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Month: May 2007

Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars (1980)

“There goes a perfectly good bumper sticker.”

Synopsis:
A used car salesman (Kurt Russell) tries to prevent his dead boss’s car lot from falling into the hands of his boss’s nefarious twin brother (Jack Warden).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is not alone in his assessment of this “fast-moving, eccentric” comedy as “hilarious” and “very entertaining”; many other critics seem to agree (see links below) — but I’m afraid I’m not one of them. More akin to Porky’s (1981) than Airplane! (1980), Used Cars relies far too heavily on broad slapstick in its skewering of what is already a sure-fire target. There’s potential here for something much greater.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few mildly amusing moments — as when a trained dog plays dead in order to elicit sympathy from potential customers
    Dog

Must See?
No. This one is only for die-hard fans of Zemeckis’ comedies.

Links:

Devil’s Bride, The / Devil Rides Out, The (1968)

Devil’s Bride, The / Devil Rides Out, The (1968)

“Simon here is playing the most dangerous game known to mankind.”

Synopsis:
When the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and his friend Rex (Leon Greene) arrive at the house of their mutual friend Simon (Patrick Mower), they find he has been abducted into a satanic coven led by the warlock Mocata (Charles Gray). After rescuing Simon and a young initiate named Tanith (Nike Arrighi), they seek refuge in the home of the Duc’s niece (Sarah Lawson) and her husband (Paul Eddington).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
This “classy” horror film earns my vote as the best Hammer Studios flick ever made. The script, musical score, acting, and set designs all contribute towards the creation of a suspenseful, sometimes humorous tale of demonic possession in our midst. What makes the film so successful as a thriller is the fact that none of these characters — well-meaning or not — are immune to the powers of Mocata, who is capable of forcing them to act against their own wishes; as a result, we never know who to trust, and even the most eminently likeable characters eventually take their turn as a creepy vessel for the dark side. The special effects — particularly, as Peary notes, in the “visually spectacular finale” — are remarkably effective, and convey a frighteningly believable alternate universe.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful tale of demonic possession and satanism
    Satanism
  • Chrisopher Lee in an atypically heroic role
    Lee
  • Charles Gray as the sinister warlock Mocata
    Mocata
  • Nike Arrighi as the tragic, beautiful Tanith
    Tanith
  • Sarah Lawson (who looks uncannily like Vicki Lawrence) as the Duc’s niece
    Eaton
  • Patrick Mower as Simon
    Simon
  • The simple yet effective special effects
    Devil
  • Atmospheric sets
    Circle
  • Some surprising moments of humor — as when Rex is nearly run over by the cross-eyed Countess (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies)
    Crosseyes
  • The exciting car chase
    Car chase
  • A smart, tightly woven script
  • James Bernard’s score

Must See?
Yes. This cult horror classic should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

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Night and Fog in Japan (1960)

Night and Fog in Japan (1960)

“It’s the world-wide, peace-loving Americanism that is gaining in strength and oppressing the lives of us Japanese, and making the lives of our youth hopeless.”

Synopsis:
During a wedding, former revolutionaries in Japan reflect on love and betrayal during their years as students.

Genres:

Review:
This deeply personal, highly politicized film by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima is a difficult film for Western viewers to grasp. It plunges us immediately into a period of Japanese history most will be unfamiliar with, and the back-and-forth storyline makes it hard to keep track of (or care much about) any of the individual characters. Although we quickly understand the basic gist of the film — former revolutionaries accuse one another in an attempt to solve the mystery of a tragic in-group death — ultimately Oshima keeps things too stylized (and talky) to generate much dramatic interest. Those curious about mid-century Japanese political movements will certainly want to check this one out; all others should be forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A sincere, sometimes powerful attempt to portray post-revolutionary guilt
    Guilt

Must See?
No; avoid watching it as your first Oshima experience.

Links:

Tenant, The (1976)

Tenant, The (1976)

“These days, relationships with neighbors can get very complicated.”

Synopsis:
In Paris, a nebbishy Polish man (Roman Polanski) rents the apartment of a woman who has recently committed suicide. Soon he becomes convinced that his neighbors are trying to turn him into the dead woman.

Genres:

  • Black Comedy
  • Downward Spiral
  • Living Nightmare
  • Melvyn Douglas Films
  • Mental Illness
  • Psychological Horror
  • Roman Polanski Films
  • Shelley Winters Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “disturbing psychological horror film” (directed by and starring Roman Polanski) is much more interesting during its first half, as we watch “Polanski’s paranoia regarding [his] neighbors” intensifying, and witness his profound sense of persecution as an ethnic “outsider” in France. Unfortunately, the second half of the film turns into an “unsettling and ridiculous” exploration of Polanski’s descent into madness; as Peary notes, the “transition is too quick” once Polanski suddenly starts dressing like a woman, and we lose interest because — now that Polanski’s character is clearly mentally unstable — we start to question the veracity of the entire story. Indeed, fans on IMDb have engaged in countless debates over what’s “real” or not in the story — and though this kind of narrative ambiguity sometimes works in a film’s favor, here I found it more frustrating than enjoyable. As always, Polanski’s production values are excellent, and he elicits wonderfully quirky performances from his cast of supporting actors; it’s too bad their voices are horribly dubbed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Isabelle Adjani as Stella, a friend of the deceased tenant
    Stella
  • Shelley Winters in a bit role as The Concierge
    Wintersw
  • Sven Nykvist’s cinematography
    Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for its cult status.

Categories

Links:

Chan is Missing (1982)

Chan is Missing (1982)

“This mystery is appropriately Chinese: what’s not there seems to have just as much as meaning as what is there.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Synopsis:
Two taxi drivers — middle-aged Jo (Wood Moy) and young Steve (Marc Hayashi) — search San Francisco’s Chinatown for a fellow cabbie who has disappeared with their money.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Chan is Missing — the “first film made by and starring Asian Americans” — is an “impressive, offbeat social satire” which “give[s] its people the voice they have been denied in American films.” The lead actors — Moy and Hayashi — are an amusing cross-generational duo, effectively representing two “types” of Chinese Americans while remaining unique individuals. (Why didn’t their careers go further?) While Jo and Steve’s search for Chan is a bit hard to follow at times, the broader point being made by writer/director Wayne Wang — that Chan is perceived as a different person by everyone who knew him — is a poignant one; it’s not often that the identity politics of minorities in America are so explicitly valorized in a feature film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wood Moy as Jo
    Jo
  • Marc Hayashi as Steve
    Steve
  • Jo and Steve reacting with bewilderment while listening to a linguist explain the cross-cultural intricacies of Chan’s court case
  • A fascinating, documentary-like look at San Francisco’s Chinatown

Must See?
Yes. This enjoyable, historically important movie — which was selected to be part of the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress — should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

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Boy With Green Hair, The (1948)

Boy With Green Hair, The (1948)

“Green is the color of spring… It means hope, a promise of new life to come.”

Boy Green Hair Poster

Synopsis:
A young war orphan (Dean Stockwell) living with a kind older man (Pat O’Brien) wakes up one morning to discover that his hair has turned green. Though ostracized by his friends and neighbors, he remains convinced that his hair serves a larger purpose.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary and many other critics (see links below) find this fable-like fantasy by Joseph Losey “too simplistic and moralistic”, but I’ll admit to a special fondness for it. Dean Stockwell is sympathetic in the lead role as a young boy struggling to adjust to the loss of his parents; he’s a remarkably natural child actor, and his performance is never cloying. His initial interactions with “Gramp” (sweetly played by O’Brien) are heartwarming; I love the moment when Peter (Stockwell) intentionally breaks a vase, and, after a brief pause, O’Brien responds, “I know what you mean”.

Because Peter’s hair doesn’t turn green until about halfway through the film, by this point we’ve grown to care about him, and understand the depth of his frustration and loneliness. Though ostensibly serving a larger purpose, Peter’s green hair ultimately signals his own coming-of-age: he must learn to trust his instincts and do what he feels is right rather than give in to the pressures of society. Thankfully, nothing is easily resolved by the end of the film; what’s important is that Peter has gotten to tell his story the way he sees it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dean Stockwell as Peter
    Peter
  • Pat O’Brien as “Gramp”
    O'Brien
  • A creative story about post-war trauma
    Orphans

Must See?
Yes. All film fanatics should be curious to see this most unusual little film.

Categories

Links:

Last Days of Pompeii, The (1935)

Last Days of Pompeii, The (1935)

“Money is easy to get… All you have to do is kill!”

Last Days of Pompeii Poster

Synopsis:
After the accidental death of his wife (Gloria Shea) and infant son, a poor but happy blacksmith (Preston Foster) in Pompeii reluctantly becomes a gladiator. Out of guilt, he adopts the son (David Holt) of an opponent he has killed, and soon becomes a prosperous horse trader. Years later, his grown son (John Wood) is more interested in freeing slaves than in inheriting his father’s wealth and status.

Genres:

Review:
Loosely inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel of the same name, this historical epic by the producers of King Kong (1933) is primarily notable for its depiction of Mount Vesuvius erupting onto Pompeii. However, these final scenes — while impressive — play second fiddle to the bulk of the film, which tells a surprisingly heartfelt story of fatherly devotion. Preston Foster does a fine job depicting Marcus’s transformation from a gentle blacksmith to an ambitious horse trader, and is believable as an older man. Basil Rathbone is equally impressive — and appropriately regal — in his brief scenes as Pontius Pilate. Unfortunately, the film is marred by Roy Webb’s generic score, which makes no attempt to transport viewers into ancient times; we eventually believe in this world despite the soundtrack, not because of it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Preston Foster as Marcus
    Marcus
  • David Holt as young Flavius
    Holt
  • Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate
    Rathbone
  • Impressive set designs
    Set
  • A reasonably accurate depiction of ancient Roman life
    Roman life

Must See?
No. While it holds some historical interest and is enjoyable to watch, this is ultimately not must-see viewing.

Links:

Beachcomber, The / Vessel of Wrath (1938)

Beachcomber, The / Vessel of Wrath (1938)

“I suppose I’m jealous of the reckless way he squanders the precious treasure of life.”

Beachcomber Poster

Synopsis:
A naive missionary (Elsa Lanchester) tries to reform an inveterate beach bum (Charles Laughton), and soon finds herself smitten.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story, this “gently paced” tale of a “slovenly, perpetually drunk woman-chasing beach bum” and a “sheltered, naive missionary” features delightful performances by real-life couple Laughton and Lanchester. The story strains credibility and comfort during the first half, as we watch the less-than-handsome Laughton inexplicably attracting adoring native women like flies, and are forced to watch generically brown-skinned islanders patronized like children. It’s not until about halfway through the film — when Lanchester and Laughton unintentionally spend the night together on a deserted island — that things start to get more interesting; in a particularly delightful sequence, we see Lanchester relaxing as she slowly realizes that her “virtue” is not at risk around Laughton. Indeed, Lanchester’s performance is particularly noteworthy here: she remains consistently sympathetic despite her high-handed morality, and literally glows whenever she’s on the screen; she’s never been more beautiful.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Laughton (who Peary nominates for an Alternate Oscar as best actor of the year) as slovenly “Ginger”
    Laughton
  • Beautiful Elsa Lanchester as the determined missionary
    Lanchester

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended simply for the lead performances — which, as Peary notes, “retain tremendous charm”.

Links:

Cobra Woman (1944)

Cobra Woman (1944)

“You shall see for yourself the cruel barbarism by which Naja holds our people… Fear has made them religious fanatics!”

Cobra Woman Poster

Synopsis:
When his fiancee Tollea (Maria Montez) is kidnapped, Ramu (Jon Hall) and his friend Kado (Sabu) follow her to an enchanted island ruled by Tollea’s evil twin, Naja (also Montez).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Cobra Woman by labeling it a “Kitsch Klassic”, noting that “the dialogue is enjoyably trite, the decor is ornate, the stars are sexy, the volcano is bubbly, [and] the picture is colorful.” While Dominican actress Maria Montez remains largely unfamiliar to modern audiences, she is, as noted by Peary, “as significant to film history as Carmen Miranda”, and her dual roles here are likely “her definitive performance”. Indeed, it is Montez’s portrayal of both the meek Tollea and the vicious Naja which give this film its delightful air of campiness: Montez takes herself so seriously — and dresses in such outlandishly colorful costumes — that it’s easy to ignore the ridiculous story (which in itself is relatively unimportant). Surprisingly, this camp classic was helmed by noir director Robert Siodmak, who would return to the theme of good-and-evil twins in The Dark Mirror (1946) starring Olivia De Havilland.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The outlandish technicolor costumes and over-the-top headdresses
    Cobra Woman Costumes
  • Countless campy moments, such as when Naja dances while selecting victims for the island’s angry volcano god
    Cobra Woman Victims

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

Categories

Links:

Champagne Murders, The (1967)

Champagne Murders, The (1967)

“I thought I was cured… But instead, it’s getting worse!”

Champagne Murders Poster

Synopsis:
The opportunistic owner (Yvonne Furneaux) of a champagne factory enlists the help of her husband (Anthony Perkins) in convincing her mentally unstable business partner (Maurice Ronet) to sell the rights to his famous last name. Soon a mysterious rash of murders occurs, with Ronet the prime suspect.

Genres:

Review:
This mess of a murder mystery by French director Claude Chabrol aspires towards Hitchcockian thrills, but comes across as a lame, ineffectual satire instead. The acting by everyone involved is either over-the-top (Furneaux, Ronet) and/or cliched (Perkins); none of the characters are likeable; and the script makes no sense from beginning to end. Although the final resolution of “whodunit” comes as a surprise, this can’t make up for the remainder of the insipid story, which is eminently unwatchable. A major disappointment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much of anything.

Must See?
No. While it’s inexplicably listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book, this is a disappointing entry in Chabrol’s oeuvre, and definitely not must-see viewing.

Links: