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Month: February 2019

Blob, The (1958)

Blob, The (1958)

“I don’t know what this is — but it’s got to be killed before it gets any bigger!”

Synopsis:
When a dating couple (Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut) encounter an elderly man (Olin Howland) whose arm is covered with a gooey substance, they seek assistance from a local doctor (Steven Chase) and his nurse (Lee Payton), who are soon trapped by the all-encompassing blob, too. The town’s police — including Lt. Dave (Earl Rowe) and Office Jim Bert (John Benson) — are unsure whether the blob is real or simply a scheme by local teens to fool the cops; can McQueen convince authorities to take this issue seriously, before the entire town is engulfed in viscous red gunk?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s incredibly short review of this “low-budget sci-fi film” by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. — “once a drive-in favorite” — gives no indication that it would one day merit the full “Criterion treatment”, with restoration and commentaries provided. He does write that it’s “still fun” and “one of the few films of the fifties that was totally on the side of the teenagers”, though he adds the “creepy first half… loses momentum and becomes stilted until the rousing conclusion.” I’m not a huge fan of this slowly paced (perhaps deliberately so?) thriller, which seems to be trying to address too many audiences and themes at once in its mash-up of juvenile delinquent films with young romance and a mysterious alien presence. DVD Savant has a slightly different take, noting that “the story captures the slow pace of rural life, interrupted by something extraordinary.” Regardless of whether the blob represents something profoundly catastrophic or simply a laughable nuisance, this flick is worth a one-time look for its notoriety.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colorful and atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its historic relevance.

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On Approval (1944)

On Approval (1944)

“Poor George — it must be very sad coming back to your own house as a guest.”

Synopsis:
A penniless Brit (Roland Culver) attends a soiree hosted at the house of his poverty-stricken friend, the Duke of Bristol (Clive Brook), which Brook is renting to a young American heiress (Googie Withers). A wealthy widow (Beatrice Lillie) offers to live with Culver for a month “on approval” at her island in Scotland, to see if they’re compatible as marriage partners, and they’re soon joined by Brook and Withers as well. Will Culver live up to Lille’s expectations — and will Brook finally realize Withers has a crush on him?

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Review:
Clive Brook’s adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale’s 1926 play is a minor but engaging historic trifle that slowly grows on you, and pays off nicely in the end. The premise itself — about a middle-aged widow proposing spending a month together with her new fiance to ensure they get along well — is an intriguing one, and makes complete sense; why not try such a momentous choice “on approval” before purchase? The film opens with a clever sequence of news clips ensuring 1944’s audiences that they’re NOT about to watch yet another noisy war film — in fact, they’ll be taken back in time to a much gentler (Victorian) era, and allowed to escape for awhile into this former milieu. (The closing scenes of the film are also highly creative, utilizing sped-up footage and surreal imagery to show how the sticky situation finally resolves itself.) Lillie (primarily a stage actress) is perfectly cast in the leading female role, and it’s fun to see Withers — a strikingly unique looker — playing someone so diametrically opposed to her character in Night and the City (1950) just a few years later. The two leading men are fine, but it’s the women who really make a splash here — purposely so, as it’s the penniless boys who ultimately need to prove themselves worthy of the gals’ affections.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine lead performances

  • The surreal closing dream sequence

  • A clever script

Must See?
Yes, as a droll and witty surprise. Listed in the back of Peary’s book as a film with Historical Importance.

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Mystery of Picasso, The (1956)

Mystery of Picasso, The (1956)

“To understand what goes in a painter’s mind, you need to follow his hand.”

Synopsis:
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot and cinematographer Claude Renoir (with a soundtrack by Georges Auric) film Pablo Picasso making — and remaking — a series of unique drawings and paintings.

Genres:

Review:
Anyone reasonably interested in the work of Pablo Picasso will want to check out this fascinating collaborative effort by accomplished artists who came together to create an enduring artifact of Picasso’s creative process. Most of the drawings and paintings he produced during these filmed sessions were purportedly destroyed, adding to the film’s mystique and value (perhaps). The not-so-subtle irony of the title, of course, is that Picasso’s quirky genius remains as mysterious as ever — especially as he crosses out and reworks portions of his art that seem perfectly fine and pleasing, only to create new, different, and sometimes (but certainly not always) equally-pleasing replacements. Personally, I was a kid in the candy store while watching this film, glued to the screen to see what would unfold next — and speaking of kids, my own three children (ages 6, 8, and 10, all budding artists) stumbled upon me watching it and were completely drawn in, requesting to start again from the beginning; we talked out loud to the screen as Picasso worked, saying, “No — wait! Picasso, what are you doing? What IS that? Hmmmm… That’s interesting. I like that color… Oh, I see the bull now! No, I liked the other face better” and so forth. I can easily imagine us rewatching this one together numerous times.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fascinating look at Picasso’s artistic process — on the surface, anyway!


  • George Auric’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a unique cinematic collaboration, and for its historical relevance.

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Dishonored (1931)

Dishonored (1931)

“I am a soldier — but you bring something into war that doesn’t belong in it. You trick men into death with your body.”

Synopsis:
The head of the Austrian Secret Service (Gustav von Seyffertitz) enlists a prostitute (Marlene Dietrich) to serve as a spy against the Russians, and successfully corners a man (Warner Oland) she’s seduced at a masked ball — but she may have met her match when she falls for her next prey, wily Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen).

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Review:
Josef von Sternberg’s third collaboration with Marlene Dietrich remains a surprisingly effective “Mata Hari”-like spy thriller, one which allows sexy Dietrich to put all her unique attributes — including passionate piano playing — to use for the love of her country (though there’s also a highly enjoyable sequence in which she boldly goes without make-up as a peasant girl!). For the most part, she’s dressed in an array of stylish outfits, and is filmed in typically gorgeous lighting. I’m less-than-enthused with the miscasting of McLaglen as the source of her downfall, but Dietrich more than carries the film on her own shoulders, proving once again that she can hold her own in a male-dominated world. This one is worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlene Dietrich as “X27”
  • Lee Garmes’ atmospheric cinematography

  • Effective use of piano playing as a character trait and plot device

Must See?
Yes, once, as a finely crafted entry in the von Sternberg-Dietrich oeuvre. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Scarlet Empress, The (1934)

Scarlet Empress, The (1934)

“It must be cold — at night…”

Synopsis:
A naive German princess (Marlene Dietrich) is sent to marry the “cruel, cowardly half-wit” nephew (Sam Jaffe) of the Russian empress (Louise Dressler), and charged with producing a male heir — which she does, though not by Jaffe, who she can’t stand. When Dressler’s health begins to fail, Jaffe dreams of being with his lover (Ruthelma Stevens) and having absolute power over the nation and his wife — but Catherine, now much more self-confident, has other plans.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Josef von Sternberg’s astonishing, self-described ‘relentless excursion into style’ is the most idiosyncratic of his seven Marlene Dietrich films, and one of the most bizarre films ever to emerge from a Hollywood studio.” He notes that “Sternberg was one of the few directors to recognize and explore the link between sexual politics and political power”: “the film is about a woman who rejects her fate and through self-determination achieves self-preservation”. He adds that while Dietrich’s “whole life has been spent following the life’s course others set out for her”, “once she dutifully gives birth to a male heir… she is through being pushed around and goes on the offensive to realize her personal ambitions, using what she acknowledges to be her own ‘special’ weapons”. The first half of the film shows “Dietrich as she has never been in a Sternberg film, without her absolute control, sense of irony, air of superiority, mystery, or indifference” — but by the second half, “suddenly, thank goodness, Dietrich is back, living by her wits, her own code and logic, manipulating men who once thought they were controlling her.”

Peary goes on to write that “visually, the film is dazzling, the most imaginative American film of the sound era prior to Citizen Kane” — and while Sternberg apparently liked to claim full auteurship over his films and not give appropriate credit, he did work “closely with Paramount’s costume designer, Travis Banton; with imported Swiss artist Peter Balbusch, Hans Dreier, and Richard Kollorsz on the incredle Byzantine sets (which were meant to be ‘recreations’ of the Russian court); and with cinematographer Bert Glennon on his masterly composed images”. As DVD Savant writes in his review, “There is hardly a close-up of a character that doesn’t share the frame with a giant gnarled hand or twisted wooden face. It’s as if the drama were being played out amid a castle crowded with petrified ancestors.” Peary adds that most of “the film’s most memorable scenes have no dialogue, just music and sounds effects to heighten the impact of the extraordinary images: the wedding ceremony; the wedding banquet; and the sweeping finale”. He ends his GFTFF review by asserting that “Sternberg’s greatest, most perverse film has still not received its due”.

To that end, in Alternate Oscars, Peary names this “bizarre film — some would say berserk” — Best Movie of the Year. In this review, he highlights Dietrich’s performance, noting she’s “perfect as Catherine; she is fearless, sardonic, indifferent, playful, ambitious, and as naughtily flirtatious as Mae West”, turning from a “naughty innocent — ripe for seduction” into a “shrewd libertine, and then in her triumph, a monster who relishes both her power and the means by which she obtained it”. He adds that while she “may be crazed”, we “forgive her, if only because she’s still preferable to Peter” (played by Jaffe, who is “ideal as the demented ruler”). Peary writes even more about the film in his first Cult Movies book, where he notes that it “stimulates the senses with provocative sexual imagery, often of a perverse nature; breathtaking montages of barbaric torture, some nightmarish, some realistic; mammoth palace chambers, heatless and sparsely furnished, with heavy, fifteen-foot-high doors that groups of nameless scurrying ladies of the court struggle to open, and large, weirdly sculpted gargoyles, saints, faces, and bodies twisted into attitudes of great suffering; [and] an eighteenth-century Russian court full of oddball characters one would more expect to find in Alice’s Wonderland.” It’s all truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and well worth at least a one-time visit.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlene Dietrich as the Empress Catherine
  • Bert Glennon’s cinematography
  • Consistently mesmerizing sets and costumes

Must See?
Yes, as an entirely unique cult classic.

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Devil is a Woman, The (1935)

Devil is a Woman, The (1935)

“That woman has ice where others have a heart.”

Synopsis:
A seductive cigarette factory worker (Marlene Dietrich) captures the heart of a captain (Lionel Atwill), who tries to warn his young friend (Cesar Romero) that Concha (Dietrich) will break his heart as well — but neither man can resist her lure.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “last and least of Marlene Dietrich’s films with Josef von Sternberg” — after The Blue Angel (1930) Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and The Scarlet Empress (1934) — “is set at the turn of the century in a small Spanish town at carnival time (which allows von Sternberg to have fun with costumes and art direction).” He asserts that the “picture suffers from looking too studio-bound and from Sternberg’s decision to let Dietrich play her role with tongue firmly in cheek… giving the impression that all those on both sides of the camera (except the ultra-serious Atwill) were too casual about the film they were making.” I’m equally tepid about this film, which is gorgeous but lacking a plot substantial enough to care about; there isn’t much fun to be had in watching gold-digging Dietrich callously seduce the men around her, or the men themselves being destroyed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ornate sets and costumes

  • Effectively stark cinematography (by von Sternberg and uncredited Lucien Ballard)

Must See?
No; you can skip this one.

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Help! (1965)

Help! (1965)

“We’re risking our lives to preserve a useless member.”

Synopsis:
With help from his beautiful assistant (Eleanor Bron), an eastern cult leader (Leo McKern) attempts to capture a musician (Ringo Starr) wearing a special ring needed to complete a human sacrifice — but the stubbornly magical ring refuses to come off Ringo’s finger. Soon Ringo and his bandmates are also pursued by a pair of fanatical scientists (Victor Spinetti) and Roy Kinnear) hoping to obtain the ring, and the other Beatles begin to question whether Ringo’s finger is worth the hassle.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the Beatles’ second film is “full of funny sight gags… and one-liners (‘He’s out to rule the world… if he can get a government grant’)”, noting that the “film mixes James Bond adventure, surrealism (a Beatle even becomes miniaturized at one point), and loopy comedy (much of the slapstick variety).” He asserts that “Richard Lester’s direction is even more outrageous than it was for A Hard Day’s Night,” and writes that the “picture is a lot of fun” but he wishes “it provided more insight into the individual Beatles — in fact, it’s just as impersonal as Yellow Submarine. Unfortunately, the world we see has nothing to do with the Beatles’ real world.” He accurately notes that the “best moments are when they sing: ‘Help!’, ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’, ‘I Need You’, and ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl'”; and he points out that “the staging of numbers, particularly those set outside, is effective” — with “the ‘Ticket to Ride’ sequence”, showing “the boys frolicking in the snow”, particularly suited to making “a great video”.

I’m not nearly as taken with this follow-up film as Peary is; it’s clearly meant to build on the enormous cult success of A Hard Day’s Night but most of the magic is gone (despite — or perhaps because of — attempts to insert literal magic into the proceedings). The plot seems silly simply for the sake of silliness, and the boys’ later admission to being stoned through most of the filming shows: they look loopy and slightly dazed rather than jubilant. The exception, as noted above, are their musical performances — I do love all the creativity put into filming “Ticket to Ride” in the snow, including the presence of musical notes on the screen at one point (apparently added to cover up power lines in the footage). Paul’s brief miniaturization — reminiscent, of course, of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) — is nicely handled as well, though one wishes he did more than just flail around in an ashtray with orange soda.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • David Watkins’ creative cinematography

  • Several fun outdoor-musical sequences (particularly “Ticket To Ride” in the snowy Alps)

Must See?
No; only Beatles fans need see this one.

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Let it Be (1970)

Let it Be (1970)

“Yeah, okay, well — I don’t mind. I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play.”

Synopsis:
Tensions are high as the Beatles craft music together and perform a final rooftop concert in London.

Genres:

Review:
This infamously downbeat documentary about the Beatles rehearsing for what would be their final album together — “Let It Be” — remains a valuable glimpse at their behind-the-scenes music-making, albeit through the prism of accomplished musicians ready to move past their years of highly successful collaboration. The most eerie footage is of ghostly Yoko Ono glued to Lennon’s side — there couldn’t be a more potent visual image of a wedge driven between the “boys” (though of course, she wasn’t solely responsible for the band’s breakup by any stretch). The close-up scene of McCartney singing the title song during rehearsals (it’s an apt eulogy for the band’s dissolution) is quite satisfying, and the final rooftop performance is both anarchic and bittersweet. Be forewarned you may need to revisit A Hard Day’s Night (1964) after viewing this one, to boost your Beatle spirits.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many revealing instances of the band’s playful yet contentious working relationships with one another


  • McCartney and bandmates performing “Let It Be”
  • The fun but ultimately bittersweet finale concert on the rooftop

Must See?
No, though of course it’s an absolute must for Beatles fans. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Hard Day’s Night, A (1964)

Hard Day’s Night, A (1964)

“Now look, I’ve had a marvelous idea: just for once, let’s all try to behave like ordinary, respectable citizens.”

Synopsis:
The Beatles (George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr) travel by train to a televised concert, accompanied by Paul’s mischievous grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) and hoards of adoring young fans. When the band’s managers, Norm (Norman Rossington) and Shake (John Junkin), urge Ringo to get out of his shell and explore the town, he begins a series of adventures — but will he make it back in time for the live performance before the director’s (Victor Spinetti’s) nerves are shot?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately writes that this “treasure” by Richard Lester — giving an “impressionistic cinematic chronicle of a ‘typical’ 24 hours in the hectic lives of the Beatles” — is “a wonderful comedic-musical showcase for the talented foursome at its peak”. He notes that “the film’s infectious anarchical quality — as personified by the Beatles — was the result of Lester’s decision to combine his own style, as developed in live television and commercials, with the multifarious styles of filmmakers he admired” — including “Fellini, [Busby] Berkeley, Antonioni, Sennett, Chaplin, [and] Keaton”. He writes, “One scene will be abstract, the next absurd, the next realistic; [Lester] moves from fantasy to cinema verite” with “moments of slapstick, parody, satire, [and] outright silliness”. He credits “Alun Owen’s imaginative, semi-plotless script, full of non-sequiturs” as “the perfect vehicle for Lester’s mad method”.

This cult classic does indeed remain a “treasure”, for all the reasons outlined in Peary’s review (he goes into further detail in his Cult Movies essay). As Peary notes, the film nicely shows that despite the boys’ silliness and “vices”, they “are neither lazy nor irresponsible”; while they’re not presented as “heroic or wise figures”, “they’re to be admired… because of their professional attitude toward their music.” Importantly, they “like their fans, though the adoration befuddles them” — and “their loyalty to one another has less to do with friendship than with each being aware that only three other people in the world know what they’re going through as the only sane people in a Beatles-crazy world… Over and over again, when the pressures of living in a fishbowl get them down, they pick up their instruments and, quickly, they’re smiling again”, singing classics such as “I Should Have Known Better”, “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”, “Tell Me Why”, and “She Loves You”.

There are numerous elements to enjoy about A Hard Day’s Night, and countless memorable scenes; as Roger Ebert noted, this movie “has not aged and is not dated; it stands outside its time, its genre and even rock. It is one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.” The young Beatles’ infectious enthusiasm for life and music — those smiles! — is the biggest draw by far, but I also love the sly supporting performances (particularly by Brambell and Spinetti); the “mod” sets; the consistently creative camera moves and angles; and the wonderful subplot provided to “poor Ringo”, who gets to be the star for once in his career. Also classic, of course, are the many shots of screaming fans, both those running tirelessly after the Beatles wherever they go, and those attending the concert; I especially appreciated noting this time around how many male fans are in the audience. (Phil Collins — who narrated an engaging 1995 documentary about the making of the film entitled You Can’t Do That! — points out he was an audience member himself.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Infectiously fun and natural performances by all four of the Beatles

  • Fine supporting roles

  • Countless memorable songs and moments


  • Creative set designs

  • The closing credits

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring cult classic. Nominated as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

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

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Jazz Singer, The (1927)

Jazz Singer, The (1927)

“Wait a minute, wait a minute — you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

Synopsis:
The son of a Jewish cantor (Warner Oland) rejects his upbringing in favor of making a name for himself on Broadway, and falls in love with a beautiful dancer (May McAvoy). However, when his beloved mother (Eugenie Besserer) begs him to return to the bedside of his dying father and sing in a High Holy Days service, he faces a renewed conflict between family, faith, and his career.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this historically (in)famous film as “the first talkie, although most of the words we hear are the lyrics to Al Jolson’s songs”, but this description isn’t technically correct: as Tim Dirks writes for his FilmSite review, “Although it was not the first Vitaphone (sound-on-disk) feature, it was the first feature-length Hollywood ‘talkie’ film in which spoken dialogue was used as part of the dramatic action.” Peary goes on to say that the “picture looks like it has been drained of energy by [a] vampire or is dying of old age”, but that it remains “more than a curiosity” given Jolson’s “dynamic performances” singing “‘Mammy’, ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’, and other standards”. He asserts that Jolson’s singing has “not dated at all” (!) — weirdly ignoring any mention of Jolson’s blackface performances, or the fact that his earnest singing style will most likely no longer appeal to many viewers. Young film fanatics should watch The Jazz Singer for its cinematic relevance vis-a-vis the incorporation of sound on film, but also be sure to educate themselves on the toxic history of blackface in our nation.

Note: Check out the following video clip for more details on how this early talkie played a part in movie sound history:

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Historically impressive sound synchronization

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical value.

Categories

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

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