Browsed by
Month: January 2008

Elephant Man, The (1980)

Elephant Man, The (1980)

“I am not an animal — I am a human being!”

Synopsis:
In Victorian England, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescues a severely disfigured man (John Hurt) from his abusive carnival “owner” (Freddie Jones), and allows him his first chance at a life of dignity and respect.

Genres:

Review:
Although it’s often considered to be something of an aberration from director David Lynch’s usual oeuvre, this heartbreaking biopic is actually well in alignment with Lynch’s fascination for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Oscar-nominated John Hurt (who’s completely unrecognizable) plays the title role of Joseph Merrick, a real-life young man who suffered from a rare congenital deformity known as Proteus Syndrome, making him look decidedly freakish and abnormal; and while there’s no denying Hurt’s inestimable skills as an actor, his success here as Merrick is due in no small part to the tremendous efforts of make-up specialist Chris Tucker, who developed an elaborate synthetic “mask” based on a cast of Merrick’s actual head. Anthony Hopkins — equally affecting in a less “showy” role — plays the doctor who at first is merely fascinated with Merrick’s physical condition, but soon comes to realize that an intelligent, sentient being exists underneath the bulbous folds of skin and bone.

Merrick’s transformation from mute “creature” to dignified gentleman — the crux of the film — is truly a wonder to behold; even those who rarely cry at movies (myself included) will find themselves hard pressed not to be moved by this one. Scene after scene — enacted by a crew of exceedingly well-cast supporting actors — prompts a renewed investigation of our own prejudices, as we realize just how important a relatively “normal” appearance is to our acceptance of others as human. My favorite scenes are those between Merrick and a renowned actress (Anne Bancroft) who barely bats an eye upon seeing Merrick for the first time, and remains resolutely dedicated to treating him like the gentle hero he is. Equally touching is the initial scene between Merrick and Dr. Treves’ wife (Hannah Gordon), whose “natural” acceptance of his appearance causes him to break down in sobs of gratitude.

Some (including, I suspect, Peary, who neglects to nominate either Hurt or the film itself in his Alternate Oscars book) find The Elephant Man overly cloying — and there’s no doubt that our heartstrings are strategically tugged throughout the entire film. Indeed, the final portion of the story — in which Merrick is kidnapped back by Jones, and forced to temporarily revert to his former status as a carnival freak — is nearly too much to bear, and shifts the story into undue pathos. Apart from this aberration, however, Merrick’s journey remains a fascinating one to watch, and proves that there’s nothing more uplifting than watching a character transform and transcend his initial limitations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Hurt as Joseph Merrick
    Elephant Man Hurt Picture
  • Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Treves
    Elephant Man Hopkins
  • Anne Bancroft as an admiring actress
    Elephant Man Bancroft
  • Wendy Hiller as a no-nonsense nurse
    Elephant Man Hiller
  • John Gielgud as Treves’ superior at the hospital
    Elephant Man Gielgud
  • Freddie Jones as Merrick’s abusive captor
    Elephant Man Jones
  • Hannah Gordon as Dr. Treves’ sympathetic wife
    Elephant Man Wife
  • Chris Tucker’s extraordinary make-up design
    Elephant Man Hurt
  • Freddie Francis’s b&w cinematography
    Elephant Man Cinematography
  • Atmospheric period detail
    Elephant Man Period Detail
  • Many heart-breaking scenes
    Elephant Man Hug
  • An effective soundtrack by John Morris

Must See?
Yes, as a “good show” by an important director.

Categories

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

Links:

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936)

“No one could teach you to dance in a million years.”

Synopsis:
A dancer with a penchant for gambling (Fred Astaire) is challenged by his future father-in-law (Landers Stevens) to earn $25,000 before marrying his daughter (Betty Furness), and heads to New York with his trusty sidekick, “Pop” (Victor Moore) to secure the funds. Once he arrives, however, he falls immediately in love with a young dance instructor (Ginger Rogers), and tries his best not to earn the money; meanwhile, Rogers is pursued by a slick orchestra conductor (Georges Metaxa) who is eager to marry her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, “there’s little to complain about” with regards to this “enchanting” Astaire/Rogers collaboration — often cited along with Top Hat as one of their most successful ventures. He points out that, for once, “the stars play real — well, almost real — people”, noting that it’s easy to root for them given that they’re playing such “appealing, unpretentious characters”. Unfortunately, the script gets off to a rather painful start, with no dancing for the first half hour, and a truly cruel — albeit ultimately “for the best” — practical joke played upon poor Astaire, who’s made to miss his own wedding. Once he arrives in New York and meets Ginger, however, the sparks begin to fly, with song after song a true delight. The script somewhat predictably revolves upon mistaken identities (Rogers doesn’t know that Astaire is an engaged man), but this time around the storyline remains relatively believable, and eminently affecting. Rogers — perhaps due to expert guidance from director George Stevens — is in peak form, investing her character with pathos and genuine charm; Astaire is equally fine, and it’s fun to see both Eric Blore and Helen Broderick returning in supporting roles (though Blore’s part should have been bigger).

P.S. It’s amazing to note that the New York Times reviewer of the day (Frank Nugent — evidently tone deaf) dismissed Jerome Kern’s score as “merely adequate, or worse” — he actually complained about not being able to “whistle a bar” of any of the tunes upon leaving the theater! Personally, I can’t get “A Fine Romance” out of my head for the life of me…

P.P.S. The series’ signature art deco set designs are still evident, though toned down considerably to suit the working-class characters’ lifestyles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fred and Ginger’s first thrilling dance together, “Pick Yourself Up”
    Swing Time Pick Yourself Up
  • Fred singing “The Way You Look Tonight” to Ginger while her hair is full of shampoo (actually whipped cream)
    Swing Time Shampoo
  • Ginger and Fred dancing the classy “Waltz in Swing Time”
    Swing Time Waltz
  • Ginger and Fred singing “A Fine Romance” back and forth to each other across the snow
    Swing Time Fine Romance
  • Astaire’s Bojangles homage, dancing with the shadows
    Swing Time Bojangle
  • Fred and Ginger’s evocative final dance
    Swing Time Final Dance
  • Classy art deco set designs
    Swing Time Art Deco
  • Ginger Rogers giving perhaps her best performance of the series
    Swing Time Rogers
  • Jerome Kern’s score — not just his signature songs, but the cleverly orchestrated soundtrack itself
    Swing Time Kern

Must See?
Yes, as one of the classic Rogers and Astaire collaborations. Peary nominates it for an Alternate Oscar as best picture of the year.

Categories

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

Links:

Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat (1935)

“In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course.”

Synopsis:
Confirmed bachelor Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) — in London to perform a show, and staying with his wealthy friend Horace (Edward Everett Horton) — finds himself falling head-over-heels in love with a beautiful young model (Ginger Rogers) living in the room below his. Complications ensue when Rogers mistakenly believes Astaire is Horace, the husband of her best friend Madge (Helen Broderick).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “exceptional Fred Astaire – Ginger Rogers Depression-escaping musical” features “fabulous dancing, a topflight Irving Berlin score, terrific supporting players… [and] spectacularly stylish Art Deco sets”. It’s widely acknowledged as one of the best of Astaire and Rogers’ collaborations together, and it certainly possesses some of the best-loved songs — most notably “Cheek to Cheek” (that feather dress!) and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”. The “typically preposterous plot” is silly beyond belief but enormous fun once you give in to the cleverly plotted script, which allows the mistaken-identity snafu to go on far longer than would ever be expected. There’s no denying the magic of Astaire and Rogers dancing together (and Astaire dancing alone) — but I’ll admit my favorite aspect of Top Hat is the truly hilarious banter between the supporting character actors — most notably Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore; their initial domestic quibble over “square versus butterfly ties” is priceless. Watch and enjoy…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers
    Top Hat Astaire
  • Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont
    Top Hat Rogers
  • Astaire’s opening dance number (set to “No Strings”) in Horton’s apartment
    Top Hat No Strings
  • Rogers and Astaire dancing “Cheek to Cheek”
    Top Hat Cheek to Cheek
  • Astaire wooing Rogers during the “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain” number
    Top Hat Lovely Day
  • Astaire’s stylish “Top Hat and Tails” dance
    Top Hat Tails
  • Edward Everett Horton as Horace
    Top Hat Horton
  • Eric Blore as Horton’s snobby valet
    Top Hat Blore
  • Helen Broderick as Horton’s “understanding” wife, Madge
    Top Hat Madge
  • Erik Rhodes as Beddini, the passionate Italian dress designer: “Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses!”
    Top Hat Beddini
  • Rogers’ gorgeous gowns
    Top Hat Gowns
  • The marvelously baroque — and oh-so-RKO — art deco set designs
    Top Hat Sets
  • Hermes Pan and Astaire’s collaborative choreography
    Top Hat Choreography
  • The wonderfully unrealistic “mistaken identities” screenplay
    Top Hat Mistaken
  • Irving Berlin’s classic score
    Top Hat Berlin

Must See?
Yes. This undisputed classic — widely acknowledged as the archetypal Astaire and Rogers collaboration — should be seen and enjoyed by all film fanatics. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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

Links:

Pollyanna (1960)

Pollyanna (1960)

“When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.”

Synopsis:
A young orphan named Pollyanna (Hayley Mills) comes to live with her stern, wealthy aunt Polly (Jane Wyman) in the town of Harrington, where the townsfolk are scared to go against Polly’s wishes. Soon, however, Pollyanna’s ability to seek out the good in any situation spreads to the citizens, who find themselves starting to rethink their priorities and attitudes.

Genres:

Review:
British import Hayley Mills made her American film debut in this classic Disney tale of goodness and cheer. As in her first movie (1959’s Tiger Bay), Mills provides ample evidence of her skills as an actress, buoying a story which could easily have turned into cloying tripe, and investing her character with an air of surprising realism. Contrary to popular myth, Pollyanna isn’t a perfect angel: she’s adventurous, incorrigibly curious, and — as revealed in the film’s tragic denouement — occasionally naughty. Indeed, she’s a highly believable young girl who has learned to cope with tragedy in her life (both her missionary parents died, and she lived an early childhood of poverty) by playing “the glad game”; kids are notorious survivors, and Pollyanna is living (literary) proof of this fact.

While Mills is undoubtedly the main reason to watch Pollyanna, she’s surrounded by a cast of fine actors who invest their roles with nuance and understanding. Most impressive is Jane Wyman as Pollyanna’s Aunt Polly — like Pollyanna herself, Aunt Polly could easily have become a caricature, but, as played by Wyman, she’s immediately revealed to be someone deeply uncomfortable with herself, who uses her control over “her” town as a means of remaining closed off from her feelings. Nancy Olson — 10 years older than when she played William Holden’s young girlfriend Betty in Sunset Boulevard — is also surprisingly good, and it’s fun to see Agnes Moorehead, Adolph Menjou, Karl Malden, and others in key character roles. Chances are you’ll find yourself enjoying Pollyanna more than you expected to, and will be surprised to learn that “being a Pollyanna” doesn’t mean acting holier-than-thou.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hayley Mills as Pollyanna
    Pollyanna Mills
  • Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly
    Pollyanna Wyman
  • Nancy Olson as Aunt Polly’s assistant
    Pollyanna Olson
  • A heartwarming, seldom cloying tale of living life with good cheer
    Pollyanna Good

Must See?
Yes, for Mills’ truly noteworthy performance.

Categories

Links:

You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)

You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)

“To a hungry man, a lamb chop is a tasty dish — but to the butcher, it’s just another hunk of meat.”

Synopsis:
A choreographer (Fred Astaire) helps his philandering boss (Robert Benchley) get out of hot water with his suspicious wife (Frieda Inescort) by pretending to have purchased an engraved diamond bracelet for one of his beautiful showgirls (Rita Hayworth). He soons finds himself in trouble with Hayworth’s beau (John Hubbard), and enlists in the army to escape; meanwhile, he realizes he really does care for Hayworth, and tries to win her heart.

Genres:

Review:
Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth’s first film together was this WWII musical comedy, featuring a catchy yet surprisingly forgettable score by Cole Porter. The ridiculous military “subplot” (actually a major part of the movie) is an enormous distraction from what we really want to see: Astaire and Hayworth dancing and falling in love. Whenever they’re together — or when Astaire dances alone — we’re in heaven; but when we’re forced to watch Astaire getting in continual trouble with his superiors — and landing repeatedly in an impossibly clean military brig — the story falters and sinks. Robert Benchley is intermittently amusing as the childishly caddish millionaire who lies through his teeth as a matter of course and isn’t above using his employees to get himself out of hot water, while Frieda Inescort as his snobbish wife is perfectly cast — but neither they nor Astaire and Hayworth can quite work the necessary magic with this sub-par script. With that said, while I can’t recommend You’ll Never Get Rich as must-see viewing, I suspect most film fanatics will be curious to at least check it out once, given its historical importance as the film which helped propel Hayworth to true cheesecake status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Astaire and Hayworth’s too-short initial tap dance together
    YNGR First Dance
  • Astaire’s fabulous solo dances in the guardhouse
  • Astaire and Hayworth dancing to “So Near and Yet So Far” during the army show rehearsal

Must See?
No. While it holds some historical importance as Astaire and Hayworth’s first outing together, it’s ultimately not must-see viewing.

Links:

Tiger Bay (1959)

Tiger Bay (1959)

“Why not tell them — the whole thing? Nobody on our street will blame you; they say she gave our place a bad name.”

Synopsis:
A young orphan named Gillie (Hayley Mills) befriends a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) who has just killed his faithless girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), and tries her best to prevent him from being captured by determined police Superintendent Graham (John Mills).

Genres:

Review:
12-year-old Hayley Mills made a stunning screen debut in this atmospheric, intelligent thriller about cross-generational friendship and loyalty. Mills’ part was originally meant for a boy, but her bob haircut and tomboyish manner make her entirely suitable for the role — which, given Gillie’s propensity for unrepentant lying and stealing, is about as far removed from Mills’ ensuing Pollyanna image as one could imagine. Indeed, part of what makes Tiger Bay so fascinating is the way in which it presents eminently real, flawed characters and allows us to sympathize with them — while we know that Buchholz must be caught and punished for his actions, for instance, we can entirely relate to both his and Gillie’s desire to run away and live freely at sea. Although the story itself occasionally defies belief (particularly by the end), the special friendship that emerges between Gillie and Buchholz — refreshingly free of any sexual overtones — makes this unusual film well worth watching.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hayley Mills as Gillie
    Tiger Bay Hayley Mills
  • Horst Buchholz as Korchinsky
    Tiger Bay Horst
  • John Mills as Superintendent Graham
    Tiger Bay John Mills
  • Megs Jenkins as Gillie’s aunt
    Tiger Bay Jenkins
  • Effective use of Cardiff locales and locals
    Tiger Bay Locale Street
  • Atmospheric b&w cinematography
    Tiger Bay Candle
  • A highly affecting story of cross-generational friendship
    Tiger Bay Friendship

Must See?
Yes, simply for Mills’ stand-out performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)

And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)

“I would just like to point out that this film is displaying a distinct tendency to become SILLY.”

Synopsis:
The Monty Python comedy troupe — Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland, and Connie Booth — reenact the most popular skits from their Flying Circus television show.

Genres:

Review:
Monty Python’s first feature length film is essentially a compilation of reenacted skits from their popular BBC television show “Monty Python and the Flying Circus”; in this sense, its title was a misnomer for Brits of the day, but not for American audiences, most of whom were witnessing Python’s inimitable sense of wacky humor for the first time. Your enjoyment of And Now For Something Completely Different will inevitably ride upon how well you “get” the group’s particular brand of comedy — yet despite how often you actually find yourself laughing out loud, there’s no denying that the film is, indeed, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Terry Gilliam’s unusual animation style provides a surreal set of transitions between the skits, which in themselves are often beyond belief, skewering (nay, butchering) every social convention and P.C. hot button imaginable. Listed below are a few of my own favorite “redeeming moments” in the film, but each fan is likely to come up with her or her own. While certainly not for all tastes, this cult movie should be seen at least once by every film fanatic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The “Hungarian phrasebook” sketch
    ANFSCD Phrasebook
  • The initial “public service” skit: “How Not to Be Seen”
    ANFSCD How Not to Be Seen
  • The “dead parrot” skit
    ANFSCD Parrot
  • The “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m Okay” song
    ANFSCD Lumberjack
  • The “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch
    ANFSCD Twits
  • Countless classic lines, spouted ad infinitum by Python fans: “Nudge, nudge, say no more, know what I mean?”
    ANFSCD Say No More
  • Terry Gilliam’s surreal inter-skit animation
    ANFSCD Animation 1

Must See?
Yes, for its status as a cult favorite.

Categories

Links:

Music Lovers, The (1970)

Music Lovers, The (1970)

“I wanted marriage — without a wife.”

Synopsis:
Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) tries to deny his homosexuality by marrying a socially ambitious young woman (Glenda Jackson), but soon finds himself miserable and unable to compose.

Genres:

Review:
Ken Russell’s flamboyant biopic of Peter Tchaikovsky is based on true events, but takes great liberty with details. Indeed, Russell seems most concerned with chronicling the emotional highs and lows of Tchaikovsky’s tortured life, primarily focusing on the ways in which his desire to conform to societal expectations — by marrying, rather than continuing his dalliances with young men — wreaked havoc on both his personal and creative life. Critics at the time of the film’s release were unimpressed, completely missing the point of Russell’s vision; nowadays, audience members accustomed to “creative” imaginings of artists’ lives may well have more tolerance for The Music Lovers, which remains a heady, visually sumptuous experience, one which successfully portrays the havoc wreaked on both husband and wife when marriage is based on pretense rather than authentic desire. Richard Chamberlain is perfectly cast as Tchaikovsky (especially given what we now know about his own closeted homosexuality), and his piano playing (while dubbed by a professional) is truly impressive. Glenda Jackson nearly steals the show, however, as Tchaikovsky’s ambitious, mentally unstable wife who simply can’t understand why her husband has no desire to make love to her.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky
    TML Chamberlain
  • Glenda Jackson as Tchaikovsky’s wife in-name-only
    TML Jackson
  • The powerful, fantasy-laden opening concert sequence
    TML Concert
  • An astute look at Tchaikovsky’s tormented sexuality
    TML Sexuality
  • Sumptuous set designs and costumes
    TML Set Designs
  • The hilarious “camera obscura” scene
    TML Camera Obscura

Must See?
Yes, as a prime example of Ken Russell’s inimitable biopic style. Listed as a cult movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Deep Throat (1972)

Deep Throat (1972)

“Different strokes for different folks.”

Synopsis:
A sexually frustrated woman (Linda Lovelace) goes to a doctor (Harry Reems), who informs her that her clitoris is located in her throat, and teaches her to reach fulfillment through fellatio.

Genres:

  • Adult Films
  • Sexual Liberation

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, Deep Throat remains “the most famous, successful, and influential p. film” ever made, and was “chiefly responsible for making it acceptable for early seventies couples to see adult movies.” Unfortunately, its infamy and hype overshadow any intrinsic values; Deep Throat remains an uninteresting, mediocre film with “dull stretches”, “stupid” humor, and bad acting. In addition, despite its “breakthrough” storyline of a woman pursuing sexual pleasure (rather than being pursued by men), the entire concept is still premised on a male fantasy of unlimited fellatio. With that said, Deep Throat — fortunately only 62 minutes long — remains “must see” viewing simply for its place in cinematic history. Also recommended is the documentary Inside Deep Throat (2005), about the making of, and controversy surrounding, this famous film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Groundbreaking incorporation of comedy into sex scenes – though the comedy is decidedly unfunny

Must See?
Yes. Deep Throat remains one of a handful of adult movies which all film fanatics should at least be familiar with.

Categories

Links:

Father of the Bride (1950)

Father of the Bride (1950)

“I would like to say a few things about weddings…”

Synopsis:
When his 20-year-old daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) announces that she’s going to be marrying her boyfriend (Don Taylor), Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) and his wife Ellie (Joan Bennett) begin the heady — and expensive — process of planning her wedding.

Genres:

Review:
Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride (remade with Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, and Kimberly Williams in 1991) remains a slightly dated yet undeniably charming piece of mid-century Americana, providing an amusing snapshot of what middle- and upper-middle-class citizens were, at heart, most concerned with: “doing things right” without breaking the bank. Despite its socio-economic and ethnic specificity, however, Father of the Bride manages to transcend both class and race in its astute depiction of the trials and tribulations inherent in planning an enormous family event; indeed, what middle-aged man can’t relate to the struggle to fit into his former best suit, or trying to balance an increasingly out-of-control budget? Equally effective is the way in which Tracy manages to convey — without undue pathos — the deep sense of emptiness and panic he feels at “losing” his only daughter to another man; his close relationship with Taylor is quite special.

In addition to offering many amusing vignettes (see Redeeming Qualities and Moments below), FOTB features spot-on performances throughout; indeed, Peary is so impressed by Spencer Tracy’s turn as Stanley Banks that he awards him a Best Actor Oscar in his Alternate Oscars book (a questionable, albeit noble, choice). Joan Bennett is equally fine as Tracy’s harried wife, a middle-aged woman who’s living out her own unrequited wedding fantasies through her daughter; and Elizabeth Taylor is simply luminous as Tracy’s young daughter (she helped enormously with publicity by graciously getting married — for the first time — just before the film’s release).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Stanley Banks
    FOTB Tracy
  • 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as Tracy’s grown daughter
    FOTB Dresses
  • Joan Bennett as Ellie Banks: “Stanley, from now on, don’t answer the phone.”
    FOTB Bennett
  • Tracy trying to fit into his far-too-small “cut-away” suit
    FOTB Snug
  • Stanley’s surreal nightmare-before-the-wedding
    FOTB Nightmare
  • “Mr. Tringle” (Melville Cooper) demonstrating to the wedding party how to “step, stop” down the aisle
    FOTB Step Stop
  • Mr. and Mrs. Banks checking out a particularly hideous wedding present from “Aunt Hattie”
    FOTB Clock
  • A spot-on look at the chaos surrounding wedding preparations
    FOTB Chaos

Must See?
Yes, for its erstwhile popularity and Oscar-nominated status.

Categories

Links: