Browsed by
Month: January 2011

Forever Amber (1947)

Forever Amber (1947)

“She’s in love with her own ambitions; I’m only part of them.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious orphan (Linda Darnell) falls in love with a nobleman (Cornel Wilde) during the Stuart Restoration, but her desire for social advancement at any cost compromises their relationship.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cornel Wilde Films
  • George Sanders Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Jessica Tandy Films
  • Linda Darnell Films
  • Obsessive Love
  • Otto Preminger Films
  • Richard Haydn Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Social Climbers

Review:
Linda Darnell replaced Peggy Cummins at the last minute as the title character in this big-budget historical epic, directed by Otto Preminger and based on Kathleen Winsor’s notoriously scandalous bestseller about a “wench” in 17th century England, a “loose” woman who bears a child out of wedlock and sleeps with various men as needed to achieve her goals. Darnell is surprisingly effective as Amber, a willful, self-reliant woman with one fatal flaw: an undying love for a man (Wilde) who simply doesn’t love her as much in return. But because Wilde’s character is a bit of a wet blanket — and because we don’t sense much chemistry between these two nominal romantic leads — Amber’s obsession with him never quite rings as true as it should.

Meanwhile, the lengthy, overblown script — which attempts to cover the novel’s 900+ pages in 138 minutes — often drags, leading one to concede that Amber DOES last “forever”. Yet I’ll admit that eventually (in classic “page-turner” fashion) I found myself caught up in Amber’s fate, and curious to see what situation she would get herself into (and out of) next.

Watch for a couple of noteworthy supporting performances: George Sanders is perfectly cast as hedonistic King Charles II; while his screentime is limited, he’s given some pithy zingers, and pulls off a couple of memorable later scenes with typically droll panache. Richard Haydn is equally effective in a small role as the older titled man Amber ends up marrying, for better or for worse.

Note: Jessica Tandy appears in a small role as Amber’s prisonmate-turned-servant.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Linda Darnell as Amber
  • George Sanders as King Charles II
  • Richard Haydn as the Earl of Radcliffe

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Preminger completists or fans of period epics.

Links:

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

“An Englishman never jokes about a wager.”

Synopsis:
In Victorian England, a gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) wagers his entire fortune that he can travel across the world in 80 days.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cat-and-Mouse
  • David Niven Films
  • Detective and Private Eyes
  • John Gielgud Films
  • John Mills Films
  • Jules Verne Adaptations
  • Race Against Time
  • Road Trip
  • Robert Newton Films
  • Shirley MacLaine Films

Review:
Despite its enormous popularity at the time of its release — it ran for three consecutive years in New York City, and won an Oscar as best picture of the year — Around the World in Eighty Days (based on the classic adventure novel by Jules Verne) is acknowledged by many these days as boring, too slow, and, quite frankly, not even close to best-picture-worthy material. Yet there’s no denying the visual impact of producer Michael Todd’s “Todd-AO” 70-mm cinematography — a direct result of his prior production work on Cinerama spectacles; and as a global travelogue (which is surely a part of what viewers at the time found appealing) it’s quite stunning. It’s actually rather mystical to look out the train window along with Fogg and his butler Passepartout (Mexican comedian Cantinflas) as they travel across the fields and plains of rural India, for instance.

As an adventure story, however, Around the World… falls surprisingly flat. Despite the built-in drama of Fogg literally racing against time to make it back to London (with his entire fortune at stake), the film takes its own sweet time stopping at sundry picturesque destinations, as various minor subplots are played out. A major narrative thread — involving a detective (Robert Newton, in his last film role) attempting to nab Fogg as a suspect in a bank robbery — is merely irritating, given that Newton literally shadows Fogg the entire trip, and should just arrest him already if he’s going to (though that would spoil the film’s infamous twist ending).

Meanwhile, Fogg’s growing romantic interest in a widowed Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) rescued from a funeral pyre generates zero sparks, and is frustrating to watch given that it’s Passepartout, not Fogg, who risks his life to rescue her (but does she acknowledge him at all? not a chance!).

Speaking of Cantinflas — while there’s a certain historical interest in seeing the man who was the highest paid actor of his time (and I’m happy, as a Western viewer, to at least be acquainted with him), both his performance and his character are, to be blunt, irritating. (I’m sure he must have been more entertaining when filming in his native language in straight comedies — right?). Meanwhile, MacLaine — in skin-darkening make-up and Indian outfits — simply looks uncomfortable throughout, and barely registers (which is truly odd, given her notoriously quirky personality). And while Niven purportedly named this his favorite role of all time, his Fogg ultimately comes off as a rather bland (if undeniably resourceful and resilient) chap.

Niven, MacLaine, Newton, and Cantinflas are, of course, only a handful of the many “big name” stars who appear in the film — indeed, so many show up for cameos that this is credited as the movie that first popularized the term (and general concept) of a “cameo appearance”. And there is undeniably a certain amount of fun to be had in scanning for stars’ faces, given that they show up again and again; you may find yourself muttering out loud, “Could that be… Really? Yes, it is! But (s)he doesn’t even say a word!”


As Peary notes in his Alternate Oscars book, it was rather wise of Todd to offer “cameos to almost every actor in the universe”, since, as he notes, “How could the Academy members vote against their friends?” Touche.

Note: Saul Bass’s immensely clever closing credits (which essentially summarize the film in creative caricatures) are a fabulous ending to this dauntingly long (183-minute running time) film. On that note, you can cut at least a little bit out if you watch it at home on DVD, given that there are Entr’acte and Exit musical sequences to fast-forward through (the musical score is catchy, but not THAT catchy!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Truly impressive wide-screen Todd-AO cinematography
  • Saul Bass’s inspired closing credits

Must See?
Yes, but only out of historical curiosity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Made For Each Other (1971)

Made For Each Other (1971)

“That’s why Gig and I are so good for each other: We’re two self-destructives confronting the life source.”

Synopsis:
A neurotic Jewish woman (Renee Taylor) and a womanizing Italian (Joseph Bologna) meet at a group therapy session and fall tentatively in love.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Romantic Comedy

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this “brutally insightful” romantic comedy by husband-and-wife team Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor is spot on: he notes that while the “picture starts out awkwardly”, you should “stick with it because you’ll be rewarded” by scenes that “you may have seen previously only in your own life — never on the screen”. Indeed, it possesses a surprising number of “exceptional scenes… filled with pain and humor” — as Peary notes, it’s likely that “only an acting couple who are really in love and trust one another would dare play such emotionally devastating sequences” (and it’s especially heartwarming to know that they’re still together, in real life, after 40 years of marriage). At times, Taylor and Bologna’s script goes for laughs that are a little too obvious and easy (i.e., most of the initial group therapy scene) — yet slowly but surely, they allow their (semi-autobiographical?) characters to delve mercilessly into the flaws and neuroses that so often tear couples apart, and a surprising amount of honesty emerges. I’ll admit I didn’t expect myself to be so enmeshed in these characters’ fates by the film’s undeniably powerful ending.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Renee Taylor as Pandora
  • Joseph Bologna as Gig
  • Fine supporting performances
  • A surprisingly smart and insightful screenplay

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended, if you can locate a copy.

Links:

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt (1968)

“You work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.”

Synopsis:
A police detective (Steve McQueen) hired to protect a mafia informant (Pat Renella) investigates his ward’s brutal assassination.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Criminal Investigation
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Jacqueline Bissett Films
  • Steve McQueen Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this iconic crime drama as “top-notch”, pointing out Peter Yates’ “extremely impressive” direction and “great use of San Francisco locations”. He notes that the “film has [an] authentic feel to it”, with the “street and crowd scenes… particularly believable”, and calls out the “several very exciting action sequences, including the influential, dizzying car chase… up and down the steep San Francisco streets”. He argues that “even more memorable”, however, “are all the bits of business that give us insight into Bullitt’s character”, including the brief yet revealing scene showing that his “shopping consists of buying six TV dinners without bothering to see what they are”. Bullitt did arguably afford Steve McQueen his “best role”, and I’ll agree with Peary that it’s “too bad there weren’t more films about Bullitt” (though I disagree with his assertion that they should “counter Dirty Harry” — I’m a fan of that series!).

Peary notes that this film “has never been given its due” — an interesting statement, since it’s most definitely remembered and revered by many as a cult hit. (In fact, just the other day on an L.A. freeway I was driving behind a Ford Mustang GT with “Bullitt” as its vanity plate, and “Steve McQueen” written on the plate frame). But perhaps that’s exactly Peary’s point: this film is so closely associated with McQueen’s car (and the justifiably lauded car chase it’s involved in) that it’s easy to overlook how enjoyable the film is as a police procedural and character study. The investigation is remarkably well-written, with the unexpected “plot twist” that occurs fairly early on (as McQueen’s ward is murdered) leaving us wondering what will come next. Indeed, the screenplay — which uncovers a “bizarre plot involving lookalike criminals” — almost never disappoints, with just one exception: the rather thankless role of Bullitt’s girlfriend (Jacqueline Bissett); Bissett tries her best but is saddled with such a god-awful speech at one point that it actually grinds things to a halt — temporarily. Despite this minor hiccup, however, Bullitt remains a must-see classic of the genre, one which merits multiple enjoyable viewings.

An interesting bit of trivia: according to TCM, Bullitt was “the first film shot entirely on location with an all-Hollywood crew”

Addendum (1/14/11): RIP, Peter Yates.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt (Peary votes him Best Actor of the year in his Alternate Oscars book, though he wasn’t even nominated by the Academy at the time)
  • The exciting car chase (and other action sequences)
  • A smart, taut script

Must See?
Yes, as an iconic classic of the genre.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic

Links:

Hurry Sundown (1967)

Hurry Sundown (1967)

“Land lasts: you take care of it, and it’ll take care of you.”

Synopsis:
The unscrupulous husband (Michael Caine) of a land-owning Southern heiress (Jane Fonda) attempts to buy out two small plots of land: one owned by his poor cousin (John Phillip Law) and his wife (Faye Dunaway), the other by a black farmer (Robert Hooks) whose mother (Beah Richards) was Fonda’s wetnurse.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African Americans
  • Burgess Meredith Films
  • Deep South
  • Faye Dunaway Films
  • George Kennedy Films
  • Jane Fonda Films
  • Michael Caine Films
  • Otto Preminger Films
  • Race Relations
  • Rex Ingram Films

Review:
Notoriously lambasted by critics and viewers alike, Otto Preminger’s adaptation of K.B. Gilden’s novel is perhaps best remembered today for the hellacious time its cast and crew members had working with Preminger (who described the film as “his most important project”). Anecdotes abound, with Caine apparently reporting to film critic Rex Reed that Preminger was “only happy when everybody else [was] miserable”, and Faye Dunaway (in her screen debut) so distressed by working with Preminger — who she insisted didn’t know “anything at all about the process of acting” — that she went to court and paid a large sum of money to get out of her five-film contract with him. Meanwhile, the very process of filming on southern soil during the height of Jim Crow racial tensions was incredibly stressful for all involved, with Hooks noting, “All of us were convinced that we were surrounded by some of the dumbest and meanest people on the face of the earth, to say nothing of being the most cowardly.”

Interestingly, the film itself is not really as bad as its reputation warrants — and its inclusion in the Medved brothers’ The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978) seems highly suspect. By focusing on the intersecting fates of three “representative” southern households — one white and monied, one white and poor, one black and poor — the film does make (perhaps unintended) “statements” about class and race in the South, but the primary characters themselves are reasonably nuanced (though not all are provided with enough screentime for full development). Most impressive is Jane Fonda, giving a compelling performance in a pivotal role as an unhappily married woman forced to confront her husband’s deception and malpractice; the film eventually becomes her story, and she does a fine job investing viewers in the discomfort of her character’s increasing cognitive dissonance. Diahann Carroll is also noteworthy in a small role that should have been fleshed out more fully.

However, the film most definitely has its share of “bad movie” moments and performances. Both Burgess Meredith as a bigoted lawyer and George Kennedy as a buffoonish sheriff are laughably one-dimensional; Caine’s southern accent falters a bit too often (though he IS, naturally, believable as a caddish heel); and Richards (in a tiny, underdeveloped role) gives a sensitive, heartbreaking performance — up until the moment her heart LITERALLY “breaks”, and she melodramatically pantomimes an attack. Meanwhile, Fonda and Caine’s emotionally disturbed son (John Mark) is never convincing (nor is the lame back-story attempting to explain why he suddenly “became” the way he is), and a number of essential plot elements — such as Law’s unconvincing friendship with Hooks (why does he slip in and out of bigotry?) — are handled sloppily. Finally, Hugo Montenegro’s energetic film score is ultimately inappropriate (it sounds better suited for a western), and egregiously misused at times.

With all that said, this is one you’ll have to watch for yourself to determine whether you consider to be an entirely skippable clunker, or a flawed but well-intentioned and occasionally compelling misfire.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Julie Ann Warren
  • Diahann Carroll as Vivian Thurlow

Must See?
No, though film fanatics may be curious to check it out, given its historical notoriety.

Links:

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

“Recently I’ve had the weirdest dreams — as if I must tell myself something I won’t listen to when I’m awake.”

Synopsis:
An elderly professor (Victor Sjostrom) travelling to an awards ceremony reflects upon the joys and pains of his past, attempting to understand why he is seen by many as cold and unforgiving.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • Elderly People
  • Flashback Films
  • Ingmar Bergman Films
  • Max von Sydow Films
  • Road Trip
  • Scandinavian Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this enduring “journey of self-knowledge” by master writer/director Ingmar Bergman as “cinematic storytelling at its best” — a beloved film which “defies criticism” given how great its “impact [has] been on ‘art’-film lovers, film students, and filmmakers.” He notes that watching it is akin to being “with Scrooge on a look at Christmas Past“, as the film’s protagonist (Victor Sjostrom, giving a “captivating performance” as “cold” professor Isak Borg) slowly “begins to display traces of humanity and compassion”. Indeed, it’s impossible not to be moved by Borg’s haunting process of self-discovery, as he’s forced (through insistent dreams and visions) to acknowledge aspects of his personality that have caused him unspoken grief over the years.

Wild Strawberries is, in essence, an elaborate “flashback film”, yet with a strategic thematic twist, given that Borg is privy to life-altering scenes he could never have seen in real life. Indeed, Bergman daringly plays with the viewer’s notion of cinematic continuity and integrity in a way that audiences at the time found either frustrating or thrilling (Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, for instance, referred to the film as “so thoroughly mystifying that we wonder whether Mr. Bergman himself knew what he was trying to say”.) Peary, however, argues in retrospect that “rather than being as intimidating as later Bergman films, [Wild Strawberries] is simple enough on the surface for viewers to have the energy to dig for the inner meanings and complexities” — and it’s certainly the best film to introduce to budding film fanatics interested in exploring Bergman’s esteemed oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Victor Sjostrom as Isak Borg
  • Ingrid Thulin as Marianne (Borg’s daughter-in-law)
  • The opening nightmare sequence
  • Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography

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

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Important Director

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

Links:

Navy vs. the Night Monsters, The (1966)

Navy vs. the Night Monsters, The (1966)

“Let’s not forget the penguins!”

Synopsis:
Residents on a South Seas Naval base are terrorized by acid-secreting monster trees transplanted from Antarctica.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Killer Plants
  • Mamie Van Doren Films
  • Military
  • Science Fiction

Review:
Rated just 2.4 stars by users on IMDb, this notoriously awful sci-fi horror flick offers stunningly few redeeming qualities, even for diehard bad-movie aficionados. Clearly inspired by both The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Day of the Triffids (1962), it attempts to bank upon the (questionable) cinematic trope of killer plants — yet the “monsters” that appear on-screen are simply laughably non-menacing walking tree costumes.

Other than its intriguing alliterative title, this film is probably best known for co-starring Mamie Van Doren as a naval nurse with a penchant for wearing tightly revealing au couture uniforms; but even she herself was highly dismissive of her work here.

This clunker is most definitely skippable.

Note: You WILL have to watch the film for yourself if you want to understand the significance of the quote selected above; seriously, I can’t help you on that one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stanley Cortez’s cinematography

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this one. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Tightrope (1984)

Tightrope (1984)

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that sometime.”

Synopsis:
A bitterly divorced detective (Clint Eastwood) with two young daughters (Alison Eastwood and Jenny Beck) delves into the underworld of New Orleans while pursuing a wily, mask-wearing serial killer (Marco St. John).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cat-and-Mouse
  • Clint Eastwood Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Genevieve Bujold Films
  • Serial Killers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this “Clint Eastwood psychological thriller, written and moodily directed by his protege, Richard Tuggle”, as “atmospheric and suspenseful”, noting that it’s “a bit overrated but still compelling”. He points out that this was “the picture that swayed the critics of America to finally take Eastwood seriously”, given his attempt to break away from his Dirty Harry persona and delve in murkier psychological waters. Yet Peary argues that this film actually wasn’t a “rare attempt” in this regard, given that “Eastwood [plays] with his image in all his films”; Peary posits that far from being a “variation” on Dirty Harry, Harry and the character of “Wes Block” in Tightrope represent “antithetical attitudes toward law enforcement”, given that “Harry is a maverick cop, [while] Block plays it by the book”, among other reasons.

The in-depth character analysis provided in Peary’s review of Tightrope hints at part of the reason for its inclusion in his book, which is that audiences and critics at the time (including Peary) were understandably intrigued by Eastwood’s cult of personality, and eager to see what he would come up with next. Unfortunately, viewed years after the fact, this particular entry in Eastwood’s estimable oeuvre comes up short. While it’s certainly “suspenseful” during key sequences (indeed, there are some genuinely freaky moments that had me glued to the screen), it’s ultimately too cliched and derivative to be entirely successful as a thriller. The trope of a cop seduced by the underbelly of the city he’s paid to serve and protect has been handled numerous times on-screen (most recently in Werner Herzog’s smarmy but effective Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, taking place in the same city); and while the cat-and-mouse maneuvers between Eastwood and St. John are predictably chilling, they don’t really offer anything new to the genre.

Meanwhile, we don’t learn enough about Eastwood’s divorce to understand why he’s so bitter about women, or what role his own character flaws might have played in the breakup of his marriage. (His ex-wife literally appears as a cipher on-screen, and, if I recall correctly, may not even speak any lines.) If you do decide to check this one out, however, watch for Genevieve Bujold in a “strong and appealing” role as a “rape-crisis therapist who gets [Eastwood] to confront his hostility toward women”; she’s one of the film’s strongest elements.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Genevieve Bujold as Beryl

Must See?
No, unless you’re an Eastwood completist.

Links:

French Postcards (1979)

French Postcards (1979)

“I’m not talking about school — I’m talking about life!”

Synopsis:
A group of American college students (Miles Chapin, David Marshall Grant, Blanche Baker, and Debra Winger) experience life and love while studying abroad at an institute in Paris.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • College
  • Coming-of-Age
  • Debra Winger Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Expatriates

Review:
A minor cult favorite among those with fond memories of watching it years ago, this coming-of-age tale is, unfortunately, a real miss. Writer/director Willard Huyck (who wrote the screenplay for American Graffiti, a clear inspiration) can’t seem to find an appropriate tone or pace for his film, which veers wildly from sophomoric situational humor to romantic tenderness and introspection, and never manages to establish a strong sense of cohesion among the characters. The most engaging narrative thread follows the travails of nerdy Miles Chapin, who falls for and successfully woos a Parisian shopgirl (appealing newcomer Valérie Quennessen); the film should have focused on their story exclusively. Instead, we’re forced to sit through the much less convincing — and infinitely more irritating — storyline involving Grant’s crush on the exchange institute’s sexy director (Marie-France Pisier), who (for selfish and entirely unethical reasons of her own) encourages his fantasies. (NB: Jean Rochefort as her philandering husband is essentially a cameo.)

Meanwhile, the screenplay’s other purported protagonists are given surprisingly short shrift. Blanche Baker (Carroll Baker’s daughter) shows up sporadically throughout the first half of the film, but only in voiceover, valiantly dictating cheerful postcards to a phantom boyfriend back at home while actually having a miserable, lonely time. When she’s finally given some screentime later in the film, she’s reduced to playing a potential rape victim in a series of ludicrously tasteless scenes with Mandy Patinkin (playing a lecherous Iranian travel agent). And while film fanatics may be mildly curious to check this film out simply to see Debra Winger in one of her earliest roles, be forewarned: her character is literally almost non-existent.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Valérie Quennessen as Toni

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this clunker.

Links:

Jungle Princess, The (1936)

Jungle Princess, The (1936)

“Devils are as real to these people as leopards and pythons are to us — as real, and a lot more terrifying.”

Synopsis:
While visiting Malaysia with his fiancee (Molly Lamont) and her father, a scientist (Ray Milland) is attacked by a tiger in the jungle, and rescued by a beautiful native girl (Dorothy Lamour) who falls in love with him.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Akim Tamiroff Films
  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Dorothy Lamour Films
  • Jungles
  • Love Triangle
  • Native Peoples
  • Ray Milland Films

Review:
This innocuous tale of a native “wild child” who falls in love with the first (white) male she encounters after years of surviving on her own in the jungle is pure Hollywood fantasy all the way. There’s little in the silly narrative that’s either unique or interesting, and the “love triangle” element (between Milland, Lamour, and Lamont) is handled so tepidly that Milland’s character actually says at one point (with deadpan British politeness), “I’m terribly sorry, dear, but I’m afraid I seem to be in love with her.” This hard-to-find title is clearly included in Peary’s book simply because of its notoriety as Lamour’s breakthrough role, and she is indeed sumptuous to look at: all wide eyes and innocent giggles, with flowing brown hair and tinted skin, she would forever after be associated as the exotic, sarong-wearing love interest, most notably in the “Road To…” films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (no less than five of which are listed in Peary’s book!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The impressive opening elephant stampede sequence — but watch Chang (1927) instead for an even more satisfying variation on this scene (and a much better film overall)

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for diehard Dorothy Lamour fans.

Links: