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Month: October 2006

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Sons of the Desert (1933)

“Every man should be the king in his own castle!”

Synopsis:
Henpecked Stan and Ollie (Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy) sneak off to a fraternity convention in Chicago, telling their wives (Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie) that they have gone to Honolulu to cure Ollie’s cold — but their ruse is soon discovered–

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this slapstick comedy may very well be the “definitive Laurel and Hardy film”, given that it “perfectly illustrates how Laurel and Hardy typically relate to each other and to their wives in their movies.” While it’s not my favorite L&H flick (that honor would probably go to Blockheads), it’s full of countless humorous moments: Stan blithely eating wax fruit; Stan and Ollie naively trying to convince their knowing wives that they’ve been in Honolulu; Stan and Ollie attempting to sneak into their own houses. As noted in the New York Times’ original review, Laurel and Hardy are “a Quixote and Panza in a nightmare world, where even the act of opening a door is filled with hideous perils.” This harmless pair of stooges can’t seem to help landing in a heap of trouble — and it’s great fun watching them struggle to climb back out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The opening sequence, in which the Exalted Ruler (John Elliott) of the Sons of the Desert — taking his position way too seriously — solemnly exhorts all members to attend the annual convention in Chicago
    Exalted Ruler
  • Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie playing “straight (wo)men” to Laurel and Hardy’s antics

Must See?
Yes. Along with Way Out West (1936) and Blockheads (1938), this is a must-see Laurel and Hardy flick. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 (1988).

Categories

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

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Uncle Harry/The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

Uncle Harry/The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

“You must realize by now that Letty has absolutely no intention of giving you up — not until she’s dead!”

Synopsis:
When small-town, middle-aged bachelor Harry Quincey (George Sanders) falls in love with a beautiful young woman from New York (Ella Raines), his plans to marry are foiled by his possessive sister Letty (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and Harry plots his revenge.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
This “unusual little sleeper” (directed by Robert Siodmak) daringly posits an incestuous menage a trois between a beautiful woman, her lover, and her lover’s possessive sister — the “perfect wife” who will do nearly anything to stop her brother from leaving the nest. Despite its fine acting and atmospheric set design, however, the film is unfortunately dragged down by the improbable logic of its characters — we never learn why it’s so hard for Harry to stand up to his manipulative sister, and their quibbles over who will remain living in the family home once Harry is married are inane. Plus, since we never really get to know what makes the weak-willed Harry tick, his drastic turn to murder makes little sense — especially given that his chance for happiness with Raines has already disappeared.

Uncle Harry also suffers greatly from its wildly incongruous ending, demanded by censors who, as Peary points out, most likely “had to be appeased for allowing [an] incest theme.” Ironically, the last few moments of the film actually do nothing to mitigate the raciness that has come before, and have little effect other than ruining the credibility of the story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ella Raines as Harry’s fiance — her dynamic presence serves as a potent contrast to the staid lives of Harry and his sisters
  • Fine acting by Sanders, MacGill (Angela Lansbury’s mother), and Fitzgerald
  • Several surprising plot twists (but not the final one!)

Must See?
No, but fans of director Robert Siodmak’s work will undoubtedly want to check it out.

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Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

“Everything Lynnfield doesn’t want you to feel, you write about — love, laughter; all the things you want to experience but can’t.”

Synopsis:
A repressed small-town girl (Irene Dunne) writing racy novels under a pseudonym is pursued by a married New Yorker (Melvyn Douglas) with secrets of his own.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, the primary issue with this intermittently amusing but ultimately disappointing screwball comedy is that the male lead (played by Melvyn Douglas) is “thoroughly obnoxious”. Peary astutely points out the folly of male screenwriters — such as TGW‘s Sidney Buchman — who allow their female heroines to fall in love with men who have embarrassed, harassed, and annoyed them to no end. Why would Theodora want to have anything to do with this guy after his juvenile antics? Plus, I don’t buy Douglas’s motivation for following Theodora (Dunne) out to Lynnfield, given that he’s already married and has no interest in pursuing a lasting relationship with her. (His character would have made a lot more sense to me if he was a reporter trying to pen a scoop story.)

Other minor quibbles with the movie include the fact that it’s difficult to take Theodora seriously as a writer, given that we never see her writing (what goes on in her head during the process?). Plus, two pets (a cat and a dog) are hurt in the story — presumably for laughs, but neither scene is really all that funny.

Despite its flaws, however, the film does have several redeeming qualities. It makes the point that small-mindedness isn’t exclusively a small-town trait (indeed, Douglas’s wealthy New York family is just as stuffy as Lynnfield’s puritanical “bluenoses”). It also provides an interesting twist on the theme of revenge, given that Theodora isn’t simply trying to “get back” at Douglas; she genuinely wants to help him break free, just like he “helped” her. Finally (and most importantly), Irene Dunne sparkles in the lead role — it’s a joy to watch Theodora emerging from her shell, and easy to see why Dunne quickly landed additional roles in romantic comedies.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Irene Dunne, charming in her first major comedic role
  • Some effective editing — particularly in a scene where the faces of Lynnfield’s gossips are juxtaposed with close-ups of cats

Must See?
No. While enjoyable at times, this screwball comedy doesn’t quite deliver. On the other hand, film fanatics may be interested in watching it simply to see Dunne in her first major comedic role.

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The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)

The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)

“The future ain’t what it used to be — and what’s more, it never was.”

Weavers Poster

Synopsis:
The Weavers — an influential folk group blacklisted during the McCarthy era — reunite for a final set of concerts at Carnegie Hall.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this little-seen documentary on the Weavers — “the most famous and influential folk-singing group of all time” — is both “uplifting and informative.” Director Jim Brown impressively incorporates past and present footage into a seamlessly enjoyable film; and while it would perhaps have been interesting to learn a little more about how each of the Weavers coped with being blacklisted, I was secretly pleased by the movie’s focus on the pure joy of their music making. Singer Lee Hays (who died nine months after the making of the documentary) initiated the group’s final reunion, and serves as the film’s droll, entertaining narrator. Although his voice is no longer what it used to be, it’s still incredibly moving to watch him and his partners — Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman — “gaining confidence when their singing immediately clicks.” As Peary notes, what the 78-minute film could definitely have used even more of is footage from the group’s two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall — there was no need to cut this piece of things so short.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Countless rousing and memorable songs — including “If I Had a Hammer” (written by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger) and “Good Night, Irene”
  • Folk singer Holly Near describing the influence Ronnie Gilbert had on her

Must See?
Yes. As a likely inspiration for Christopher Guest et al.’s mockumentary A Mighty Wind (2003), it’s worth watching for this reason alone — but chances are you’ll enjoy the film on its own merits.

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Yellow Submarine (1968)

Yellow Submarine (1968)

“All you need is love.”

Synopsis:
The Beatles accompany Captain Fred in his Yellow Submarine to help free Pepperland from the music-hating Blue Meanies.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
The Beatles’ only animated film — featuring their music and their cartoon likenesses but not their actual voices — remains as enjoyable and mind-blowing today as it was 30+ years ago. As Peary notes, the film’s visuals are “consistently imaginative, innovative, colorful, and startling”, and a recent renovation has restored the film’s eye-popping panorama of colors to full capacity. The sheer variety of animation techniques in Yellow Submarine is blissfully overwhelming. If you pause randomly on any given frame, you’ll undoubtedly be inspired to hang the image on your wall as a legitimate piece of groovy pop art. At the same time, watching the imagery in motion — as colors bleed and entire worlds are literally created and destroyed — is an indispensable treat all its own.

It’s enormously satisfying to see the Beatles immortalized as cartoon caricatures; I’m amazed by how just a few strategically drawn lines make each of them instantly recognizable. And while Peary laments the fact that the Beatles themselves didn’t provide the voices for their characters, I have to say this didn’t bother me much — there’s no mistaking John, Paul, Ringo, and George, and the group’s playful banter (exploited so successfully in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) is still greatly in evidence.

It’s hard to pick favorite sequences, but I feel a special fondness for “Eleanor Rigby” (which uses b&w photo stills of the “lonely people” in Liverpool); “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (possessing perhaps the most psychedelic imagery in the entire film); and “It’s All Too Much”, a final celebratory song before the Beatles themselves appear in person (be still my heart!) to close the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stunningly original and vibrant animation — each frame is a wonder to behold
    Visuals
  • The Beatles’ avatars: with just a few distinct lines, the film’s animators brought the Fab Four’s faces to 2-D life
    Beatles
  • An excellent, rousing soundtrack (naturally!)
    When I'm 64
  • Countless humorous and/or punny verbal exchanges by the deadpan Beatles:

    John: It’s blue glass.
    George: Must be from Kentucky, then.

    Blueglass

Must See?
Absolutely. This classic animated musical is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and merits multiple viewings.

Categories

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

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Christine Jorgensen Story, The (1970)

Christine Jorgensen Story, The (1970)

“Operate on the brain, perform a lobotomy — fine! But take a pair of testicles and everybody explodes!”

Synopsis:
As a child, George Jorgensen (Trent Lehman) feels compelled to dress in girls’ clothing and play with dolls. His gender dysphoria becomes so acute as an adult that George (now played by John Hansen) travels to Denmark for a life-altering gender operation, and turns himself into “Christine”.

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Review:
Based on Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography, this biopic about the first widely publicized transgender operation is undeniably campy, but not nearly as bad or melodramatic as you would think. In fact, the film actually got good ratings in the New York Times upon its release (see link below), with reviewer Roger Greenspun referring to it as a “quiet, even dignified little picture.”

Christine’s solemn voice-over narration (“My father was wrong… For me, there were no tomorrows that weren’t filled with loneliness”) comes across as laughably stilted at times, but there’s no denying the sincerity behind her words. And while many of the scenes don’t quite ring true (Christine’s burgeoning romance with a journalist, for instance), a surprising number (i.e., Christine’s interactions with her aunt) are poignant and heartfelt.

Unlike the real Christine Jorgensen, John Hansen isn’t lithe (or graceful) enough to pass as a woman, but he makes up for his physical limitations with a sympathetic performance. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Trent Lehman, the young actor playing George as a boy: his wooden acting (check out the forced, almost evil-looking smile on his face as he fondles a doll behind the Christmas tree!) shows why his movie career never took off.

According to Jon C. Hopwood’s bio of Jorgensen on IMDb, Jorgensen — a Protestant — applied the ultimate “can do” attitude to her dilemma: because attraction to men as a man was unthinkable to George, he “made things right” by turning himself into a woman — thus, in an odd way, conforming to society’s norms and expectations. While I find this analysis intriguing, enough is known at this point about the origins of gender dysphoria to understand that George’s desire to be a woman ultimately stemmed from something much deeper than a desire simply to “fit in”…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Hansen’s sensitive portrayal as George/Christine
    John Hansen
  • Joan Tompkins as Christine’s understanding Danish aunt
    Joan Tompkins
  • A sympathetic portrayal of gender dysphoria as a treatable, biological disorder
    Doctor
  • A deliciously campy sensibility
    Camp

Must See?
Yes, simply for its status as a cult favorite.

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Viridiana (1961)

Viridiana (1961)

“I’m not a good liar, Uncle. I respect you, and I’m grateful for your material support — but beyond that, no affection.”

Synopsis:
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), a novice nun, is sent to visit her sick uncle (Fernando Rey) before taking her vows. When she rebuffs his lecherous advances, he hangs himself, and leaves his farm estate to her. Viridiana turns the farm into a haven for the homeless, but quickly finds that her good intentions are once again being abused.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
The futility of noble intentions in the face of a thankless and debased humanity has never been portrayed more powerfully than in Luis Bunuel’s controversial Viridiana. Banned as “subversive” in Franco’s Spain, the film was snuck out of the country, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and received worldwide distribution from its Mexican producer. As usual, Bunuel (a life-long atheist and nonconformist) holds absolutely nothing back in his indictment of Catholicism, which is portrayed as “neither moral nor Christian in attitude”. He glibly exploits sexual perversions (ranging from necrophilia to incest to rape), and infuses his film with outrageously “kooky characters” and “deadpan humor”. The satire is broadly played, and while “American conservatives [may] delight in how Bunuel depicts the poor as freeloading ingrates”, it’s clear that this film is more about the loss of Viridiana’s (and our) naive idealism than anything else.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Silvia Pinal’s sympathetic performance as the well-meaning Viridiana
  • Fernando Rey, appropriately lecherous as Viridiana’s guilt-ridden uncle
  • The broad array of “kooky characters” who come to live on Viridiana’s farm
  • The sacrilegious “gluttonous-orgiastic” beggars’ banquet, meant to overtly mock Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”

Must See?
Yes. This once-scandalous film remains among Bunuel’s best, and is required viewing for film fanatics.

Categories

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

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Midnight Express (1978)

Midnight Express (1978)

“The concept of a society is based on the quality of its mercy, its sense of fair play, its sense of justice.”

Synopsis:
Twenty-year-old Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught smuggling two kilos of hashish across the Turkish border, and sent to prison for three years. When he finds out his sentence has been extended to thirty years, he decides to break free via the “Midnight Express.”

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Response to Peary’s Review:
The primary problem with this sensationalist movie (based on a true story) is that it’s impossible to feel much sympathy for the film’s protagonist. Played by Brad Davis (with, as Peary puts it, a “slight build and weak, guilty eyes”), he is so consistently stupid, whiny, and racist that any of the film’s other merits are overshadowed by one’s disdain for this insufferable American. As stated in the Prison Flicks review (see link below), Billy is basically a “spoiled brat” — after all, what kind of a moron would try to sneak two kilos of hash out of a foreign country, then yell out in a Turkish courthouse (in the middle of his own sentencing): “For a nation of pigs, it sure is funny you don’t eat ’em! I hate you, I hate your nation, and I hate your people! I fuck your sons and daughters because they’re pigs!”

With that said, the movie is still quite powerful when it comes to showing the inhumanity of Turkish prisons; apparently negotiations began just a few months after the film’s release for the exchange of prisoners between America and Turkey. Since that time, however, several other (better) films have showcased similarly bleak situations for Americans stuck in international jails — for instance, 1998’s Return to Paradise (set in Malaysia) and 1999’s Brokedown Palace (set in Thailand). As Peary notes, “the wrong impression that many viewers [of Midnight Express] got is that such prisons are peculiar to Turkey and not found all over the world.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The genuinely tense opening sequence, when Billy fears (rightfully so) that he will be caught at the border
    Tension
  • Randy Quaid and John Hurt as Billy’s eccentric cellmates
    Hurt and Quaid
  • Effectively grim prison sets
    Prison

Must See?
No. While it holds some historical interest, it’s ultimately not must-see viewing.

Links:

Devils, The (1971)

Devils, The (1971)

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”

Devils Poster

Synopsis:
Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), a lustful yet devoted priest, presides over the fortified town of Loudun, France in the early 1600s. When a deranged, sexually repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes infatuated with Grandier and accuses him of diabolically seducing her, power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) sees this as his chance to take over the city, and a hysterical witchhunt (led by exorcist Michael Gothard) ensues.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Ken Russell’s baroque adaptation of John Whiting’s play — about religious hysteria and political chicanery during the European plague — is most definitely not for the faint of heart. A passionate paean for rationality and balance in the face of escalating lunacy, Russell spares nothing in his attempt to show how easily fear and ignorance can be manipulated by those in power.

Russell infuses his historical drama (based on real events and people) with a uniquely postmodern twist: King Louis XIII is a cross-dresser; church officials don Lone Ranger masks during processions; and garish white make-up is randomly worn by both the living and the dying. Absolutely nothing is left sacred here, as naked nuns cavort and masturbate, priests impregnate parishioners, and plague victims are tortured by gleefully experimental “doctors”. As Peary notes, however, the film’s “repulsive imagery [may be] overwhelming at times, but for once Russell’s seemingly out-of-control, hallucinogenic style is appropriate for his subject matter.”

“Repulsive imagery” aside, there is much to admire in the film. Oliver Reed (more handsome and virile than ever) and Vanessa Redgrave (beautifully insane) are both excellent in the film’s lead roles, while Derek Jarman’s elegant sets transport us to a uniquely futuristic past. When watching The Devils, one appreciates its stylistic beauty while remaining appalled by the relentless trajectory of its tale. In the end, there is no mistaking Russell’s vision here, as unyielding and personal as ever. Selected by Movies.com as one of the 25 most controversial films of all time.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Oliver Reed’s electrifying performance as Grandier, a man who refuses to back down from his convictions at any cost
    Oliver Reed
  • Vanessa Redgrave’s surprisingly sympathetic performance as the hunchbacked Mother Superior
    Vanessa Redgrave
  • Michael Gothard (young, virile, and rock-starrish) as the truly “possessed” exorcist
    Exorcist
  • Gemma Jones (who reminds me of Anne Heche) as Grandier’s new wife, providing a hint of sweetness and hope in this otherwise relentlessly bleak existence
    Gemma Jones
  • Stunning set designs by Derek Jarman
    Set
  • Countless unforgettable (though undeniably horrific) images
    Maggots
  • A powerful portrayal of religious hysteria and its dire consequences
    Hysteria

Must See?
Yes. Though it’s hard to sit through and will doubtless offend many, this remains one of Ken Russell’s best films.

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