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Month: August 2010

Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973)

Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973)

“I didn’t join this here army to fight.”

Ten From Your Show of Shows Poster

Synopsis:
Ten sketches from Sid Caesar’s television program “Your Show of Shows” are highlighted in this theatrical release.

Genres:

Review:
Ten sketches from Sid Caesar’s 90-minute television variety show “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) — co-starring Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner, among others — were selected for a 1973 theatrical release entitled, aptly enough, Ten From Your Show of Shows. Included in this film were the following titles:

1. Auto Smashup
2. Big Business
3. The Recital
4. Bavarian Clock
5. German General
6. From Here to Obscurity
7. This is Your Story
8. At the Movies
9. The Sewing Machine Girl
10. Airport Interview

While “Ten From…” is no longer widely available to purchase or rent, most of the above sketches are available to watch either on YouTube or one of Sid Caesar’s recently released DVD compilations (from his personal archives). “From Here to Obscurity” (a spoof of From Here to Eternity, featuring a hilarious riff on the infamous beachside scene) and “The Sewing Machine Girl” (a silent movie spoof) will likely be of most interest to film fanatics, for obvious reasons, but all are enjoyable; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. With that said, those truly interested in getting a sense of what “Your Show of Shows” was like should simply check out one of the compilation DVDs; fortunately, there’s plenty available for fans to enjoy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An enjoyable glimpse at highlights from a classic television series
    Ten From Your Show From Here
    Ten From Auto Smashup

Must See?
No — but I think most film fanatics would enjoy checking out this classic variety show, which was a forerunner of both “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Saturday Night Live”. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Hercules/Hercules Goes Bananas/Hercules in New York (1969)

Hercules/Hercules Goes Bananas/Hercules in New York (1969)

“Hercules goes where he wishes!”

Hercules New York Poster

Synopsis:
Greek demigod Hercules (Arnold Schwarzenegger) defies his father, Zeus (Ernest Graves), by leaving Mt. Olympus and heading down to Earth, where he befriends a nebbishy pretzel seller (Arnold Stang) and impresses mortals with his superhuman strength.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary isn’t nearly derisive enough of this unbelievably “lame-brained comedy”, which he labels merely a “disappointment”, noting that “not only is there no wild humor, there are shamefully few jokes and gags at all”. Indeed, the only humor to be had at all comes from the sheer ineptitude of the acting, script, and direction — bad movie aficionados may want to check it out simply to watch for all the goofs that are made, including the sound of cars in the distance during scenes supposedly set on “Mt. Olympus” (actually a NYC country club), or fleeting evidence of shoes on the “bear” Hercules wrestles in Central Park (which is so clearly… oh so clearly… a man in bear costume). With that said, this film remains of marginal historical interest given that it was the film debut for Schwarzenegger (going by the screen name “Arnold Strong”), eight years before he starred in the infinitely more interesting body-building documentary Pumping Iron (1977); watching him here makes one appreciate how far he eventually progressed (relatively speaking) with his acting abilities.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Not much of anything

Must See?
No; definitely free to skip this tedious clunker — but if you’re curious, it’s available for viewing on Hulu here.

Links:

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

“Lost in the night, you can’t stop the shadows from moving in.”

Shoot the Piano Player Poster

Synopsis:
A pianist (Charles Aznavour) with a troubled family and a tragic past falls for a waitress (Marie Dubois) and begins a tentative romance.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is an enormous fan of this second feature by Francois Truffaut, which was adapted “from a melodramatic [American] crime novel” by David Goodis, and “borrow[s] from such diverse sources as American ‘B’ gangster pictures … [and] fatalistic noir films made in America and France.” He argues that “it is one of [Truffaut’s] finest achievements, a picture that still seems excitingly original”, “still deeply affects the true movie lover”, and is “full of unforgettable moments”. He claims that “no film better juxtaposes comedy and dark tragedy”, and that “no film is more romantic” despite making “a strong case for not falling in love”.

While I’m not sure I would agree with Peary that NO other film does any of these things better (!), his overall sentiment is well-taken — and it’s true that this remains one of Truffaut’s most cinematically innovative and provocative films. In his insightful analysis of the film’s thematic arc, Peary notes:

“In one sense the film is a comical look at a timid man trying to sneak through life in a loud, dangerous world and, if he can muster up the courage, buy a drink for or hold hands with a pretty girl… But on a sadder level it’s about the destructiveness of love, how men treat women as sexual objects, how men’s actions contradict their thoughts, and… how the continuous passivity of men like Aznavour can keep them ‘alive’ but result in [death all around them].”

Adding to the film’s enduring enjoyment is Aznavour’s “oddly moving performance” in the title role; an enormously popular French singer in real life, here he plays a “meek pianist who works in a bar”, a former “successful concert pianist” who has “withdrawn into anonymity” after the suicide of his wife (Nicole Berger). While nursing his considerable emotional wounds, he’s faced with life-threatening trouble on the homefront, given that “gangsters [are] trying to get revenge on [his] two adult brothers for double-crossing them after a robbery”. He gains temporary comfort from a friendly neighborhood hooker (Michele Mercier), and attempts a tentative romance with barmaid Marie Dubois (lovely in her first credited film debut) — but it’s clear that more trouble than joy is in store for our “timid” protagonist, whose desire for a life of simple contentment continues to elude him.

Note: Peary gives away major spoilers in his review, so be forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Aznavour as “Charlie”
    Shoot the Piano Player Aznavour
  • Marie Dubois as Lena
    Shoot the Piano Player Dubois
  • Creative direction
    Shoot the Piano Player Creative
  • Raoul Coutard’s cinematography
    Shoot the Piano Player Coutard

Must See?
Yes, as one of Truffaut’s most celebrated films.

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

Categories

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Hercules (1958)

Hercules (1958)

“Deceit does not go with a man of such quality.”

Hercules Poster

Synopsis:
Legendary strongman Hercules (Steve Reeves) romances the daughter (Sylva Koscina) of King Pelius (Ivo Garrani) and assists Jason (Fabrizio Mioni) on his quest to secure the Golden Fleece.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this enormously popular “muscleman epic”, starring former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves, “doesn’t compare to Ray Harryhausen’s epics”, but is “much better than its imitators”. He argues that while it’s “hurt by dubbing, lack of wit, and extreme earnestness”, it’s “still fun”. Maybe so, but for my money, I’d much rather rewatch a Harryhausen flick any day — namely Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which even Peary concedes covered “the same ground… much more spectacularly”. The dialogue in Hercules is laughably corny (“My heart has reached the crossroads of destiny.”), and the dubbing is highly distracting — yet it remains one-time must-see viewing given its historical importance as the film which “spawned [a] wave of Italian-made, myth-based, sword-and-sandal films”.

Note: Reading the film’s amusingly bombastic tagline (available on IMDb) gives one a sense of the excitement kids at the time must have felt about this flick:

SEE the heroic Hercules rip down the Age of Orgy’s lavish palace of lustful pleasure! SEE the Mightiest of Men fight the Mightiest of Beasts, the killer Cretan Bull! SEE Hercules fight off the savage love-starved Amazon women! SEE the seductive Amazons lure men to voluptuous revels and violent deaths! SEE the powerful Hercules crush the savage ape-men who guard the shrine of the Golden Fleece!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Steve Reeves’ appropriately ripped body (it’s worth a look!)
    Hercules Reeves
  • Mario Bava’s cinematography
    Hercules Lighting
  • Effective historical sets
    Hercules Sets

Must See?
Yes, but only for its historical importance.

Categories

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Going My Way (1944)

Going My Way (1944)

“This young man and I differ; we don’t see eye to eye.”

Going My Way Poster

Synopsis:
A progressive young priest (Bing Crosby) is sent to assist an ailing parish run by elderly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is quite a fan of this genial box-office hit (directed by Leo McCarey), which he refers to as “a wonderful, warmhearted film”. While he acknowledges that “some of the scenes are a bit forced or corny” (and, in his Alternate Oscars book, concedes that it’s “flawed, with subplots better suited for the reject basket than the screen”), he cites a number of “delightful” scenes, including many between Fitzgerald — “who tends to play the martyr” — and Crosby (who Peary describes in Alternate Oscars as “genial, wise, humble, unpretentious, [and] quietly authoritative”). He seems impressed by the film’s attempt “to show that priests are human too”, and argues that the “finale in which Fitzgerald is reunited with his old, old mother after about forty years ranks with [the] greatest of tear-jerking reunion scenes”.

These days, opinions are decidedly mixed on whether Going My Way has stood the test of time. Crosby (the “No. 1 box-office draw” of the time) is certainly charismatic, and sings as nicely as ever, but the meandering storyline — in which “Crosby helps out a young woman (Carol James) who has left home and wants to be a singer, turns the tough neighborhood kids (all of whom say ‘fodder’) into angelic choirboys, looks up his opera-singer friend (Rise Stevens) …, gets money for the church by selling one of his songs, and wins over Fitzgerald” — lacks focus, and feels patently crafted to allow either Crosby and/or Stevens (who’s charming but smiles too much) “natural” opportunities to sing. With that said, if you’re in the mood for a feel-good film with some fine ditties sprinkled throughout (my favorite is Crosby leading the boys in “Swinging on a Star”), then this is certainly worthy viewing.

P.S. Despite his claim that Going My Way was a “deserved Best Picture winner”, Peary actually gives the award to Double Indemnity in Alternate Oscars, noting that …Indemnity was “more deserving… if only because it has been much more influential.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barry Fitzgerald as Father Fitzgibbon
    Going My Way Fitzgerald
  • Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley
    Going My Way Crosby
  • Several enjoyable musical sequences
    Going My Way Music

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance as a multiple Oscar winner.

Categories

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Toolbox Murders, The (1978)

Toolbox Murders, The (1978)

“You need more than a spilled Pepsi to prove that she was kidnapped.”

Toolbox Murders Poster

Synopsis:
When his sister (Pamelyn Ferdin) goes missing, a teenager (Nicolas Beauvy) and his friend (Wesley Eure) attempt to determine who has committed a rash of bloody murders in an apartment complex.

Genres:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Horror Films
  • Kidnapping
  • Serial Killers

Review:
Within the first half-hour of this notorious serial killer flick — banned in the U.K. from 1982-2000 as a “video nasty” — we witness no less then four grisly “murders by tool” of nubile young women, all living within the same apartment complex. Shortly thereafter, we learn that the ski-masked killer is the apartment’s deeply disturbed landlord (Cameron Mitchell) who has gone off the deep end after the death of his teenage daughter in a car accident (shown as a flashback in the film’s opening credits sequence). When an apple-cheeked young virgin in the complex (Pamelyn Ferdin) goes missing, we can accurately guess that Mitchell is responsible, and that her life is in grave danger. Given its reputation, I was surprised to find The Toolbox Murders (remade in name only in 2004, by Tobe Hooper) to be a reasonably compelling slasher flick. While the opening murders are hard to stomach, the remaining hour or so holds one’s attention, as Mitchell chews the scenery and a major identity twist is revealed. While it’s only recommended for fans of the genre, this one is not quite as bad as you’d think.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The “bedside” scene between Mitchell and Ferdin
    Toolbox Murders Ferdin

Must See?
No — though hardcore film fanatics may be curious to check it out, given its notoriety. Listed as Trash in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Xala (1975)

Xala (1975)

“Make me a man again — I’ll pay whatever you want.”

Xala Poster

Synopsis:
In post-colonial Senegal, a corrupt businessman (Thierno Leye) attempts to marry a third wife (Dieynaba Niang), but finds that his ability to consummate the marriage has been foiled by a “xala” (curse).

Genres:

Review:
In his fourth feature film, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene continued his cynical exploration of corruption in post-colonial Africa — this time with more of an overt satirical edge than ever. As in his earlier film Mandabi (1968), the central protagonist in Xala (Thierno Leye) finds himself caught in a nightmarish situation — yet while Mandabi‘s Ibrahim was hapless and illiterate (a victim of social changes beyond his control), Leye’s wealthy “El Hadji” arguably sparks his own downfall through explicit greed. In the film’s comical opening sequence, El Hadji sits around a table with a host of other powerful black men, accepting briefcases full of cash from white men in suits (clearly representing the country’s lingering vestiges of colonial power and influence). El Hadji uses this money to help purchase a third wife — the young and beautiful Dieynaba Niang — in order to propel his own prestige, ignoring the fact that this makes both his university-age daughter (Miriam Niang) by his first wife (Seune Samb), and his jealous second wife (Younouss Seye), deeply unhappy.

Once El Hadji attempts to consummate his marriage — and finds himself strangely unable to do so — his downward spiral is set in motion. He engages the services of medicine men, and struggles to maintain dignity in the face of impressively widespread social knowledge about his dilemma. It’s clear to El Hadji that his problems aren’t his own, but rather the result of a curse (xala) — and while he believes this curse has been placed by one of his other wives, the cause for blame remains a central mystery of the film. Unfortunately, Sembene’s narrative (based on his own novel) veers off course at times, shifting to lengthy and seemingly inexplicable sequences (later explained) involving a band of disabled men who at one point gather to drink sweetened condensed milk (!); from what I’ve read, this confusion may be the result of drastic editing that was done without Sembene’s consent. In addition — as in all Sembene’s films — the performances by the majority of the actors are decidedly amateurish. Regardless, there’s enough sting and bite in Xala to make it worthy viewing for all film fanatics who are genuinely interested in world cinema.

P.S. It’s strange that the primary poster used to promote this film features unnamed actors who appear only briefly in the film, at a party scene for a few seconds…

P.P.S. Sembene’s other acclaimed film made before the publication of Peary’s book in 1986 — Ceddo (1977), the only Sembene title listed in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die — is strangely missing; I intend to watch it shortly and verify whether it merits inclusion on this website as a Missing Title. Also be sure to check out Sembene’s final film, Moolaade (2004), made before his death in 2007 — it’s most definitely must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Yet another fascinating perspective by Sembene of life in post-colonial Senegal
    Xala Doctor
    Xala City

Must See?
Yes, as one of Sembene’s most acclaimed films. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Mandabi (1968)

Mandabi (1968)

“You know people: you mention money, and they all come running.”

Mandabi Poster

Synopsis:
A poor Senegalese villager (Makhouredia Gueye) finds himself confronting endless bureaucracy and corruption while trying to cash a money order sent by his nephew in Paris.

Genres:

Review:
Ousmane Sembene’s second feature-length film — after his acclaimed but flawed 1966 debut, Black Girl — was this absorbing, relentlessly cynical look at corruption in post-colonial Senegal. While its lead protagonist, Ibrahim (Gueye), is initially not all that likable — opening shots show him wolfing down an enormous meal, belching profusely, and ordering his wives around — he nonetheless quickly becomes the most sympathetic character in the film, given the ceaseless roster of charlatans and “beggars” he encounters during his travails. In order to actually secure the money he’s supposedly inherited from his nephew, he must find a way to turn a slip of paper sent from abroad into actual cash — a seemingly straightforward process which turns into a true living nightmare. Ibrahim (who is illiterate) finds that in the paper-trail legacy the French have left behind, it is no longer enough simply to state that one exists — one must prove it, in specific, written detail. Yet how can one prove one exists without… prior proof that one exists?

It’s a devilish dilemma, and one that Sembene handles with masterful humor — up until the point when Ibrahim’s attempts are foiled for what seems like the umpteenth time, and Sembene’s central thesis (that “decency has become a sin in [Senegal],” and that “in a country like this, only crooks live well”) is made eminently, depressingly clear. Despite its undeniably downbeat trajectory, however, Mandabi (which translates literally into “money order”) remains fascinating simply for its unprecedented ethnographic portrayal of Senegalese village life. Sembene’s ability to slyly slip in visual commentary on the influence of Western norms (watch for the white European doll being washed and played with by the young village girls, for instance) is impressive; and his attempt to call out the impossibility of maintaining civil, logical interactions with one’s fellow citizens in an environment tainted by colonial norms is undeniably essential.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating glimpse at post-colonial village life in Senegal
    Mandabi Doll
    Mandabi Imam

Must See?
Yes, as a depressing but revealing film by the world’s premiere African director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Time of Their Lives, The (1946)

Time of Their Lives, The (1946)

“There’s a curse on this house, all right.”

Time of Their Lives

Synopsis:
During the Revolutionary War, a patriotic tinker (Lou Costello) and a noblewoman (Marjorie Reynolds) are mistaken for traitors and shot, their ghosts cursed to remain on the same plot of land until they can prove their innocence.

Genres:

Review:
The Time of Their Lives was Abbott and Costello’s second attempt — after Little Giant (1946) — at moving away from buddy films and towards a more “traditional” style of comedy. Here, they tap into the genre of “ghostly comedy” (a la the enormously successful Topper trilogy), with a twist of period drama for good measure — though the bulk of the film takes place in 1946. As in Little Giant, Abbott once again plays dual roles (as Costello’s Revolutionary War-era nemesis, and his descendant), but Costello’s the primary protagonist — along with his female “buddy”, Marjorie Reynolds. The story — involving Costello and Reynolds desperately trying to get modern-day Abbott and his friends to help them uncover a hidden letter from George Washington, which will prove their innocence — is innocuous and reasonably entertaining, but I found myself noticing (and sorely missing) the absence of A&C’s classic routines. This one is really only must see for fans of Abbott and Costello — many of whom, interestingly, consider it among their best.

P.S. This film’s rather generic title really should have been reconsidered… It makes little sense, and doesn’t accurately convey the movie’s central premise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds as the doomed ghosts
    Time of Their Lives Ghosts
  • The effectively “spooky” seance scene
    Time of Their Lives Seance

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

Links:

Little Giant (1946)

Little Giant (1946)

“If you could read my mind like I can read yours, you’d know I meant every word of it!”

Little Giant Poster

Synopsis:
A bumbling salesman (Lou Costello) suddenly finds himself enormously successful once he believes he has the ability to read minds.

Genres:

Review:
Little Giant is notable in Abbott and Costello’s oeuvre as the first film in which they didn’t play buddies, and were given a more “traditional” story to work with. Costello acquits himself well in the lead role as a likable but hapless aspiring salesman who finds success once he believes in his own powers of persuasion. It’s difficult to watch him beaten down time and again, but we’re fairly convinced that all will work out well for him in the end — and knowing that he has a loyal, pretty fiancee (Elena Verdugo) waiting for him back at home doesn’t hurt things, either. Despite playing two different roles (good and bad “versions” of Costello’s boss), Abbott has much less prominence here — this is really Costello’s show all the way (though the duo have at least one classic interaction together, as they re-enact their “7 times 13 is 28” routine from In the Navy). Not must-see for all-purpose film fanatics, but certainly of interest to diehard Abbott and Costello fans.

A bit of historical trivia: In her attempt to “woo” Benny (Costello), Jacqueline deWit (playing evil Abbott’s secret wife) takes him to the Venice Amusement Pier, which was shut down just months after this film was released.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lou Costello as Benny
    Little Giant Costello
  • Jacqueline de Wit as Hazel
    Little Giant de Wit
  • Benny’s first attempt at a “hard sell”
    Little Giant Selling
  • Benny explaining how 7 goes into 28 thirteen times
    Little Giant Thirteen

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.

Links: