Pursuit of Happiness, The (1971)

“I have to go into court and play a part in a stupid charade to convince some judge that I’m not really me in order to receive some justice!”

Synopsis:
When a college student (Michael Sarrazin) accidentally runs over and kills an old lady (Maya Kenin), he finds his liberal lifestyle rather than his crime put on trial; eventually he and his girlfriend (Barbara Hershey) decide to take matters into their own hands.

Genres:

Review:
This oddly provocative counterculture flick posits a Kafka-esque “living nightmare” any one of us could find ourselves in (involuntary vehicular manslaughter), and takes this scenario to its farthest limits, ultimately arguing that expatriation may be the only option when the legal strictures of one’s country have become too outlandish to obey. Made during the height of the Vietnam protest era, it’s an interesting non-political variation on the theme of private resistance; one can’t help siding with Sarrazin’s sympathetic protagonist, who tries to play by the rules but ultimately finds himself damned no matter what he does. It’s all a bit stagy and forced at times, but there are several fine supporting performances to watch for (most notably by Arthur Hill, E.G. Marshall, and William Devane), and the central premise is compelling enough to hold interest throughout.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Arthur Hill as William’s father
    Pursuit Happiness Hill
  • E.G. Marshall as William’s no-nonsense lawyer-uncle
    Pursuit Happiness Marshall
  • William Devane’s tiny but memorable performance
    Pursuit Happiness Devane
  • A provocative thematic basis
    Pursuit Happiness Sarrazin Hershey

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look if you stumble upon a copy. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Canary Murder Case, The (1929)

“I have a strange premonition that the Canary is headed for disaster…”

Canary Murder Poster

Synopsis:
Detective Philo Vance (William Powell) investigates the mysterious murder of a blackmailing showgirl known as the Canary (Louise Brooks), who accumulated countless enemies and/or jealous lovers just before her death.

Genres:

Review:
The Canary Murder Case was the first cinematic translation of an S.S. Van Dine Philo Vance detective novel, but is even more notable today as the film that destroyed Louise Brooks’ career in Hollywood. A so-called “transitional talkie”, it was originally shot as a silent film, then later dubbed; but Brooks, who was in Europe at the time making Diary of a Lost Girl with G.W. Pabst, refused to return to America, and her character was dubbed by Margaret Livingston instead. While it’s jarringly obvious that Brooks herself isn’t speaking, she nonetheless manages to project a memorable hussy within her brief period on-screen, and we miss her striking presence once she’s gone. Indeed, the remainder of the film falls mostly flat, thanks largely to its awkward “silent film” pacing, in which characters speak, then pause briefly before responding; not even William Powell emerges unscathed. The murder mystery is mildly interesting, but far too talky — and it takes so long for Vance to figure out the identity of the murderer (which most audience members will have guessed long before) that impatience finally sets in.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Louise Brooks in a too-small role as “the Canary”
    Canary Murder Brooks

Must See?
No, unless you’re a die-hard Louise Brooks fan; for a much more engaging and creatively filmed Philo Vance flick, see The Kennel Murder Case (1933). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Vivacious Lady (1938)

“And dad, I might add that she’s the finest wife any man could hope to have!”

Vivacious Lady Poster

Synopsis:
A young professor (Jimmy Stewart) falls for and marries a nightclub singer (Ginger Rogers), then must get up the nerve to tell his strict father (Charles Coburn) and nervous mother (Beulah Bondi).

Genres:

Review:
Two years after eliciting a nuanced performance from Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936), George Stevens directed her once again in this frothy romantic comedy about a mismatched couple who fall in love at first sight, marry immediately, and (only in Hollywood) struggle through a series of misunderstandings before finally being able to “legitimate” their relationship. Several scenes are genuinely amusing: I get a kick out of Rogers’ all-out catfight with Stewart’s presumed-fiancee (Frances Mercer), for instance, and Stewart and Rogers’ visual tussle with “Walter” the pull-down bed is fun. But many of the broader plot devices — including Rogers posing “incognito” as one of Stewart’s biology students, and Coburn’s fear that Stewart’s marriage to a nightclub singer will irreparably damage the reputation of their college — simply strain credulity, and ultimately fall flat. Fortunately, the genuine chemistry between Rogers and Stewart (former lovers in real life) bolsters the film; they make a sweet, if unconventional, screen couple. Film fanatics take note: RKO-regular Franklin Pangborn plays an amusing but too-small role as a fastidious hotel clerk determined to keep Stewart away from his new wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Genuine chemistry between Rogers and Stewart
    Vivacious Lady Chemistry
  • Franklin Pangborn in a bit role as a hotel clerk
    Vivacious Lady Pangborn
  • Robert DeGrasse’s luminous b&w cinematography
    Vivacious Lady Cinematography
  • Several amusing sequences — such as Rogers’ catfight with Frances Mercer (hidden here)
    Vivacious Lady Catfight

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing.

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Lady and the Monster, The (1944)

“Would it not be the achievement of all time to keep the brains of great thinkers, scientists, authors, statesmen, alive? To derive benefit from their wisdom and thinking power, even after their death — to make them literally immortal?”

Lady Monster Poster

Synopsis:
A mad scientist (Erich von Stroheim) and his assistant (Richard Arlen) preserve the brain of a dead millionaire named Donovan; soon Donovan’s brain begins to take control of Arlen, and Arlen’s girlfriend (Vera Hruba Ralston) fears for his safety.

Genres:

Review:
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak‘s science fiction novel Donovan’s Brain was adapted for the screen no less than three times; The Lady and the Monster is the earliest of the three versions, and — though it’s not as well-known as its 1952 original-title remake — it’s the only one included in Peary’s book. The trope of a disembodied brain is one that has been exploited numerous times in both literature and film: Roald Dahl had morbid fun with it in his short story “William and Mary”, while the Medved Brothers devoted an entire category to it in their Golden Turkey Awards book (justifiably awarding a Turkey prize to the atrocious They Saved Hitler’s Brain). Here, the subject is handled with relative taste, with “the brain” itself never making much of a gruesomely graphic appearance — instead, we become caught up in a surprisingly compelling mystery story, as Arlen (giving a solid performance) becomes more and more obsessed by Donovan’s brain, and increasingly compelled to follow the dead man’s telepathic dictates.

Part of the success of the screenplay (which eventually becomes too confusing for its own good) is in the way we’re never quite sure who’s “good” or “bad”: we know that Donovan was a fraudulent financier and an overall not-nice person, but is his motivation in getting a convicted murderer out of jail completely self-serving or not? And how far will Professor Mueller (von Stroheim) go with his project, even if it means placing Arlen’s life at increased risk? Meanwhile, the film is surprisingly hypnotic to look at (see stills below), with creepy, shadow-filled gothic sets and stunning noir cinematography by Oscar-winning D.P. John Alton. Film fanatics will likely enjoy seeing von Stroheim in a semi-leading role as mad (but-not-too-mad) Prof. Mueller, while Czech figure-skater-turned-actress Vera Hruba Ralston delivers a notoriously awful performance — fun for laughs if nothing else. The Lady and the Monster isn’t must-see viewing, but it’s certainly worth a look if you can find a copy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric sets
    Lady Monster Castle
    Lady Monster Lab
    Lady Monster Maid
  • John Alton’s remarkably effective noir cinematography
    Lady Monster Blinds
    Lady Monster Arlen
  • Vera Hruba Ralston’s laughably awful acting
    Lady Monster Ralston

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for Alton’s impressive cinematography. Listed as a film with historical relevance in Peary’s book, but I’m not exactly sure why.

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Sleeper (1973)

“I wanna go back to sleep! If I don’t get at least 600 years, I’m grouchy all day.”

Sleeper Poster

Synopsis:
A cryogenically frozen health food store owner named Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) wakes up 200 years later (in the year 2173) in a police state, and enlists the help of a spoiled hedonist (Diane Keaton) in contacting the underground movement.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary seems only mildly enthusiastic about this “silly but enjoyable” early satirical comedy by Woody Allen; he argues that while there’s “much hilarity”, many of the “gags and slapstick don’t work”. However, I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly what ‘clunkers’ he’s referring to, given that Sleepers is an all-around anarchic delight, full of diverse humor ranging from inspired slapstick (in a garden of giant produce, Allen — naturally — slips on an enormous banana peel), to timely satire (when shown a photo of Norman Mailer by an inquisitive archaeologist, Allen informs him that Mailer “donated his ego to Harvard Medical School”), to mind-blowing lunacy (Allen wins a Miss America award [!], and later — oh, so randomly — channels Blanche DuBois in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire).

For such a silly story, Sleeper is surprisingly full of memorable moments: few will be able to forget the botched “nose cloning” sequence near the end of the film, for instance, or the movie’s coterie of futuristic “gadgets” — including the efficient Orgasmatron box, the drug-providing “Orb” (which provokes Allen into a rare fit of laughter on-screen), and some instant chocolate pudding powder which quickly grows out of Allen’s control. Though most of the supporting actors are unknowns, Keaton — in her second film with Allen, after Play it Again Sam — is charmingly nutty as Allen’s foil and love interest, who undergoes a dramatic transformation from squealing hedonist to committed revolutionary; meanwhile, Allen himself has loopy fun channeling Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Bob Hope (among others). Like the best must-see films, Sleeper — which, mercifully, never takes itself too seriously — can easily be revisited by film fanatics from time to time, and is the perfect introductory Allen movie to show to one’s non-ff friends.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Countless randomly hilarious sequences
    Sleeper Allen
  • Plenty of classic Allen one-liners: “My brain! It’s my second favorite organ!”

Must See?
Yes, as a comedic classic.

Categories

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

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Street Love/Scarred (1984)

“My mother thinks I’m the devil and that God is a UFO.”

Synopsis:
An abandoned teenage mother (Jennifer Mayo) turns to the streets, where she befriends an experienced hooker (Jackie Berryman) and resists advances made by an insistent pimp named Easy (David Dean).

Genres:

Review:
In her debut film, writer-director Rosemarie Turko (who co-directed just one more movie after this, then disappeared from sight) was clearly hoping to shed some light on the harsh reality of teen motherhood and prostitution in L.A.; the result, however, is a trashy exploitation film which will only appeal to hebephilic males eager to see young Jennifer Mayo simulating sex and tarting herself up in tight clothing. At first, Street Love appears to be a slightly more serious variation on the same year’s Angel — another film in which a teenage girl fends for herself by turning to prostitution. Unfortunately, however, not a single scene thereafter rings true, as the amateur actors struggle to breathe life into their cliched roles, and the clunky script quickly reveals itself to be more of a didactic exercise than an authentic narrative.

Early on, for instance, we see poor “Ruby” (Mayo) being told that she’ll have to pay $55 for the privilege of interviewing for a job; to emphasize the point that there’s no way Ruby can afford this exorbitant and inexplicable fee, Turko offers a close-up of a few pennies (!) in Ruby’s hand. Later, Ruby agrees to participate in a cheesy porn film (a satire of Star Wars called, naturally, Sex Wars) to earn some quick money — but when things go comically haywire through no fault of her own, she’s assigned all the blame and thrown off the set. Most frustrating of all is the way Ruby’s half-black baby (his mixed race is merely exploited as one more strike against Ruby) disappears from the majority of the film altogether; as a result, we never believe that she’s really desperate to create a life with him. A truly authentic film about the perils of solitary teen motherhood clearly has yet to be made.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
Not much at all.

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

Links:

Anatahan (1953)

“Nothing that happens to another human being is alien to us: there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Anatahan Poster

Synopsis:
During WWII, a group of shipwrecked Japanese sailors land on the rocky island of Anatahan, where they encounter a man (Tadashi Suganuma) and his common-law wife (Akemi Negishi) living in a shack. Over the next seven years, the men compete for Negishi’s attentions while hoping to hear news of Japan’s victory in the war.

Genres:

Review:
When Howard Hughes forced him off the set of his final two films in Hollywood, Josef von Sternberg accepted an invitation to direct a film in Japan; the result is this “curio”, a commercially unsuccessful hybrid movie which has since been recognized as a most unusual and provocative cinematic experiment, and was certainly a personal triumph for von Sternberg at the end of his illustrious career. As noted in Kathy Fennessey’s Siffblog review, Anatahan “plays like a cross between Woman in the Dunes, Underground, Letters From Iwo Jima, and ABC’s Lost” (and, I would add, a dose of Laurel and Hardy’s Block-Heads as well) — a potent mix to be sure.

With Anatahan, von Sternberg very intentionally broke all the “rules” one might expect from a wartime film based on a real-life historical event: he utilized a Kyoto sound stage rather than an actual island, cast Kabuki actors rather than cinematic stars, and implemented a voice-of-God narration over unsubtitled Japanese — all in an effort to create a highly stylized allegory of rivalry and desire. Trapped on an island with only one woman, and patriotically bound to stay put rather than allow themselves to be captured by the enemy, the deluded soldiers’ most basic impulses come into play; they ultimately represent a microcosm of society at its most primitive. Meanwhile, we’re seduced by the beauty of von Sternberg’s unearthly imagery; although he famously said, “I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented”, Anatahan proves that von Sternberg was entirely capable of marrying the two.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Akemi Negishi as the Queen Bee
    Anatahan Queen Bee
  • Effective use of stylized, claustrophobic sets
    Anatahan Sets
  • A fascinating tale of rivalry and survival
    Anatahan Rivalry
  • Von Sternberg’s striking cinematography
    Anatahan Cinematography
  • Akira Ifukube’s haunting score

Must See?
Yes, as an undeniably unique entry in von Sternberg’s late-life career.

Categories

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Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

“There’s life beyond birth.”

Synopsis:
A twice-married woman (Anne Bancroft) with many children marries a screenwriter (Peter Finch), but their happiness is short-lived due to his chronic infidelity.

Genres:

Review:
Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Penelope Mortimer‘s semi-autobiographical novel about infidelity and childbearing is relentlessly bleak but oddly mesmerizing despite its gloomy trajectory. Pinter’s lean screenplay — it’s been called “fastidious” in its faithfulness to Mortimer’s text — wastes no time in taking us from one phase of Bancroft’s pregnancy-filled, marriage-hopping existence to the next: when we first meet Bancroft’s Jo Armitage, she’s (seemingly) happily married to a violinist (Richard Johnson), with rambunctious kids all around; her decision to leave Johnson and marry Finch is never explained (is it love at first sight?), but the downward spiral that quickly ensues — as Finch’s career takes off and their marriage hits the rocks — makes it clear that her desire for an idyllic family existence will become more and more remote.

While we can’t help wanting to understand more about Jo’s addiction to having children (which plays a pivotal role in the dissolution of her marriage to Finch), Bancroft’s performance is nonetheless impressive, and she deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for her work; she embodies her depressive London housewife so fully that it’s easy to forget she’s Brooklyn-born rather than British. Peter Finch as her philandering husband is appropriately duplicitous, while both James Mason and Maggie Smith are deliciously unforgettable in supporting roles. While it’s rarely enjoyable to watch chronic infidelity played out on-screen — and The Pumpkin Eater is no exception to this rule — the film remains must-see viewing simply for Bancroft’s memorable central performance.

P.S. Interestingly, while director Jack Clayton helmed several provocative films about the complex lives of children (The Innocents, Our Mother’s House), Bancroft’s kids aren’t given much of a role here; it’s all about the dysfunctional adults instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anne Bancroft as Jo Armitage
    Pumpkin Eater Bancroft Finch
  • Peter Finch as Jake Armitage
  • James Mason as Bob Conway
  • Maggie Smith as “Philpot”

Must See?
Yes, for Bancroft’s Oscar-nominated performance.

Categories

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

“I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure know a loser.”

They Shoot Horses Poster

Synopsis:
During the Depression, a group of down-on-their-luck contestants — including Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons, Susannah York, Bruce Dern, and Bonnie Bedelia — compete in a brutal dance marathon hosted by Gig Young.

Genres:

Review:
Although Peary designates Pennies From Heaven (1981) “the grimmest of all movie musicals”, surely Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? tops that film’s melancholia factor to earn a designation as “the grimmest of all Depression-era films”. Indeed, this notoriously bleak adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is, as noted by DVD Savant, a “depressing but riveting… emotional meat grinder”. We know very little about the host of characters populating the screen other than the following cursory information: Fonda is from Kansas, Bedelia is pregnant, Sarrazin is a drifter, aging Buttons is a former dance marathon winner, and York is desperate for a chance to make it big in Hollywood; what they all have in common, however, is a willingness to put their health and sanity on the line for three meals a day and the remote possibility of fringe benefits. Remarkably, we can’t help staying gruesomely fascinated by these characters’ fates even as we know (either from gut intuition, or from previous viewings of the film) that little good will come to them. The metaphor of Dance Marathon-as-Life — both are nasty and brutish, and then you die (or lose) — is apparent, but is so effectively framed as a bleakly vibrant history lesson that it’s easy to forget we’re watching anything other than a unique human drama playing out in front of our eyes. They Shoot Horses… isn’t for the faint of heart, and won’t likely be a repeat favorite — but it’s certainly must-see viewing at least once for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gig Young’s Oscar-winning performance as Rocky
    They Shoot Horses Young
  • Jane Fonda as Gloria (nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year
  • Red Buttons as Sailor
  • Fredric Steinkamp’s relentless editing

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and undeniable impact. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

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Wedding, A (1978)

“You know, weddings are the happiest events I could possibly dream of — and yet somehow, when they’re over, it’s always so sad.”

Wedding Poster

Synopsis:
Intrigue and chaos abound at the society wedding of a working-class redhead (Amy Stryker) and her half-Italian fiance (Desi Arnaz Jr.).

Genres:

Review:
A Wedding came about as the result of Altman’s joking comment that perhaps he should film a wedding as his next project; the result, though not all that well received by critics, is one of his most amusing and engaging comedies. Anyone who’s either participated in or planned a wedding knows that glitches and emotional meltdowns are inevitable; here, Altman satirizes this inevitability by simply turning everything up a notch — starting with the concealed death of a matriarch (Lillian Gish) at the beginning of the film, and ending with a fatal car crash. Altman had famously brought 24 characters together for Nashville (1977), and decided (presumably just for kicks) to double this number in A Wedding; naturally, not all these characters get their due, but his masterful interweaving of so many disparate storylines works remarkably well.

Interestingly, the characters one would consider most central to the event — that is, the bride (unknown, braces-clad Amy Stryker) and her groom (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) — are among the most peripheral; only gradually do we learn what brought them together, and they never become fully developed protagonists. While their future happiness is threatened a few times throughout the film — by Arnaz’s former high society girlfriend (Pam Dawber), by Stryker’s wigged-out sister (Mia Farrow), and, later, in an infamous shower scene, by Arnaz’s military academy roommate — this isn’t really the primary thrust of the story; there isn’t one.

The most humorous of the film’s many subplots concerns beefy Pat McCormick’s relentless pursuit of Carol Burnett (mother-of-the-bride) — not out of lust, as we might expect, but from a pure conviction that she is his long-lost soul-mate. While Burnett’s cinematic performances are often (as here) over-the-top, she does a hilarious job showing her character’s gradual shift from absolute lack of comprehension to giddy acceptance of McCormick’s overtures.

Meanwhile, deeper familial dramas (such as Nina Van Pallandt’s drug addiction, and the truth behind her marriage to Vittorio Gassman, who seems to have mafia ties) are handled with both humor and sensitivity. Part of Altman’s genius lies in the way he treats all his characters — no matter how minor — with respect; we sense that each has an interesting story to tell, if only we had the time to spend with them.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A fantastic ensemble cast
    Wedding Ensemble
  • Pat McCormick’s zealous pursuit of Carol Burnett
    Wedding McCormick
  • Vittorio Gassman and Nina Van Pallandt as Mr. and Mrs. Corelli
    Wedding Gassman
  • Howard Duff as lecherous Dr. Meecham
    Wedding Duff
  • Countless unexpected moments of bizarre humor
    Wedding Braces
    Wedding Portrait

Must See?
Yes, as one of Altman’s funniest films.

Categories

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