Little Theatre of Jean Renoir, The (1970)

“Nothing is more exciting than other people’s troubles… They make life bearable.”

Little Theatre Jean Renoir

Synopsis:
Jean Renoir tells a trio of semi-comedic stories: an elderly homeless couple (Nino Formicola and Milly) find comfort in each other and their memories on a cold Christmas night; a housewife (Marguerite Cassan) obsessed with waxing her floors accidentally causes the death of her husband (Pierre Olaf); and an older man (Fernand Sardou) must decide what to do when his beloved young wife (Francoise Arnoul) cheats on him with the village doctor (Jean Carnet).

Genres:

Review:
Jean Renoir’s final, made-for-TV film is a gentle ensemble of short stories, ranging in tone from melancholy to satirical, yet all sharing an underlying concern with exploring the ties that bind couples together. The first heartbreaking vignette, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, is essentially an adult variation of “The Little Match Girl”: on Christmas Eve, an insensitive diner pays a homeless man (Nino Formicola) to stand outside the window of a restaurant and stare in longingly; as he explains to his friends, this spectacle should make them appreciate their food all the more. Formicola’s willingness to participate in this disturbing charade ultimately yields him a fancy dinner for two, which he shares with his beloved partner (Milly) while reminiscing about the past. While Renoir comes dangerously close to romanticizing poverty in this opening vignette, he nonetheless trenchantly demonstrates man’s ability to cope under the worst of circumstances, simply through the power of love and imagination.

The second story — dubbed by Renoir an “opera” of sorts — involves a chorus of singing onlookers commenting on the marital woes of Emilie (Marguerite Cassan) and Gustave (Pierre Olaf). Shrewish Emilie (who surely has OCD) insists that an immaculate floor is what every housewife yearns for, and threatens to go live with her mother unless her henpecked husband gives in to her request for a personal floor waxer; when he does, circumstances eventually become more and more untenable, until Emilie finally makes the ultimate sacrifice for her beloved new tool. It’s an openly satirical, strangely satisfying little morsel about the dangers inherent in loving machines more than humans. At this point, Renoir proudly announces that Jeanne Moreau will sing a song — which she does, shakily and to minimal effect; it’s best ignored altogether, and fortunately lasts just a few minutes.

The final vignette may be the most heartfelt and personal of the bunch. In it, Renoir tells the story of an elderly villager (Fernand Sardou) who is deeply in love with his beautiful younger wife (Francoise Arnoul), and she with him — but she’s feeling oddly restless and dissatisfied. When she realizes than an affair is exactly what she needs to satisfy her “itch”, she turns to a visiting doctor (Jean Carnet) who is equally smitten with both her and the gentle Sardou. Much like in Bertrand Blier’s Oscar-winning Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978), this vignette lovingly demonstrates that a willingness to flout societal norms can lead to unexpected happiness in love and romance. It’s a fitting capstone to Renoir’s long and illustrious career as a filmmaker.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Three enjoyable vignettes about life, love, and tolerance
    Little Theatre Hobos
    Little Theatre Waxing
    Little Theatre Betrayal

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look as Renoir’s swan song — and is certainly must-see for Renoir fans.

Links:

Hill, The (1965)

“Roberts, the court martial broke you, but I’m going to finish the job. I’m gonna bust you wide open.”

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

Hill Poster

Synopsis:
During World War II, a sadistic military prison warden (Harry Andrews) in North Africa makes life miserable for a group of detainees — particularly “busted” Sergeant-Major Roberts (Sean Connery).

Genres:

  • Michael Redgrave Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Prisoners of War
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Sidney Lumet Films
  • World War Two

Review:
Based on a T.V. play by Ray Rigby, Sidney Lumet’s film about a ruthless military warden making life miserable for his minions in the heat and dust of North Africa is brutal, uncompromising fare, and often difficult to stomach — but ultimately so powerful in both its message and its delivery that it’s worth viewing. Sean Connery — hoping to shift away from his suave James Bond persona — took a break between Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) to play Joe Roberts, a sergeant-major censured for hitting his superior and refusing to send his men into a suicidal battle mission. Because he and his cellmates (Ossie Davis, Alfred Lynch, Roy Kinnear, and Jack Watson) are presumed to be cowards hoping to get out of active military service, Andrews and his equally sadistic chief officer (Ian Hendry) do whatever they can to break the men’s spirits and bodies — including sending them pointlessly up and down the film’s titular manmade dirt “hill”. The increasingly grim situation finally comes to a head when one of the new inmates dies from heat stroke, and Hendry is accused by the prisoners of murder.

The subject matter is harsh, but the performances are superb — particularly Connery and Andrews, as well as Ossie Davis in a supporting role as a soldier from the West Indies who must put up with merciless racism on top of other indignities. Meanwhile, Oswald Morris’s crisp black-and-white cinematography is the perfect choice for such a bleak historical setting, and Rigby’s scathing dialogue is smartly conceived. (Note, however, that even native English speakers will want to have the subtitles on, since it’s often difficult to make out what the actors are saying.) Ultimately, while The Hill isn’t a film for the light of heart, those interested in exploring military power dynamics taken to a fatal extreme will surely be interested to check it out. It’s a surprising omission from Peary’s book — especially given that he awards Connery an Alternate Oscar as best actor of the year in his Alternate Oscars book.

P.S. Watch for Michael Redgrave in a small but effective supporting role as a sympathetic military doctor.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Connery as Roberts
    Hill Connery
  • Harry Andrews as RSM Wilson
  • Ossie Davis as Jocko
  • Oswald Morris’s b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Connery’s noteworthy performance.

Categories

Links:

Latino (1985)

“When the compas come, they get rid of you and your Somozan soldiers — paid in U.S. dollars.”

Latino Poster

Synopsis:
A Green Beret soldier (Robert Beltran) is sent to the Nicaraguan border to help fight against the Sandinistas — but he soon discovers that not all Nicaraguans are happy about America’s involvement with the Contra rebels.

Genres:

Review:
The primary problem with writer-director Haskell Wexler’s Latino is that the entire story is predictably telescoped ahead of time: we know from the beginning that our hunky Latino protagonist will enter the Nicaraguan conflict with the best of patriotic intentions, have his eyes opened to the horrors of American interventionist tactics, and (naturally) experience conflicted romance with the tall, sexy drink of water (Annette Cardona) he conveniently meets right away. It’s equally clear that the Sandinistas in the film — or at least their humble peasant contingency — will be presented as exclusively righteous and noble, while the Contras will be merely violence-prone jerks. Although there’s likely an enormous grain of truth to this latter sentiment, Wexler piles on his heavy-handed vignettes far too liberally — as when we watch innocent teenagers being kidnapped, tortured, bullied (“One sound, Sandinista bastard, and you’re dead”), and lied to in an attempt to convert them (unsuccessfully, of course) to the Contra-cause; meanwhile, none of the native Contras are humanized or given a chance to speak their voice, and Beltran’s American compatriots are simply piggish boors. With all that said, Wexler’s well-meaning attempt to infuse his film with a palpable air of realism is admirable: it’s refreshing to see natives cast as extras on location, and to hear an appropriate mix of Spanish and English being spoken by the characters. In addition, Beltran is sympathetic in the lead role as an “ugly American” who comes to realize the error of his country’s ways (why didn’t his career go further?), and Cardona is a fine romantic match for him. It’s too bad, then, that the strength of Wexler’s convictions prevented him from creating a more nuanced and compelling film about such an important topic in recent American history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Beltran as Eddie
    Latino Beltran
  • An authentic look at the suffering and anger experienced by locals during a revolution
    Latino Mourning
    Latino Suffering
    Latino Anger

Must See?
No; skip this one.

Links:

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)

“Lady Windermere faced the grave problem of seating her dinner guests…”

Lady Windermere Poster

Synopsis:
A socially outcast woman (Irene Rich) blackmails Lady Windermere’s husband (Bert Lytell) in exchange for not revealing to Lady Windermere (May McAvoy) that she is actually her mother; meanwhile, rakish Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman) has designs on Lady Windermere; Lady Windermere suspects her husband of having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne (Rich); and Mrs. Erlynne hopes to be able to re-enter society by marrying eligible bachelor Lord Augustus (Edward Martindel).

Genres:

Review:
It was brave of Ernst Lubitsch to attempt to translate Oscar Wilde’s first play into a silent film, given that — by virtue of the format — he was unable to incorporate much of Wilde’s lauded verbal repartee. The resulting movie shows evidence of Lubitsch’s visual creativity, but is ultimately not entirely successful, primarily because there’s little evidence of Wilde’s trademark wit: while …Fan is nominally a romantic comedy, it comes across here as more of a melodramatic soaper (a la Olive Higgins Prouty’s Stella Dallas). Guest-star Ronald Colman (on loan from Samuel Goldwyn) is given little to do as Lord Darlington, whose infatuation with Lady Windermere functions merely as a plot contrivance; the other actors are serviceable in their respective roles, but not particularly noteworthy. What lingers longest in one’s memory of the film are Lubitsch’s directorial “touches” — as when he strategically uses his camera to show the characters’ isolation from one another, or to enhance several of the story’s classic misunderstandings.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative direction by Lubitsch
    Lubitsch Exit
    Lubitsch Garden
    Lubitsch Race
  • Sophie Wachner’s glamorous gowns
    Lubitsch Gowns

Must See?
No, though Lubitsch fans will certainly be curious to check it out. Listed as a film with historical importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Slumber Party 57 (1976)

Slumber Party 57 Poster

Synopsis:
Six teenage friends (Janet Wood, Noelle North, Debra Winger, Bridget Holloman, Rainbeaux Smith, and Mary Appleseth) on a sleepover tell boastful stories about losing their virginity.

Genres:

Review:
Poor Debra Winger: she’ll never be able to live down her body-baring debut in this vacuous teen sexploitation flick, designed to tap into 1950s nostalgia while offering a standard smorgasbord of soft-core sensual fantasies (with plenty of gratuitous t&a — though perhaps not nearly enough to satisfy “modern males”). The movie has no redeeming qualities: the script is utterly unoriginal, the editing is shoddy at best, the performances (even by Winger) are sub-par, and cult star Rainbeaux Smith barely registers. Watch for the unintentionally (?) homoerotic final shot.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
The breasts are natural? (I’m really reaching here.)

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

Links:

Silent World, The (1956)

“No instrument can replace man. Divers are indispensable in a modern study of the sea.”

Silent World Poster

Synopsis:
Jacques Cousteau and his crew explore the ocean on their diving ship, the Calypso.

Genres:

Review:
Fans of underwater diving and sea life will be both shocked and disturbed to visit this Oscar-winning documentary by famed diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau (who based the film on his bestselling 1953 book The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure). Although he’s known as a pioneering marine conservationist (in 1973, he co-founded the Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life) this film demonstrates a horrifying level of disrespect towards marine animal life, with various sequences showing Cousteau and/or his crew “riding” on the backs of sea turtles trying to swim to the surface for air; attempting half-heartedly to harpoon a whale; viciously attacking a school of sharks simply because they “dare” to circle around a dead whale and eat its flesh; dynamiting a coral reef; and gleefully showing off a frightened puffer fish as it releases water.

With that said, those who are able to stomach these scenes of blatant violence should at least appreciate Cousteau’s groundbreaking work in the field of underwater cinematography. Assisted by a young Louis Malle, Cousteau captured haunting footage of life under water — the type of imagery we take for granted now, but which was remarkably innovative at the time. A sequence in which a crew member slowly swims through a sunken wreck is particularly haunting. In 1964, Cousteau directed and produced another Oscar-winning documentary, Le Monde Sans Soleil (“A World Without Sun”), which documented a team of divers living in an underwater research vessel; while it still shows evidence of laughable human hubris, it’s at least free from scenes of blatant disrespect towards sea life.

Note: It’s revealing that, upon its release in theaters, The New York Times praised The Silent World unreservedly, without mentioning any of the above “issues” — which says something profound about the era in which it was made.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some truly beautiful early footage of underwater life
    Silent World Underwater
    Silent World Underwater2
  • The crew exploring an old wreck
    Silent World Wreck

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical relevance — but be forewarned that you WILL be disturbed by much of what you see. It’s inexplicably labeled a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book (what was he thinking?).

Categories

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Terminal Man, The (1974)

“You want to fix me?”

Terminal Man Poster

Synopsis:
A man (George Segal) suffering from seizures which make him violent has a “helpful” microcomputer implanted his brain, with unexpectedly disastrous results.

Genres:

Review:
This disappointing sci-fi “thriller” by director Mike Hodges (based on a novel by Michael Crichton) is, unfortunately, anything but thrilling. With its deathly slow pacing and overly clinical approach to the potentially volatile subject matter, we never become involved in the plight of any of the characters — least of all the central protagonist (though Segal, to his credit, tries his best in a sorely underdeveloped role). The first half of the film is devoted to introducing Segal’s dilemma, then showing — in painstaking detail — the “cutting-edge” surgery he willingly undergoes in hopes of regaining some semblance of a normal life. Once things go haywire and Segal begins to experience more violence-inducing seizures than ever, we follow him as he escapes and wreaks lethal havoc — against his own will — on several hapless victims. Visually, the film is quite stunning: the white-on-white sets are eerily futuristic, and there are several neatly filmed shots (such as a waterbed-turned-bloodbath). Overall, however, this tepid flick will be a disappointment for most viewers.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effectively clinical set designs
    Terminal Man Futuristic Sets
  • A powerfully dark premise
    Terminal Man Premise

Must See?
No, unless you’re a Michael Crichton completist.

Links:

Remember My Name (1978)

“I didn’t cry when you disappeared…”

Remember My Name Poster

Synopsis:
An ex-con (Geraldine Chaplin) stalks a construction worker (Anthony Perkins) and his wife (Berry Berenson).

Genres:

Review:
Like his debut, Welcome to L.A. (1977), Alan Rudolph’s second feature received mostly negative reviews upon its release, but remains an interesting failure. It’s essentially a slow-motion “fatal attraction” thriller, with Chaplin’s ex-con making her presence only gradually known to Perkins and Berenson: she tears up flowers in their garden, lurks behind corners, and skulkily follows them around in her beat-up car; we’re kept in suspense about why she’s so intent on making life miserable for this particular couple. Meanwhile, we witness her sparking an uneasy romance with a black handyman (Moses Gunn) in her apartment, and getting a job as a cashier in a grocery store, where she must contend with the suspicious nature of both her boss (Jeff Goldblum) and her co-worker (Alfre Woodard). The overall effect — thanks largely to Chaplin’s focused, sympathetic performance — is mostly absorbing, despite an occasional tendency towards pretension (as when broadcasts about an Eastern European earthquake are shown endlessly on television, for no apparent reason). And it’s nice to see wiry Perkins — performing with his real-life wife, Berry Berenson — cast somewhat against type as the object of Chaplin’s vengeance; given his inevitable association with “Norman Bates”, we’re never quite sure exactly how violent or psychotic he may turn out to be. Unfortunately, despite all these positive elements, the film’s ending doesn’t make much sense, and peters out just when we expect to see things resolved; this is a rare film that should have gone on longer than its 94 minutes, simply to wrap up the loose threads that suddenly emerge. With that said, it’s still worth a look, primarily for Chaplin’s stand-out performance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Geraldine Chaplin as Emily
    Remember My Name Chaplin
  • Anthony Perkins as Neil
    Remember My Name Anthony Perkins
  • Fine supporting performances
    Remember My Name Moses
  • Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography
    Remember My Name Cinematography
  • Alberta Hunter’s blues score

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for both Chaplin and Perkins.

Links:

Mermaids of Tiburon, The (1962)

“Won’t you believe in me? If you do, there will always be mermaids.”

Mermaids Tiburon Poster

Synopsis:
A marine biologist (George Rowe) in search of rare “flame pearls” travels to Tiburon Island, where he discovers mermaids; meanwhile, a ruthless gangster (Timothy Carey) and his Mexican shipmate (Jose Gonzales-Gonzales) pursue the pearls themselves.

Genres:

Review:
The Mermaids of Tiburon — written and directed by underwater photographer John Lamb — is perhaps the only mermaid film (itself a limited sub-genre) to take place primarily off-land. Lamb does an admirable job evoking a naturalistic water environment for the gorgeous mermaids encountered by Rowe; it’s easy to believe that such a magical underwater haven — complete with luminous “flame pearls” nestled in gigantic clam shells — might actually exist. Unfortunately, the flimsy storyline about a competitive search for rare pearls (complete with a mano-a-mano fight between Rowe and Carey at the end) is cliched, badly acted, and best ignored altogether; it simply functions as a necessary framework for Lamb’s extensive mermaid footage. Meanwhile, the Cousteau-esque voiceover narration while Rowe is underwater is unintentionally humorous, and good for a few laughs — as when Rowe solemnly states, “The question occurred to me: just exactly how feminine was this mermaid?”, or notes to himself, “I was being drawn to this creature by something more than just a scientific interest.” (No kidding!)

Unfortunately, when Mermaids of Tiburon failed to generate much interest at the box office, Lamb decided to shoot additional footage of topless mermaids, re-releasing the film as The Aqua Sex; this later version — the one now widely available on DVD — is little more than shameless soft-core porn, with buxomy starlets swimming nearly naked (in seaweed “bikinis”), and green flippers substituted for mermaid tails Lamb apparently wanted viewers to have visual access to the women’s curvy behinds, but this decision ultimately makes them look more like swimming strippers than mermaids. If you do decide to seek out this camp classic, make sure to watch the original version, with playmate Diane Webber as Queen of the Mermaids — she’s infinitely more alluring in her bra-shells and mermaid tail than the topless woman replacing her in Lamb’s updated “audience pleasing” version.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some beautiful imagery, both above and below water
    Mermaids Cave
    Mermaids Jellyfish
    Mermaids Shark
  • Richard LaSalle’s haunting score

Must See?
No, though you may be curious to check it out once. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Black Windmill, The (1974)

“I’ve got to know what’s going to happen to David!”

Black Windmill Poster

Synopsis:
A British agent (Michael Caine) is suspected by his boss (Donald Pleasence) of kidnapping his own son (Paul Moss), and must take matters into his own hands.

Genres:

Review:
Based on Clive Egleton’s novel Seven Days to a Killing, this British spy-cum-vigilante flick is a curiously dull disappointment. With director Don Siegel at the helm and Michael Caine in the leading role, one would expect both excitement and nuance — but the overly linear storyline fails to generate much tension, and Caine is a bit too icy cool as an agent who’s almost immediately suspected of playing a part in his own son’s kidnapping; while we understand that Caine’s reserved attitude is scripted to arouse suspicion, he takes this guise too far, and loses our sympathy. Donald Pleasence fares better as Caine’s twitchy superior, who somehow seems to have it in for Caine (if only we better understood why). Meanwhile, John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig (as “Ceil Burrows” — great name) remain sadly underdeveloped villains. The dramatic climax, taking place in the title’s picturesque locale, unfortunately comes too late to redeem the rest of the lackluster script.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald Pleasence as Cedric Harper
    Black Windmill Pleasance

Must See?
No, though Siegel completists will certainly want to take a look.

Links: