Two of Us, The (1967)

“Who could I talk to without you? Who could I confide in?”

Two of Us Poster

Synopsis:
During World War II, a young Jewish boy (Alain Cohen) is sent by his concerned parents (Charles Denner and Zorica Lozic) to live undercover as a Catholic in the countryside with a kind but anti-semitic old man (Michel Simon) and his wife (Luce Fabiole).

Genres:

Review:
Claude Berri’s feature debut — based on his own experiences as a boy in the French countryside during World War II — offers an unabashedly sentimental perspective on the danger of Jews in hiding. Rather than hinging his narrative on if or when naughty Claude (Cohen) will slip up and give away his religious identity, Berri focuses instead on the “May-December” friendship which develops between Simon and Cohen; indeed, the original title of the film (inexplicably changed for American audiences) is “Le Vieil Homme et l’Enfant”, or The Old Man and the Boy. Eventually, however, The Two of Us turns into a gentle fable about the absurdity of prejudice as well.

Simon, with his craggy, life-worn face, is surprisingly appealing as the bigoted “Grampa”, whose ill-founded preconceptions about “others” (Jews, Blacks, gypsies) belies his soft-hearted nature; much is made, for instance, of the fact that he’s a vegetarian who strongly opposes his wife killing rabbits for dinner, and tries to convince Claude from abstaining as well. Most of the film’s rather unexpected humor comes as we listen to Simon explaining how Jews can be spotted (or smelled!), and why they’re so “undesirable” — and then hear Claude innocently questioning his inane assertions, pointing out, for instance, the enormity of Simon’s own nose. Meanwhile, Claude — once so coddled that his mother literally spoon-fed him his dinner — gradually becomes more independent, literally blossoming in the fresh country air. If only all young European Jews during the war were as lucky as Berri…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michel Simon as “Grampa”
    Two of Us Simon
  • Alain Cohen as Claude
    Two of Us Cohen
  • A touching story of cross-generational friendship
    Two of Us Friendship
  • Beautiful b&w cinematography (by Jean Penzer)
    Two of Us Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of foreign cinema, and for Simon’s late-life performance.

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Raggedy Man (1981)

“I can’t quit this job; I’m frozen here.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, the divorced mother (Sissy Spacek) of two young boys (Henry Thomas and Carey Hollis, Jr.) takes up with a sailor (Eric Roberts), which arouses the envy of two local hoodlums (William Sanderson and Tracey Walter).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is an enormous fan of Sissy Spacek’s performance as Nita Longley in this character-driven romantic fable; he refers to Nita as “her most mature, capable, and, I think, appealing character”, and gives Spacek an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the year. He notes that Spacek is finally allowed to “create a character through nuance rather than speech” and that she “reveals exciting parts of her that she’d always kept hidden”. Spacek’s performance here is indeed lovely — as is that of Eric Roberts in one of his better supporting roles (Peary notes that he gives a “splendid performance”, and correctly asserts in his Alternate Oscars book that he deserved a Supporting Actor nomination). Their brief romance together is truly touching, and “tastefully handled”. Peary also rightly points out that “you’ll feel transported back through time” by the authenticity of the “small Texas town” (thanks to the “impeccable” sets and photography), and that you’ll doubtless enjoy the “smart dialogue” and the wonderful “interaction of characters, including adults and children”.

Unfortunately, however, Raggedy Man — which starts out as the “most lyrical and romantic of films”” — is irredeemably marred by its “horror-movie ending”, a deeply “regrettable sequence” which, despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing, seems to come out of nowhere, and seriously disrupts the timbre of prior events. While we can’t help but guess that Sanderson and Walter (giving appropriately creepy performances) will exact revenge for Spacek’s gentle rejection of their advances, the way in which this plays out seems more fitting for Spacek’s breakthrough movie Carrie; and the allegorical importance of the film’s title character (Sam Shepard in facial makeup) comes too late to feel authentic. Film fanatics are sure to feel torn in their feelings about Raggedy Man, which would likely be must-see if it weren’t for the film’s unfortunate denouement.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sissy Spacek as Nita
    Raggedy Man Spacek Roberts
  • Eric Roberts as Teddy
  • Fine attention to period detail

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for the strong central performances and authentic recreation of 1940s Texas.

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Annie (1982)

“Why any kid would want to be an orphan is beyond me…”

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

Annie Poster

Synopsis:
During the Great Depression, a plucky orphan named Annie (Aileen Quinn) is rescued from the clutches of her evil caretaker (Carol Burnett) by the secretary (Ann Reinking) of a crusty billionaire (Albert Finney), who agrees to help her find her long-lost parents — but Annie’s life is put in danger when a pair of con-artists (Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters) collude with Miss Hannigan (Burnett) to nab the $50,000 award offered by Daddy Warbucks (Finney).

Genres:

  • Albert Finney Films
  • Carol Burnett Films
  • Con-Artists
  • Depression Era
  • John Huston Films
  • Millionaires
  • Musicals
  • Orphans

Review:
John Huston’s mega-million-dollar film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical Annie received decidedly mixed reviews upon its release, with Vincent Canby of the NY Times calling it “a nearly perfect Music Hall picture — big, colorful, slightly vulgar, occasionally boring and full of talent not always used to its limits”, and Roger Ebert noting that “in the abstract, [it's] fun… but in the particular, it has all sorts of problems”. Even those who adored Annie as children (and can break into any one of its catchy tunes without missing a beat) generally concede that it’s a flawed picture; it’s currently rated at only 36 points on Metacritic, and director John Huston — this was his one and only foray into musicals — was nominated for a Razzie! Perhaps not surprisingly, Annie is missing from Peary’s book — but I’m reviewing it here simply because it’s achieved such a cult status over the years.

Unknown (then and now) Aileen Quinn was selected among thousands of applicants for the lead role, and does a memorable job; her voice is strong and clear, and while she’s no great actress, she projects just the right amount of spunk and vitality. (Note, however, that she won a Razzie as worst supporting actress of the year.) Film fanatics will likely enjoy seeing both bald-pated Albert Finney as the crusty yet malleable Daddy Warbucks, and Carol Burnett’s hilariously over-the-top performance as Miss Hannigan (my favorite moment: Hannigan drunkenly takes a sip of water from a vase full of flowers). And the story itself remains undeniably seductive: what kid — orphan or not — wouldn’t want to be adopted by the wealthiest person in the world?

P.S. Among those considered for the key roles in Annie were Bette Midler as Miss Hannigan, Jack Nicholson as Daddy Warbucks, and Drew Barrymore as Annie herself. Interestingly, any one of these possibilities seems like a plausible choice.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks
    Annie Finney
  • Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan
    Annie Burnett
  • A catchy roster of tunes

Must See?
Yes, simply as a cult favorite.

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Haunted Palace, The (1963)

“I’ll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard!”

Haunted Palace Poster

Synopsis:
In the late 1700s, warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price) is burned at the stake by the villagers of Arkham, and vows revenge. More than 100 years later, his great-grandson (also Price) arrives in Arkham with his new wife (Debra Paget), and becomes possessed by a painting of Curwen. With the help of his loyal servant (Lon Chaney), Curwen attempts to raise his mistress (Cathie Merchant) from the dead, and to kill off his murderers’ descendants.

Genres:

Review:
Made as part of AIP’s cycle of “Poe” pictures (but actually based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft ), this Corman-directed flick is a compelling treat for fans of gothic horror. With its opulent sets, fog-drenched cinematography, and brass-heavy score, The Haunted Palace has atmosphere to spare; and Corman-favorite Vincent Price is at his hammy best in dual roles as both Ward and Curwen, effortlessly shifting from hapless husband to malevolent warlock with a simple arch of his eyebrows. Because Curwen is treated so viciously by his neighbors in the opening sequence of the film — his dying screams as he’s burned at the stake are bloodcurdling — we can actually sympathize with his desire for revenge; the snively residents of Arkham (many of whom are mutants) almost seem to deserve their fate. Paget is fine as Ward’s unfairly put-upon wife, and Chaney (in ghoulish-green facial makeup) is appropriately creepy as Curwen’s eternally loyal servant — but this is Price’s show all the way.

P.S. Watch for the final compelling shot of the movie, which takes one by surprise.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price as Curwen and Ward
    Haunted Palace Price
  • Daniel Haller’s baroque production design
    haunted-palace-production
  • Atmospheric cinematography (by Floyd Crosby) and direction (by Corman)
    Haunted Palace Fog
  • Ronald Stein’s instantly hummable score

Must See?
Yes, for Price’s performance, and as a most enjoyable “Poe” adaptation by Corman.

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Treasure Island (1950)

“Them that die’ll be the lucky ones!”

Synopsis:
In 18th century England, a young boy (Bobby Driscoll) is given a treasure map and sets sail on a ship with a mutinous crew, led by the one-legged pirate Long John Silver (Robert Newton).

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Review:
Disney’s first live-action film remains the most famous version among many (including the Peary-recommended 1934 version, starring Wallace Beery) made from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 adventure novel Treasure Island. Unfortunately, it takes too long for the action to get started, with half-an-hour passing before the ship even sets sail; but once it does, director Byron Haskin keeps things moving at an energetic clip, with plenty of exciting action sequences and life-threatening encounters. Disney veteran Bobby Driscoll (star of 1946′s Song of the South) is appropriately mature as young Jim Lively (who gets to experience a coming-of-age adventure most boys only dream of!), and he’s surrounded by a cast of colorful supporting actors — most notably Robert Newton as Long John Silver, who, as described in Channel 4′s capsule review, “brings exactly the right combination of cruelty, foppishness and brio to his performance”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Newton as Long John Silver (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
    Treasure Island Silver

Must See?
Yes, simply to see Newton in perhaps his most iconic role.

Categories

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What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971)

“Helen, you do act like a killjoy sometimes.”

WTMWH Poster

Synopsis:
When the mothers (Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters) of two convicted murderers receive threatening phone calls, they flee to Hollywood, where they establish a song-and-dance studio for aspiring kid stars. Reynolds finds happiness by dating a wealthy admirer (Dennis Weaver), but Winters’ increasingly unstable mental state puts both their lives at risk.

Genres:

Review:
What’s the Matter With Helen? was written by Henry Farrell, best known for penning the Grand Guignol classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and its successor, 1964′s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (based on his short story “Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?”). Farrell was clearly interested in milking the theme of “things happening” to middle-aged women with troublesome pasts — yet unlike in either Jane or Charlotte, it’s obvious from the beginning of Helen which of the two female leads will eventually show evidence of having a few too many screws loose.

While …Helen? offers some enjoyment in its recreation of 1930s Hollywood — complete with eerie Shirley Temple- and Mae West-wannabes dancing their hearts out for hypothetical talent scouts in the audience — it ultimately fails to generate the same type of twisted energy as its cinematic predecessors, due primarily to the rather tame central relationship between Winters and Reynolds. Ironically, 40-year-old Debbie Reynolds’ uber-trim, youthful appearance (she looks not a day over 30) works to her detriment here, given that she never comes across as either middle-aged or pathetic — and her friendship with Winters, based purely on the circumstance of their sons’ hideous crime, lacks the emotional gravity of the contentious familial relationships grounding both Jane and Charlotte.

As a result, Winters’ gradual descent into madness exists in a weird parallel universe to the somewhat mundane path taken by Reynolds (who seems to want to be in a romantic musical — note her two impressive dance scenes). There’s some tension to be had in the underlying question of who’s been making threatening calls to the two ladies, and whether or not Reynolds’ convenient new love interest (nicely played by Dennis Weaver) will care about her grown son’s infamous record — but a potential subplot about Winters’ obsession with a charismatic female evangelist (Agnes Moorehead in a criminally small cameo) sadly fails to go anywhere, and the climactic ending, while shocking, feels like a bit of an emotional cheat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective 1930s set designs and (Oscar-nominated) costumes
    WTMWH Set Design
  • The surreal “kiddy revue”
    WTMWH Revue
  • Dennis Weaver as “Linc”
    WTMWH Weaver

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look once.

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Goin’ South (1978)

“I ain’t no slab of meat to be auctioned off — but what the hell!”

Goin South Poster

Synopsis:
A horse thief (Jack Nicholson) is saved from hanging by a woman (Mary Steenburgen) who agrees to marry him in exchange for his help as a laborer. Soon the two are falling in love — but when Nicholson’s old gang members learn that he’s found gold, trouble ensues.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s a fan of this “amiable comedy-western” — directed by and starring Jack Nicholson — which he notes is a “nice change of pace for western fans”. The story starts off with a humorous bang, as Nicholson’s “slovenly outlaw” — nearly across the border into Mexico — is dragged back into town for a hanging, and is saved literally in the nick of time by Steenburgen, who wants his help with mining for gold before the Big Bad Railroad wields eminent domain and takes over her land. The bulk of the story centers on the developing romance between “the animated, bearded Nicholson” (who basically plays a variation on his “crazed iconoclast” archetype) and “stiff, reticent Steenburgen” (who’s both charming and coy in her screen debut) — but we aren’t given enough information about Steenburgen’s background (why is she so eager to move to Philadelphia with her newfound wealth?), and there are some disturbing hints of rape-like encounters between the two individuals, thus marring their development into what Peary labels “a likable couple”. In addition, a cast of soon-to-be big names (including John Belushi, Danny De Vito, and Christopher Lloyd) are given far too little screentime or character development: Lloyd’s would-be rivalry for Steenburgen simply fizzles away, while Belushi and De Vito are relegated to roles as small-time accomplices. With that said, Goin’ South does possess some clever comedic dialogue (“I’ll never forget you, Hermine — you was the first woman I didn’t have to pay for”), and the film as a whole is bolstered by Nestor Almendros’ typically stellar cinematography.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The humorous opening sequence
    Goin South Opening
  • Mary Steenburgen as Julia Tate
  • Nestor Almendros’ cinematography

Must See?
No, but it will certainly be of interest to Nicholson fans, and is worth a look simply for Steenburgen’s charming debut.

Links:

Streets of Fire (1984)

“It looks like I finally found someone who likes to play as rough as I do.”

Streets of Fire Poster

Synopsis:
When rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped by the ruthless leader (Willem Dafoe) of a motorcycle gang, her ex-boyfriend (Michael Pare) and a female soldier (Amy Madigan) are hired to rescue her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is accurate but overly generous in his review of Walter Hill’s stylized rock-n-roll thriller-cum-western, which he argues is “a bit better than its reputation”. He notes that the film’s “unique look” (“part futuristic, part fiftyish, part Hollywood soundstage”), “exciting action sequences”, and “pounding rock score” (by Ry Cooder and others) compensate somewhat for its “familiar plot and intentionally skimpy dialogue” — but the film as a whole becomes increasingly tiresome after the initial excitement of its opening kidnapping sequence. Action-star Michael Pare couldn’t be more uncharismatic in the lead role, and Diane Lane — who does little more than “lip synch her songs” — is sadly miscast; one could care less about the cliched “romance” between them, complete with dramatic professions of love in a downpour. Meanwhile, creepy Dafoe — reminiscent of his later role as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire (2000) — is the most compelling character in the film, but is given far too little screentime or narrative complexity. It’s no surprise this one became a “financial and critical bomb”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Slick, colorful cinematography and art direction
    Streets Fire Cinematography
  • Willem Dafoe as Raven
    Streets Fire Defoe
  • Ry Cooder et al.’s score

Must See?
No; despite its small cult following, this one can easily be skipped.

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Panic in Year Zero (1962)

“For the next few weeks, survival is going to have to be on an individual basis.”

Panic Year Zero Poster

Synopsis:
In the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, a Los Angeles father (Ray Milland) places the survival of his wife (Jean Hagen) and children (Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) above all else.

Genres:

Review:
Ray Milland starred in and directed this earnest yet disappointing low-budget AIP flick about a family struggling to survive after a nuclear bomb hits Los Angeles. Post-apocalyptic dramas have the potential to explore a rich array of societal and psychological issues — including racism, loneliness, and despair (see Arch Oboler’s Five, for instance, or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil) — but Panic in Year Zero remains squarely in the realm of exploitation films, with a gang of marauding young hoodlums (led by Richard Bakalyan) representing the primary force of evil, and “every man for himself” serving as its rather uninspired theme. Milland isn’t great at directing his cast (not even spirited Jean Hagen or teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon emerge with much personality), and the film’s ultra-low budget inevitably hurts its veracity as well — most egregiously in the use of high-speed freeway footage to represent local two-lane roads (!). Despite its historical relevance as one of the first “atom scare” films to be released in America, Panic in Year Zero isn’t must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling premise
    Panic Mushroom Cloud

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this dated flick.

Links:

Ghoul, The (1933)

“At the first hour, I will make my offering of the eternal light to Anubis, opener of the ways…”

Ghoul Poster

Synopsis:
A dying professor of Egyptology (Boris Karloff) asks to be buried with a valuable jewel known as the Eternal Light, which he believes will grant him immortality in the afterlife. When his butler (Ernest Thesiger) steals the jewel from his tomb, Karloff returns from the dead to seek revenge.

Genres:

Review:
This early British horror flick was believed lost for many years, until a print was finally found in 1969. Unfortunately, however — despite the presence of Boris Karloff in a starring role — it’s far from a missing classic. The pacing in early scenes is deathly slow, the film’s overall tone shifts awkwardly from comedy to horror, and Karloff is gone from the screen for far too long (he doesn’t “rise from the dead” until more than 45 minutes into the story). While it’s redeemed somewhat by effectively creepy lighting and sets — as well as Karloff’s surreal makeup and performance — overall, The Ghoul is a dull disappointment. See TCM’s article for in-depth background information on the making and context of the film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Highly atmospheric lighting and set designs
    Ghoul Karloff
  • Boris Karloff as Professor Morlant

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

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