Browsed by
Month: June 2008

Zelig (1983)

Zelig (1983)

“A Jew that could turn himself into a Negro or an Indian was a triple threat.”

Synopsis:
In 1920s America, a mentally disturbed man named Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) gains notoriety for his chameleon-like ability to adapt both his appearance and his personality to whoever he’s with. When Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) tries to help Zelig overcome his disorder, the two eventually fall in love — but Zelig’s past actions soon catch up with him, and their happiness is compromised.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary labels this “bizarre one-joke satire” by Woody Allen “consistently funny” and “technically brilliant”, but is reticent in his praise, arguing that it “never rises to a higher level” — yet his assessment ultimately does an injustice to the brilliance of Allen’s comedic vision here. While the technical aspects of Zelig are justifiably lauded (the insertion of Zelig into real historical footage — done manually, not digitally — is seamless), the story itself remains enjoyable through repeated viewings, and has held up remarkably well. Allen neatly satirizes the titillating disorder of multiple personalities, with Zelig’s story containing notable parallels to 1976’s Sybil, given that Zelig’s female psychologist — just like Sybil’s — persists in her highly personalized efforts to cure her patient, despite scorn and disdain from the male establishment. Whether or not you’re a Woody Allen fan, this satisfying comedy (which, it should be noted, predates Christopher Guest et al.’s cult mockumentaries) should be seen and enjoyed by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gordon Willis’s masterful cinematographic effects
    Zelig Cinematography
  • Allen’s witty screenplay, with plenty of his classic one-liners: “I teach a course on masturbation, and if I’m late, they start without me.”
    Zelig One Liners
  • Zelig’s remarkable physical transformations
    Zelig Makeup1
    Zelig Makeup2
    Zelig Makeup3

Must See?
Yes, as one of Woody Allen’s enduring comedy classics.

Categories

Links:

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963)

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963)

“You think I’m a slave to sex, but I have a soul, too — remember that.”

Synopsis:
In this trio of comedic vignettes by director Vittorio de Sica, a black market cigarette seller in Naples (Sophia Loren) becomes pregnant by her harried husband (Marcello Mastroianni) each time the law comes to get her; a self-absorbed socialite (Loren) goes for a drive with a man (Mastroianni) she met at a party the night before; and a lusty call girl (Loren) with an insistent suitor (Mastroianni) tries to convince a naive seminary student (Gianni Ridolfi) to stick with his calling rather than fall for her.

Genres:

Review:
This episodic Italian sex comedy is primarily known today for two reasons: 1) as winner of 1963’s best foreign film Oscar, and 2) for Sophia Loren’s justifiably famous strip tease in front of Marcello Mastroianni’s howling suitor. As in any episodic film, some parts are inevitably better than others — the middle story here (“Anna of Milan”, at only 20 minutes) is widely regarded as the weakest, given that the storyline (such as it is) takes place exclusively during one car trip, and little to no character development occurs. The longer stories bookending the film — “Adelina of Naples” and “Mara of Rome” — offer a bit more comedic substance, and come across as innocuously enjoyable sketches. While “Adelina” offers a glimpse of de Sica’s erstwhile interest in social humanism (hard-working Adelina and her perpetually out-of-work husband continually flout authority — with our approval), for the most part Yesterday… remains “de Sica lite”, buoyed by its undeniable star power (Loren and Mastroianni are both in peak form) and by a liberal dose of cinematic escapism.

P.S. While some have argued that Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow was just as much of a sexual tease for early-1960s audiences as its Doris Day counterparts in America, this isn’t quite true, given that sex-outside-of-marriage is paraded in all three vignettes as both normal and natural — except by characters (such as Ridolfi’s melodramatic grandmother, played by Tina Pica) who are clearly presented as shrewish and moralistically uptight.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sophia Loren’s charismatic performances in all three vignettes — it’s easy to see why she was such an international superstar at the time
    Yesterday Loren Pregnant
  • Marcello Mastroianni as Loren’s three lovers
    Yesterday Mastroianni
  • Loren’s infamous strip-tease in front of Mastroianni’s howling john
    Yesterday Loren Striptease
  • Armando Trovajoli’s musical score

Must See?
Yes, simply for its status as 1963’s best foreign film Oscar, and for Loren’s iconic strip-tease act.

Categories

Links:

Luna (1979)

Luna (1979)

“He’s different from the others — he’s very lonely… You know that.”

Luna Poster

Synopsis:
After the untimely death of her husband (Fred Gwynne), an opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) takes her teenage son (Matthew Barry) with her to Italy, and soon finds herself immersed in a desperate battle to save him from heroin addiction.

Genres:

Review:
Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous Oedipal tale about a self-absorbed opera diva and the incestuous love she exhibits towards her deeply troubled teenage son was panned by critics upon its release, with Vincent Canby of the New York Times referring to it as “one of the most sublimely foolish movies ever made by a director of Mr. Bertolucci’s acknowledged talents”, and Roger Ebert unabashedly proclaiming that “Bertolucci has sprung his gourd this time.” Nowadays, Luna is considered an undiscovered masterpiece by a handful of devoted followers — who refer to it on IMDb as a “superb film”, a “flawed masterpiece”, a “bizarre, surreal melodrama”, and “ultimate beauty in its purest form” — but I’m in agreement with the critical elite: despite its fine production values and cinematography (it’s undeniably beautiful to look at), Luna remains a laughable mess of a film, one which consistently defies literal interpretation and possesses far too much unintentional camp value to be taken seriously. While viewers are clearly meant to interpret the tale as archetypically Freudian — complete with a convenient “missing father figure” denouement — only those with an abiding belief in the veracity of psychoanalysis (such as Bertolucci himself at the time) will find any genuine nuggets of psychological insight here.

After the first promising 15 minutes or so (during which Fred Gwynne’s level-headed character is, unfortunately, killed off), nothing about the overblown storyline comes across as remotely realistic: Barry’s heroin addiction is never authentically introduced or sustained; peripheral characters disappear with maddening whimsicality (what ever happened to Barry’s new Italian girlfriend, for instance?); and Clayburgh’s response to her son’s problem — while refreshingly removed from “afternoon special of the week” banality — is far too conveniently sublimated into titillatingly incestuous interactions. Clayburgh (fresh from her success in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman) seems to be trying her best with the material she’s been given, but her character is ultimately such a mess of unappealing contradictions that it can’t be salvaged; Barry, meanwhile, never fully inhabits his character’s neurotic personality — instead, he simply shifts at a moment’s notice between petulant teen and (supposed) raging addict. While viewers may find some enjoyment in the film’s overall campiness — such as the infamous scene in which Barry erotically licks his mother’s dirt-encrusted face, or when Clayburgh tries to release some tension by doing aerobics with her lesbian pursuer — Luna is ultimately far too frustrating to recommend.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vittorio Storaro’s lush cinematography
    Luna Cinematography

Must See?
No; while it has a small following, and was somewhat notorious upon its release, it’s certainly not must-see viewing any longer.

Links:

Big Bus, The (1976)

Big Bus, The (1976)

“The aerodynamics work — we’re breaking wind at 90!”

Big Bus Poster

Synopsis:
A blacklisted driver (Joseph Bologna) is recruited by his former flame (Stockard Channing) to drive a nuclear-powered bus nonstop from New York to Denver; along the way, he must deal with a neurotic and narcoleptic co-driver (John Beck), a host of wacky passengers, and a bomb planted by the henchman (Stuart Margolin) of an iron-lung-bound oil magnate (Jose Ferrer).

Genres:

Review:
Primarily known today as a precursor to the Zucker brothers’ much better known Airplane! (1980), The Big Bus is beloved by those who have fond memories of watching it on television growing up, and claim it’s just as funny as Airplane! — yet the sad truth is that it never delivers on its rich comedic potential. While all the right ingredients are certainly there — including an all-star cast, wacky characterizations, and plenty of disaster-prone scenarios — the jokes fall flat again and again; and while it may be mildly amusing for film fanatics to keep track of all the different films being spoofed (they range from Lucille Ball’s attempt to cook in a moving trailer in The Long, Long Trailer, to more generic big-budget disaster flicks such as Airport), the film as a whole never gels. Comedy is a fickle beast, and others may heartily disagree, but I find little here to recommend, and consider this film worth a look exclusively for its historical relevance — nothing more.

P.S. My husband’s primary memory from watching The Big Bus as a boy is the scene in which a tire is replaced while the bus is still moving; he wondered then — and wonders now — where this spare tire could have come from, given that window seats are seen directly above the wheels. With that said, he remains distinctly impressed by the fact that the filmmakers actually built such a massive vehicular beast…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Mulligan and Sally Kellerman as an about-to-be-divorced couple still madly in love with each other
    Big Bus Mulligan Kellerman

Must See?
No. While it’s beloved by many — and perhaps could be considered a minor cult film — I can’t in good conscience recommend this as “must see” viewing.

Links:

Disorderly Orderly, The (1964)

Disorderly Orderly, The (1964)

“Please — try hard not to try so hard!”

Synopsis:
When an overly empathetic orderly (Jerry Lewis) in a sanitarium discovers that his former high school crush (Susan Oliver) is a new patient, he does what he can to help pay for her costs — despite her obvious disdain for him.

Genres:

Review:
Peary is clearly an enormous Jerry Lewis fan, given that he lists no less than fourteen of Lewis’s many films in Guide For the Film Fanatic; with that said, while The Disorderly Orderly does possess several amusing sequences and performances (see Redeeming Qualities and Moments below), it’s ultimately not must-see viewing for all film fanatics. The central premise of the story — that Lewis’s Jerome Littlefield is too empathetic for his own good — is a sweet one, and it’s genuinely difficult to fault his character for being too caring. On the other hand, the central romantic subplot involving Jerome’s long-standing crush on a bitchy, undeserving blonde (Oliver) wears thin really quickly, particularly given the existence of his caring, patient, pretty girlfriend (Karen Sharpe) on the side; we can’t help wanting to shake some sense into Lewis! Ultimately, The Disorderly Orderly is worth a look by those who enjoy his unique brand of slapstick humor; others, however, needn’t bother.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lewis’s reactions as hypochondriac Miss Fuzzibee (Alice Pearce) rants on and on about her various ailments: “I have the smallest, weakest kidneys in the hospital…”

  • Lewis attempting to fix the “snowy reception” on the TV set of a demanding patient (Barbara Nichols)
  • Kathleen Freeman as Nurse Higgins

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly a must for Jerry Lewis fans.

Links:

Niagara (1953)

Niagara (1953)

“For a dress like that, you have to start laying plans when you’re about thirteen.”

Niagara Poster

Synopsis:
While in Niagara Falls, a honeymooning couple (Jean Peters and Casey Adams) becomes unwittingly involved in the deadly marital tensions of their troubled neighbors, sexy Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) and her husband George (Joseph Cotten).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “taut melodrama” — best known for starring Marilyn Monroe in one of her few “bad girl” roles — benefits from director Henry Hathaway’s “strong use of color, sharp camera angles, and location shooting — particularly around the falls.” The pulpy noir screenplay (co-written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen) is clever, with several unexpected twists along the way, and a refreshingly three-dimensional, psychologically ambiguous “villain” (Cotten). Monroe is as sexy as ever, and Hathaway manages to captures her at her sultry best, whether writhing nude under the covers or flaunting her bodacious curves in form-fitting dresses and skirts; although she’s not the primary protagonist (that designation goes to Peters), she’s clearly the main attraction of the film. Peters, meanwhile, is effectively gutsy as the “all American housewife” who finds herself drawn into her neighbors’ dysfunction; it’s too bad she’s saddled with such a lame-brain husband (Adams, a.k.a. Max Showalter), whose very presence grates on one’s nerves.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marilyn Monroe in a rare “wicked woman” performance
    Niagara Monroe
  • Jean Peters as Polly Cutler
    Niagara Peters
  • Excellent use of Niagara Falls locales
    Niagara Scenery
  • Several genuinely tense and exciting scenes
    Niagara Tension
  • Effective “Technicolor noir” cinematography
    Niagara Noir

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Monroe in a rare “bad girl” performance.

Categories

Links:

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca (1942)

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Casablanca Poster

Synopsis:
In Casablanca during World War Two, a cynical cafe owner (Humphrey Bogart) finds his loyalties tested when a former flame (Ingrid Bergman) and her resistance-fighting husband (Paul Heinreid) arrive in town seeking transit visas to Lisbon.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this classic romantic wartime thriller — consistently voted one of the best films of all time by countless critics and fans — possesses just about every requirement for a truly “entertaining” film: in alphabetical order, it has “action, adventure, bravery, danger, espionage, an exotic locale, friendship, gunplay, humor, intrigue, a love triangle, a masculine hero, a mysterious heroine, patriotism, politics (without being too political), romance, sacrifice, sentimentality, a theme song, a time factor, a venomous villain, and war.” (Whew!). Peary accurately points out that seasoned director Michael Curtiz (whose contribution to the film’s enduring success is often sadly underplayed) “makes [the] somewhat confusing, overloaded story move at a brisk pace”, and he’s helped in no small part by Arthur Edeson’s masterful cinematography, which effectively highlights the shadowy nature of dealings in Casablanca during this most uncertain time in world history.

While it’s hard to know just how much of the script is original (Peary argues “it hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged that almost everything in the film was in Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the unproduced source play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison”), it’s difficult to find fault with the end result: a remarkably intelligent and witty screenplay, co-written by (among others) the Epstein twins (Julius and Philip) and Howard Koch. In addition to its countless now-iconic lines (“Here’s looking at you, kid”), one particular exchange — between Rains and a police inspector as Rick’s Cafe Americain is about to be shut down for gambling — remains a personal favorite, and has me giggling with delight every time I hear it.

Much has been made about the fortuitous casting behind Casablanca, with Bogart and Bergman making a most unlikely yet inspired pair of star-crossed lovers. Bogart — who Peary refers to as “tough, introspective, ugly” — hits just the right notes of vulnerability and machismo, and, once we learn his backstory with “soft, generous, beautiful” Bergman, it’s easy to see why he’s remained so cynical and bitter for so long. Claude Rains nearly steals the show, however, in yet another stand-out performance: he manages to transform the corrupt overseer of Casablanca from a potential villain into a three-dimensional protagonist who’s both human and humorously droll. Rains’s friendship with Bogart — which evolves over the course of the film — adds yet another level of nuance (and, perhaps, “romance”) to this complex, emotionally charged story, one which will likely continue to delight audiences for decades to come.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine
    Casablanca Bogart
  • Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund
    Casablanca Bergman
  • Claude Rains as Louis Renault
    Casablanca Rains
  • The fast-paced opening sequence, which effectively sets the stage for the risk and chaos of passing through Casablanca during WWII
    Casablanca Opening
  • A powerful depiction of wartime survival
    Casablanca Survival
  • The timeless romantic chemistry between Bogart and Bergman
    Casablanca Romance
  • Atmospheric set designs and visuals
    Casablanca Sets
  • Arthur Edeson’s stunning b&w cinematography
    Casablanca Cinematography
  • The infamous bittersweet ending
    Casablanca Ending
  • Epstein, Epstein, and Koch’s Oscar-winning script, full of instantly memorable dialogue: “You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”
    Casablanca Lorre
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Most definitely. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies (1981).

Categories

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

Links:

Body Snatcher, The (1945)

Body Snatcher, The (1945)

“They’re uncommon bold, the grave robbers — and the daft doctors who drive them on!”

Body Snatcher Poster

Synopsis:
In 19th century Edinburgh, the idealistic young assistant (Russell Wade) of a renowned surgeon (Henry Daniell) is shocked to learn that a creepy coachman (Boris Karloff) who sells stolen cadavers occasionally resorts to murder to secure enough bodies.

Genres:

  • Bela Lugosi Films
  • Blackmail
  • Boris Karloff Films
  • Horror Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Robert Wise Films
  • Val Lewton Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this classy, “refreshingly literate” adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story (based on the real-life exploits of notorious murderers Burke and Hare) presents a unique “Jekyll-and-Hyde variation”: one in which the war between good and evil “is between two men, ‘good’ McFarlane [Daniell] and ‘evil’ Gray [Karloff]”, each of whom possesses a good or bad side which he vehemently denies. Indeed, it’s the complexity of the film’s two central characters which elevates The Body Snatcher well above its B-level status: we watch with fascination as Karloff (giving a stellar, nuanced performance) repeatedly torments McFarlane with hints about his sordid past, insistently reminding him, “You’ll never get rid of me.” McFarlane’s steadfast dedication to teaching young medical students about anatomy — which in turn requires a steady stream of “fresh” corpses to dissect — has caused him to breach the most important rule of ethics in medicine (“First, do no harm”), and the guilt he lives with because of this eats away at his very soul. Meanwhile, Gray remains unable to rise above his working-class status as a cabbie, but does everything in his power to remind McFarlane that they’re really cut from the same cloth: neither one is ultimately “better” than the other. As Peary notes, director Robert Wise does a “superb and tasteful” job depicting the horror elements of this “morbid”, highly atmospheric film, which remains one of producer Val Lewton’s most successful thrillers.

P.S. Peary also argues that the script is “in truth overwritten and dull in spots”, but I disagree; at just 77 minutes, The Body Snatcher moves along quickly and never feels stale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as Cabman Gray
    Body Snatcher Karloff
  • Atmospheric cinematography and set designs
    Body Snatcher Cinematography
  • The eerie “street singer scene”
  • Philip MacDonald and Val Lewton’s literate script

Must See?
Yes, as one of Lewton’s best thrillers, and for Karloff’s career-worthy performance, which Peary awards the Alternate Oscar of the year. NB: He nominates Henry Daniell in the same category.

Categories

Links:

Contest Girl (1964)

Contest Girl (1964)

“You take someone from nowhere, you give them something… Then when the party’s over, you say, ‘You’ve lost — go home!'”

Synopsis:
A pretty typist (Janette Scott) from Bristol is persuaded by a smitten journalist (Ian Hendry) to enter a local beauty contest, and soon finds herself competing for the title of Rose of England.

Genres:

Review:
More commonly known by its original British title (The Beauty Jungle), Contest Girl is notable as one of the earliest films to expose the sordid, media-drenched world of competitive beauty pageants. Director Val Guest does a fine job showing how easily a young woman from a humble background can get sucked into the cut-throat scramble for fame and luxury, and Janette Scott is appropriately wide-eyed and pretty as the central character, who quickly ditches her fiance and working-class family in exchange for a bit of glamour and excitement. Unfortunately, an ongoing subplot in which Scott must fend off Hendry’s amorous advances fails to generate much interest, primarily because there’s so little chemistry between the two leads; instead, we’re left to focus on Scott’s inevitable education about the cruel realities (who knew?) of competitive pageantry. Fans of Guest’s eclectic body of work will likely be curious to check this obscure little film out; others, however, needn’t bother.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively cynical presentation of the beauty pageant racket
    Contest Girl Pageant
  • Ronald Fraser as Hendry’s photojournalist friend
    Contest Girl Fraser

Must See?
No. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934)

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934)

“I never had no great hankering to be awful rich and have a carriage and all.”

Mrs Wiggs Poster

Synopsis:
A poverty-stricken mother (Pauline Lord) whose husband (Donald Meek) has abandoned their family to seek gold in the Klondike is assisted by a kind-hearted editor (Kent Taylor) and his wealthy sweetheart (Evelyn Venable); meanwhile, Mrs. Wiggs’ spinster friend (Zasu Pitts) pursues a mail-order husband (W.C. Fields) who demands excellent cooking from his would-be wife.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a 1901 novel by Alice Hegan Rice, this simple tale of an eternally optimistic woman raising six children in the midst of poverty manages to transcend its inherent cliches — most notably an evil landowner (Charles Middleton) itching to throw Mrs. Wiggs and her brood out onto the street — and emerge as a sweet little melodrama with a surprising amount of humor. While stage actress Pauline Lord relies a bit too heavily on affectations (such as casting her eyes up to the heavens while speaking), she’s well suited to play Mrs. Wiggs, and nicely embodies her saintly patience. The more difficult aspects of Mrs. Wiggs’ travails (including providing a Thanksgiving meal for her brood, and dealing with a gravely sick son) are mediated by several truly heartwarming vignettes of good will on the part of Taylor and Venable, who do what they can to help out the Wiggs family; my favorite scene (captured below in a still) has Taylor bluffing while purchasing five theater tickets for Mrs. Wiggs and her brood in exchange for a cartload of wood from young Bill Wiggs (Jimmy Butler). W.C. Fields shows up in a bit role near the end of the film, as a mail-order husband who makes poor Zasu Pitts tremble with anxiety over her lack of cooking ability; his cameo is most enjoyable, and makes up for the film’s somewhat disappointing denouement.

P.S. Click here to read Rice’s original novel online at Project Gutenberg.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Pauline Lord as Mrs. Wiggs
    Mrs Wiggs Lord
  • W.C. Fields as Ellsworth Stubbins
    Mrs Wiggs Fields
  • A genuinely heartwarming tale
    Mrs Wiggs Good Will

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look if you stumble upon it.

Links: