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Month: April 2011

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

“There are many strange legends in the Amazon.”

Synopsis:
A team of researchers traveling on the Amazon River encounter a mysterious humanoid fish, which clearly has designs on the crew’s sexy female scientist (Julia Adams).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this “popular science-fiction film” — with clear thematic parallels to King Kong — is “somewhat overrated”, it’s “still one of the fifties’ best entries in the genre”. He notes that it’s “skillfully directed by Jack Arnold”, features “solid acting”, and possesses “a consistently eerie atmosphere, suspense, and a first-rate monster” (at least for the time in which it was made — though having just rewatched Alien, it’s difficult to argue that the Gill Man is still TRULY frightening to modern audiences). Peary notes that “more than any other fifties science-fiction film, the emphasis is on sex”, given that Adams — a truly stunning B-movie actress, eerily reminiscent of Jennifer Connelly — “always wears revealing shorts or swimsuits”, and “in the sensuous, spooky underwater scene it’s obvious what’s on the creature’s mind”. While the storyline is ultimately too basic to entice me into multiple viewings (it’s essentially an extended cat-and-mouse encounter between the Gill Man and the crew, all taking place within limited confines), it’s all done so well that this remains a seminal “creature feature” of its era — one all film fanatics should at least be familiar with.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Julia Adams as Kay Lawrence
  • Reasonably effective (for the time) monster make-up

Must See?
Yes, as one of the seminal ’50s sci-fi “monster” flicks.

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Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

“It’s real — it’s real! I’m not crazy; I did see it!”

Synopsis:
When the alcoholic wife (Allison Hayes) of a philandering lout (William Hudson) is exposed to radiation and grows 50 feet tall, she seeks revenge on both her husband and his lover (Yvette Vickers).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Along with many others, Peary refers to this infamously titled bad sci-fi film as “laughable camp”, generously labeling its shoddy special effects simply “amusing” (they’re not; they’re horribly disappointing). Peary argues that “the film could be taken as a feminist treatise, in which a woman who has been suppressed… and maltreated breaks free of her bonds and, too angry to talk things out, gives her cheating husband his just deserts” — but then concedes that “most of the fun comes from watching statuesque Hayes run around in a scanty outfit”. Sadly, this is actually true; the problem is that we only see her in her impressive giantess form for the last ten minutes of the movie. Until then, the rest of the film is a rather laughably B-level tale of marital infidelity, with Hudson and Vickers (a truly conniving pair of bastards, if there ever was one) plotting to murder Hayes for her money. This is a film that one simply wishes was more fun than it is.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Allison Hayes lumbering on her rampage at 50 feet tall; too bad there’s less than 10 minutes of this footage

Must See?
Yes, simply for its undeniable notoriety.

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Gunman’s Walk (1958)

Gunman’s Walk (1958)

“Ed’s just got to prove he’s as good as Lee ever was — he can’t stand being second best.”

Synopsis:
When the trigger-happy son (Tab Hunter) of a cattle rancher (Van Heflin) is accused of murder, his brother (James Darren) — in love with the victim’s “half-breed” sister (Kathryn Grant) — finds his loyalties conflicted.

Genres:

Review:
As noted in Mike Grost’s analytical overview of Phil Karlson’s films, Gunman’s Walk accurately reflects the sentiments and concerns of both its director (in the way it shows “the effects of hate and violence poisoning people’s characters”) and its screenwriter, Frank Nugent (whose concern with racial prejudice was evident as well in his screenplays for both The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge). Indeed, Gunman’s Walk is a surprisingly hard-hitting western which touches on some challenging themes — most notably, the need to scale back on violence and machismo in a newly evolving West, and the enduring legacy of racial prejudice against Native Americans. This is ultimately a film about cognitive dissonance, given that all three leading male characters must deal with uncomfortable facts they don’t want to have to face. Van Heflin gives an excellent performance in the central role as a father who understands (and even admires) his son’s gun-loving ways, but slowly realizes he can no longer support him unconditionally; meanwhile, teen heartthrob Tab Hunter is believably hot-headed as Ed Hackett, and James Darren does a fine job as his conflicted brother. Definitely worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Van Heflin as Lee Hackett
  • Frank S. Nugent’s smart script

Must See?
Yes, for Heflin’s memorable performance. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986)

“We’d better get back, ’cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly.”

Synopsis:
The sole survivor (Sigourney Weaver) of an alien attack travels back to the planet where it took place, in hopes of warning its new residents.

Genres:

Review:
James Cameron’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is, as many have noted, a rare instance in which a sequel matches its predecessor in both quality and entertainment value. In a cleverly conceived scenario, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) — who has been in a “sleep coma” for over fifty years — is accidentally discovered by a salvage crew (whose first reaction, notably, is one of disappointment for losing its potential commission; this is a future universe in which greed rules all). Against her better judgment, she’s bullied into returning to the planet where aliens annihilated her crew, and where a settlement of humans is now (supposedly) thriving. We’re also given a bit of a back-story, learning that Ripley was the mother of a young girl who has since aged and died — thus nicely setting the stage for Ripley’s fierce protection of a young girl (Carrie Henn as “Newt”) she finds hiding on the planet. Finally, the nameless corporation which put the entire crew of the Nostromo in harm’s way in Alien is given a face (Paul Reiser) this time around, allowing audiences to palpably hiss at a known (human) enemy.

The sets and special effects in Aliens are just as effective as before, though everything feels (appropriately) amped up a notch. While Alien was essentially a slow-moving thriller punctuated by bursts of seat-jumping violence, Aliens possesses many more non-stop action sequences — and yes, there are more aliens this time. Surrounded by a crew of ultra-macho Marines (including a couple of remarkably buff women), Ripley is no longer alone in her battle against the beasts — though she does (infamously) face off alone against “Mother” (the mother alien) at one point. Henn (who left movie-making to become a teacher and a mother) does a fine job as Newt, and is given the film’s most memorably campy line (quoted above, and infamously spoofed on “South Park”). This kid is placed in some seriously dangerous situations, yet remains refreshingly realistic about it all — she’s got both excellent luck and plucky determination on her side.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (nominated by the actual Academy as Best Actress of the Year, but not by Peary in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Gruesome special effects
  • Many genuinely heart-thumping action sequences

Must See?
Yes. This sequel is a worthy follow-up to Alien, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

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

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Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)

“Alien life form; looks like it’s been dead a long time.”

Synopsis:
The crew of an interstellar mining ship battles for its survival when it encounters a vicious alien species.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Ridley Scott’s “frightening, ferocious science-fiction film” — which “incorporates many elements of the horror film” — is “loved by many science-fiction fans” but “despised by others” (really? is it still?). He himself argues (and I agree) that it’s an “underrated”, “extremely scary, well-made, interesting film” — one which could be viewed as simply a “violent, big-budget rip-off of [the] cheap fifties SF film, It! The Terror From Beyond Space” but deserves recognition on its own merits, as a modern-day cult classic. In addition to the “stunning” design work (by H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb, and Michael Seymour) and truly creepy special effects (the “terrifying scene” in which “a creature attaches itself” to John Hurt’s face makes me jump every time), Scott’s direction of the film — essentially an “old dark house” thriller, in which one character after the other is murdered — is “as imaginative as it is (properly) manipulative”, given that he “builds tension by having characters talk in hushed tones, smoke incessantly, drink coffee, pace nervously, sweat, [and] argue”.

Indeed, for an action thriller, Alien is surprisingly character-driven. As Peary points out, this is the “first space film that has working-class heroes rather than scientists and astronauts flying a ship”, and the entire supporting cast — most notably Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert, and Ian Holm as the android “Ash” — give effectively memorable and nuanced performances. In her first starring role, Weaver (as Ripley) is a refreshingly focused and competent leader — so much so that we’re almost willing to forgive Scott for turning her into a temporary sex object during the film’s infamous final “strip” sequence (the precursor to a genuinely terrifying denouement). What’s perhaps scariest of all about this film, however, is the fact that it’s not the alien, but instead the ship’s “home corporation” who is the “real villain of the piece”, given that it willingly “sacrifices people for discovery”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sigourney Weaver as Ripley
  • Memorable supporting performances across the board
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Effectively futuristic sets and production design
  • Excellent special effects
  • A remarkably freaky screenplay

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

Categories

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

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Inserts (1975)

Inserts (1975)

“Nothing simple, Miss Cake, is ever pure.”

Synopsis:
A has-been silent movie director (Richard Dreyfuss) is reduced to making stag films in his house with a drug-addicted starlet (Veronica Cartwright) and an oafish stud (Stephen Davies).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of this “sexually perverse” film — which earned “devastating reviews” as well as a “deserved X rating” upon its release, but eventually “developed a strong cult following” — is largely positive. He argues that it’s “neither as pretentious nor as self-indulgent as most critics” found it, and notes that it’s “hard not to be impressed by the terrific ensemble acting; the biting, witty script about Hollywood types; and how director-writer John Byrum” (whose disappointing follow-up film was 1980’s Heart Beat) “uses sex not only to entrance viewers but thematically as well”. He points out that while “the film starts out with stereotypical situations”, the plot eventually “takes weird twists and the characters turn out to be genuinely quirky”. He calls out the “deadpan” humor, which is “always on the edge”, turning the film into a “satirical comedy” (a point which “some critics overlooked”). He notes that “because of the style of the dialogue and the use of one large set, the picture seems as if it might have been written for the stage”, but it “is about film and its power”; ultimately, he argues that “the film’s message is simply that life is restrictive and film is liberating”.

I’m largely in agreement with Peary’s points above — for its first hour, that is. While it took me a while to get used to the film’s markedly theatrical tone, I was fascinated by Byrum’s premise, and wanted to know more about these oddly believable characters. Playing an annoyingly voiced actress reduced to starring in stag films after the introduction of talkies, Cartwright (you’ll barely recognize her at first) gives an incredibly charismatic and fearless performance: we’re immediately intrigued by her relationship with Dreyfuss (also very good), and astonished by her willingness to play a role so aggressively sexual. At about the mid-way point, unfortunately, her character is no longer central to the screenplay, and Jessica Harper as “Cathy Cake” suddenly dominates the story — and it’s at this point that the artificiality of Byrum’s set-up is suddenly glaringly apparent.

To cut to the chase, I’m astonished that neither Peary (nor any other critic I’ve read so far) points out how disturbingly skeletal Harper is (Peary simply calls her “great” in the role). This feature makes much more sense in her best-known role as a ballerina in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), but is almost laughably inappropriate here. Her character (girlfriend of producer Bob Hoskins) is desperate to play a role in Dreyfuss’s latest film — most specifically, to help out with his sexually explicit “inserts” — but this defies all common sense, given that she looks nothing like Cartwright, and is too shockingly bony to be shown on-screen in this particular fashion. Naturally, women of all sizes and shapes might desire a role in porn films — I’m not debating that. Yet her request here simply comes across as a plot device, one meant to lead us to the film’s revelatory denouement. As a female, I hate to focus on a woman’s appearance as a deal-breaker in her suitability for a role — but in this case, it put a serious damper on my ability to believe in (or pay attention to) what I was seeing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Dreyfuss as the Boy Wonder
  • Veronica Cartwright as Harlene

Must See?
No, though the first half is definitely worth a look — especially to see Cartwright.

Links:

Undead, The (1957)

Undead, The (1957)

“I mean to invade the depths of the mind; that is not nonsense.”

Synopsis:
A hypnotist (Val Dufour) with questionable ethics sends a call girl (Pamela Duncan) back in time to a previous life, in which she was a wrongly condemned to die as a witch — but soon he realizes that she may be altering the outcome of history, and thus her own future existence.

Genres:

  • Falsely Accused
  • Fantasy
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Past Lives
  • Roger Corman Films
  • Time Travel
  • Witches and Wizards

Review:
Clearly an attempt to cash in on the “past lives craze” engendered by the release of The Search for Bridey Murphy the previous year, this fantasy-horror film was just one of nine low-budget flicks helmed by Roger Corman in 1957. For the first half-hour or so, it’s unclear why Corman’s screenwriters (Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna) even bothered with the past-lives angle, since their primary focus seems to be on the fate of Duncan-as-Helene, a medieval damsel falsely accused of witchcraft by jealous Allison Hayes (who covets her lover, Richard Garland). Eventually, however, the two storylines merge, as it becomes clear that Dufour’s questionable dabblings may have unexpectedly dire ramifications for his unwitting subject.

As with nearly all of Corman’s outings, The Undead is often laughably low-budget (viz. the way Hayes and her impish consort, played by Billy Barty, magically transform into rubber creatures on strings), and the storyline frequently defies all credibility (don’t even try to analyze it logically) — but, amazingly, it’s never boring. Corman’s gift was with taking any given scenario, stuffing it as full as possible from every exploitative angle, and moving quickly ahead, never leaving audience members with enough time to worry or wonder about what they’re seeing. In this particular case, he’s helped by a number of clever touches sprinkled throughout the screenplay — such as the little ditties sung by Mel Welles (as Smolkin the Gravedigger), in which he takes traditional nursery rhymes and turns them into macabre meditations on death:

Sing a song of graveyards, an acre full of germs /
Four and twenty landlords, dinner for the worms.
When the box was planted, the worms began to sing:
“Isn’t that a dainty dish to set before a thing?”

Meanwhile, Hayes gives a deliciously vampy performance as “bad witch” Livia, while Dorothy Neumann (in surprisingly effective low-budget make-up) is fine as her ugly but ultimately good-natured counterpart. None of this is to defend The Undead as anything other than the low-budget exploitation flick it is, and it’s not must-see viewing — but there’s enough here to keep you reasonably entertained, if you’re in the right mood (especially if you check out the MST3K version, available on YouTube).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mel Welles as Smolkin the Gravedigger
  • Allison Hayes as Livia

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its campy cult value.

Links:

Bostonians, The (1984)

Bostonians, The (1984)

“You always want to please someone — Miss Chancellor, your parents, whoever else is dear to you. But it’s not really you.”

Synopsis:
A suffragette (Vanessa Redgrave) and her chauvinist southern cousin (Christopher Reeve) vie for the affections of a charismatic young orator (Madeleine Potter).

Genres:

  • Christopher Reeve Films
  • Feminism and Women’s Issues
  • Jessica Tandy Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Merchant Ivory Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Vanessa Redgrave Films

Review:
Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation* of Henry James’ tragicomic novel (which prompted the coining of the phrase “Boston marriage”) is apparently quite faithful to its source material (which I’ve never read) — up until its infamously modified final scene. Vanessa Redgrave deservedly won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a very thinly-veiled lesbian suffragette in post-Civil War Boston who falls head-over-heels in love with Potter from the moment she first hears her speak; meanwhile, Christopher Reeve gives one of his best non-Superman performances as the unapologetically prick-ish southern lawyer vying for Potter’s attentions. As the center of the battle between Redgrave and Reeve, Potter — an unconventionally cherubic beauty — is a controversial casting choice, but ultimately (I believe) suits the role: she exudes enough gentle charisma to convince one of her viability as a magnet for both suitors. This most unusual “love triangle” plays out against Merchant-Ivory’s typically lush period sets, and — despite a frustratingly melodramatic ending, and insufficiently explored characterizations — offers some subtly provocative statements about the nature of repression, longing, obsession, and rivalry.

* Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, long-time Merchant-Ivory collaborator, wrote the screenplay.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vanessa Redgrave as Olive Chancellor (oddly excluded from Peary’s list of nominees in Alternate Oscars)
  • Christopher Reeve as Basil Ransome
  • Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant
  • Fine supporting performances (in small roles) by Jessica Tandy, Linda Hunt, and Nancy Marchand


  • Lovely sets and production values

Must See?
No, though it’s strongly recommended just to see Redgrave’s performance.

Links:

Your Past is Showing (a.k.a. The Naked Truth) (1957)

Your Past is Showing (a.k.a. The Naked Truth) (1957)

“Getting rid of people seems to be a hobby of yours!”

Synopsis:
A game show host (Peter Sellers), a mystery writer (Peggy Mount), a model (Shirley Eaton), and a womanizing lord (Terry-Thomas) unsuccessfully try to murder the journalist (Dennis Price) who is blackmailing them.

Genres:

  • Black Comedy
  • Blackmail
  • Mistaken Identities
  • Peter Sellers Films
  • Plot to Murder

Review:
The premise of this amiable British black comedy starts off with a bang, as Price’s unapologetically sleazy gossipmonger provokes consternation (or worse) in a bevy of celebrities with smear-worthy skeletons in their closets — until a small handful of his victims suddenly decide that enough is enough. The rest of the film is taken up with their various attempts (solo or collaborative) to “off” him, with Sellers having plenty of fun dressing up in various disguises, gap-toothed Terry-Thomas playing essentially a variation on his usual self, and gravelly-voiced Peggy Mount exhibiting fine comedic rapport with Joan Sims as her nervous-nellie daughter. Unfortunately, the one-note situation eventually wears out its welcome: it drags on for a bit too long, and (ironically) Price is gone too long off-screen. While it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics, however, fans of Sellers will surely want to see this early pivotal film in his career — one which afforded him his first leading role, and catapulted him to even greater fame.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Sellers as Sonny MacGregor
  • Peggy Mount and Joan Sims as as Flora and Ethel Ransom

Must See?
No, though it’s worth seeking out for one-time viewing.

Links:

Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1934)

Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1934)

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere.”

Synopsis:
A British baronet (Leslie Howard) secretly rescues French aristocrats from death during the Reign of Terror, hiding his identity from both his unhappy wife (Merle Oberon) and a ruthless French ambassador (Raymond Massey) determined to nab the elusive “Scarlet Pimpernel” at any cost.

Genres:

  • Folk Heroes
  • French Revolution
  • Historical Drama
  • Leslie Howard Films
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Merle Oberon Films
  • Mistaken Identities
  • Royalty and Nobility

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this Alexander Korda production “one of cinema’s most enjoyable historical romances/adventures”, noting that it has “suspense, ironic wit, excellent cinematography…, beautiful costumes, and impressive sets”. In perhaps his best-known role (other than playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind), Leslie Howard is note-perfect as the title character, the “damned elusive” Scarlet Pimpernel — a “fine and dandy hero who, refreshingly, succeeds by quick wits rather than a quick sword”, and possesses a simply fabulous alter ego. (Indeed, I may call this one of the best “mistaken identity” films out there.) He fearlessly presents his non-heroic front as “a frivolous, foppish, clothes-conscious, poetry-reciting weakling” — the exact stereotype of the nobility he’s risking his life to save. To that end, as Peary notes, there is a “bias” in the film in terms of the way it makes us “fantasize nobleness in the nobility”, but we’re willing to roll with this given that it clearly wasn’t okay for Robespierre and his henchmen to wantonly kill off an entire class of people, no matter how disgruntled they may have felt. Meanwhile, Oberon, as Peary notes, “is a stunningly beautiful heroine” in her “tight bodices” and “fancy hats and dresses”, and Raymond Massey gives an appropriately “devilish performance” as the film’s ruthless baddie.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blakeney (nominated by Peary as one of the best actors of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Merle Oberon as Lady Blakeney
  • Raymond Massey as Chauvelin
  • Harold Rosson’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic. As a public domain title, it’s available for free viewing at http://archive.org.

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