Quadrophenia (1979)

“I don’t want to be the same as everybody else! That’s why I’m a Mod, see?”

Synopsis:
A disaffected working-class Londoner (Phil Daniels) rides a scooter with his Mod buddies while pining after a beautiful girl (Leslie Ash) whose affection he finally wins (temporarily) during a bloody riot in Brighton against a rival gang of Rocker bikers.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that “England’s first street film, about the turbulent Mods vs. Rockers music-motorcycles-fashion scene in 1964 (the year of the Brighton riots)” is “the most exciting, perceptive youth film since Rebel Without a Cause.” He writes that “it wasn’t made with an international market in mind” — meaning “there’s no preface for the uninitiated that defines and contrasts the warring Mods and Rockers”, and “the working-class characters speak with thick cockney accents” — but he notes that he “can’t see why Americans can’t identify with it”, given that “young viewers can relate to the Mods, who define themselves by their musical taste, revolutionary fashions, anti-social posturing, and anarchical brand of violence”. He further notes that “one can become extremely sentimental because director Franc Roddam has done a remarkable job of re-creating the youth scene of 1964: dark, wet London streets, empty but for the herds of Mods on Italian scooters and Rockers on heavy cycles in search of a rumble; dingy, sweat-filled clubs; greasy diners, pinball joints, back alleys, dance halls, etc.” He concludes his review by asserting that “this is a superb, powerful film, ambitiously directed by Roddam with wit, style, and passion”, and that “you can’t help feeling that adrenaline rush so often experienced in the mix-sixties”.

Given that most film fanatics these days weren’t alive in the 1960s, Quadrophenia may hold less personal appeal — though it remains a potent depiction of a “character we can all identify with”, someone who “represents all youths in the throes of growing pains, in desperate search for their identities”. As uncredited screenwriter Pete Townshend said in an interview:

I could still remember that feeling of struggling to fit in, something that happened to me when I was even younger, around 14, and everyone around me seemed to have got their lives on track. This is such a universal experience for young people that it has echoed.

Perhaps most representative of adolescent angst is beautiful Steph (Ash), an embodiment of the toxic MGTOW movement in that she “marries up” as soon as a new bloke holds dominance or interest. Daniels’ pain and bewilderment at Ash (and at life in general) are completely understandable, given he’s someone who “doesn’t fit in anywhere because he tries too hard to be different” and is “always more excited, angrier, or more frustrated than anyone else; to him every moment has great significance”. His final sequence with Ace Face (Sting) is an appropriately crushing denouement.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

Must See?
Yes, once, as a cult favorite. Described at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

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Donkey Skin (1971)

“I love you, my daughter, and wish to marry you.”

Synopsis:
A king (Jean Marais) whose dying wife (Micheline Presle) makes him promise he will only remarry if he can find someone wiser and more beautiful than herself decides that his grown daughter (Catherine Deneuve) is the sole suitable candidate. After seeking advice from her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), the conflicted princess (Denevue) runs away from home dressed in a donkey skin, and meets a prince (Jacques Perrin) whose love may rescue her from her dire situation.

Genres:

Review:
Jacques Demy’s adaptation (with cheery music by Michel Legrand) of Charles Perrault’s fairytale is an odd affair indeed — starting with the central conflict, which leaves one decidedly uncomfortable. Marais clearly isn’t a villain (he loves his wife and wants to “do the right thing” for the sake of his lineage) yet his request is untenable and icky: if one should obey one’s parents but not commit incest, what’s a girl to do? Thankfully, Marais’ Oedipal interest in his daughter is never manifested beyond hypothetical plans. Instead, the story shifts to a Cinderella-esque tale, with Deneuve going undercover in rags and a ring replacing the specially-sized glass slipper. The colorful costumes and sets are truly gorgeous, and Seyrig has fun in her role as Deneuve’s fairy caretaker — but this one will likely only appeal to fans of Demy’s unusual oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Magical sets and costumes


  • Vibrant cinematography


Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look simply for the gorgeous visuals — and of course Demy fans will want to check it out.

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Only Game in Town, The (1970)

“I’m making jokes because I’m scared, but I’ve never been more serious in my life.”

Synopsis:
A Vegas showgirl (Elizabeth Taylor) has an affair with a gambling-addicted musician (Warren Beatty) while waiting for her married lover (Charles Braswell) to finally get a divorce — but when her opportunity for a lasting union arrives, will she take it?

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Review:
Reviews of George Stevens’ final film — an adaptation of Frank D. Gilroy’s short-lived Broadway play — are uniformly scathing, with most attention paid to the outsized budget for a film taking place in Vegas but filmed in Paris simply so Taylor could be near her husband, Richard Burton. Taylor’s miscasting has also been noted, with The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby uncharitably stating: “As played by Miss Taylor, Fran is so top-heavy in bouffant hair styles by Alexandre of Paris, and badly proportioned minidresses by Mia Fonssagrives, that she has the non-dancing silhouette of an apple balanced atop a pair of toothpicks.” Regardless of her appearance, Taylor’s overall situation simply doesn’t garner much sympathy, primarily because we barely meet the supposed object of her affections (Braswell) before he’s gone again. Beatty adds a bit of pathos to the role of a gambling addict, and the film come alive during an early sequence when he takes Taylor on the town. But from there, we’re simply waiting for an inevitable romance between the two gorgeous co-stars to ensue, despite their professed disinterest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henri Decae’s cinematography

Must See?
No; skip this one.

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Tommy (1975)

“He hears but cannot answer to your call.”

Synopsis:
A young boy (Barry Winch) whose mother (Ann-Margret) becomes a widow during WWII grows up blind, deaf, and mute. As an adult, Tommy (Roger Daltrey) is taken by his mother and step-father (Oliver Reed) to a preacher (Eric Clapton) and an “Acid Queen” (Tina Turner) who attempt to cure him, and is also left with abusive caretakers (Paul Nicholas and Keith Moon) who fail to elicit any reaction. When Tommy becomes a pinball champion, however, he develops an enormous following, and is soon a figure of religious reverence.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Ken Russell’s screen adaptation of “The Who’s rock opera” album — about a “deaf, dumb, and blind English boy who is pitied, ignored, abandoned, and abused until his pinball wizardry makes him a national hero” — is “ambitious, flamboyant, and at times imaginative, but eventually the succession of wild, colorful, and sometimes disgusting images wears you down”. He argues that “the picture’s about 40 minutes too long”, and that “another problem is that the score by Pete Townshend (with help from John Entwhistle and Keith Moon) doesn’t compare to the best Who music.” I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment, and find it surprising that Ann-Margret — playing Tommy’s “tormented, heavy-drinking mother” — was nominated for an Oscar (presumably due to her multiple age-portrayals and impressively high level of dramatic “commitment”). With all that said, this film is much too creatively staged and shot not to be seen at least once — and fans will likely enjoy repeat visits.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Endlessly creative and surreal imagery, sets, and costumes


  • Stellar cinematography


Must See?
Once, as a dizzying cult favorite by a reknowned director.

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Woodstock (1970)

“I’m very happy to say we think the people of this country should be proud of these kids, notwithstanding the way they dress or the way they wear their hair — that’s their own personal business.”

Synopsis:
Nearly half a million hippies converge on a farm in New York, enjoying music, drugs, peace, and good vibes despite the crowded conditions.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “epic documentary beautifully covers this seminal cultural event” in which “more than 500,000 young people showed up for [a] three-day rock-music concert in 1969 on a farm in upstate New York”. He notes that “the whole youth-protest movement was there in spirit and took pride in how peaceful this event was. It was where the love generation’s dreams came true: a beautiful communal society where everyone pulled together under difficult circumstances, where there was the sound of music instead of gunfire.” He further adds that the documentary — “directed by Michael Wadleigh in cinéma vérité style” — conveys “that far more important than the all-star performances were the people who had gathered and lived for three days without adequate food supplies, bathroom facilities, medical supervision or protection from the heavy rains”, who nonetheless turned the event “into a successful communal experiment”. He notes that “performers later admitted that they were overwhelmed by the spirit of the event and felt it a privilege to play for this audience”.

There is much to enjoy about this engaging, smartly crafted documentary — but perhaps most impressive is how thoroughly the filmmakers provide as many perspectives on the event as possible. We hear from disgruntled neighbors, but also surprisingly generous and kind locals, such as those who stepped up to help feed the hungry crowds, or the cheery Port-a-San janitor who states he is “glad to do [his work] for these kids”. We see plenty of “turned on” participants having the time of their lives — but also listen to one distressed young woman desperate to escape the crowds. We hear a tireless worker sharing a hilariously rambling anecdote about trippers (“You wouldn’t believe some of the kids that come in here. They’re really spaced out. Last night, this cat, this cat comes in and says, ‘If anger is red and envy is green, what color is jealousy?’ And I mean, he’s really spaced out! And you just don’t go fucking people’s heads up when they’re spaced out! So I said, uh, “Black, right? Because jealousy is poison.'”) — but she then admits to feeling concern about her sister:

I mean, like, right now I’m missing my sister. I lost her. She was on, uh, on mesc. And I lost her during Richie Haven’s performance. I’ve got her tickets home. I haven’t seen her since… She’s all right. Sure she is. It’s just that I’d like to see her so I can get home in time. She’s got to be back Monday for court. Otherwise, you know, I wouldn’t care. Otherwise, I’d probably let her hitch home.

Speaking of home, we see kids lining up to make calls at a crowded telephone booth; sleeping like sardines on top of cars; skinny-dipping; caring for young children. We also see the tremendous amount of trash left behind after the concert (a detail most documentaries would shy away from); I was reminded of Frederick Wiseman’s films, which cover all facets — both important and seemingly insignificant — of what it takes to make an event or place run smoothly. One thing that distinguishes Wadleigh’s film from Wiseman’s, however, is his innovative use of split-screen imagery to show diverse perspectives on either a single moment or different points in time. The juxtaposition of concerned middle-aged neighbors with a shot of teens skinny-dipping is deliberately provocative, while other combinations simply help to convey the vastness of the event.

Split-screen and super-imposition is especially extensive during musical sequences — to powerful effect, given that we can see both performers and viewers at once. IMDb notes that this stylistic choice was driven by necessity:

The two- and three-panel screen presentations seen throughout much of the movie were innovations born of necessity on the part of its creators and a film editor named Martin Scorsese. With so much footage shot, and the studio’s unwillingness to expand the length of the released film’s running time, it was decided that a way must be found to maximize the amount of footage that could be used.

Interestingly, the musical performances ALMOST seem secondary to the ethnographic footage — though there are plenty of powerful songs, most notably Jimi Hendrix’s legendary riff on “Star Spangled Banner”. Interested viewers can read much, much more about this event — and the musical line-up — in numerous books or websites. Click here for a minute-by-minute overview of who performed when.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A refreshingly thorough, multi-faceted look at this historic event






  • Highly effective use of split-screen and super-imposed editing



  • Several powerful, memorable musical sequences

Must See?
Yes, of course.

Categories

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Kids Are Alright, The (1979)

“You can’t stop doing what you’re doing, because you’d let down all these people.”

Synopsis:
The raucuous style of British rock band The Who — singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon — evolves over their 15 years of performing together.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “very good documentary about the early years of the seminal British supergroup The Who” contains “interview material” that is “kept brief and doesn’t interfere with the group’s many songs, taken from concert footage, television appearances, and studio jam sessions”. We get an excellent sense of the four band members’ irreverent humor, as well as their diverse personalities: charming Daltrey (that hair! those abs!), dynamic Townshend (his energy and talent — and nose — are truly one-of-a-kind), goofy Moon (never not clowning on camera), and aloof Entwistle (static in comparison with his band-mates). Peary notes that throughout the non-linear film, “we see the group age and their style of dress switch from mod to flamboyant to casual, but if anything, their energy level picks up, their songs become louder, their musicianship becomes more complex, and their anarchic style, typified by Pete Townshend smashing his guitars and Keith Moon his drums, becomes less an angry, ostentatious gesture than a way they can properly convey the artist’s/musician’s need for completely free self-expression”.

I’m not positive about the veracity of the latter assertion, especially given the following rather cynical quote by young Townshend early in the group’s career:

You have to resign yourself to the fact that a large part of the audience is sort of thick, you know, and don’t appreciate quality, however much you try and put it over. The fact is that our group isn’t… hasn’t got any quality. It’s just musical sensationalism.

as well as the film’s closing quote by an older Townshend (see beginning of this review), which continues as follows:

It’s not people just saying, “Listen, you’ll disappoint your fans if you don’t go on. The show must go on. You must go on, otherwise all those people will be so upset.” It’s, “You’ve got to go on, man. Otherwise, all those kids, they’ll be finished. They’ll have nothing to live for.” That’s rock and roll.

With that said, this final interview clip is followed by an enjoyably energetic and well-staged performance of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, and surprisingly touching shots of the band embracing their adoring fans on-stage — thus making it seem like these men truly are playing for the enjoyment they bring to their fans (and continue to do so today).

Note: According to Wikipedia, the deeply drug-addicted “Moon… died one week after seeing the rough cut [of this documentary] with Daltrey.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Valuable, enjoyable footage of the group’s dynamic performance style and audience appeal




Must See?
No, but I think most film fanatics will want to check it out simply for general cultural interest and rockin’ music.

Links:

Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952)

“It was almost as if I’d suddenly run into a solid sheet of water…”

Synopsis:
An RAF pilot (Nigel Patrick) marries the daughter (Ann Todd) of an airplane manufacturing magnate (Ralph Richardson) who is determined to send a test pilot through the sound barrier.

Genres:

Review:
Inspired by the life of British aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland, this David Lean flick is an interesting mix of revisionist history and science fiction. By claiming victory over one of the most profound challenges of aeroscience (flying faster than “Mach 1”), Breaking the Sound Barrier plants a false narrative of how this endeavor was achieved; those wanting a more authentic history must watch The Right Stuff (1983) about Chuck Yeager. With that enormous caveat in mind, this film succeeds in showing how a “stiff upper lip” is apparently an endemic British cultural trait, and how the desire to advance scientific knowledge sometimes trumps common sense and one’s personal survival-instinct. Less compelling is the overall storyline about a tough-as-nails magnate (Richardson) who seems willing to risk the happiness of both his son (Denholm Elliott) and daughter (Ann Todd) for the sake of his empire (and knowledge); if this were based on a true story, it would be easier to accept the conveniently plotted twists and turns — but, it’s not. The direction and cinematography are excellent, though.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many expertly filmed dramatic moments

  • Jack Hildyard’s cinematography

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Silver Streak (1976)

“If there’s one thing I have learned from this trip it’s that you play the game, and take what you get.”

Synopsis:
A book editor (Gene Wilder) meets a beautiful secretary (Jill Clayburgh) while travelling onboard a train called the Silver Streak. After seeing the man Clayburgh works for hanging dead outside a window, he panics but can’t get anyone to believe him — until a fellow passenger (Ned Beatty) reveals his true identity, and Wilder later meets a thief (Richard Pryor) who attempts to help him catch the murderers.

Genres:

Review:
Directed by Arthur Hiller and scored by Henry Mancini, Silver Streak was the first of four on-screen pairings between comedians Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who next teamed up for Stir Crazy (1980). Of Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins — best known for scripting Harold and Maude (1971) — stated in an interview, “I had always wanted to get on a train and meet some blonde. It never happened, so I wrote a script” — thus explaining the rather haphazard nature of the storyline, which tosses in every action-murder-mystery-romance convention in the book, plus race relations, a plucky female pilot, and a bit of a buddy theme. It’s competently made and acted, but doesn’t hold one’s attention in the same way as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) or Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which it seems to aspire towards.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good use of a train as a primary locale

Must See?
No, though you may want to check it out if you’re a fan of Wilder or Pryor.

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Below the Belt (1980)

“She’s stronger than she looks — I’m working on the image!”

Synopsis:
A waitress (Regina Baff) tries her luck as a female wrestler, travelling across the United States with a group of diverse and determined women.

Genres:

Review:
A year before Robert Aldrich’s All the Marbles (1981) (a.k.a. The California Dolls) was released, writer-director Robert Fowler made this character study about a down-on-her-luck waitress hoping for a more empowered and exciting life through female wrestling. Fowler and Sherry Sonnet’s screenplay — based on an autobiographical novel by Rosalyn Drexler — contains plenty of authentic insights into the seamy world of low-rent wrestling, showing both the challenges and the bonds that occur along the way. (For the most part, the wrestlers are supportive rather than combative with one another, understanding that it’s primarily a show rather than a contest.) Given its parallels with the underdog film Rocky (1976), Below the Belt naturally ends with “The Big Fight”, which is actually quite gripping given that it stars real-life wrestler Jane O’Brien as “Terrible Tommy” (missing a front tooth, and menacing as all-get-out). Less engaging are Baff’s romantic foibles and a side-story about a middle-aged couple (Sierra Pecheur and Dolph Sweet) debating leaving the wrestling world for different pastures — but it all adds to the amiably paced flow of the film, which is more ethnographic than plot-driven. Watch for Shirley Stoler in a supporting role as one of Baff’s co-wrestlers.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Regina Baff as Rosa
  • Seemingly authentic “behind the scenes” footage of life for wrestlers
  • Good use of real-life wrestlers and matches
  • A catchy and unusual soundtrack (“Some folks are so mean, they gargle gin and gasoline”)

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out for a one-time look. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Circle of Iron (1978)

“Whatever you think I am — or want me to be — I am.”

Synopsis:
After being formally defeated in a fight overseen by a leader in a white robe (Roddy McDowell), a warrior (Jeff Cooper) seeking a mysterious seer named Zetan (Christopher Lee) finds unexpected assistance from a blind, martially-talented flute-player (David Carradine).

Genres:

Review:
This martial arts fantasy flick is perhaps best known as the movie Bruce Lee co-wrote and intended to star in before his untimely death. As a viewer not particularly well-versed in martial arts films, I can’t speak to the quality or nature of the fights — but the rest of the picture sure is a wacky, at-times surreal adventure. While Cooper is the nominal protagonist, Carradine steals the show as a blind flautist who may or may not be able to teach Cooper valuable lessons grounded in Eastern philosophy. Naturally, there’s plenty of ripe dialogue to enjoy:

“Are you waiting for fear to freeze my heart before you carve it out?”

and the fantasy sets are reasonably impressive. This one isn’t must-see for all film fanatics, but fans of the genre will likely want to check it out. Most surreal sequence: Eli Wallach explains his ten-year “tub cure” to Cooper.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • David Carradine’s tongue-in cheek performance(s)
  • Fine cinematography and outdoor sets

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for its wacky cult flavor. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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