Browsed by
Month: March 2007

They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963)

They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963)

“Hitler, alive? It’s — it’s incredible!”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Audrey Caire) of a scientist discovers that her father has been taken to the South American country of Mendora by Neo-Nazis, who are following the orders of Hitler’s preserved head and plan to take over the world.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Disembodied Parts
  • Kidnapping
  • Nazis
  • Science Fiction
  • World Domination

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “mangled mix” of footage from two separate projects — an unreleased sci-fi exploitation flick called Madmen of Mandoras, and additional amateur filler from years later — is quite the mess, and definitely a candidate for “Worst Film Ever Made”. However, I disagree with Peary that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on; the plot may be convoluted, but it actually makes sense in a warped way, if you’re paying close attention. Then again, every aspect of They Saved Hitler’s Brain — from the atrocious acting (especially in the added-on segments) to the unbelievably egregious continuity problems — is so bad that, cumulatively, they overshadow the story itself. Unfortunately, as is often the case with oddly-named films, the title here is ultimately more intriguing than the plot; plus, as many have pointed out, it’s incredibly frustrating that Hitler’s “brain” doesn’t show up until halfway through the film.

Note: As Peary notes, it’s “too bad Woody Allen didn’t use [the] film’s visuals for What’s Up Tiger Lily? II;” in fact, I’m surprised MST3K never lampooned this one, given its potential for unending mockery.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bill Freed’s campy portrayal as Hitler’s head

Must See?
No; save yourself the grief.

Links:

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

“When Joan was only one year old, she already knew where she was going.”

Synopsis:
When heavy storms prevent a headstrong young woman (Wendy Hiller) from reaching her wealthy fiancĂ© on a remote Scottish isle, she gets to know the nearby locals — including naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • Class Relations
  • Michael Powell Films
  • Roger Livesey Films
  • Romance
  • Scotland
  • Strong Females
  • Wendy Hiller Films

Review:
Directorial partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made many highly regarded films together, including Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Peeping Tom (1960). However, this fable-like romance — co-starring Wendy Hiller and strange-voiced Roger Livesey — remains perhaps the most charming of them all, telling the simple yet effective tale of a willful woman who gradually learns to trust her heart rather than her head, all while being seduced by the magic of the Scottish isles. The black-and-white cinematography is truly stunning, making this romantic gem both a visual and narrative delight.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wendy Hiller as the headstrong heroine
  • Roger Livesey as Hiller’s would-be love interest
  • Haunting, high-contrast cinematography
  • Creative opening titles
  • Many whimsical visuals, as when Hiller dreams of the Scottish hills covered in tartan plaid

Must See?
Yes. This romantic fable is one of Powell and Pressburger’s most enjoyable movies, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

  • Important Director

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

Links:

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light.”

Synopsis:
Belgian detective Hercules Poirot (Albert Finney) investigates the murder of a businessman (Richard Widmark) on the Orient Express.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Albert Finney Films
  • Anthony Perkins Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Ingrid Bergman Films
  • Jacqueline Bisset Films
  • John Gielgud Films
  • Lauren Bacall Films
  • Michael York Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Sean Connery Films
  • Sidney Lumet Films
  • Trains
  • Vanessa Redgrave Films
  • Wendy Hiller Films

Review:
Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s celebrated mystery is a nostalgic throw-back to the early days of Hollywood, when all-star casts routinely graced the screen together in ensemble films such as Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). Indeed, film buffs will have a field day watching some of their favorite actors (including Lauren Bacall, Wendy Hiller, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, and others) in supporting roles. However, it’s Albert Finney who truly runs the show here: as the determined (and occasionally obnoxious) Hercules Poirot, Finney is literally unrecognizable. Unfortunately, Lumet indulges his screenplay a bit: it takes quite a while for all the characters to be introduced, and the final scenes linger far longer than necessary. Nonetheless, Murder on the Orient Express, which inspired two future Christie adaptations — Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982) — remains a well-made detective flick, and should be seen by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Albert Finney — nearly unrecognizable as Belgian detective Hercules Poirot
  • Fine performances by a supporting cast of stars


  • Lush, colorful 1930s set designs and costumes
  • A satisfying and unexpected solution to the mystery

Must See?
Yes. While over-long, this Academy Award-nominated murder mystery is a rare return to the all-star format of earlier Hollywood dramas.

Categories

  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Bad Boys (1983)

Bad Boys (1983)

“I ain’t afraid of anything.”

Synopsis:
A juvenile delinquent (Sean Penn) is sent to prison after accidentally killing the brother of a rival gang member (Esai Morales). Meanwhile, Morales gets revenge by raping Penn’s girlfriend (Sheedy), and appears in prison ready for a showdown.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Arc
  • Gangs
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Prisoners
  • Revenge

Review:
Bad Boys edges dangerously close to a juvie exploitation flick in its familiar tale of a teen from a broken home who find himself battling both personal demons — and literal enemies — in a detention center. Fortunately, the film’s predictable storyline is redeemed by several notable performances, including a young Esai Morales as Penn’s nemesis (four years before his breakthrough role as Ritchie Valens’ brother in La Bamba), and Sean Penn in one of his earliest powerhouse performances. While we can predict the final narrative arc of the movie long before it arrives, we care enough about both Penn and Morales (a rare feat in a film where one character is clearly the protagonist) to hope things end well for them.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sean Penn in an early star-making role
  • Esai Morales as Penn’s nemesis
  • Ally Sheedy as Penn’s girlfriend

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended simply for the performances by Penn and Morales.

Links:

Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down (1978)

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.”

Synopsis:
A group of rabbits leave their warren and search for a new home, dealing with dangers and predators along the way.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Animated Features
  • Harry Andrews Films
  • John Hurt Films
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Search
  • Talking Animals

Review:
It’s rare to find a pre-CGI animated feature which deviates substantially from standard Disney form. There are some exceptions (such as the incomparable Yellow Submarine, or Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated films), but not many — which is why Martin Rosen’s Watership Down remains such a delight. This intelligent adaptation of Richard Adams’ allegorical novel respects our intelligence, and dares to assume that animated films can appeal to adults without including pornographic material. The low-budget animation is surprisingly effective, using a creative mix of watercolor backdrops and more detailed foreground action; voices by John Hurt and other esteemed British actors provide automatic gravitas to the proceedings.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Expressive animation
  • Beautiful watercolor backgrounds
  • A surprisingly “adult” plot which doesn’t shy away from violence and difficult themes
  • The opening “origin tale” sequence

Must See?
Yes. This unique animated feature — listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation by Peary in the back of his book — should be seen by all film fanatics.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living (1958)

“Maps and pins can’t kill alone — the power of a human brain has to be behind it.”

Synopsis:
The newly appointed chairman (Richard Boone) of a cemetery soon discovers that by pushing a black pin onto a plot on a map, he will cause the death of the plot’s owner — yet nobody believes him, and deaths continue to mount.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Horror
  • “No One Believes Me!”
  • Supernatural Powers

Review:
This low-budget horror flick — more akin to a Twilight Zone episode than a feature film — holds interest throughout its 75 minutes. Based on a remarkably simple premise, I Bury the Living remains unique because of its decision to show Boone as a tortured soul who no one will believe, rather than a gleeful madman who revels in his newfound power. Director Albert Band makes good, restrained use of camera tricks and extreme lighting to show Boone’s state of mind, and turns the cemetery map itself into a virtual piece of psychedelic art.

While critics are divided in their opinions of the film’s denouement (most hate it), these final five minutes fortunately do little to take away from the enjoyment of what’s come before.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Boone as the troubled chairman
  • Effective cinematography and camera tricks to reflect Boone’s degenerating state of mind
  • The surprisingly creepy cemetery map

Must See?
Yes, as a good show.

Categories

  • Good Show

Links:

Cannonball Run, The (1981)

Cannonball Run, The (1981)

“You are certainly the most distinguished group of highway scofflaws and degenerates ever gathered together in one place.”

Synopsis:
An eccentric group of competitors — played by Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Jackie Chan, Adrienne Barbeau, Farrah Fawcett, Jamie Farr, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and others — participate in an illegal cross-country car race known as the Cannonball Run.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Burt Reynolds Films
  • Car Racing
  • Comedy
  • Dean Martin Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Peter Fonda Films
  • Rivalry

Review:
The Cannonball Run was the fifth highest grossing film of 1981, and remains a nostalgic favorite for those who remember watching it upon its release (either in theaters or on cable). The characterizations by an all-star cast are amusingly irreverent, and there’s some fun to be had in seeing the depths to which these fanatical competitors will go in order to win the race. This isn’t great filmmaking by any means (see Roger Ebert’s panning review, for instance), but The Cannonball Run remains an iconic piece of pop culture, and will probably be of passing interest to film fanatics for this reason alone.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An all-star cast having innocent screwball fun together

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its status as a nostalgic favorite.

Links:

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Dinner at Eight (1933)

“I was reading a book the other day… It was all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of book!”

Synopsis:
The socially-conscious wife (Billie Burke) of a troubled shipping magnate (Lionel Barrymore) frets over her plans for a dinner party she is hosting for — among other guests — a corrupt businessman (Wallace Beery) and his lowbrow wife (Jean Harlow); an aging actress (Marie Dressler) in dire financial straits; and a has-been actor (John Barrymore) in love with Burke’s daughter (Madge Evans).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Comedy
  • Ensemble Cast
  • George Cukor Films
  • Get Togethers and Reunions
  • Has-Beens
  • Jean Harlow Films
  • John Barrymore Films
  • Karen Morley Films
  • Lionel Barrymore Films
  • Marie Dressler Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Social Climbers
  • Wallace Beery Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “serious-at-the-core comedy” — featuring a “once-in-a-lifetime ensemble” cast — effectively shows how “women are able to adapt to their situations, overcoming their problems and taking control, while the man always are more passive.” Indeed, it’s the female actresses here — Harlow, Dressler, and Burke — who are the highlights of this surprisingly unfunny tragi-comedy, directed in an overly stagy and static fashion by famed “women’s director” George Cukor. The scenes between Harlow (who spends most of her time lounging in bed) and Beery are full of plenty of zingy one-liners, but their characters are so unappealing that it’s difficult to enjoy spending time with them. The same goes for Burke’s stressed-out housewife, who is so absorbed in social concerns that she neglects to notice her husband’s ailing health, and thus loses our sympathy as well. While Peary argues that “every expression and line by Dressler, whose talents have been forgotten by too many” is a comic gem, even her presence can’t quite lift the overall gloominess of the script. Ultimately, one watches Dinner at Eight simply to see so many of MGM’s glamorous stars performing together — and to hear Dressler’s final, classic line delivered to Harlow: “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marie Dressler as the aging actress in financial distress
  • Jean Harlow as the manipulative, social-climbing “Kitty”
  • Billie Burke, perfectly cast as the nervous socialite housewife
  • Luminous cinematography and art deco sets

Must See?
Yes. While dated and not nearly as funny as it should be, this remains a classic MGM ensemble film which should be seen by all film fanatics. Nominated by Peary for an Alternate Oscar as best picture of the year.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic

Links:

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? (1983)

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? (1983)

“You seem to have a lot of energy — and it gets stuck in your forehead.”

Synopsis:
Two misfits (Karen Black and Michael Emil) find love in New York City.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • Misfits
  • New York City
  • Romantic Comedy

Review:
Not a whole lot happens in Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, an unusual, character-driven love story by independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Yet we can’t help getting caught up in the lives of Zee (Black) and Eli (Emil), who personify every misfit we’ve ever known — indeed, there’s something immensely satisfying about watching even these strangest of folks finding someone to love. Jaglom makes good use of New York City locales, and there are several unexpectedly fine moments — including one with a pigeon, and one in which Black (who has a lovely voice) sings the blues.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Karen Black as the abandoned wife who finds love unexpectedly
  • Michael Emil as Black’s love interest
  • Black singing the blues

Must See?
Yes. This quirky Henry Jaglom film — while not for every taste — is an excellent introduction to his early work. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

  • Important Director

Links:

Competition, The (1980)

Competition, The (1980)

That is your first husband — that! You marry it, the way a nun marries Jesus — you cleave to it because it gives your life a center that no man — that very few men — can possibly give you.”

Synopsis:
Two rival pianists (Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving) fall in love while rehearsing for a competition in San Francisco.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amy Irving Films
  • Aspiring Stars
  • Lee Remick Films
  • Mentors
  • Musicians
  • Richard Dreyfuss Films<
  • Rivalry
  • Romance

Review:
The Competition tackles an interesting and provocative question: is it possible for rivals to carry out a successful romance? As someone who studied classical music for several years, I can vouch for the authenticity of the dilemma facing these two young musical hopefuls, who find themselves torn between mutual admiration, genuine attraction, and intense rivalry. Director Joel Oliansky doesn’t try to provide pat answers to this dilemma; and while Dreyfuss’s petulant behavior towards Irving may be difficult to watch, it’s realistic. Unfortunately, however, the film is marred by constant forays into the lives of the other competitors — most notably a Russian student who must deal with her teacher defecting to the West (surely included for its political timeliness rather than any other reason). These subplots distract us from the film’s primary characters, who should have remained the sole focus.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Dreyfuss as Paul
  • Amy Irving as Heidi
  • Lee Remick as Irving’s piano teacher
  • Plenty of beautiful piano music, well “performed” by Dreyfuss and Irving (who trained for four months for their roles)

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for classical music fans.

Links: