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Month: April 2007

Beginning or the End, The (1947)

Beginning or the End, The (1947)

“Our country must have an atomic bomb. It’s your job — and mine — to get it.”

Synopsis:
Scientists during WWII — led by Colonel Oppenheimer (Hume Cronyn) and General Groves (Brian Donlevy) — race to develop the first atomic bomb.

Genres:

  • Atomic Energy
  • Audrey Totter Films
  • Brian Donlevy Films
  • Hume Cronyn Films
  • Race-Against-Time
  • Robert Walker Films
  • Scientists
  • WWII

Review:
Though clearly dated, Norman Taurog’s The Beginning or the End remains a compelling docudrama about the Manhattan Project scientists and their work to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans and Japanese. We’re constantly reminded that bombs were considered the least noble application of atomic energy at the time; indeed, nobody involved in this collective undertaking is shown to be happy about the fact that the bombs they are developing will wreak such enormous devastation on humankind. Even the film’s very title indicates that, as early as 1947, scientists weren’t certain whether the incipient use of atomic energy signaled the beginning of a golden era, or the end of humanity.

This general attitude is most effectively characterized by Tom Drake’s character, a young physicist who harbors a constant sense of unease about the ultimate purpose of his work; on the other hand, screenwriters Robert Considine and Frank Wead make sure to include plenty of dialogue about why America ultimately felt justified in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a sticky dilemma, and the film does an admirable job balancing the two perspectives.

Unfortunately, The Beginning or the End is marred by blatant sexism (women are exclusively secretaries or love interests); two distracting romantic subplots (Beverly Tyler as Cochran’s long-suffering wife is particularly annoying); stilted dialogue (the conversations between the scientists sound especially inauthentic); and some heavy-handed morality. Yet it remains a valuable first attempt at documenting the emergence of atomic power in the world, and for this reason alone, it’s worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling overview of the first atomic bombs, from their conception to their deadly deployment
    Explanation
  • A fascinating glimpse of the tension felt during initial experiments with developing plutonium
    Pile
  • A welcome depiction of the trepidation and genuine sorrow experienced by most involved with the bombs
    Trepidation
  • Tom Drake as the young physicist wracked with guilt
    Cochran

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance.

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Our Mother’s House (1967)

Our Mother’s House (1967)

“Don’t worry… We’ll manage. We managed all the time mother was ill, and we’ll manage now. We’ve got to have faith!”

Synopsis:
After their deeply religious mother (Annette Carell) dies, seven siblings (Margaret Brooks, Pamela Franklin, Louis Sheldon Williams, John Gugolka, Mark Lester, Phoebe Nicholls, and Gustav Henry) bury her in the backyard and try to keep her death a secret. When a man (Dirk Bogarde) named Charlie suddenly appears at their doorstep claiming to be their long-lost father, the children find themselves torn between delight and apprehension.

Genres:

Review:
British director Jack Clayton only made a handful of movies during his career, but the majority of them — including this one — show evidence of his unique talents. Most immediately impressive about Our Mother’s House is Clayton’s ability to elicit natural, nuanced performances from his cast of child actors: their interactions with each other are so authentic that we’re quickly able to ignore the fact that they don’t look much alike. Equally impressive is Dirk Bogarde, who does wonders with a difficult role: while he’s clearly the baddie, he’s never one-dimensional, and at times — such as when he takes the children out for a boat ride on the lake — we actually even like him.

The story (based on a novel by Julian Gloag) is a compelling mixture of horror, humor, and intrigue. The film is basically split into two distinct parts: in the first half, we see the children coping in the best way they can with the death of their mother; they truly believe that she’s “still here”, and hold spooky seances to try to converse with her. The scene in which Diana (Franklin) acts as a medium and is “told” that Gerty (Nicholls) must be punished for accepting a ride on a scooter is truly scary, and reminds one immediately of Lord of the Flies. Yet Clayton also shows us the ways in which these self-sufficient children are able to have fun with their newfound freedom — such as the glee they experience when they’re successfully able to convince the bank to cash their mother’s monthly check.

The tone and direction of the film suddenly shift about midway through, once Bogarde’s character appears at the door of “mother’s house”. Charlie is a genuinely mysterious wildcard, and we’re kept in constant suspense about both his true identity and his ultimate motivations. Yet he also introduces the story’s one major flaw, which is that it’s impossible to believe that none of these children would recognize Charlie, given that he claims to be their mother’s husband (and, by extension, their father). If you can get beyond this gap in logic, however, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself intrigued and delighted by this unusual ensemble tale, which dares to posit children as intelligent beings who may be better off on their own than under the “guidance” of self-serving adults.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Excellent, natural performances by the entire ensemble of child actors
    Kids
  • Margaret Brooks as Elsa
    Elsa
  • Pamela Franklin as Diana
    Diana
  • Louis Sheldon Williams as Hubert
    Hubert
  • Mark Lester as Jiminee
    Jiminee
  • Phoebe Nicholls as Gerty
    Gerty
  • Dirk Bogarde as Charlie
    Bogarde
  • Many wonderfully realized “small moments” — as when Willy Hooks comments that there’s “cocoa” in his cup
    Cocoa
  • Jiminee bringing his stoic friend Louis home to live with him
    Louis
  • Some genuinely chilling scenes — as when the children “visit mother” and are “told” that Gerty must be punished
    Scream
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Scary moments
  • Georges Delerue’s melancholy score

Must See?
Yes. This unsung classic should be released on DVD and made available to a wider audience.

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5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., The (1953)

5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., The (1953)

“Tomorrow, down below me, I will have 500 little boys, 5,000 little fingers — and they’ll be mine, all mine!”

5000 Fingers of Dr T Poster

Synopsis:
Fatherless Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig) dreams that his nefarious piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), plans to enslave 500 boys and force them to play an enormous piano with 5,000 keys. He enlists the help of a plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) to convince his brainwashed mother (Mary Healy) of Dr. T.’s frightening agenda.

Genres:

  • Fantasy
  • Hans Conried Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Musicals
  • Prisoners

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this cult musical (panned upon its release) is “exciting, scary… and visually dazzling.” Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) co-wrote the script (based on a clever premise), which has overtones of Roald Dahl in its presentation of a young boy fighting against a cruel, non-understanding world of adults. (Click here for an amusing spoof by The Onion about the “hideous treatment” of children at the hands of their parents.) Hans Conried is perfectly cast as Dr. T., and has great fun hamming it up; it’s likely his greatest role. Equally impressive (and eminently memorable) are the spectacular sets and costumes, which come across exactly like a Dr. Seuss book brought to Technicolor life. Even Rettig himself (who’s not a bad child actor) looks like a character straight out of one of Dr. Seuss’s illustrations.

With that said, as much as I enjoy discrete elements of Dr. T., I’m ultimately more in agreement with DVD Savant’s review (see link below) than Peary’s. While I can see its cult appeal, I find the movie as a whole to be surprisingly dull: the songs are insipid, the pacing is off, and, for the most part, the direction is uninspired. In addition, Hayes isn’t all that appealing as Rettig’s would-be father figure, and Healy is eminently bland (her colorful costumes are the best thing about her). Although I understand that Seuss and co-screenwriter Alan Scott meant to posit Healy as a sort of emotionless Stepford widow, easily brainwashed by Dr. T., she doesn’t play this for camp (as she should) — indeed, Conried is the only character who seems to recognize that the film’s scenarios are literally crying out for laughs. (It’s unfortunate, as Conried himself has lamented, that so many of his scenes were cut, because he’s the most interesting character in the film by far.)

P.S. In his review, Peary points out the “anticommunist propaganda” of Dr. T., noting that “these children are being turned into obedient automatons”. But there are multiple other possible readings as well, including its valorization of the 1950s nuclear family (Bart wants nothing more than to secure Hayes as a father-figure who will take him fishing), and its latent fear of homosexuality (the evil Dr. T. dresses in lavender and pink, and is surrounded by a cast of equally effeminate men).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hans Conried’s deliciously over-the-top performance as the effeminate Dr. T.
    Conried
  • Tommy Rettig as Bart
    Rettig
  • Truly surreal set designs
    Set
  • Some memorable characters — including the silent, rollerskating, Siamese-bearded twins
    Twins
  • Effective use of shadows
    Shadow
  • Conried singing “Do-Mi-Do Duds”
    Dressing
  • The marvelously campy “dungeon sequence”
    Band

Must See?
Yes, simply for its cult appeal. Check out Bill’s tribute page (see link below) for a site devoted exclusively to this film.

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King of Hearts (1966)

King of Hearts (1966)

“All life is a spectacle — you’re on a stage.”

King of Hearts Poster

Synopsis:
During the final days of World War I, a meek private named Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) is sent to a French village to find and dismantle a bomb. Once there, he discovers that most of the citizens have fled, and that harmless insane asylum inmates are roaming the town. They crown Plumpick their “King of Hearts”, and he falls in love with the sweet inmate “Coquelicot” (Genevieve Bujold).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I agree with Peary that this “phenomenally popular” cult film of the “late sixties and early seventies” now comes across as “terribly dated” and thematically “trite”. As Peary notes, countless other films have shown us that “those people on the outside of jails and asylums are the ones who should be institutionalized, [and] that war is bad” — these aren’t particularly unique insights. King of Hearts is primarily worth watching today for its status as a 1960s anti-war film which appealed to those “seduced by all films that defended nonconformity and opposed war.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Genevieve Bujold as “Coquelicot”
    Bujold

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its status as an erstwhile cult favorite. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Links:

I Vitelloni / The Young and the Passionate (1953)

I Vitelloni / The Young and the Passionate (1953)

“Who are you? You’re nobody. You’re all nobodies.”

I Vitelloni Poster

Synopsis:
A group of male friends in 1950s Italy — including a newly married womanizer (Franco Fabrizi) and an aspiring playwright (Leopoldo Trieste) — dream of leaving town and making it big.

Genres:

Review:
Along with Amarcord (1973), I Vitelloni (which translates literally into “overgrown calves”) is widely regarded as one of Fellini’s most autobiographical films. Taking place in the postwar seaside town of Rimini (which bears resemblance to Fellini’s childhood home), I Vitelloni is an episodic character study which ambles through its script much like the characters themselves amble through their aimless lives. As noted in the Bright Lights Film Journal review (see link below), “passivity and ineffectualness hamper all the ‘vitelloni'”, who possess big dreams but lack the willpower to pursue them seriously. Less overtly surreal than Fellini’s later films, I Vitelloni nonetheless shows ample evidence of this iconic director’s unique sensibility — especially in the carnival-like crowd scenes. Nino Rota’s infectious score further marks Vitelloni as unmistakably Fellini-esque, and reminds one how closely associated Rota’s music is with Fellini’s entire oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A spot-on look at young men coming of age in a small town
    Marriage
  • Gorgeous b&w visuals
    Pier
  • Nino Rota’s wonderfully expressive score

Must See?
Yes. This autobiographical film is an important part of Fellini’s early oeuvre, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

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Directed by John Ford (1971/2006)

Directed by John Ford (1971/2006)

“‘Directed by John Ford’: what do those words really mean, anyway?”

Directed by John Ford Poster

Synopsis:
Peter Bogdanovich analyzes John Ford’s rich cinematic oeuvre.

Genres:

Review:
Peter Bogdanovich’s adulatory look at iconic American director John Ford features movie clips from many of Ford’s most well-known films, a resonant voiceover narration by Ford-fan Orson Welles, and fascinating interviews with several of Ford’s key actors (including Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Henry Fonda). While Bogdanovich’s interview with Ford himself is less informative (he didn’t have much to say), it provides both unintentional comic relief and a revealing glimpse of Ford’s notoriously “difficult” personality. The original version of this documentary has been unavailable for viewing since its release in 1971, so Bogdanovich’s updated iteration is especially welcome; but the original footage ultimately remains much more interesting than the later additions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bogdanovich’s interview with the laconic Ford in Monument Valley
  • Fascinating interview clips with Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne


Must See?
Yes. This documentary is indispensable viewing for any true film fanatic.

Categories

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Stars Look Down, The (1940)

Stars Look Down, The (1940)

“These men and women are the backbone of nations, the stuff of human destiny — simple, working people, such as there are the world over, in all countries, and in all times.”

Synopsis:
An idealistic young man (Michael Redgrave) from a Welsh mining town hopes to return with a university degree and improve conditions for the miners. His plans are disrupted, however, when he marries a socially ambitious woman (Margaret Lockwood) in love with his money-grubbing friend (Emlyn Williams).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “fine, interesting, depressing” adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s novel is “generally regarded as the first British film with social relevance.” Director Carol Reed does an excellent job showing “the contempt rich owners have for their underpaid employees and the distrust labor has for its union leaders”; unfortunately, however, this powerful narrative thread is done in by Redgrave’s romance with the insufferable Lockwood, who has zero redeeming qualities. It’s literally painful to watch the likable yet horribly naive Redgrave cuckolded by his wife — especially since his distraction from his noble goals has grave consequences for the entire mining town. Although I admire The Stars Look Down, it’s not a film I’m eager to revisit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A gritty, realistic look at life in a Welsh mining town
    Mining Town
  • One of the first British films to deal seriously with a socially meaningful issue
    Miners

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance.

Categories

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Demon Pond (1979)

Demon Pond (1979)

“There’s a firm covenant: as long as this bell is rung three times a day, the village is safe. The princess is bound by it.”

Demon Pond Poster

Synopsis:
A teacher (Gakuen Yamasawa) traveling through a drought-ridden Japanese village meets a long-lost friend (Akira Hagiwara) who has remained in the town both because of his marriage to a beautiful local woman (Tamasaburo Bando), and because of his promise to uphold a superstitious legend: he must ring a bell three times a day in order to prevent the nearby pond’s Dragon God (also Bando) from flooding the town.

Genres:

Review:
This unusual movie by director Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, 1969) is unlike any other fantasy film you’ve ever seen. Buoyed by Isao Tomita’s synthesized score (which draws heavily upon classical Western music themes — most notably, and appropriately, Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral”), the film immediately evokes an atmosphere of mystery, magic, and potential harm. Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando is wonderful in dual roles as both a village woman (Yuri) and a sympathetic demon (Princess Shirayuki) longing to join her lover in another pond; you would never guess these characters were played by a man. My main complaint about the film is that the scenes with the pond creatures are over too quickly: since the bulk of the narrative centers on the villagers, we ultimately learn far too little about Shirayuki and her coterie. A more balanced screenplay would have elevated this unusual, visually stunning film even a notch higher.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tamasaburo Bando as both Yuri and Princess Shirayuki
    Bando
  • Haunting visuals
    Imagery
  • The colorful, enormously creative costumes and make-up of the pond creatures
    Costumes
  • Isao Tomita’s score

Must See?
Yes; it’s unlike any other fantasy film I’ve ever seen.

Categories

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Tender Mercies (1983)

Tender Mercies (1983)

“Every night when I say my prayers and I thank the Lord for his blessings and his tender mercies, you and Sonny hit the list.”

Synopsis:
A former country music star (Robert Duvall) starts a new life with a young widow (Tess Harper) and her son (Allan Hubbard).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary seems less than impressed with this Oscar-winning film, directed by Bruce Bereford and written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Horton Foote. In his review, he argues that “the attempt at realistic dialogue between common people who aren’t pretentious often comes across as pretentious”, but I disagree: Tender Mercies is a fable-like, episodic character study rather than an exercise in realism, and I find the sparse dialogue to be appropriate.

Duvall is both sympathetic and believable as a man so burnt-out on fame and fortune that he gladly finds redemption in the form of a sweet, simple, religious woman; his interactions with Hubbard (a wonderfully natural child actor) are especially poignant. Even more impressive, however, is the way in which Foote’s screenplay never takes obvious turns: we fully expect Mac to start drinking again once he steps back into the world of country music, but our expectations are foiled. Although it ends on a melancholy note, Tender Mercies is a surprisingly feel-good film, one which is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Duvall’s sympathetic performance as Mac
  • Betty Buckley as Mac’s ex-wife
  • Beautiful cinematography of Texas landscapes
  • Horton Foote’s refreshingly uncliched screenplay
  • Some genuinely touching country music songs

Must See?
Yes, simply for Duvall’s Oscar-winning performance.

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Reefer Madness / Tell Your Children / The Burning Question / Dope Addict / Doped Youth / Love Madness (1936)

Reefer Madness / Tell Your Children / The Burning Question / Dope Addict / Doped Youth / Love Madness (1936)

“The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you.”

Synopsis:
A principal (Joseph Forte) warns parents against the evil influence of “marihuana” by telling the story of an upstanding teen named Bill (Kenneth Craig) whose life went downhill after he was led into a life of wild partying by drug dealers Mae (Thelma White) and Jack (Carleton Young).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this cult exploitation film (with more alternate titles than you can count on one hand) was clearly “made by people who obviously knew nothing about their subject”, and “reinforces every falsehood you’ve ever heard about marijuana: that you become immediately addicted, that it is violence-inducing, that it’s as bad as heroin, [and] that it ends in one’s ‘inevitable insanity’.” Reefer Madness possesses a handful of unintentionally hilarious moments — such as a young addict (Dave O’Brien) laughing maniacally, or characters reacting to weed as though it’s the latest form of speed — but I’ll admit I don’t enjoy it much on the whole: it’s too hard to keep track of the characters, and, despite its short length of only 67 minutes, the storyline tends to drag. Nonetheless, while Reefer Madness is undeniably a “terribly made, sensationalized, preposterous film”, it remains “the ultimate camp film”, and is required viewing for anyone seriously interested in the history of cinema.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A hilariously uninformed representation of the effects of marijuana
    Sex
  • Countless campy moments
    Laughing
  • Dr. Carroll testifying to Bill’s unexplainable outburst of laughter during a class reading of Romeo and Juliet
    Romeo
  • Ralph (O’Brien) prompting Mae to play the piano “faster — faster!”
    Faster

Must See?
Yes, both for its undisputed cult status, and as a representative example of post-Hays Code exploitation films. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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