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Month: February 2014

Night Monster (1942)

Night Monster (1942)

“All matter is really cosmic substance in vibration.”

Night Monster Poster

Synopsis:
A reclusive cripple (Ralph Morgan) with a seemingly insane daughter (Fay Helm), a lurking butler (Bela Lugosi), a skittish maid (Janet Shaw), and a menacing chauffeur (Leif Erickson) invites a diverse group of guests to his decaying mansion — including a mystic (Nils Asther), a psychiatrist (Irene Hervey) hoping to help Helm, two doctors (Frank Reicher and Francis Pierlot) who may or may not have played a role in botching Morgan’s recovery from his disabling accident, and a young crime novelist (Don Porter) intent on solving the series of murders that are shortly played out.

Genres:

Review:
While this “old dark house” thriller (directed by Hollywood workhorse Ford Beebe of Flash Gordon fame) will clearly be of most interest to Bela Lugosi fans, they’ll quickly find that his role is peripheral at best. Fortunately, the storyline — though predictably convoluted, and overpopulated by too many characters — is engaging while it lasts; of particular interest is the sequence in which Asther works his creepy mumbo-jumbo (“There are certain details in the process that we are not allowed to explain to the uninitiated.”), and Atwill’s nicely handled “big reveal” scene. Not must-see viewing, but not a total snooze, either.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography (by Charles Van Enger)
    Night Monster Cinematography1
    Night Monster Cinematography2
  • Some humorously corny dialogue: “How is it dames always know what’s on a guy’s mind before he knows himself?”

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

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Three Strangers (1946)

Three Strangers (1946)

“We’re three strangers — that’s the point.”

Three Strangers Poster

Synopsis:
On Chinese New Year, three strangers — a socially-aspiring attorney (Sydney Greenstreet), the wealthy wife (Geraldine Fitzgerald) of a philanderer (Alan Napier), and a petty thief (Peter Lorre) — share in the outcome of a lottery ticket after praying to a goddess of fortune.

Genres:

Review:
Jean Negulesco directed this atmospheric, fast-paced thriller, based on a script by John Huston and Howard Koch and featuring Maltese Falcon (1941) co-stars Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre (as well as luminous Geraldine Fitzgerald, who seemed to specialize in playing women with a potentially loose screw). Huston and Koch’s tight screenplay intrigues and invites from the very beginning; we’re held captive throughout, wondering what will befall each of our hapless, all-too-human protagonists. There’s really not a false step taken here, with uniformly strong performances, atmospheric cinematography (by Arthur Edeson), and a satisfyingly ruthless screenplay, complete with potent character names (“Crystal Shackleford”, “Icey Crane”, etc.). Enjoy this one!

Note: Warner Brothers teamed Lorre and Greenstreet in one other title — 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios, also directed by Negulesco and listed in Peary’s GFTFF.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Excellent performances by the three leads
    Three Strangers Performances
  • Fine cinematography by Arthur Edeson
    Three Strangers Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyable sleeper.

Categories

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Barbarella (1968)

Barbarella (1968)

“An angel does not make love; an angel is love.”

Barbarella Poster

Synopsis:
In the distant future, a sexually liberated female astronaut (Jane Fonda) is sent by the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) to find a nefarious scientist (Milo O’Shea) who has invented the ultimate weapon — the Positronic Ray.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that despite the dizzying amount of activity occurring throughout this cult futuristic film — based on an adult comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest — it’s nonetheless “quite dull”. He writes that “the whole production… lacks imagination” and that “Barbarella herself is a weak heroine”, given that “her actions have little effect on what transpires at the end”. He notes that the “film’s cult has to do with [both] the campy humor” — which he finds “unintentionally amusing” — as well as the “uninhibited, scandalously garbed Fonda”, who “gives her body to all men who assist her”. He complains that director Roger Vadim (married to Fonda at the time) “subjects his heroine to ghastly tortures while she is either nude or having her clothes ripped off”, and posits that “trying to stimulate men by showing pretty women being physically abused is irresponsible”.

In Cult Movies 2 (where he analyzes the film in more detail), Peary notes that Fonda herself has claimed Barbarella isn’t one of her “many mistakes” (“I like it — it’s fun”, she’s insisted, without elaboration). Actually, the erstwhile brouhaha over Barbarella‘s role in Fonda’s otherwise (mostly) esteemed acting career feels entirely irrelevant these days, given that she’s no longer so actively in the limelight, and her recent attempts at an acting comeback have been less-than-memorable. Ultimately, I agree with Peary that the film — while undeniably visually provocative — is essentially an “innocuous” and dull piece of ’60s soft-core fantasy erotica. For instance, where’s the humor in exchanges like the following (taken from IMDb’s Quotes page)?:

Dildano: [radioing instructions to the rebel army] And our password will be… Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
Barbarella: You mean the secret password is Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?
Dildano: Exactly.

I’ve seen Barbarella twice, and read about it plenty — but the point of its needlessly convoluted storyline continues to elude me, and I can only understand its cult appeal on an intellectual level.

Note: The best-known piece of trivia associated with Barbarella is the fact that the ’80s English rock band Duran Duran named itself after the central villain, “Durand-Durand” (O’Shea).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Imaginative set designs and costumes
    Barbarella Fonda
    Barbarella Sets2
    Barbarella Sets

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status.

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Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

“Would you like to talk about the meaning of life, dear?”

Meaning of Life Poster

Synopsis:
British comedy troupe Monty Python enacts a series of sketches about the absurdity of birth, child-rearing, and human existence.

Genres:

Review:
The Trivia section on IMDb provides some revealing insights into the inception and production of this final Monty Python collaboration, openly acknowledged by the troupe as one of its lesser (and less coherent) efforts. Python claims to have refused to show Universal Studios a script, instead relying on collective inspiration and strategic ad-libbing to produce a series of loosely linked vignettes — some of which are (inevitably) more successful than others. It opens with a Terry Gilliam-directed live short entitled “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” — originally conceived as an homage to the cinematic convention of showing a short film before the feature presentation, though in typically surreal Python fashion, it re-emerges later as part of the overall episodic arc. Next we’re presented with a developmental overview of humanity, beginning with the Miracle of Birth and proceeding through Growth and Learning, Middle Age, Live Organ Transplants (!), the Autumn Years, and Death (with the Middle of the Film and the End of the Film — as well as an exploration of the Meaning of Life — thrown in for the sake of cohesion and philosophical rigor).

Sketches in Part I (The Miracle of Birth) and Part II (Growth and Learning) are the most memorable and inspired, and could easily be considered must-see viewing in their own right — indeed, all film fanatics should likely be familiar with the magical “machine that goes ping”, with what happens when one believes that “every sperm is sacred”, and with the fact that a classroom setting can turn even a live sex act into a humdrum, yawn-inducing mundanity. Unfortunately, most of the later vignettes are decidedly less amusing, though the infamous “Mr. Creosote” sketch — in which a morbidly obese man is enjoined to eat one more “wafer thin” treat before literally exploding — should likely be endured once, simply for its cultural relevance. (Quentin Tarantino apparently admitted to finding it beyond his own considerable gruesome-tolerance level — no small admission.) Ultimately, however, film fanatics unfamiliar with Monty Python’s cinematic genius should start with their cult masterpiece, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) — and decide from there whether they’re interested in exploring more.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several genuinely surreal, hilarious, and memorable sequences
    Meaning of Life Every Sperm

Must See?
No, though it’s obviously must-see for Monty Python fans, and certainly worth a look by all film fanatics. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Life With Father (1947)

Life With Father (1947)

“Vinnie, we have four children — if we’re not married now, we never will be!”

Life With Father Poster

Synopsis:
In 1880s New York, the domineering father (William Powell) and scatterbrained mother (Irene Dunne) of four red-headed boys (Jimmy Lydon, Derek Scott, Johnny Calkins, and Martin Milner) deal with a series of household challenges — including Lydon’s crush on a beautiful visiting teen (Elizabeth Taylor), and Dunne’s distress that Powell has never been baptized.

Genres:

Review:
Clarence Day Jr.‘s affectionate homage to his Victorian-era upbringing was originally published as an autobiographical memoir in 1935, then turned into the longest-running non-musical play on Broadway before gaining an even wider audience via this cinematic adaptation (directed by Michael Curtiz) and finally being made into a T.V. series in the mid-’50s. Clearly, Day’s recollections of his parents’ loving yet contentious pre-Suffrage marriage struck a nerve with audience members of the day, many of whom likely appreciated watching a domineering control freak effectively “managed” by his clever wife. To that end, Dunne’s ability to run her household the way she wants to — through strategic use of deception, feigned ignorance, and passive-aggressive techniques — is played for laughs, most notably in her extended ploy to trick her reluctant husband into getting baptized.

While dosing his anecdotal storyline with plenty of humor and nostalgia, Day makes it clear that one of his primary goals is to reveal the inanity (and futility) of his father’s dated patriarchal beliefs:

“Men have to run this world, and it’s not an easy job. It takes work and it takes thinking. A man has to reason things out. Now you take a woman, a woman doesn’t think at all. If a man thinks a certain thing is wrong, he shouldn’t do it. If he thinks it’s right, he should do it. You just have to let the women know that what you’re doing is for their good. Be firm.”

The fact that Day manages to salvage his father’s character while simultaneously skewering such nonsensical drivel reveals the secret to the film’s blockbuster success. Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz’s solid direction helps move the proceedings along smoothly. With that said, Life With Father will likely only hold minimal appeal for modern film fanatics, and remains of interest primarily to see Dunne and Powell’s typically solid lead performances.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Powell as “Father”
    Life With Father Dunne Powell
  • Irene Dunne as Vinnie

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for Dunne and Powell’s performances.

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Our Town (1940)

Our Town (1940)

“The day wouldn’t come when I wouldn’t want to know everything about our town.”

Synopsis:
A narrator (Frank Craven) reflects on the lives, hopes, and dreams of citizens in the small American town of Grover’s Corners, focusing specifically on young sweethearts Emily (Martha Scott) and George (William Holden).

Genres:

  • Beulah Bondi Films
  • Flashback Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Play Adaptation
  • Sam Wood Films
  • Small Town America<
  • Thomas Mitchell Films
  • William Holden Films

Review:
This early cinematic adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play remains a solid telling of an oft-staged, deeply philosophical tale about the beauty and value of everyday life. With effectively stylized sets by William Cameron Menzies, atmospheric cinematography by Bert Glennon, a typically distinctive score by Aaron Copland, and confident direction by Sam Wood, the film successfully “opens up” Wilder’s play, maintaining some theatrical conventions while also making creative use of cinematic possibilities. Other than a substantial change to a major event in the third act (sanctioned by Wilder himself, who agreed the play’s original ending would be too downbeat for movie audiences), the film remains relatively faithful to its source material. Watch for fine performances by Oscar-nominated Martha Scott (in her cinematic debut):

a very young William Holden:

and stalwart character actors Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee, and Thomas Mitchell as Emily and George’s parents.




Note: Film fanatics may be curious to watch this title on a “double bill” with Wood’s 1942 melodrama Kings Row, which offers a less nostalgic, more cynical glimpse into small town life in early-20th-century America.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography by Bert Glennon
  • William Cameron Menzies’ stylized sets
  • Aaron Copland’s memorable score

Must See?
Yes, as a solid adaptation of an American theatrical classic.

Categories

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And Then There Were None (1945)

And Then There Were None (1945)

”Let’s face it – we’re in a trap.”

Synopsis:
A group of strangers invited to an isolated island learn that they all have one thing in common: they caused someone’s death in the past and were never punished. Soon they’re being killed off one by one, and must discover the identity of the murderer in their midst before it’s too late.

Genres:

  • Barry Fitzgerald Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Judith Anderson Films
  • Louis Hayward Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Old Dark House
  • Rene Clair Films
  • Walter Huston Films

Review:
As Peary notes, this “highly entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (called Ten Little Niggers in England, as was the film)” features “an unbeatable cast” (most notably Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, and Louis Hayward), and benefits from both a “witty script by Dudley Nichols and light-touch direction by Rene Clair, who effectively keeps the multi-murder story from becoming bleak” (in part by making “good use of lively music”). He points out that while “it’s fun trying (and most likely failing) to figure out the murderer’s identity… this mystery is just as interesting the second time around when you can watch the killer closely and see how cleverly we are being manipulated by Christie and the filmmakers”.

I’m in complete agreement with Peary’s assessment of this enjoyable, surprisingly light-hearted “Old Dark House” mystery — based on the best-selling mystery novel of all time (though its ending was changed to that of Christie’s stage play of the same name). The characters are all smartly cast and play nicely against one another; this is truly a seamless ensemble piece, with no one performance standing out above the other (though the interactions between Walter Huston as Dr. Armstrong and Barry Fitzgerald as Judge Quinncannon are especially fun). Clair’s creative direction — beginning with the cleverly shot silent opening sequence on the boat, and extending through the exposure of each murder — is seamlessly fluid, keeping us consistently visually engaged, and on the edge of our seats in nervous anticipation.

Note: Film fanatics will likely recognize that this movie serves as a forerunner — both thematically and tonally — for the cult satire Murder By Death (1976); they would make a fun double-bill.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective direction by Clair

  • Fine ensemble performances
  • Atmospheric cinematography by Lucien Andriot
  • Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s levity-inspiring score

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable example of the “Old Dark House” genre.

Categories

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