pointed out by Richard Eder in his original review for the New York Times — is the film’s “attempt to assert the romantic individualism of the South against the cold expansionism of the North”, given that “every Unionist is vicious and incompetent”; as Eder notes, “there is something cynical about this primitive one-sidedness”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Surtee’s cinematography
  • Chief Dan George as Lone Watie
  • A refreshingly authentic portrayal of Native Americans
  • Jerry Fielding’s “epic score”

Must See?
Yes, as a classic western, and one of Eastwood’s best films.

Categories

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

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Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“I can’t keep her away from the stuff if she’s determined to get at it!”

Synopsis:
An aspiring singer (Susan Hayward) gives up her career for marriage, then suffers from jealousy and despondency — fueled by alcohol — when her husband (Lee Bowman) suddenly becomes a hit radio star.

Genres:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Downward Spiral
  • Marital Problems
  • Susan Hayward Films

Review:
In his Alternate Oscars book, Peary argues that Susan Hayward is the actress from the forties and fifties who “most needs rediscovery”. In addition to awarding her Best Actress of the Year in 1958 for I Want to Live!, he nominates her no less than three other times — yet he neglects to include the titles of two of these four films in his own GFTFF: I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), an adaptation of Lillian Roth’s best-selling memoir about her battles with alcoholism (certainly worth a look for Hayward’s performance, but ultimately not must-see); and this film, an unsung “female” counterpoint to Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend, and a minor must-see title.

Bolstered by a brave, nuanced, and sympathetic central performance by Hayward, Dorothy Parker and Frank Cavett’s script manages to portray the insidious effects of alcoholism (still a mostly misunderstood disease at the time) within the context of a woman who is subconsciously devastated by the “need” to give up her own career for the presumed ideal of marriage and motherhood. Despite the overly simplistic rationale provided for why Hayward drinks too much (while she once drank for courage on stage, she’s soon drinking to assuage her increasing feelings of jealousy and inadequacy), it’s nonetheless impressive to watch a film about marital dysfunction in which neither party is truly to blame. Knowing as we do now that alcoholism is an addiction, it’s painful to watch Bowman treating Hayward with such disdain late in their marriage — but his actions and attitude are somewhat understandable, given that she really does make a mess of things. We are genuinely rooting for both these individuals throughout the entire film — a rare and worthy feat for a movie of this kind.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Susan Hayward as Angie Conway
  • Stanley Cortez’s cinematography
  • Dorothy Parker and Frank Cavett’s Oscar-nominated, few-holds-barred look at the havoc wreaked on a marriage by alcoholism

Must See?
Yes, for Hayward’s Oscar-nominated central performance, and as a fine early film about alcoholism.

Categories

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My Foolish Heart (1949)

“Eloise Winters! I thought you were a ‘nice girl’!”

Synopsis:
An unhappily married woman (Susan Hayward) reminisces with her former college roommate (Lois Wheeler) about her romance with a dashing soldier (Dana Andrews), and how she eventually came to steal away Wheeler’s dull boyfriend (Kent Smith).

Genres:

Review:
My Foolish Heart is perhaps best known as the only authorized film adaptation of any work by J.D. Salinger, who was so deeply distressed by how his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was translated to the screen that he never allowed his cult classic The Catcher in the Rye to be made into a movie. It’s easy to see how a notoriously iconoclastic author like Salinger might take umbrage at this soaper, which was critically lambasted upon its release, and far too often devolves into cliches. Indeed, the film is actually flawed from the get-go, given that Hayward (who, as always, does her best with the material she’s given) is immediately presented to us in such an entirely unflattering light — she drinks too much, takes her beautiful home for granted, and treats her loyal husband like s**t — that we’re never really won over to her side, no matter how “innocent” her past turns out to be.

With that said, the script does possess a surprising number of well-crafted moments — such as the entire initial interaction between Hayward and Andrews the night they meet-cute at a party. Their conversation together afterwards feels surprisingly authentic (not to mention risque); and, once Hayward has left Andrews’ apartment, I like how the camera lingers silently on him, as he eventually walks over to his sink to start washing the pile of dirty dishes Hayward commented on earlier. It all just feels real, in a way Hollywood films of that era seldom do. It’s too bad, then, that the framing narrative of the film is so disappointing — especially the pat denouement, which makes little emotional sense. Salinger did deserve better than that, at least.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Susan Hayward as Eloise (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • An occasionally inspired screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Silent Scream (1980)

“I’m not a violent person by nature, but if there’s a room here I’m ready to fight for it!”

Synopsis:
A group of college students (Rebecca Balding, John Widelock, Juli Andelman, and Steve Doubet) living in a seaside house owned by an elderly woman (Yvonne De Carlo) and her teenage son (Brad Rearden) find their lives at risk when one of them is suddenly murdered on the beach.

Genres:

Review:
Shot before the release of Halloween in 1978 (but not shown in theaters until 1980), this sole directorial effort by director Denny Harris remains a surprisingly effective early entry in the slasher genre. All the standard tropes of such a flick are on full display — including a nubile young romantic lead who has sex before putting herself in harm’s way (Balding is charismatic in the central role); an overtly annoying character who, naturally, is the first to bite the dust; several misleadingly creepy suspects; and all the false deaths and near misses you’d expect to see during the appropriately bloody denouement. Much of what takes place during the first hour of the film plays out in a strictly straightforward fashion — but it’s shot and acted with enough competence (i.e., there’s actually a modicum of “natural” rapport among the young college kids) to hold one’s interest with ease. Suddenly, however, things take a turn for the enjoyably weird, and only the most hardened of viewers won’t be at least a little bit startled by what transpires from this point on. Recently released on DVD with boatloads of extras, the film seems to be developing a neo-cult by viewers who are pleasantly surprised to (re)discover it — especially given the critical appearance of an iconic horror star during the final half hour. But the less said about that, the better.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A surprisingly effective slasher-thriller

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable early entry in this seminal cinematic genre.

Categories

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Pride of the Marines (1945)

“I won’t have her being a seeing eye dog for me!”

Synopsis:
A Marine hero (John Garfield) wounded in battle is reluctant to return home to his fiancee (Eleanor Parker) and face a new life without sight.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the true story of Navy Cross-winning Marine Al Schmid, this powerful (anti-)war film — sensitively directed by Delmer Daves — afforded John Garfield one of his best starring roles. Other than the inclusion of one short but genuinely terrifying battle sequence (in which Schmid loses his sight), the film is primarily concerned with the lingering effects of war on wounded veterans — and while numerous other mid-century films (i.e., Fred Zinnemann’s The Men, and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives) did an equally fine job tackling this sensitive topic, Pride of the Marines remains a worthy entry in the limited genre. The screenplay (based closely on Schmid’s memoir) spends the entire first half-hour showing us Garfield’s courtship with Parker, firmly investing us in the idyllic life he leaves behind when he goes to war. We’re allowed ample opportunity to understand what a proud, self-determined man Schmid is — thus compounding his struggles to come to terms with his disability. Despite occasional lapses into overly patriotic banter (to be expected, given the time of the film’s release), this finely acted, little-seen movie is worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Garfield as Al Schmid
  • Eleanor Parker as Ruthie
  • Dane Clark as Al’s fellow Marine, Lee
  • The terrifyingly realistic battle scene
  • Incisive (and occasionally surprisingly risque!) dialogue:

    “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home, Bill?”
    “I think I’ll spend about three solid weeks just saying hello to my wife.”

Must See?
Yes, for Garfield’s fine central performance, and as an all-around powerful “war film”.

Categories

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Lost Weekend, The (1945)

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can’t take quiet desperation!”

Synopsis:
An alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) cared for by his loyal brother (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend (Jane Wyman) battles his addiction during a particularly grueling weekend alone in New York.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this ground-breaking film about alcoholism (the first to address the issue head-on) by asking, “Is there anybody who really enjoys movies about junkies or alcoholics trying to cure their addiction?” (I’ll wager the answer is “Yes”.) He admits that he “invariably feel[s] less excitement than obligation to watch this early social drama and multi-Oscar winner (for Best Picture, Actor, and Screenplay) whenever it turns up on television”, yet concedes that he’s “always surprised to find [him]self becoming engrossed” in the film, However, he argues that his “enjoyment is somewhat perverse”, given that he is “not so taken by those scenes in which the drunk Milland makes a fool of himself in public… or has hallucinations” as by “watching the sober Milland start squirming and sweating… thinking about a drink, planning how to get it, lying so he can be alone to pursue it, figuring out what to pawn for the money he’ll need…” He posits that “surely director Billy Wilder and his co-writer, Charles Brackett, are exhibiting ironic wit when they show how much a man will suffer in order to suffer even more.”

Since its release, of course (when NY Times critic Bosley Crowther referred to it as “shatteringly realistic and morbidly fascinating”), countless other films — too many to list here — have tackled the sticky topic of alcoholism and/or drug addiction, thus lessening the inherent shock value of The Lost Weekend for modern viewers. Yet on its own terms, the film remains a well-told tale of “a several-day [nightmarish] binge that almost costs [a man] his loyal girlfriend… and his life.” As Peary notes, the “dialogue is tough and cynical” (“She knows she’s clutching a razor blade, but she just won’t let go!”), and “Wilder makes strong use of New York streets and backgrounds” by blending “harsh expressionistic visuals indoors with washed-out shots of the city to convey mood changes in Milland”. With a running time of 101 minutes, the film thankfully never feels too long; from the tensely scripted and filmed opening sequence (in which Milland tries to distract his brother long enough to pack a hidden bottle of alcohol that’s dangling from a rope outside his window sill), to the justifiably lauded sequence in which Milland walks the streets of New York in desperate search of a pawn shop (only to find that they’re all closed on Yom Kippur), we’re genuinely curious to know what kind of trouble Milland will find himself in next, and how he’ll worm his way out.

Most problematic for me, however, is the fact that “Milland (who usually played nice guys) is mean right from the beginning”. While Wilder and Brackett should be commended for not “pull[ing] any punches” in their portrayal of a man who all but the most loyal of friends and family members would have given up on long ago, it’s slightly discomfiting to be rooting for someone so utterly unlikable. Milland’s Don Birnam comes across like a self-pitying whiner who needs a serious kick in the pants to get himself back in gear; even a strategically placed flashback sequence — in which we get to see Milland meeting cute with Wyman at an opera — doesn’t help us like him any better. Fortunately, Milland’s performance is “strong”, and he carries the film surprisingly well. As Peary notes in his Alternate Oscars (where he votes for Boris Karloff in Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher instead as Best Actor of the Year), Milland’s performance was “the best by any of the [official] nominees and maybe the best of his decent career, [but] he doesn’t make you feel enough empathy for his sick, troubled character”. Indeed, while Milland should certainly be commended for daring to “play an unsympathetic character for a change”, I don’t think society in general understood enough about the disease-driven nature of alcoholism at the time for Milland to do justice to the role; as a result, Birnam ultimately comes across as a pathetic anti-hero rather than the pitiable addict he really is.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ray Milland as Don Birnam
  • Fine supporting performances
  • John Seitz’s cinematography
  • Good use of authentic New York locations
  • Charles Brackett’s screenplay

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance, and for Milland’s Oscar winning performance.

Categories

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

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