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Category: Response Reviews

My comments on Peary’s reviews in Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster, 1986).

Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee (1965)

“How can we catch the wind — or destroy an enemy we never see?”

Synopsis:
Near the end of the Civil War, a Union cavalry leader (Charlton Heston) recruits a former-friend-turned-Confederate (Richard Harris) — as well as other prisoners-of-war, scoundrels, and a small group of Black soldiers — to help him fight a battle across the Mexican border against the Apache Indians.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cavalry
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Civil War
  • Mexico
  • Misfits
  • Native Americans
  • Richard Harris Films
  • Rivalry
  • Sam Peckinpah Films
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, while this “okay Sam Peckinpah epic western” — made in between Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969) — “contains several sweeping battle scenes,” the “emphasis is more on Bligh-Christian infighting between strict military man Charlton Heston and the more humane Richard Harris”, as well as “the tormented Heston’s personal journey” and “how Dundee’s troop, comprised of diverse elements, comes to represent imperialistic, impure, but somehow noble America.”

He points out (and many agree) that the “picture is confusing and boring at times,” though “it’s hard to judge because Columbia Studios broke the contract with Peckinpah and edited [the] film itself.” (See DVD Savant’s extensive overview of the film’s production, release, and re-release history if you’d like to read more.) He notes that because “Peckinpah wasn’t allowed to film several pivotal scenes that would have added more than an hour to the already lengthy running time” (the truth is more complicated than this), he “disowned this film” — and “some will recognize The Wild Bunch as his partial remake.” Meanwhile, Peary argues that “Heston’s cold, deeply flawed character is far too complex for the actor to play,” thus making it “hard for us to figure out what is going on in his head at any given time,” but he does make note of the “excellent cast” overall.

I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s assessment of this disappointing western, which contains a reasonably interesting and coherent first hour, only to go flying off into frustratingly opaque directions for the remainder of its running time. The female characters — primarily Senta Berger as a German-born beauty who falls for Heston — are nothing more than romantic bait for the men:

… and the Apaches (perhaps predictably) are almost completely dehumanized. While this film has cult fans who consider it a guilty favorite, I can’t recommend it as must-see.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Sam Leavitt’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course it’s worth a one-time look simply for its historical significance, and Peckinpah fans will consider it must-see.

Links:

Dirty Dozen, The (1967)

Dirty Dozen, The (1967)

“Look, they may not look pretty — but any one of mine is worth ten of yours.”

Synopsis:
As punishment, an army major (Lee Marvin) during World War II is tasked by his superior (Ernest Borgnine) with the job of training and overseeing a dozen prisoners — including surly Franco (John Cassavetes), sociopathic Magott (Telly Savalas), simple-minded Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), African-American Jefferson (Jim Brown), and German-speaking Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) — to carry out a critical suicide mission at a Nazi-filled chateau in France.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Charles Bronson Films
  • Donald Sutherland Films
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • George Kennedy Films
  • John Cassavetes Films
  • Lee Marvin Films
  • Misfits
  • Prisoners
  • Ralph Meeker Films
  • Richard Jaeckel Films
  • Robert Aldrich Films
  • Robert Ryan Films
  • Soldiers
  • Telly Savalas Films
  • World War Two

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “Robert Aldrich’s much-copied war film… was a box office smash despite the moviegoers’ growing aversion to the genre in light of Vietnam,” largely “because it managed to stage exciting, brutal war sequences while simultaneously celebrating misfits, putting down authority figures and the military, and showing war to be a madman’s game that can only be fought down and dirty.”

He describes it as a three-part film in which the first third has Marvin whipping “twelve murderers and rapists” “into shape and making them into a team by developing their mutual hatred for him”:

… the second third showing “Marvin proving to the other officers (Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Webber) that his unwashed ‘dirty dozen’ are a crack outfit,” and the final third comprised of “the mission itself.”

Peary points out that “the large doses of humor present in the earlier parts of the film are replaced by strong action and bloody killings,” with our side presented as shockingly vicious…

SPOILER ALERT

… as when the soldiers “pour grenades and petrol into an underground chamber where the German officers and their women are trapped and then set a fire that wipes them all out.”

Peary writes that the “film is solidly directed and has a strange appeal,” with perhaps “the oddest aspect… that these criminals are redeemed when they commit acts that are far more repugnant than the ones for which they were arrested.” Of special note is a stand-out performance by pugnacious Cassavetes, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination:

… and perfect casting of Savalas as a bigot you instantly know you can’t trust.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine direction and cinematography
  • Exciting action sequences

Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the genre.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

Links:

Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore.”

Synopsis:
After his involvement in a high-speed crash that kills motorcycle gang member Nightrider (Vincent Neil), a policeman (Mel Gibson) in a dystopian Australian landscape battles gang leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), ramping up his vengeance when his partner The Goose (Steve Bisley) is killed and the lives of his wife (Joanne Samuel) and child are threatened.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Australian Films
  • Dystopia
  • Gangs
  • Motorcyclists
  • Revenge

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “first entry in the fascinating, excitingly original, extremely successful futuristic action series starring Mel Gibson and directed by George Miller” was “inspired by [Miller’s] work in the casualty ward of a hospital, Australia’s car culture during the sixties, and petrol rationing in Australia in the seventies, which caused a surprising amount of violence.” He notes that “the first part of the film, which is dominated by The Goose, is shot like a motorcycle-gang picture”:

… while “the rest of the film is alternately a bike picture, a horror film, and another in the long line of fascist-heroes-on-a-revenge-spree films.” He points out that throughout the film, “Miller exhibits a striking visual style,” with “his use of a fender-level camera, sweeping pans, breakneck-speed tracking shots, and ‘shock’ editing correspond[ing] perfectly to the powerful images he shoots — specifically the speeding cars and cycles.”

Peary argues that “while you’ll like Max [Gibson] and Jessie [Samuel], a terrific married couple”:

… “and cocky, highstrung Jim Goose, this film is less interesting as a story about ‘people’ than as a marriage between the filmmaker’s machines (his camera, his editing tools) and the motor-powered machines that he films.” Indeed, he asserts that “Miller’s cynical, depressing film is about dehumanization resulting from an apocalypse,” with the film’s sequel — The Road Warrior (1981) — presenting a more optimistic view of humanity.

Peary discusses Mad Max at greater length in his first Cult Movies book, where his analysis centers on the film’s emergence as “the first and only [at the time] film of a genre that surely could be explored and exploited” — that is, “violent, futuristic car-motorcycle films full of spectacular chases and crashes,” in which “stuntmen are the stars”. (Sure enough, sequels emerged in 1981 and 1985, and then another much later in 2015.) He writes that “while the cult fascination for Mad Max has a lot to do with its apartness from other contemporary films, there is much in it that suggests certain familiar influences on Miller.” For instance, “one film that may have caught his eye is A Boy and His Dog (1975),” given that it’s “set in a post-apocalyptic age.”

(However, it should be pointed out that Miller has admitted that “it was not the intention when the script was written, to set it in a post-apocalyptic world”; rather, “this was done because they didn’t have the money for extras and properly maintained buildings,” and “in order to cover for this production value limitation, the title card was added to the beginning, explaining the story was set after a world war.”)

Meanwhile, “AIP’s biker films of the sixties likely had an impact on Miller as the cyclists’ menacing demeanor and slovenly appearance recalls the Hell’s Angels types of the AIP drive-in pix” — though “the scene in which the cyclists ride into a small town to spread terror among the townspeople, and line up their motorcycles as if they were a paramilitary outfit, is more reminiscent of The Wild One (1954), the original [motorcycle] gang picture.”

Peary points out that “the cyclists also have kinship with the futuristic gang in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971),” given that “not only do both groups speak a similar descriptive language,” but “they also vent their hostilities, boredom, and disrespect for law and order through sadistic rapes and thrill killings.”

He adds that the fact that “the cyclists and the main police force are distinguished from one another more by dress than by morality reminds [him] less of other cop-versus-gang films than it does of Quadrophenia (1979),” a film about the “often violent sixties rivalry between the Mods and the Rockers.” Finally, Peary points out that “the red-streaked hair of Nightrider’s girlfriend”:

… “and Bubba’s short-cropped hair” show “that Miller has [also] incorporated punk into his pop art.”

Peary elaborates on the film’s status as an “atmospheric horror film” by noting that “when Max approaches the Goose in the hospital bed and his partner’s burned-black hand falls out from beneath the sheets,” it “resembles a monster’s claw”:

… and although “Jessie’s confrontation with the cyclists while getting ice cream is typical gang picture fare,” when “she later discovers the severed hand of one of the bikers attached to her car, we are once more in the horror picture domain.”

These “elements take over completely” later in the film, once Max and Jessie are away at her aunt’s country home and the film becomes singularly focused on vengeance. While this action-packed, fight-filled movie will primarily appeal to those interested in hardcore car-chase flicks, it does hold interest and value as a crucial title in Australia’s burgeoning film industry, and for providing Gibson with his debut role.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Shakespearean-trained Hugh Keays-Byrne as Toecutter
  • David Eggby’s cinematography
  • Fine stunt work

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

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

Links:

Terminator, The (1984)

Terminator, The (1984)

“Come with me if you want to live.”

Synopsis:
A soldier (Michael Biehn) from the post-apocalyptic future travels back in time to protect a young woman (Linda Hamilton) from a cyborg assassin known as the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Androids and Clones
  • Assassination
  • Revolutionaries
  • Science Fiction
  • Single Mothers
  • Strong Females
  • Time Travel

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s review of “this modestly budgeted sci-fi thriller” — which “deservedly became a box-office smash, cult favorite, and a cause celebre of critics” — is excerpted from his longer essay in Cult Movies 3, which I’ll cite from here. He writes that “if Risky Business gave the sex/youth film a much-needed dose of class in 1983, then The Terminator did the same for the science fiction film in 1984, proving [that] talent, intelligence, and originality can make a positive difference in even the most formula-restricted genres.”

He asserts that “it’s easy to see why The Terminator became a sensation,” given that “the direction of James Cameron, a Roger Corman alumnus, is assured, immensely imaginative, and often dazzling,” while the script “not only is loaded with wit, clever touches, and jolts by the second but also injects bright, interesting ideas into the tired time-traveler-tries-to-alter-history premise.” He adds that “the noirish cinematography by Adam Greenberg, rapid-fire editing by Mark Goldblatt…, and special effects work” by Stan Winston, Doug Beswick, and Pete Kleinow “are genuinely impressive.”

Finally, he notes that “the casting couldn’t have been better, with the likable Linda Hamilton” — a “spunky, unintimidating actress who is sexiest in jeans and sneakers” — as “the heroine”:

… “one-time villain Michael Biehn as the hero, and always-the-hero Schwarzenegger as the villain.” He points out that Schwarzenegger “unexpectedly became a villain for the ages, a nightmare incarnate” who, “like Yul Brynner’s evil cowboy robot in Westworld (1973),” is “without fear, without feelings… is nearly indestructible, and, unlike Brynner, is so big and muscular that it could destroy everyone in its path even it if were human.” As a bonus, he “has been programmed with a perverse sense of humor… which is part of the reason Schwarzenegger seems to enjoy playing the part.”

Peary discusses how this film was critically lauded as “the most exciting science fiction film since The Road Warrior (1981),” adding that “comparisons to George Miller’s cult favorite make sense because it, too, has bone-crushing violence, spectacular action sequences, riveting car chases…, unrelenting suspense, abundant black humor…, a bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future,” and “bizarre time frames.” He writes that while “Cameron doesn’t move his camera as much as Miller,” he “also keeps things from dragging by having his characters in constant motion” — and “here, too, there is a marriage between the filmmaker’s gadgets and the gadgets/machines (especially vehicles) that dominate the screen,” with Cameron keeping “tension high by smartly complementing his dramatic visuals with jarring sounds: engines revving, tires screeching, cars crashing, metal smashing into concrete, explosions, glass shattering, guns firing, sirens blaring, music blasting (in the Tech Noir disco), dogs barking, objects being crushed, [and] people screaming.”

Furthering his comparison between this and The Road Warrior, Peary writes that “both films venture into myth and into religion, offering a Christ figure… who becomes a rebel leader.” In The Terminator, Sarah (Hamilton) “represents the Virgin Mary,” who “will give birth to John Connor (a Jesus Christ figure we only hear about), who will become savior of the people on earth,” with Reese (Biehn) representing “the messenger angel Gabriel who told the Virgin Mary she would become pregnant.”

Because Peary’s major film books were written primarily in the 1980s, he naturally juxtaposes them with the politics of the day; in this case, he notes that while “it can be argued that The Terminator is another Reagan-era anti-abortion film in which a single woman wisely decides to have her baby rather than terminate her pregnancy,” he believes Cameron and co-screenwriter/producer Gale Anne Hurd “think of Sarah as an independent, leftist woman of the sixties and seventies, an era when unmarried women who gave birth to and raised their children stood in defiance of the pro-nuclear-family political right.” (Of course, Peary’s comments from 1988 map perfectly onto our current contentious era as well.)

Peary points out that “Reese, played by the slight-of-build, weak-voiced Biehn, bucks the trends of eighties’ macho heroes,” thus making him “an interesting adversary to Schwarzenegger’s huge Terminator because he is obviously human.”

He adds that “we admire his bravery and identify with his underdog status,” yet “refreshingly we aren’t in awe of him because he isn’t as formidable as a Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, or Arnold Schwarzenegger superhero” — and “unlike many male heroes, he isn’t so initially protective that he keeps the female in a helpless mode,” instead encouraging her “to attempt brave acts (she has no choice).”

When writing about the film’s “anti-technology stance,” Peary notes that “the villain of the piece is the ultimate machine of the future” — and to that end Cameron “bombards us with images of contemporary machines to emphasize our growing dependency on technology: a garbage truck, a coin-operated telescope, cars, traffic lights, parking meters, an escalator, a moped, a time clock, sophisticated guns, telephones, televisions, a crane, a tractor, a radio, a headset, an answering machine, microphones, a TV camera, an electric clock, strobe lights, a disco’s music system, a refrigerator, a police intercom, a beeper, a video recorder, a generator, a pickup truck, a Coke machine, a motorcycle, neon signs, an oil truck, a computer, a hydraulic press, an ambulance, a jeep, gas tanks, a tape recorder.” !!!!

It’s a bit quaint reflecting on a list like this, given how inextricably machines and AI now inhabit every facet of our existence, but I’ve quoted it in full here simply to point out how much we do take such things for granted as an inevitable part of everyday life.

While I’m not an action film fan per se, I can appreciate the significant art and craft at work here, in Cameron’s first major film as a director (and of course, he went on to make numerous other blockbuster hits and become a huge name in Hollywood). All film fanatics should check out this iconic cult flick, and will likely want to see at least the first sequel as well.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Solid performances by the leads
  • Adam Greenberg’s cinematography
  • Impressive low-budget sets and special effects
  • Brad Fiedel’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a cult and popular favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Historically Relevant

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

Links:

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

“You think I’m a replicant, don’t you?”

Synopsis:
In a dystopian future Los Angeles, a retired bounty hunter (Harrison Ford) is sent by his former boss (Edward James Olmos) to hunt down four escaped “replicants” (androids) — Leon (Brion James), Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) — who are attempting to find their maker (Joe Turkel) in order to extend their limited lifespan; meanwhile, Deckard (Ford) meets and falls in love with Turkel’s beautiful young secretary (Sean Young), who is unaware that she, too, is an android.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Androids and Clones
  • Bounty Hunters
  • Dystopia
  • Harrison Ford Films
  • Los Angeles
  • Ridley Scott Films
  • Science Fiction

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “although Ridley Scott’s ambitious, loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — about a detective in a near-future dystopia “who tracks down [rogue] replicants (sophisticated androids)” — “didn’t do well when first released, it has since emerged as a cult favorite, a midnight-movie staple, and perhaps the first ‘thinking person’s SF film’ since 2001.” It has maintained its cult status over the many years since GFTFF was published, and — as all its fans know — has a complex and interesting history of being recut and re-released several times; much more about all of this can be learned by reading Paul M. Sammon’s Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, browsing the internet, and/or watching the 3.5 hour-long documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner (2007).

Peary points out that while the film “has several exciting scenes,” including “Ford chasing replicant Joanna Cassidy through the streets”:

… “being surprised by acrobatic replicant Daryl Hannah”:

… and “battling replicant leader Rutger Hauer on a building ledge”:

… “it’s very deliberately paced and characterized by an overwhelming sense of melancholy.” He adds that while the “slow pacing [is] initially off-putting… the film improves immensely on second viewing because you know what to expect and can concentrate on the many exceptional aspects of the picture.” Interestingly, a number of other reviewers have taken this same stance, admitting to not enjoying or understanding this title upon their first viewing, and only gradually growing to appreciate it (with some still considering it too slow and/or inscrutable in many places).

Peary asserts that “foremost, no picture since Metropolis has presented such a compelling vision of the future,” which I would agree with (though CGI has changed that landscape — so to speak — quite a bit since the 1980s). He notes that “conceptual artist Syd Mead and designer Laurence G. Paull created a crowded, hazy city full of huge, deserted, or retro-fitted buildings (they called the style ‘retro-deco’) where acid rain falls constantly, electric advertising covers the sides of buildings, and police spinners fly about.”

In his Cult Movies 3 essay on the film, Peary goes into even more detail about the film’s design, noting that “mammoth, pyramid-shaped buildings dominate the skyline” and “industrial tubing and pipe fixtures are in plain sight;” “bright strobe lights repeatedly shine through windows; [and] a mass of humanity — Asians comprise a large percentage of the population — marches impersonally through the always-dark streets”, while “faceless bike riders whiz by [and] bands of scavengers emerge from the shadows.”

Meanwhile, “rich [white] people live far above in high rises, with security systems fit for fortresses”:

… and “those people who walk on the foul streets… [are] literally of the ‘low-life’ variety.” What’s “so frightening about what we see in the picture — the environment, the technology, the clothes and makeup, genetically produced human and animal duplicates — is that it seems to be a logical future for us.” He adds that “in this cautionary tale, we are presented with much from our own present and past to remind us that what we see is the end result of our unfortunate progression.”

(By the way, we’ve reached and passed the film’s fictional setting of 2019; how are we doing?)

When I first saw this film many years ago, I reacted with (and was overwhelmed by) a healthy dose of despair that our potential future world could look and function like this. On subsequent viewings, I was able to more easily give myself over to the film’s gorgeous production design and “take delight in the marvelous cast — what faces and bodies! — and their fascinating characters.”

In addition to the extras looking “like they come from countless eras, from every possible country,” the team of androids is uniquely diverse, with “Zhora look[ing] ready for an S&M party,” “Pris look[ing] like a cross between a New Wave punk and a hooker on New York’s 8th Avenue,” and Rachel sporting a “stunning black suit, with each stripe consisting of a separate piece of silk, and with the wide shoulders and trim waist… appropriate for heroines of forties film noir.” She’s a gorgeous sight to behold, with “her hair tied back, dark brows and eyeshadow, watery eyes, red lips, perfect skin, and swirling cigarette smoke serving as a veil”; she is indeed “like those mysterious movie heroines who… were either completely honest and loyal or ‘inhuman,’ with blood that ran ice cold.”

Meanwhile, “Deckard may have a futuristic job — blade runner — but he is the classic disillusioned, morally ambivalent detective hero, complete with hard-boiled narration” (thankfully removed from later releases). Peary spends additional time in his Cult Movies essay discussing the controversy over how “human” the androids are, asserting his view that “it was by intention that the replicants were more human than Deckard,” and that it’s “through his interactions with the super-sophisticated, lifelike replicants during the course of the film that he regains his emotions.”

[Speaking of Deckard’s “humanness,” director Scott pissed off plenty of viewers by making claims about his status which many feel are unwarranted and illogical. Feel free to enter that foray at your own peril.]

Peary points out, too, that “Blade Runner deals with the arrogance of the rich, who would literally trash their home world, turn it into a barely habitable ghetto, and simply fly away to the off-colony suburbs and leave their mess for the poor.” (Sound like anything certain folks may be doing currently???) He adds, “like those who settled earth’s New World [sic] in the seventeenth century, they expect slave labor,” a “gap filled by replicants… who are considered less valuable than animals, have no legal rights… and are not built to last.” As he writes, “Man is so arrogant that he would create these genetically human androids, give them more intelligence and athletic proficiency than humans and the ability to develop the exact emotions of man, yet still consider himself superior to them.”

Sigh.

Finally, Peary reminds us that despite its status as a “heavy metal comic strip,” some of “the best scenes in Blade Runner are… slow and overwhelmingly sad: In Deckard’s apartment, teary-eyed Rachael, having learned her own photos are counterfeit, looks at Deckard’s collection and wonders if they’re real”:

… and “she sees if she can really play the piano… or if she previously played only in false memories.”

He writes that “these scenes create instant nostalgia,” and represent “how important… memories (even fake ones) [are] and how vacant [our] lives [are] without them.” Interestingly, Peary doesn’t comment on the romance between Deckard and Rachael, which some argue feels perfunctory and devoid of chemistry, but is distressing to me given how casually Deckard bullies her into lovemaking.

With all of this said, there’s one more highly significant element of the movie to point out: Vangelis’s incomparable score. It really is difficult to imagine the film without it. A combination of elements — ranging from the score to the cinematography and production design to the unsettling storyline — make this a cult classic worth visiting at least once, and probably more often.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast — especially Rutger Hauer as Batty
  • Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography
  • Incredible production design and special effects


  • Vangelis’s haunting score

Must See?
Yes, as a cult and genuine sci-fi classic. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Genuine Classic

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

Links:

Performance (1970)

Performance (1970)

“You couldn’t find a better little hidey hole.”

Synopsis:
A gangster (James Fox) on the run from his boss (Johnny Shannon) seeks refuge in a boarding room inhabited by a former rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger) and his two female companions — Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michele Breton) — and quickly becomes caught up in their counterculture lifestyle.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • Counterculture
  • Fugitives
  • Gangsters
  • Gender Bending
  • James Fox Films
  • Nicolas Roeg Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is not at all a fan of this directorial debut by Nicolas Roeg (with screenwriter and co-director Donald Cammell), noting that “from the first frame, one feels [they] are resting their dirtiest fingers at the backs of our throats,” bombarding “us with brutal images — a forced head-shaving that’s like an amputation” (I see it as more of a humiliating and ritualized rape):

… “a whipping, a beating, a bullet entering a skull — [all of which] seem designed to make us nauseous.” He argues that while “their film may be a personally successful rendering of a personal vision… it’s no labor of love” but rather “an arrogant, needless slap at our viewing sensibilities” and “an odious, amoral work,” with “its oozing decadence… as manifest behind the camera as it is on the screen.”

He describes the essence of the film as “Jagger becom[ing] fascinated with [Fox], want[ing] to get into his brain to see what makes him tick and perhaps to be a gangster like him”:

… and “the four [central] characters start to blend together [and] become interchangeable.”

He asserts that “the ‘straight’ Fox adapts to a house of love and perversion by uncovering and activating previously latent aspects of his personality and discovering his true self (for example, he has homosexual tendencies” — but I don’t agree with this analysis. Instead, it makes more sense to me that “savage Fox and Jagger are” (in this admittedly wild-ride, perspective-bending adventure) able to merge together because, according to the filmmakers, everyone is part violent and part gentle, part male and part female, part ‘normal’ and part ‘perverted’, part of each other.”

Peary points out that “as in other Roeg films, there are trick shots, wild cross-cutting, quick transitions, sexual activity… and a strong emphasis on color”:

… but meanwhile, he also notes that “every image causes [him] to recall a familiar odor.”

Peary elaborates upon his negative take on the film in his Cult Movies essay, asserting that Jagger never clicked well with the movie camera because “he is withdrawn, awkward, [and] restricted so much that he sings his only song while behind a desk.” (But he gets up and walks around while singing!)

Peary is more a fan of Fox’s performance, noting that he “exhibits a kind of Michael Caine blue-collar toughness” early on, “but later, when he reaches Turner’s town house, he looks stranded among amateurs.” He adds, “It’s one thing to have pros Dirk Bogarde and Sarah Miles emasculate Fox in The Servant (1963), but he is too strong to succumb to neophytes Jagger and Pallenberg.” Again, I disagree; neither is a neophyte, and Pallenberg actually has a pretty strong acting presence (she had been in several films before this).

Here is my overall take on Performance: it’s extremely brutal and hard-to-watch during its first half hour, as we see a violence-filled Cockney gangster scenario playing out in no-holds-barred fashion. It’s rough, and not helped by the fact that Fox comes across in the opening scenes as a narcissistic sociopath (perfectly suited as a “murderous London protection-racket hood”) without much hope of redemption.

However, things shift once Fox goes undercover and is clever enough (or so he thinks) to take advantage of an opportunity to go where surely no one will be looking for him. As Peary notes, “in the films of Roeg it is essential for man to adapt to new environments,” and that’s exactly what Fox does — except, he no longer has the upper hand. Jagger actually doesn’t want him to stay there, and Fox is forced to plead his case, eventually admitting his real intention of simply hiding out for the night.

From there, what happens in Jagger’s house is — perhaps appropriately — beyond comprehension; and once hallucinogenic mushrooms are introduced and fed to Fox, the transformations begin in earnest. Fox is no longer in control, no longer a threat in terms of violence — which allowed me, personally, to finally relax into the storyline with curiosity.

The screenplay intersperses enough brief scenes of Fox reconnecting with people from his previous life as he finalizes his getaway plans that we don’t feel we’ve been irretrievably immersed in a surreal fantasy; this is still reality, and we wonder how things will play out for him. (And given that his bosses are even more vicious than he is, he’s almost semi-sympathetic.) The final moments of the film are indeed challenging to parse, but that was apparently precisely the goal of its makers. While this is not a movie I plan to return to (I’ve now seen it twice, and I think that’s enough), I can see how and why it developed a cult following when it did.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • James Fox as Chas
  • Fine supporting performances across the cast

  • Atmospheric cinematography, direction, and sets

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

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

Links:

Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)

Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)

“Get out of my mind — all of you! Leave my mind alone!”

Synopsis:
When an alien (David Bowie) arrives on Earth in search of a way to transport water back to his desert-like home planet, he befriends a patent lawyer (Buck Henry) eager to make money with him, a people-pleasing maid (Candy Clark) who falls in love with him, and a scientist (Rip Torn) willing to help him build his space ship; but Bowie quickly descends into a world of addictions and vices, making his chances of returning home ever slimmer as time passes.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Aliens
  • Candy Clark Films
  • David Bowie Films
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Nicolas Roeg Films
  • Rip Torn Films
  • Science Fiction

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “flawed but fascinating science-fiction film” by Nicolas Roeg, “adapted by Paul Mayersburg from Walter Tevis’s novel,” is “a variation on The Wizard of Oz; like another variation, E.T., it’s about how three people — Farnsworth [Henry], scientist Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), and Newton’s [Bowie’s] lover-companion, Mary-Lou (well played by quirky Candy Clark) — try to help a stranded alien return home.

However, unlike the two other titles, “this is an unhappy film, an old-fashioned fairytale for those adults who read Jonathan Swift and believe that our world, and those who run it, can be cold, cruel, and unfair.” It’s also “for those who remember the Grimm stories about characters who fall from grace (Newton’s ‘fall’ to earth signifies his descent into purgatory) and are punished (how Newton suffers).” Sadly, Bowie’s Newton becomes “a man in exile”: he is “infected by the earthlings he feels superior to and starts acting like [a] depressed, unfulfilled, heavy-drinking, domesticated [human].”

In his Cult Movies 2 essay, Peary points out that “as in other Roeg films — Walkabout (1971), Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980), [and] eureka! (1983) — we have a character who finds himself in a completely strange environment/situation;” and “by casting singers like Mick Jagger, Art Garfunkel, and David Bowie, Roeg figured their discomfort from moving from the stage to the screen would transfer to their characters.” To that end, “Bowie gives an appropriately subdued, sympathetic performance”: “with his orange hair, great height, and anemic look, [he] does indeed seem like an alien” — and his “birdlike features actually contribute to our empathy for Newton, who, unlike the muscular Atlas, must bear the weight of his world on shoulders that are brittle.”

This is most definitely an enigmatic and sobering film, yet a surprisingly absorbing one as well. While it’s slow-moving at times and leaves one despairing for the protagonist, we remain authentically curious to see what might happen next. I won’t be watching this one again (at least not any time soon), but I think it should be seen once by all film fanatics. (Note that the novel was just remade into a T.V. series co-starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Bill Nighy, which I haven’t seen.)

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • David Bowie as Newton
  • Candy Clark as Mary-Lou
  • Buck Henry as Oliver Farnsworth
  • Anthony B. Richmond’s cinematography

  • Other-worldly costumes and special effects

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite and a unique sci-fi flick.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

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

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Pretty Baby (1978)

Pretty Baby (1978)

“I run a good old-fashioned whore house, monsieur.”

Synopsis:
Just prior to the end of World War I, photographer E.J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) visits a New Orleans whorehouse run by an aging madame (Frances Faye), and takes artistic portraits of a mother (Susan Sarandon) whose virginal 12-year-old daughter Violet (Brooke Shields) will soon be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Barbara Steele Films
  • Deep South
  • Historical Drama
  • Keith Carradine Films
  • Louis Malle Films
  • Photographers
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • Single Mothers
  • Susan Sarandon Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
In GFTFF, Peary gives away narrative spoilers for “Louis Malle’s first American film” — released “during a peak period for public outrage over child abuse, child pornography, and child prostitution” — so I will tread carefully. He writes that this film’s “critics were right to be disappointed that Malle refused to portray Violet’s life in a brothel in a negative light,” instead taking “a polite view of prostitution,” with Nell’s (Faye’s) whores “well paid, well fed, healthy, and cheerful.”

He adds that while it’s possible “the real Violet (whose story is told in Al Rose’s nonfiction work Storyville, New Orleans) didn’t consider herself victimized when a child” (and neither does Shields herself, for having been allowed to play the role), it was nonetheless “irresponsible on Malle’s part to use her as his central character” and ignore “countless other ex-child prostitutes’… tales of horror.” He writes, “The sledgehammer ‘selling of Brooke Shields as pubescent sex symbol,’ which gained momentum because of this film, was truly tasteless” and these days wouldn’t be tolerated for a second; as DVD Savant writes in his review:

“Anybody asking why the 1970s were so liberated should check out this film, a mainstream studio release that not only couldn’t get made today, its makers would be arrested if they even tried to film it. I’m actually surprised by Paramount’s [DVD] release; if the bluenoses were properly on guard this picture would have been labeled kiddie porn by now.”

Exactly. Be forewarned. Meanwhile, Peary writes that “Shields gives the one impressive performance in the film”:

… but “Sarandon’s role is too brief”:

… “Carradine is badly miscast” (not to mention his character being poorly developed):

… “and Faye is so atrocious” (I disagree) “that if she mangled the word monsieur one more time, [he’s] sure someone in the crew would have strangled her.”

He adds that the “picture’s one strong suit is its look,” noting that “visually, the film is an homage to the impressionists of the era — just as the music is a tribute to the jazz greats of the period, like Jelly Roll Morton” (played as a slightly different but comparable character by Antonio Fargas).

Despite Shields’s easy friendship with Fargas, racial tensions of the era are present and toxic in the film, with Black characters mostly relegated to poorly treated servant or mystical roles and given little to no agency or voice. One potent scene shows that Shields flirting with a young Black boy merits her a whipping because of his skin color — not because they’re too young for this type of sexualized interaction.

Back to the film’s look, “each shot is beautifully composed, and the frame becomes a mixture of muted colors, natural light, and shadows.”

Indeed, “as long as Malle and cinematographer Sven Nykvist concentrate on visuals, things run smoothly” — but “when characters speak Polly Platt’s dialogue, we are bombarded with the cliches we’ve heard in every other bad movie set in a brothel.”

In his essay for Cult Movies 2, Peary elaborates on his disappointment with Malle for his overall (mis)handling of this film. Peary asserts that “Louis Malle is the classic voyeur among filmmakers,” with a “detached style” in which “the artist stands back from his subject” and “merely observes his characters going about their business within his created, or recreated worlds, rather than becoming involved in their lives and making judgments about them.” When it comes to a film about such a vile topic as under-aged prostitution, however, Malle’s approach of taking “a steamy, sensational subject and [striving] for artistry instead of controversy” simply doesn’t fly.

Peary asserts that he sees “less objectivity than passivity, too much artistic pretentiousness, and, worse, the lack of necessary conflicts because Malle doesn’t want to choose sides.” But should we really not feel judgmental when watching Shields paraded out on a pallet for auction to the highest bidder? This scene is beyond disturbing, rightfully so.

Perhaps worst of all is that a film this beautifully shot — on such a contentious but important historical topic — is so badly written, especially in the second half: it’s not “worth” the controversy or effort made to get past one’s disgust. Despite all my deep reservations, however, I think film fanatics should give this film a once-look simply to be familiar with its historical infamy. With that said, I don’t understand why it’s included as a cult movie; did people really go to see this again and again? And if so… that feels especially exploitative.

Note: Watch for Barbara Steele and Diana Scarwid as two of the prostitutes, the former seeming realistic and the latter giving an atrocious performance with a German accent.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Sven Nykvist’s cinematography

Must See?
Once, for its historical relevance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant

Links:

Stunt Man, The (1980)

Stunt Man, The (1980)

“You’re right, he’s not an evil man — he’s a crazy man.”

Synopsis:
When a Vietnam vet (Steve Railsback) on the run from the law gets involved with a movie director (Peter O’Toole) whose stuntman Bert has just died, he agrees to take over this work, mostly to conveniently assume Bert’s identity, but also to impress a beautiful young actress (Barbara Hershey) on the set.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Allen Garfield Films
  • Barbara Hershey Films
  • Fugitives
  • Hollywood
  • Mistaken and Hidden Identities
  • Movie Directors
  • Peter O’Toole Films
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Veterans

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this cult film by Richard Rush about a “shellshocked, paranoid young Vietnam vet” who “has been living on the edge for many years” and “has trouble distinguishing between illusion and reality” shows us what happens when such a man is conscripted by “fire-breathing, egocentric, wicked, super-intellectual director” Eli Cross (O’Toole) to work as a stuntman on a WWI movie, “where everything is faked (through makeup, stunts, doubles, editing, selective photography) to create a sense of reality.”

Peary notes that since “all is seen through [Railsback’s] eyes,” he “becomes frightened that the godlike Eli thinks his movie is so significant that even real death on film is justified” — and this drives the thrust of the narrative: is Cross homicidally driven, or is this notion merely a figment of Railsback’s paranoia?

Peary admits that he’s “not taken with” this cult movie but “can understand why it has such a devoted following,” given that “it is an extremely ambitious film, beautifully structured by [screenwriter] Lawrence B. Marcus (who moves away from Paul Brodeur‘s [1970] novel), endlessly imaginative, strikingly photographed by Mario Tosi, and marvelously played by O’Toole.”

He adds that “while it is thematically confusing (perhaps it attempts too much) and at times self-consciously directed (particularly during the comical scenes), you have to admire Rush for bravely undertaking such a multi-leveled, personal project.” Finally, he notes that it’s “full of offbeat moments and characterizations,” of which “some work, some don’t.”

Peary elaborates on his review in his Cult Movies 3 essay, explaining why it took so long for this film to get made after Rush first experienced success in Hollywood with his exploitation flicks Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), Psych-Out (1968), and The Savage Seven (1968), and then his Hollywood break-through flick Getting Straight (1970). He notes that once The Stunt Man finally got released, it “did good business in some cities and college towns but didn’t become the resounding commercial success Rush hoped it would be,” in part because “the film’s subject matter no longer seemed novel after nine years: Francois Truffaut had made his paean to filmmaking, the very popular Day for Night (1973), and … there had been a proliferation of theatrical and television films about stuntmen.” However, he adds that “certainly the major reason for the disappointing box office was that The Stunt Man was just too strange to appeal to all tastes;” indeed, there had “been few recent films that [had] so divided an audience,” as epitomized in Siskel & Ebert’s split-decision review of the film on their show (Siskel loved it, Ebert wasn’t taken with it).

Peary admits that his own “reasons for not liking The Stunt Man, as opposed to disliking it, aren’t at all deep.” For instance, he thinks “Steve Railsback (whom Elia Kazan recommended to Rush) is miscast” given that his character is “supposed to be likable [and] sympathetic-crazy” but his “eyes give [one] the creeps”; and it doesn’t help that Rush directs him inconsistently.

He also believes Hershey “seems wrong as Nina” given that she’s portrayed as “unperceptive” and ultimately is just “a fairy tale/dream lover with the depth of Tinkerbell.”

Meanwhile, “as for the film itself,” Peary finds it “surprisingly boring, considering all the action, oddball characters running around, impressive stunts, and sex.” Like other critics, he wonders about the choice to film “entire lengthy scenes” in one take when “such scenes would [actually] be done piecemeal” — unless this was to intentionally “heighten the film’s surrealism.”

He points out that it’s too bad “Rush didn’t retain [novelist] Brodeur’s most interesting themes: stuntmen are similar to our soldiers in Vietnam; those men who give orders on the set… are as unconcerned about the welfare of stuntmen as officers are of their soldiers’ welfare in the war; a stuntman is kept in the dark about the overall picture he is making, just as soldiers are unaware of the ‘big picture’ of the war in which they are fighting; stuntmen and soldiers are willing to risk life and limb… to follow orders; stuntmen and Vietnam soldiers are expendable; nobody actually would do the foolish physical feats a stuntman does to please an audience [and] only a soldier would be required to do equivalent suicidal acts; in terms of the public that sees movies and watches news reports on TV, stuntmen and soldiers fighting and dying way off in Vietnam don’t really exist; [and] a person can lose his identity when he becomes a stunt double… as swiftly as if he joins the army.”

These are all excellent insights, and I agree with Peary that the film could/should have made these parallels more explicit. He points out that “Rush does retain Brodeur’s illusion-or-reality? theme,” which is one of his “least favorite themes because most films that use it — such as Performance (1970) and Images (1972) — turn out to be pretentious and incoherent.” However, he concedes that “at least here it seems appropriate because The Stunt Man is about filmmaking, an art form that, paradoxically, uses illusions to create a sense of reality.” He adds that “figuring out what is real and what Cameron imagines in his paranoid mind (i.e., is Cross trying to kill him) is [most likely] the challenge of the film,” though it’s not necessarily resolved in a satisfactory way.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment: I admire much about this movie, but am not a personal devotee; I consider it a once-must for its cult status, for O’Toole’s National Society of Film Critics’-award-winning performance, and for its behind-the-scenes (albeit skewed) perspectives on moviemaking.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Peter O’Toole as Eli Cross
  • Mario Tosi’s cinematography
  • Some incredible stunt work
  • Domonic Frontiere’s score (though be forewarned it’s a total earworm)

Must See?
Yes, as a cult favorite.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

Links:

Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point (1971)

“Don’t you worry — we’ll catch him.”

Synopsis:
A war vet and former cop (Barry Newman) picks up a car from its owner (Karl Swenson) and makes a bet with his drug-dealing friend (Lee Weaver) that he can deliver the car from Colorado to California in 15 hours; but he quickly finds himself relentlessly chased by police, and must rely on help from strangers — including a blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little), an aging prospector (Dean Jagger), a faith healer named J. Hovah (Severn Darden), and two hippies (Timothy Scott and Gilda Texter) — to make it to his destination.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Car Chase
  • Counterculture
  • Fugitives
  • Radio
  • Road Trip

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s GFTFF review of this “cult movie about a dropout from mainstream society… who takes a drive-away car from Denver to San Francisco” is excerpted directly from his longer essay in Cult Movies 2, which I’ll cite directly from. He notes that while Newman’s “Kowalski” is posited as a “contemporary Lone Ranger,” he “forgets to do anything heroic.” Instead, “the trouble for us viewers… is that no matter how noble his self-sacrificial gesture seems” at the end of the film, “we can’t help feeling that this pill-popping, self-destructive speed demon (whom we see in flashback crash on a race track) is a menace to all of us on the road” — and “for everybody’s safety, we should hope that he’ll be arrested.”

Peary notes that “because the high-speed car chase in Bullitt (1968) had such an impact on the public… and on filmmakers who saw a good way to fill twenty minutes of screen time in their own dreary films, almost every action film of the following years included an obligatory car chase” — though for Vanishing Point, this was simply the “starting point.”

He asserts that “director Richard Sarafian… was looking for the perfect movie formula” and “noticed that there was also a proliferation of ‘personal’, low-budget existential films that used the road as a metaphor for lives that have no meaning, no direction, no beginning, and no end” — so “he decided to mix the car chase, hallmark of the action film, into an existential road film.” Meanwhile, “he threw in some gorgeous Colorado-Nevada-California scenery, a bit of nudity (a girl on a motorcycle in the desert???)”:

… “some acoustic and psychedelic rock music (perfectly attuned to the era), and stereotypes from the counterculture” — and, “the youthcult ate it up.”

Unfortunately, there are three central problems: first, “the picture makes little sense”; second, audiences are manipulated by “Sarafian and screenwriter Guillermo Cain” into “regarding Kowalski as its hero”; and third and “most significant[ly], they have ‘cool’ characters” — like “Vera [Kowalski’s deceased girlfriend, played by Victoria Medlin]”:

… “Super Soul — who [for some reason] thinks of Kowalski as ‘the last American hero,’ the symbol of our dying freedom”:

… “Jake, the old prospector”:

… and “Angel and his nude girlfriend think[ing] well of Kowalski”:

… thus indicating “he must be all right.” Meanwhile (and most frustrating to me), “all the women are portrayed as love objects, willing to hop into the sack with any lonely stranger.” As DVD Savant writes in his equally scathing review:

“… perhaps the warped plotline can be justified as being partly from [Kowalski’s] distorted point of view. Women appear like visions out of the desert. A gas station attendant is just like (or is) the girl he rescued from being raped by his partner when he used to be a cop. Another female conjures up visions of the surfer girl (cue romantic flashbacks) he lost to the deep blue see (cue lonely surfboard washing ashore). A final vision, seen only in the English version, is a sultry hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling) who seems to be a personal hallucination.”

Adding insult to injury, “the only misfits who don’t help Kowalski are homosexuals (even youth films in those days made homosexuals into comical deviants.)”

Peary concludes his essay by naming many of the confusing or unclear aspects of the screenplay — but he also admits he “half enjoy[s] Vanishing Point” given that “the stuntwork here… is truly spectacular,” and there are (thankfully) “few actual car crashes” (though the filmmakers did go through eight white Dodge Challengers during the making of the film).

While “Kowalski drives like a tourist guide who missed the last reststop,” the “scenery we glimpse is… breathtaking, and the camerawork from fast-moving vehicles and helicopters is stunning.”

What Peary likes “best about the film,” however, “is its depiction of a coast-to-coast network of weirdos, dropouts, and misfits ready to help wayfaring strangers,” thus “show[ing] a finer aspect of the sixties-seventies counterculture, for which [he has] nostalgic feelings.” I wonder if this may also be why 72-year-old Bruce Springsteen mentioned this as his favorite action film on the November 10th, 2021 episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert while taking the “Colbert Questionnaire”. Perhaps we all have a collective nostalgia for a (perceived) time when the world was more collaborative and communal.

Note: Check out the 18-minute documentary called “Built For Speed: A Look Back at Vanishing Point” if you’re curious to learn a bit more about the film’s production and popularity.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Plenty of exciting car chases and stunts (shout-out to stunt coordinator and driver Carey Loftin)
  • John A. Alonzo’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status. But expect to be annoyed by much of it.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

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