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Month: November 2010

Holiday Inn (1942)

Holiday Inn (1942)

“You could melt her heart right down to butter, if you’d only turn on the heat!”

Holiday Inn Poster

Synopsis:
A song-and-dance team (Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire) in love with the same woman (Virginia Dale) part ways when Crosby decides he wants to open a rural inn featuring performances only on holidays. Tensions arise when his new dancing protegee and love interest (Marjorie Reynolds) strikes the fancy of Astaire, who tries to steal her for his own performing — and romantic — purposes.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this holiday TV favorite, while “not a great musical”, is nonetheless “enjoyable and extremely popular”, and argues that while the “plot’s a bit foolish… Berlin’s score is lively and patriotic and Crosby’s crooning and Astaire’s dancing are super”. This just about wraps the film up in a nutshell: it’s worthy viewing for Astaire’s knock-out dance routines (his infamous shuffle with firecrackers is particularly stunning, as is his equally infamous “drunk dance”), and most film fanatics will probably be curious to see a movie with such enduring popularity. Yet it’s actually somewhat disturbing to watch Astaire being such a heel; while the entire plot hinges on this inevitability — and we highly suspect the “right man” will win the girl in the end — the ride until then is mildly discomfiting. Equally cringe-worthy is a minstrel number performed on — of all days — Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, in praise of good ol’ Abe, savior of the slaves; and the stereotypical mammy role played by Louise Beavers simply heightens how dated the film really is in some ways. But that Astaire sure can dance (Reynolds is quite good, too), and that Crosby sure can croon, and Berlin wrote a passel of fun tunes to celebrate the major American holidays — so enjoy these elements, and feel free to tune out the rest.

Note: The hotel chain Holiday Inn was indeed named after this movie; see TCM’s article for more trivia.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many enjoyable dance sequences with Astaire
    Holiday Inn Astaire Dance1
    Holiday Inn Astaire Dance2
  • A fine Irving Berlin score (including, naturally, the Oscar-winning “White Christmas”)

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical popularity — and to see the incomparable Fred Astaire at work.

Categories

Links:

Experience Preferred … But Not Essential (1982)

Experience Preferred … But Not Essential (1982)

“I’m the only one I know here who doesn’t have a past.”

Experience Preferred Poster

Synopsis:
A shy college student (Elizabeth Edmonds) goes to work as a waitress at a seaside resort for the summer, and meets an eclectic group of colleagues — including a cook (Ron Bain) who falls for her immediately.

Genres:

Review:
A minor cult favorite after airing on American television, this low key coming-of-age tale — set in 1962 — features an appealing lead (why didn’t Edmonds’ career go farther?), fine use of Welsh seaside locales, and a refreshingly lackadaisical tempo. There’s not much new here under the sun, and not much ever really happens — but the protagonist and her “older” beau are characters we can’t help rooting for, and director Peter Duffell gets the overall ambience just right. This is exactly how one might remember one’s first summer away from home at a new job, complete with a roster of charmingly eccentric and troubled co-workers (though one character’s obsessive love for her abusive boyfriend is treated a tad too lightly for comfort). The closing scene is a sweetly satisfying resolution to the nicely handled opening sequence. A gentle treat if you’re in the right mood, but not must-see viewing for everyone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elizabeth Edmonds as Annie
    Experience Preferred Edmonds
  • Ron Bain as Mike
    Experience Preferred Bain
  • A gently comedic screenplay
    Experience Preferred Comedic
  • Nice use of authentic Welsh locations
    Experience Preferred Locations
  • A sweet score by Rachel Portman

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a look.

Links:

Mask of Fu Manchu, The (1932)

Mask of Fu Manchu, The (1932)

“We’re fighting a thing we can’t understand, with everything against us.”

Mask Fu Manchu Poster

Synopsis:
An archaeologist (Lewis Stone) travels to Mongolia with the daughter (Karen Morley) of a kidnapped colleague (Lawrence Grant), hoping to rescue the contents of Genghis Khan’s tomb from the clutches of evil Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) and his grown daughter (Myrna Loy).

Genres:

Review:
British author Sax Rohmer introduced the fictional master-criminal Dr. Fu Manchu in a series of novels published near the beginning of the 20th century, and he quickly became the embodiment of “Yellow Peril”, tapping into Westerners’ fears about Asian “Others”. This early cinematic adaptation, while not the first, remains perhaps the best known, given that cult horror star Boris Karloff was cast in the title role (affording him one of his first starring roles). While there’s much to enjoy and admire about the film — including creative direction, eye-popping set designs, glittering costumes, and Karloff’s bizarre but compelling performance — it’s unfortunately, as DVD Savant labels it, “almost pornographically racist”.

A 1992 video release removed some of the most offensive dialogue (“Would you all have maidens like this for your wives? Then conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”), but these scenes have all been restored in the recent DVD release, so modern viewers can see for themselves how riddled with vitriol it truly is: “Men of Asia! The skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down on the white race… and burn them!” Just as disturbing as these racist rants are the seemingly endless scenes of torture inflicted by Manchu on his various victims, which literally dominate the final 20 minutes or so of the film; while his devices are indeed ingenious, they’re fetishized to the point that your tolerance will likely be sorely tested (mine was).

Watch for Myrna Loy in her last performance as an “exotic temptress”, playing Manchu’s sadistically predatory daughter (she herself is reported to have said, “Say, this is obscene!” when reading the script).

Note: Fu Manchu wouldn’t appear again on-screen until over 30 years later, in the Hammer Studios production The Face of Fu Manchu (starring Christopher Lee in the title role). Read Wikipedia’s article on this infamous character if you’re curious to read about other cinematic adaptations.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu
    Mask Fu Manchu Karloff
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
    Mask Fu Manchu Cinematography2
    Mask Fu Manchu Cinematography
  • Creative direction
    Mask Fu Manchu Direction
  • Cedric Gibbons’ baroque sets
    Mask Fu Manchu Sets
  • Adrian’s “exotic” costume designs
    Mask Fu Manchu Costumes

Must See?
No, though I do believe it’s worth a look simply for Karloff’s performance, and the impressive visuals. And, as DVD Savant notes, it’s recommended “to anyone living in denial about the reality of racism” in the early 20th century. Listed as a film with Historical Importance (which I won’t deny) and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Me and the Colonel (1958)

Me and the Colonel (1958)

“Strangely enough, we’re in the same business — the business of escaping.”

Me and the Colonel Poster

Synopsis:
During WWII, a resourceful Jewish refugee (Danny Kaye) travels with an anti-semitic Polish officer (Curt Jurgens), the officer’s right-hand man (Akim Tamiroff), and the officer’s girlfriend (Nicole Maurey), who begins to fall in love with Kaye.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a play by Franz Werfel, Me and the Colonel allowed Danny Kaye an opportunity to break (almost) completely from his characteristic cinematic persona as a hapless nebbish, and show off his dramatic chops. The story — much like Roberto Benigni’s award-winning Life is Beautiful (1997) — is meant to provide a gently comical slant on a devastating period in world history, tackling the sensitive topic of anti-semitism through humor and feel-good humanism. In this case, Kaye’s Jacobowsky (whose very name is repeated a bit too forcefully throughout the film, as though it offers inherent giggle-value) attempts to befriend (or at least not antagonize) the bigoted, bombastic Colonel Prokoszny (Curd Jurgens); the crux of the screenplay shows Jacobowsky repeatedly swallowing his pride in the name of pragmatism, as he utilizes his estimable survival skills to move his ad hoc group closer towards the border. It’s all a bit insufferably twee, and Jurgens’ performance is irritatingly abrasive, offering little to no nuance in this critically important role.

However, Kaye — who won a Golden Globe award as best actor — does a fine job, and surely must have been thrilled at this chance to tackle such an important cinematic topic. And Nicole Maurey is charming and believable in a challenging role as Jurgens’ fiancee, who finds herself drawn towards Kaye — but the central love triangle conflict that plays itself out during the middle of the film (culminating in a comedic duel) fails to leave any impact. While it’s difficult to understand why Maurey fell for the two-timing Jurgens in the first place, it’s eminently clear that her “attraction” to Kaye is simply admiration for his resourcefulness and gentle charm, and never poses a real threat to Jurgens. By the film’s inevitable climactic denouement at the border, we’re marginally invested in these characters’ survival, but can’t help wishing that the titular relationship offered more heft and realism.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Danny Kaye as Jacobowsky
    Me and the Colonel Kaye
  • Nicole Maurey as Suzanne
    Me and the Colonel Maurey

Must See?
No; this one isn’t must-see.

Links:

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

“Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”

Night of the Living Dead Poster

Synopsis:
A woman (Judith O’Dea) whose brother (Russell Streiner) has just been killed by zombies seeks refuge in an abandoned house with other refugees — including a determined young man (Duane Jones), a young couple (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), and a middle-aged man (Karl Hardman) with a wife (Marilyn Eastman) and an infected daughter (Kyra Schon).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of George Romero’s cult horror classic by asserting that it “no longer scares the daylight out of viewers because the films it spawned have been much more graphic”, but he notes that “you’ll still be impressed by Romero’s style, wit, and themes”. However, fledgling film fanatics (and those like myself, who don’t tend to seek out horror flicks on a regular basis) will surely find themselves genuinely frightened, at least during the third section of the film, when the situation builds to a feverish pitch, and it becomes increasingly clear that most members of our ensemble cast are not long for this (living) world. Peary calls out “a couple of jump-out-of-your-seat moments featuring ghouls unexpectedly shooting their hands through windows and trying to grab someone”, and these are indeed twitch-inducing — but I find myself even more deeply disturbed by the scenes taking place down in the basement (an inherently scary location, IMHO).

Peary notes that this “pessimistic and unsentimental” film taps into our most “basic fears: monsters that won’t go away, darkness, claustrophobia”, with “even blood relations [turning] on their loved ones when infected by a ghoul’s bite”. He offers numerous other titles for comparison, noting that NOTLD has “much in common with Invisible Invaders, Carnival of Souls, and, the most obvious influences, Psycho and The Birds;” he points out that in both NOTLD and The Birds, for instance, “people congregate in [a] house for one reason only: fear”. He notes parallels between the literal attacks perpetrated from the outside of the house by the “ghouls”, and the internal verbal sparring between Jones (interestingly, the “script never mentions that [he] is black”) and boorish Hardman — and points out the ironic fact that “Hardman’s plan for survival… turns out to be superior to the implemented plan of Jones”, something apparently not noted by any other critics at the time.

Be forewarned: for first-time viewers, the powerful surprise ending is sure to make you go, “Now wait a minute!!!” It comes as a visceral shock, and was a bold move by screenwriter John A. Russo.

P.S. Peary notes that this “low-budget independent picture… was saved from obscurity … due to word of mouth and critics’ raves” — so it goes, always and forever, in the fickle world of indie cinema…

P.S.S. Why does Peary call the zombies “ghouls” throughout his review? I’m really not sure.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective high-contrast cinematography
    Night Living Dead Cinematography
  • Dramatic editing and camera angles
    Night Living Dead Angles
  • Some truly frightening images
    Night Living Dead Scary
  • A brutally startling ending, with creative closing credits
    Night Living Dead Ending

Must See?
Yes, as an undisputed horror classic. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies.

Categories

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

Links:

Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966)

Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966)

“Ridicule is the one thing we must avoid at all costs.”

Au Hasard Balthazar Poster

Synopsis:
A donkey named Balthazar is mistreated at the hands of multiple owners; meanwhile, a meek village girl (Anne Wiazemsky) suffers in her dysfunctional relationship with a local thug (Francois Lafarge).

Genres:

Review:
Robert Bresson’s tragic tale of a donkey abused by his many masters — and the young woman (Marie) who loves him for a time, only to devolve into her own miserable existence as a low-level moll — has been labeled his “greatest achievement… a deeply felt fable about the pitfalls of human cruelty”, and “the supreme masterpiece by one of the greatest of 20th-century filmmakers”. It’s viewed by some as a Christian allegory, with Balthazar a sort of humble Christ symbol, and Marie (“Mary”) his “mother”; others prefer to read it on a more literal level, as a tale simply about “the dignity of being itself”.

While I certainly can’t refute the deeply reverent relationship many viewers have with this film, I must admit that I found myself surprisingly unmoved by it. Bresson’s distinctive cinematic style — strategically designed to emulate a marriage of music and painting, with emotionless, non-acting “models” rather than actors inhabiting roles — is ultimately not for all tastes. While I admire his intentions, his approach doesn’t work for me on a basic empathetic level. I’m so distracted watching his “models” move self-consciously across the screen that I’m overly aware of their role as dramatic placeholders, to the detriment of my ability to relate to the film on any personal level. This is all the more of a shame given that Bresson’s visuals are consistently stunning; frame after frame is lovingly composed, and gorgeously shot by his D.P. (Ghislain Cloquet).

Call me a Bressonian grinch, but I’m only recommending this one as must-see for its undeniable cinematic stamp of approval by most critics. You’ll have to judge its ultimate merit for yourself. Instead, I’ll continue to rally for Diary of a Country Priest (1951) as the film for which Bresson’s unique approach is best suited.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powerful imagery and cinematography
    Au Hasard Imagery1
    Au Hasard Imagery3
    Au Hasard Imagery6

Must See?
Yes. While it’s not a personal favorite, this film is too historically important and critically lauded to miss. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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

Links:

Suburbia (1983)

Suburbia (1983)

“We’re talking about kids — kids like yours and mine!”

Suburbia Poster

Synopsis:
A group of runaway punk youths living in an abandoned house find their existence threatened by a vigilante citizen group called Citizens Against Crime.

Genres:

Review:
Penelope Spheeris’s follow-up to her cult documentary about the punk scene in Los Angeles, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), was this fictional look at the lives of the disaffected youths drawn to this aggressively nihilistic musical genre. Although the film’s protagonists (most played by non-actors) are shown visiting punk music clubs, with real-life bands such as D.I. performing, the screenplay is ultimately most concerned with depicting both the teens’ daily struggle to survive, and their tragic back stories — such as that of Sheila (Jennifer Clay), a female runaway introduced in the film’s appalling opening sequence, in which she watches mutely while a young baby is mauled to death by a wild dog. (This scene is so viscerally disturbing I had to turn the movie off immediately, and didn’t return to it until well over a year later — so consider yourself duly forewarned.)

Other characters in the ensemble cast include the teenage son (Bill Coyne) of an abusively alcoholic mother (Donna Lamana), and his six-year-old brother (Andrew Pece); a charismatic but bigoted skinhead (Chris Pedersen) who’s upset about having a black police officer (Don Allen) as a stepdad; a druggie (Grant Miner) whose stash plays a pivotal role in a later plot element; a rat-lover (Flea in his screen debut!); and more. While refreshingly sympathetic to these disturbed teens’ sorry lot in life, Spheeris ultimately tends to fetishize their existence a bit too much (watch for the slo-mo musical interlude about halfway through the film, shown as a still on the poster), thus turning their communal existence into the ultimate sleepover fantasy. Yes, they must deal with unruly neighborhood thugs (those pesky adults!) who threaten their very existence — but at least they have each other. However, therein lies its cult appeal; check comments on IMDb for a flavor of how many people have fond memories of this film from their own youth.

Note: Suburbia (also known as The Wild Side) won the Best First Feature award at the 1983 Chicago International Film Festival; Spheeris went on to craft an oddly mainstream Hollywood career for herself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A gritty look at runaway punk subculture
    Suburbia Still

Must See?
No; while it has (or had) a cult following of sorts, this one is no longer must-see viewing.

Links:

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

“There is no more foul or relentless enemy of man in the occult world than this dead-alive creature, spewed up from the grave.”

Mark of the Vampire Poster

Synopsis:
When her father (Holmes Herbert) is murdered, a young woman (Elizabeth Allen) relies upon an occult expert (Lionel Barrymore) and a detective (Lionel Atwill) to help solve the mystery, which may involve two local vampires (Bela Lugosi and Carroll Borland).

Genres:

Review:
DVD Savant accurately refers to this outing by cult director Tod Browning as a “confused mess”, labeling it “some stylish scenes in search of a movie”. The film’s notorious storyline twist makes no sense at all, especially given that the suspenseful denouement could have easily occurred without the major plot upheaval; to avoid spoilers, I won’t say more here, though this severely limits my ability to say much more about the film. With that said, James Wong Howe’s cinematography is stunningly atmospheric throughout, and the “haunted” castle inhabited by Lugosi and Borland (the latter a clear inspiration for Vampira) is genuinely spooky. Mark of the Vampire is ultimately a visual treat that deserves a much better vehicle. Worth a look, but be prepared for narrative disappointment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively spooky sets
    Mark of the Vampire Sets
  • Some memorably haunting imagery
    Mark of the Vampire Imagery
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
    Mark of the Vampire Cinematography

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics (and fans of Tod Browning) will likely be curious to check out this follow-up to Dracula (1931). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Cat and the Canary, The (1939)

Cat and the Canary, The (1939)

“That will is practically an invitation to commit murder.”

Cat and Canary 1939 Poster

Synopsis:
The heir (Paulette Goddard) to an eccentric millionaire’s fortune must remain sane and survive the night in his house or risk losing her inheritance to another relative named in a secret will.

Genres:

Review:
This adaptation of John Willard’s 1922 play is notable for providing Bob Hope his starring debut, and for offering Paulette Goddard a chance to show off her sadly under-utilized comedic chops. The film’s “let’s scare the heroine to death” storyline — while imitated ad nauseum by countless later “old dark house” horror flicks — remains solidly suspenseful; you’re guaranteed to be kept in the dark (literally) about the identity of the killer. Director Elliott Nugent and cinematographer Charles Lang do a fine job keeping the proceedings appropriately spooky and atmospheric, though with Hope on board, there’s naturally plenty of corny levity (“Let’s all drink scotch and make wry faces.”). Hope and Goddard’s cinematic chemistry together was so successful that they co-starred in a similar outing the following year — The Ghost Breakers (1940), also listed in Peary’s book.

NB: Paul Leni’s 1927 silent film is another notable screen adaptation of this classic play, and well worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Paulette Goddard as Joyce
    Cat and Canary 1939 Goddard
  • Many genuinely creepy and/or scary moments
    Cat and Canary 1939 Creepy
  • Charles Lang’s atmospheric cinematography
    Cat and Canary 1939 Cinematography
  • Ernst Toch’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

White Christmas (1954)

White Christmas (1954)

“Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, with all that snow.”

White Christmas Poster

Synopsis:
A successful song-and-dance team (Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby) fall for a pair of singing sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Allen) and follow them to their next gig at a lodge in Vermont. When they discover the struggling hotel is run by their beloved former general (Dean Jagger), they decide to help out by bringing their own show to Vermont.

Genres:

Review:
A perennial favorite on television during the holiday season, this top-grossing film of 1954 was directly intended to capitalize on the success of Holiday Inn (1942) (also co-starring Bing Crosby). The storyline, as in Holiday Inn, is pure schmaltz, starting with the opening sequence on a ludicrously unrealistic sound stage (meant to emulate a WWII army camp), in which Crosby immediately sings the title song (why give it away so quickly??), Danny Kaye quickly (and conveniently) proceeds to save his life, and Kaye capitalizes on his act of heroism by finagling a successful performing partnership. Flash-forward ten years later, when Kaye is still the more aggressive of the two (an interesting change of characterization for Kaye), and trying hard to find his buddy a romantic mate. Enter lovely Vera-Allen and Rosemary Clooney (why didn’t Clooney make more films?), a preposterously coincidental encounter with Kaye and Crosby’s beloved former general, a busybody housekeeper (Mary Wickes) who innocently perpetuates an untruth, a faux engagement, an overall “let’s put on a show!” generosity of spirit, and — voila! a feel-good favorite has emerged.

It’s hard to fault White Christmas, given that it never tries to be more than what it is — a colorful, romantic, Vista Vision vehicle for Kaye and Crosby, with plenty of song and dance routines thrown in. With that said, I’m hard-pressed to call this one a genuine “classic”, given that it never really transcends its premise or dares to try anything particularly unique. The performances are all fine, but not particularly noteworthy. Vera-Allen (now known to be suffering from anorexia) is often distractingly thin, and while her performances are as technically proficient and impressive as always, she comes across as somewhat emotionally stiff. Her best dance sequence by far is when she lets her hair down — literally! — to perform “Abraham” with John Brascia (what a treat!); meanwhile, Rosemary Clooney gets to sing some fine ditties, and looks wonderful in Edith Head’s gowns. Irving Berlin’s score is predictably enjoyable, though “What Can You Do With a General?” remains a notorious clunker (but who’s quibbling?). Directed by Michael Curtiz.

Note: White Christmas debuted as a stage musical in 2004, a testament to its enduring popularity.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vera Allen dancing joyously with John Brascia in “Abraham”
    White Christmas Dance
  • Crosby and Kaye performing in ‘drag’
    White Christmas Drag
  • Edith Head’s costumes
    White Christmas Gowns
  • A fine roster of tunes by Irving Berlin

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical significance and enormous popularity.

Categories

Links: