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Month: July 2007

Bugsy Malone (1976)

Bugsy Malone (1976)

“Not the sarsaparilla racket!”

Synopsis:
During a rival gang war in Depression-era Chicago, Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is recruited by mob boss “Fat Sam” (John Cassisi).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Parker Films
  • Depression Era
  • Gangsters
  • Jodie Foster Films
  • Musicals
  • Rivalry
  • Satires and Spoofs

Response to Peary’s Review:
It’s easy to understand why, as noted by Peary, “opinion is sharply divided” on this “comical Depression Era gangster musical”, populated solely by kids — it’s a truly bizarre venture which, unfortunately, I don’t think quite works. Writer/director Alan Parker replaces bullets with cream pies (a clever twist), but is otherwise inconsistent in his use of child actors: if they’re meant to be “just kids”, then why does pre-pubescent crime boss Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) wear a pencil-thin mustache? Although I understand Parker’s satirical point that gangsters often act in a child-like fashion, these kids aren’t childlike — they’re mini-adults! The production values are fine, but most of the performances are unimpressive (Jodie Foster is a notable exception), and the majority of the songs are unmemorable. Nonetheless, this film is beloved by many — primarily those who fondly remember watching it as children themselves; and, as a kids’ film, perhaps it works.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jodie Foster as Tallulah
  • John Cassisi as “Fat Sam”
  • Foster singing “My Name is Tallulah”
  • The silly yet amusing use of cream pies as “deadly” weapons

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for its historical notoriety, for Foster’s (too brief) performance, and as a cult film for adults who remember watching it as kids.

Links:

Man Who Came to Dinner, The (1942)

Man Who Came to Dinner, The (1942)

“Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?”

Synopsis:
After slipping on ice outside the home of an upper crust Ohio couple (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell), curmudgeonly literary critic Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) commandeers their house as a recovery station. Meanwhile, his secretary (Bette Davis) falls in love with a local newspaperman (Richard Travis), and Whiteside — worried about losing his loyal employee to marriage — calls on the help of his seductive actress-friend (Ann Sheridan) to interfere.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Sheridan Films
  • Bette Davis Films
  • Comedy
  • Monty Woolley Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Small Town America

Review:
Monty Woolley (a.k.a. “The Beard”) gave his signature performance in this adaptation of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s madcap ensemble play, co-starring a subdued Bette Davis (who had originally hoped to perform opposite John Barrymore), and a deliciously self-absorbed Ann Sheridan. Unfortunately, the script has dated over the years, with too many references to contemporary celebrities, and an annoying cameo appearance by Jimmy Durante (who inexplicably starts playing the piano and singing, “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?”). Most egregiously, however, it features a lead protagonist who’s simply too nasty for comfort: not only is Whiteside litigation-happy (he immediately threatens to sue his gracious guests for $150,000 dollars), but he’s constantly making mean-spirited comments (“My great-aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life; she lived to be 102, and when she had been dead three days, she looked better than you do now”). Unlike Noel Coward’s ruthless publisher in The Scoundrel (1935) — who eventually gets his come-uppance — Whiteside is, inexplicably, beloved by many; ultimately, it’s hard to root for someone so irredeemably obnoxious.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Monty Woolley in his most famous curmudgeonly role
  • Ann Sheridan’s over-the-top performance as the narcissistic Lorraine Sheldon
  • Mary Wickes in her screen debut as Nurse Preen

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended simply to see Woolley in his most definitive role.

Links:

Stolen Kisses (1968)

Stolen Kisses (1968)

“To make love is a way of compensating for death, to prove that you exist.”

Synopsis:
Newly discharged from the army, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) heads to the home of his would-be sweetheart (Claude Jade), finds work as a private investigator, and falls for an older woman (Delphine Seyrig).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Delphine Seyrig Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Francois Truffaut Films
  • French Films
  • Obsessive Love
  • Romantic Comedy

Response to Peary’s Review:
Truffaut’s first full-length sequel to The 400 Blows was this “witty, sad, insightful meditation” on subjects as diverse as “passion, courtship, dishonesty, sex, conquest, and commitment”. As Peary notes, there are “countless wonderful moments” throughout the film, which “[relies] heavily on improvisation”, and showcases the theme (one of Truffaut’s favorites) that when one person is ready for love and commitment, the other usually isn’t. Unlike in the later Antoine Doinel films, Doinel’s youthful flitting from one bizarre job to the next — and one obsessive love to the next — is amusing rather than sad, and seems right-on. His work as an undercover agent (what an ideal job!) fulfills the longing most film fanatics have to slip into someone else’s life unnoticed, and his attraction to an “older woman” (Seyrig) rings true as well. The film ends on a surprisingly satisfying note, making one long to know what happens next; fortunately, one can satisfy this itch immediately by watching Bed and Board (1970).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An amusing look at the fickleness of desire
  • Delphine Seyrig as Antoine’s “exceptional” love interest
  • Effective use of Paris streets
    Stolen Kisses Paris
  • The clever, seemingly improvised script

Must See?
Yes, as a fine follow-up to The 400 Blows.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Important Director

Links:

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

“Why did I ever marry? What a fool I was.”

Synopsis:
An overworked housewife (Carmen Maura) with an abusive husband (Angel de Andres Lopez), a wacky mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave), and two troubled sons (one a hustler, the other a drug dealer) relies on No-Doz and her prostitute-friend (Veronica Forque) to get by.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Family Problems
  • Housewives
  • Spanish Films

Review:
This early film by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is an excellent introduction to his signature style: bizarre situations are accepted as commonplace, sex is on everyone’s minds, women are put-upon by their loutish partners, and female camaraderie is the linchpin of survival. Indeed, the similarities between this and Almodovar’s most recent film, Volver (2006), are too obvious not to notice; watch them back to back and you’ll find that he’s continuing to explore (and exploit) the issues he feels most strongly about. One must be prepared to suspend all judgment and belief when watching What Have I Done…? In what is likely the film’s most jaw-dropping sequence, Gloria blithely gives her son away to a pedophilic dentist in exchange for the bill.

What else can she do, when her husband refuses to let her work but won’t give her money? Indeed, as in Volver, Almodovar has the ultimate respect for female survival: a bizarre subplot about an abused young girl with telekinetic powers serves as a cross-generational reminder that endurance takes many forms. Above all else, however, Almodovar’s films should be enjoyed for the perversity of the characters, the colorful sets, and the seemingly improvised scripts. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next, so simply sit back and enjoy the surreal ride.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carmen Maura as Gloria
  • Veronica Forque as Cristal
  • Chus Lampreave as Abuela
  • Abuela advising her grandson and his friend to “visit Granada”
  • Gloria and Cristal watching an exhibitionist john as he strips
  • A bizarre subplot involving a neighbor’s “special” daughter

Must See?
Yes. This early Almodovar film is one of his wackiest, and a good introduction to his work.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Group, The (1966)

Group, The (1966)

“Sacrifice is dated, mother. You don’t reform a man; he just drags you down.”

Synopsis:
In the 1930s, eight Vassar graduates — Lakey (Candice Bergen), Dottie (Joan Hackett), Priss (Elizabeth Hartman), Polly (Shirley Knight), Kay (Joanna Pettet), Pokey (Mary-Robin Redd), Libby (Jessica Walter), and Helena (Kathleen Widdoes) — search for love and happiness while keeping abreast of each others’ lives.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Candice Bergen Films
  • Ensemble Films
  • Friendship
  • Jessica Walter Films
  • Shirley Knight Films
  • Sidney Lumet Films

Review:
Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s best-selling novel starts out strong: through nifty editing (while an all-female chorus chants in the background), we’re introduced to each of the key players, as they gather together for the low-key wedding of their ostensible “leader”, Kay. From there, we follow Dottie (played by the marvelous Joan Hackett) as she explores sex for the first time with a notorious womanizer (Richard Mulligan), but quickly realizes that her dreams for a wild love affair in New York won’t come true. Unfortunately, from this point forward, Dottie becomes largely a persona non gratis, as she heads to Arizona to lick her wounds, and is barely seen again.

As with every ensemble film, some vignettes in The Group are inevitably more compelling than others; we find ourselves wishing to know more about certain characters — and much less about others. Shirley Knight turns in a nuanced, compassionate performance as the do-gooding Polly, but her travails (which include an affair with a psycho-analyzed communist, and a mentally ill father) don’t do her justice. Elizabeth Hartman as Priss is equally compelling, and we definitely wish her character had more screentime. Libby — an amusingly clueless character in the book — is, unfortunately, portrayed with annoying smugness by Jessica Walters, and is easily the most irritating of “the group”. Kay’s failing marriage to an alcoholic philanderer (Larry Hagman, perfectly cast, but lacking nuance) is the primary thread of the story, but her character’s gradual transformation is less than convincing.

Others in the group barely register at all. Lakey (Bergen in her film debut) is only on-screen for a few minutes at best, and her “surprise revelation” near the end of the movie goes absolutely nowhere. Pokey provides comic relief and little else, while Helena is merely the film’s convenient narrator. Even so, the film is at least 1/2 hour too long. While screenwriter Sidney Buchman tries his best to do justice to all the subplots in the story, eight protagonists is — ultimately — too many.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Hackett as Dottie
  • Elizabeth Hartman as Priss
  • Shirley Knight as Polly

Must See?
No. While it starts out strong, this melodramatic ensemble tale doesn’t live up to its promise. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Bed and Board (1970)

Bed and Board (1970)

“You have to be patient! All men are children.”

Synopsis:
Inveterate nonconformist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) settles into married life with Christine (Claude Jade), and becomes a father. But when he finds himself attracted to a Japanese woman (Mademoiselle Hiroko) he meets at work, his marriage is in jeopardy.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Francois Truffaut Films
  • French Films
  • Infidelity
  • Marital Problems

Response to Peary’s Review:
The fourth installment in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series is, as Peary notes, “very amusing, with a lot of humor” — but also surprisingly melancholy. Claude Jade (playing Doinel’s wife, Christine) finally emerges as a complex character in this film — we believe in her character’s growth from fun-loving teenager to loyal housewife and mother, and feel for her when Doinel knowingly harms their relationship. Because Truffaut chooses to frame Doinel’s affair in a humorous light, it’s genuinely amusing to watch (there are several hilarious moments involving the inscrutable Mademoiselle Hiroko); but this approach fails to acknowledge the seriousness of Doinel’s lapse in judgment. Bed and Board is a satisfying, enjoyable film in many ways, but frustrating as well, with the ending too neatly a figment of Truffaut’s wishful thinking about women and their tolerance for immature men.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claude Jade’s appealing performance as Christine
  • Nestor Almendros’ cinematography
  • Several amusing ongoing gags — such as the strange man who intrigues his neighbors until they discover his true identity on T.V. one night
  • Antoine’s clever plan to remind Christine’s client to pay for her daughter’s violin lesson
  • A disturbing yet oddly lighthearted look at a new marriage on the rocks
  • Christine’s wordless response when she finds out that Antoine is having an affair
  • Antoine Duhamel’s score

Must See?
Yes, as another enjoyable episode in the “must see” Antoine Doinel series.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Important Director

Links:

Love on the Run (1979)

Love on the Run (1979)

“Don’t forget, it’s fiction — a bit autobiographical, but fiction.”

Synopsis:
30-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) quarrels with his girlfriend (Dorothee), goes through an amicable divorce with his wife (Claude Jade), and reminisces with his first love (Marie-France Pisier).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Flashback Films
  • Francois Truffaut Films
  • French Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
The final installment in Truffaut’s “Antoine Doinel” saga is an unfortunate disappointment. The majority of the movie consists of flashbacks to the previous four films (The 400 Blows, “Antoine and Colette” in Love at Twenty, Stolen Kisses, and Bed and Board), offering little that’s new or insightful about Doinel, and occasionally misusing footage in a way that’s guaranteed to annoy purists. Given that eight years had passed since the latest installment in the series, it’s easy to imagine that audiences at the time were eager to relive some of their favorite Doinel scenes; but for modern viewers — who will likely watch the films in a row — it’s simply redundant.

Of the original scenes in the movie, none stand out as particularly humorous or insightful; we get the sense that Doinel hasn’t moved far beyond his limitations with both women and work, but at this point it’s difficult to have much patience for his immaturity. It’s also annoying to watch Claude Jade (Doinel’s wife) continue her long-suffering tolerance for her philandering husband; her patience and good will is truly inhuman, and clearly wishful thinking on Truffaut’s part. Ultimately, as Peary notes, Love on the Run “doesn’t do one of cinema’s great characters justice”, and is only “minor Truffaut”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An affectionate — if unsatisfying — homage to Truffaut’s leading character, Antoine Doinel

Must See?
No, but most film fanatics will likely be curious to watch it once, simply to complete the “must see” Antoine Doinel series.

Links:

French Lieutenant’s Woman, The (1981)

French Lieutenant’s Woman, The (1981)

“I have set myself beyond the pale. I am nothing. I am hardly human any more.”

Synopsis:
In a film set in 19th century England, a biologist (Jeremy Irons) engaged to an upstanding young woman (Lynsey Baxter) falls in love with a mysterious “fallen woman” (Meryl Streep). Meanwhile, the actors (Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep) playing the leads carry on an affair during the film’s shooting.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Historical Drama
  • Meryl Streep Films
  • Morality Police
  • Obsessive Love

Review:
Meryl Streep is nothing short of extraordinary in this film version of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. As both the titular heroine and the modern-day actress (Sarah) playing her, Streep astonishes us with her ability to completely immerse herself in dual roles. Yet it’s Anna — the “French lieutenant’s woman” — who ultimately captures our interest most keenly; she’s far more complex — and intriguing — than one would have imagined. Jeremy Irons, with his perennially concerned expression, is appropriately cast as Anna’s forlorn suitor, and the supporting cast members are all effective as well — but it’s Streep we’re really watching and waiting for.

Playwright Harold Pinter wrote the film’s screenplay, adding the parallel love story set in modern times in an attempt to provide a latter-day commentary. While it’s ultimately unnecessary, it never detracts from the power of the primary story, and remains a clever narrative device. Yet it’s the historical drama which holds the most interest, as we anxiously await the outcome of Irons’ doomed attraction. Fortunately, we’re rewarded for our patience: the plot takes unexpected twists and turns, and, like any good romantic mystery, makes us question what’s come before.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Meryl Streep’s wonderful performance(s)
  • Jeremy Irons as the fatally love-struck Charles
  • Beautifully evoked period detail
  • Effective use of natural settings to convey the turmoil of Charles and Sara’s burgeoning romance

Must See?
Yes, for Streep’s standout performance

Categories

  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Fountainhead, The (1949)

Fountainhead, The (1949)

“Do you want to stand alone against the whole world?”

Synopsis:
A visionary young architect (Gary Cooper) refuses to compromise his artistic integrity at any cost.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Courtroom Drama
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • King Vidor Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Non-Conformists
  • Patricia Neal Films
  • Raymond Massey Films

Review:
King Vidor’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel is just as stilted as its source material. Rand wrote her own screenplay, and, like her central hero, refused to compromise the integrity of her philosophical vision; as a result, the characters are — as noted by DVD Savant — simply “walking ideas and arguments”, and the film itself comes across as “a presentation of a radical social philosophy using a soap opera format”. With that said, some believe there’s more to The Fountainhead than meets the eye; Savant himself refers to it as an “emotionally powerful piece of cinematic insanity, a movie that bears careful watching.” I’ve seen the film twice now, and must admit I find it difficult to take seriously — while it’s nothing if not sincere, it fails to involve viewers on anything more than a superficial level, and the didactic dialogue is an enormous distraction. Cooper’s infamous, lengthy courtroom speech in the final section of the film is frustrating rather than satisfying, given that his logic is hopelessly skewed:

Ultimately, it’s hard to root for this staunchly selfish man, who considers his own needs more important than everyone else’s.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Patricia Neal — stilted but undeniably beautiful in her first major film role
  • Robert Burk’s stark cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its status as an over-the-top cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

“She’s changed him; she’ll change me — she’ll change everything!”

Synopsis:
While spending the summer on the French Riviera, a spoiled, hedonistic teenager (Jean Seberg) plots to keep her beloved playboy father (David Niven) away from his controlling bride-to-be (Deborah Kerr).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Coming of Age
  • David Niven Films
  • Deborah Kerr Films
  • Father and Child
  • Flashback Films
  • Jealousy
  • Jean Seberg Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Otto Preminger Films

Review:
Bonjour Tristesse, based on the bestselling novel by 18-year-old Francoise Sagan, received scathing reviews upon its release: “Almost everything about this picture, which opened at the Capitol yesterday, manifests bad taste, poor judgment and plain deficiency of skill”, pronounced Bosley Crowther of the NY Times. Director Otto Preminger had brought back the star of his previous film (the poorly received Saint Joan, 1957) and cast her in the central role of Cecile: a willful, spoiled young woman who finds her carefree summer threatened by the arrival of an unwanted maternal figure. It’s an odd story — not entirely successful, yet somehow riveting, and not nearly as awful as Crowther’s review suggests; we watch with the uneasy knowledge that a train wreck is about to happen, yet recognize it as the inevitable fallout of adolescent callowness.

Unfortunately, young Seberg hadn’t yet discovered her acting chops; her delivery of lines is stilted at best, and the obvious post-dubbing doesn’t help matters any. Yet she exudes charm and youthful beauty, and remains compelling to watch. Her character’s close relationship with Niven (nicely cast against type) reminds one of Gidget and her widowed father, though with a decidedly sensual tinge; Cecile is remarkably comfortable with the explicit knowledge of her father’s summertime affair with the sexy yet safely innocuous Elsa (Mylene Demongeot). Also impressive is Deborah Kerr in a thankless yet pivotal role as Cecile’s godmother — a ruinous presence in Cecil’s idyllic existence.

Other than Seberg and Kerr, the most memorable elements of the film are the gorgeous Technicolor visuals and sun-drenched French Riviera settings — this is very much a summertime film, with events compressed into the span of one tragically memorable vacation. The closing shot — reminiscent of Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons — makes for a daringly downbeat finale in an era of mostly cheerful denouements; in a way, it’s easy to see why modern critics (such as Eric Henderson at Slant Magazine) cite Bonjour Tristesse as a film waiting to be reclaimed: like Douglas Sirk, Preminger is now viewed by many as an auteur whose talents remained largely misunderstood during his lifetime.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Saul Bass’s opening titles
  • Jean Seberg as Cecile — not a great actress, but exuding abundant charm and attractiveness
  • David Niven as Cecile’s carefree dad
  • Deborah Kerr as Anne
  • Striking Technicolor cinematography
  • A compelling “love triangle” between father, daughter, and stepmom-to-be
  • Gorgeous settings in the French Riviera

No, but it’s recommended.

Links: