I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) – 4/5
Paul Mazursky’s screenwriting debut tells the uproarious story of a square Jewish lawyer Harold Fine (Peter Sellers) who tunes in, turns on and drops out with hippie Leigh Taylor-Young. Mazursky uses absurdist humor to skewer both worlds. An auspicious debut for one of the most brilliant comedic voices to emerge from the 1970s New Hollywood.
Skidoo (Otto Preminger, 1968) – 2/5
Preminger’s attempt to keep current with the counterculture goes over with all the aplomb of the proverbial lead zeppelin. Nevertheless, the film retains its fair share of misguided entertainment value: Carol Channing’s musical number (the title track, no less!) dressed as Napoleon, a variety of Batman-style all-star cameos, all-singing and all-dancing garbage cans (featuring in an acid trip, natch), Groucho Marx as God (a mafia leader, not the deity, alas…). Always the method actor, Groucho apparently dropped a few tabs in order to research his role.
Raw Meat (Gary Sherman, 1972) – 1.5/5
American-helmed, British-produced horror film stars Donald Pleasance as a police inspector investigating a series of murders in The Tube. Not nearly as compelling as it might sound, featuring long stretches of nearly nothing happening, the film does count as a precursor of cannibal-centric horror films to come.
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) – 3/5
Siodmak’s quirky noir makes more use of German Expressionist-derived shadows and psychological grotesquerie than most: the leitmotif of clenched hands recurs with almost pathological insistence. Several stand-out sequences feature heroine Ella Raines stalking murder suspects through darkened streets and into dingy jazz clubs.
The Godless Girl (Cecile B. De Mille, 1929) – 2.5/5
Begins as an absurd anti-atheism screed. Ends as a technically virtuosic melodrama. Certainly a historic curiosity piece.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) – 5/5
John Huston’s finest film. One of Bogart’s best roles (the other, arguably, being Dix Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place). A searing indictment of the perversion of greed and the murderous lengths men will go to in order to secure their fortunes and futures. Location photography around Mexico (the countryside of Durango, the cityscape of Tampico) enriches the film’s texture.
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) – 5/5
Riveting and stylish, yet grounded in the gritty realities of location and character. Film opens like a tone poem to the Brooklyn neighborhood where the majority of its events unfold. Al Pacino and John Cazale (reunited after the Godfather juggernaut) have never been better. Pacino struts and yowls. Cazale has comparatively few lines; yet his expressive face conveys all the confusion and melancholy of his disturbed character.
Network (Sidney Lumet, 1977) – 4.5/5
Corrosive satire or straight reportage? Elements of both abound. Perhaps a little too on-the-nose with its hyper-literate (and hyper-cynical) dialogue, nevertheless the film shows the layers of manipulation and corporate chicanery behind the “idiot box” – and, by extension, the culture industry’s uncanny ability to assimilate and sterilize the very discontent and moral outrage its puerility spawns among more sensible demographics.
52 Pick-Up (John Frankenheimer, 1986) – 3.5/5
Sleaze never looked so good. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel (years before the cult success of Jackie Brown) and featuring his trademark whip-smart dialogue, Frankenheimer keeps the camera moving with an astonishing display of Steadicam virtuosity. Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret star, with John Glover the standout as a smarter-than-average heavy.
Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1965) – 4.5/5
Initially structured (and even shot) like an extended Twilight Zone episode, Frankenheimer slows things down, taking the time to establish character and mood, capturing all the discontent and disaffection at the bottom of suburban bourgeois success. Brilliant black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe puts the meat on the bone of Frankenheimer’s fractured filmmaking style.
Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970) – 4/5
Rambling, actor-friendly scenes unfold with almost improvisatory spontaneity. Yet there is a method and structure here. Confronted with their own mortality when one of their closest friends dies, three middle-aged professional men (John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara) go on a drunken spree, trying at first to recapture their youth and then trying to forget the muddle their lives seem to have become.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007) – 4.5/5
Lumet’s final film ranks as one of his finest. Its discontinuous, nonlinear narrative takes the viewer ever deeper into the moral quagmire of a family tragedy that could have emerged straight from the classical Greek theater.
Death and the Maiden (Roman Polanski, 1994) 3.5/5
Essentially a filmed play, Polanski largely refuses (or finds himself unable) to “open up” the material, and the result feels a touch constricted. Fortunately, strong performances from Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley anchor the film.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969) – 4/5
Fledgling writer/director Mazursky takes the sex farce into deeper terrain. Opening with an extended parody of encounter groups at an Esalen Institute-style retreat, the film chronicles one bourgeois couple’s (Robert Culp, Natalie Wood) attempts to put that brand of in-your-face emotional honesty (and liberated sexuality) into practice, comparing and contrasting it with the more straitlaced (and hung-up) responses of their best friends (Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon). Strong performances from all four leads meshes with nuanced, hilarious dialogue and Mazursky’s sharp eye for detail.
Blume in Love (Paul Mazursky, 1973) – 4.5/5
After the relative misfire of Alex in Wonderland (1970), Mazursky rebounds with probably his finest film. Told in a series of nonlinear flashbacks narrated by George Segal as he wanders around a very Visconti-esque Venice, the film develops into an increasingly dark saga of romantic obsession (Segal’s Blume remains obsessed with ex-wife Susan Anspach). The conventional ending is undercut not only by the brusque deflation of the dialogue, but also by the prominence (and symbolic value) of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde overture – the Liebestod (Love-Death) that also appears throughout Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Noteworthy trivia: an early scene appears on a television in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).