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Month: September 2007

Still of the Night / Stab (1982)

Still of the Night / Stab (1982)

“We’re probably dealing with a woman who on the surface seems childlike and innocent, but underneath is capable of extreme violence.”

Synopsis:
When one of his patients (Josef Sommer) is murdered, a psychiatrist (Roy Scheider) suspects that Sommer’s nervous mistress (Meryl Streep) — with whom he is gradually falling in love — may have something to do with it.

Genres:

Review:
Robert Benton’s atmospheric homage to noir thrillers of the ’40s and ’50s is a welcome, enjoyable effort. While not entirely successful — Scheider’s use of dream analysis as a legitimate method of deduction is particularly suspect — there’s enough suspense and creativity sprinkled throughout to keep most viewers happy. Meryl Streep gives yet another knockout performance as the “icy blonde” who may or may not know something about Sommers’ death; every moment she’s on-screen, we watch with bated breath, and she alone makes this film “must see” viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Meryl Streep as “icy blonde” Brooke Reynolds
    SON Streep
  • Josef Sommer as the philandering murdered man (seen in flashbacks)
    SON Sommer
  • Nestor Almendros’ atmospheric cinematography
    SON Cinematography
  • A fun homage to several Hitchcock classics, including Rear Window and North by Northwest
    SON Homage2
    SON Homage1
  • The unexpected final plot twist

Must See?
Yes, simply for Streep’s wonderful performance. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Verdict, The (1946)

Verdict, The (1946)

“You seem to have greater interest in Kendall dead than alive.”

Synopsis:
After accidentally sending the wrong man to the gallows, Superintendent Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) is released from duty and replaced by ambitious Superintendent Buckley (George Coulouris). When another murder takes place, both Grodman and Buckley try to determine who among a host of suspects — including a dance hall singer (Joan Lorring), a landlady (Rosalind Ivan), a detective (Paul Cavanagh), and an artist (Peter Lorre) — is guilty.

Genres:

Review:
Don Siegel’s directorial debut received decidedly tepid reviews upon its release, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times labeling it a “thoroughly unimpressive picture”. But Crowther’s assessment is inaccurate: while The Verdict isn’t quite a classic, it’s both atmospheric and suspenseful, and certainly worth a look. It’s great fun to see Greenstreet and Lorre in their final onscreen pairing, with Lorre’s performance especially enjoyable (what other actor could get away with calmly stating, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row; how about a nice strangling for a change?” and make it seem realistic?). Siegel does an excellent job pointing fingers at a host of possible suspects, and the final plot twist comes as quite the surprise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sydney Greenstreet as Grodman
    Verdict Greenstreet
  • Peter Lorre as Grodman’s loyal friend, Victor Emmric
    Verdict Lorre
  • Highly atmospheric lighting, with ample use of shadows
    Verdict Shadows
  • The surprising final plot twist

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended, and probably must see for fans of Peter Lorre and/or Don Siegel.

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Innocents, The (1961)

Innocents, The (1961)

“They must be made to admit what is happening — one word, one word of the truth from these children, and we can cast out those devils forever!”

innocents-poster

Synopsis:
A governess (Deborah Kerr) in charge of two sibling orphans — Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) — gradually becomes convinced that they are possessed by ghosts, and tries to get their housemaid (Megs Jenkins) to believe her.

Genres:

Review:
Widely acknowledged as the best cinematic adaptation of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this atmospheric thriller by director Jack Clayton is a true gem of the horror genre. James’ novella is notoriously ambiguous, with readers left to determine whether the noises and visions experienced by Miss Giddens (Kerr) are real or imagined — but it’s made fairly clear here that Kerr’s increasing paranoia is self-induced, and that the tragic ending is of her own making. Indeed, screenwriters William Archibald and Truman Capote do an admirable job translating James’ difficult psychological story into literal visuals, while simultaneously keeping us in suspense about whether or not Miles and Flora really are “innocent” — and, if so, in what way.

The performances in The Innocents are, across the board, superb. It’s difficult to imagine anyone better than Kerr at playing Miss Giddens, an idealistic, faithful, sexually repressed woman who is mortified to learn that her sweet charges may have been corrupted — and who will stop at nothing to “clear” them of their sins. Both Pamela Franklin (who, six years later, starred in Clayton’s Our Mother’s House) and Martin Stephens (from Village of the Damned) are entirely believable as the inscrutable siblings, and Megs Jenkins rounds out the cast beautifully as the children’s well-meaning, naive maid — her performance never hits a false note, and is essential to the success of the story.

Equally impressive are the film’s visuals, including the stunning black-and-white cinematography, appropriately baroque set designs, and effective use of pastoral outdoor settings. Much like in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) and Val Lewton’s early films for RKO, the frights here are cinematically suggested rather than made explicit, with Clayton using a variety of techniques (including deep focus framing and double exposure) to evoke horror; yet even some straightforward shots — such as a bug crawling out of a statue’s mouth — are enough to cause one to jump. Ultimately, the “horror” here is truly psychological, indicating that the worst monsters are the ones we — like Miss Giddens — conjure up for ourselves.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
    Innocents Breakdown
  • Megs Jenkins as naive, well-meaning Mrs. Grose
    Innocents Mrs. Grose
  • Martin Stephens as Miles
    Innocents Miles
  • Pamela Franklin as Flora
    Innocents Franklin
  • Freddie Francis’s remarkably atmospheric b&w cinematography
    Innocents Cinematography
  • Haunting set designs
    Innocents Set Design
  • Good use of selective cinematic techniques to evoke horror
    Innocents Double Exposure
  • Effective establishment of a pastoral calm before the storm
    Innocents Pastoral
  • A powerful depiction of mental breakdown
    Innocents Creepy
  • The creepy opening credits
    Innocents Opening Credits
  • William Archibald and Truman Capote’s smart screenplay

Must See?
Yes. This excellent psychological thriller is a good show all-around, and a classic of the horror genre. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Cornbread, Earl, and Me (1975)

Cornbread, Earl, and Me (1975)

“We don’t have much, but we do have our self-respect — and now they’re trying to take that away!”

Cornbread Poster

Synopsis:
When a college-bound basketball star (Jamaal Wilkes) is accidentally shot by two cops (Bernie Casey and Vince Martorano), several witnesses — including a 12-year-old boy (Laurence Fishburne), his cousin Earl (Tierre Turner), and a storeowner (Charles Lampkin) — are intimidated by the police into keeping quiet.

Genres:

Review:
Based on Ronald Fair‘s novel The Hog Butcher (1966), this uneven yet compelling tale of mistaken identities and police corruption in an African-American neighborhood is primarily notable for featuring 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne in his movie debut. Well-acted by most of the cast, and full of believable, intelligent, three-dimensional black characters, Cornbread manages to effectively illustrate racial and economic tensions without simplifying the issue into “black versus white”. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the film’s portrayal of police corruption, which is both heavy-handed and predictable; while I haven’t the slightest doubt that the corrupt bullying of potential witnesses (particularly in lower socio-economic neighborhoods) takes place on a regular basis, it needed to be handled with much more finesse here. Despite its uneven script, however, Cornbread, Earl and Me is most definitely worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Laurence Fishburne as Wilford
    Cornbread Fishburne
  • Rosalind Cash as Wilford’s mom
    Cornbread Rosalind Cash
  • Bernie Casey as the African-American cop convinced he killed the right man
    Cornbread Cop
  • Stack Pierce and Madge Sinclair as Cornbread’s parents
    Cornbread Parents
  • A refreshingly three-dimensional depiction of lower-income African-Americans
    Cornbread Life
  • Donald Byrd’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Big Knife, The (1955)

Big Knife, The (1955)

“Oh, Charlie, my Charlie — what’s happened to your mind, your spirit, your soul? Charlie Castle, the guy I married — he was a tiger!”

Synopsis:
At the insistence of his idealistic wife (Ida Lupino), philandering Hollywood actor Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) resists signing another seven-year contract with studio boss Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) — but when Hoff and his assistant (Wendell Corey) threaten to reveal Charlie’s part in a hit-and-run accident the previous year, he must reconsider his options.

Genres:

Review:
Based on Clifford Odets’ 1949 stage play, this infamous skewering of Hollywood’s studio system (directed by Robert Aldrich) is actually a broader indictment of all powerful organizations and tycoons who attempt to silence the creativity and authenticity of individuals. Unfortunately, while Odets’ script is often sharp and incisive (“Never underestimate a man just because you don’t like him,” warns Charlie’s agent), it’s just as often overly florid and theatrical (“Why did I add this burden to that grotesque, devoted soul?” laments Palance at one point, struggling to let the words roll naturally off his tongue). Even worse, the film is overly stage-bound, with limited sets (nearly every scene takes place inside Castle’s manse) and clear divisions between the three “acts” of the story. Yet the strong ensemble cast works hard to overcome the script’s flaws, with especially noteworthy performances given by the many supporting players (Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters, Jean Hagen, and others). Most of Aldrich’s movies — always edgy and unique — are worth watching at least once, and this is no exception.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Palance as Charlie
  • Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans
  • Ida Lupino as Charlie’s long-suffering wife, Marion
  • Wendell Corey as “Smiley” Coy
  • Jean Hagen as the obnoxiously seductive wife of Charlie’s press agent
  • Wesley Addy as Marion’s would-be beau, Hank

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance and earnest performances.

Categories

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Invaders From Mars (1953)

Invaders From Mars (1953)

“David says something landed in the field out back. It doesn’t make sense, but he seems so convinced!”

Poster Invaders Mars

Synopsis:
Young David (Jimmy Hunt) awakens at night to see a flying saucer landing under a plot of sand behind his house. When his father (Leif Erickson) goes out to investigate, he’s sucked into the sand and returns brainwashed; soon the same thing happens to David’s mother (Hillary Brooke), two investigating policemen, a neighbor girl (Janine Perreau), and others. When David finally convinces a kind, beautiful doctor (Helena Carter) that he’s telling the truth, the military becomes involved in a massive effort to stop the aliens.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while Invaders From Mars is “not as good as… Invasion of the Body Snatchers [or] I Married a Monster” (both films dealing with similar themes), it’s “fondly remembered by those of us who saw it when we were children”; DVD Savant (see link below) is another fan, and his blow-by-blow analysis (he claims to have seen it roughly 50 times over the years!) shows just how deep an impression it must have made on many young boys. Viewers today will likely classify it as yet another low-budget ’50s sci-fi paranoia film (with possible overtones of “an anti-communist political allegory because the aliens use mind control”), and laugh at its uneven acting, campy special effects (those Martian costumes!), and over-reliance on stock military footage during the denouement. With that said, Invaders From Mars is notable both for its effective portrayal of a young boy struggling to make adults believe him (freckle-faced Jimmy Hunt is perfectly cast), and for director William Cameron Menzies’ truly unusual set designs, which add “to the film’s surreal look”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively paranoid portrayal of a happy nuclear family destroyed by alien forces
    IFM Family
  • The stylized low-budget set designs
    Stylized Set IFM
  • Campy special effects and alien costumes
    IFM Campy
  • Several memorable shots
    IFM Memorable

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance as a seminal alien invasion flick.

Categories

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Debbie Does Dallas (1978)

Debbie Does Dallas (1978)

“Debbie, I’m so proud of you!”

Synopsis:
A group of high school cheerleaders, hoping to try out professionally in Dallas, have sex with their employers to raise money for the trip.

Genres:

  • Adult Films
  • Cheerleaders

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this adult film’s alliterative title — “the reason for its great success” — is “the most original thing about it”. The “acting is terrible,” the sex is “run-of-the-mill, repetitive, and mechanical,” and everyone comes across as downright dumb — yet somehow, it still became one of the top five highest-grossing adult films in history. Go figure. A recent documentary about the film — Debbie Does Dallas Uncovered (2005) — is nearly as boring and exploitative as the original; don’t bother renting it.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • None, other than the clever title

Must See?
Yes, simply for its status in adult film history.

Categories

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Cafe Flesh (1982)

Cafe Flesh (1982)

“You don’t have to be ashamed; there’s nothing wrong with just watching.”

Synopsis:
In a post-nuclear dystopia, the world is divided into “Sex Negatives” (those who become ill from sex) and “Sex Positives” (those are still able to enjoy it). Sex Positives are forced by the government to have sex in nightclubs, where envious, masochistic Sex Negatives flock to watch them.

Genres:

  • Adult Films
  • Dystopia
  • Nightclubs
  • Nuclear Holocaust
  • Science Fiction

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary points out, this is truly the “thinking person’s [p.] film”, a rare instance where sexual acts actually makes sense in the context of an adult movie. He writes that while it’s “obviously not for all tastes”, the “acting is very good, the characters are genuinely interesting” and “it is witty, provocative, and erotic”. In addition, the film has a somewhat compelling plot: a Sex Positive pretends to be a Sex Negative in order not to alienate her SN partner or “damage his ego”. As pointed out in Time Out’s Capsule Review, this early-’80s film is remarkably prescient of the AIDS epidemic, which similarly segregated “positive” and “negative” sexual partners from each other.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An authentically intriguing premise
  • Visually interesting, “highly stylized” sex scenes

Must See?
Yes. This is on a par with The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) as one of the most creative and thought-provoking adult films ever made. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 (1988).

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Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown (1974)

“Either you bring the water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water.”

Poster Chinatown

Synopsis:
In 1930s Los Angeles, a private detective (Jack Nicholson) finds himself embroiled in a complicated plot of murder, corruption, and twisted sexuality.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Widely acknowledged as a modern American classic, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is indispensable viewing for all film fanatics. As Peary notes, it’s a “superlative detective picture” with a “powerful Oscar-winning script”, and a central mystery which “gets more complicated by the minute”; indeed, one must watch carefully and attentively in order to catch all the story’s nuances. The performances across the board are excellent, with Jack Nicholson particularly well-cast as hardboiled Jake Gittes, a savvy P.I. who nonetheless always seems to be one step behind the game. He’s often unable to calculate who’s guilty and who’s not; it’s only through sheer persistence, sly investigative techniques, and a willingness to commit occasional violence that he gets anywhere. Faye Dunaway is fragile and mysterious as a woman with a heavy past (who may or may not be guilty), and John Huston is truly frightening as Dunaway’s wealthy tycoon father.

In addition to its wonderful performances, Chinatown is full of many unforgettable scenes: Gittes getting his nose slashed by a thug (Polanski in cameo); Gittes spying on Dunaway and a mysterious young woman through a window (and, later, discovering who the woman is); Gittes driving recklessly through an orange grove while being chased by gun-wielding farmers; Gittes smooth-talking his way into a rest home. Perhaps most memorable, however, is the film’s overall look and feel, including John Alonzo’s luminous cinematography, Richard Sylbert’s meticulous production design, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, and Polanski’s excellent use of outdoor locales in the greater L.A. area (ranging from Catalina Island to concrete sewers to farmland to — famously, in the final scene — Chinatown itself). While Chinatown is too depressing to be a personal favorite, there’s no denying the sheer visceral power of its story, characters, and settings.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes
    CT Jake
  • Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray
    CT Evelyn
  • John Huston as Noah Cross
    CT Huston
  • Jake’s clever ruse at the public documents office
    CT Ruler
  • The infamous “nose slashing” scene (with a cameo by Polanski)
    CT Knife
  • Evocative period set designs, props, and costumes
    CT Period
  • Good use of diverse L.A. landscapes
    CT Grove
  • Gorgeous cinematography
    CT Script
  • Robert Towne’s intelligent script
  • The surprise plot twist near the end

Must See?
Yes. This highly esteemed detective flick is definitely must-see viewing.

Categories

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

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That Lady in Ermine (1948)

That Lady in Ermine (1948)

“I’m in love with your great-great grandmother — I have been since the moment I entered this castle!”

Synopsis:
In 1800s Italy, a Hungarian (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) invading the castle of newlywed Countess Angelina (Betty Grable) falls for a painting of Countess Francesca, Angelina’s lookalike ancestor. Soon he finds himself enamored with Angelina herself, which makes Angelina’s husband (Cesar Romero) increasingly jealous.

Genres:

Review:
This amusing costume farce — co-starring Betty Grable (the highest-paid Hollywood performer in 1947) and a delightfully tongue-in-cheek Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. — is a heady mixture of fantasy, historical drama, romance, musical interludes, jealousy, and humor, all presented in gorgeous Technicolor. Fairbanks’ performance as the lovestruck Colonel (who knew he was such a natural comedic actor?) is indubitably the highlight of the film (check out his Cheshire Cat grin as he dreams of Francesca/Angelina), while Grable — with her bouncy blonde curls — is appropriately luminous and feisty in the title role, and even manages to show off her million-dollar legs in one fun dance scene (see the poster image). Although there aren’t quite enough songs to classify That Lady as a full-steam musical, the first ditty — “Ooh! What I’ll Do (To That Wild Hungarian)” — is enormously catchy. All in all, this one is great fun.

P.S. Otto Preminger took over direction of the film when Ernst Lubitsch died mid-production, but the transition is seamless.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Col. Ladislas and The Duke
    TLE Fairbanks
  • Betty Grable as Francesca/Angelina
    TLE Grable
  • Cesar Romero as Mario
    TLE Romero
  • Harry Davenport as Angelina’s loyal servant
    TLE Davenport
  • Effective set designs and historical costumes
    That Lady Set Design
  • A clever, “realistic” portrayal of characters emerging from portraits
    TLE Paintings
  • Many genuinely amusing, tongue-in-cheek moments — as when Francesca carries — then flies — the Colonel upstairs
    Flying

Must See?
Yes. This unusual fairy-tale-for-adults is a surprisingly enjoyable flick.

Categories

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