Browsed by
Month: July 2019

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

“I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.”

Synopsis:
A restless former concert pianist (Jack Nicholson) working on an oil rig takes his pregnant girlfriend (Karen Black) on a road trip to visit his ailing father (William Challee), his neurotic sister (Lois Smith), and his neck-sprained brother (Ralph Waite). Once there, he keeps Black waiting at a nearby motel while romancing Waite’s pianist-girlfriend (Susan Anspach).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “superb study of a cultural misfit” — directed by Bob Rafelson — shows Nicholson “just great as he repeatedly loses his temper [with Black] and apologizes; tries to do the right thing but sooner or later gives in to his baser instincts; becomes aggravated by everything from Black’s awful bowling and constant, foolish chatter to an obnoxious waitress’s obstinate refusal… to serve him a side order of wheat toast with his omelet”. He notes that the “film is full of funny moments and characters — including Helena Kallianiotes’s weird, complaining hitchhiker and two floozies, Sally Struthers’s Shirley (‘but you can call me Betty’) and her friend, Twinky.” However, he argues “there is a sadness that always cuts deeply into the humor”, which is “why the picture was so appealing to the college-age audiences in 1970, who simultaneously laughed incredulously and were extremely upset by the political state of the world and felt just as alienated from family and various segments of society as Nicholson”. He calls out the “excellent script by Adrien Joyce” and impressive photography by Laszlo Kovacs, “who conveys how particular physical environments make Nicholson feel either trapped or free”, and points out that there is “strong use of Tammy Wynette songs, adding to the overwhelming sense of melancholia” (and perhaps reminding modern film fanatics of the soundtrack from Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, which also features “Stand By Your Man”).

In Alternate Oscars, Peary names this Best Picture of the Year over Patton (1970), explaining that while “Patton contains a great performance by [George C.] Scott and holds up fairly well as a biography and as a war movie”, he much prefers this “different character study” featuring “a star-making, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Nicholson” (who he names Best Actor of the Year). Peary writes that while Nicholson’s “Bobby Dupea was not like anyone with whom we associated, we responded to his strong sense of alienation” and “to his rebelliousness and frustration, which result in some classic Nicholson outbursts of temper”. He writes that the “picture is full of odd, funny moments… and unusual movie characters” — and while “we don’t admire Bobby for escaping his trap, life with the likable but annoying Rayette” (Black), we “understand that he would suffocate if he committed himself to her” so “we accept his running away because it is for her benefit more than his own” (!). While this last point is certainly debatable, there’s no arguing that their future together was tenuous at best — so perhaps it is all we can expect of Bobby to leave her his wallet (ouch).

Peary writes that Nicholson “made a startling impression” as this “virile leading man”, someone “overloaded with pent-up energy, ready with the snide remark, soft spoken until he can no longer suppress his temper”. He compares him to W.C. Fields, noting that “his world is [just] as full of aggravation”, and “at times just as funny”, given that “nothing goes as he wants” and “no one will leave him alone”. He ends his review of Nicholson’s performance by noting that “as disaffected a character as Bobby Dupea is, he was sort of an Everyman in 1970. Young viewers in the counterculture” could “identify with Bobby’s outsider status; restlessness; fury and irritation when pressured; sexual energy; inability to fit comfortably into marriage, parenthood, or other niches; need to keep the exit door within sight; disappointment in himself; and desperation to mend and give meaning to his life.” While I find Nicholson’s character much harder to tolerate as I get older (and more aware of how poorly women in general are treated throughout this movie), he remains a compelling presence: his interactions with the “waitress superior” (“I want you to hold [the chicken] between your knees!”) remain eminently watchable. My favorite scene, however, is when he hops up onto a flatbed truck during a traffic jam and begins playing the piano he’s found under a moving cloth. Speaking of piano, it’s an important presence in this film, and Smith is “pitch-perfect” as Nicholson’s sister, a Glenn Gould-like pianist who can’t help singing along with her own playing while recording.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Nicholson as Bobby
  • Karen Black as Rayette
  • Lois Smith as Partita
  • Helena Kallianiotes as Palm Apodaca
  • Numerous memorable scenes

  • Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography
  • Adrien Joyce and Bob Rafelson’s script

Must See?
Yes, as a counterculture classic.

Categories

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

Links:

City Streets (1931)

City Streets (1931)

“You’re lucky your boyfriend ain’t mixed up in no racket.”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Sylvia Sidney) of a racketeer (Guy Kibbee) goes to prison after he shoots his boss and hands her the gun. When Sidney’s sharpshooter boyfriend (Gary Cooper) gives up his dreams of a circus career to earn money working for her new boss (Paul Lukas), Sidney worries about their future — especially when Lukas expresses more interest in her than in his jealous moll (Wynne Gibson).

Genres:

Review:
Rouben Mamoulian’s follow-up to his visually innovative talkie Applause (1929)
was this early gangster film, based on a short story by Dashiell Hammett. Sidney is luminous in her breakthrough role, nicely inhabiting a complex female character far removed from her portrayal the following year as a doomed factory worker in An American Tragedy (1932). Her character here is first introduced through a complicit wink she exchanges with her father (Kibbee, solid in his part) before insistently nagging Cooper to join her in a life of crime. She remains solid as steel while taking the rap for her ‘Pop’, only gradually revealing her softer side. Mamoulian (assisted by DP Lee Garmes) once again displays highly evocative visuals, as well as a unique voiceover while Sidney is in prison; this one is worth a look despite the disappointingly far-fetched ending.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sylvia Sidney as Nan
  • Lee Garmes’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for Mamoulian’s innovative direction and Sidney’s performance.

Categories

Links:

Nurse Sherri / Beyond the Living (1978)

Nurse Sherri / Beyond the Living (1978)

“I’m performing a miracle – how dare you suggest fraud?”

Synopsis:
When a nurse (Jill Jacobson) becomes possessed by the evil spirit of a dying mystic cult leader (Bill Roy), it’s up to her fellow nurses (Marilyn Joi and Katherine Pass) to help save her.

Genres:

Review:
Director Al Adamson was known for producing schlocky dreck capitalizing on whatever exploitation theme was most likely to turn a buck. Here, he combines The Exorcist (1973) with soft-core titillation, and the result isn’t quite as dreadful as one might expect. The acting, sets, and script (while rambling) are all passable, and while the early “possession” passage is humorously cartoonish, later effects (with Roy continuing to haunt and taunt those he’s left behind) are mildly effective. None of this is meant to recommend the film, but rather to say — it could have been even worse.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Reasonably done special effects near the end

Must See?
No. Listed as Trash in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)

Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)

“Evil? How strange you are… Where I come from, nothing is evil. Everything that gives pleasure is good!”

Synopsis:
Lot (Stewart Granger) leads a group of nomadic Hebrews into the land of Sodom — ruled by a cruel queen (Anouk Aimee) and her brother (Stanley Baker) — and soon takes a former slave (Pier Angeli) as his wife. But will he and his people (including his two grown daughters) help tame the Sodomites, or will their hedonistic new homeland be a corrupting influence?

Genres:

Review:
Peary presumably lists this big-budget Biblical epic in the back of his GFTFF due to Robert Aldrich being at the helm — though he could also simply be promoting it for its potential camp value. Regardless, it’s a pretty over-ripe and simplistic affair, with villainy (personified by the sexually deviant Aimee and Baker) pitted against nobility (silver-haired Granger and his “reformed” wife) in a battle for morality. There’s very little to fill the storyline and screen other than lengthy battle scenes, colorful costumes, and plenty of extras. The most famous element of Lot’s grim story takes place within the last few minutes, and is reasonably well handled, though not worth the slog until then.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive big budget sets
  • Miklos Rozsa’s majestic score

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

Links:

Random Harvest (1942)

Random Harvest (1942)

“Never leave me out of your sight — never again. My life began with you. I can’t imagine the future without you.”

Synopsis:
A shell-shocked, amnesiac WWI veteran (Ronald Colman) escapes from his asylum and is taken under the wing of a compassionate dance hall singer (Greer Garson), who he eventually marries. After a tragic accident, Colman and Garson’s future together remains uncertain: is their love destined to last?

Genres:

Review:
This enormously popular adaptation of James Hilton’s best-selling novel offered Greer Garson a suitably noble follow-up role after her Oscar-winning turn in Mrs. Miniver (1942); Colman a come-back role at the age of 51; and both stars an opportunity to once again enact Hilton’s characters (Garson co-starred in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, while Colman was lead in Lost Horizon). The amnesia-driven storyline of Random Harvest is pure melodrama all the way, though handled well enough not to wear out its welcome. DVD Savant argues on behalf of this flick as “an intelligent and emotionally rewarding” soaper, noting, “We care deeply about what happens to these people and their situation becomes something of intense personal importance for the audience”; later in his review, he points out that “the movie has no malice and no villain.” Indeed, those in the mood for exactly this type of feel-good flick likely won’t be disappointed, though I find it overly tame for my tastes: Garson’s character is almost too “pure” to be true, and Colman wanders around in a semi-daze for much of the film. Meanwhile, a likable supporting character (Susan Peters) poses an unenviable and unavoidable conflict of interests. (Check out IMDb for more on Oscar-nominated Peters’ tragically short life.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography


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

Links:

Bite the Bullet (1975)

Bite the Bullet (1975)

“Racin’ for money ain’t sport — it’s war!”

Synopsis:
At the turn of the 20th century, a motley assortment of contestants — including include two former Rough Riders (Gene Hackman and James Coburn), a spunky prostitute (Candice Bergen), a hot-headed kid (Jan-Michael Vincent), an ailing cowboy (Ben Johnson), a sporting Englishman (Ian Bannen), and a Mexican with a toothache (Mario Arteaga) — compete against and/or support one another in winning a 700-mile cross-country horse race over rough terrain.

Genres:

Review:
Richard Brooks directed this big-budget, all-star western inspired by a grueling real-life race concocted by the Denver Post to generate publicity. The cinematography and location filming are stellar, bringing this rugged era to vivid life, and the thematic presence of friendship and loyalty throughout is notable: we quickly learn how many of these contestants (more than we might imagine) are willing to forgo winning to help a fellow rider in trouble or distress. Unfortunately, the script is a bit over-long and rambling, and fails to develop sincerely interesting female characters (Bergen does fine with what she’s given, but it isn’t much). This one is worth a look if you’re curious, but only must-see for western fans.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harry Stradling, Jr.’s cinematography
  • Fine location shooting

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

Links:

Marlene (1984)

Marlene (1984)

“I was an actress, I made my films — that’s it!”

Synopsis:
81-year-old Marlene Dietrich shares memories from her past with former co-star Maximilian Schell, while refusing to be photographed.

Genres:

Review:
Classic movie buffs will surely delight in this most unusual interview between Maximilian Schell and octogenerian Marlene Dietrich, made under the strictest of conditions: that Schell would get only 40 hours of her time, and that her current image would never be shown on film. The result is a vibrant and creative — if at times necessarily constrained — walk back through memory lane with Dietrich, who reveals herself to be simultaneously cantankerous (“‘Falling in love again…’ I mean, really! It’s ridiculous”), obstinate (“It’s all in my book”), humble (“I didn’t understand anything in those days”), self-effacing (“I wasn’t erotic at all — I was snobby!”), mysterious (“What’s true is that what you read is untrue”), reflective (“I’ve never actually felt at home in any one place”), admirable (“Naturally we were against the Nazis; of course we were”), dismissive (“Do you think I’d go and sit in some sad, stuffy old cinema and watch an old film?”), bitchy (“I don’t call them women. I call them females. They can’t think clearly”), clear-headed (“You can’t miss what you’ve never had”), mendacious (she claims she had no siblings), and opinionated (“You can’t use that — really, you can’t”), among many other qualities. It’s well worth a listen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A creative rendering of a life recounted

Must See?
Yes, as a fascinating if fragmented glimpse into Dietrich’s storied life. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

“You want them to call you yellow? If that’s what you want, you’re no son of mine.”

Synopsis:
Promising baseball player Jim Piersall (Anthony Perkins) is mentored by his ambitious and hard-driving father (Karl Malden) until he makes it to the Red Sox — but despite the love and concern of his new wife (Norma Moore), Piersall heads steadily towards a mental breakdown.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “interesting but dated adaptation of the first [best-selling] autobiography by controversial baseball player Jimmy Piersall” depicts his “mental collapse” as “the result of trying to live up to his father’s impossibly high expectations for him as a player.” He notes that “in effect, this film is rooted in the youth-problem pictures of the fifties: it is the reverse of Rebel Without a Cause, in which a troubled boy can’t express to his weak father his desperate need to receive some fatherly advice for once”, while “in Piersall’s case, he can’t express to his strong father his desperate need to stop being barraged with fatherly advice.” Peary adds that “with his display of nervous energy, emotional instability, paranoia, pent-up rage and finally, strait-jacketed catatonia”, Perkins “may well have been using Piersall to prepare himself for Norman Bates” in Psycho (1960) — indeed, his performance here remains potent evidence of his capacity to take on that role of a lifetime. Like Norman, Jimmy is severely (psychotically) hampered by parental pressure — though in this case, he emerges sane and whole after support from both his wife and consistent medical care. While the biopic storyline (naturally) plays fast and loose with the facts, the narrative is tightly constructed and refreshingly respectful of mental illness; Malden’s figure (purportedly exaggerated for the sake of dramatic tension) isn’t demonized, but rather presented as someone unable to see beyond his own vision of success for his son. While Peary (an enormous baseball fan) argues that the “film looks flat and phony, especially during the baseball scenes”, most film fanatics likely won’t be bothered by this.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anthony Perkins as Jimmy Piersall
  • Karl Malden as John Piersall
  • Norma Moore as Mary Piersall
  • Haskell Boggs’ cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Perkins’ performance and as a fine film overall.

Categories

Links:

City for Conquest (1940)

City for Conquest (1940)

“Call it applause, call it ambition, call it whatever you’d like — but it’d take a lot more than a man to come between you two.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring dancer (Ann Sheridan) chooses a performing career over marriage with a truck driver (James Cagney) whose decision to fight for a boxing title leaves him with devastating consequences.

Genres:

Review:
DVD Savant nicely summarizes this Anatole Litvak-directed flick as follows:

City for Conquest is an ambitious James Cagney movie given the full Warner treatment. Although it doesn’t quite hit the mark on any of its four or five themes it gives them all a college try… It is a gangster picture, a boxing picture, a “poetic” symphony-of-the-city epic, a starstruck show-biz career picture — and for a finale it even tries to graft on the end of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.

Indeed, there’s a heck of a lot packed into this “ambitious” film, which purportedly disappointed Cagney enough to prompt him to write a letter of apology to the source novel’s author. With that said, it’s atmospherically shot by James Wong Howe, and never boring to watch, even if one wishes for a little less going on. Perhaps least successful is the framing use of “Old Timer” Frank Craven (narrator of Our Town) for opening, closing, and intermittent commentary as a hobo who’s seen all sorts of misadventures occurring in the Big City of New York. This footage was excised for many years and suddenly reappeared — though it arguably should have been left aside. Watch for Arthur Kennedy in his film debut, and Elia Kazan in a supporting role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ann Sheridan as Peggy
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look by Cagney or Sheridan fans. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Police Academy (1984)

Police Academy (1984)

“Four of you have already quit — and that’s just the beginning.”

Synopsis:
When a mayor announces her city will be accepting police candidates of all types, a group of misfits — including a troublemaker (Steve Guttenberg), a one-man noise-making machine (Michael Winslow), an attractive socialite (Kim Cattral), a former florist (Bubba Smith), and a squeaky-voiced woman (Marion Ramsey) — attend a training academy run by a crusty commandant (George Gaynes) and an irritable lieutenant (G.W. Bailey) determined to make the recruits’ lives miserable.

Genres:

Review:
Peary writes that back in 1984 (shortly before the publication of GFTFF), this “undistinguished, unimaginative comedy became a surprise commercial blockbuster, forcing highbrow critics to lament about the nature of today’s movie audience” — surely a complaint that resonates equally well in 2019. Peary adds that this is “yet another film in the Animal House and Stripes tradition, with a group of incorrigible, klutzy misfits entering a conservative institution” and ultimately deciding “they really want to become policemen after all”. He notes that “the reason for the picture’s popularity has been a mystery, because it hasn’t much sexual content or inspired lunacy” — but he asserts that he thinks “it’s partly because it’s the one film in which the institution doesn’t really alter the rebellious characters it eventually welcomes into its ranks; it doesn’t contend that if someone trains to be a policeman he’ll become a better person, or that disciplined people are the types of citizens we want.” Still, he laments that this remains a “ridiculously tame film” with “some laughs, but the humor isn’t allowed to build toward a funny climax”. Peary’s complaints all ring true; this erstwhile box-office favorite (with numerous sequels to its name) doesn’t offer much of interest to viewers other than those who recall it fondly from their youth.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michael Winslow’s amusing “sound machine”

Must See?
No; this one is only for cult ’80s movie lovers or those curious to see what the fuss was all about.

Links: