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Month: March 2006

Best Boy (1979)

Best Boy (1979)

“At age 52, Philly began to go to school.”

Synopsis:
Filmmaker Ira Wohl helps his aging aunt and uncle find a secure home for their intellectually disabled 52-year-old son, Philly.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Grown Children
  • Intellectually Disabled
  • Survival

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “glowing documentary” — full of “many moving scenes” — is unique in that its director “openly influences the lives of the people he’s filming”. Due to Wohl’s concerns that “Philly will be defenseless if his elderly parents die, Wohl convinces them to allow Philly to take giant strides toward self-sufficiency” — and “the excitement that he feels as he progressively achieves independence is contagious.” As Peary notes, “the intimacy Wohl achieves is remarkable — we become extremely fond of Philly, but we also become sensitive toward his mother and (dying) father, who, when they don’t worry, are happy about their son’s accomplishments, yet understandably feel self-pity because the boy needs them less and less.” Wohl followed this film nearly twenty years later with a sequel, Best Man (1997), which is also of interest, though not nearly as poignant.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Wohl’s touching concern and love for his intellectually disabled cousin

  • Watching Philly go to school for the first time
  • Philly and Zero Mostel singing a backstage version of “If I Were a Rich Man” together

Must See?
Yes. This Oscar-winning documentary should be seen by all film fanatics.

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9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

“How did you know I’d respond to you the way I have?”

Synopsis:
A woman (Kim Basinger) gets involved in a steamy affair with a mysterious, kinky broker (Mickey Rourke).

Genres:

  • Literature Adaptation
  • S&M
  • Sexuality

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this infamous softcore sexual drama — based on an autobiographical novel by “Elizabeth McNeil” — Peary expresses little but puzzled bewilderment, wondering why Basinger’s Elizabeth — who “seems too smart, too independent, and too under control to have anything to do with Rourke” — would be attracted to someone like him in the first place. But I think he misses the point of sadomasochistic impulses: seemingly “strong” people like Elizabeth may find themselves caught up in fantasies which even they don’t understand; thus, Elizabeth’s reluctance to leave the increasingly controlling affair makes sense on some level. For a superior work on S&M, however, see the more recent Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhal and James Spader.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Basinger’s vulnerable, sexy performance

Must See?
No. While it holds some historical interest for the controversy surrounding its “almost X-rated” status, it’s not must-see viewing.

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2000 Maniacs (1964)

2000 Maniacs (1964)

“Something is very wrong with this town.”

Synopsis:
Six Yankee tourists driving through the Deep South are “invited” to Pleasant Valley for a centennial celebration of the town’s decimation by Union soldiers.

Genres:

  • Civil War
  • Deep South
  • Herschell Gordon Lewis Films
  • Horror
  • Revenge

Response to Peary’s Review:
I love the opening sentence of Peary’s review for this “terribly acted, crudely directed” cult horror flick: “I don’t necessarily mean this as a recommendation, but this is goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis’s best film.” !!! After watching Lewis’s hideously bad Blood Feast (1963), I think I know what Peary means. With that said, I actually would recommend this movie (which inspired the name of the rock group “10,000 Maniacs”) to film fanatics who’d like to get a good sense of the “gore fest” genre. It possesses a surprisingly creepy and original premise, in which the killers are “vengeance-bent ghosts of people who were wiped out by Northern troops in 1869”, ready to slaughter their unsuspecting guests “in hideous ways”. As Peary notes, this is a “truly scary movie”; chances are you’ll feel genuine terror for these unwitting Yankees and the supernatural trouble they find themselves in.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • An extremely creepy, gruesome premise

Must See?
Yes. While certainly not for all tastes, every film fanatic should see at least one cult film by Herschell Gordon Lewis, and this is a good candidate.

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Scream of Fear / Taste of Fear (1961)

Scream of Fear / Taste of Fear (1961)

“You say my mind is affecting my legs. You’re wrong: it’s my legs that are affecting my mind.”

Synopsis:
Wheelchair-bound Penny (Susan Strasberg) returns to her wealthy father’s house for the first time in ten years, only to be told by his new wife Jane (Ann Todd) that he has gone away suddenly on a business trip. When she starts to see her father’s corpse appearing around the property, Penny believes she’s going crazy, and enlists the help of hunky chauffeur Ronald Lewis to help her solve the mystery.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Susan Strasberg is mesmerizing in this heart-stopping Hammer Studios flick, reminiscent of both So Long at the Fair (1950) and My Name is Julia Ross (1945) in its depiction of a young woman made to doubt her own sanity. While the script is “full of holes” (wouldn’t Penny have met Jane at least once before?), the true identity of the villain(s) remains a secret to the end, and there are “several times when you are guaranteed to jump.” As Peary notes, this film remains “lots of fun for terror-movie fans.”

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Susan Strasberg’s impressive performance as wheelchair-bound Penny
    Scream Fear Strasberg
  • Some genuinely freaky shots of a corpse
    Scream Fear Corpse
  • Several exciting plot twists

Must See?
No, but it’s highly recommended.

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Bullfighter and the Lady, The (1951)

Bullfighter and the Lady, The (1951)

“Blood. Caste. Besides, we always have breeding records to go by. Sometimes we guess. We always pray. You will pray, too.”

Synopsis:
An American (Robert Stack) studies bullfighting in Mexico under the tutelage of a famed matador (Gilbert Roland), while trying to win the heart of a beautiful woman (Joy Page).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “largely autobiographical film” by former apprentice matador Budd Boetticher is one of the few early Hollywood films to treat Mexicans with respect and dignity. Indeed, this is a rare movie in which “Mexicans don’t have to ingratiate themselves to Americans”; instead, it’s “the ugly American who becomes humble”. While the bullfighting scenes go on too long, they’re undeniably “quite exciting”; and, though parts of the script are heavy-handed — there are too many foreshadowings of impending tragedy — Boetticher does a fine job tracing Stack’s character arc from cocky American to a matador of “good stature”.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Sexy young Robert Stack as Johnny Regan
  • Katy Jurado as Estrada’s strong wife
  • Interesting footage of bullfighting

Must See?
Yes. As famed western director Boetticher’s breakthrough movie, film fanatics will want to check this one out.

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Big Red One, The (1980)

Big Red One, The (1980)

“We don’t murder; we kill.”

Synopsis:
Veteran sergeant Lee Marvin leads four soldiers (Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobbi Di Ciccio, and Kelly Ward) through the European theatre of WWII, while death and chaos surround them.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As noted by Peary and many other reviewers (see links below), the salient theme of Sam Fuller’s dream film — a “hard-hitting yet extremely poetic, impressionistic recollection of his WWII experiences” — seems to be that “surviving is the only glory in war”. The movie’s many “memorable, moving scenes” include Marvin caring for an orphaned girl who weaves flowers into his helmet, and a Belgian woman giving birth on the floor of a tank. More a series of nightmarish moments than a coherent story, the film truly emphasizes the surreality and randomness of war — as well as the fact that “normal” life goes on in the midst of it all.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • An intimate look at infantry survival and camaraderie during wartime
    Soldiers

Must See?
Yes. While not quite the masterpiece Fuller intended, this is still indispensable viewing for any film fanatic.

Categories

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

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Princess Yang Kwei Fei / Yang Kwei Fei / Princess Yang, The (1955)

Princess Yang Kwei Fei / Yang Kwei Fei / Princess Yang, The (1955)

“What madness to have hidden such a jewel!”

Synopsis:
A beautiful scullery maid (Machiko Kyo) becomes the wife of the Emperor (Masayuki Mori) in 8th century Japan, and must sacrifice herself for the sake of his honor.

Genres:

  • Cross-Class Romance
  • Japanese Films
  • Kenzi Mizoguchi Films
  • Royalty and Nobility

Response to Peary’s Review:
This “rare color film by Kenji Mizoguchi” — a Japanese Cinderella story based on historical legend — features a touching cross-class romance, colorful scenery, and a befittingly tragic ending. Princess Yang Kwei Fei — beautiful, selfless, noble, and “equally at ease in a palace or mingling with the common people” — is the epitome of womanhood in director Kenji Mizoguchi’s eyes, and is treated with sympathetic idealism. While not as indispensable as Mizoguchi’s Sansho, the Bailiff (1954), Ugetsu (1953), or The Life of Oharu (1952), this lovely historical fairy tale is very much worth watching.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Kohei Sugiyama’s rich cinematography
  • Princess Yang and Emperor Zong wandering through a street bazaar together

Must See?
No, but it’s highly recommended.

Links:

Life of Oharu, The / Life of a Woman By Saikaku, The (1952)

Life of Oharu, The / Life of a Woman By Saikaku, The (1952)

“I am nothing but a spectacle of an ill-fated woman.”

Synopsis:
A lady-in-waiting (Kinuyo Tanaka) has an affair with a lower-ranking page (Toshiro Mifune), leading to the exile of her entire family. As she struggles to help make ends meet, Oharu is eventually reduced to prostitution and begging.

Genres:

  • Downward Spiral
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Flashback Films
  • Japanese Films
  • Kenzi Mizoguchi Films
  • Prostitutes

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, the central character in this “exquisitely shot” Kenzi Mizoguchi film — which offers a “shocking view of the sad role women have played in Japan” — may very well be the epitome of “the victimization of women throughout history”. Indeed, Oharu is literally the pawn of others’ needs and desires, exploited by men (and her family), then “tossed aside”. Through heart-rending flashbacks (Oharu looks back on her own downward spiral) we’re forced to watch “one bad thing after another happen to Oharu” — it’s a tough story to stomach, but the film’s undeniable “poetic quality” makes it a haunting, valuable experience.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Kinuyo Tanaka’s sympathetic portrayal as the tragic Oharu
  • Luminous b&w cinematography
  • A powerful depiction of social injustice in medieval Japan

Must See?
Yes. This is one of Mizoguchi’s most affecting films, and certainly a must-see classic of Japanese cinema.

Categories

Links:

Solaris (1972)

Solaris (1972)

“You mean more to me than any scientific truth.”

Synopsis:
When a psychologist (Donatas Banionis) is sent to space station Solaris to investigate the mysterious mental breakdowns of the men on board, he’s visited by visions of his deceased wife (Nathalya Bondarchuk), and finds himself confronting his guilt over her death.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (and recently remade by Steven Soderbergh), this “cerebral” Russian sci-fi film is “slowly paced and a bit too enigmatic”, but possesses visuals “like nothing seen in an American sci-fi film”, and is oddly hypnotic. You’ll be reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the way relevant details are unfolded one by one, and the fact that the “enemy” is a mysterious presence rather than a physical creature. Perhaps most intriguing (and impressive) is the way Tarkovsky manages to combine creepy sci-fi with a very human subplot of guilt, loss, and love.

Redeeming Qualities:

  • Haunting cinematography

  • An unusual, psychologically complex premise for a sci-fi film

Must See?
Yes. This is a classic of Russian sci-fi cinema.

Categories

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

Links:

Closely Watched Trains / Closely Observed Trains (1967)

Closely Watched Trains / Closely Observed Trains (1967)

“Because that’s what the Fuhrer wants. But we must like each other, because we are all in the same boat.”

Synopsis:
In Czechoslovakia during WWII, a shy, bumbling railroad dispatcher (Vaclav Neckar) is more concerned with losing his virginity than with spotting espionage on passing trains.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this Oscar-winning foreign film — “one of the landmarks of the brief Czech film renaissance” — offers a “beguiling mix of comedy… and jolting tragedy.” Full of “likeable, quirky characters, a strong sense of locale… and a great deal of charm,” the film functions as both a blackly humorous historical vignette and an ironic commentary on the travails of male adolescence. As in Jerzy Skolimowsky’s Deep End (1971), the story centers on a naive young teenager who is so obsessed with sex that it colors his entire impression of the world around him — and who is so distressed by his inability to “perform” sexually that he takes drastic action. The ultimate message, as Peary notes, is that males can “perform great acts of heroism… yet consider themselves failures as men if they get too anxious in bed to please a pretty flirt.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vaclav Neckar as Milos
    Characters
  • Milos’ charming yet tortured romance with a fellow conductor (Jitka Bendova)
    Romance
  • “Ladies’ man” Hubicka (Josef Somr) stamping the date up and down the legs of a willing young woman — one of the most unusually erotic moments in film history
    Stamping

Must See?
Yes. This is a must-see foreign gem.

Categories

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


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