Browsed by
Month: January 2019

You Only Live Once (1937)

You Only Live Once (1937)

“There’s a lot more good in Eddie Taylor than most people think.”

Synopsis:
A recently released ex-con (Henry Fonda) marries his loyal sweetheart (Sylvia Sidney) and tries to go straight, but is foiled by a society that permanently rejects him. Soon he’s back in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and begins to lose all hope — will his wife or a saintly priest (William Gargan) convince him to give a clean life one more chance?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that in “Fritz Lang’s second American film” — as in many of Lang’s movies — “the innocent are usually judged guilty”. He notes that while the film (inspired by Bonnie and Clyde) “is very bleak”, it’s “strongly acted (Fonda and Sidney play well together) and directed” — with “moody cinematography by Leon Shamroy” — and “it makes a powerful statement about American justice and the shabby treatment that people with no money or power must endure — they have no defense against the forces that take control of their lives.” He adds that “Lang makes it clear that his sympathies are with Fonda, and with Sidney, the only person to give an outcast a chance to prove good” — but this isn’t quite true, given the presence of both Gargan as a highly supportive priest, and Sidney’s surprisingly noble boss (Barton Maclane), who loves Sidney but is willing to help her out time and again on account of his sincere empathy for Fonda’s challenging past.

Personally, I find the film’s storyline a tad too overly simplistic. Would motel-owners (Charles ‘Chic’ Sale and Margaret Hamilton) really be so eager to kick out the doe-eyed newlyweds without cause? Why would Fonda’s post-release boss (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) agree to hire him in the first place if he was so eager to fire him? I know the film is meant to represent archetypical injustice in black-and-white, but we desperately wish both of the main characters would make smarter — rather than fatalistic and/or pre-determined — decisions. It doesn’t help that the “ending is overly sentimental and is Hollywood-style religious”. However, the movie is gorgeously made, and Fonda and Sidney are a convincing pair of star-struck lovebirds; Lang fans won’t want to miss this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Joan Taylor
  • Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor
  • Leon Shamroy’s cinematography



Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended — and arguably could be considered must-see for its historical relevance as one of the earliest “couple on the run” noirs.

Links:

Big Carnival, The / Ace in the Hole (1951)

Big Carnival, The / Ace in the Hole (1951)

“I don’t make things happen — all I do is write about ’em!”

Synopsis:
A fame-hungry journalist (Kirk Douglas) seizes an opportunity to cover a story about a man (Richard Benedict) trapped in a New Mexico mine. While Benedict’s parents (John Berkes and Frances Dominguez) pray and worry, his cynical wife (Jan Sterling) earns money from gawking visitors who’ve come to see the media spectacle created by Douglas, and a corrupt local sheriff (Ray Teal) hoping for re-election conceals Douglas’s nefarious plans to keep Benedict buried longer than necessary.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “cynical Billy Wilder film” — which “attacks the American public” for “always [being] willing to exploit tragedy for personal gain” — is “extremely well made, brilliantly acted by Douglas, and, sadly, truthful”. He notes that “many people detest this depressing picture” — and while I can’t say I fall in that camp (it’s far too well made to detest), it sure is a helluva consistent downer. DVD Savant refers to it as a “blanket condemnation of humanity”, adding that “Wilder’s dark viewpoint is not only unrelenting, it’s unrelentingly unrelenting”. Based on a true story of a cave explorer named Floyd Collins, the screenplay — by Wilder, Walter Newman, and Lesser Samuels — builds this real-life tragedy up to satirically outlandish proportions; literally nobody is spared, not even Douglas’s seemingly clean-cut apprentice-photographer (Robert Arthur). I enjoy Jan Sterling’s sullen performance as the buried man’s no-good wife (that scene with the scarf!), and Charles Lang’s cinematography is outstanding — but this is one classic I’ll happily leave behind now that I’ve been reminded of its technical brilliance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Jan Sterling as Lorraine Minosa
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a harsh but powerful classic. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

Links:

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

“So they call me ‘Concentration Camp Ehrhardt’?”

Synopsis:
As Hitler ravages Europe, a famous Polish actor (Jack Benny) and his wife (Carole Lombard) are forced to switch their troupe’s play from a Nazi-satire to “Hamlet”. Benny is distressed when a handsome fighter pilot (Robert Stack) gets up from the audience at the start of his “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, not knowing his wife is engaging in an innocent flirtation with this starstruck fan. Meanwhile, a spy (Stanley Ridges) infiltrates the Polish Resistance movement, and it’s up to the acting troupe to prevent a bumbling Gestapo chief (Sig Ruman) from learning the names of underground members.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “title of Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy-propaganda masterpiece” — with a script by Edwin Justus Mayer that is “brimming with clever twists and sparkling dialogue” — actually “refers to the existence of Poland”, noting that the film is Lubitsch’s attempt to present “Poles whom we [Americans] would want to support: they are brave, resourceful, and have an indomitable spirit”. He points out that the “continuous deception and disguises are staples of French farce, as is the bedroom intrigue”, and they “are typical of Lubitsch” — as are “the moments of screwball comedy (the infighting between Benny and Lombard), the sexual innuendo and downright naughtiness, and the flights into burlesque, slapstick, and outrageous spoof.” He reminds us that “the film was roundly criticized for being funny when it’s about a serious subject — but Lubitsch strongly attacks both Hitler and his followers, never letting his humorous treatment of them make us forget they are ruthless murderers”.

In Cult Movies 2, Peary states that “Cult movies are often born in controversy”, and describes in greater detail the reception this film had in 1942, just “three years after Germany invaded Poland” and “three months after the United States entered World War II”. He notes that Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was especially offended by the film; Crowther wrote, “To say [the film] is callous and macabre is understating the case”. However, Peary points out that “it’s interesting to note that critics were lenient to those World War II comedies that made no attempt to impress upon viewers the grim realities of Nazi aggression and occupation in Europe, while they jumped on Lubitsch’s film for daring to be both a comedy and topical”; in truth, “the opposite should have been the case”. Adding greatly to challenges with the film’s reception was the fact that viewers were devastated by Lombard’s death in a plane crash on her way back home to Hollywood after selling war bonds; the film was “impossible to promote”.

Speaking of Lombard, Peary names her Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars (sharing the award with Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor), noting that “Lombard considered her performance in To Be or Not to Be the best of her career”, and he agrees. He writes, “She has many moments in which she reveals why she was the thirties’ most celebrated comedienne”, and adds that he “particularly like[s] her affected mannerisms and voice when she tells Benny that it’s of no consequence that he finally asked the director to bill her above him in a play, and her look when he says that he knew she’d feel that way so the billing will stay the same”. He writes, “Also memorable is her sexual-innuendo-filled flirting with Stack’s young bomber pilot”: her “eyes reveal she is lost in fantasies when he tells her, ‘I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes’.” However, “Lombard’s Maria switches from being dazzlingly comical to deadly serious, and Lombard reveals how much she had grown as a dramatic actress in the last few years.” Lombard, Benny, and indeed the entire cast is in top form here; this movie is well worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carole Lombard as Maria Tura
  • Jack Benny as Joseph Tura (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Robert Stack as Lt. Sobinski
  • Many humorous moments

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

Links:

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

“He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English.”

Synopsis:
A jury forman (Martin Balsam) assumes that deliberations on the murder trial of a Puerto Rican teenager will go smoothly and quickly, and most of the 12 men are eager to simply go home. But a dissenting “not guilty” voter (Henry Fonda) — hoping to hash out details of the case to determine any reasonable doubt — soon has most of his fellow jurors beginning to rethink their assumptions, with the exception of two unyielding bigots (Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay of the same name features “flawless direction by Sidney Lumet (his film debut)” and an “ingenious script” in which jurors are “questioning evidence, reenacting crime, theorizing about the witnesses’ motives for accusing the young boy of murder, and getting the most resistant among them… to reveal the prejudices that have influenced their verdicts.” He notes that the film is “fascinating and exciting”, while acknowledging skepticism that “a group of diverse Americans will make the right decision because those who are biased will be outnumbered”. He points out that the “most interesting aspect of the film is the concept of hero: few movies characters are more admirable than Henry Fonda, who stands fast against 11 jurors” — but “Rose’s valid point is that he can’t do it alone”. Finally, Peary notes that while this film is “idealistic… it’s not dated (as anyone who has recently served on a jury knows)”.

I’m a huge fan of this surprisingly gripping nearly-one-room drama, which I rewatch periodically and am drawn into time and again. Fonda’s performance is outstanding, but so are those of all the other (mostly unknown) actors. Meanwhile, it’s clear how much thought and effort were put into every minute of the production, from acting to staging; as noted in TCM’s article:

During rehearsals, Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman set up their shots in an actual NYC jury room, blueprinting 365 separate takes from every aspect of the claustrophobic set. The end result, after only 17 days of shooting, is a masterful job of spare, lean black and white filmmaking, crafted in an era when big screens, big locales and bold color were deemed an absolute necessity.

While watching this film, we genuinely feel we’re being taken on a carefully calibrated ride across both the challenges and the benefits of our very-human justice system. As noted by James Kendrick in his review for Qnetwork, “The resistance of the other jurors to discussing the seemingly open-and-shut case is a compelling means of depicting how the system works only when those involved accept the moral weight of their roles.” DVD Savant adds that: “On one level the jury isn’t much better than a mob — most of these men are quite willing to go along with the perceived majority opinion without really thinking about the case. Only when challenged to actually apply themselves to their appointed task do the sensitive thinkers advance their personal opinions.”

Note: The opening establishing shot reminds me both visually and aurally of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries — though Wiseman would linger longer and add several more establishing shots before moving into “the action”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A uniformly excellent cast, through-and-through



  • Fine camerawork and direction within a confined space

Must See?
Yes, as a true classic — one well worth revisiting regularly.

Categories

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

Links:

King and I, The (1956)

King and I, The (1956)

“There is no barbarian worse than a weak king.”

Synopsis:
In the mid-1800s, a widow (Deborah Kerr) moves to Siam to become a schoolteacher in the palace of the king (Yul Brynner), who has dozens of young children and many wives. While she struggles to adapt and help the king learn “scientific ways”, the king’s newest young wife (Rita Moreno) — stolen from Burma — hopes to escape with her lover (Carlos Rivas).

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1944 Broadway musical in his GFTFF, but he does mention it in his Alternate Oscars, where he notes that “Yul Brynner was drafted from Broadway to re-create his stubborn Siam despot in 20th Century-Fox’s excellent musical version of The King and I.” He adds, “Just as Deborah Kerr found the king, audiences thought this bald, handsome, slightly scary newcomer to be magnetic, amusing, powerful, sexy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” Peary goes on to award Laurence Olivier Best Actor for his role in Richard III, but does nominate Brynner, so clearly he’s in agreement with audiences’ sentiments.

Indeed, the title characters are at the core of this film, and they richly embody their roles. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his laudatory review for The New York Times, “The king is the heart of this story, and Mr. Brynner makes him vigorous and big. But Miss Kerr matches him boldly.” The colorful cinematography, sets, and costumes are a huge plus, too; the movie is sumptuous to look at, and of course the score is an absolute winner. The “Shall We Dance” sequence still delights instantly, thanks to a confluence of all these factors.

Much more problematic is the storyline itself, with its explicitly Orientalist and infantilizing (i.e., “I’ll help fix you and your culture”) approach to Anna’s visit. The recent Tony-winning revival of the musical apparently worked hard to overcome these inherent challenges, and succeeded — but modern-day viewers of this older adaptation will want to prepare themselves for numerous uncomfortable tensions. On the one hand, it tells a staunchly feminist tale of an independent woman boldly succeeding in a sexist patriarchy; on the other hand, Siamese culture is presented as deeply “Othered” and inherently problematic, and it’s difficult to see Anna as anything other than a “White savior” coming in to rescue this nation and its people single-handedly. With that said, should this version of The King and I still be seen? Yes, I believe so — there’s enough merit in the production itself to warrant a viewing, and modern film fanatics will hopefully be able to put its orientation (pun intended) into historical context.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Yul Brynner as King Mongkut of Siam
  • Deborah Kerr as Anna
  • Vibrant sets, costumes, and cinematography


  • Rodgers and Hammerstein’s infectious score

Must See?
Yes, for its fine songs and lead performances. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Third Man, The (1949)

Third Man, The (1949)

“I’ve done things that would have been unthinkable before the war.”

Synopsis:
A pulp western novelist named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in occupied post-war Vienna ready to work for his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), but soon learns Lime has recently been killed. While attending Lime’s funeral, Martins meets his grieving lover (Alida Valli), as well as two British Army policemen (Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee) who inform Martins that Lime was a criminal, and try to convince him to leave town. However, Martins is determined to figure out what happened to his late friend, and soon stumbles upon a startling discovery.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “classic of the British cinema” has “suspense, wit, [and] fine performances”, as well as “many classic scenes”. He adds that “through shots of Vienna in ruins, the extensive use of bizarre camera angles, and the presentation of a sinister-corrupt-nightmarish atmosphere”, director Carol “Reed conveys a world out of order, where good men do evil deeds, where the British and the Russians work side by side, [and] where betrayal is more moral than loyalty” — which he believes “is the film’s major theme”. He notes that “Anton Karas’ classy zither-playing gives the film a romantic, haunting quality”, and is “just the right ingredient that takes this picture to masterwork level”.

It’s actually hard to name just one element that contributes to this film’s success; as noted by Peter Bogdanovich:

“It’s one of the best — if not the best — non-auteur films ever made, where you have this extraordinary coming together of a bunch of really first-rate talents, all working at their top: Grahame Green as a writer, Alex Korda as a producor, Carol Reed as a director, Vienna looking very photogenic right after the war, Trevor Howard at his best, Orson Welles certainly at his most mysterious in a role that he was born to play…”

Indeed, everything about this expertly crafted, finely acted film keeps one glued to the screen and the storyline — thanks in large part to consistently innovative cinematography, with action taking place on inherently atmospheric sets.

The attention to period detail and overall ambience in this film is especially significant; this is not simply any old “murder mystery”, but rather one that’s inextricably entrenched within the unique milieu of a city split into fragments by various occupiers, its motley inhabitants dealing with the inevitability of post-war chaos, corruption, and mistrust. Lonely Martins stumbles into this unsettled setting, mourning the loss of a man he considers “the best friend he ever had” while falling hard for stunning beauty Valli (excellent in her most iconic role). Meanwhile, Howard’s cynical-realist policeman is perpetually on the sidelines, ready to remind Cotten what kind of man his friend Harry Lime really was.

Countless memorable images stand out from The Third Man: “Holly being bitten by a parrot, Holly being chased by a little boy who’s telling everyone within earshot that Holly’s a murderer, Lime and Holly speaking while on a Ferris wheel, Lime being chased through the sewers, and in the finale, Holly waiting for Valli as she walks toward the camera”. Also notable are Holly’s disastrous (indeed, nightmarish and Hitchcockian) talk in front of an audience of “cultured” Brits ready to hear him expound on high-falutin’ literary topics; “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) playing violin at the Casanova Club while an overweight female sips soup right under his chin; the many scenes in which faces of random citizens are shown in crowded, close focus on the screen; Lee punching Holly and then, without missing a beat, politely helping him get back up. There’s no sentimentality here: as much as Holly may want to imbue his old friend with the glow of eternal loyalty, his idealized vision is broken down bit by bit, and there’s no happy ending in sight (though surely he has plenty of material to bring to his work as a novelist).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins
  • Alida Valli as Anna
  • Orson Welles as Harry Lime
  • Trevor Howard as Major Calloway
  • Finely realized supporting performances

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography

  • Effectively stylized camera angles

  • Excellent use of authentic (and/or authentically recreated) locales

  • The final shootout chase through Vienna’s sewers

  • Grahame Greene’s script
  • Anton Karas’ oh-so-memorable zither score

Must See?
Yes, as an indisputable classic of the era and genre.

Categories

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

Links:

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

“That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love.”

Synopsis:
After the death of an infamously self-absorbed newspaper tycoon named Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a magazine editor (Philip Van Zandt) sends a reporter (William Alland) to investigate the meaning of Kane’s final word (“Rosebud”) by viewing newsreels and interviewing various key players in his life — including Kane’s business manager (Erskine Sanford), his estranged friend (Joseph Cotten), his second wife (Dorothy Comingore), and his butler (Paul Stewart).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that “Orson Welles’s debut film can justifiably be called the greateset picture of all time because it not only taught other directors how to tell a story through film but also taught moviegoers how to watch a film”. He writes that the “film is about a search for the essential missing part (‘Rosebud’) needed to document a man’s life”, and notes that Welles “creates ‘realism’ (the ‘true’ picture of Kane) through illusion and expressionism, and so his picture becomes a tribute to the camera”. He adds:

“The visuals show past events not as the six storytellers remember them but as the filmmakers (primarily director Welles and cameraman Gregg Toland) interpret the storytellers’ words… We learn about Kane and the other characters not only through dialogue and action but through Welles’ creative, flamboyant use of props, screen space, set design, music, editing, sound (including voice inflections), costumes, freeze frames, deep-focus photography, and lighting.”

Peary further points out that the “picture has great acting, music (by Bernard Herrmann), photography, editing (by Robert Wise), [and] countless classic moments”.

Peary discusses Citizen Kane not only in his GFTFF but in his first Cult Movies book — where he offers an in-depth overview of the film’s notorious production and release — and Alternate Oscars, where he names it Best Picture of the Year, and refers to it as “stunningly directed, magnificently acted, and brilliantly written”. He argues that while not all would consider it “the greatest film ever made”, it’s “at [the] very least… the most influential film of the sound era, the picture that best illustrates the potential of film as a storytelling medium and as an outlet for personal and artistic expression”. All of Peary’s praise rings true: the film does indeed “astonish” those seeing it for the first time, and “repeated viewings only increase the impact”. Whether one merely admires Citizen Kane or actively enjoys it, there is never a visually dull moment; it’s well worth a look or two (or three, or more).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gregg Toland’s legendary cinematography


  • Excellent use of unusual and diverse sets
  • Many memorable images
  • Fine supporting performances


  • Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles’ Oscar-winning script
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a justifiable cult classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter (1945)

“Nothing lasts, really — neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.”

Synopsis:
A married woman (Celia Johnson) falls unexpectedly in love with a married doctor (Trevor Howard) she meets at a train station — but how long can their furtive romance last before they’re either found out or consumed with guilt?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “David Lean’s subtle tearjerker about a suburban housewife… and married doctor… who meet by chance at a railway station and begin having weekly rendezvous, each less innocent than the time before”, is a “nicely acted film” representing the “visualization of a fantasy of many sexually repressed women” given that “Johnson is married to a bore (Cyril Raymond) who takes her for granted; surely they have no sex life.” He adds that the fact “Howard is a doctor is… significant. I would have thought he’d be a heart specialist who ‘revives’ Johnson’s long-lost emotions. But he’s a lung doctor, indication that Johnson’s home life is stifling.” Peary ends his brief review by noting that “If [the] ending is frustrating for viewers, it is equally frustrating for the two would-be lovers — if they’d been French rather than British, it all would have worked out fine.”

Peary’s review of this fourth collaboration between director David Lean and producer-playwright Noel Coward — after In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), and Blithe Spirit (1945) — is perhaps overly succinct and pat; DVD Savant adds some more thoughts to the analysis:

A man of more than a few affairs, David Lean takes pains to portray incipient adultery as misery for the unhappy people that consider it. Soap operas about wandering spouses typically take place in glamorous settings and the people involved get a chance to enjoy “the thrill of romance” before the inevitable problems settle in. … Frequently listed among the most romantic films ever made, Brief Encounter is really about romance frustrated.

Indeed, Brief Encounter is a bittersweet film, and is not one I enjoy watching, though I certainly appreciate its honesty and fine craftsmanship. Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 2 (purportedly Coward’s favorite musical piece) is used to memorable effect, the cinematography is consistently atmospheric, and all sets — from the crowded train station cafe to shadowy tunnels — suit the characters’ secretive situation perfectly. The storyline itself — expanded from Coward’s original half-hour play Still Life (1936) — is expertly structured, framing the entire “brief encounter” as a self-reflective moment in the life of a woman who knows she will ultimately stay faithful to her husband and boring life, but recognizes what a gap this affair has filled (or opened up?) for her. One hopes she may be able to bring her newfound passion back to her marriage and convince her husband she wants more than simply kindness and expectations for dinner served on time; the final image of her embrace with Raymond is, to that end, perhaps an encouraging one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Celia Johnson as Laura
  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets


  • Fine use of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Must See?
Yes, as a fine if ultimately depressing classic.

Categories

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

Links:

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961)

“When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy.”

Synopsis:
At a community dance in New York City, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria (Natalie Wood) falls in love with the former gangleader (Richard Beymer) of the Jets, currently helmed by Riff (Russ Tamlyn). The Jets are about to rumble with the Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (George Chakiris), and Bernardo’s girlfriend (Rita Moreno) warns Maria (Wood) to stay away from Tony (Beymer) — but their love transcends racial tensions; will it be allowed to flourish?

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-winning musical — based on Arthur Laurents’ Shakespearean-inspired Broadway play, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — in his GFTFF, but he does name it the Best Picture of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he discusses both its merits and some of his personal memories upon first viewing it. He begins by noting “just how flawed it is”, but argues that “the flaws seem to vanish in a wave of nostalgia”, and given that “there were no great English-language pictures released in 1961”, he agrees with the Academy in its recognition of this film — co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins — as Best Picture if simply “to acknowledge the numerous moviegoers for whom it has special memories”. He argues that “of all the performers, Rita Moreno” (who won an Oscar) “is the film’s class act”, and that “her singing and dancing during ‘America’ is the musical highlight”.

Indeed, the music and dancing overall in this film are its indisputable high points. I’m an obsessive fan of Bernstein’s score, and could easily listen to it on its own without visuals or lyrics — but it’s fun to combine them altogether. Speaking of Sondheim’s lyrics, they hold nothing back in revealing racist attitudes and practices, particularly during ‘America’:

(Girls) Everything free in America
(Bernardo) For a small fee in America
(Anita) Buying on credit is so nice
(Bernardo) One look at us and they charge twice

(Girls) Life is all right in America
(Boys) If you’re all white in America

and in overtly bigoted dialogue by Office Krupke (William Bramley):

You Puerto Ricans get what you’ve been itching for: use of the playground, use of the gym, the streets, the candy store. So what if you do turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty? … Yeah, sure, I know. It’s a free country, I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got? Things are tough all over. Beat it.

Peary ends his review in Alternate Oscars by noting that “one forgets that in 1961 this film, which pleads for brotherhood, was daring to an uncomfortable degree”. He points out that “except for Tony, Maria, and the elderly Doc (Ned Glass), the characters are a pretty rotten group. They are all biased.” Actually, this aspect of the film — its no-holds-barred look at bigotry and violence — remains both startling and refreshing; its themes of racial intolerance and territorial supremacy remain as salient as ever, if not more so.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wonderfully choreographed dances
  • Vibrant Technicolor cinematography and sets


  • Natalie Wood as Maria
  • Rita Moreno as Anita
  • Creative closing credits
  • Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score and lyrics

Must See?
Yes, for its historical value and wonderful musical sequences. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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

Links:

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

“E.T… phone… home.”

Synopsis:
A 10-year-old boy (Henry Thomas) enlists the help of his younger sister (Drew Barrymore) and older brother (Robert MacNaughton) in preventing their distracted mother (Dee Wallace) from learning about the existence of a short, odd-looking alien longing to go back home.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “marvelous sci-fi fantasy from Steven Spielberg” — which “broke box-office records and dazzed everyone but your local party-pooper” — features a “title character… designed by Carlo Rambaldi” who “is a sweet little wide-eyed alien” (modeled in part after Rambaldi’s own cat’s ‘innocent eyes’) “with child-like qualities (although we can deduce that he is an adult) and the power to heal and cause dying plants to bloom instantly and objects to fly”. Peary notes that when the “fragile creature becomes sickly because he longs to return home”, the “film becomes a twist on The Wizard of Oz: three youngsters help an adult return to his own world (there’s no place like home).” However, “in truth, this film has far more sympathy and understanding of children than The Wizard of Oz, and it’s a celebration of youth and innocence — significantly, unlike in Oz, these children do not ‘grow up’!” He adds that the “film has suspense, wit, magical special effects, [and] numerous scenes that have etched themselves into memories of moviegoers” — and while “Spielberg occasionally manipulates us into shedding tears, the film is genuinely sweet.”

Peary goes on to further describe why E.T. himself is so appealing, noting he’s “a wonderful creation with universal appeal — kids respond to him with such affection because he truly satisfies their need for [an] ‘imaginary playmate’, the ideal friend for all kids (especially those who don’t have two parents always there) who wish their stuffed animals could hug them back”. He adds that “adults, of course, are also taken with E.T. — when he dons a long robe and waddles through the house, he may remind us of our favorite, quirkiest visiting relative”. Peary also calls out that the “amazing success of the film” is due to “the performance of Henry Thomas”, who “in a difficult part [as Elliott]… is so appealing that we gladly accept him as our surrogate and allow him to fulfill our dream of meeting the perfect alien”.

In Alternate Oscars, Peary names this movie Best Picture of the Year in place of Gandhi (1982), noting that E.T. “quickly emerged as the only figure in 1982 who would have beaten Gandhi in an international popularity contest”. He writes that while Spielberg — who “made the film when he himself was lonely” — “expected E.T. to be a small picture… it hit a universal nerve” given that “E.T. could be seen as a myth figure… It was a picture made for kids, but it had elements to which adults responded more strongly.” I loved nearly all aspects of E.T. when I saw it as a kid — other than the creepy final sequences with adult scientists in suits taking over Elliott’s house, which scared me — and was curious what my reaction would be like revisiting this flick as an adult. While I’m less enamored overall by the storyline, I can still appreciate the film’s many charms and special qualities, and especially enjoy the collective effort put in by McNaughton’s “naughty” teenage friends in the final sequence to help E.T. to go back home (this circles back nicely to the opening scene of the teens simply sitting around playing cards, excluding Elliott from their fun).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many iconic moments
  • Fine special effects
  • Allen Daviau’s cinematography
  • Henry Thomas as Elliott
  • Drew Barrymore’s precocious and still-adorable performance as Gertie
  • Robert McNaughton as Michael
  • Dee Wallace as the kids’ harried mom
  • John Williams’ iconic score

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic.

Categories

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

Links: