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Month: November 2008

Topper Takes a Trip (1938)

Topper Takes a Trip (1938)

“Topper’s too nice a fella to be in trouble… I’m going to get him out!”

Synopsis:
When Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke) catches her husband (Roland Young) with the ghost of Marion Kerby (Constance Bennett), she flees to France to obtain a quick divorce; meanwhile, her conniving friend (Verree Teasdale) arranges for a faux baron (Alexander D’Arcy) to woo and marry Burke for her money, and Marion does what she can to help Topper (Young) win his wife back.

Genres:

Review:
This sequel (the first of two) to the enormously successful comedic fantasy Topper (1937) is tiresome on every level. The storyline is weak and utterly predictable; the characters are — without exception — annoying cliches; and none of the cast members (either principals or extras) react to the proceedings in a remotely realistic fashion. Roy Seawright’s Oscar-nominated ghostly “photographic effects” (which made the original Topper such a delight for audiences at the time) quickly become boring: one can only watch so many items drifting through the air on invisible wires before the “joke” becomes stale; and while Young’s slapsticky pratfalls were amusing in the first film, they’re overused for laughs here. As usual, Burke’s bubble-headed socialite (“Too bad the people in America aren’t French”) is insufferable, and reliable character actors Franklin Pangborn (with a bad French accent) and Alan Mowbray are simply wasted. Topper Takes a Trip is, unfortunately, “comedy” at its low-brow worst, and certainly not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Nothing.

Must See?
Definitely not. While I can excuse Peary for listing the original Topper in his book as must-see viewing, his inclusion of both its sequels truly baffles me.

Links:

Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green (1973)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“Your dead one was a very important man…”

Soylent Green Poster

Synopsis:
In the radically overpopulated future, a New York City detective (Charlton Heston) enlists the help of his roommate (Edward G. Robinson) in unraveling the gruesome mystery behind the assassination of a manufacturing magnate (Joseph Cotten).

Genres:

  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Edward G. Robinson Films
  • Joseph Cotten Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • New York City
  • Science Fiction

Review:
Soylent Green holds the distinction of being perhaps the most “spoiled” film of all time, given the notoriety of its final “giveaway” line (chosen as #77 on the AFI’s list of top 100 movie quotes, and infamously lampooned by Phil Hartman on “Saturday Night Live”). It’s also notable for containing the last screen performance of Edward G. Robinson, who died nine days after shooting his final touching scene. Therefore, it’s particularly odd that Soylent Green — based loosely on the book “Make Room! Make Room!” by Harry Harrison (who was decidedly unhappy with the changes made to his story) — is not included in Peary’s book, especially given that the film itself remains a surprisingly effective, only slightly dated dystopian drama. (And it should be noted that knowing the “secret ingredient” contained in the titular foodstuff doesn’t take away from one’s repeat viewing pleasure.)

Heston — “an actor who has had better last movie lines than any other star”, according to Stomp Tokyo’s reviewers — is appropriately stalwart as the hard-nosed detective who is determined to uncover the conspiracy behind Cotten’s death, but is never above taking advantage of the amenities (namely wildly overpriced foodstuff) he encounters during his investigation. Meanwhile, Robinson is a class-act in his final role as Heston’s roommate, a “Book” (so-named because he actually reads) who remembers long-gone days of bountiful flora and fauna on Earth; his delight at eating a piece of genuine beef is a joy to watch, and his final scene in the film (considered hokey by some) never fails to move me to tears. I’m also impressed by the simple yet effective way in which New York City is portrayed as drastically overpopulated, with Heston literally crawling over live bodies sprawled up and down stairwells, and crowd members serving as gruesomely effective “body armor” during assassination attempts. The film’s main flaw is its decidedly anti-feminist portrayal of women, who are (for the most part) either kerchief-clad personae non gratae, or beautiful and sexually compliant “furniture” (ouch!) for wealthy men — yet this gender-biased vision of the future is, sadly, perhaps not all that unrealistic, making Soylent Green all the more effective as a disturbing cautionary tale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson (in his final role) as Sol
    Soylent Green Robinson
  • Charlton Heston as Detective Thorn
  • A surprisingly effective portrayal of a devastated future
  • Sol’s touching final scene

Must See?
Yes, for its historical notoriety.

Categories

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Against All Odds (1984)

Against All Odds (1984)

“It’s simple: either you want to play football again, or you don’t.”

AAO Poster

Synopsis:
A football player (Jeff Bridges) recently fired from his team is hired by a gambler (James Woods) to hunt down his missing girlfriend (Rachel Ward) in Mexico; but things get sticky when Bridges falls for Ward himself.

Genres:

Review:
Few elements work in this well-meaning but fatally flawed update of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Out of the Past (1947). While both Bridges and Ward are naturally appealing leads, they’re saddled with such an awkward, muddled script (the synopsis above barely touches on the complexity of the dense plot, which involves insider gambling and high-level corruption) that it’s difficult to care about either their ill-fated romance or their respective predicaments. Ward’s family problems — she’s the spoiled, petulant daughter of a wealthy land developer — are never fully explored, and she fails to project the necessary edginess or complexity of a truly compelling femme fatale. Meanwhile, James Woods is either badly miscast or badly directed in a pivotal role as Ward’s covetous lover — while no one would ever accuse Woods of an inability to project “slime”, he nonetheless fails to embody the “Mr. Big” presence required of his character here. Worst of all, however, is director Taylor Hackford’s decision to have his actors spout neo-noir dialogue (“I love you, Jessie. Why did that have to be a bad thing?”) as though it’s realistic banter; attempts to infuse this type of hardboiled rhetoric into modern cinematic settings (c.f. Rian Johnson’s Brick, 2005) are tricky at best, and the effort fails completely here — it’s almost laughable, but (sadly) not quite. Not even the presence of cinematic icon Richard Widmark (badly underused) or Out of the Past‘s original star, Jane Greer, can revive this disappointing thriller, which should be much better than it is.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much.

Must See?
No; this one can easily be skipped.

Links:

Dutchman (1967)

Dutchman (1967)

“I told you I’m not an actress… I also told you I lie all the time. Draw your own conclusion!”

Dutchman Poster

Synopsis:
A sultry, psychotic white woman (Shirley Knight) seduces a young black man (Al Freeman, Jr.) on a New York subway.

Genres:

Review:
Based on Amiri Baraka’s incendiary, Obie-award-winning 1964 play, Dutchman qualifies as one of the most unusual — and certainly one of the shortest — listings in Peary’s Guide For the Film Fanatic. At just 55 minutes, it’s barely a feature-length film, and seems more like an experimental venture than a fully fledged narrative. Indeed, the film’s “simple” premise — a white woman seduces, then humiliates, a gullible black man — is widely regarded as allegorical: Lula (Knight) represents both a seductive Eve (she chomps continuously on apples) and a provocative, wasteful white America (she throws away said unfinished apples with abandon), while Clay (Freeman) embodies an assimilated Black America perpetually taunted by the elusive promise of mainstream acceptance.

Director Anthony Harvey and cinematographer Gerry Turpin do a reasonably impressive job cinematizing what is by its very nature a claustrophobic, geographically-limited playlet, and John Barry’s pulsating score is appropriately jarring — but the truth is that Dutchman (even at such a short running time) remains a bit of a chore to sit through, due primarily to Knight’s insufferable central performance. While subtle characterizations are perhaps too much to ask for in such a heavily weighted allegory, Knight’s performance is (as noted in Nathan Rabin’s DVD review for The Onion) “embarrassingly theatrical, a tour-de-force of histrionics that only underlines the pretentious, feverishly overwritten nature of Jones’ script.” Freeman — infinitely subtle in comparison — fares somewhat better, but can’t help being overshadowed by Knight’s hideous gargoyle of a femme fatale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Freeman, Jr. as Clay
    Dutchman Freeman
  • Gerry Turpin’s b&w cinematography
    Dutchman Cinematography
  • John Barry’s percussive score

Must See?
No; this one will primarily be of interest to theater buffs rather than film fanatics. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Sudden Impact (1983)

Sudden Impact (1983)

“Go ahead — make my day.”

Synopsis:
Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is sent to the seaside town of San Paulo to investigate a rash of serial killings committed by an artist (Sondra Locke) seeking revenge for a brutal gang rape.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is overly generous in his assessment of this uninspired fourth installment in the “Dirty Harry” franchise, helmed by Eastwood himself. He refers to Eastwood’s direction as “remarkably assured”, noting that “he makes the most of his action scenes, effectively uses color filters and light and shadows to create bleak, mysterious ambience, and gets an especially interesting performance from Locke, truly an underrated actress”. But it’s DP Bruce Surtees who really deserves credit for the impressive cinematography, and Locke’s soulful performance is the only one in the film worth watching. Indeed, Eastwood fails to elicit any subtlety whatsoever from the rest of his cast: the gang of rapists — including a “mean, foul-mouthed lesbian” (Audrie Neenan) and the gang’s psychotic leader (Paul Drake) — are particularly one-dimensional; meanwhile, Pat Hingle as San Paulo’s defensive sheriff is sadly underused. Joseph Stinson’s hardboiled script contains plenty of zingy one-liners (including the infamous “Go ahead — make my day”), but is ultimately too focused on providing “Dirty Harry” with dramatic opportunities to kill off Bad Guys to make the most of what should be a compelling tale of justifiable revenge and vigilante romance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sondra Locke as Jennifer Spencer
  • Bruce Surtees’ effectively dramatic cinematography

  • Lalo Schifrin’s score

Must See?
No — though “Dirty Harry” completists will naturally want to see it, and of course all film fanatics should probably check out the film containing the #6 top movie quote of all time.

Links:

Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

“Another woman once thought she owned me. Don’t drive me too far!”

Foosteps Fog Poster

Synopsis:
When a smitten housemaid (Jean Simmons) discovers that her widowed employer (Stewart Granger) secretly poisoned his wife, she blackmails him into giving her a higher position in his household — but his interest in a beautiful heiress (Belinda Lee) causes tensions in their uneasy relationship.

Genres:

Review:
It’s been duly noted that the plot of this Victorian-era melodrama — starring real-life husband-and-wife Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons — occasionally “strains credibility”; yet its themes of blackmail, duplicity, obsessive love, and murderous spouses make for an enjoyably stylish thriller, one which is sure to appeal to fans of Hitchcockian cinema. Simmons’ lowly housemaid and Granger’s successful lawyer are seemingly worlds apart, but they’re united by their common quest for social ascendance: savvy Simmons deeply resents being ordered about by the head cook of the household (Marjorie Rhodes), while Granger secretly admits to marrying his dead wife for her money, and plans to woo another eligible young heiress (Elizabeth Travers) as soon as propriety allows. While both are initially conniving, however, Simmons’ Lily Watkins eventually emerges as a sympathetic protagonist — and we can’t help cringing at the ill-founded loyalty she maintains for her murderous master. Granger’s acting is as limited and campy as ever, but he’s well cast; meanwhile, Simmons demonstrates once again why she remains one of the unsung actresses of her time (c.f. her differently plucky turn-of-the-century role in 1950’s So Long at the Fair). Fine set designs and Benjamin Frankel’s score add to this suspenseful film’s overall period ambiance; and while it never reaches the heights of Hitchcock’s masterpieces (Arthur Lubin’s rather perfunctory directorial style prevents this), it’s certainly worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Simmons as Lily Watkins
    Foosteps Simmons
  • A suspenseful Victorian-era narrative
    Foosteps Narrative
  • Benjamin Frankel’s atmospheric score

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out.

Links:

Year of Living Dangerously, The (1982)

Year of Living Dangerously, The (1982)

“We’ll make a great team, old man: you for the words, me for the pictures. I can be your eyes.”

YOLD Poster

Synopsis:
On the brink of a Communist rebellion in Sukarno’s Indonesia, an Australian reporter named Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) befriends an idealistic dwarf photographer (Linda Hunt) who helps him get interviews with key political players; but when Hamilton falls for a beautiful military attache (Sigourney Weaver) and betrays her confidence, Hunt’s trust in Hamilton is severely compromised.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “smart, provocative, eerie film” by Australian director Peter Weir is so “convincing” that “you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to 1964-65 in Jakarta, Indonesia, during the final year of the Sukarno regime”. Set in the midst of “paranoia, police action, political turbulence, … poverty in the extreme, and… decadent insensitive foreigners”, TYOLD is a rare political film about friendship — one which effectively explores “mistrust, ambition… and betrayal“, and manages to combine “frightening violent sequences, a great deal of suspense”, and romance, all in one satisfying package.

Gibson is ostensibly the lead protagonist in the film, given that it’s his growth of conscience as a reporter — and his erotic courtship with sexy, smart Weaver — which form the primary arc of the narrative. Yet it’s the Chinese-European dwarf photographer “Billy Kwan” (Hunt) who ultimately leaves the deepest impression. As Peary notes, Kwan is a truly “enlightened male”, someone whose socialist ideals allow him to transcend his own beleaguered stature in life (he’s cruelly teased by his ignorant colleagues) and instead work towards helping “spread sunshine” in whatever small ways he can. Essentially a collector of people, he keeps extensive files on his friends and associates in order to both understand them and help guide them — a pastime which sounds creepy (indeed, Hamilton accuses him of being an operative), but is clearly driven by Kwan’s deep desire to help the world, and his realization that, as a misunderstood, marginalized dwarf, he must enlist the help of others in order to achieve his goals. Hunt “deservedly won an Oscar” for her performance as Kwan, and she’s reason enough to check out this satisfying political drama.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan
    YOLD Hunt
  • Mel Gibson as Guy Hamilton
  • Sigourney Weaver as Jill Bryant (though her faux British accent is less than impressive)
  • Excellent recreation of turbulent Jakarta in the 1960s (actually shot in the Philippines)
  • A smart, powerful script (adapted from C.J. Koch’s novel)

Must See?
Yes. This Oscar-winning film remains powerful viewing, and should be enjoyed at least once by all film fanatics.

Categories

Links:

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins (1964)

“I shall stay until the wind changes…”

Synopsis:
A “practically perfect” nanny (Julie Andrews) with magical powers descends on the home of the Banks family, where a no-nonsense father (David Tomlinson) and suffragette mother (Glynis Johns) fail to spend enough time with their children (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary isn’t a big fan of this enormously popular Disney film, which won five Oscars (including one for Andrews as Best Actress), and was greeted by critics at the time “with tremendous enthusiasm”. While he notes that he’s “impressed with the stylized design, some of the animation…, and the ambitious nature” of the film, he admits that for the most part it “leaves [him] cold”. He complains that while the “picture has its imaginative moments,” there aren’t enough of them, and that “the Poppins character requires Andrews to hold her enthusiasm in check, thus depriving her of her best quality”. Indeed, he notes that “if this film had come out after The Sound of Music, viewers would probably have been upset by the change”, and argues in his Alternate Oscars book that she was ultimately “miscast”.

Yet Peary’s assessment seems unduly harsh, given that beautiful Andrews (whose iconic voice is in peak form here) literally glows in the title role, and creates an undeniably memorable character in her film debut. Meanwhile, though Peary gripes about Van Dyke’s obviously “phony cockney accent”, kids won’t care — and his “Bert” is such a changeable fellow (he holds down no less than four different jobs throughout the film: a one-man band, a chalk artist, a chimney sweep, and a kite salesman) that it actually makes sense for his accent to be somewhat difficult to pin down. In addition, his “cameo” role as the elder Mr. Dawes (which he fought to get) is enormously enjoyable (apparently Dotrice and Garber weren’t told that it was Van Dyke underneath all that makeup and snowy white hair!).

With that said, I’ll agree with Peary about some of the film’s flaws. First, at 139 minutes, it is indeed “about 40 minutes too long”, and could have used some serious editing. The chalk-drawing sequence, for instance — though imaginatively conceived — ultimately drags on longer than necessary; and while I enjoy Ed Wynn’s improvisatory turn as the high-on-laughter “Uncle Albert”, this entire musical sequence does nothing to further the plot, instead simply showcasing Poppins at her least appealing (she’s all simpering, thin-lipped disapproval, but what’s the harm in wanting to laugh yourself silly every once in a while?). Finally, I’ll agree with Peary that Andrews’ character isn’t given enough screentime: as he points out in Alternate Oscars, she “disappears for such long, pivotal stretches of the movie that her part nearly becomes a supporting one”.

It should be noted that Peary is not the only critic of this beloved film: P.L. Travers — author of the “Mary Poppins” series (there were 8 books in all) — was notoriously displeased with the way in which her fictional creation was transferred to the big screen. According to an article by Caitlin Flanagan for The New Yorker*, Travers’ “Mary Poppins” was far from the stern but loving caretaker portrayed by Andrews:

[Poppins] is, in fact, very often “angry,” “threatening,” “scornful,” and “frightening.” She calls the children cannibals, jostles them down the stairs, and makes them eat so quickly that they fear they will choke… Often, she seems like someone who doesn’t like children much.

For better or for worse, however, Disney’s version of Mary Poppins is the one most children will grow up getting to know — and, given its historical importance, the film itself remains indispensable viewing (at least once) for all film fanatics.

P.S. A weird bit of trivia on the film, according to IMBd: “Many of the nannies in the large queue of applicants for the job at the start of the film were actually men in drag.” !!!

* Thanks to my friend David for pointing this article out to me!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
    Mary Poppins Andrews
  • Dick van Dyke as Bert
    Mary Poppins Van Dyke
  • Van Dyke’s “cameo” turn as Mr. Dawes, Sr.
    Mary Poppins Mr. Dawes
  • Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber as Jane and Michael Banks
    Mary Poppins Kids
  • Glynis Johns as Mrs. Banks
    Mary Poppins Glynis Johns
  • David Tomlinson as Mr. Banks
    Mary Poppins Tomlinson
  • Ed Wynn as “Uncle Albert”
    Mary Poppins Ed Wynn
  • The energetically choreographed (by Dee Dee Wood), catchily written “Step in Time” sequence
    Mary Poppins Step in Time
  • Creative Victorian England-era set designs
    Mary Poppins Sets
  • A (mostly) memorable score, with many classic songs — including “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, and the Oscar-winning “Chim-Chim-Cheree”

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine children’s classic and a multiple Oscar winner.

Categories

Links:

Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952)

Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952)

“To a pretty woman like you, Sevillinois must become pretty dull.”

Synopsis:
A city-loving bride (Jean Peters) is distressed when her husband (David Wayne) opens a barber shop in a small town, rather than taking her to Chicago as promised.

Genres:

Review:
Although he notoriously missed the boat in a number of his key reviews for the New York Times during his tenure as one of America’s most influential critics, Bosley Crowther was spot-on in his assessment of this “stagey” melodrama, which he accurately refers to as a “mawkishly sentimental tribute to the old-fashioned barber shop and to the dubious felicities of living in an American small town.” Indeed, director Henry King spares no effort — or cliches — in his attempt to convince us that small town life at the turn of the century (in contrast to the Big, Bad City) was the epitome of good living: the moment Wayne takes his bride ‘Nellie’ over the threshold of his newly acquired barber shop in [fictional] Sevillinois, Illinois, a quartet of willing customers arrives in perfect harmony, ready to sing — you guessed it — barbershop tunes (including the title song). Unfortunately, much less effort is spent on character development; as a result, we’re asked to care about people we’ve barely been given a chance to get to know.

Wayne (a notable character actor — you’ll recognize him… from somewhere…) doesn’t quite have the charisma to carry the leading role — and he’s not helped any by the script, which has him deceiving his wife (Peters, looking extremely fetching) from the very beginning of their marriage. Without advance warning, he takes her to a small town, rather than a big city for their honeymoon (as promised); he lies to her about having purchased (rather than leased) the barber shop; and he continually makes decisions about their future without consulting her. No wonder she’s royally teed off by the middle of the film, at which point she petulantly flees to Chicago (can you blame her?) and promptly gets herself killed. Unfortunately, once she’s absent from the film, we care even less about what happens next to our widowed protagonist — so you may be tempted (as I was) to tune out completely from this point on.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Call me a curmudgeon, but not much.

Must See?
No. Peary lists this one as a Sleeper in the back of his book, but it’s not really worth seeking out.

Links:

Mike’s Murder (1984)

Mike’s Murder (1984)

“You want to know everything? Well, believe me, you don’t.”

Synopsis:
A bank teller (Debra Winger) investigates the murder of her lover (Mark Keyloun), a tennis coach turned petty drug dealer.

Genres:

Review:
Writer/director James Bridges originally intended for Mike’s Murder to unfold in reverse chronological order (much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento would do to such critical acclaim 16 years later) but its nervous producers decided to recut it in a more conventional direction. Fortunately, the film “as is” remains an enjoyably edgy psychological thriller, one which effectively portrays the excitement — and potential danger — a mysterious new lover can bring to one’s life. Winger is excellent in an against-type role, making us believe that the somewhat introverted Betty would take the risks she does; we remain deeply engaged in her quest for answers to Mike’s murder, and fear for her safety. Mark Keyloun as her enigmatic lover is ultimately given too little screen time to make much of an impression (he’s killed off fairly quickly in the film, as indicated by its “spoiler” title), but the rest of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent — particularly Darrell Larson as Mike’s neurotic friend Pete, and caftan-wearing Paul Winfield as a gay music producer with (like many in the film) an enormous crush on Mike. Not yet out on DVD, Mike’s Murder qualifies as a genuine Sleeper — though it’s oddly not listed as such in Peary’s book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Debra Winger as Betty
    Mike\'s Murder Winger
  • Darrell Larson as Pete
    Mike\'s Murder Larson
  • Paul Winfield as Phillip
    Mike\'s Murder Winfield
  • Good use of authentic L.A. locales (such as the Venice canals, pictured below)
    Mike\'s Murder Los Angeles

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links: