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Month: July 2010

Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog (1949)

“Bad luck can either make a man or destroy him.”

Stray Dog Poster

Synopsis:
In post-WWII Tokyo, a rookie police detective (Toshiro Mifune) determined to track down his stolen pistol is accompanied by an older, wiser colleague (Takashi Shimura).

Genres:

Review:
Akira Kurosawa’s noir-inflected detective flick remains one of the most enduring films in his early oeuvre. Haunted by the fact that his stolen pistol has been used by a desperate thief to kill innocent people, Mifune’s rookie detective (a recent WWII veteran) becomes the embodiment of guilt-ridden determination as he doggedly pursues his leads through the sweltering streets of Tokyo — accompanied by his older, wiser colleague (the always excellent Shimura). Throughout Mifune and Shimura’s hunt, we’re introduced to a host of interesting characters struggling to survive in a post-war environment — most notably Keiko Awaji’s pitiable showgirl “Harumi”, who may be the key link to the murderous pickpocket Mifune is so desperate to capture. Many critics have noted that Stray Dog‘s narrative possesses two strategically contrasting pairs: Mifune and Shimura, of course, form a classic rookie-veteran cop duo, while Mifune and his elusive nemesis “Yusa” (Isao Kimura) are both young veterans whose lives have taken divergent paths after the war — one towards crime, the other towards fighting it. At a little over two hours, Stray Dogs‘s pacing lags occasionally, but Kurosawa infuses his narrative with plenty of exciting sequences (including a particularly memorable, time capsule-worthy baseball game) and strategically frames every shot for maximum effect.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Takashi Shimura as Detective Sato
    Stray Dog Shimura
  • Stunning cinematography and framing
    Stray Dog Framing
  • Effective location shooting (by Inoshiro Honda) in post-war Tokyo
    Stray Dog Location
  • Keiko Awaji as Harumi

Must See?
Yes, as one of Kurosawa’s early classics.

Categories

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Black Christmas/Silent Night, Evil Night/Stranger in the House (1974)

Black Christmas/Silent Night, Evil Night/Stranger in the House (1974)

“Could that really be just one person?”

Black Christmas Poster

Synopsis:
A disturbed killer stalks a group of sorority sisters — including Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, and Lynne Griffin — over the Christmas holidays.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Expertly shot, edited, and scored, this “atmospheric chiller” — featuring a “sympathetic performance by Hussey, and strong direction by Bob Clark” — is now widely acknowledged as the forerunner of such iconic slasher films as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Indeed, though it may seem filled with cliches of the genre (i.e., the killer calling from within the house, point-of-view camera work from the killer’s perspective), it was seminal in bringing such tropes to the screen. Certain subplots and performances fall completely flat — I could do without Marian Waldman’s irritating portrayal as the girls’ imbibing house mother, for instance — but there are more than enough thrills and surprises here to scare the pants off most viewers (including me). As Peary notes, the “twist ending is a bit frustrating”, but Clark does a nice job keeping us on our toes as to the identity of the “insane murderer”. Be forewarned that the killer’s phone calls (remastered after filming to add even more obscenity) really are disturbing.

Note: In the years since Peary’s book was published, this film has become a true cult classic for horror fans, even meriting a fan website.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many genuinely freaky images and sequences
    Black Christmas Scary
  • Carl Zittrer’s creepy score

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic of the genre.

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Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

“I couldn’t feel this way towards a man who was bad.”

Spellbound Poster

Synopsis:
A psychoanalyst (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with a disturbed amnesiac patient (Gregory Peck) posing as her boss.

Genres:

Review:
Hitchcock’s enormously popular psychological thriller — made to capitalize on what was then a new craze of Freudian psychoanalysis — unfortunately hasn’t aged very well. Despite the undeniable star power of Ingrid Bergman at her loveliest, and an appropriately “tortured” young Gregory Peck, Ben Hecht’s screenplay (based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes) is simply too silly to take seriously: Bergman’s level-headed “Dr. Constance Peterson” falls immediately in gaga love with her purported new “boss”, then quickly shifts into dual identity as both maternal caretaker and amateur sleuth once she realizes that the love of her life may actually be a psychically wounded amnesiac murderer. (Of course, she cares not one whit that her life may be in perpetual danger by remaining in such close proximity to Peck.) Meanwhile, Hecht’s screenplay is simply littered with laughably offensive anti-feminist throwaway lines: “We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of intellect” (!). I was relieved to read DVD Savant’s insightful critique of this critically lauded film, which he argues plays merely “as an amusing mess” — albeit one he admits to enjoying on a purely visual level. To that end, watch for Peck’s infamous, Dali-inspired “dream sequence” (which should actually be viewed on a big screen) — and be sure to listen for Miklos Rozsa’s highly influential, theremin-heavy score.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Peterson
    Spellbound Bergman
  • Several suspenseful sequences
    Spellbound Suspense
  • The Dali-inspired dream sequence
    Spellbound Dali Dream

Must See?
No, though hardcore film fanatics will be curious to check it out.

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

Links:

Man With a Movie Camera, The (1929)

Man With a Movie Camera, The (1929)

“This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.”

Man With Movie Camera Poster

Synopsis:
Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov chronicles life in Moscow in the late 1920s.

Genres:

Review:
Dziga Vertov’s cinema verite documentary about life in Moscow remains a groundbreaking, highly experimental, oddly overlooked cornerstone of cinematic history. Even modern viewers used to rapidfire MTV editing and the tenets of Godard et al.’s avant garde cinema will find themselves duly impressed — and perhaps a bit overwhelmed — by Vertov’s unceasingly busy, almost dizzying camerawork. As noted in TCM’s review, Vertov “experimented wildly with his camera, strapping it to motorcycles and to trains, using multiple exposure, time lapse photography, still imagery, dissolves, superimposition, and making the camera an obvious participant in what is being filmed.” Indeed, pretty much every possible cinematic trick of the day — both with the camera itself and in the editing room — is evident here.

Without any meta-narrative or voiceover, Vertov shows us strategically “representative” snippets of urban Soviet life, from morning to night, inside and out. We see couples getting married and divorced, factory employees hard at work, teeming crowds on streets, trains coming and going, athletes showing off their prowess — even an actual birth in graphic detail (though it comes and goes too quickly for us to feel anything other than basic recognition). Naturally, all these events didn’t actually take place in just one day, or even in one city — in truth, it took Vertov and his team over four years to gather the extensive footage across Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa. Meanwhile, Vertov frequently cuts away either to the editing room (where the footage is being manipulated), or to a movie theater, where viewers are watching the scenes unfold — thus reminding us continuously about the highly constructed nature of his narrative. It all makes for an invaluable, multifaceted snapshot of an era and a society, while simultaneously providing an audaciously radical commentary on the very nature of cinematic representation.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating glimpse at “everyday” 1920s Russia
    Man With Camera Russia
  • A groundbreaking display of creative editing, framing, double-exposure, and other innovative cinematic techniques
    Man With Camera Techniques1
    Man With Camera Techniques2
    Man With Camera Techniques3

Must See?
Yes, for its undeniable historical relevance.

Categories

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

Links:

Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday (1953)

“She’s fair game, Joe. It’s always open season on princesses.”

Roman Holiday Poster

Synopsis:
A princess (Audrey Hepburn) on the lam befriends an undercover journalist (Gregory Peck) and photographer (Eddie Albert) hoping to scoop a story about her adventures as a “commoner” in Rome.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Audrey Hepburn Films
  • Eddie Albert Films
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Journalists
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • William Wyler Films

Review:
Audrey Hepburn made her Oscar-winning debut in this charming European fairy tale — shot entirely on location in Rome — about a modern-day princess desperate to escape her royal duties for a day and experience life “without a schedule”. It’s a story that remains timeless and appealing precisely because, royalty or not, we can all relate to wanting to abandon our given identities and explore the world incognito for a while (not to mention falling in love with a tall, dark stranger!). With that said, its age-old rom-com premise of “mistaken identities” leaves room for several gaping plot holes, if you’re looking: viewers must suspend belief, for instance, that Peck’s foreign correspondent would have no idea what Hepburn’s Princess Ann looks like the night before he’s scheduled to go and interview her (or at the very least, that he’s taken in by her “disguise” as a commoner). And surely Hepburn would wonder why Peck (whose real agenda she’s unaware of) doesn’t seem fazed when a group of “undercover” men in black suits try to kidnap her from a dance…

Such quibbles must ultimately be left aside, however, given that Hepburn is so luminous and appealing it’s difficult to turn our eyes away from her. (No wonder a generation of young woman wanted to BE her!) From the moment we first see her Princess Ann waiting to greet an endless line of well-wishers, trying to get more comfortable by discretely slipping a foot out of its high-heeled slipper, she can’t help winning our hearts — therefore, we’re genuinely thrilled for her as she explores the streets of Rome, experiencing such simple pleasures as getting a short haircut, eating an ice cream cone on the Spanish Steps, and being “offered” a bouquet of flowers by a vendor. While Hepburn’s the undeniable star here, Peck is nicely cast as the journalist who can’t help falling for his “subject”, and Eddie Albert is excellent as his photographer buddy. Meanwhile, the streets and sites of Rome are a spectacle unto themselves, making this film a bit of a “Roman holiday” for viewers as well.

P.S. As noted by DVD Savant, the story is surprisingly free of any kind of an overt social “message”, given that it was scripted by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (whose ghostwriter, Ian McClellan Hunter, won an Oscar on his behalf).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann, a.k.a. “Anya”
    Roman Holiday Hepburn
  • Gregory Peck as Joe
    Roman Holiday Peck
  • Eddie Albert as Irving
    Roman Holiday Albert
  • Fine use of on-location sets throughout Rome
    Roman Holiday Locations

Must See?
Yes, most definitely. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

F for Fake (1973)

F for Fake (1973)

“Don’t be spooked by the experts.”

F for Fake Poster

Synopsis:
Orson Welles investigates the nature of “truth” in art via the stories of famed forger Elmyr de Hory and his fraudulent biographer, Clifford Irving.

Genres:

Review:
This fascinating meditation on the nature of artistic veracity is a fitting capstone to Orson Welles’ lengthy yet infamously helter-skelter career. Ostensibly a documentary about one of the most famous forgers in the art world (Hungarian expatriate Elmyr de Hory) being interviewed by his biographer, Clifford Irving, Welles uses the fortuitous revelation of Irving’s fraudulent book about Howard Hughes (nicely told, btw, in the 2006 film The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Irving) as an excuse to blast the notion of artistic “truth” completely out of the water. It’s no surprise Welles was fascinated by this material: a notorious trickster himself, he staged the most infamous hoax in American history back in 1938 by broadcasting H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” over the radio as though a Martian invasion was really occurring (an event he alludes to in the film).

Welles bookends his movie with a cinematic lust paean to his lover and final companion in life, Oja Kodar — first by showing clips from what may or may not be an authentic “Candid Camera”-like attempt to document men’s ogling reactions to Kodar as she sashays down the street in a form-fitting dress, and later by telling a just-so story about an encounter between Kodar’s grandfather (presumably an infamous Hungarian art forger in his own right) and a teed off Pablo Picasso. By the end of Welles’ trickily edited film, he has successfully convinced us that there may very well be no such thing as “truth” when it comes to storytelling — and that we should be duly forewarned. Knowing ex post facto that the footage Welles used of de Hory and Irving wasn’t his own (he “borrowed” it from the French filmmaker Francois Reichenbach) simply adds one more delicious dimension to this mind-bending cinematic essay.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating, cleverly edited expose of fraud and “fakery” in art
    F for Fake Welles
    F for Fake De Hory

Must See?
Yes, as an immensely creative swan song by a master director.

Categories

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Devil Doll, The (1936)

Devil Doll, The (1936)

“We’ll make the whole world SMALL!”

Devil Doll Poster

Synopsis:
A falsely accused convict on the lam (Lionel Barrymore) collaborates with a mad scientist (Rafaela Ottiano) in using miniature “live” dolls to seek revenge on his three ex-partners.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his brief review of this “unsettling” horror flick — directed by Tod Browning and co-written by Erich von Stroheim — Peary notes that the special effects are “good”, pointing out that when Barrymore uses mind control to send the “doll people” (Grace Ford and Paul Foltz) to “sneak through [the] houses [of his ex-partners], they’re like wily rodents or insects on the loose — they’ll give you chills”. I would argue that the effects are more than merely “good”: they’re actually quite impressive, given that the miniaturized humans blend seamlessly into their life-sized surroundings, through the creative use of both travelling mattes and over-sized sets.

Peary also neglects to mention in his review how effective Barrymore is in the plum central role, as a righteously vengeful fugitive who spends most of his screen time in convincing cross-dress as “Madame Manderlip”; to that end, the make-up department on the film set deserves special mention as well. Also memorable (if a tad one-note in her performance) is “crazed” Ottiano, with a wild streak of white running through her hair, reminiscent of Elsa Lanchester’s iconic “bride of Frankenstein”. Her presence here is refreshing simply as one of cinema’s few female “mad scientists” — and her obsession with making all living creatures tiny borders on ludicrously campy, allowing for a surprising twist of tension in the final act of the film.

While the narrative gets bogged down occasionally by a sappy, Stella Dallas-esque backstory involving Barrymore’s attempts to befriend his estranged adult daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan), there are enough surreal, chilling elements throughout this memorable film to make it a minor cult classic. Film fanatics should take note that several of the story’s central elements are evident in both Browning and von Stroheim’s earlier efforts: Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) featured Lon Chaney in drag as a wily old woman, for instance, while von Stroheim’s The Great Gabbo (1929) dealt with a human-like ventriloquist’s doll.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond/Madame Manderlip
    Devil Doll Barrymore
  • Impressive special effects
    Devil Doll Special Effects

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable cult horror classic.

Categories

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Svengali (1931)

Svengali (1931)

“You are beautiful, my manufactured love.”

Synopsis:
A sinister musician (John Barrymore) hypnotizes a model (Marian Marsh) into becoming his wife and a famous opera singer — but her true love (Bramwell Fletcher) refuses to give up hope that she will one day return to him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that “John Barrymore gave one of his finest screen performances in this unusual adaptation of George du Maurier’s classic novel Trilby” — but I can’t quite agree. While he is indeed “menacing” and “sleazy” (not to mention “in-need-of-a-bath”), Barrymore’s performance, perhaps not surprisingly, far too often borders on hammy. Much more impressive is beautiful Marian Marsh as Trilby, the object of his obsessive desires; from the moment she appears on-screen, Marsh radiates a unique, surprisingly modern energy — making it easy to see why both Svengali and Fletcher’s “Billee” would fall so hard for her. Unfortunately, the “racy” narrative comes across today as dated and largely uninteresting, with occasional bursts of creative energy (i.e., Svengali’s initial hypnosis session with Marsh) adding some much-needed horror and thrills to the proceedings. Anton Grot’s Oscar-nominated, highly expressionistic sets are also noteworthy, though they give the film an undeniably stagy feel. As Peary notes, the “depressing ending” does indeed come as a bit of a surprise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marian Marsh as Trilby
    Svengali Marsh
  • The eerily effective hypnosis scene
    Svengali Hypnosis
  • Expressionistic art direction
    Svengali Art Direction

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its historical value, and to see Marsh’s performance.

Links:

Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon (1950)

“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.”

Rashomon Poster

Synopsis:
A trio of drifters (Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, and Kichijiro Ueda) discuss the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyo) committed by a savage bandit (Toshiro Mifune).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary seems less than enamored by this seminal Kurosawa movie, which was “the first Japanese film to receive widespread international distribution and success” (indeed, it won an honorary Oscar in 1952, and was presumably the impetus for creating a Best Foreign Film category). He argues that the “film doesn’t hold up as well as other Kurosawa works because its ‘there is no such thing as Absolute Truth’ theme isn’t particularly novel.” He further complains that the performances (with the exception of Mifune, who he believes “makes a strong impression”) are “either irritating or forgettable”; that the “playing of ‘Bolero’ at one point seems inappropriate”; and that the opening and concluding sequences (which “were inserted into [the] script so the picture would be long enough to interest a distributor”) are “disconcerting”.

I disagree with Peary on nearly all the above points. The film’s central premise — that truth is subjective enough that we all approach the telling of a tale with our unique biases and subconscious desires firmly in play — is universal, and so masterfully portrayed by Kurosawa that it serves as an enduring primer for how to relate such a story in cinematic terms. To that end, Peary does concede that “it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kurosawa broke the rules of cinema storytelling”; along with many other critics (see links below), he notes that “it is less important that any four people will tell four different versions of a story than that any filmmaker is capable of taking a story and visualizing it in an infinite number of equally persuasive, audience-manipulative ways”.

With regards to the film’s “bookends”, they come across as simply a convenient and effective narrative device; and the inclusion of “Bolero” (actually, a variation thereof) in the soundtrack doesn’t strike me as particularly jarring. Finally, in terms of the film’s central performances, I’m actually less a fan of Mifune’s primal bandit (as noted in Time Out London’s review, he “veers on the hammy side of earthy”) than I am of both Kyo as the samurai’s wife (watch how her expressions and overall demeanor shift from vignette to vignette), and Mori as the samurai himself (though he’s not given much to do, he effectively projects an unnerving, steely reserve). Even more memorable than the actors, however, are Kurosawa’s stunning, haunting visuals — as usual, every frame of his story is composed with craft and care.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the principal actors
    Rashomon Mifune
    Rashomon Kyo
  • Memorable imagery and cinematography
    Rashomon Court
    Rashomon Meadow Scene

Must See?
Yes, as an historically important foreign classic by a master director.

Categories

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

Links:

Gilda (1946)

Gilda (1946)

“You do hate me, don’t you, Johnny?”

Gilda Poster

Synopsis:
A petty gambler (Glenn Ford) managing a casino in Buenos Aires is dismayed to discover that his boss (George Macready) has married his hedonistic former flame, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s not a big fan of this classic wartime flick, starring pin-up girl Rita Hayworth in what is undoubtedly her most iconic role. While he acknowledges that “gorgeous Rita sizzles, wearing an assortment of sexy outfits and singing ‘Put the Blame on Mame’,” he complains that the film as a whole is “overlong, silly, and confusing”. Watching it again recently, however, I found myself surprisingly absorbed in its tale of a vitriolic “love-hate” relationship between a couple so clearly meant for one another (if only they could get over whatever it is that keeps them clawing at one another’s throats). The aspects of the script focusing on Macready’s shady wartime dealings as the head of an international tungsten cartel (!) are a tad incomprehensible and meandering (Joseph Calleia’s detective lurks around the perimeter of the set without much to do), but are ultimately inconsequential, and fortunately don’t distract much at all from the central conflict: the tension-filled menage a trois between Macready, Ford, and Hayworth.

I disagree as well with Peary’s assessment of Macready as “good and sinister” but “not strong enough for such a pivotal role” — it’s exactly his creepy but understated presence that gives his relationship with Ford’s Johnny such an unusual edge (why exactly did he “pick up” Johnny to begin with, off the streets of Bueno Aires?). I agree with Peary, however, that Ford “gives an uninteresting performance as an unlikable heel-hero” — actually, his performance here is not so much “uninteresting” as it is unconvincing (though the fault is less with Ford than with the studio heads for miscasting him in the first place). He simply doesn’t have the requisite allure or good looks to be credible as a man that a goddess — er, woman — like Gilda would get herself so hung up over. On that note, the script teasingly neglects to fill us in on the little detail of what exactly tore Gilda and Johnny apart to begin with. Quibbles aside, however, there’s enough to the film — including director Charles Vidor’s more-than-serviceable direction, Rudolph Mate’s noir-inflected cinematography, Rita’s inimitable presence, and lots of zingy dialogue — to make it a must-see classic at least once for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rita Hayworth as Gilda
    Gilda Hayworth
  • Gilda’s justifiably famous and sexy dance routines
    Gilda Mame
  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography
    Gilda Cinematography
  • Plenty of racy, memorable dialogue — most by Gilda:

    “Me? Sure, I’m decent…”

    “I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?”

    “There’s something about Latin men: for one thing, they can dance… For another — “

Must See?
Yes, as an iconic classic.

Categories

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

Links: