Grey Gardens (1975)

“I only care about three things: the Catholic church, swimming, and dancing.”

Grey Gardens Poster

Synopsis:
Edith Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edie (Jacqueline Kennedy’s cousin), live together in a decaying East Hampton mansion known as Grey Gardens.

Genres:

Review:
After the success of their documentary chronicling the Rolling Stones’ tragic Altamont Speedway concert (1970′s Gimme Shelter), the Maysles brothers set out to make a film about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s childhood — but their attention was diverted once they discovered the existence of Kennedy’s unbelievably eccentric aunt and cousin, “Big” and “Little” Edie Beale. The result was this beloved cult film, in which the Beales allow their quirky, unconventional existence together in a large decaying mansion to be recorded for the general public. Indeed, both Edies are exhibitionists, and seem to take genuine delight in “performing” for the camera: Big Edie considers herself a world-class singer, while Little Edie foster dreams of a dancing career, and we get to witness ample evidence of both their “talents”.

Viewers and critics often wonder whether the Beales — who come across as not-just-a-little unhinged here — were taken advantage of by the Maysles, but in truth, the Beales were flattered by the film, and enjoyed the notoriety it brought them; as a result of her newfound fame, Little Edie — always seeking the limelight — was even given the opportunity to perform in a nightclub. Diehard Beales fans have long championed this documentary, giving it automatic cult status, but it’s gained even more attention recently given the airing of an HBO special (starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore) which fills in the gaps of the Beales’ lives pre-squalor, and serves as an invaluable counterpart to this film; both are must-see.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Remarkably quirky “performances” by both Big and Little Edie
    Grey Gardens Big Edie
  • Countless humorous scenes — such as when Little Edie describes her “costume for the day”
    Grey Gardens Little Edie
  • Many bizarrely memorable quotes:
    “He always compliments me on the way I do my corn.”
    “Of course, I’m mad about animals, but raccoons and cats become a little bit boring.”
    “You know, they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.”

Must See?
Yes, as a certifiable cult favorite. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Whistler, The (1944)

“Do you know that some people actually die of fright?”

Whistler Poster

Synopsis:
A man (Richard Dix) despondent over the death of his wife puts out a contract on his own life; when he discovers his wife is still alive, however, he tries to reverse the contract, only to find that the man he originally contacted (Don Costello) has been killed, and a hired hitman (J. Carrol Naish) is determined to complete his job.

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Review:
Based on one of the most popular radio mystery serials in American history, The Whistler offers a surprisingly effective cinematic translation of the show’s formulaic intrigue and suspense. Director William Castle — who went on to greater glory as the “schlockmeister” behind films such as The Tingler (1959) and Strait-Jacket (1964) — reportedly used “creative tactics” to elicit a suitably haggard and tense performance from wooden leading man Richard Dix, who wanders through the one-hour film desperate to reverse a chain of events he himself has put into motion; we can’t help vicariously experiencing his anxiety. Despite a few minor plot holes, The Whistler is worth a look both for its cultural significance and for the simple yet honest enjoyment it brings. Listen for the iconic opening whistled tune, which surely was an influence on Ennio Morricone’s scores for the “Man With No Name” films.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively stark cinematography
    Whistler Cinematography
  • A clever screenplay with many suspenseful twists
    Whistler Screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as a nifty little B-thriller.

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Quo Vadis? (1912)

“Quo vadis, Domine? Where goest thou, Lord?”

Quo Vadis Poster

Synopsis:
During the rule of Nero (Carlo Cattaneo), a Roman patrician (Amleto Novelli) falls in love with a Christian slave named Lygia (Lea Giunchi), who converts him to Christianity.

Genres:

Review:
Made in 1912, Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? — based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz — is widely recognized as the first feature-length film, and earns the distinction of being the earliest title listed in Peary’s book. As noted in Hal Erickson’s review for the All Movie Guide, it “nearly single-handedly convinced everyone in the movie business… that feature-length films were a viable commercial commodity”; indeed, audiences of the day flocked in droves to see it, paying 30 times the normal ticket price. With that said, the film comes across as undeniably “primitive and uninvolving” today: there’s no exposition or character development at all, characters are introduced perfunctorily through clumsy intertitles, and it’s assumed that audience members will simply bring their own knowledge of the story to fill in the many narrative gaps. The primary moments to watch for are the film’s sporadic “spectacles” — such as Nero fiddling while Rome burns, or lions being unleashed on Christians in a coliseum. (Film fanatics take note: it’s rumored that an extra was killed on film by one of the lions, but this footage no longer appears to exist, and is not evident here.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Impressive early spectacles
    Quo Vadis Lions

Must See?
Yes, simply for its importance in cinematic history. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Go, Man, Go! (1954)

“We’re a team that’s going places — and in no time, we’ll be the greatest in the world!”

Go Man Go Poster

Synopsis:
Promoter Abe Saperstein (Dane Clark) and his assistant Inman Jackson (Sidney Poitier) bring the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to fame.

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Review:
Never released on video or DVD, this underground cult favorite — directed by cinematographer James Wong Howe, and starring real-life Harlem Globetrotters Reece ‘Goose’ Tatum, ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, and Marques Haynes — tells the inspirational story of the Trotters’ rise to fame during the first half of the 20th century. The story arc itself — small-time players make it big through talent, hard work, and the dogged perseverance of their committed leader — is rather conventional, as is the gratuitous subplot in which Saperstein meets and quickly weds his beauty-queen wife (Patricia Breslin). What’s much more interesting are the implicit racial dynamics at play, as the Trotters (considered merely clownish amateurs) repeatedly compete against “legitimate” all-white teams; one wishes this theme could be handled at least somewhat more overtly, though the film remains daring simply in its easy acceptance of (Jewish) Saperstein’s friendship with Poitier and the other team members.

It’s great fun to see the Trotters performing some of their classic routines — and even for non-sports fans, the final climactic game (against the Chicago Majors) is genuinely thrilling! Sidney Poitier (just 27 years old) is fine if a tad underused in one of his earliest roles, while “everyman” actor Dane Clark projects just the right level of enthusiasm and energy required of iconoclast Saperstein. It’s interesting to note that, with the exception of a few unusual camera angles, there isn’t really much evidence here of Howe’s masterful camerawork (though to be fair, it’s hard to accurately assess this, given the damaged quality of the bootleg I secured). Film fanatics will be curious to learn that the movie’s producer and screenwriter, Alfred Palca, was blacklisted and had his name taken off the film (the pseudonym Arnold Becker was used instead); click here to read more.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Dane Clark as Abe Saperstein
    Go Man Go Clark
  • Enjoyable footage of the Trotters’ comedic moves
    Go Man Go Tricks
  • The incredibly exciting final game of the film
    Go Man Go Final Game
  • Slim Galliard’s jazzy score

Must See?
Yes, as an underground cult favorite.

Categories

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Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)

“I’m not adding up to anything, am I, Aaron? I’m not making any sense.”

Puzzle Downfall Poster

Synopsis:
When visited by an old boyfriend (Barry Primus) hoping to make a film about her, a former fashion model (Faye Dunaway) recovering from a mental breakdown reflects on her rocky past and relationships.

Genres:

Review:
Faye Dunaway’s committed central performance is the primary saving grace of this pretentious flashback film, which is ultimately merely an ineffective imitation of its more esteemed cinematic peers (most notably 1965′s similarly themed Darling). Despite Dunaway’s best efforts, it’s impossible to care much about the film’s self-absorbed protagonist (loosely based on screenwriter Carole Eastman), whose rise and fall from fame is utterly unremarkable (a climbing star becomes petulant and difficult to work with? impossible to imagine!), and whose mental breakdown is never fully explained or justified. When Dunaway says to Primus early on in the film, “I don’t know why you want to make a film about me”, we can’t help agreeing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Faye Dunaway as Lou
    Puzzle Dunaway
  • Viveca Lindfors as Lou’s agent
    Puzzle Lindfors
  • Creative visuals and editing
    Puzzle Lips

Must See?
No; despite its provocative title, this one can easily be skipped. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Gentleman Jim (1942)

“The Corbetts are at it again!”

Gentleman Jim Poster

Synopsis:
In 19th century San Francisco, Irish-American bank teller Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) rises to fame and becomes renowned boxer “Gentleman Jim”.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Along with many other critics, Peary is clearly a fan of this “thoroughly enjoyable, if highly fictionalized bio of… the first modern (scientific) heavy-weight boxing champion”, Gentleman Jim Corbett. As boxing movies go, Gentleman Jim is remarkably tame: Corbett is never forced to throw a fight (like John Garfield in 1947′s Body and Soul), nor does he become an insufferable heel after finding fame (like Kirk Douglas in 1949′s Champion). The closest this light-hearted film ever comes to genuine pathos is during its final “wonderful scene”, in which “the suddenly humble Corbett confesses to the prideful Boston Strongboy, in front of all the people at his own victory party, that he’s thankful he didn’t fight [him] when [he] was in his unbeatable prime”. Corbett is indeed “an ideal role” for handsome Errol Flynn, and director Raoul Walsh keeps things moving at an engaging clip; but Gentleman Jim is really only must-see viewing for fans of boxing flicks and/or Errol Flynn.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Errol Flynn as “Gentleman Jim” Corbett
    Gentleman Jim Flynn
  • Several enjoyable boxing sequences

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended.

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Double Indemnity (1944)

“How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Double Indemnity Poster

Synopsis:
Cocky salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) falls for femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who convinces him to secretly sell accident insurance to her husband (Tom Powers) and then help her murder him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Directed by Billy Wilder, and based on an “explosive, bitter melodrama” by pulp fiction writer James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is considered by many to be “quintessential film noir”, and has long been classified as an indisputable must-see film. Stanwyck — who has “never been cooler, more convincing” — is the archetypal embodiment of an icy femme fatale, while Fred MacMurray gives “his most impressive performance” as her “smart, cocky, aggressive” foil, who is nonetheless “not as clever as he thinks.” Rounding out the core cast is the always-excellent Edward G. Robinson as Neff’s employer and confessor, a claims manager who can sniff a false allegation a mile away (thanks to hints given by a “little man” living in his chest), and ultimately ferrets out the truth of Neff’s crime.

Typical of most noir, Double Indemnity is, Peary writes, “characterized by the interacting traits of greed, lust, murder, betrayal, and a pervading, oppressive darkness”. We’re not meant to relate to the central characters (who lack any heart or soul), but rather to watch in fascination as their foolhardy, arrogant actions doom them; inevitably, “the hero realizes that he deserves his sorry fate [and] the woman acknowledges she’s no good.” As Peary notes, the “film has no [intentional] humor, but it’s tremendous fun to watch a man so secure in himself… fall into a spider woman’s web”; indeed, part of the genius of the script is watching Stanwyck “subtly stroking [Neff's] masculine ego” as she “sits back and lets [him] take over and devise the murder plot” himself — he truly digs his own grave.

So much has already been written on this “bona-fide cinema masterpiece” — which Peary votes as the Best Picture of the year in his Alternate Oscars book — that I’ll keep my own contribution here to a minimum; instead, I refer interested readers to any of the many fine review links below (as well as Peary’s books, naturally). See Tim Dirks’ Greatest Films website for a blow-by-blow run-through of the film, complete with transcripts of much of its famed dialogue.

P.S. It’s impossible to ignore Stanwyck’s undeniably “laughable blond hairstyle” (those bangs!), which immediately evoke images of Carol Burnett’s classic spoof.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Stanwyck as “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson (Peary names her Best Actress of the year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    Double Indemnity Stanwyck
  • Fred MacMurray (who Peary nominates as Best Actor of the year in Alternate Oscars) as Walter Neff
    Double Indemnity MacMurray
  • Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes: “You’re not smarter, Walter, you’re just a little taller.”
    Double Indemnity Robinson
  • Good use of L.A. locales
    Double Indemnity Locales
  • John Seitz’s dramatic noir cinematography
    Double Indemnity Cinematography
  • Plenty of “snappy, hard-boiled dialogue”

Must See?
Naturally; this one’s a no-brainer.

Categories

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

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Red Sky at Morning (1971)

“Red sky at morning, sailors take warning…”

Red Sky Poster

Synopsis:
During World War Two, a young teenager (Richard Thomas) whose father (Richard Crenna) has enlisted in the Navy cares for his unstable mother (Claire Bloom) and experiences first love in the desert town of Sagrado, Arizona.

Genres:

Review:
This sincere but disappointing adaptation of Richard Bradstone’s classic coming-of-age tale suffers the fate of so many filmed novels: countless subplots given criminally short shrift, and a host of minor characters who ultimately emerge as little more than caricatures. Throughout the course of the movie, Joshua not only cares for his troubled mother (Bloom), manages the household help (Nehemiah Persoff and Alma Beltran), and befriends an eccentric local artist (Harry Guardino), but is introduced to a host of issues — including troubled race-relations, sex, bullying, and more — at his new high school. For instance, the local twin tarts — colorfully named Venery Ann (Lynna Marta) and Velma Mae (Christina Hart) — aggressively pursue Joshua and his friend Steenie (Desi Arnaz Jr.), much to the ire of their unbelievably hicked out, shotgun-toting father (Strother Martin); meanwhile, Joshua is bullied by a couple of demeaningly stereotypical Chicano hoodlums (Mario Aniov and Pepe Serna), the latter of whom is unnaturally protective of his busty yet religiously pious and naive sister (Victoria Racimo), who goes on to meet an awful fate at the hands of psychopathic Aniov, who flees to the hills and is eventually confronted by the town sheriff (Gregory Sierra)… Well, you get the point.

Thomas — who went on to much greater fame the following year as John-Boy in “The Waltons” — tries hard to create a sympathetic protagonist, but his mannerisms (particularly his tendency to break into nervous laughter while talking) soon become irritating. Claire Bloom as Joshua’s mentally unstable mother evinces a fine southern accent, but her character — all pampered melancholy and low affect — never comes to life. Even more enigmatic is John Colicos as Bloom’s dilettante cousin Jim-Bob, a “professional house guest” who is clearly an irritant to everyone except Bloom, but whose background within the family is never explained; when Joshua finally tells him off during a pivotal scene, it’s an empty victory.

The best performances in the film are given by Joshua’s two closest friends, Steenie (Arnaz Jr.) and Marcia (Catherine Burns). Arnaz Jr. is wonderfully vibrant and amusing here; both his famed parents’ influences are clearly felt. Meanwhile, Burns (who co-starred with Thomas in 1969′s Last Summer) shows an impressive range — as in Last Summer, she’s precocious beyond her years, but here she’s refreshingly self-confident, a fine match for any self-possessed young man. Unfortunately, however, neither of these performances are enough to recommend the film as a whole.

P.S. Note that nearly any review you stumble upon of this film (or the novel it’s based upon) will give away a major plot development which doesn’t occur until the final fourth of the film; be forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Catherine Burns as Marcia
    Red Sky Burns
  • Desi Arnaz Jr. as Steenie
    Red Sky Arnaz

Must See?
No. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Somewhere in Time (1980)

“Come back to me…”

Somewhere in Time Poster

Synopsis:
Upon seeing a portrait of a beautiful actress (Jane Seymour) from the turn of the century, a playwright (Christopher Reeve) wills himself back in time to romance her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is typically blunt in his assessment of this “schmaltzy fantasy-romance”, based on a prize-winning sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson (who scripted numerous cinematic sci-fi classics, including The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Devil Rides Out). He notes that “Reeve and Seymour are an undeniably appealing couple, ideal for a great romance, but the filmmakers should have scuttled the dreary plot…, sent all the other actors home, and just had the two stars make love in every room of the glorious hotel.” (!!!).

The film is problematic on numerous levels. Every scene is calculated to yank shamelessly at our heartstrings; as noted in Time Out’s review, the sappy story is “the kind of thing David O Selznick was producing in the 1940s”, and Roger Ebert accurately points out that it fairly “drips with solemnity”. Although it may be a reasonably common occurrence to find oneself falling desperately in love with a portrait from the past (viz. Preminger’s Laura, for example), the problem here is that we’re essentially asked to believe in and care about a romance based purely on “instinct”. Even once Reeve and Seymour meet in person as young lovers, we’re not given any earthly reason to understand why they’ve fallen for one another (though many, I suppose, would argue that this is exactly the point).

Meanwhile, Reeve (in a role he handpicked after his extraordinary success in 1978′s Superman) simply doesn’t have the chops necessary to make us believe in his character; it’s painful to watch him so clearly acting at every moment. Seymour is luminous and lovely to look at, but can’t really do much to resurrect her underdeveloped role. Christopher Plummer (as Seymour’s controlling manager) is reduced to a few scenes of red-faced rage, while Teresa Wright (in a tiny role as the elderly Elise’s caretaker) is essentially wasted.

Amazingly enough, however, the film has an enormous — or at least a powerful, visible, and long-lasting — following. It became a cult classic after airing on cable television in the 1980s, and in 1990 a fan club called the International Network of Somewhere in Time Enthusiasts, or INSITE, was founded; members meet every year on Mackinac Island in Michigan (where the movie was filmed) to screen it. On the fan club’s impressively obsessive website, one can purchase any number of “SIT” memorabilia items, take a quiz, sign up to receive a quarterly newsletter, and learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about Seymour and Reeve. INSITE was apparently responsible for ensuring that these two actors both received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and lobbied for a special edition 20th anniversary DVD release of the film. This movie clearly means something more to a bunch of folks than I can even begin to imagine…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography, sets, and costumes
    Somewhere in Time Scenery

Must See?
Yes — but only for its cult status.

Categories

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Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)

“I’m just a little rag doll with a candy heart…”

Raggedy Ann Poster

Synopsis:
When Raggedy Ann (Didi Conn) and her brother Andy (Mark Baker) set forth from their playroom in search of a French doll (Niki Flacks) kidnapped by a pirate (George S. Irving), they encounter a series of malcontented creatures — including a homesick camel (Fred Stuthman), an eternally hungry blob named The Greedy (Joe Silver), and a stature-sensitive king (Alan Sues) in search of “the last laugh”.

Genres:

Review:
A critical and box-office failure upon its release, this animated musical — a clear thematic precursor to Pixar’s phenomenally successful Toy Story franchise — is undone by a roster of forgettable tunes and insipid lyrics (“All of us live in the nursery/All of us different as we can be”), sung by actors who struggle to carry a tune (though to her credit, Didi Conn had laryngitis during taping, and was apparently unhappy with the way her songs turned out). The animation — while inspired at times, particularly when The Greedy is on-screen (I was reminded of Miyazaki’s amorphous beheaded god in Princess Mononoke) — is mostly uneven, and often reminiscent of the quality of weekend television shows. Neither the cloyingly sweet Ann nor her brother Andy ever emerges as a fully developed character, and it’s hard to feel much motivation for Babette’s rescue, given that she’s clearly a spoiled diva and not really worthy of our sympathies.

With that said, adult viewers may be amused by the rather substantial undercurrent of “mature” themes hidden in the story and its characters — including the Pirate’s face-reddening and mustache erection whenever he thinks about Babette; Ann and Andy’s overly “friendly” sister-brother relationship (“Candy hearts and paper flowers/Will always keep me close to you”); Andy’s insistence that he’s “no girl’s toy”; and the Camel’s hilariously drug-like hallucinations. Indeed, many on IMDb’s message board for the movie have commented that it gave them nightmares as kids.

Note that you’re likely to either be completely annoyed or morbidly fascinated by the obnoxious “Penny” twins (Margery Gray and Lynne Stuart), who pop up as a freaky Greek Chorus every five minutes or so during the first portion of the film, but mercifully disappear once Ann and Andy are off on their adventure.

P.S. Though it’s not yet out on DVD, Raggedy Ann and Andy can be watched in installments on Google Video.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cool animation of the Greedy
    Raggedy Ann Greedy
  • Some bizarrely campy sequences – including the Camel’s hallucinations
    Raggedy Ann Camel

Must See?
No; despite its cult status, this one isn’t must-see viewing (though it’s worth a look).

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