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Month: October 2017

Olvidados, Los / Young and the Damned, The (1950)

Olvidados, Los / Young and the Damned, The (1950)

“Listen to me, my darling — you’re not that bad.”

Synopsis:
In the slums of Mexico City, a boy (Alfonso Mejia) whose over-worked mother (Estela Inda) refuses to love him joins forces with a thuggish ex-con (Roberto Cobo) who swears him to secrecy after witnessing a murder.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “strong social drama, directed by Luis Bunuel” possesses a “realistic atmosphere” and “unsympathetic portrayal of young gang members… whose constant hunger is no excuse for” their “sadistic” behavior. He comments that “Bunuel offers no solution to the juvenile-delinquency problem — although the mother is chastised for being a neglectful parent — but conveys that a boy growing up in such poverty is doomed”. He adds that “viewers will be shocked at how unsentimental and uncompromising the film is”, given that the “kids are brutal and he doesn’t spare them tragic ends that are usually reserved for adults in movies”. Thankfully, “memorable surrealistic dream sequences” occasionally lift the material into the realm of compassion and psychological insight — and the lyrical soundtrack prevents one from devolving into utter despair while watching these kids trying to survive in such an unforgiving world. Although Bunuel’s story isn’t pleasant, it resonates with authenticity, and should be seen at least once.

Note: Peary writes that this film “ranks with De Sica’s Shoeshine” — which he adores — but I find Bunuel’s non-sentimental approach more impactful than De Sica’s.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography

  • The effectively surreal mother-son dream sequence

  • Fine ethnographic footage of life in Mexico City


  • Many moments of heartbreaking violence and squalor


Must See?
Yes, as a powerful if bleak classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Place in the Sun, A (1951)

Place in the Sun, A (1951)

“If you’re an Eastman, you’re not in the same boat with anyone.”

Synopsis:
The poor nephew (Montgomery Clift) of a wealthy factory owner (Herbert Heyes) secretly dates a co-worker (Shelley Winters), who becomes pregnant. Meanwhile, Clift is invited into his uncle’s social circle and falls in love with a beautiful socialite (Elizabeth Taylor). Will Clift make Winters a respectable wife and mother, or follow his passions and pursue Taylor?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary isn’t a big fan of this Oscar-nominated Best Picture — “one of the major hits of the fifties” — which was “adapted by Michael Wilson and Henry Brown for director George Stevens” from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, following an earlier adaptation by Josef von Sternberg. He notes that the “cynical film seems dated and the sociological, psychological, and moral aspects of the story are ambiguous”, pointing out that “it never becomes completely clear what Clift’s initial attraction to Winters is; and we’re never sure if his wish to dump her for Taylor is based on how much prettier Taylor is, happier she is…, nicer she is…, or richer she is.” He further adds, “We never really understand the nature of Clift’s continuous guilt — is it because he seduced Winters, is betraying Winters, has not told Taylor about Winters, [or] is trying to break away from his humble beginnings to join the American aristocracy…?”

While I understand Peary’s reservations, I don’t share them. Clift is attracted to Winters because she’s an available female in a soul-stifling environment, and he’s lonely. His wish to dump Winters for Taylor is understandable (if utterly shameful), and is due to a mix of all the factors named by Peary above. Peary writes that while “it’s obvious that Clift wants to escape poverty for wealth”, it “becomes apparent that he’d run off with Taylor at the first opportunity, leaving behind her family, her rich young friends, and her money” — which is true; one doesn’t cancel out the other. Peary also criticizes Clift’s “mannered performance”, which he claims “has been much overrated — rather than seeming cerebral and attractive, he has the expression and stance of someone who is one step away from a psycho ward” — but Clift is in a pretty darn miserable situation, with no positive solution in sight, so it’s hard to blame him or fault his deep angst.

What goes unstated in Peary’s review is that Stevens’ adaptation is ultimately a fatalistic noir — although it’s debatable exactly who the femme fatale is: is it Taylor, without whose alluring presence Clift would never have found himself in this mess? Or is Winters the direct cause of his downfall? The atmospheric cinematography (by William C. Mellor) and carefully crafted direction show how clearly allegorical this “American tragedy” is (though it could really be a tragedy of any nationality). While it’s hard to sit through this film more than once or twice, it’s worth a look by all film fanatics — especially given, as Peary concedes, that “when [Clift] and Taylor dance closely, gaze into each other’s eyes, or kiss passionately… these two superstars are a remarkably romantic duo”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Montgomery Clift as George Eastman
  • Elizabeth Taylor as Angela
  • Fine direction by Stevens

  • Atmospheric b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its status as a classic — but you may or may not be able to stomach a second viewing.

Categories

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

Links:

Robe, The (1953)

Robe, The (1953)

“Why must men betray themselves with doubts?”

Synopsis:
A Roman tribune (Richard Burton) in love with a childhood sweetheart (Jean Simmons) promised in marriage to Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) finds his life changed forever when his slave (Victor Mature) runs away after Burton assists in crucifying Jesus, and Jesus’s robe seems to cast a spell on him.

Genres:

  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Biblical Stories
  • Character Arc
  • Christianity
  • Historical Drama
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • Religious Faith
  • Richard Burton Films
  • Slavery
  • Victor Mature Films

Review:
Best known as the first film released in CinemaScope, this adaption of Lloyd Douglas’s best-selling historical novel about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ looks impressive in widescreen, and makes fine use of vivid Technicolor. Indeed, it won Oscars for art direction and costume design (in color), and was nominated for best cinematography. As biblical epics go, it’s refreshingly focused on a journey of personal faith; one gets a strong sense of how persecuted early Christians were for their loyalty to Christ’s teachings, and why they were willing to sacrifice everything for their religion. Less convincing is Robinson as a snivelling, child-like Caligula; he opts for over-the-top theatrics when much less would serve equally well. Burton’s Oscar-nominated, impassioned performance is impressive, however, and his on-screen chemistry with Simmons (borne out in real life) is potent. Ultimately, however, this one is only must-see viewing for fans of the genre or those who like to watch all Oscar winners.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine use of Technicolor CinemaScope





Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look for its historical relevance.

Links:

Ivanhoe (1952)

Ivanhoe (1952)

“I love you, with all the longing in this lonely world.”

Synopsis:
While visiting his estranged father (Finlay Currie) to request money for the ransom of Richard the Lionheart (Norman Wooland) — who is being held prisoner by his treacherous brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) — a Saxon knight named Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) visits his life-long love, Lady Rowena (Joan Fontaine), and earns the loyalty of the court jester (Emlyn Williams). When his father rejects his plea, Ivanhoe turns to a Jewish banker (Felix Aylmer) whose daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) falls secretly in love with Ivanhoe and risks her life to assist him. With an entourage of Norman knights — including Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — determined to defeat him, and a team of men led by a Robin Hood-like fighter (Harold Warrender) on his side, will Ivanhoe prevail in his quest?

Genres:

Review:
No money was spared on this adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, which turned into the highest grossing film for MGM studios in 1952. In his review for the NY Times, Bosley Crowther referred to it as a “brilliantly colored tapestry of drama and spectacle”, and it does remain that — particularly given the excellent cinematography (by Freddie Young) and sets (by Alfred Junge). However, Robert Taylor’s uncharismatic performance as Ivanhoe leaves quite a bit to be desired, and it’s awkward to see beautiful Liz Taylor pining for someone we know she “shouldn’t” have (given Ivanhoe’s allegiance to Rowena). It’s bold of the filmmakers to openly tackle issues of anti-semitism; knowing one of the lead screenwriters was banned from Hollywood given her unwillingness to testify before HUAC adds extra poignancy to this aspect of the screenplay. Ultimately, however, this visually appealing film will be of most interest to those who enjoy well-mounted medieval dramas with plenty of swordplay, castles, jousting, and festive attire.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Freddie Young’s cinematography

  • Fine sets and art direction by Alfred Junge

  • The exciting castle siege sequence

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look simply for the visuals.

Links:

Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra (1963)

“A woman, too, must make the barren land fruitful. She must make life grow where there was no life. Just as the Mother Nile feeds and replenishes the Earth, I am the Nile.”

Synopsis:
After helping Queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) banish her brother — Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) — and become the sole ruler of Egypt, Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Cleopatra begin a romance which results in the birth of a boy and joint plans to rule the world. When Caesar is killed on the Ides of March, however, Cleopatra is dismayed to learn that his adopted son Octavian (Roddy McDowell) is next in line as dictator of the Roman Empire. She gains solace and hope in an affair with General Mark Anthony (Richard Burton), but Anthony’s allegiance to Rome and Egypt remains conflicted.

Genres:

Review:
It’s impossible not to begin a review of this epic historical drama by noting its infamy — not only as the costliest movie in Hollywood history, but one whose production drama alone could fill a mini-series; indeed, a documentary about the making of the film lasts two hours (see TCM’s article for a full breakdown of exactly how costs very quickly spiraled out of control). Setting aside its legendary production, however, the film that exists today — that is, the “full” four-hour+ version, rather than the truncated three-hour+ version that was released in theaters (to the public dismay of writer/director Manckiewicz and Taylor, among others) — remains a reasonably engaging (if over-long) saga of opulence, narcissism, treachery, and high drama among the elite ruling class. The Oscar-winning sets, costumes, make-up, art design, and cinematography are reason enough to check this movie out at least once; literally no expense was spared to (re)create a vision of ancient Egypt and Rome fantastic enough to represent the delusional grandeur of such fabled rulers.

Elizabeth Taylor was a notorious diva throughout the making of this film, which most definitely translates onto screen. To her credit, she puts forth a Cleopatra both hopelessly entitled and surprisingly sympathetic — albeit not without a healthy dose of campiness; my favorite unintentionally hilarious scenes include her infamous carpet-roll-out emergence, her “Mother Nile” speech (see quote above), and her appearance in countless over-the-top outfits and hairstyles. Other performances throughout the film — this was an all-star cast, for sure — are fine as well; despite not working from a coherent script, and/or having much of their scenes left on the cutting room floor, the characters seem reasonably well-formed — at least, enough to understand the general tenor of the complex, back-stabbing politics at play in this era.

Speaking of politics, watching this film in 2017, one can’t help taking note of the portrayal of Caesar as a Trump-like dictator. When Caesar complains that he “must wish what needs commanding”, one of his senators asks him in horror, “Do you suggest that the Senate no longer deliberate the welfare of Rome? Do you suggest an end to the process of Roman Law?” — to which Caesar replies, “I must be the law!” without any hint of awareness that his request is unreasonable. When Caesar humble-brags by insisting, “I want no more meaningful privileges and considerations, no more honors designed to pacify me. I’d far rather have nothing — remain what I am at heart, a humble man, anxious only to serve.”, we once again hear eerie echoes of the current U.S. President (“I think I’m much more humble than you would understand,” Trump stated in all earnestness to Barbara Walters during an interview).

Suffice it to say that this film remains an especially timely and potent reminder about the cyclical nature of humanity — including our group-like tendency to adore spectacle and ‘royalty’, the seemingly inescapable lust for power and domination, and the corrupt inner workings of love and politics.

Note: Diehard fans will likely want to read producer Walter Wanger’s memoir My Life With Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

Must See?
Yes, once, as an infamous Oscar-winning epic. Listed as a Sleeper and a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

“Something ain’t right: you’re childless, and my son drinks.”

Synopsis:
A dying patriarch (Burl Ives) and his wife (Judith Anderson) celebrate Ives’ birthday with their two grown sons: an alcoholic ex-athlete (Paul Newman) whose childless wife (Elizabeth Taylor) is desperate for sexual attention, and a man (Jack Carson) whose pregnant wife (Madeleine Sherwood) wants to secure the family inheritance for her growing brood.

Genres:

Review:
Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play suffers from a fatal flaw (albeit one that didn’t stop audiences from flocking to it upon release): the central character (Newman) has been shifted (per Hays Code) from a suppressed homosexual to a man simply lamenting the loss of a high school buddy. Yes, there’s more than this to the melodramatic storyline, which revolves around “motifs such as social mores, greed, superficiality, mendacity, decay, sexual desire, repression and death”, as we watch squabbling family members desperate to hold onto or gain whatever it is they most want (money, love, sex, respect, hope). However, the primary focus of the film is the strained relationship between “Maggie the cat” (Taylor) — a gorgeous woman literally in heat — and her equally gorgeous but relentlessly brooding husband (Newman). As DVD Savant writes, “the notion of the incredibly sexy Elizabeth Taylor begging in vain to sleep with Paul Newman strikes us as a sin against nature” — especially without the believable premise that Brick (Newman) is gay. However, the performances are all strong, the stunning co-stars are enoyable to watch on-screen, and writer-director Richard Brooks keeps the direction interesting throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances and direction

Must See?
No, but film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out.

Links:

National Velvet (1944)

National Velvet (1944)

“I, too, believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life.”

Synopsis:
With the help of an itinerant trainer (Mickey Rooney) — and the blessing of her mother (Anne Revere) — the 12-year-old daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) of a small-town butcher (Donald Crisp) enters her horse, the Pie, in the Grand Nationals.

Genres:

Review:
Clarence Brown’s adaptation of Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel features 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her first starring role after notable supporting appearances in both Jane Eyre (1943) and Lassie Come Home (1943). She’s positively luminous, if a bit overly dreamy for a young woman presumably focused enough to compete in such a major event. Oscar-winning Revere is appropriately stoic as Velvet’s supportive mother, who knows first-hand what it means to chase a sporting dream despite all odds. Less engaging — though he tries hard — is Rooney as the troubled son of Revere’s former coach, who spends the entire film waffling between loyalty to Taylor’s family and a penchant for less savory pursuits. Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of this film will depend on their tolerance for its folksy charm and feel-good storyline, as well as their overall love of anything horse-related. (Call me a wet blanket, but all I could think about was when Velvet would fall and get seriously hurt. Does she? I won’t say a word.)

Note: Watch for Angela Lansbury — the same year as her debut in Gaslight (1944) — in a small role as Velvet’s love-sick older sister.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet
  • Anne Revere as Araminty Brown
  • Fine use of outdoor sets

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look.

Links:

Quadrophenia (1979)

Quadrophenia (1979)

“I don’t want to be the same as everybody else! That’s why I’m a Mod, see?”

Synopsis:
A disaffected working-class Londoner (Phil Daniels) rides a scooter with his Mod buddies while pining after a beautiful girl (Leslie Ash) whose affection he finally wins (temporarily) during a bloody riot in Brighton against a rival gang of Rocker bikers.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that “England’s first street film, about the turbulent Mods vs. Rockers music-motorcycles-fashion scene in 1964 (the year of the Brighton riots)” is “the most exciting, perceptive youth film since Rebel Without a Cause.” He writes that “it wasn’t made with an international market in mind” — meaning “there’s no preface for the uninitiated that defines and contrasts the warring Mods and Rockers”, and “the working-class characters speak with thick cockney accents” — but he notes that he “can’t see why Americans can’t identify with it”, given that “young viewers can relate to the Mods, who define themselves by their musical taste, revolutionary fashions, anti-social posturing, and anarchical brand of violence”. He further notes that “one can become extremely sentimental because director Franc Roddam has done a remarkable job of re-creating the youth scene of 1964: dark, wet London streets, empty but for the herds of Mods on Italian scooters and Rockers on heavy cycles in search of a rumble; dingy, sweat-filled clubs; greasy diners, pinball joints, back alleys, dance halls, etc.” He concludes his review by asserting that “this is a superb, powerful film, ambitiously directed by Roddam with wit, style, and passion”, and that “you can’t help feeling that adrenaline rush so often experienced in the mix-sixties”.

Given that most film fanatics these days weren’t alive in the 1960s, Quadrophenia may hold less personal appeal — though it remains a potent depiction of a “character we can all identify with”, someone who “represents all youths in the throes of growing pains, in desperate search for their identities”. As uncredited screenwriter Pete Townshend said in an interview:

I could still remember that feeling of struggling to fit in, something that happened to me when I was even younger, around 14, and everyone around me seemed to have got their lives on track. This is such a universal experience for young people that it has echoed.

Perhaps most representative of adolescent angst is beautiful Steph (Ash), an embodiment of the toxic MGTOW movement in that she “marries up” as soon as a new bloke holds dominance or interest. Daniels’ pain and bewilderment at Ash (and at life in general) are completely understandable, given he’s someone who “doesn’t fit in anywhere because he tries too hard to be different” and is “always more excited, angrier, or more frustrated than anyone else; to him every moment has great significance”. His final sequence with Ace Face (Sting) is an appropriately crushing denouement.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

Must See?
Yes, once, as a cult favorite. Described at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

Links:

Donkey Skin (1971)

Donkey Skin (1971)

“I love you, my daughter, and wish to marry you.”

Synopsis:
A king (Jean Marais) whose dying wife (Micheline Presle) makes him promise he will only remarry if he can find someone wiser and more beautiful than herself decides that his grown daughter (Catherine Deneuve) is the sole suitable candidate. After seeking advice from her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), the conflicted princess (Denevue) runs away from home dressed in a donkey skin, and meets a prince (Jacques Perrin) whose love may rescue her from her dire situation.

Genres:

Review:
Jacques Demy’s adaptation (with cheery music by Michel Legrand) of Charles Perrault’s fairytale is an odd affair indeed — starting with the central conflict, which leaves one decidedly uncomfortable. Marais clearly isn’t a villain (he loves his wife and wants to “do the right thing” for the sake of his lineage) yet his request is untenable and icky: if one should obey one’s parents but not commit incest, what’s a girl to do? Thankfully, Marais’ Oedipal interest in his daughter is never manifested beyond hypothetical plans. Instead, the story shifts to a Cinderella-esque tale, with Deneuve going undercover in rags and a ring replacing the specially-sized glass slipper. The colorful costumes and sets are truly gorgeous, and Seyrig has fun in her role as Deneuve’s fairy caretaker — but this one will likely only appeal to fans of Demy’s unusual oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Magical sets and costumes


  • Vibrant cinematography


Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look simply for the gorgeous visuals — and of course Demy fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Only Game in Town, The (1970)

Only Game in Town, The (1970)

“I’m making jokes because I’m scared, but I’ve never been more serious in my life.”

Synopsis:
A Vegas showgirl (Elizabeth Taylor) has an affair with a gambling-addicted musician (Warren Beatty) while waiting for her married lover (Charles Braswell) to finally get a divorce — but when her opportunity for a lasting union arrives, will she take it?

Genres:

Review:
Reviews of George Stevens’ final film — an adaptation of Frank D. Gilroy’s short-lived Broadway play — are uniformly scathing, with most attention paid to the outsized budget for a film taking place in Vegas but filmed in Paris simply so Taylor could be near her husband, Richard Burton. Taylor’s miscasting has also been noted, with The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby uncharitably stating: “As played by Miss Taylor, Fran is so top-heavy in bouffant hair styles by Alexandre of Paris, and badly proportioned minidresses by Mia Fonssagrives, that she has the non-dancing silhouette of an apple balanced atop a pair of toothpicks.” Regardless of her appearance, Taylor’s overall situation simply doesn’t garner much sympathy, primarily because we barely meet the supposed object of her affections (Braswell) before he’s gone again. Beatty adds a bit of pathos to the role of a gambling addict, and the film come alive during an early sequence when he takes Taylor on the town. But from there, we’re simply waiting for an inevitable romance between the two gorgeous co-stars to ensue, despite their professed disinterest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henri Decae’s cinematography

Must See?
No; skip this one.

Links: