Browsed by
Month: December 2006

Night Caller From Outer Space (1965)

Night Caller From Outer Space (1965)

“You’re not just up against a criminal mind; we’re fighting an alien civilization, one at least a hundred — or maybe a thousand — years in advance of ours!”

Synopsis:
An alien (Robert Crewdson) places an ad in Bikini Girl magazine in order to lure British girls back to his planet. Meanwhile, scientists Jack Costain (John Saxon) and Ann Barlow (Patricia Haines) assist Detective Hartley (Alfred Burke) in an investigation of the mysterious kidnappings.

Genres:

Review:
This unusual alien invasion flick suffers from a slow start, ridiculous low-budget effects, some incredibly corny lines, and one of the most incongruous title songs ever written. Nonetheless, after the first 15 minutes the film moves along at a fast clip, with the actors turning in surprisingly decent performances, and viewers kept in suspense the entire time. The movie’s black-and-white cinematography is chillingly atmospheric (though the off-kilter camera angles and occasional hand-held shots don’t quite work). Recommended for those who enjoyed The Quatermass Xperiment (1955).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Patricia Haines’s intelligent performance as a female scientist who risks her life in order to learn more about the alien
    Haines
  • John Saxon’s earnest depiction as Haines’s colleague
    Saxon
  • Some unexpected moments of humor — such as the scene where a middle-aged couple (Marianne Stone and Warren Mitchell) describe the mysterious disappearance of their daughter
    Couple
  • Atmospheric black-and-white cinematography
    Typewriter

Must See?
No, but it’s a surprisingly effective low-budget thriller. Peary lists it in the back of his book as both a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation.

Links:

Muddy River (1981)

Muddy River (1981)

“There must be lots of people out there who wish now that they’d died in the war.”

Synopsis:
In post-WWII Osaka, a young boy (Nobutaka Asahara) befriends the son (Minoru Sakurai) of a riverside prostitute (Mariko Kaga).

Genres:

Review:
Kohei Oguri’s little-seen debut film (currently unavailable to English-speaking audiences) remains one of the finest movies ever made about childhood friendship. I rented Muddy River as a region-coded DVD with Chinese subtitles, using a computer-generated translation program to help me decipher what the characters were saying. As a result, I inevitably lost much of the nuance of the dialogue, but fortunately, most of the film’s power lies in wordless interactions, facial expressions, beautiful cinematography, and a haunting film score.

Oguri perfectly captures the details of children’s interactions with each other: the excitement over showing off a trick or inviting a new friend to one’s home; the illicit thrill of spying on adults as they watch sumo wrestling on television in a bar. But he also skillfully portrays the harder lessons of childhood, such as witnessing a violent death, or having to stick up for a new friend when everyone else rejects him. Each scene in Muddy River carries weight and meaning, but the movie is never overbearing; instead, Oguri simply allows us to witness a kind young boy as he comes of age, while life — both harsh and exciting — carries on around him.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A simple yet powerful evocation of a childhood friendship which transcends class
    Friendship
  • Excellent use of riverside locales and sets
    Riverfront
  • Round-cheeked Nobutaka Asahara as Nobuo
    Nobuo
  • Takahiro Tamura and Yumiko Fujita as Nobuo’s well-meaning parents (seen below in their attempt to make Kiichi and his sister Ginko feel comfortable during dinner)
    Dinner
  • Kiichi smiling and doing somersaults to express his delight after Nobuo defends him in front of some neighborhood boys
    Somersault
  • Stunning black-and-white cinematography by Shohei Ando
    Cinematography
  • A truly heartbreaking ending
    Ending
  • An appropriately elegiac film score by Kurodo Mori

Must See?
Yes, though you may want to wait until it’s been released with English subtitles.

Categories

Links:

Sherman’s March (1986)

Sherman’s March (1986)

“It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film.”

Synopsis:
A documentarian (Ross McElwee) aiming to chronicle the lingering effects of General Sherman’s march on the South instead finds himself filming the various women he gets involved with.

Genres:

Review:
Given the ubiquity of reality television these days — as well as the proliferation of self-made video journals airing on the Independent Film Channel and PBS — it may be difficult to appreciate the novelty of Sherman’s March, made twenty years ago. Working with actual film stock rather than video, McElwee allowed the twists and turns of his life to provide the fuel for a documentary which meanders leisurely rather than hammering in a particular point (though there is one, in the end). While Sherman’s March is over-long and sometimes self-indulgent, McElwee has a gift for capturing some truly quirky moments (and people) on film; this is the kind of gently humorous movie that grows on you if you let it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating yet respectful glimpse at some truly oddball characters engaged in everyday activities
    Cleaning
  • An aspiring actress doing exercises to avoid “cottage cheese” on her thighs
    Exercise
  • McElwee’s friend Charleen trying to convince him that a devout Mormon girl may very well be his best chance at marriage
    Charleen
  • McElwee’s unabashed self-reflection on love and loss
    Reflective

Must See?
Yes. McElwee’s documentary remains an unusual, groundbreaking gem of independent filmmaking.

Categories

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

Links:

High School (1968)

High School (1968)

“The world will recognize you only by your performance.”

Synopsis:
Frederick Wiseman documents life in a Philadelphia high school, circa 1968.

Genres:

Review:
Frederick Wiseman remains one of America’s most provocative yet least seen documentarians. Like his contemporary, Emile de Antonio, Wiseman eschews voice overs, instead relying on judicious editing and extreme close-ups to tell a particular “story” of a time and place. His camera eavesdrops on the most mundane of interactions, shifting from room to room and then back again to continue where things left off. The overall effect is oddly hypnotic, yet sometimes disturbingly voyeuristic, as when he focuses for several minutes on teenage girls’ midriffs and buttocks while they are performing calisthenics, or zooms his camera in so close on a participant’s face that it’s possible to see his skin pores.

High School is full of countless memorable moments, which, taken together, distill the essence of power and gender relations in an institutionalized setting. Wiseman visits nearly every type of classroom at this upper-middle-class high school, affording us a broad range of views: a fashion show (girls are criticized for not appearing pretty enough); a sex ed class; a girls’ calisthenics exercise; boys (but not girls) studying rocket science; and an idealistic English teacher attempting to reach her students through music. We are also privy to disciplinary actions, including one between a girl, her parents, and a (male) authority figure; and one in which a boy is chewed out for insubordination. The power of High School is the way in which each of these scenes allows for multiple, competing interpretations. Interestingly, the participants were initially pleased with the way they were portrayed in the film, and only became disgruntled once they started hearing critical feedback from the general public.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A subtle yet cynical look at power relations, gender roles, and normalizing curriculum in American high schools
    Power
  • Effective use of extreme close-ups and judicious editing
    Closeup
  • The disturbing fashion show sequences
    Fashion show

Must See?
Yes.

Categories

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

Links:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)

“I want to fly where no seagull has flown before. I want to know what there is to know about life!”

Synopsis:
An adventurous seagull is banished from his flock, but returns to dispense newfound philosophical wisdom.

Genres:

Review:
This live-action film version of Richard Bach’s bestselling parable is a curious combination of stunningly photographed nature movie and ridiculously campy new-age psychobabble. While watching shots of seagulls picking through a trash pile, soaring through the air, or cocking their heads at each other, it’s impossible not to imagine the MST3K crew adding their own snide commentary to the proceedings (or to provide your own); indeed, I was pleased to see that JLS has at least been thoroughly lampooned in writing by the Stomp Tokyo review site (see link below). It’s full of countless quotes which are meant to be dead-serious, but instead will either make you laugh out loud or groan:

  • “There’s got to be more to life than fighting for some fish-head somewhere!”
  • “I’ve gone everywhere and everywhen I can think of–“
  • “I am a perfect expression of freedom, here and now.”
  • “I only wish to share what I’ve learned — the very simple fact that it is right for a gull to fly!”

But JLS‘s most egregious sin is its length — it runs for two long hours when it could easily have been reduced to one or less. With that said, the movie still has its hardcore devotees (see various posts on IMDb, for instance), and is an invaluable snapshot of 1970s spiritualism — after all, books don’t become major bestsellers unless they strike some kind of a chord with people. In addition, it’s full of gorgeous cinematography, and fans of Neil Diamond will doubtless enjoy hearing his heartfelt ballads.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful cinematography — though a little goes a long way–
    Landscape
  • Some cool, stylized imagery of birds silhouetted against the sky
    Cool Imagery
  • Neal Diamond’s appropriately majestic score

Must See?
No, though this certifiably “bad” (albeit utterly sincere) movie is worth a look simply for the unique period in American history it represents.

Categories

Links:

Explosive Generation, The (1961)

Explosive Generation, The (1961)

“I asked if it was wrong for a girl to prove to a boy exactly how much she loved him.”

Synopsis:
When a high school teacher (William Shatner) allows his class to talk openly about sex, his job is jeopardized; but his well-meaning students refuse to let him to be punished for something they initiated…

Genres:

Review:
This unfairly maligned “youth picture” — which could easily have been turned into a trashy exploitation flick — instead deals honestly and respectfully with some surprisingly relevant issues. While it’s purportedly about sex education (and what teachers should or shouldn’t be allowed to discuss with their students), it quickly moves into the fascinating realms of students’ rights, activism, and freedom of speech. These teenagers — each unique and sincere — are willing to stick up for what they believe in, and their actions show the power of tenacity and collective will.

Fortunately, the adults in the film are three-dimensional as well; while McCormack’s mom (Virginia Field) is perhaps a bit too stereotypically uptight about her daughter’s sexuality, other parents are conflicted in their own ways, and even the principal — who could easily have been the heavy here — is played with nuance by Edward Platt. While an essential aspect of the film’s ending is unrealistic and far too pat (a key character suddenly has a radical shift in attitude), overall it provides a satisfying resolution to this enjoyable, provocative film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Surprisingly strong performances by many of the teen actors — especially Patty McCormack (evil Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed)
    Classroom
  • William Shatner in a pre-“Star Trek” role
    William Shatner
  • Edward Platt as the well-meaning but pressured principal
    Principal
  • A unique depiction of meaningful collective activism by teenagers
    Activism
  • Good use of natural locations in Southern California
    California
  • A realistic — albeit cynical — look at the competing demands of teachers (and principals); as a colleague reminds the idealistic Shatner, “You’re being paid to lead these kiddies down the garden path of readin’, writin’, and retirement…”
    Teachers

Must See?
Yes. As one commenter on IMDb put it, this is an “enlightened, sensitive, and even-handed treatment” of sexual education in high school.

Categories

Links:

Caught (1949)

Caught (1949)

“You don’t want me — not really; you just want me to want you!”

Synopsis:
Cynical, controlling millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) marries a poor model (Barbara Bel Geddes) to spite his psychoanalyst. When Leonora (Bel Geddes) realizes her marriage is a sham, she leaves to go work for a doctor (James Mason), but Ohlrig will stop at nothing to get his “possession” back.

Genres:

Review:
Both Bel Geddes and Ryan (whose character is based on Howard Hughes) turn in stellar performances in this melodramatic American noir film by Max Ophuls. Unfortunately, the script isn’t up to their standards, with key dramatic scenes seemingly missing, and certain characters’ motivations not fully fleshed out. Leonora in particular (despite Bel Geddes’ best efforts) isn’t consistent: she scrimps and saves to attend “charm school”, yet once she’s achieved a coveted position as a high-end model, inexplicably resists an invitation to a fancy shindig on Ohlrig’s yacht; despite her romantic notions, she marries Ohlrig without a second thought about what kind of person he may be; and she continues to hold on to idealistic notions about marriage (advising a patient’s daughter on how to snag a wealthy man in order to have a “happy” life) even after learning how empty her own is. Nonetheless, the compelling performances — and Ophuls’ brilliance, which shines through at key moments — make this film worth watching once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bel Geddes’ sympathetic performance as Leonora
  • Robert Ryan as the ruthless millionaire Ohlrig
  • James Mason in his American film debut
  • Winning performances by supporting characters — including Curt Bois as Ohlrig’s effeminate assistant (who calls everyone “darling”) and Frank Ferguson as Mason’s colleague
  • Atmospheric cinematography and framing

Must See?
No, though fans of Ophuls and/or Bel Geddes will want to check it out.

Links:

Anniversary, The (1968)

Anniversary, The (1968)

“You’ve gone too far this time, mum!”

Synopsis:
A vicious and controlling mother (Bette Davis) gathers her three grown sons and their mates to celebrate her wedding anniversary.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bette Davis
  • Black Comedy
  • Evil Mothers
  • Family Problems
  • Grown Children
  • Roy Ward Baker Films

Review:
60-year-old Bette Davis is in rare form here as the hideous matriarch of Bill MacIlwraith’s darkly comedic play. With her color-coordinated eye patches, relentless demands, and constant stream of vitriolic put-downs, she emerges as one of cinema’s true villains. The words coming out of this anti-mother’s mouth are almost beyond belief — to her daughter-in-law (Sheila Hancock) she says matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you are a good mother — but it’s not my place to say so”, and “Natural good manners told me when to put the plug in.” To her middle son (Christian Roberts) she states, “I promise you I’ll have your skin for rags, and wipe the faces of your children with them!”

McIlwraith’s play is clearly a black comedy, but one which unfortunately doesn’t offer quite enough relief to redeem its overriding negativity. The narrative trajectory is relentless — while Mama Taggart’s children try their best to stand up to her, she’s constantly one-upping them, and the effect is disheartening. There are many moments of shocking, laugh-out-loud humor, but ultimately this movie is more unpleasant than enjoyable, and one keeps watching simply to see what ghastly action or statement the incomparable Davis will come up with next…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis in a role seemingly tailor-made for her
  • Cross-dressing Henry discussing lingerie with Shirley
  • Good supporting performances — especially by Sheila Hancock and James Cossins
  • Plenty of zingy — albeit terribly cruel — one-liners by Davis: “My dear, would you mind sitting somewhere else? Body odor offends me.”

Must See?
Yes, for Davis’s powerhouse performance.

Categories

Links:

Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, The (1938)

Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, The (1938)

“I know precisely what I’m doing: valuable research work, in a rather unusual form!”

Synopsis:
A doctor (Edward G. Robinson) interested in studying the physiology of criminals gets involved in a heist ring led by high-level fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anatole Litvak Films
  • Character Studies
  • Claire Trevor Films
  • Comedy
  • Edward G. Robinson Films
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists
  • Thieves and Criminals

Review:
This unusual comedic crime thriller deals with one of the eternal dilemmas of science: to what lengths should we go in order to learn more about the human mind and body? The Office for Protection of Human Subjects at any university would have quite a bit to say about Dr. Clitterhouse’s methods, but his blatant disregard for such conventions is what provides the film’s narrative fuel. How far will Clitterhouse (what a name!) go, and when — or rather, how — will he be caught? Edward G. Robinson acquits himself admirably in the title role:

… and seems the perfect choice to play this recklessly arrogant — yet unnervingly calm — doctor. While the screenplay is overly stagy at times, and the comedy doesn’t always work, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse remains intriguing viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A clever and witty script (co-written by future director John Huston)

Must See?
No. While based on an intriguing premise, this movie isn’t essential viewing for film fanatics.

Links:

Strait-Jacket (1964)

Strait-Jacket (1964)

“Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty-one!”

Synopsis:
Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) has spent twenty years in an insane asylum for murdering her husband (Lee Majors) and his girlfriend (Patricia Crest) in a fit of jealous rage. When she returns home, her estranged daughter (Diane Baker) tries to conceal her mother’s past from her soon-to-be in-laws (Edith Atwater and Howard St. John), but a mysterious rash of murders makes this increasingly difficult.

Genres:

Review:
William Castle’s Psycho-esque slasher flick — starring Joan Crawford in one of her last great roles — is undeniably campy, yet contains a surprising amount of atmosphere and thrills. Crawford (who gives 110 percent, as always) is compulsively watchable, and elicits both genuine sympathy and fear, as she shifts smoothly from axe-wielding hysterics to insecure neurotics. Equally impressive is Diane Baker as Crawford’s daughter, whose desperate desire to pursue a “normal” life with her fiance-to-be (John Anthony Hayes) causes her to apply some seriously dangerous denial tactics. As in Psycho, the final plot twist in Strait-Jacket is guaranteed to come as a surprise, and places the characters’ previous actions in an entirely different light.

P.S. Crawford apparently maintained creative control over nearly every aspect of the movie, including the script (by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho) and casting (Baker was brought on at the last minute as a replacement, while Crawford promised the role of Lucy’s doctor to a member of the Pepsi-Cola board — Mitchell Cox — with zero film experience).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as the unpredictable yet oddly sympathetic axe murderess
    Crawford
  • Crawford lighting a match off of a spinning jazz record
    Match
  • Beautiful Diane Baker as Lucy’s loyal daughter
    Diane Baker
  • Some genuinely scary moments
    Axe Shadow
  • A surprising twist ending

Must See?
Yes. This camp classic is a definitive entry in Crawford’s late-life movie career, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

Links: