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Month: January 2019

New York, New York (1977)

New York, New York (1977)

“I want to stay here and annoy you.”

Synopsis:
Just after World War II ends, a USO singer (Liza Minnelli) is romanced by a womanizing saxophonist (Robert De Niro) and soon they begin a slow climb to grow their careers while navigating a rocky marriage.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Martin Scorsese’s romance — with musical numbers — was unfairly panned when released and praised when re-released in 1976 in its uncut version.” He argues that “if you can’t tolerate De Niro’s character because he’s abrasive, immature, and incorrigible and you feel that his treatment of the sweet, ‘perfect’ Minnelli is too inconsiderate and selfish for any woman to bear, then you’ll probably hate this picture” — and I’ll admit I fall into this camp. I can’t relate to or agree with Peary’s follow-up comments: “… don’t forget that Minnelli does her part to break them up: leaving him behind to run off with a band, leaving his band when pregnant although that will cause its ruination, accepting a record contract although not bothering to tell him or wonder how it will affect him when he’s so down on his luck, and, finally, not coming back to him when he’s doing well also. He does bad things — she is the villain.”

Hold the phone, Peary. De Niro’s character is a pushy, womanizing schmuck from the moment he enters the screen, and doesn’t let up. Minnelli allows herself be swayed by his persistence and ignores signs of abuse until she’s finally had enough, and rightfully frees herself from his clutches to pursue her own career and motherhood. Her success is to be celebrated, as is her tolerance of De Niro near the end (he’s still a jerk), regardless of her ultimate choice. Peary writes that the “acting by the two leads is wonderful” and that “the tear-jerking scenes result from De Niro revealing his sensitivity”, but none of this matters given that we’re watching deeply unpleasant power plays for nearly three hours. What remains impressive are the cinematography, sets, and songs, which are consistently stunning; the color palette alone makes this one worth sitting through, if you can handle it — and Minnelli’s in fine vocal form, as usual.

Note: This film is discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3 book, where he asserts: “My feeling is that viewers appreciate New York, New York more the second time around because they’re better prepared for De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle… Because they know he is on a self-destructive path, they now can have sympathy for this man who can’t control himself, who can’t conform… Because they know Jimmy will be punished, it becomes easier to put up with his abrasive personality and callous, immature actions.” Maybe so, but I still have no intention of revisiting this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stunning cinematography and sets




  • The fun closing musical sequence

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for the visuals and songs, if you can stomach it.

Links:

Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984)

“We came, we saw — we kicked its ass!”

Synopsis:
A team of paranormal scientists (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis) hire a secretary (Annie Potts) and open a business to help rid New York City of its ghosts. But when a beautiful client (Sigourney Weaver) and her nerdy neighbor (Rick Moranis) appear to be possessed by ancient spirits, the Ghost Busters — joined by a new employee (Ernie Hudson) — find their work suddenly much more urgent.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “amusing diversion” which “somehow became one of the biggest box-office successes of all time” is as “zany and irreverent as expected and the special effects are a lot of fun”, but he argues that “the self-impressed dialogue seems forced and feeble”. He concedes that “Murray has a field day — he provides most of the wild hilarity”, but notes he wishes “audiences weren’t so easily charmed by his rude, childish, chauvanistic characters simply because they hint that they are only playacting”, and that he believes “this Murray character is really a jerk with whom we shouldn’t laugh”. Interestingly, while I find Murray insufferable most of the time, this is the one Peary-listed film where his antics and deadpan delivery seem to fit perfectly: what else should one be but calm, cool, and snarky in the face of existential paranormal crises? Sure, his character is a boorish and womanizing cad, but his super-smart colleagues are busy rocking it in their own way, and Weaver more than holds her own, especially when she gets to face off against Murray supernatural-style.

Speaking of Weaver, she has immense fun with her role, and looks stunning even when — or perhaps especially when — possessed. The special effects are surprisingly effective for a film of this era, and excellent use is made of New York City sets. Meanwhile, the entire storyline of ghosts being captured and held in electronic captivity couldn’t resonate more aptly with our modern-day concerns over digital security; the film is almost prescient in its depiction of evil forces itching to take over the world, let loose by bumbling bureaucrats (in this case, a clueless EPA employee played by William Atherton). Film fanatics should enjoy checking out — or revisiting — this iconic ’80s cult favorite, which has held up well as a silly horror-comedy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman
  • A surprisingly appealing set of nerdy superheroes
  • Sigourney Weaver’s fun performance as possessed-Dana
  • Fine special effects, costumes, and make-up


  • Excellent use of New York City sets
  • Ray Parker, Jr.’s inimitable theme song

Must See?
Yes, as a fun cult favorite.

Categories

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

Links:

Golden Boy (1939)

Golden Boy (1939)

“Money’s the answer — I can get it fighting, no other way.”

Synopsis:
A gifted violinist (William Holden) disappoints his father (Lee J. Cobb) when he pursues a career as a prizefighter in order to earn money for the family. While an ambitious manager (Adolphe Menjou) and his loyal girlfriend (Barbara Stanwyck) — who Holden falls for — do what they can to keep Holden in the game, their influence is limited when a local gangster (Joseph Calleia) wants a piece of the action.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that while “four writers ‘Hollywoodized’ Clifford Odets’ gritty play,” the “story retained much of its original power and its anti-boxing message”, adding that “this is a prototypical boxing film in that it’s about a decent boy from the ghetto who is hardened by the boxing business and his striving for materialistic gain” — though in a twist, the film “doesn’t have the boxer’s girlfriend try to get him to quit the ring”. Peary argues that the “film is schmaltzy, Cobb is overbearing as the music-loving papa, and there isn’t enough fight atmosphere”, but it “never loses interest” given that “Rouben Mamoulian’s direction is satisfactory” and “newcomer Holden, looking handsome and energetic, and the fetching Stanwyck, who took him under her wing, are an appealing screen couple”. Meanwhile, making the film look fantastic are “two of the best” cinematographers, Nicholas Musuraca and Karl Freund. However, while there’s much to commend about Golden Boy, it’s not quite must-see viewing. Cobb’s over-the-top portrayal quickly has us annoyed rather than sympathetic for his plight: indeed, Holden’s choice of boxing over music makes sense as a way for him to distance himself from stifling parental expectations, thus complicating our sense of what, exactly, we should be hoping for as the outcome for this gifted yet conflicted young man.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as Lorna
  • William Holden’s earnest portrayal in his breakthrough role as Joe
  • A fine supporting performance by Calleia
  • Nicholas Musuraca and Karl Freund’s cinematography


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

Links:

Georgy Girl (1966)

Georgy Girl (1966)

“If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get you lot organized!”

Synopsis:
When a young woman named Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) learns that her roommate (Charlotte Rampling) is going to have a baby, she and Rampling’s immature boyfriend (Alan Bates) begin preparing for the baby’s arrival; meanwhile, the wealthy man (James Mason) Georgy’s parents (Bill Owen and Clare Kelly) work for propositions her with a contract to be his mistress, which she refuses.

Genres:

Review:
Silvio Narizzano directed this “swingin’ ’60s” tale of an unconventionally quirky leading lady (Redgrave) finding her true passion in life through unexpected means. The rather dismal storyline is presented as hip and comedic: at least Redgrave has fun teaching songs to young children while her parents kowtow to a creepy older “gentleman” (Mason), her sociopathic roommate (Rampling) admits to aborting untold previous babies before finally deciding — on a whim — to keep this one (which she consistently refers to as “it”), and Bates demonstrates nothing but annoyingly “whimsical” irresponsibility. With all that said, Georgy remains an intriguing heroine: she’s someone we can’t help rooting for, especially after baby Sarah is born. It’s hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or cheer for Georgy, but she’s certainly memorable.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lynn Redgrave as Georgy (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Ken Higgins’ cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a one-time look for Redgrave’s memorable performance.

Links:

Meatballs (1979)

Meatballs (1979)

“It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!”

Synopsis:
A wacky counselor (Bill Murray) inspires his motley crew of misfit summer campers to stay positive during their annual Olympiad competition with a rival camp, while romancing a fellow counselor (Kate Lynch) and providing one-on-one mentoring to an insecure young boy (Chris Makepeace).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “unremarkable comedy” — the first in a string of films Bill Murray made with director Ivan Reitman, including Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984) — “broke Canadian box-office records, proving former Saturday Night Live star Bill Murray could make it as a movie star.” He notes that while “Murray is quite funny”, “too much of the humor is sophomoric and tasteless”, and “at times schmaltz gets in [the] way of humor”. That just about sums up this tedious flick, which was understandably enjoyable for audiences of the day hoping to either relive nostalgic memories of summer camp or fantasize about what never was, but hasn’t held up well at all. It’s strictly must-see viewing for Murray fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An innocently nostalgic look back at summer camp

Must See?
Nope. You can skip it.

Links:

Great Gatsby, The (1974)

Great Gatsby, The (1974)

“That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world: a beautiful little fool.”

Synopsis:
A mysterious millionaire (Robert Redford) purchases a house near his long-lost love, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) — a socialite who married a wealthy but philandering man (Bruce Dern) while Redford was off at World War I. With the help of his neighbor and Farrow’s second cousin (Sam Waterston), Gatsby (Redford) arranges a reunion with Daisy; meanwhile, Dern carries on an affair with the melodramatic wife (Karen Black) of a gas station owner (Scott Wilson) who knows his wife is discontented in their marriage.

Genres:

Review:
Jack Clayton’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel — co-starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford as the infamously star-crossed lovers, Daisy and Jay — remains the best-known of those made so far (including the little-seen 1949 version), though it’s far from satisfying. It’s clear how keen the filmmakers were to show off the elaborate sets, and with all the money spent on populating Redford’s parties with so many extras and costumes, one can understand the temptation to use a lot of the footage — but there’s such a thing as too much Charleston drunknness and flappers’ feet dancing! Both Farrow and Redford are a bit inscrutable; and while few can play an irritated husband more consistently and convincingly than Dern, there’s little to genuinely appreciate about him or any of the other leading characters. Meanwhile, the dialogue is sappily embarrassing:

“Be my lover… Stay my lover.”
“I love the way you love me.”
“There’ll be other summers.”

Film fanatics may be curious to check this one out once for its visuals, but it’s not the classic it perhaps could have been.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gorgeous cinematography and sets


Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

“Good and evil are so close as to be chained together at the soul.”

Synopsis:
A highly respected doctor (Spencer Tracy) engaged to a young socialite (Lana Turner) whose father (Donald Crisp) disapproves of their relationship experiments with a potion that turns on his “wild side”, and soon he’s developed a controlling affair with a frightened barmaid (Ingrid Bergman).

Genres:

Review:
Victor Fleming’s remake of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-filmed tale tends to be dismissed as both unnecessary and inferior to its more beloved predecessors — the 1920 silent version with John Barrymore and Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation with Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. However, this harsh assessment is unwarranted: while the earlier two films are more iconic, this one serves its purpose nicely, and is certainly well-made. Most engaging of all is Bergman’s performance: this was notably her first opportunity to play against her “nice girl” persona in Hollywood. (The same was true in reverse for Lana Turner, who was originally considered for Bergman’s part.) Bergman, naturally, brings warmth and depth to a character who could easily have been simply a victimized caricature; she’s mesmerizing every instant she’s on-screen. Tracy — who resisted taking on this role out of deference for March’s Oscar-winning performance — isn’t awful, as some have claimed; his transformations are believable, even if the rationale for them is less well-developed here than elsewhere.

Note: More than anything, each viewing of this story reminds me of the real-life horrors of domestic abuse, with far too many individuals trapped in the clutches of monstrous partners they can’t escape from.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ingrid Bergman as Ivy
  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

  • The surreal transformation hallucinations

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look, and not deserving of its harshly negative reputation.

Links:

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Gone With the Wind (1939)

“Land’s the only thing in the world that matters — the only thing worth working for, fighting for, dying for!”

Synopsis:
On the eve of the Civil War, a self-absorbed southern belle (Scarlett O’Hara) in love with her neighbor, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), is devastated to learn he’s engaged to another woman, the kind-hearted and noble Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). In a fit of spite, Scarlett marries de Havilland’s adoring brother (Rand Brooks), but he quickly leaves her a widow. Businessman Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) — who knows about Scarlett’s undying passion for Ashley, but adores her anyway — doggedly pursues her, despite her lack of interest in him; that is, until she’s desperate to save her beloved, war-torn family property, the Tara plantation.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “most popular film of all time” — an Oscar-winning spectacle based on “Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of the Old South“, and directed by Victor Fleming after the original director (George Cukor) was fired — was “given grandiose treatment by producer David O. Selznick”, and remains a “gorgeous film”. He writes it’s “exciting just to watch characters in their lavish costumes, or the fiery red skies that often serve as the backgrounds, or shots of the Tara plantation”, and points out the “picture has wonderful period detail and a fine assortment of characters”. He asserts that the “film defies criticism”, and that “suffice it to say… Leigh and Gable are perfect in their roles” given that “they are witty, dramatic, dynamic, glamorous, and boy can they kiss”.

In his Alternate Oscars book, Peary gives the Best Picture Award to The Wizard of Oz (1939) instead, noting that Gone With the Wind “suffers because too many directorial styles are evident (also too many writers were employed), especially in the second half when interesting conflict (between the states and between Scarlett and Rhett) gives way to turgid soap opera”. He agrees with the Academy’s designation of Vivien Leigh as Best Actress, however, noting that while he has “only limited fondness for the film itself” he believes that “Scarlett O’Hara stands as perhaps the greatest, most vivid female character in movie history” — “a direct result of Leigh’s performance”. He notes that “what may be [Leigh’s] greatest achievement is to make us feel compassion for Scarlett even when she acts disgracefully, because we realize she is hurting herself most of all”, and adds that Scarlett may be “so popular with female viewers because they realize she has good qualities — including her passion, her indomitability, and her intelligence” — while they also “understand her flaws”.

I’m in essential agreement with Peary’s overall assessment, other than his assertion that the film defies criticism — of course, that’s not true. The most pressing challenge with this film is its highly problematic presentation of the South as a nostalgic haven where “after the Civil War, blacks miss the old slave South as much as the whites do.” In his review, DVD Savant brings a bit more nuance to the conversation, noting that “Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara refer to darkies often enough to suggest the authors and Selznick like the sound of the word”, and that the film “treats ‘Mammy’ (the amazing Hattie McDaniel) with a troubling ambivalence” given that “she’s at first [simply] another source of comic relief but [becomes] a source of powerful emotions later on”. All of this and more — including Butterfly McQueen’s engaging yet ultimately demeaning depiction as “the bird-brained Prissy” — make the film deeply challenging to accept as any kind of a truly great film, in the same way D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is impossible to analyze and discuss without enormous caveats. However, the treatment of slaves and former-slaves in Gone With the Wind are integral to its vision of characters fighting for a society in ruins, so one could argue the story itself required these distressing narrative threads.

Speaking of the story, DVD Savant asserts that for “at least its first half”, the film “is wonderfully good storytelling on a grand scale”. That may be true, but the problem is that it goes on for twice as long as the best portions! Scarlett undeniably wears on one’s nerves — and while it’s true that Leigh’s performance is remarkable, she isn’t someone I relish spending any more time with than necessary. While GWTW was (and remains) a cult favorite for many, it doesn’t serve that role for me: Scarlett is insufferable, and having an entire story based upon her — especially when that story glorifies the racist, privileged ideology of the South — isn’t my idea of a good time. I first dutifully watched Gone With the Wind as a teenage film fanatic, and hadn’t revisited it until now; I was glad for the second viewing, especially given the stunning Blu-Ray restoration, but once again find myself ready to set it aside indefinitely.

With all that said, there’s no denying film fanatics must watch this film at least once, simply to experience what DVD Savant refers to as the “first American Road Show epic of the sound era” — indeed, the complicated history of this film’s making is essential lore in cinema, and the recent (2014) publication of a book entitled simply The Making of Gone With the Wind (with a foreward by Robert Osbourne, RIP) demonstrates how enduring its legacy remains. In addition to its instantly recognizable score by Max Steiner (in the top 3 for sure, if not THE top), countless scenes and images are burned in our collective memory: Scarlett and her father (Thomas Mitchell) standing under a sprawling tree looking out at Tara; Scarlett surrounded by her beaus at the opening picnic; Scarlett wandering the massive death fields of a post-Gettysburg landscape while the camera cranes farther and farther above her head; Scarlett making a hideous dress out of green drapes (so wonderfully lampooned by Carol Burnett and her crew); Rhett and Scarlett’s passionate embraces. All told, this nearly four-hour film remains legendary.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara
  • Hattie McDaniel as Mammy
  • Stunning Technicolor cinematography


  • William Cameron Menzies’s set designs
  • Max Steiner’s oh-so-memorable score

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a long-time classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Drum, The (1938)

Drum, The (1938)

“In our mountains, you are wise or dead. I beg you to be wise.”

Synopsis:
In a Northwest frontier of colonial India, a British governor (Frances L. Sullivan) negotiates peace with a local king who is assassinated by his power-hungry brother (Raymond Massey). The king’s son (Sabu) — who has befriended a British colonel (Roger Livesey), Livesey’s new wife (Valerie Hobson), and a drummer boy (Desmond Tester) — goes into hiding, but helps the British fight back against Massey’s revolutionaries.

Genres:

Review:
This second of the Korda brothers’ “Empire trilogy” — made after Elephant Boy (1937) and before The Four Feathers (1939) — was a further opportunity for charismatic young Indian star Sabu to make his presence known to American and worldwide audiences. Unfortunately, his role in this flick isn’t large enough by far, and the story itself comes across as simply jingoistic imperialism. Massey is convincingly wild-eyed and obsessed, mouthing rhetoric that would sound familiar in modern-day tales of Jihadi fighters, while perpetuating other-izing fears: “I see a wave — a wave of men. Lean, hard, hungry free men from the hills, swooping down on the fat, soft comfortable slaves of the plains, their white throats ripe for the knife — a story as old as time… I see the mosques and domes rise again.” As Jay Carr asserts in his article for TCM, it can “hardly be regarded as anything more than dated, imperial chest-thumping, patronizing and paternal, in which Brits alone know what’s good for the rest of the world, in this case India”; meanwhile, Stuart Galbraith of DVD Talk notes that Sabu’s character is “firmly ensconced as a symbol of the contentedly colonized”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re a Sabu completist or particularly enjoy the Kordas brothers’ adventure flicks.

Links:

Ten Commandments, The (1956)

Ten Commandments, The (1956)

“Have the days of darkness made you see the light, Ramses? Will you free my people?”

Synopsis:
When the Pharaoh of Egypt (Cedric Hardwicke) decrees that all newborn Hebrew males shall be slain, a distraught mother (Martha Scott) places her infant in a basket on the Nile River, where he’s found and adopted by Hardwicke’s childless sister (Nina Foch) and named Moses. Moses (Charlton Heston) grows into a trustworthy general, beloved by his uncle (Hardwicke) and beautiful Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), while his cousin (Yul Brynner) covets Baxter for himself as the “rightful” heir to the throne. When Moses — who has long advocated for better conditions for the slaves — learns the truth of his humble origins (thanks in part to Nerfetiri’s maid [Judith Anderson] spilling the beans), he returns to his people, saving the life of a stonecutter (John Derek) in love with a beautiful peasant (Debra Pagent) by killing Derek’s cruel overseer (Vincent Price). He is banished when a deceptive Hebrew (Edward G. Robinson) — who has adopted Paget as his mistress — betrays his role in the murder, and eventually marries a humble shepherdess (Yvonne De Carlo) — but soon he is convinced that his true life work is to help free his fellow slaves from bondage to the Egyptians.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Cecil B. DeMille’s last film” — “his most famous epic” — is “not to be taken seriously”, though apparently in “some places in the world it’s taken as gospel”. He claims he loves “the way all the extras jabber, that Woody Strode plays two characters, that the dancing is so bad, and that everybody talks in stupid metaphors… the word like is said about a hundred times.” He adds that “if none of this excites you, then there’s always the parting of the Red Sea (one of the greatest special-effects sequences of all time), the Burning Bush, Moses turning the Nile blood red” — and he writes that “Heston’s Moses is very convincing, especially to himself.” Indeed, Heston and the visuals — including the cinematography, sets, crowds of extras, and costumes — are literally awesome, though the script itself leaves much to be desired; DVD Savant refers to this as an epic film that “is undeniably impressive but strangely primitive” at the same time, noting, “The dialogue in The Ten Commandments alternates between comic-book drivel and grandiose Bible-speak.” With that said, the scene in which all first-born males across the land (young and old) are to be slain (Heston accepts this as God’s inevitable will) is appropriately somber and creepy, and Heston-as-Moses remains an enduring hero for the ages. This one is worth at least a one-time watch given its popularity — though be forewarned it’s nearly four hours long.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vibrant cinematography, sets, and costumes



Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance and cult status. (It’s still played every Passover/Easter on television.)

Categories

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

Links: