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Month: May 2010

It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

“I need you as much as I need a giraffe!”

It's a Wonderful World Poster

Synopsis:
A falsely accused private detective (Jimmy Stewart) tries to ditch an overly helpful poetess (Claudette Colbert) he meets while on the lam.

Genres:

Review:
When people think of Jimmy Stewart in a film starting with It’s a Wonderful…, the word that automatically springs to mind is …Life — thus dooming this earlier Stewart vehicle (directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and scripted by Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz) to permanent second-class status. If you do manage to locate a copy of …World (it’s curiously unavailable on DVD), you’ll discover a flawed but innocuous screwball rom-com, with Stewart cast against type as a boorish private eye (audiences of the day weren’t happy), and plucky Colbert gamely playing his nemesis and love interest. Unfortunately, we never really believe in their potential together as romantic partners, given their underdeveloped characters and the script’s clumsy handling of their love-hate relationship; with that said, there are some reasonably humorous throwaway moments (i.e., Stewart hiding out as a scout master in coke-bottle glasses), and Hecht and Mankiewicz’s screenplay offers a few random zingers: “Lady, you’re full of prunes!” But the end result is ultimately rather forgettable.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An innocuously enjoyable screwball comedy
    Its Wonderful Leads

Must See?
No, but fans of the genre may be curious to check it out.

Links:

First Men in the Moon (1964)

First Men in the Moon (1964)

“Do you think we’ll ever see our world again?”

First Men in the Moon Poster

Synopsis:
An elderly Englishman (Edward Judd) reminisces about a turn-of-the-century trip he took to the moon with his fiancee (Martha Hyer) and a neighbor (Lionel Jeffries).

Genres:

Review:
This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1901 novel is primarily notable for featuring the work of special effects guru Ray Harryhausen. As DVD Savant notes in his review, “Although there’s relatively little of Harryhausen’s standard animation techniques, the design and creation of the wall-to-wall effects is clearly his”, and the lunar world encountered by Wells’ Victorian-era space travelers is “imaginative, colorful and well designed”. Wells’ original storyline — about an insolvent playwright and an eccentric scientist encountering an ant-like colony of residents inside the moon — is padded here with both an irritating romantic subplot between Judd and Hyer (which merely turns our sentiments against the deceitful Judd, who is lying to Hyer), and a reasonably clever exposition, in which Judd’s elderly protagonist is finally able to tell his story with credibility once a Union Jack is found on the moon by modern-day astronauts. Unfortunately, the meat of the story — i.e., the travelers’ inter-species encounter — isn’t given nearly enough screen time, resulting in an underdeveloped sci-fi film which appears to exist simply as a showcase for Harryhausen’s work.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive sets and special effects by Harryhausen
    First Men Moon Sets

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look simply for Harryhausen’s work.

Links:

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

“We are dealing with a man who is dead, but whose voice and memory live — how this can be, I do not know, but its implications are far more terrible than any ghost could be.”

Attack Crab Monsters Poster

Synopsis:
A group of scientists studying the effects of nuclear testing on an island find themselves pursued by giant mind-controlling crabs.

Genres:

Review:
Maverick B-director Roger Corman made no less than nine films in 1957 — including this infamously titled mutant monster flick, featuring mind-controlling styrofoam crabs. The acting is just as campy as you might imagine from such a low-budget venture, with Pamela Duncan’s terrible performance as the busty female marine scientist “Dr. Martha Hunter” particularly noteworthy and giggle-inducing — and the dialogue is equally ludicrous:

Crab Monster: “So you have wounded me! I must grow a new claw, well and good, for I can do it in a day — but will you grow new lives when I have taken yours from you?”

Meanwhile, the storyline is simply too ridiculous to take seriously on any level, with atomically-charged crabs channeling the minds of the humans they’ve devoured through metal objects (?!). Despite such ludicrous plot devices, however, the story as a whole is surprisingly dull, especially in comparison with screenwriter Charles B. Griffith’s deliciously satirical collaboration with Corman two years later — 1959’s A Bucket of Blood. Only true fans of low-grade sci-fi need to bother checking this one out.

P.S. Fans of Gilligan’s Island will surely be thrilled to see “The Professor” (Russell Johnson) in a key role here; note in particular his final heroic act — very “Professor-worthy”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ridiculously campy performances and special effects
    Attack Crab Monster PerformancesAttack Crab Monster Special EffectsAttack Crab Axe
  • Plenty of chuckle-worthy dialogue: “Once, they were men; now, they are crabs.”

Must See?
No, but diehard Corman fans won’t want to miss it. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat (1944)

“The more we quarrel and criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets, and the smaller the boat.”

Lifeboat Poster

Synopsis:
A disparate group of survivors from a torpedoed ship — including a journalist (Tallulah Bankhead), a tycoon (Henry Hull), a seaman (John Hodiak), a wounded stoker (William Bendix), a radio operator (Hume Cronyn), a nurse (Mary Anderson), a shell-shocked mother (Heather Angel), and a steward (Canada Lee) — allow a German U-Boat survivor (Walter Slezak) on board their lifeboat, but are never quite sure how much they can trust him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this cleverly conceived “character-propaganda piece” as “flawed but enjoyable”, arguing that director Hitchcock “does wonders with his challenging set, never moving his camera outside the lifeboat”. Indeed, it’s remarkable to realize that, as noted by critic Dave Kehr, “the drama is developed without recourse to flashbacks or cutaways” — yet our attention never flags. While John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling’s script is perhaps a bit “obvious and too didactic”, the performances by the motley cast members are strong enough to carry the film and hold our interest throughout. Especially memorable is Tallulah Bankhead, giving “bite to her every line” in a rare film appearance as a socialite reporter who is gradually forced to give up all physical remnants of her prestige; Hitchcock apparently cast her because he wanted “the most oblique, incongruous person imaginable in such a situation”. Equally impressive is Walter Slezak as “the German”, a “great villain whose cunning is revealed a little at a time” — he’s a genuinely menacing presence on board the tiny ship.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tallulah Bankhead as Connie Porter
    Lifeboat Bankhead
  • Walter Slezak as Willy
    Lifeboat Slezak
  • Fine direction in a decidedly cramped shooting location
    Lifeboat Direction
  • A compelling tale of survival
    Lifeboat Survival

Must See?
Yes, as a fine Hitchcock drama.

Categories

Links:

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

“I don’t want correspondence; I want news!”

Foreign Correspondent Poster

Synopsis:
A crime reporter (Joel McCrea) sent to London to investigate the imminence of WWII falls for the daughter (Laraine Day) of a peacekeeper (Herbert Marshall) with a secret agenda.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, while this “often neglected spy thriller by Alfred Hitchcock” is “a little too long and a bit muddled”, it possesses “several memorable sequences”, an “affable hero” (McCrea), and an “appealing” female lead (Day). All-American McCrea is an inspired choice to play one of Hitchcock’s “innocent” male protagonists, while Edmund Gwenn is wonderfully cast against type as an assassin, and it’s great fun to see George Sanders in a supporting role as perhaps the most uniquely named reporter ever: ffolliott. The three scenes depicted by stills below — the superbly edited assassination attempt, the windmill encounter, and the airbound finale — all rank among Hitchcock’s most indelible action sequences. While some complain that the patriotic ending — in which McCrea urges the Allied forces to rally in their efforts against the Nazis — smacks of propaganda, it’s easy enough to forgive Hitchcock and his screenwriters, given the tenuous nature of world events when this film was released.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The visually memorable assassination attempt
    Foreign Correspondent Assassination
  • The windmill sequence
    Foreign Correspondent Windmill
  • The exciting, special-effects-laden airplane finale
    Foreign Correspondent Airplane
  • Fine performances (by both lead and supporting actors) throughout
    Foreign Correspondent McCrea
  • Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison’s often crackling, witty screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as one of Hitchcock’s greatest “early” films.

Categories

Links:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

“”Well, well, well… Two naughty, nasty little children gone.”

Willy Wonka Poster

Synopsis:
An eccentric candymaker (Gene Wilder) invites the five winners of his “golden ticket” sweepstakes — a spoiled brat (Julie Dawn Cole), an incessant gum chewer (Denise Nickerson), a T.V.-obsessed boy (Paris Themmen), an overweight German boy (Michael Bollner), and poor but hopeful Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) — to tour his factory.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s bestselling novel (scripted by Dahl himself) as “one of the most bizarre children’s films ever made”. Indeed, he warns that “first-time viewers, especially children, [may] have much difficulty warming to this film”, given that “the tone is dreary, Wonka is scary, the music is forgettable, the Oompa-Loompas… are dreadful concoctions, and the kids are shown to be bratty and are treated viciously” — but he argues that “the picture improves with subsequent viewings”, at which point “the kids, their parents, and the unpredictable Wonka suddenly seem cleverly conceived”. I remember finding the film rather nightmarish as a child, given the frightening fates met by the naughty children — but seeing it again now as an adult, I must say I agree with Peary’s second set of assessments rather than the first. The tone of the film, rather than dreary, is quite colorful and rich — and while Wonka certainly may come across as scary to kids, for adult viewers he’s an inspired character, uniquely realized by Wilder (who isn’t afraid to tap into Wonka’s “wonky”, almost schizophrenic personality). Finally, while it’s true that the majority of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s songs are somewhat forgettable, there are a couple of notable stand-outs (“The Candy Man”, “Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do”) which linger in one’s memory for literally decades, and more than make up for the rest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
    Willy Wonka Wilder
  • Memorable, colorful set designs
  • Several catchy tunes by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

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

Links:

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

“It’s an old story with me. I was born out of time.”

Assault Precinct 13 Poster

Synopsis:
A rookie cop (Austin Stoker), a secretary (Laurie Zimmer), and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) find themselves under siege at an abandoned police station.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s not nearly as much of a fan of this cult low-budget thriller by John Carpenter as I am. Throughout his review, he compares it unfavorably with Carpenter’s earlier Dark Star (1974), arguing that Assault “could have used extra financing for some reshooting”, that “the dialogue scenes in particular need more polish”, and that while “Dark Star comes across as being a complete original… Assault comes across as being derivative”. Yet no scenes in particular stand out as needing reshooting, the dialogue is more than serviceable, and Carpenter’s overt homages to both Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (many argue it’s a remake) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead should simply please film fanatics, given that he takes the best elements of each of these films and uses them to impressive effect in his own unique story and setting. Indeed, one marvels at how well Carpenter is able to work with the resources available to him — abandoned L.A. streets, unknown actors, his own simple and repetitive yet hauntingly effective synthesized score — to create a film with “consistently tense” atmosphere and “amazingly accomplished” low-budget action sequences.

Several of the performances by Carpenter’s little-known actors are worth calling out: Austin Stoker is nicely cast in the lead role as a young cop facing the confrontation of a lifetime in his first day on the job; Laurie Zimmer as a sultry, plucky secretary effectively channels Lauren Bacall (surely a conscious choice); and Darwin Joston is truly memorable as convicted murderer Napoleon Wilson, whose complex personality slowly emerges over the course of the film. (Click here to read more about his sadly underdeveloped career as an actor.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson
    Assault Stoker and Joston
  • Austin Stoker as Lt. Ethan Bishop
  • A compelling homage to Hawks and other greats of film lore
  • Carpenter’s edgy, synthesized musical score

Must See?
Yes, as a deserved cult classic.

Categories

Links:

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Fantastic Planet (1973)

“I was just a live plaything who sometimes dared to rebel.”

Fantastic Planet Poster

Synopsis:
A domesticated Om named Terr escapes from his Draag captors and encourages a group of wild Oms to fight against their oppressors.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this “curious animated feature, sci-fi for adults” — winner of the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival — Peary comes across as less than enthusiastic. He complains that the story — which “makes the key point that education is vital to revolution” — is “slight”, that the “quick, vague ending is not satisfying”, and that the “animation is often static… and tends to give [the] film a sluggish pace at those times when the excitement should be building”. He argues that while it’s “worth seeing”, it’s “disappointing in that with only a few changes [it] could have been a really terrific film”. For the most part, I agree with each of Peary’s points above, yet I don’t think he gives the film quite enough credit.

While the storyline is rather simplistic, it packs a terrific punch overall, and is surprisingly horrific for an animated film. From its opening sequence — in which a tiny female Om carrying a newborn baby is mercilessly harassed, then brutally killed by callous Draags — it’s clear that director Rene Laloux and Roland Topper (“who provided the original artwork”) are telling a no-holds-barred allegorical tale of extreme oppression and tyranny. And while Peary’s complaints about the “static” animation are valid to a certain extent, he fails to reveal how truly stunning and original the visuals are throughout the story — this is a film you’ll want to watch again and again, simply to appreciate the wildly imaginative world Laloux and Topper have created. (Indeed, Peary does acknowledge that “best of all are the weird animals that inhabit this savage planet”, though he argues that “there are too few”.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Consistently creative animation
    Fantastic Planet Still 1
    Fantastic Planet Still 2
    Fantastic Planet Still 3
    Fantastic Planet Still 4
    Fantastic Planet Still 5

Must See?
Yes. This cult favorite merits multiple viewings for the visuals alone.

Categories

Links:

Beyond the Forest (1949)

Beyond the Forest (1949)

“If I don’t get out of here, I’ll die. If I don’t get out of here, I HOPE I’ll die… or burn!”

Beyond Forest Poster

Synopsis:
The socially ambitious wife (Bette Davis) of a country doctor (Joseph Cotten) longs to escape to Chicago to be with her wealthy lover (David Brian).

Genres:

  • Bette Davis Films
  • David Brian Films
  • Housewives
  • Joseph Cotten Films
  • King Vidor Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Social Climbers

Review:
Labeled by one reviewer as “King Vidor’s most demented film from his most frenzied period”, this steamy backwoods melodrama — starring a too-old Bette Davis “done up for all the world like Jennifer Jones”, in black wig and red lipstick — has achieved near camp-classic status in recent years. Davis’s personal scorn for this film — her last while under contract for Warner Brothers — serves her character well, as her “Rosa Moline” desperately claws at every opportunity to leave her staid life and boringly decent husband behind her. Oddly enough, we can’t help feeling sorry for this pathetically unhappy creature, who’d be the ultimate femme fatale, if only she weren’t screwing up her own life rather than her man’s.

Note: Beyond the Forest is best known by many these days for featuring the now-classic line, “What a dump” (listed as number 62 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An overall campy sensibility
    Beyond Forest Davis

Must See?
No, but Davis fans will certainly want to check it out.

Links:

Heavy Metal (1981)

Heavy Metal (1981)

“Wow! 18 years of nothing and now twice in one day. What a place!”

Heavy Metal Poster

Synopsis:
A glowing green ball of evil affects all those across the galaxy who come across its path.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the American comic magazine of the same name, this animated sci-fi film (kept out of video circulation for years given music licensing issues) has a cult following, but is most definitely not for all tastes. In fact, given the ample presence of cartoonish violence, over-sized bosoms, and gratuitous sex, its target demographic seems to be exclusively horny teenage geek-boys. None of the episodic vignettes are especially noteworthy or memorable, and the animation itself — despite being the result of “1,000 artists working in five cities simultaneously” — looks pretty much like what you’d see on Saturday morning television. Feel free to skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Occasional snippets of reasonably impressive animation
    Heavy Metal Animation

Must See?
No, though I’m slightly torn, given its undeniable cult status.

Links: