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Month: October 2006

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Bigger Than Life (1956)

“One pill, and he thought he could handle anything. One pill, and he thought he was bigger than life!”

Bigger Than Life Poster

Synopsis:
Overworked husband and father Ed Avery (James Mason) is prescribed cortisone as a pain-reliever for his rare arterial disease, and soon becomes addicted to the feelings this “wonder drug” produces in him — but his increasingly psychotic behavior puts his loyal wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) at grave risk.

Genres:

Review:
Nicholas Ray’s little-seen “social drama” about the ills of cortisone abuse has been voted by critics as one of the top-twenty best films unavailable on video in the United States. Much like Ray’s classic teen-angst drama Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life provides a scathing, thinly veiled commentary on middle-class mores in 1950s America while ostensibly dealing with a different subject altogether.

James Mason (who also produced) plays a man torn between familial duties and a desire for less pedestrian pursuits. As the film opens, we watch him leaving his day-job as a teacher to work surreptitiously as an operator for a taxi company. His wife has no idea that he’s moonlighting to supplement their comfortable middle-class lifestyle, instead suspecting him of an affair. But when he doubles over in acute pain, blacks out, and must be rushed to the hospital, she learns (with ironic relief) the truth about his stressful situation. Ed’s prognosis isn’t good, but with the help of a steady dose of cortisone — the new “wonder drug” of the day — he’s able to manage his pain and quickly return back to his regular life.

Unfortunately, this seeming “happy ending” merely signals the onset of an increasingly nightmarish existence for the Averys, as Ed discovers that cortisone provides him with a new kind of strength and virility which he had been sorely lacking before. He can’t seem to help himself from taking more than the prescribed dosage of his medication, and soon becomes a frightening figure of irrational authority in his household, demanding more and more control over his wife and son’s every move. The story quickly goes beyond the audience’s comfort zone, showing us the “hidden” impulses and thoughts which emerge when Ed is no longer constrained by petty concerns such as earning an income and maintaining a modicum of social propriety.

Ultimately, then, Bigger Than Life shows us a prototypical 1950s family man who secretly longs to transcend his cloistered existence (posters and maps of far-away countries — places he can’t afford to visit — line the walls of his house), but who is torn by a sense of guilty responsibility to his family. His wife (played with firm resolve by Barbara Rush) is similarly stuck in a vision of 1950s propriety: she’s afraid to send Ed to a psychiatrist because of what this would imply about his sanity, and unable to stand up to her husband even in the face of extreme danger to herself and her son. While the film ends on an unrealistically upbeat, pro-family note (perhaps demanded by audiences of the day), fortunately this doesn’t erase the impact of the gripping psychological horror that has come before.

P.S. While Peary doesn’t review Bigger Than Life in GFTFF, he does list it in his “Additional Must See Movies” section as a Personal Recommendation and a film with historical importance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Mason’s frightening portrayal as a real-life “Jekyll and Hyde”
    Shattered MIrror
  • Barbara Rush as Mason’s loyal wife
    Barbara Rush
  • Vibrant Technicolor cinematography
    Cinematography
  • Dramatic use of foreground/background placement to indicate increasing familial separation
    Foreground
  • Extreme camera angles and lighting, which evoke the psychological horror of this family’s situation
    Shadow
  • A shattering indictment of 1950s middle-class materialism and gender roles
    Family at Table
  • A powerful portrayal of a family torn apart by prescription drugs
    Family Torn Apart

Must See?
Yes. It’s hugely ironic that this classic American melodrama has received a DVD release in both Spain (retitled Mas Poderoso que la Vida, or More Powerful Than Life) and France (retitled Derriere le Miroir, or Behind the Mirror), but not the United States.

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

Late Spring (1949)

Late Spring (1949)

“If I left home, Father would be lost.”

Late Spring Poster

Synopsis:
An aging widower (Chishu Ryu) lovingly deceives his devoted daughter (Sesuko Hara) in order to convince her that she should marry.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “simply told yet lovely film” by Yasujiro Ozu showcases many of the themes the famed Japanese director would continue to explore in his later movies — including “the dissolution of the postwar Japanese family; the idea that married children… will become strangers to their parents; [and] the wise realization by the elderly that they must sacrifice their own happiness so that their children can make lives for themselves.” Ozu quietly evokes a specific time and place in post-WWII Japanese history, with most scenes focusing on the expressions and reactions of seated characters who are either pouring tea, folding clothes, chatting, or taking care of other daily activities. Ozu’s pace is refreshingly leisurely; his camera lingers quietly on scenes of the countryside, empty rooms about to be filled, and — most frequently — the lovely, smiling face of the film’s protagonist (Hara).

Peary points out that Ozu makes the fascinating choice of never showing us Hara’s young “Gary Cooper-esque” spouse-to-be — indicating that in some ways, Late Spring is really a tragic story of “star-crossed lovers” (father and daughter) who are unable to justify a continued lifetime together. While Ozu only hints at the titillation of Hara’s “unhealthy” devotion to her father, there is definitely “something not quite right with this special father-daughter relationship,” as noted in the Not Coming to a Theater Near You review (see link below). Indeed, any explicit mention of the need for sexual gratification is conspicuously absent from the film — although it would appear full-force in Ozu’s final movie, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), a virtual reworking of the same story.

P.S. Interestingly, many of Ozu’s films reference seasons in their titles — including Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960), Early Autumn (1961), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Setsuko Hara as Noriko, whose near-constant smile belies the depth of her conflicting emotions
    Hara
  • Chishu Ryu as Noriko’s sacrificing father — this wonderfully understated actor is always a pleasure to behold on-screen
    Ryu
  • Many quiet scenes between Hara and Ryu, who are ultimately too comfortable in their life together
    Father and Daughter
  • Beautiful black-and-white cinematography
    Cinematography
  • An interesting glimpse at American-occupied Japan after WWII
    Tokyo
  • An emotionally devastating, yet ultimately satisfying, ending
    Final Scene
  • Senji Ito’s lilting, strings-heavy musical score, which permeates the film and brings a lump to one’s throat

Must See?
Yes. Ozu’s film is a provocative, lovingly rendered depiction of filial loyalty in mid-century Japan.

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Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

“[It’s] Jesus — He’s in our barn. He’s come back.”

Synopsis:
Three motherless siblings (Hayley Mills, Diane Holgate, and Alan Barnes) find a fugitive (Alan Bates) hiding in their barn, and mistakenly believe he is Jesus.

Genres:

Review:
At the age of five, I desperately wanted to know who “God” was, and how He fit into the broader scheme of the universe; therefore, I could instantly relate to the adventures of the likable lead characters in Whistle Down the Wind, a rare film (much like Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games, 1951) which manages to depict the natural innocence of children without patronizing them. As the film opens, the three Bostock siblings are stealthily following a man in a coat who is carrying a burlap sack under his arm. This man, we soon learn, is their father’s farmhand, and the sack he carries contains a litter of unwanted kittens. After he tosses the bag into a river and walks away, the siblings quickly rescue the helpless animals and bring them to hidden safety in their barn — where they discover the fugitive who they soon come to believe is Jesus Christ.

This powerful opening sequence — quiet and grim, yet hopeful at the same time — effectively establishes a tense dialectic between childhood idealism and adult pragmatism, a theme which continues through the entire film. The notion of these village children mistaking a scruffy, bearded stranger for Christ is highly credible, as is their quest to keep him safe from the evil hands of Adults Who Want Him Gone — after all, if adults will kill innocent kittens, what aren’t they capable of? Fortunately, though grown-ups may be the ones in power most of the time, children easily trump them in terms of their cleverness, imagination, and sheer trust in goodness, as this film ably shows.

In addition to its provocative, unusual storyline, Whistle Down the Wind benefits from marvelous acting. Mills is once again natural and vibrant in a role which required her to ditch her perfect Queen’s English for a Northern dialect, and Alan Bates (in his film debut) wisely plays The Man (a.k.a. “Jesus”) as someone reticent and careful rather than vicious and bold, thus allowing the children’s impressions of him to form the bulk of his characterization. The cast of local children (labeled “The Disciples” in the film’s closing credits) are appropriately diverse in both appearance and demeanor, and the town’s adults (including Diane Clare as the children’s well-meaning Sunday School teacher, Bernard Lee as the siblings’ harried yet concerned single father, and Hamilton Dyce as the local vicar) are realistic as well.

But the film’s stand-out performance undeniably belongs to the youngest Bostock sibling (Charles), played by Alan Barnes — who, as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times put it, “is absolutely the most terrific little fellow we’ve ever seen in a film.” Charles is the type of precocious kid who suddenly announces out loud at the breakfast table: “198”, then explains — as though the relevance and importance of this numerical fact should be obvious — that this is how many eggs he’s eaten since Easter. Charles is a boy who requires concrete proof of anything in order to be persuaded, and when “Jesus” allows the kitten Charles has placed in his care to die, Charles’s faith is suddenly and irreparably damaged: “It isn’t Jesus. It’s just a fella,” he takes to announcing with cynical disdain.

Ultimately, however, Whistle Down the Wind is most concerned with Mills’s character (Kathy), and how she negotiates the tricky terrain of childhood conviction in the face of adult authority. Fortunately, the film builds to a credible denouement, with the movie’s final scene arriving as a satisfying solution to what seemed (to me at least) like an impossible task — bringing about justice for the fugitive’s crimes without shattering Mills’s faith completely. It is a testament to this fine, original film that it manages to achieve both.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hayley Mills in yet another impressive early performance
    Hayley Mills
  • Alan Barnes as the inimitable young Charles
    Alan Barnes
  • Realistic performances by local children
    Local children
  • Alan Bates’s low-key yet fateful interactions with Mills
    Mills and Bates
  • Beautiful north England scenery
    Landscape
  • Effective use of camera angles, lighting, and sets
    Barn scene
  • A touching, memorable final scene
    Final scene

Must See?
Yes. This allegory of childhood innocence and faith remains an unsung classic of British cinema.

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Jagged Edge (1985)

Jagged Edge (1985)

“If he didn’t do it, I’ll get him off.”

Jagged Edge Poster

Synopsis:
Female lawyer Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) questions the innocence of the man (Jeff Bridges) she is defending on suspicion of murder.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this popular ’80s courtroom thriller is “absurdly written”, “too slick”, and “manipulative”. Nonetheless, it possesses a stand-out performance by Glenn Close (smart and savvy in her tailor-made suits), and enough plot twists to keep you guessing the entire time. It’s too bad screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls, Basic Instinct) insults his audience with inane dialogue (“He had a rap sheet as long as my dick”), a distracting subplot about legal ethics, and an unrealistic, unprofessional romantic relationship between Close and Bridges — because there’s potential here for something much better.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glenn Close’s sympathetic performance
    Glenn Close
  • Many clever plot twists
    Twist

Must See?
No. This is an enjoyable courtroom thriller, but certainly not must-see viewing.

Links:

Wild in the Streets (1968)

Wild in the Streets (1968)

“Our young people are citizens. They’re concerned, committed, original, vital — they are citizens; we must give them the rights of citizens.”

Synopsis:
Senator Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) uses popular rock star Max Frost (Christopher Jones) as a political ploy to gain the country’s “youth vote.” Things quickly spin out of control, however, when Frost and his friends entreat the nation not to “trust anyone over 30”.

Genres:

  • Dystopia
  • Generation Gap
  • Millie Perkins Films
  • Naive Public
  • Political Corruption
  • Revolutionaries
  • Richard Pryor Films
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Shelley Winters Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes this cult AIP flick as a “vile movie, a fascist fantasy, an insult to America’s politically conscious youth” — but I think he misses the point. Wild in the Streets is actually a relatively smart, pointed satire which isn’t afraid to carry its provocative (albeit ludicrous) premise to a logical end. When Shelley Winters (perfectly cast as Max’s hypocritical, brown-nosing mother) accidentally shouts out, “I’m an Aryan!” as she’s dragged away by the regime’s Age Police, the allegory between Frost’s Youth-topia and Hitler’s Third Reich couldn’t be clearer. These may be “awful characters”, as Peary notes, but who says power doesn’t corrupt?

Once they’ve managed to take over the White House and imprison anyone over 35 in LSD “concentration camps”, director Barry Shear doesn’t allow Frost and his cronies to rest on the laurels of their successful coup. Instead, the film continues inexorably along its dystopic path: when Frost informs Fergus’s young daughter, Mary, that he’s 24, she responds with youthful disdain, “That’s old!” The fear on Frost’s face at this moment shows that he’s beginning to realize (perhaps too late) the folly of his logic.

Inevitable comparisons have been made between this film and 1968’s Privilege — an equally provocative satire about a popular musician used for nefarious political purposes. But ultimately the films take radically different approaches to their subject matter. Privilege revolves around a patsy rock star who gradually comes to realize that his very identity is being manipulated by the government. Frost, however, is politically savvy from the get-go, and never lets up on his bitter thirst to elimate the equation of age and experience with wisdom and ability.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jones’s charismatic portrayal as Max Frost (though his ratty ponytail has got to go!)
  • Appearances by three cult favorites: Richard Pryor (as Frost’s drummer); Shelley Winters (compellingly shrill as always); and Barry Williams (Greg of “Brady Bunch” fame) in a short scene as the young Max
  • Catchy, if annoying, songs

Must See?
Yes. This cult movie may offend those who have fond memories of the 1960s youth movement, but today the film comes across as a surprisingly provocative, biting satire.

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The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…”

Synopsis:
Chuck Berry introduces acts from the 1964 Teenage Awards Music International — including Bo Diddley, the Supremes, the Ronettes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, and the Rolling Stones.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this early concert film featuring hit American and British rock groups of the day is “silly, innocent fun”, with “some of the most cheerful acts you’ve ever seen.” Cinematically, the film is fairly standard concert fare, and the frenzied on-stage dancers are embarrassingly bad; nonetheless, “as a record of the ’64 music scene, it’s priceless.” My favorite acts (though naturally everyone will have their own) include Bo Diddley performing “Hey, Bo Diddley”; Lesley Gore singing “You Don’t Own Me” (featuring the film’s most creative camerawork); a handsome young Marvin Gaye singing several ballads; James Brown sashaying across the stage on one foot; and, naturally, the Rolling Stones (I especially love the way the camera captures Mick Jagger’s happy exhaustion at the end of each song).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Countless musical greats gathered together for a powerhouse good time
    Rolling Stones
  • An invaluable snapshot of the 1964 rock music scene
    Chuck Berry

Must See?
Yes, simply as a musical time-capsule.

Categories

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Xica / Xica da Silva (1976)

Xica / Xica da Silva (1976)

Synopsis:
Xica (Zeze Motta), a black female slave in 18th century Brazil, gains freedom, wealth, and power by seducing the town’s new Royal Diamond Contractor (Walmor Chages).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this “popular [Brazilian] film by Carlos Diegues” is rather half-hearted. He finds it “not particularly interesting,” and largely “unsatisfying” in terms of its political exposition. Other reviewers have expressed similar opinions (see links below), lamenting the film’s bombastic sexual humor and labeling it thematically “messy”.

It’s true that Xica doesn’t fall into one or two neatly defined cinematic slots. In addition to the above-listed genres, for instance, Xica could be seen as a “femme fatale” film, given that the lead character selfishly causes the downfall of the men she seduces (though her joyous demeanor and intermittent goodwill towards others don’t allow Xica to fall into the classic noir categorization of such women). Also, while the story undeniably involves slavery, it doesn’t dwell on this as any kind of a serious thematic subject — Xica could just as easily have been a lower-class maid rather than a slave, without changing the overall thrust of the story. And though Xica has much of the feeling of a classic “Bedroom Farce” — with Xica bedding several cuckolded men at once — it’s more about sex as a source of power than sex as a harmless flirtation. Finally, while Xica experiences a drastic downfall at the end of the film (thus hinting at a “Rise and Fall” theme), she picks herself right back up and, oddly, seems undefeated — thus belying the traditional heavy-handed morality of most such movies.

Ultimately, then, Xica is more of a character-driven comedy than any kind of a serious statement about political, historical, racial, or gender-based issues. If you don’t expect such an agenda, chances are you’ll have a good time enjoying this film’s broad humor, colorful costumes, and unusual historical setting. It’s truly a unique movie-watching experience.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Zeze Motta’s dynamic, sexually charged performance as Xica
  • Unexpectedly ribald humor

Must See?
Yes, as one of the most popular Brazilian films of the 1970s.

Categories

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Stevie (1978)

Stevie (1978)

“I was much too far out all my life / And not waving, but drowning.”

Synopsis:
British poet Stevie Smith (Glenda Jackson) discusses her childhood, her literary fame, her failed romance, and life with her beloved maiden aunt (Mona Washbourne).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this theatrical adaptation is humorously tongue-in-cheek: he begins by noting that it is “one of those films people like to recommend to show they have good taste — [but] not me,” and admits that he “blanked out” after ten minutes. Interestingly enough, I had the opposite reaction — it took me about ten minutes to get into the rhythm of the movie, and then (almost despite myself) I was hooked.

I knew nothing at all about Stevie Smith before renting this movie — indeed, I hadn’t even heard of her — but quickly became interested in both her work and her life, primarily due to Jackson’s skillfully nuanced performance. She utilizes a series of self-conscious vocal modulations and subtle facial gestures (such as nose sniffs and tongue-against-teeth movements) to portray Stevie’s unique mixture of humility, melancholy, and quietly adventurous spirit — and while she talks far too much, her performance never falters.

Unfortunately, not every aspect of the film works: the flashbacks to Stevie’s childhood seem out of place; the script is far too stagy; and the strange role of Smith’s friend “The Man” (played by Trevor Howard) should have been cut altogether. Monologic plays ultimately work better on the small screen — I was reminded, for instance, of Eileen Atkins one-woman portrait of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1990). With that said, however, fans of this type of movie will doubtless enjoy it, and should seek it out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Glenda Jackson’s unglamorous portrayal of Stevie Smith
  • Mona Washbourne’s delightfully witty performance as Stevie’s spinster aunt

Must See?
No, unless you’re a fan of either Stevie Smith, Glenda Jackson, or one-woman shows.

Links:

Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover Square (1945)

“Something’s happened lately — these moods are getting deeper and longer.”

Hangover Square Poster

Synopsis:
Composer George Bone (Laird Cregar) suffers from sound-induced blackouts, during which he commits crimes he can’t remember. When he’s jilted by a manipulative dance hall singer (Linda Darnell), he commits one murder too many, and a Scotland Yard doctor (George Sanders) is hot on his trail.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Laird Cregar gives one of his best, most sympathetic “psycho performances” in this “wildly stylized period noir” — released just two months after his premature death by heart attack at the age of 30. Cregar plays Bone as a quietly insecure, well-meaning artist whose physically imposing body functions as a scarily efficient tool for destruction while also belying a gentler nature. Cregar’s performance here shows ample evidence of his burgeoning talent; he masterfully combines broadly psychotic behavior with a range of subtle gestures a la Brando in On the Waterfront. Watch the way he idly scratches a Siamese cat on its head with the tip of a fan, for instance, or quietly adjusts his jacket collar when walking into the room where he recently — albeit unknowingly — tried to strangle his friend.

In addition to Cregar’s nuanced performance, Hangover Square benefits from both “wonderful period detail” and “bizarre direction” by John Brahm. The opening scene of the movie — in which Bone murders an antiques dealer, then flees in confusion — is filmed with “wild angles, camera distortion, [and] swooping crane shots”, thus immediately evoking the protagonist’s crazed frame of mind. This stylized camera work is repeated each time Bone gets knocked into an alternate state of consciousness, and ultimately builds towards the film’s baroquely melodramatic ending — one which effectively conveys the misfortune of a genius betrayed by his own mind.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laird Cregar’s excellent performance in what was tragically both his first and last top-billed role
    Cregar
  • Linda Darnell as the seductively beautiful singer who meets a fiery fate
    Darnell
  • Creative camera work, lighting, and set designs
    Set Design
  • Bernard Herrmann’s dramatic score

Must See?
Yes. While not as renowned as Brahm’s 1944 flick The Lodger (another movie in which Cregar plays a psychotic serial-killer — Jack the Ripper), film fanatics will undoubtedly want to see Cregar in his final performance.

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WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

“No excitement can ever equal the elemental force of the orgasm!”

Synopsis:
Through a creative mixture of documentary and fictional footage, Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev explores the links between sexual and political freedom in the Cold War era.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Though he acknowledges Makavejev’s stylistic ingenuity in WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Peary seems less than excited by the overall impact of this heady cinematic pastiche, lamenting the film’s lost opportunity to fully explore the “radical “free love’ philosophy” of Wilhelm Reich (the “WR” of the film’s title). Viewed years later, however, it’s possible to appreciate WR as more than the sum of its (at times confusing) parts. Makavejev uses Reich’s controversial therapy techniques and untimely death as the inspirational starting point for a heady meditation on life, love, and the pursuit of happiness through political and sexual freedom. While his points may not always be clear — as Peary points out, for instance, it’s difficult at times to tell whether Makavejev is mocking Reich’s disciples or lauding their work — his images never fail to provoke and/or shock.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A provocative mix of documentary and fictional footage

Must See?
Yes; this cult movie remains a unique artistic and political statement.

Categories

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

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