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Month: September 2020

Pieces (1982)

Pieces (1982)

“That maniac is going to kill again. This may be the only way we have of catching him!”

Synopsis:
Forty years after a 10-year-old (Alejandro Hernandez) brutally hacks his abusive mother (May Heatherly) to death, a spate of chainsaw murders begin occurring on a Boston college campus. Two detectives (Christopher George and Frank Brana) come to question the dean of the college (Edmund Purdom) and also meet with a professor (Jack Taylor), a groundskeeper (Paul L. Smith), and a student (Ian Sera) eager to help out. Meanwhile, more murders of sexy young women across campus make the case urgent enough to bring in George’s beautiful colleague (Lynda Day) as an undercover tennis instructor.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror Films
  • Psychopaths
  • Serial Killers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this cult film — “directed with a minimum of style by J. Piquer Simon” — “epitomizes the slice-and-dice genre.” He notes that while it offers “sex, some suspense, and a bevy of beautiful women”, the “murders are too gristly for all but the hardcore fans of the genre” — and “of course, the subject matter is blatantly offensive”. While there’s some bad-movie “humor” given that Sera, for instance, “is able to be in a chipper mood 10 minutes after the girls he knows are found slaughtered,” this is really only viewing for a specialized taste.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much of anything, unless this is your cup of tea — which it clearly is for many.

Must See?
Nope.

Links:

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice (1967)

“Kill Bond — now!”

Synopsis:
After faking his own death, James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to Japan to investigate the mysterious disappearance of American and Soviet spacecrafts. Once there, he is assisted by the head of the Japanese Secret Service (Tetsuro Tamba) and a beautiful agent (Akiko Wakabayashi); is nearly killed by a feisty SPECTRE agent (Helga Brandt); is ceremonially wedded to another lovely Japanese agent (Mie Hama); and comes face to face in a volcano with his number one SPECTRE enemy: Blofeld (Donald Pleasence).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cold War
  • Donald Pleasence Films
  • James Bond Films
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Spies
  • World Domination

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “fifth James Bond film” is “not a bad Bond film, but it doesn’t compare to its predecessors.” He argues that “the formula had become a little stale,” and that it “should have been about twenty minutes shorter” — but I actually find this a more relevant criticism for Thunderball (1965), which most definitely lags. The storyline for You Only Live Twice — very loosely scripted by Roald Dahl (!) from Ian Fleming’s novel — moves along at a reasonable clip, and the last twenty minutes feature what may be the most exciting sequence in the series to that point: ninja warriors descending into a hidden volcano base and wreaking absolute havoc on operations while Blofeld struggles to hold onto his white cat at all costs.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald Pleasence as Blofeld
  • Impressive sets (by Ken Adam)

  • Freddie Young’s Panavision widescreen cinematography

  • The fantastic finale

Must See?
No, though it’s a worth a look for the brilliant finale.

Links:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

“Well, boys, I reckon this is it: nuclear combat toe to toe with the Russkies.”

Synopsis:
When mentally unhinged Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has his executive officer, Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), issue an attack plan to a patrolling plane helmed by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), nuclear war against Russia inadvertently breaks out. Back in the “War Room”, American president Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) consults with his staff — including hawkish General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) — about the situation, and attempts to fix things by talking on the phone with Russian Prime Minister Kissoff. As the situation becomes increasingly dire, a Nazi scientist named Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) makes his appearance in the War Room and offers his own proposed solution to the dilemma.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Cold War
  • George C. Scott Films
  • Keenan Wynn Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Military
  • Nuclear Threat
  • Peter Sellers Films
  • Stanley Kubrick Films
  • Sterling Hayden Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “classic nightmare comedy” by Stanley Kubrick is “so funny because, as ludicrous as the characters and events are, there is nothing in this picture that is beyond the realm of possibility.” He notes that “perhaps we are laughing at ourselves (instead of worrying) for living in a world whose fate is controlled by buffoons” such as Jack D. Ripper (Hayden), who “orders U.S. bombers to conduct a nuclear attack on Russia” because he believes “the communists have poisoned the water supply,” thus leading to “his sexual proficiency” diminishing. Peary’s GFTFF review of this cult classic is surprisingly short and somewhat dismissive — he actually writes, “Watching the film today, I grow impatient with most of the scenes outside the war room” — so I will turn instead to his much more extensive (and laudatory) overviews in Cult Movies 3 and Alternate Oscars, where he names the film Best Movie of the Year and Peter Sellers Best Actor of the Year.

In Alternate Oscars, he writes that “the period’s most controversial film” was “both vilified and praised for being the first satire that dared attack (in both comical and serious ways) the nuclear irresponsibility of America’s politicians and military leaders”, and “spoke for the entire paranoid generation.” He points out that “today, the film is even more timely” — and “as long as there remains the very real threat of someone starting a nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove will be our best comic release.” He goes into detail about the film’s now-well-known production history, including its shift away from “the more serious tone of the source novel” Red Alert, noting that “Kubrick decided that all the absurd things he was keeping out of his script were the most truthful” — so “with the help of Terry Southern and star Peter Sellers, who devised three comic characterizations, Kubrick vented his rage by making his story and the characters who populated it outrageous.” Peary points out that Kubrick “introduces a sexual subtext into the story, making the point that playing power politics and making war are male games, extensions of our leaders’ sex lives”, and adds that in Kubrick’s films, “men have become prisoners of science, an extension of its fallible machines.”

In Cult Movies 3, Peary writes that “Peter Sellers is so prominent in Dr. Strangelove that it’s easy to forget the vital contributions of Hayden and Scott.” He writes, “With his booming voice and strong physical presence… Hayden is an extremely frightening, imposing figure”; if you “look into [his] face… you’ll know there’s no way he’ll listen to anyone.” Meanwhile, “with his array of stupid expressions, flaring eyebrows and sneaky yet twinkling eyes, and embarrassed, guilty voice, [George C.] Scott is genuinely hilarious.” Regarding Sellers himself, Peary refers to him simply as “marvelous” and notes key highlights of each of his characterizations. As Mandrake, Sellers is “very British”, “a cross between Trevor Howard-David Niven RAF officers and a very subdued and subtle Terry-Thomas”, someone who is “quite humble” and “the only character with intelligence.” When playing bland President Muffley — a “fifties-style [Adlai] Stevenson Democrat” — Sellers’ “finest screen moment is his classic phone conversation with [Russian Prime Minister] Kissoff, a Bob Newhart-like routine in which he talks in a wheedling tone, as if he were trying to convince a 5-year-old child to accept an emergency collect call.” Finally, as Dr. Strangelove, he “has extraordinary impact” despite not having “enough screentime”: “With that slimy fixed smile, thick German accent, dark glasses, double chin, gloved hand… and ugly misshapen hair…, his grotesque version of Wernher von Braun is one of the most horrific figures in movie history,” and “certainly fits the tradition of mad (often crippled) German scientists that dates back to the silent era.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Sellers as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove


  • Sterling Hayden’s “frighteningly hilarious portrayal” as Jack D. Ripper
  • George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson
  • Ken Adam’s sets
  • Stark cinematography

Must See?
Yes, of course — for numerous reasons.

Categories

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

Links:

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

“A woman should live only until her wedding night — love once, and then die.”

Synopsis:
A psychotically ill wedding dress designer (Stephen Forsyth) married to a shrew (Laura Betti) murders young brides while attempting to resolve childhood traumas. Meanwhile, an inspector (Jesus Puente) trails the case while a beautiful new model (Dagmar Lassandar) expresses romantic interest in Forsyth.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Henpecked Husbands
  • Horror Films
  • Mario Bava Films
  • Mental Illness
  • Serial Killers

Review:
Mario Bava directed this atmospheric psycho-thriller film which begins by revealing the identity of the killer (the protagonist/narrator himself) and builds tension by exploring how he will eventually be found out. As with so many Bava films, atmosphere is far more important than plot, and one watches primarily for the visuals — but it’s hard to ignore the awkwardly earnest performances, the dubbing, and the sappy musical soundtrack. Things finally become more interesting once the tables are turned and we know Forsyth will soon be caught — which is ultimately for the best of everyone involved, including troubled Forsythe himself.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets



Must See?
No, though of course Bava fans will want to check it out.

Links:

Going in Style (1979)

Going in Style (1979)

“It feels like we’ve lived two lives: one before the robbery, and one after.”

Synopsis:
When three elderly roommates — Joe (George Burns), Al (Art Carney), and Willie (Lee Strasberg) — decide that robbing a bank is a “win-win” proposition, they steal guns from the safe of Al’s nephew (Charles Hallahan) and carry out their crime, with unexpected ramifications.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Elderly People
  • Heists
  • New York City

Review:
Writer-director Martin Brest’s second feature-length film — after debuting with Hot Tomorrows (1977) — was this unusual black comedy which never fails to go in unexpected directions. Little of the storyline is realistic enough to be believed, but that seems besides the point, given that we’re meant to empathize with the sorry lot of these men who find their lives unsatisfying enough to commit a major robbery with loaded firearms. Unfortunately, we’re not given a reasonable-enough rationale for Burns’ radical (and actually NOT funny) idea, nor are we told quite enough about the other two men to understand their willingness to agree with him. (Strasberg is given one highly affecting moment of reflection back on a poor parenting choice, and we see Carney’s love for his nephew’s working-class family — but that’s it.) With that said, highly effective use is made of authentic New York City locales and extras, and Brest directs numerous scenes (i.e., those taking place in Vegas) with a refreshing naturalness. This one is worth a look, though not must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the leads
  • Excellent use of authentic New York City sets


Must See?
No, but it’s recommended. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball (1965)

“Do you like wild things, James Bond — Mr. Bond?”

Synopsis:
Special Agent James Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to the Bahamas to find two atomic bombs stolen by SPECTRE, whose “Number 2” leader (Adolfo Celi) is threatening to blow up Miami unless they receive ransom money. While there, Bond seduces both the sister (Claudine Auger) of a man (Paul Stassino) who’s been impersonated and killed by SPECTRE, and Celi’s ruthless mistress (Luciana Paluzzi).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • James Bond Films
  • Nuclear Threat
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Spies

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “fourth James Bond film” — released after Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), and Goldfinger (1964) — “takes forever to get started and has too many long underwater sequences during which it’s impossible to tell what’s going on,” but is “nevertheless… an enjoyable entry in the Bond series.” He notes that “Sean Connery is particularly appealing as Bond,” given that “he projects more confidence than in other films in the series”, and adds that “Celi makes a strong, sophisticated nemesis,” “Auger is a top-grade (though neglected) Bond heroine,” and Paluzzi is “gorgeous and deadly [as] Fiona Volpe.” Peary argues that while the “film has no great scene”, it’s “entertaining as long as the actors stay above water.” I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s assessment, though I think he gives the underwater sequences short shrift: while there’s far too much of this footage included, they’re well-handled and impressively shot.

For those who are interested, there is quite a bit more to learn about the history of this erstwhile box-office hit — see, for example, both TCM’s article and Wikipedia. While many viewers remain devotees — Rotten Tomatoes ranks it as #6 out of the 26 total films in the franchiseDVD Savant is most definitely not among this crowd. As he writes in his review, while Thunderball “has some of the series’ most impressive filmic set pieces,” it’s bedeviled by “an unusually sloppy structure” and often “goes off on frequent tangents to work flashy gadgets and action into the story.” He further argues that while “the producers knew they had the essential ingredients for a hit” they “no longer seemed to care about crafting a superior film.” On a more positive note, he points out that “John Barry’s score is one of his best,” that “Paluzzi makes a delightfully sexy villainess, while she lasts,” and that “the photography is sleek throughout.” While all-purpose film fanatics don’t need to check this one out, they may be curious to watch it once — and hardcore fans of the series surely already have their own firmly entrenched opinions.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Unique sets
  • Fine cinematography

  • John Barry’s score

Must See?
No, though of course Bond fans won’t want to miss it.

Links:

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Hell’s Angels (1930)

“Life’s short — and I want to live while I’m alive!”

Synopsis:
At the start of World War I, two British brothers — straitlaced Roy (James Hall) and womanizing Monte (Ben Lyon) — join the RAF, while their German friend Karl (John Darrow) becomes a reluctant officer for his country. Meanwhile, Roy continues to worship his girlfriend Helen (Jean Harlow), who is not nearly as “innocent” as he believes.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Jean Harlow Films
  • Love Triangle
  • World War I

Review:
Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes only directed two films in his notorious career as an aviator, movie producer, and philanthropist: The Outlaw (1943) with Jane Russell and this early rival to Wings (1927), about aerial fighters in World War I. Hell’s Angels has a truly infamous production history, and TCM’s article provides plenty of behind-the-scenes information about the film:

A year and a half into the production of Hell’s Angels, Hughes had lost his wife (to divorce), two stunt pilots and a mechanic (killed filming the movie’s stunning aerial sequences), two directors (Marshall Neilan and Luther Reed; Howard Hawks and Edmund Goulding were also among those said to have worked on it), and more than $2 million. And he still had roughly 2 million feet of unedited silent footage in a market that virtually overnight was clamoring for talkies. Rather than scrap the whole thing, Hughes decided to add sound to the air footage and re-shoot the dialogue sequences.

Given this decidedly rocky trajectory, it’s impressive that the film coheres as well as it does — though it’s not exactly seamless. Opening scenes featuring Lyon bowing out of a duel with the husband (Lucien Prival) of a woman he’s been having an affair with — and Hall taking his place — are atmospherically filmed but don’t do much for the storyline other than present the brothers as a caddish coward (Lyon) and a foolish martyr (Hall).

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Harlow’s performance isn’t nearly as bad as accounts would lead you to believe; it’s easy to see how she turned into one of cinema’s most alluring sirens. The best aspect of the film by far, however, are the stunning aerial “dog fights”, shot at great cost (both literally, and in terms of human lives lost). Also notable is a sequence in which German dirigible crew members are ordered to jump to their deaths in order to “lighten the load”; this is, as DVD Savant writes, a “disturbing and macabre scene.”

Note: This film’s production was a major narrative component in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), a biopic about Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

  • The completely eerie “dirigible death drop” scene
  • Exciting aerial sequences

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look given its notoriety. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

“Whadda ya hear, whadda ya say?”

Synopsis:
After rescuing his friend Jerry (William Tracy) from being run over by a train they’ve just tried to rob, young Rocky (Frankie Burke) is sent to reform school and embarks on a life of crime. When Rocky (James Cagney) emerges from prison years later, Jerry (Pat O’Brien) has become a priest caring for a group of juvenile delinquents (The Dead End Kids) who idolize Rocky as a notorious gangster. After demanding and being denied money from his former partner-in-crime (Humphrey Bogart) and Bogart’s business partner (George Bancroft), Cagney vows revenge, and soon becomes caught up in an elaborate new criminal scheme. Can Cagney’s loyal friend (O’Brien) and sweetheart (Ann Sheridan) convince him to change his ways before it’s too late?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ann Sheridan Films
  • Ex-Cons
  • Friendship
  • Gangsters
  • George Bancroft Films
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • James Cagney Films
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • New York City
  • Pat O’Brien Films
  • Priests and Ministers

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is a big fan of this “standout gangster film that has often been copied but never equaled.” He argues it remains “exciting” and “funny, too; with surefire direction by Michael Curtiz and a terrific performance by James Cagney in one of his best roles.” Unfortunately, Peary gives away a major spoiler early in his review and stays focused on the ramifications of the film’s ending in his analysis, so I won’t say more except to note that “the script was written by the notorious Rowland Brown (Blood Money), who, it was rumored, had underworld connections.” Peary discusses the film a bit more in Alternate Oscars, where he nominates it as one of the best Movies of the Year and names Cagney Best Actor of the Year. He writes that in this film, Cagney’s “mouth works nonstop, grinning, laughing, shooting tough talk… and street slang as fast as machine gun bullets” while he “races back and forth across the screen, lifting his shoulders and bringing his arms to his sides before doing any rough stuff.” He adds that while “gangster movies were often criticized for glorifying their crime-breaking protagonists”, “in this case the criticism may have had validity” given that Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan “is truly appealing”: “He’s a tough guy but we are taken by his infectious grin, even in the face of danger, his sense of humor, his touch of conceit…, and his humility.”

DVD Savant is less enamored by the film, referring to it as “a sanitized rehash of gangster themes tailored to appeal to all audiences”, coming “complete with sermons and a foundation of strict moral values [to] underpin every plot point”. My own sentiment lies somewhere in between Peary and Savant’s. Angels With Dirty Faces remains a powerfully made film, masterfully directed and shot by Curtiz and DP Sol Polito, and featuring a truly stand-out performance by Cagney — but the antics of the “Dead End Kids” quickly wear thin, and O’Brien’s sanctimonious priest is terribly one-note. With that said, Sheridan is fine in an underutilized role, Bogart is notably smarmy as Cagney’s duplicitous counterpart, and Cagney’s energized performance continuously holds the film afloat. The final scenes are indeed memorable, and viewers unfamiliar with the story should stay away from any reviews before watching it; the last close-up of Cagney says more in one shot than can quite be described.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Cagney as Rocky
  • Ann Sheridan as Laury
  • Fine direction by Curtiz
  • Sol Polito’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Cagney’s performance and as a mostly-effective classic.

Categories

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

Links:

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

“This is no place for you; it’s no place for any woman!”

Synopsis:
In colonial America, a farmer (Henry Fonda) brings his new wife (Claudette Colbert) from Albany, New York to a homestead in the Mohawk Valley, where they hope to build a life together — but their plans are quickly foiled by Indian raids led by a patch-eyed Tory (John Carradine), and they soon find themselves living with and working for a feisty widow (Edna May Oliver).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • American Revolutionary War
  • Claudette Colbert Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Settlers
  • Westerns

Review:
John Ford and Henry Fonda made three films together during 1939 and 1940: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and this historical drama — based on a novel by Walter D. Edmonds — which remains one of surprisingly few Hollywood films set during the era of the American Revolution. Ford’s keen eye for detail, pacing, and framing — along with superb Technicolor cinematography by Burt Glennon and committed performances by the cast — make this yet another fine entry in his oeuvre. We are shown in no uncertain terms how challenging it was to survive during this tenuous era of American history, as factions were fighting each other on all sides. To that end, the portrayal of Native Americans is unfortunately (though not surprisingly) myopic: with the exception of Chief John Big Tree as Blue Back (an imposing figure used to demonstrate Colbert’s paralyzing fear of “the other”, as well as the camaraderie built between settlers and “good” Christian Indians), Native Americans are uniformly shown as ruthlessly aggressive invaders (into what was very recently their own territory).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances by Fonda and Colbert
  • Edna May Oliver as Mrs. McKlennar
  • Many memorable moments


  • Fine attention to historical detail

  • Bert Glennon’s Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine western by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

Cabin in the Sky (1943)

“Sometimes when you fight the devil, you got to jab him with his own pitchfork.”

Synopsis:
When a lazy gambling addict named Little Joe (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson) is nearly killed, his devout wife (Ethel Waters) prays hard enough that a heavenly angel (Kenneth Spencer) heeds her call and agrees to give Little Joe six more months to reform — but Lucifer’s son (Rex Ingram) and his henchmen (Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, and Louis Armstrong) are eager to get Joe down into Hell, and send both money and a seductive gold-digger (Lena Horne) his way.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African-Americans
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Life After Death
  • Marital Problems
  • Musicals
  • Play Adaptations
  • Vincente Minnelli Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this “spirited M-G-M musical, with an all-black all-star cast” — “based on a Broadway musical by Lynn Root, John Latouche, and Vernon Duke” — “marked the successful movie debut of stage director Vincente Minnelli.” He notes that the “film pits cornball religion against hell-raising (which appear to be the only two choices in a black man’s life), and, though it probably wasn’t intended that way, the hell-raising looks to be more fun.” He advises us to “forget Joseph Schrank’s script and enjoy the precious footage of some of the most famous black performers at their peaks”, including Waters, Anderson, Horne, John ‘Bubbles’ Sublett, and Duke Ellington’s band, as well as Ingram reminding “us of the shrewd, intelligent, boldly laughing genie he played in The Thief of Bagdad.” As one of two all-black musicals produced that year — along with Stormy Weather (1943) — this film remains worth a look for historical purposes alone, but viewers will likely find themselves appreciating the chance to see Waters at her finest; her role here and in The Member of the Wedding (1952) indicate that she should have been given far more opportunities to grace us with her presence on screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ethel Waters as Petunia
  • Many fine musical numbers

  • Sidney Wagner’s cinematography

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

Categories

Links: