Browsed by
Month: June 2012

Salvador (1986)

Salvador (1986)

“You gotta get close, Rich, to get the truth. You get too close, you die.”

Synopsis:
A down-on-his-luck photojournalist (James Woods) drags his reluctant friend (James Belushi) with him to conflict-ridden El Salvador, where he attempts to chronicle the rise of military power and guerrilla resistance.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review Oliver Stone’s Salvador in his GFTFF, but he names it one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he gives Woods the Best Actor of the Year award, and discusses his memorable performance at some length. He notes that “no one is better at playing hustling, live-wire, sleazeball opportunists than James Woods”, who “found his ideal role as Richard Boyle” (upon whose real-life adventures the film is based; he co-wrote the script with Stone). Woods accomplishes the astonishing feat of turning his self-proclaimed “weaselly” character — a man who “drinks and whores; takes drugs and smokes like a furnace; borrows money he’ll never pay back; lies, brags, cons, annoys, gets in everyone’s face” — into someone we don’t mind watching for two hours, and even come to feel some respect for by the film’s harrowing ending. Indeed, we can’t help (on some level) admiring this man who willingly puts himself in the middle of a war zone simply to hustle a story; sure, he’s selfishly doing it to make a buck, but his actions take guts, and he consistently demonstrates a remarkable degree of savvy (in notable contrast with the stupidly reckless behavior of many of his companions).

Woods’ memorable performance grounds the story, but the film itself remains impressively mounted on every count, sparing no detail in showing us the grim, bloody, chaotic reality of life in El Salvador at the time. Stone struggled to receive adequate financing for the film, which was made on a relatively small budget, but you’d never know; we genuinely believe we’ve been plunged directly into the melee of this specific time and place. Not all the scenes or performances in Salvador work equally well: I’m still not convinced that Belushi’s character is all that relevant, for instance, and a rival “yuppie” news reporter (Valerie Wildman) is painted in overly broad strokes; however, Stone is consistent enough in his presentation of the topic to keep us sufficiently engaged and enraged. Comparing this film with Haskell Wexler’s well-meaning but ultimately disappointing Latino (released the previous year), one further appreciates Stone’s ability to not only humanize the Salvadorian conflict, but to make it dramatically engaging as well. Many consider Salvador to be Stone’s most under-appreciated film, and there may be some truth to this sentiment.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Woods as Rick Boyle (voted Best Actor of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • An authentically gritty depiction of chaos and war in early-’80s El Salvador

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful and important political thriller. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book, and nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

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

Links:

Personal Services (1987)

Personal Services (1987)

“The future lies in kinky people.”

Synopsis:
A hardworking British waitress (Julie Walters) begins a new career as a madam, catering to the whims of middle-aged men with kinky sexual fantasies.

Genres:

Review:
Several years after her breakthrough role in Educating Rita (1983), Julie Walters gave another stellar performance in this Terry Jones-directed pseudo-biopic, loosely based on the notorious life story of British “party hostess” Cynthia Payne. Walters immediately convinces us that her “Christine Painter” is a practical, no-nonsense, driven woman who — after only very brief hesitation — finds it pleasantly straightforward to earn a living while orchestrating solutions to men’s secret desires; it’s certainly preferable to a marriage of convenience (her only other obvious way up). The screenplay follows her rise to tenuous success, as she shifts from simply brokering sexual exchanges (and engaging in a few herself) to hosting notoriously gonzo “sex parties” in her house; conflict emerges both in Painter’s troubled relationship with her disapproving father, and her run-ins with Britain’s [morality] police (who are portrayed as unequivocal baddies). Certain scenes — such as Painter’s personal fantasy sequences — feel superfluous and/or poorly handled, but the film as a whole remains true to its intention of presenting Painter/Payne’s story in a sympathetic and lively fashion, and remains worth a look simply for Walters’ strong performance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Julie Walters as Christine Painter

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for Walters’ performance.

Links:

Lust in the Dust (1985)

Lust in the Dust (1985)

“Those who lust in the dust, die in the dust.”

Synopsis:
A portly dancehall singer (Divine) accompanies a taciturn cowboy (Tab Hunter) into the small western town of Chili Verde, where they learn that the busty owner (Lainie Kazan) of a saloon may hold part of the secret to the location of hidden gold.

Genres:

  • Cesar Romero Films
  • Hidden Treasure
  • Satires and Spoofs
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that “considering that this western parody was directed by Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) and has a truly bizarre cast…, it should be much wilder than it is.” He asserts that the “lifeless script by Philip John Taylor shouldn’t have adhered so much to the westerns it spoofed”, and instead “should have shot down the conventions of the genre and given us something new”. Regardless of where exactly the film’s faults lie, it’s most definitely a disappointment (though not all agree; according to IMDb comments, it has a coterie of devoted fans). Divine is a hoot as always, but the material simply never goes to the extremes we expect, given her outsized presence; instead, we’re left with a rather standard tale of romantic jealousy (Divine and Kazan go at it like hissing cats) amidst a frantically competitive search for hidden treasure. Most film fanatics will likely be curious to check this one out once, given Bartel’s credentials, but it’s not must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Divine as Rosie

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

Links:

Home Movies (1980)

Home Movies (1980)

“I’d like to be the hero of this family, just once.”

Synopsis:
A young man (Keith Gordon) in a deeply troubled family is encouraged by a charismatic instructor (Kirk Douglas) to film the story of his life.

Genres:

Review:
Made in collaboration with some of his students at Sarah Lawrence College, this Brian De Palma-directed film (a throwback to earlier quirky comedies in his oeuvre) remains an unfortunate misfire on every count. Although we’re meant to sympathize with the hapless protagonist — whose doctor-father (Vincent Gardenia) is cheating on his wife (Mary Davenport), and whose narcissistic brother (Gerrit Graham) controls every move made by his adoring fiance (Nancy Allen) — Gordon’s character never emerges as anyone worthy of rooting for. De Palma and his team are clearly aspiring towards some form of absurdist comedy, but there are no meaty existential Truths to be mined from this material; viewers are simply left bored and annoyed. Meanwhile, Pino Donaggio’s invasive score helps not at all, and Douglas’s presence is simply embarrassing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative opening titles

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

Links:

Continental Divide (1981)

Continental Divide (1981)

“Reporters are parasites who eat off the accomplishments of other people.”

Synopsis:
A tough, Chicago-based reporter (John Belushi) is sent by his managing editor (Allen Garfield) to cover a story about a scientist (Blair Brown) living an isolated existence in the Rockies. While Blair is resistant at first to Belushi’s presence, soon the pair start to fall for one another — but their incompatible lifestyles remain an obstacle to their romantic success.

Genres:

Review:
This quirky romantic comedy (directed by Michael Apted) remains a beloved favorite of Belushi fans, who view it as evidence of the broader acting talents he could have demonstrated had he lived longer (he died the following year). The semi-comedic storyline feels undeniably contrived at times, particularly during scenes set in Chicago, where Belushi’s intrepid mob-busting reporter is depicted as a man of deep principles who’s known and beloved by seemingly all the city’s denizens (hardly likely); and when he first arrives in the Rockies, we understand Blair’s frustration with his intrusive, often abrasive presence. But eventually we come to root for both Belushi and Blair (an appealingly feisty, smart, independent heroine), thanks in part to Lawrence Kasdan’s script, which allows Blair’s affection for Belushi to blossom naturally, culminating in an exciting scene wherein she’s given a chance to save his life. Meanwhile, fine use is made of gorgeous location shooting high in the mountains of Colorado. While it’s not must-see viewing, film fanatics in the mood for something light and frothy might want to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Blair Brown as Nell Porter
  • John Belushi as Ernie Souchak
  • Beautiful on-location footage

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Frogs (1972)

Frogs (1972)

“It seems like everyone in our family is hung up on frogs.”

Synopsis:
An ecologically-minded photographer (Sam Elliott) working on an island is invited by a beautiful young woman (Joan Van Ark) to join in a celebration presided over by her wealthy uncle (Ray Milland) — but affairs quickly become deadly as her relatives are killed off by various animals and plants on the estate.

Genres:

Review:
Roughly ten years after starring in Roger Corman’s under-rated sci-fi thriller X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963), Ray Milland was cast as the aging baddie in this silly low-budget eco-horror flick, intended to subtly link his character’s indiscriminate use of fauna-killing poison with justifiable collective homicide by clans of vicious geckos, tarantulas, lizards, turtles, leeches, and — naturally — frogs. There’s a weak environmental “lesson” to be had in here somewhere, I suppose, but really it’s all just an excuse to kill off the unlikable, one-dimensional characters one by one until only a few worthy protagonists are left standing. The screenplay is punctuated by repetitious footage of “menacing” croaking frogs, who apparently are orchestrating the murders through some kind of telepathy (or perhaps are simply ominous portents of doom). Unfortunately, while there’s clearly potential for a storyline about “man versus nature” to go somewhere interesting and chilling (think Hitchcock’s The Birds), Frogs‘ low budget and overall lack of creativity relegate it to simply a forgettable side note in ’70s horror.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • (Unintentionally?) humorous use of reptilian/amphibian footage for “shock and thrills”

Must See?
No; you can feel free to skip this one unless you’re curious to see a young, buff Sam Elliott without his trademark bushy mustache.

Links:

Stolen Life, A (1946)

Stolen Life, A (1946)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“Your sister’s a very dangerous woman, Katie! She could worm the secrets right out of a sphinx.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring artist named Kate (Bette Davis) falls in love with a lighthouse engineer (Glenn Ford), and is devastated when her identical twin sister Patricia (also Bette Davis) seduces him away from her. When Patricia dies in a boating accident, Kate decides to impersonate her, hoping to win back Ford’s love.

Genres:

  • Bette Davis Films
  • Glenn Ford Films
  • Mistaken Identities
  • Romance
  • Twins

Review:
While Peary lists no less than 28 Bette Davis films in his GFTFF, he nonetheless leaves out several notable titles — including this cult favorite, the first of two films in which Davis was given an opportunity to play identical twins with opposing personalities (the other was Dead Ringer, made in 1964). Naturally, Davis runs away with the material here, effectively convincing viewers that humble Kate and boldly assertive Patricia are radically different women despite possessing similar hairstyles and overall appearances (Davis’s choice). The storyline is melodramatic in the extreme — when is a tale about identical twins not melodramatic in some way? — but remains absorbing from start to finish, thanks not only to Davis’s standout portrayals, but to fine use of rocky outdoor locales (with California’s shoreline standing in for Cape Cod), remarkable Oscar-nominated special effects, and a solid leading-man performance by Ford. This one is an enjoyable treat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Kate/Patricia

  • Glenn Ford as Bill
  • Effective use of outdoor locales
  • Fine split-screen special effects

Must See?
Yes, for Davis’s tour-de-force dual performances.

Categories

Links:

River of No Return (1954)

River of No Return (1954)

“He didn’t treat me like a tramp; he treated me like a woman!”

Synopsis:
A gambler (Rory Calhoun) engaged to a saloon singer (Marilyn Monroe) steals a horse and rifle belonging to a farmer (Robert Mitchum), and heads to town to stake a claim he recently won. Meanwhile, when Indians raid Mitchum’s farm, he flees with Monroe and his son (Tommy Rettig) by steering a raft down a notoriously deathly river, hoping to confront Calhoun if they make it safely to town.

Genres:

Review:
Otto Preminger’s directorial career was nothing if not highly varied, with entries ranging from noir-tinged detective flicks like Laura (1944) to somber political exposés (i.e. Advise & Consent) to the truly surreal counter-culture misfire Skidoo (1969). River of No Return was his first attempt at helming a western, and while he was purportedly pleased with the script (which was inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief), the overall production experience was less than ideal for all involved. The final product comes across as a patchily successful affair, with the benefit of a compellingly urgent storyline, and fine performances by both Tommy Rettig (of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. fame) as Mitchum’s estranged son, and Rory Calhoun as Monroe’s slippery lover. However, while the outdoor CinemaScope cinematography is stunning, much less successful is the sloppy use of rear-screen projection, which makes it patently obvious that the actors are rocking about on a sound stage rather than on the rapids themselves. Meanwhile, a disturbing near-rape scene between Mitchum and Monroe is poorly resolved, leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Fortunately, the final resolution between Calhoun and Mitchum is smartly scripted, bringing the story full-circle, and leaving one feeling at least partially satisfied.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine use of Technicolor CinemaScope
  • Rory Calhoun as Harry Weston

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Monroe completists.

Links:

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

“I know these showgirls: they’re just little parasites, little gold diggers!”

Synopsis:
A secretly wealthy aspiring composer (Dick Powell) in love with a chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) helps to finance a new musical production starring Keeler and her friends (Joan Blondell, Aline McMahon, and Ginger Rogers), much to the chagrin of his disapproving brother (Warren Williams), who attempts to break off Powell’s relationship but instead finds himself falling for Blondell.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately refers to this Depression-era Warners musical as “super” and full of “extravagant, delightfully outlandish Busby Berkeley production numbers”. He points out that because Warners was the “one studio that called attention to the country’s social problems”, the storyline remains strongly tied to issues of the day, straight through to its stunning “mammoth” finale, a “Blondell-led production tribute to the ‘Forgotten Man’ who fought in the war but couldn’t get a job when he came home”. He notes that “Blondell has one of her most appealing roles”, that “Rogers displays a sparkling, hungry… quality”, and that “Powell is in fine voice during ‘Pettin’ in the Park'” (a catchy tune you won’t easily be able to get out of your head).

In his review, Peary doesn’t say a word about Keeler, whose erstwhile fame as a charming leading lady of early-’30s musicals continues to puzzle modern viewers, given her decidedly weak singing voice and clunky dancing style; however, she’s cute and does an okay job here, ultimately playing more of a supporting role than a leading one. It’s more puzzling to me that Peary fails to mention Aline McMahon’s hilariously memorable turn as a boldly flirtatious gold-digger determined to seduce Williams’ susceptible lawyer-friend (Guy Kibbee); she shines in a rare opportunity to share the screen equitably with her co-stars. Meanwhile, though her role is minimal, Rogers demonstrates exactly why she went on to leading-lady fame shortly after this film’s release; her Pig Latin rendition of “We’re in the Money” provides a truly stunning opening to the film (recall the presence of this particular sequence in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde).

But the film’s real draw, of course, are the outrageously surreal Busby Berkeley musical numbers, each of which merits some sort of prize for sheer creative chutzpah. It’s been duly noted that such numbers would never have “worked” in real life on a stage, given that strategic cinematic framing plays an enormous part in their presentation here — but viewers must simply ignore such details and enjoy Berkeley’s incomparable vision.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several truly memorable Busby Berkeley numbers




  • Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” in pig Latin
  • Joan Blondell as Carol (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year)
  • Aline McMahon as Trixie

Must See?
Yes, as a delightful showcase for Berkeley’s talents.

Categories

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

Links:

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

“I’m mad about you! My little shoplifter! My sweet little pickpocket! My darling.”

Synopsis:
A pair of thieving lovers (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) plot to steal from a wealthy widow (Kay Francis); but when Francis expresses romantic interest in Marshall, he finds his loyalties divided.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is only mildly enthusiastic in his praise of this pre-Production Code “sophisticated sex comedy” by Ernst Lubitsch, noting that while it has “excellent dialogue” and “sly performances”, he doesn’t “find it as spirited as other Lubitsch comedies”. However, I’m more in line with other critics, many of whom consider it to be Lubitsch’s masterpiece. The love-triangle storyline is simple yet sophisticated, beginning with Marshall and Hopkins’ meet-cute during mutual thieving in Venice, and carrying through to their more elaborate plans to rob a wealthy widow (Francis) of her jewels — which is complicated by Francis’s confident sexual designs on Marshall, who isn’t entirely uninterested in her himself. (As Roger Ebert so aptly describes Francis’s character in his Great Movies review, she’s “a woman of appetites and the imagination to take advantage of an opportunity”, someone who “thinks she can buy [Marshall] but is content to rent him for a while”.) Indeed, I’m surprised Peary doesn’t take time in his GFTFF review to point out the droll perfection of Francis’s performance — though he does nominate both her and Hopkins as two of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars (and I believe Marshall gives one of his personal best performances as well). A fine cast of familiar supporting faces, luxuriously sophisticated Art Deco sets, and consistently amusing dialogue (“Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together”) make Trouble in Paradise a true treat for film fanatics, one which merits multiple enjoyable visits.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kay Francis as Madame Colet (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Herbert Marshall as Gaston
  • Miriam Hopkins as Lily (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine Art Deco sets
  • A wonderfully comedic supporting cast
  • Victor Milner’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, most definitely. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

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

Links: