GoldenEye-1995

GoldenEye-1995

Director-Martin Campbell

Starring-Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco

Scott’s Review #717

Reviewed January 19, 2018

Grade: B

By 1995, after a record six years between films, the James Bond franchise re-emerged in an energetic manner with Pierce Brosnan assuming the role of the MI6 agent-, and breathing some fresh life into the character. The charming and suave Irish actor gave a new direction to the role last played by Timothy Dalton-an actor who gave Bond more of a brooding quality. The resulting GoldenEye offers mixed results, though the casting is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

In fact, GoldenEye sees other monumental roles recast- that of Judi Dench as M, and Samantha Bond as Miss Moneypenney. The film has a slick look, a compelling story, but at times is tough to follow, and overall- despite containing all the elements- something seems missing. Or maybe I just prefer the other Bonds more? Still, the offering is far from a bad watch.

GoldenEye kicks off with, in hindsight, a major clue to the story as Bond  (Brosnan) and fellow 00 agent, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), infiltrate a Soviet facility in northern Russia during 1986, searching for chemical weapons. Alec is tragically killed by sinister Soviet General Ourumov and Bond mourns the loss of his friend.

The action resumes in present times (1995) as , now in gorgeous Monte Carlo, Bond follows the beautiful and sadistic Xenia Onatopp, a  crime syndicate member known for crushing men with her thighs. Xenia and Ourumov travel to Siberia where they destroy a bunker holding GoldenEye satellites and kill everyone except computer programmer, Boris (Alan Cumming), and lone survivor, Natalya  (Izabella Scorupco). In a clever twist, it is revealed that Alec has betrayed the British Intelligence and is, in fact, himself leading the crime syndicate.

In one of the quietest, and best scenes, Bond and M have an interesting exchange in her office as M (a woman) calls Bond out on his arrogance and chauvinism, and states that it is a new day. Dench adds a ton of female modernism into the role (about time in 1995) as Bond now reports to a woman. The scene is important as it leads the two characters to achieve a mutual respect and arguably parlays the franchise into a new, more female-empowering direction.

A great positive to GoldenEye is the setting, which I think does wonders for the film as a whole- the bitter, blustery, Siberian set gives a soothing feeling, especially while watching the film during the ravages of winter, snug with a warm blanket and heaters. Regardless, the sets are realistic, never cheesy, and loaded with atmosphere- so the film itself looks wonderful.

Issues abound with the frenetic pacing of the film- at times I found myself losing track of the action or the sequence of events. Understandably, as in many Bond films, events circle the globe and, surely London, Russia, and Monte Carlo are great locations, but especially within the film’s final climax, I suffered from sensory overload.

Furthermore, Brosnan is not one of my favorite Bonds. Sure, he has the charisma, the looks, and the charm to pull off the role, but something about him does not measure up to Sean Connery, Roger Moore, George Lazanby, or Daniel Craig- certainly he supersedes Timothy Dalton.  Don’t get me wrong- I do not despise him as Bond, but nothing stands him out against the others either.

The villains in GoldenEye are perfectly adequate if not spectacular. Sean Bean gives Alec a sly, aww shucks appeal and defines good-looking, but his motivations for switching sides is not very exciting- something about Nazis in World War II, the Cossacks, and revenge are quickly mentioned, but it doesn’t much matter.  General  Ourumov is effective- with his sinister look he is the perfect Bond villain. Xenia is little more than a cartoon character 9with the name to boot) and her gimmick quickly wears thin. Finally, Cummings as the programmer is played only for laughs and his final chant of “I am invincible!” as he freezes into solid ice is mildly humorous.

The title theme song, “GoldenEye”, performed by Tina Turner is forgettable at best and one of the most lackluster in the illustrious musical catalog.

GoldenEye has many of the standard Bond elements within its frames and is a decent entry in the franchise. With the debut of a new Bond, the film has a fresh and very modern and technical feel to it that, along with a fantastic setting, overlooks some flaws in the storytelling.  Filled with bombast and a crowd-pleasing method, GoldenEye is hardly the best Bond film, but certainly not the worst.

Octopussy-1983

Octopussy-1983

Director-John Glen

Starring-Roger Moore, Maud Adams

Scott’s Review #716

Reviewed January 17, 2018

Grade: A-

Hardly regarded as one of the most stellar of entries in the James Bond franchise, 1983’s Octopussy is nonetheless a guilty pleasure of mine. This is undoubtedly due to the film being the first installment that I was allowed to see in the movie theater and is filled with exciting memories. As the film stands in current days it is perfectly fine, containing all of the enjoyable elements necessary for a good Bond film- interesting villains, solid action, and gorgeous women. Perhaps at times suffering from a bit of silliness, Octopussy is still  quite the fantastic watch.

Roger Moore, admittedly looking slightly aged and sagging, returns to the fold as 007, the shaken, but not stirred action hero known as James Bond. However, he is, true to form, as witty and suave as he always is with witty one-liners and mischievous smirk. Interesting to note is how Moore ritualistically infuses the character with a measure of comedy- a wink of the eye or a raised eyebrow adds humor to the character-more so than any other actor who has portrayed Bond.

In this installment, Faberge eggs, clowns, and gorilla suits are featured. Attempting to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin, 009- dressed as a circus clown, is murdered on the estate of a British Ambassador, while attempting to deliver a fake Faberge egg. Assuming the Soviets are involved, MI6 instructs Bond to investigate the matter and a complex smuggling ring is uncovered- featuring a gorgeous female smuggler named Octopussy (Maud Adams), along with sinister Afghan exiled prince Kamal Kahn (Louis Jourdan), and his bodyguard, Gobinda.

Watching the film in 2018, and despite the fact that it was made in 1983, Octopussy does not suffer from the dreaded “1980’s look” that so many other films do, and seems surprisingly clean and fresh. The colors are vibrant- especially the prevalent circus and clown scenes, and the best two scenes- the airplane and train scenes- still bristle and crackle with good action.

As the climax to Octopussy culminates, the inevitable heroine and main Bond girl- Adams’s “Octopussy”, has been bound and gagged and taken hostage by the baddies in a fleeing airplane, Bond grabs hold of the fuselage, and begins a harried flight over the mountains of remote India, clinging for dear life. The scene climaxes with an exciting fight scene atop the rooftop of the speeding plane as Bond and Gobinda fight to the death as Kamal unsuccessfully attempts to twist and turn the plane and rid themselves of pesky Bond. The scene is still compelling and loses none of its appeal over the years, never appearing dated.

Additionally, the train sequence is still relevant, but admittedly does suffer from a small dose of silliness. The action is plentiful as Bond races against time to prevent a Russian missile from detonating and killing thousands of American citizens, and worthy of noting is the timely Cold War subject matter of the Russians versus the Americans- plentiful in American cinema during this time period. As Bond dons a phony looking gorilla outfit- embarrassing even for the comical Roger Moore- he is able to successfully take off the costume and sneak out of a train car, all before the three seconds that it takes for Gobinda to turn around and slice the head off of the gorilla thinking it is Bond. Suspension of disbelief is required.

Impressive is the female empowerment slant that is evident throughout the film. From the strong businesswoman character that Adams portrays- she is decisive, intelligent, and savvy, she is neither cowering nor impressionable and cannot be bullied or pushed around. Albeit her name, “Octopussy”, does teeter on male chauvinism.  Be that as it may, her gang of feminist followers, all wielding assault rifles, are quite inspiring and, at this point, unusual for a Bond film- certainly typically masculine leaning.

Octopussy is an overlooked, under-appreciated, too easily dismissed slice of goodness served up with a bit of comedy, plenty of action, and good solid villains- everything that makes a Bond film a Bond film. Certainly the film is worthy of a viewing.

The Post-2017

The Post-2017

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #715

Reviewed January 15, 2018

Grade: A-

Amid the current political upheaval occurring during the year 2017 comes a fresh and quite timely film named The Post, created by esteemed director, Steven Spielberg, and starring two of today’s biggest Hollywood film stars- Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The film is a political, historical thriller set during the tumultuous time of 1971, as the controversial Vietnam War raged on, and tells of the bravery of a female newspaper owner (Streep), who risked everything to publish the truth, along with her team of mostly male editors and staff.

The film is an intelligent piece of writing, with a crisp script and quick editing allowing for a believable foray into a different time, when newspapers were hot and rotary telephones, telephone booths, and polyester outfits were all the rage. Spielberg is brilliant at setting just the right mood and tone to transport the audience back to 1971- on the eve of the enormous Watergate scandal. While all of the elements are in play, and the truthful story is important, the film is very good, but not quite brilliant- falling just shy of that bombastic one or two scenes that would land it over the top.

The Post begins in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965, as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg documents the progress of military activities among the soldiers during battle. On the journey home he briefs then President Lyndon Johnson that the war is hopeless and should be stopped. As history unfortunately shows, the brutal war continued on with thousands of lives lost. The film then continues on a journey of the uncovering of top secret Pentagon papers documenting the White House’s knowledge of the useless nature of the war, but each administration chose to continue with the bleeding to avoid the United States being “humiliated”.

Streep gives her best performance in years as Katharine Graham, Washington Post newspaper heiress, a woman who struggles to be taken seriously in a man’s world- especially given the time period- many men were uncomfortable taking direction from a woman. Streep infuses the perfect amount of emotion, insecurity, and charm into the role. Despite her wealth and her control, she is frequently overruled by the all male board of directors, so much so that she often doubts her confidence.

Hanks, however, underwhelms as gruff editor in chief of the Post, Ben Bradlee. Given the enormous talents of the actor, I was expecting a meatier performance, which does not materialize. I also anticipated an equal balance of Hanks and Streep, but the film clearly belongs to Streep. Perhaps because Hanks (the ultimate nice guy) portrays Bradlee as a tough, yet family man, the performance does not quite work. Also, the chemistry between Hanks and Streep is not the specialty of the film.

Evident is the correlation between 1971’s President Nixon and 2017’s President Trump- both administrations shrouded in controversy. A neat trick Spielberg creates is to only show Nixon in shadows, wildly gesturing and threatening, similar to Trump’s mannerisms- this is no accident. In fact, the entire work of The Post seems a big call-out by Spielberg, a devout liberal, to the Trump administration. This comparison of past and present makes The Post incredibly timely and topical for 2017. Clever is the intriguing ending- as the Watergate scandal begins with a security guard catching intruders at the complex, Spielberg seems to be saying “watch out Trump!”

In 2017, the current state of the media versus the White House has never held more controversy, disdain, and even hatred as the “truth” is often tough to come by or even to distinguish. “Fake news” is now a thing and twitter rants are now a daily occurrence, making the “truth” a precious commodity. For this reason alone, The Post must be a film to celebrate and model ourselves after- how timely indeed.

Death On The Nile-1978

Death On The Nile-1978

Director-John Guillermen

Starring-Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis

Scott’s Review #714

Reviewed January 14, 2018

Grade: B+

Death On The Nile is a 1978 British thriller that follows up the successful 1974 offering, Murder On The Orient Express- both films based on the fabulous Agatha Christie novels of the 1930’s. This time around, Belgian detective Hercules Poirot (Peter Ustinov) investigates a string of deaths aboard a luxurious steamer carrying the lavishly wealthy and their servants. The film is a good, old-fashioned whodunit, perhaps not on the level of storytelling as its predecessor-the murder mystery contains not the oomph expected-but features exquisite Egyptian historical locales-worth its weight in gold.

Featuring a who’s who of famous stars and tremendous actors of the day, Death On The Nile carves a neat story right off the bat in such a way that the murder victim is fairly obvious right away- most of the characters have reason to celebrate her demise. Rich and reviled heiress, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), has stolen best friend Jacqueline’s (Mia Farrow) beau, Simon, sparking a bitter feud between the women. While honeymooning in Egypt, the newlyweds are continually taunted by angry Jacqueline. Once the cruise ship departs with all on board, Jackie is the prime suspect when Linnet is murdered. Poirot must find the killer as numerous other suspects all with grudges against Linnet, begin to emerge.

Death On The Nile serves up a stellar cast including legendary Bette Davis in the role of Marie Van Shuyler- eccentric American socialite with an eye for Linnet’s necklace. The casting of Davis is reason enough to watch the film, though the character is not center stage and rather a supporting role. The lead female honor is held for Farrow, who has the meatiest and most complex role in the film. Jackie’s unstable actions makes her the most likely to commit the deed, but the fun is to figure out the “whys” and the “hows” of the murder. Is there more than one killer? Are they working in cahoots or independently? As the body count increases these questions begin to resonate more and more.

The costumes and sets are gorgeous and it is no wonder the film won the Oscar for Best Costume Design. At a ball the women are dripping with jewels and gorgeous gowns. Along with Davis, boozy author Salome Otterbourne, hilariously played by Angela Lansbury, is granted the prize of wearing the most luxurious and interesting of all the costumes. She drips with jewels and, with a cocktail always in hand, is the films comic relief.

Director John Guillermin makes the film an overall light and fun experience and, despite the murderous drama, does not take matters too seriously. Offering humorous moments, this balances nicely with the inevitable murders. The fun for the audience is deducing whodunit- most of the characters have motive and the cast of characters is hefty. I had memories of the famous board game Clue- Was it Jackie in the ballroom with the revolver? You get the idea. In this way the film makes for a good, solid game of mystery.

Comparisons to 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express cannot help but be drawn, especially in the lead casting of Hercules Poirot. Truth be told, Albert Finney’s portrayal in “Murder” is superior to Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in “Death” and I am not sure what purpose Colonel Race (David Niven) as Poirot’s friend offers other than to be a loyal sidekick and present a character that Poirot can explain events to- think what Watson was to Sherlock Holmes. Regardless, Finney is the superior Poirot as he musters more strength and charisma than Ustinov does.

How lovely and historic to witness the wonderful Egyptian locales- the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids are featured amid an attempt on the life of the romantic pair by way of falling rocks- this sets the tone for the perilous cruise about to be embarked upon.

Perhaps a perfect film for a Saturday stay at home evening with friends, complete with a serving of a quality wine and cheese, Death On The Nile is a sophisticated, yet fun, British mystery film, fantastic to watch in a party setting where the audience can be kept guessing until the nice conclusion and the big reveal of who killed whom and why.

The Boss Baby-2017

The Boss Baby-2017

Director- Tom McGrath

Starring- Alec Baldwin, Tobey Maguire

Scott’s Review #713

Reviewed January 12, 2018

Grade: C

True confession- I was not expecting much from the 2017 offering of the animated film entitled The Boss Baby (a brooding, sarcastic newborn offered no appeal). However, since the film was nominated for a Golden Globe award, I decided to throw caution to the wind and settle down for a viewing. Predictably, the film fulfilled my hunch and resulted in a fair to middling experience- the attempt at a nice message was offset by cliched and silly characters and an over-produced film rather than a directed one, but yet held interesting  and sometimes even beautiful visuals.

Seven year old Tim Templeton (voiced by Tobey Maguire), as an adult, narrates a story of his childhood  days, living with his parents Ted and Janice, both busy marketing professionals, who work at Puppy Co.. One day, his parents return home with a bundle of joy in tow, Theodore Lindsey Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin), who immediately monopolizes their time and attention. Isolated, Tim is envious and begins a rivalry with his baby brother, who is secretly a spy named “The Boss Baby”, and who has the mind of an adult in a baby’s body. It is revealed that he is working undercover as a spy to investigate why puppies are now receiving more love than babies. The duo eventually team up and forge a bond to prevent corporate America from ruining all of the love in the world.

To be fair, The Boss Baby presents a positive, good message of love and acceptance, which is nice to see, but this message can only carry a film so far, and there is little else of substance. As with many animated films, the story here contains a “good versus evil” slant, which, in this case, renders the film rather one dimensional. We are instructed who to root for and who not to root for, and while  challenging corporate greed is certainly a cause worth championing, too often I found The Boss Baby causing my mind to wander elsewhere instead of keeping me engaged in the story- not a good sign.

Apparently the target audience for this film is quite young because many sappy or juvenile scenes continue to play out. Closeups of Theodore and whimsical shots of his bulging eyes give the film a cute, too wholesome quality, and in predictable fashion, there are the standard doody and poop jokes, which comedies do all too often to account for sloppy writing.

The character of Theodore is voiced by comedy stalwart Alec Baldwin, and this does wonders to make the baby a bit more interesting than otherwise might have been. Baldwin, fusing assertion and a sarcasm into Theodore, makes him witty and energetic, but again, this can only go so far, and by the time the film has concluded in happily ever after fashion, the once tough character has disintegrated into a hammy kid.

Older brother Timothy is perfectly fine and the idea of having Maguire narrate him as an adult is a nice touch.  The central theme of sibling rivalry between brother and brother and especially the difficulty of some kids adjusting to a newborn debuting into the family may be enough to encourage parents to make it a family outing and see The Boss Baby.

Sadly, the creative and unique sets of animations may be wasted on viewers seeking good story. What a pity that The Boss Baby does not hold both qualities, but alas the film is little more than adequate and will undoubtedly be forgotten before very long.

I, Tonya-2017

I, Tonya-2017

Director-Craig Gillespie

Starring-Margot Robbie, Allison Janney

Scott’s Review #712

Reviewed January 10, 2018

Grade: A-

I, Tonya is a 2017 biopic telling of the life and times of the infamous American Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding, notorious, of course, for her alleged involvement, along with her husband and his friend, in the attack of fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Winter Olympics. The event drew monumental media coverage after the attack with the uncertainty of Harding’s knowledge or involvement and her subsequent guilt or innocence continues to be debated.

The film itself is a dark and violent comedy, never taking itself too seriously, and immediately presents the disclaimer that the stated “facts” in the film are open to interpretation and dependent on who you ask. In this way, I, Tonya is far from preachy or directive to the viewer, but rather offers up the life and times of the skater in a story form. The film features tremendous performances by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney as Tonya and her despicable mother, LaVona.

I, Tonya is told in chronological fashion, culminating with “the incident” in 1994. However, the story begins  back in the mid 1970’s as Tonya, just a tot at the tender age of four, is as cute as a button and shrouded with innocence. One cannot help wonder if director, Craig Gillespie, known for independent films, purposely made this wise casting choice. We see Tonya, once an innocent child, journey into a life of violence, abuse, and tumultuous living. Harding grew up cold and hard and endured an abusive, difficult relationship with her mother- the pressures to be the best skater simply never ended. Even upon achieving success Tonya never felt good enough or loved by her mother.

We then experience Tonya as a fifteen year old girl, fittingly first meeting her boyfriend and later, husband Jeff, Gillooly played well by actor Sebastian Stan. The early scenes between the two are sweet, tender, and fraught with the emotions of first love. As explained by the actors, this was a short-lived time of bliss, and the relationship soon disintegrated into abuse, rage, and chaos.

Certainly the main point of the film is to debate the guilt or innocence of Harding, which Gillespie peppers throughout, so it is never clear what to believe or how the audience should be made to think. “Interpretation” is the key here- some may see Harding as a victim of life’s circumstances and the hardships she had to endure and may place sympathy upon her. Others may view Harding as off-putting, potty-mouthed, and even icy and violent herself with a big chip on her shoulder. In one scene she publicly belittles the hoity toity judges who never cut her a break and give her less than perfect scores.

A clever technique that the film delivers is to have the actors frequently speak to the camera, and thus the audience. This is achieved by either interview style or for the action in the film to simply cease and either Robbie, Janney, Stan, or whomever, turn to the camera and express their version of the events. In this way, I, Tonya possesses a creative, edgy, indie feel.

How brilliant are the performances of both Robbie and Janney. Robbie, a gorgeous woman, portrays a “red-neck” to the hilt. Through her bright blue eyes , her face is quite expressive- relaying pain, anger, and a seldom triumph. The film often slants the scales in a sympathetic way towards Harding, but it is the talents of Robbie that make us feel this sympathy. Janney hits the jackpot with a delicious role she sinks her teeth into. A cold-hearted, vicious character, through facial expressions, we occasionally get a glimpse of LaVona, perhaps softening, but as we do, the character does something even more despicable.

A good surprise for fans who remember the real-life events and the real-life players, will be treated to a sequence of the real Tonya, LaVona, Jeff, and Shawn Eckhardt, which play over the films ending credits. How similar in looks are both Robbie to Harding, with her feathered, frizzy, 1980’s style hairdo, and Janney, a dead-ringer for the boozy, chain-smoking LaVona, with her mousy brown bob haircut, complete with scruffy bangs.

Viewers will leave theaters confused, unsure, or perhaps just simply perplexed by what they have just seen, but will most certainly feel thoroughly entertained and may even depart chanting some upbeat 1980’s rock tunes that the film uses throughout. Thanks to wonderful acting and a strong story, I, Tonya is a success.

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers-1954

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers-1954

Director-Stanley Donen

Starring-Howard Keel, Jane Powell

Scott’s Review #711

Reviewed January 7, 2018

Grade: B-

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is a 1954 musical and another in a string of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer productions, ever so present during the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. The songs are not quite as memorable as similar musicals of the day, and the film has a sexist slant that is jarring in today’s gender equal standards. But given the time that the film was made, and the time period setting of the mid-nineteenth century, however, things were very different, and the film does contain one semi-strong female character at least. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is a nice film, but in present times seems quite dated and irrelevant- little more than an ode to yesteryear.

Adam Pompitee (Howard Keel), is a dashing, rugged man, living in the Oregon Territory in the year of 1850. He struts into town and proclaims his desire for a wife- presumably to cook and clean for him and his six younger brothers, all living together in a cabin in the rural mountains. When he falls head over heels for tavern worker Milly (Jane Powell), they impulsively marry, but she is disappointed to learn she will be caring for seven men- not one. Milly then plots to marry off the unruly bunch to local girls. Throughout the course of the film, characters partake in song and dance and merriment as the hi-jinks play out in wild fashion.

At its core, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is meant to be a lighthearted romp, and it succeeds at that. Containing a strong romantic angle and the message of finding one’s soul-mate is palpable- Milly is the sensible female counter-part to erratic Adam, and there is good chemistry between the actors. Milly is strong-willed and eventually puts her foot down, but still accepts her role as the domestic and the caretaker.

Fun is how each of the brothers manages to find the one girl in town meant for him as the duo’s pair off in unison. This is a cute aspect of the film- and perhaps a film such as this one is not entirely meant to be over-analyzed. Humorous, if not just slightly overdone,  is the luscious red hair that each of the Pontipee brothers has- obviously dyed hair or wigs were used as needed.

The film succeeds when it sticks to the song and dancing numbers, which are far more entertaining than the story-line. MGM used actors who were classically trained singers or dancers, giving the film a more authentic choreography. Given the fourteen principle characters involved in the production, this must have been a beast to achieve without things looking ridiculous. Keel, as main character Adam, was in fact a professional singer, having appeared in a number of musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Showboat. Powell, as Milly, holds her own with a gorgeous singing voice and also appeared in other musicals.

Still, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers contains a bothersome sexist story and women are treated more as objects for men to conquer rather than real people with feelings or emotions. The overall implication within the film are that women are desperate to get married and should be flattered to be chosen by any man. This is readily apparent when the brothers accost the girls from their homes and take them unwillingly to the cabin where, predictably, the women succumb to the men’s desires and fall in love with them.

A film to be taken with a grain of salt and a trip back to olden times, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers is a dated picture, but a fun one containing grand production numbers such as “Lonesome Polecat”, “When You’re In Love”, and “June Bride”. These songs are light and airy and a high point of the film. For those seeking a liberal minded affair, this film will disappoint, as the film is very conservative with traditional male/female roles and expectations, as much as one could imagine.

Scream-1996

Scream-1996

Director-Wes Craven

Starring-Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, David Arquette

Scott’s Review #710

Reviewed January 5, 2018

Grade: A-

Wes Craven’s 1996 film Scream is a piece that greatly assisted in bringing the horror genre back into relevance after a long drought throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when horror films suffered from both over-saturation and cliche-riddled messes. Thanks to Scream, creativity and plot twists and turns returned to the forefront of  good horror films and a clever film was birthed. Fast-forward to 2018, the film does suffer a bit from a dated “1990’s look,  but is still great fun to watch and a treat for all classic horror buffs as the references to classic greats are endless.

The film is sectioned off nicely and gets underway quickly  (in the best sequence of the film) as Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore)  receives a flirtatious phone call, while making popcorn,  from a man asking her to name her favorite horror film. The friendly game quickly turns vicious as the caller threatens to kill her boyfriend should she answer a question incorrectly. In a clever twist (think 1960’s Psycho!) Casey and her boyfriend meet deadly fates and the opening credits begin to roll. Given the huge star Barrymore was in 1996, this twist was all the more shocking and attention grabbing.

The remainder of the film centers around Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a popular California high school student, as she is pursued by an attacker known only as “Ghostface”, who dons a creepy costume and terrorizes victims via phone calls. The small town , led by police officer Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and bitchy newswoman Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), are determined to unmask the killer and figure out his or her motivations. Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy (Skeet Ulrich), and other friends are along for the ride as a possible connected sub-plot involving Sidney’s deceased mother are introduced. A romance between Dewey and Gale is also broached.

Scream is an enormous treat for fans of the horror genre as numerous references (and film clips!) of classics such as 1978’s Halloween abound throughout the film. Other references to Friday the 13th, Prom Night, and A Nightmare On Elm Street appear during the film. Writer, Kevin Williamson, clearly a horror enthusiast, must have had a ball writing the screenplay that would become Scream. In 1996, the mega-success of the film successfully not only jump-started the entire genre, it introduced younger fans of Scream to classics that were perhaps their parents generation and got them interested in the films.

Classic horror films are not only referenced during the film, but also explained, mostly by the supporting character of Jamie, the nerdy kid who works at the video store and adores horror films. A sequence in which he explains several “rules” of the horror genre is superlative and creative, and just great fun. He schools the teenagers at a party that anyone who drinks, has sex, or says “I will be right back”, is doomed to suffer a violent fate. This clever writing makes Scream enormous fun to watch.

The climax of Scream is quite surprising in itself and the “great reveal” of the murderer (s) is also intelligent writing and quite the surprise, as several red-herrings are produced along the way, casting suspicion on other characters who may or may not be the killers. A small gripe of the writing is the motivations of the murderers- when the explanation is given for their killing spree, the reasoning is a bit convoluted and hard to fathom, but this is horror and suspension of disbelief is always a necessity.

Scream is best remembered for giving the horror genre a good, hard kick in the seat of the pants and shaking all of the elements up a bit while preserving the core ideals of a good slasher film (suspense, a whodunit, and good solid kills). True to a good mention in the film, Scream was followed by several sequels, some achieving better successes than others. In 2018 the film may not be quite as fresh as it once was, but is still a solid watch and memorable for relaunching a genre.

Wonder Wheel-2017

Wonder Wheel-2017

Director-Woody Allen

Starring-Kate Winslet, James Belushi

Scott’s Review #709

Reviewed December 31, 2017

Grade: B+

Woody Allen typically churns out a new film release each year and 2017’s project is a film called Wonder Wheel. Set in 1950’s Coney Island, a seaside beach in Brooklyn, New York, the film is an authentic looking period drama, with lovely costumes and legitimate New York accents from all principal actors. The story itself is overall quite depressing, though, as a likable character is tough to find, but Wonder Wheel contains fantastic acting, mainly on the part of star Kate Winslet, whose troubled character is the films focal point.

Winslet portrays Ginny Rannell, a struggling forty year old woman living in the seaside neighborhood and working as a waitress at a dingy Clam House. She despises her life and longs for a way out of the doldrums- yearning for the life she had years ago as an aspiring actress. Her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carousel operator, is an alcoholic. Together they raise Ginny’s son, Richie, a young boy who loves to start fires. When Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up on their doorstep, having provided information about her mobster husband, and subsequently “marked”, Ginny’s life slowly begins to unravel as she and Carolina pursue the same man, hunky lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake).

The New York setting of the film is an enormous plus and a standard of many Woody Allen films- the authenticity is clear. The summer mood of the beach, sand, and the sunny boardwalk and beach scenes make the viewer feel like they are transported in time. The 1950’s period works as beachwear and the amusement park sets are used to their advantage. The New York accents of the actors and the language and sayings are appropriate for the times. The apartment that the Rannells rent is a great treat to the film- the set is used with a wonderful beach landscape that is featured during daytime scenes and nighttime scenes so that the change of mood can be noticed-these are all enticing elements to Wonder Wheel.

Enough cannot be said for the talents of Winslet, who makes the character of Ginny come to life. Undoubtedly a tough role for her to play, Winslet, who can make reading the phone book sound interesting, tackles the complex part and arguably gives one of the best performances of her career- my vote would still go to her portrayal of Hannah Schmitz from 2008’s The Reader. Initially a sympathetic character, she longingly desires to return to the stage and perhaps find stardom as an actress and sees Mickey as her last chance. When events curtail her dreams, her character takes a sharp turn and does an unspeakable act.

I love the acting talents of Justin Timberlake and by 2017 he has successfully proven himself a major star in the film world as well as the music world. As the hunky, charismatic, yet studious and intelligent lifeguard, Mickey, he teeters between womanizer and earnest, love-stricken, young man. Timberlake has taken on more interesting film roles beginning with 2010’s The Social Network and let’s hope there are more to come.

Juno Temple is just perfect as the naive Carolina. With an innocent, sweet, personality, all she yearns for is love and a fresh start. Temple, largely known for quirky independent film roles, fits perfectly in a Woody Allen creation. Finally, legendary actor James Belushi fills his character of Humpty with dedication, loyalty, and alcoholic rage. He adores Ginny, but sometimes takes her for granted.

What a treat for fans of The Sopranos to see a couple of familiar faces appear as (what else?) mobsters. Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa make cameo appearances as Angelo and Nick, henchmen for the unseen husband of Carolina, who are intent on tracking down and killing her. Despite very small parts, the actors seem to have a ball reprising similar roles that made them famous.

Wonder Wheel, certainly shot in similar tone to a stage production, draws comparisons to A Streetcar Named Desire, both with four principal characters- two male and two female, Ginny, Carolina, Mickey, and Humpty, all with some similarities to and some differences with storied characters Blanche, Stella, Stanley, and Mitch. But the comparisons can easily be studied and analyzed.

Woody Allen creates a film that can be appreciated mostly for its top-notch acting talent not surprising given the actors cast, and a compelling, never boring story. The film is a downer, however, with no heroic characters to speak of. Thankfully, this is counterbalanced perfectly by a great New York setting, which is a high point of Wonder Wheel and cheers up the otherwise dour tone of the film.

Call Me By Your Name-2017

Call Me By Your Name-2017

Director-Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer

Scott’s Review #708

Reviewed December 27, 2017

Grade: A

Call Me by Your Name is a gorgeous film, simply beautiful in story-telling, cinematography, and acting. A humanistic film that crafts a lovely tale of young love, friendship, and emotions, that is simply breathtaking to experience. In fact, in the LGBT category, I would venture to proclaim that this film is groundbreaking- leaving behind any tried and true homophobic elements and instead telling a good story that is fresh, sincere, and simply flawless.

The time period is summer of 1983 and the landscape is the beautiful Italian Riviera. Seventeen year old Italian-American, Elio,  (Timothee Chalamet) dreams the summer away living with his parents in a small village.  They are affluent and his world is rich with culture and learnings- his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) a professor and his mother a translator. A brilliant student, Elio wiles away the days reading, playing music, and flirting with girlfriend  Marzia. When a handsome, twenty-four year old American student, Oliver, (Armie Hammer) arrives for a six week stay assisting Elio’s father on a project, desire and first love blossoms between the young men, as they struggle with their burgeoning relationship.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, having also directed the lovely 2009 film, I Am Love, is a man known for stories of desire in small Italian villages. Call Me By Your Name is the third in a trilogy- I Am Love and 2015’s A Bigger Splash being the others. The setting is incredibly important to the story as both the summer heat and the world of the intellectual scholars are nestled into a grand shell of culture and the philosophical nature of the story is palpable- the film just oozes with smarts and sophistication.

By 2017, the LGBT genre has become populated with films in the romantic, drama, and comedy sub-genres, but many use the standard homophobic slant to elicit drama and conflict. Not to diminish the importance of homophobic discussions to teach viewers, Call Me By Your Name stands alone in that homophobia is not an issue in this story.  Given the time period of 1983 this may be surprising- at the very cusp of the AIDS epidemic, this topic is also not discussed- rather, the subject matter is simply a love story between two males and the coming of age story that their love expresses.

The film is quite moving and both Elio and Oliver are characters filled with texture and raw emotion. Oliver is confident, charismatic and a great catch for any lucky young lady in the village. Hammer fills the role with poise and humanity. Chalamet, a beautiful young man, gives the complex role his all as so much can be conveyed not by dialogue, but by expressions on the actors face. As Oliver slow dances with a local girl, the wounded look that Chalamet reveals, his eyes welling up with tears, is heartbreaking. Seventeen is a tough age for most young men, but when coming to terms with ones sexuality it can be excruciating. The final scene is poignant as it features at least a five minute long scene gazing into the eyes of Chalamet as many emotions are expressed in this sequence.

Enough credit cannot be given to Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father as he gives one of the best speeches ever performed in film history. What a subtle and poignant performance the actor gives as the sympathetic and knowing father. His speech of understanding and warmth is riveting and inspirational- to be cherished. Mr. Perlman is a role model to fathers everywhere and any gay sons ideal parent.

One scene that could stir controversy is the sure to be controversial “peach scene”. Involving an innocent peach used during a sex act, the scene is erotic and borders on “icky”, but is also important to foster the connection between Oliver and Elio.

Another potential risk to the film is the fact that Oliver is twenty-four and Elio is seventeen, meaning that Elio is underage. However, the film never plays Oliver as more the aggressor and the relationship remains tender and consensual.

Call Me By Your Name is not just a great LGBT film, but it is a film for the ages.  Beautifully crafted with gorgeous landscapes and nuanced, powerful acting, the sequences are subtle and carefully paced. The film is simply a treasure.

The Greatest Showman-2017

The Greatest Showman-2017

Director-Michael Gracey

Starring-Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron

Scott’s Review #707

Reviewed December 26, 2017

Grade: A-

A pure musical, escapist film, The Greatest Showman holds a dear and relevant message and elicits hope for outcasts everywhere by leading a story of acceptance and perseverance  in the feel-good film of 2017. Hugh Jackman leads the pack, starring as P.T. Barnum, a man struggling to create an entertainment show with live and unusual performers- deemed “freaks” in those days- the 1800’s in New York. The film is quite joyful and light with many cheery musical numbers sure to leave audience members humming along for hours after the conclusion of the film. The Greatest Showman is a rags to riches story and a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Jackman is charismatic and likable as the entrepreneur and showman, Barnum, who we meet as a young boy, the son of a poor tailor. He becomes enamored with wealthy young  Charity (Michelle Williams) and the two eventually marry, much to the chagrin of her pompous parents. Barnum and Charity at first struggle to make ends meet as they begin to raise a family, but eventually find success and wealth when the show succeeds. The film chronicles Barnum’s rise to fame and the trials and tribulations (romantic, business) over the course of several years, mainly through musical numbers. Zac Efron is wonderful as Barnum’s eventual business partner, Phillip Carlyle.

The supporting characters that director Michael Gracey offers up are creative, if not typical mainstays of carnivals and circuses everywhere- the bearded lady, the fat man, and a man covered in tattoos are featured prominently. Unclear to me are whether these characters actually existed or are created simply for plot purposes, but rumor has it that The Greatest Showman has taken great liberties with the factual accuracy of the real P.T. Barnum and his escapades. This would be bothersome if not for the wonderful message this film contains- acceptance and celebrating diversity. Certainly in today’s chaotic world this is of prominent importance for young people everywhere.

Those expecting anything of more substance than a cheery and bright holiday slice of enjoyment may be disappointed- some mainstream critics were not too high on this film, but I am okay with a little escapist adventure on occasion. The message throughout The Greatest Showman is quite good. The best musical number is the show-stopping and anthemic “This Is Me”, and Keala Settle is fabulous as the bearded lady, who leads this important song. The number is empowering and energetic.

The chemistry between Jackman and Williams is not remarkable, but not altogether vacant either. Rather, it is simply decent, and not the films strongest point. In fact, I sense better chemistry between Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson as grand Swedish singer, Jenny Lind. Their “romance” is unfulfilled however and we will just need to imagine the possibilities of that one.

I adore seeing Efron in quality roles (think 2012’s exceptional The Paperboy) and his performance as Phillip is great. Sharing a good bond with Barnum, he has his own romance with acrobat, (and of mixed race) Anne Wheeler. His values and earnestness make the character very appealing as he is torn between riches and standing on principal.

The Greatest Showman may not go down in history as the ultimate tops in film making or even one of the best musicals, but the film does succeed in dazzling the audience and providing a couple of hours worth of fun and entertainment- similar to the way P.T. Barnum energized the crowds with a slice of make-believe, this is more than appropriate.

Bad Moms-2016

Bad Moms-2016

Director-Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

Starring-Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn

Scott’s Review #706

Reviewed December 20, 2017

Grade: D+

Bad Moms tries to do for women what The Hangover did for men and create a raunchy, R-rated party romp that haggard mothers everywhere can relate to and appreciate. The films billboard presents the three main characters boozing it up under a caption of “Party Like a Mother”. Perhaps since I am not a mother I did not fully gravitate towards this film, but despite a smidgen of mild laughs, Bad Moms fell flat for me, mostly because of tired characters, gimmicky situations, and an over-the-top tone. Not surprising is that the film is written by the same individuals who wrote The Hangover- as it comes across as a direct ripoff with a different gender in the drivers seat.

The central character in the film is Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis), a thirty-two year old mother of two, living a busy life in the Chicago suburbs. Considered “old” by her hipster boss, and with a porn obsessed husband, she runs around frazzled and behind schedule most of the time. After a particularly hairy day, Amy abruptly quits the school PTA run by militant Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), and befriends fellow moms, sex-crazed Carla (Kathryn Hahn), and timid Kiki (Kristen Bell). After she incites Gwendolyn’s wrath, Amy decides enough is enough and embarks on a plot to win the PTA presidency, while dumping her husband and dating hunky widower, Jessie (Jay Hernandez).

Admittedly, Kunis is very likable as Amy- a cool chick with energy that most would love to befriend -we empathize with her predicaments and juggling schedules. But this can only go so far in a comedic film, and the setup pieces and the supporting characters are way too plot driven and lack authenticity that the end result is little more than one root-able character. Applegate as an actress, is quite capable, but Gwendolyn, the clear foil, is largely written as a cartoon character. Her bitchy comments to her underlings, who inexplicably are afraid to cross her, seem too staged. Jada Pinkett Smith, clearly in need of a paycheck, is disposable as “second in command” crony, Stacy. Furthermore, Amy’s husband Mike (David Walton) is portrayed largely as a buffoon and childlike. The point of these character examples is to stress that the film contains too many caricatures rather than characters

An irritating quality to Bad Moms that I simply cannot shake is that the film is written and directed by a duo of men! Jon Lucas and Scott Moore are the individuals in question and the mere fact that the film, clearly painted as a female empowerment story, is not written by females is almost unforgivable. Case in point involves a bathroom scene where the ladies discuss uncircumcised penises- a dumb scene if you ask me- that is retched considering men wrote and directed it. In this day and age of Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment suits bubbling to the surface, the scene seems icky. It should not be this hard to find women to write for other women.

Of the additional trio of females, Kathryn Hahn’s Carla has a few funny scenes, but is written as so sex-obsessed that it is impossible to take the character seriously and the same goes for Bell’s Kiki. When mousy Kiki finally lays down the law and tells her boorish husband to deal with their kids, it is meant to be a rah-rah moment, but instead becomes eye rolling. Not the best actress in the world, Bell continues to get roles like this in sub-par films.

An attempt by film-makers to make a girl film on par with male driven raunchy comedies thrust on moviegoers over the years, Bad Moms comes across as too unoriginal and too desperate for laughs. Undoubtedly hoping to win over the same audiences who flocked to the last funny female driven comedy hit, 2011 Bridesmaids, the film falls flat and lacks genuine funnies. Its score is bolstered slightly by the successful casting of Kunis in the lead role and the sweet romance her character shares with Hernandez’s Jessie.

The Shape of Water-2017

The Shape of Water-2017

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon

Scott’s Review #705

Reviewed December 16, 2017

Grade: A

Director Guillermo del Toro creates a lovely Beauty and the Beast style film that is as gorgeous to look at as the story is intelligent and sweet to experience. Thanks to a talented cast led by Sally Hawkins, the film is part drama, part science fiction, even part thriller, but touching to ones heart and a lesson in true love regardless of outward appearances. The story was co-written by Vanessa Taylor giving it a needed female perspective to perfectly balance the traditional male machinations.

The setting is Baltimore, Maryland during the early 1960’s. Ongoing is the Cold War pitting the United States and the Soviet Union against each other- both mistrustful of the other side. Kindly and mute, Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a curious and whimsical young woman, who works as a cleaning lady at an Aerospace Research Center. When she stumbles upon a mysterious “shape” being held prisoner for experimentation purposes, she slowly communicates with and befriends the creature, eventually falling madly in love with him. The “asset” as the scientists like to call him is an amphibian/humanoid needing salt water to survive. Elisa sees an opportunity to help her love escape captivity and off she goes.

Hawkins exudes warmth and fills Elisa with courage and a determination that is astounding. Not to utter a word is a tough feat for an actor to challenge, but instead of words, Hawkins successfully provides a vast array of emotions to reveal how Elisa feels. Despite her “handicap” she is a strong woman and speaks her mind on more than one occasion using sign language to offer her frustration. Hawkins gives a fantastic and believable performance.

Cast in wonderful and important supporting roles are Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles, a closeted gay man who works as a commercial artist. Jenkins fills this character with intelligence, heart, and empathy as he struggles with his own issues of alcoholism and loneliness- unable to be accepted for who he is. Octavia Spencer shines as witty and stubborn Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s best friend and co-worker. Zelda has her own domestic problems, but is forever there for her friend, and Spencer gives her character zest, humor, and energy. Finally, Michael Shannon plays the dastardly and menacing Colonel Richard Strickland, the man who found the “asset” in the rivers of South America and has a nice family. Each of these characters is written exceptionally well and each has their own story-line rather than simply supporting Hawkins character.

The audience becomes involved in the private lives of Giles, Zelda, and Strickland and we get to know and care for them- or hate them as the case may be. Giles, harboring a crush on a handsome pie-shop owner, is afraid to make his feelings known. Zelda, with a lazy husband, dutifully takes care for her man though she is as sassy as they come. And Strickland lives an all-american family life with a pretty wife and two kids, totally unaware of his shenanigans.

The film is really a gorgeous and lovely experience and by this I mean the film has a magical element. The opening and closing sequences, shot underwater, resound in beauty as objects float along in a dreamy way, the narrator (Jenkins) taking us on a journey to explain the events of the story. At its core, The Shape of Water is a romantic love story and my favorite scenes- those of Hawkins and the “asset” are to be treasured. Yes, the two do make love, which may be too much for some, but the scenes are tasteful and important to show the depth of the characters love for one another.

Cherishing is  the way that Elisa uses both music and hard-boiled eggs to communicate with the “asset”. When Elisa imagines the two characters dancing, the sequence is an enchanting experience reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Other underwater scenes involving Elisa and the “asset” are tender, graceful, and filled with loveliness.

A key part of the film involves a story of intrigue between the Americans and the Soviets, and while both are portrayed in a negative fashion, the Americans are arguably written as more unsympathetic than the Soviets. Thanks to Strickland- abusive and vicious, and his uncaring superior, General Holt, we do not root for the government officials at all, but rather, the ordinary folks like Elisa, Zelda, and Giles, who are outcasts. Interestingly, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy who is a scientist, is the only character working at the center who wants to keep the “asset” alive and is written in a sympathetic way.

My overall assessment of The Shape of Water is that it is a film to be enjoyed on many levels and by particular varied tastes- the film will cater to those seeking an old-style romance, complete with some tasty French music. Then again, the film can be lumped into a political espionage thriller, with a cat-and-mouse chase and other nail-biting efforts. Overall, the film has heart and truth and will appeal to vast audiences seeking an excellent film.

Why Him?-2016

Why Him?-2016

Director-John Hamburg

Starring-John Franco, Bryan Cranston

Scott’s Review #704

Reviewed December 6, 2017

Grade: D

Why Him? is epic film drivel, starring quite capable actors in a mish-mash of dull, predictable story, obnoxious characters, and a need to attempt to go raunchier and raunchier for the sake of a cheap laugh. Why there is a market for films like this is beyond me as no thinking is required (maybe the film will please those fans!), but the film scores slightly higher than a solid “F” based solely on a few chuckles uttered thanks to the only dim bright spots in this mess- Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally.

In a story told dozens of times before in “slapstick comedy” fare, the premise is tired beyond belief- good girl meets bad boy, they fall head over heels in love, and must deal with the aftermath of her parents meeting, and hating, said bad boy. The main gimmick is the rivalry between boyfriend and girlfriends father- think an unfunny Meet the Parents.  A silly and uninteresting plot point about each characters business success or lack thereof is mixed in, as if anyone cares. As with all films of this ilk, the story is wrapped up in a neat, tidy, little bow by the time the credits roll and all characters live happily ever after in perfect harmony <gag>.

Cast in one of his most disappointing  roles, James Franco stars as Laird Mayhew, a wealthy, eccentric, thirty-something CEO of an upstart video game company. He is foul-mouthed and comically speaks his mind or absentmindedly shows his ass on a skype chat with his girlfriend (Zoey Deutch) Stephanie while her parents are linked to the chat at a birthday party.  Stephanie Fleming (Deutch), a college student,  and girlfriend of Laird, decides to invite her parents, Ned and Barb (Cranston and Mullally), along with their fifteen-year old Scotty for Christmas holidays.  In predictable fashion, Stephanie’s parents are appalled by Laird and want her to have nothing to do with him. When Stephanie arranges for Ned, Barb, and Scotty to stay at Laird’s spacious home, the antics really take off as feuds and misunderstandings erupt.

The main problem with Why Him? is that director John Hamburg (famous for mainstream comedies such as Along Came Polly and I Love You, Man), seems determined to push the raunchy comedy elements further with this idiotic film. He makes Laird as obnoxious and crass as possible, yet tries to make the character more “likable” by giving him a clueless quality- therefore he is not really mean-spirited and should therefore be loved by the audience. The character does not work at all- especially having seen Franco in some terrific roles- specifically 127 Hours and  Howl. Being a fan of the talented actor I expected more from him, but alas, some performances are only as good as the material written.

If there is a bright spot worth mentioning it is with the casting of Cranston and Mullally. Two actors undeniably good at physical comedy, they do as much as they can with poorly written, stock type roles. Cranston’s Ned, a middle-class small business owner from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is both envious and resentful of Laird, perhaps admiring the young man’s business savvy and regretting not being as successful. Barb is a one-note, ditzy yet lovable wife- a role made slightly better by Mullally’s goofy portrayal. In one of the best scenes, Barb smokes pot and becomes a disheveled mess in the bedroom. Ned, trapped on the toilet the next morning, has an embarrassing experience with Laird’s best friend, Gustav. These scenes, while juvenile, are made better because of the likes of the funny actors.

Suffering greatly from a tired and overused story-line that falls flat, unlikable and dull characters, the film offers nothing of substance or worth. Why Him? is entirely plot driven with no character development or well-written characters to speak of. The film is a complete waste of time, resulting from a studio hoping to achieve box office success by churning out a poor comedy with wasted talent that will please only those audiences not expecting much out of their films.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri-2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri-2017

Director-Martin McDonagh

Starring-Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Scott’s Review #703

Reviewed December 4, 2017

Grade: A

Frances McDormand takes control of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from the first scene and never lets go as she gives a riveting portrayal of an angry mid-western woman seeking justice in the Martin McDonagh directed 2017 vehicle. The up and coming director has also created such films as  2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths. Similar to these films, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is peppered with dark comedic moments and vile, bitter characters. The film is a measured success as it is not your standard Hollywood production and, in fact, is quite left of center.

The action begins as we meet McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, sitting alone in her beat up station wagon, brooding by the side of the road gazing at three tattered billboards. She is clearly both pissed off and thoughtful as she formulates a plan to purchase a years worth of billboards, questioning the local police’s ineptitude at finding her daughters rapist and killer. Woody Harrelson portrays the Ebbing police chief, Sheriff Bill Willoughby, and Sam Rockwell plays the racist and dim-whited officer Jason Dixon, both displeased with Mildred’s activities.

Other casting decisions in small yet important roles are Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s adolescent and depressed son, Robbie, and John Hawke as her ex-husband, Charlie, who is dating a eighteen year old ditz. Peter Dinklage is well cast as local car salesman, James, an earnest dwarf with a crush on Mildred. Well cast supporting roles are prevalent throughout the film as small town locales like Jason’s mother, and Red, the owner of the advertising agency who rents the billboards to Mildred shape the experience. The casting in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is a strong point of the film as a whole.

The town of Ebbing is portrayed as dreary, blue collar, and racist, but just perfect as a way of setting the tone of the film. I suspect residents of the mid-west or southern United States of America may take some issue with character representations. Jason is clearly written as both racist and not too smart and he encompasses numerous characters in the film. Enough cannot be said for Rockwell’s performance in transforming a hated character during the first two-thirds of the film to suddenly almost becoming the hero towards the end. Props are also deserved by Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby- bordering on hick and racist, he also has a heart, and cares about Mildred’s predicament- when a shocking event occurs, he becomes an even richer character.

Worth pointing out and impressive to me as a viewer, are that the three prominent black characters- Willoughby’s replacement, Abercrombie, Mildred’s best friend and co-worker, Denise, and a kindly billboard painter, are each written as intelligent and sensitive, a fact I found to perfectly balance the other less sympathetic characters. In this way, a nasty film becomes more satisfying.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, though, belongs to McDormand. Successful is she at portraying a myriad of different emotions. From her sly eye-winking as she crafts a good verbal assault on whomever crosses her path, to an emotional breakdown scene towards the end of the film, McDormand embodies the character with depth. During a gorgeous scene, she has a sweet conversation with a peaceful deer grazing nearby, for a second imagining it could be her dead daughter reincarnated. The scene richly counter-balances other violent and difficult scenes. McDormand manages to look downright homely in some scenes- beautiful in others.

A film sure to divide viewers- some will champion the films crisp writing and witty dialogue, others will undoubtedly be turned off by the foul language and nasty nature of some of the characters. I found Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to be sarcastic, gritty, and well told, a versatile affair rich with layers and brimming with enjoyment.

Howards End-1992

Howards End-1992

Director-James Ivory

Starring-Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter

Scott’s Review #702

Reviewed December 1, 2017

Grade: A-

Howards End is my favorite film in the collection of E.M. Forster adapted novels turned into films during the 1980’s and 1990’s (1985’s A Room with a View and 1987’s Maurice are the other two quality works). The novels were written during the early 1900’s and set during the same period, focusing on class relations  during 20th-century England. The film is lovely, picturesque, and carves an interesting story about romance and drama between the haves and the have-nots during this time period. The film was a success and received heaps of Academy Award nominations in 1993.

Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), an upper-middle class intellectual , part of London’s bourgeoisie, befriends wealthy and sophisticated, yet shockingly conservative Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave). The two women strike up a powerful friendship, which results in her beloved country home being left to Margaret when an ailing Mrs. Wilcox dies. To complicate matters, Margaret falls in love with businessman (and husband of Ruth), Henry (Anthony Hopkins), while Margaret’s sister Helen, briefly becomes engaged to Paul Wilcox, Henry’s son. The two families lives further intersect when they wind up as neighbors in London and the true ownership of the beloved “Howards End” is questioned. Added in the mix are several other characters of various social backgrounds, having connections to the families.

The writing in Howards End is rich and emotional as each character is perfectly fleshed out- and this includes the supporting as well as the lead characters. Thompson and Hopkins, both sensational actors, have tremendous chemistry together, and unsurprising was Thompson’s win for Best Actress during this competitive year. She carries the film seamlessly with her upper middle class ideals- not conservative rich, but far from working class- she epitomizes poise and grace and empathy for those less fortunate than she. Hopkins, on the other hand, is calculating and confident, yet charismatic and sexy as a old-school, controlling businessman. Somehow, these two characters compliment each other exceptionally well despite their varied backgrounds

The role of Helen may very well be Helena Bonham Carter’s finest. Not being an enormous fan of the actress-overrated and too brooding in my opinion-she enjoys portraying an interesting character in Helen. Lovelorn and earnest, yet somewhat oblivious, she develops a delicious romance with young clerk, Leonard Bast, my favorite character in the film. Living with Jacky, a woman of dubious origins, he is the ultimate nice guy, and sadly winds up down on his luck after heeding terrible business advice. Bast, thanks in large part to actor Samuel West, who instills an innocent, good guy quality to his character, deserves major props.

The cinematography featured in Howards End is just beautiful with extravagant outdoor scenes- the lavish gardens of Howards End- just ravishing and wonderful. Kudos too to the art direction, set design, and costume department for making the film look so enchanting. There is something so appealing about the look of this film and director, James Ivory, undoubtedly deserves praise for pulling it all together into a suave picture. Whether the scene call for sun or rain, tranquil or bustling, each and every scene looks great.

If I were to knock any points from this fine film it would be at two hours and twenty two minutes, Howards End does drag ever so slightly, and many scenes involve the characters merely having chats with each other, without much action, but this criticism is small potatoes when compared to the exceptional writing and well-nuanced character development displayed throughout the piece.

Admittedly, and perhaps shamefully, I have not read any of the Forster novels, but Howards End appears to be the film that is most successfully adapted, gleaming with textured finesse, grace, and style. With films finest actors along for the experience, and intricate, fine story-telling, Howards End is a film well worth watching.

Village of the Damned-1960

Village of the Damned-1960

Director-Wolf Rilla

Starring-George Sanders, Barbara Shelley

Scott’s Review #701

Reviewed November 30, 2017

Grade: B

Village of the Damned is a 1960 black and white horror film, released during a spectacular year for the film genre- and specifically for the horror genre. With legendary films such as Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s British Peeping Tom making their debuts at the same time, what a coincidence that Village of the Damned (also British) shares the same year. The film is a satisfying treat- certainly not on par with the aforementioned duo of masterpieces, but on its own terms is a fine film, with just enough suspense and intrigue to make it a memorable affair.

Anything in movie horror involving children is downright creepy, so German director Wolf Rilla is wise to adapt a film based on a 1957 novel entitled The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham. The title is one that I simply adore and wish Rilla had kept for the film. Alas, he did not, but the story is well written and almost like a long episode of The Twilight Zone or a similar television chapter from the 1960’s.- it just seems like more of an episodic experience. No disrespect, of course, but the film simply does not contain the bombast expected from a feature film, but rather a compartmentalized, small tale.

In the sleepy little town of Midwich, England, a polarizing force suddenly, and without warning, overtakes the town, causing all of the inhabitants to fall unconscious and into a state of inactivity. Attempts by the military to enter the town fail, even as an airplane crashes to the ground after attempting to cross into Midwich. As quickly as these events occur, the townspeople “wake up” and resume normalcy. When two months later all women of childbearing years suddenly become pregnant, gossip and intrigue ensue. As the years go by all of the children look similar, with platinum blonde hair, piercing eyes, and rapid growth spurts. Furthermore, they all are telepathic and communicate with each other in this manner.

The central characters include a prominent professor, Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) and his wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley), are the parents of one of the children, named David, who appears to be the leader of the other children. As the children become increasingly menacing and intelligent as they grow older, sometimes hurting or killing other townspeople by somehow “possessing” their thoughts, Gordon must race to find a way to trap and stop the children from more dastardly deeds.

The use of black and white cinematography and the small town setting successfully give Village of the Damned an eerie and mysterious vibe, yet there is little or no bloodshed nor the traditional horror  themed elements- hence the above Twilight Zone reference. The film does not need these to succeed as the psychological mystique is effective enough. We wonder to ourselves, “What is wrong with these kids?” and “Why do they act so strangely?” “Are they possessed?” and  “Is this some kind of weird experiment?” The answers are never really explained in detail.

Slight negatives to the film are the only limited character development among any of the prominent characters such as Gordon or Anthea, and in this way these roles are one-dimensional- the children are the stars of the show. Sanders and Shelley are adequately cast, but I can think of numerous other actors who could have played these parts well or even better.

The conclusion to Village of the Damned is unspectacular and I was left with an unsatisfied feeling, especially as related to other more satisfying aspects to the film as a whole. I felt like a bit of potential was not reached.  Gordon merely orchestrates a big event, thereby sacrificing himself to destroy the children, and the film ends.

Village of the Damned was a followed by a 1963 sequel entitled, Children of the Damned, which was not deemed a critical nor a commercial success. Years later, in 1995, the film was remade and directed by John Carpenter, and was also met with poor reviews.

Lady Bird-2017

Lady Bird-2017

Director-Greta Gerwig

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf

Scott’s Review #700

Reviewed November 28, 2017

Grade: A

Lady Bird is a 2017 independent film release and a wonderful effort by actor turned writer/director, Greta Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut. No stranger to the indie syndicate herself. Gerwig puts her own unique stamp on the film with a rich, female centered perspective that works quite well and that is seeping with charm and wit. Worth noting is how the story is a semi-autobiography-one based on Gerwig’s own life and her stormy dealings with her own mother. The story is well-written, well-paced, and empathetic as the audience views a slice of life through the eyes of a restless yet kindly teenager on the cusp of womanhood.

Saoirse Ronan gives a bravura performance in the title role. Her given birth name being Christine, she defiantly changes it to Lady Bird, in a show of adolescent independence, and much to her parents, Marion and Larry’s (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts ) chagrin. Christine lives in suburban Sacramento, California, and yearns for a more exciting life in New York City, and far away from what she considers Dullsville, USA. Now in her senior year- attending a Catholic high school-Christine applies to college after college, hoping to escape her daily dilemmas. Christine’s best friend Julie and somewhat boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) are along for the ride. The time period is 2002- shortly after 9/11.

The brightest moments in Lady Bird are the scenes between Christine and her mother, which are plentiful. The chemistry between Ronan and Metcalf is wonderful and I truly buy them as a real mother/daughter duo, warts and all. They fight, make up, get on each others nerves, fight, cry, make up, etc. I especially love their knock down-drag-outs, as each actress stands her ground while allowing the other room to shine- feeding off of each other. My favorite Metcalf scene occurs while she is alone- having gotten into a tiff with Christine and giving her the silent treatment while Christine flies to New York, Marion reconsiders as she melts into a ball of tears while she drives away- regretting her decision and missing her daughter already. Metcalf fills the scene with emotional layers as she does not speak- we simply watch in awe as her facial expressions tell everything.

Comparably, Ronan- likely to receive her third Oscar nomination at the ripe old age of twenty three (Atonement and Brooklyn are the other nods), successfully gives a layered performance of a teenage girl struggling with her identity and restless to see different worlds and get out of what she sees as a bland city. Of Irish decent, Ronan is remarkable in her portrayal of a California girl- sometimes selfish, sometimes sarcastic, but always likable and empathetic.

In fact, the casting from top to bottom is wonderful as the supporting players lend added meat to the story. Christine’s best friend, Julie, played by young upstart Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s sister) is compelling as the lovable, chubby, and nerdy theater geek. Letts is perfect as Christine’s father, depressed at losing his job in the tough economy and having to compete with young talent as he sees his career slip away. Legendary actress, Lois Smith, adds heart to the role of Sister Sarah Joan- a by the book nun, who proves to be a cool, old chick. Finally, Hedges, seemingly in every film in 2016-2017, is emotionally resounding as Danny, the troubled boyfriend of Christine- struggling with his sexuality.

Gerwig simply does it all with this piece of film- she directs and writes, scripting both laugh out line moments and eliciting heartfelt emotion from her enchanted audience. A hilarious scene occurs as Christine attends a dreary class assembly- an anti-abortion themed one- by a woman who almost did not exist, but for her mother’s decision not to have an abortion. When a bored Christine icily points out that had the woman’s mother had the abortion, she would not be forced to sit through the assembly, it is a laugh out loud moment.

Lady Bird, thanks to a fantastic writer and director, and superlative casting, is a film that has it all- heart, emotion, humor, and great acting. The film is intelligently written and forces the audience to quite willingly embrace its characters. Gerwig carves a story, perhaps done many times before in film, but with a fresh and energetic feel to it.

Django Unchained-2012

Django Unchained-2012

Director-Quentin Tarantino

Starring-Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz

Scott’s Review #699

Reviewed November 26, 2017

Grade: A

Quentin Tarantino, the brilliant film-maker, can do very little wrong in my opinion, and he releases yet another masterpiece with 2012’s Django Unchained, a western story centering around the delicate subject matter of slavery. As with several other of the talented director’s stories, the main focal point here is a revenge driven tale with plenty of bloody scenes and stylistic ferociousness, making Django Unchained yet another masterpiece in the Tarantino collection. Certainly not for the faint of heart, the film will please fans of film creativity and artistic achievement.

As with many Tarantino films a stellar cast is used and each actor cast to perfection- it seems almost every actor in Hollywood is dying to appear in the director’s films- this time Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson are the lucky ones, all featured in prominent roles- not surprisingly the acting is top-notch. An interesting facet to note is that whomever appears in a Tarantino film seems to be having the time of their lives- what creative freedom and interesting material to experience. A comparable director to Tarantino- as far as recruiting fine actors- is Robert Altman- also tremendously popular with talent.

The saga begins with clear western flair as Django Freeman (Foxx) is led through the scorching heat of Texas with a group of other black slaves, presumably to be sold by their abusive white captors- the time is 1858 and abolition of slavery has not yet occurred, in fact the Civil War is still two years away. Doctor King Schultz (Waltz) , a former dentist and current bounty hunter, is on a mission to find and kill the Brittle brothers and realizes that Django can help him find the men. To complicate matters, Django has been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Washington) and vows to find her and avenge her abductors. As circumstances lead Schultz and Django to a vast Tennessee estate, the duo become business partners and friends. The race to rescue Broomhilda takes the pair to sunny (and equally hot) Mississippi- the home of vicious Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) and his dreaded “Candyland”.

The crackling heat and the atmospheric nature of Django Unchained combined with the revenge theme make the film an immeasurable success. An ode to spaghetti westerns of yesteryear, the film incorporates similar music and grit so that the end result is a modernized version of those films, with lots more blood and violence. Certainly, slavery is a tough subject matter to tackle, especially when members of the Ku Klux Klan are featured, but Tarantino does so effortlessly, and as Django gains revenge on his tormentors, there is major audience satisfaction to be enjoyed. The indignities and downright abuse that several black characters suffer can be quite tough to sit through.

The climactic dinner scene in Mississippi is splendid and the best sequence of the film. Schultz and Django dine with Calvin at his spectacular mansion. Calvin’s sinister and loyal house slave (Jackson) suspects a devious plan is about to be hatched and a vicious shoot-out erupts between the parties involved. The ingenious and long sequence is a cat-and-mouse affair with all of the characters carefully tiptoeing around the others in fear of being revealed or discovered as fakes. The scene is exceptional in its craft as we watch the characters dine on delectable food and drink, all the while motivations bubble under the surface.

Django Unchained is not for film-goers seeking either a linear story or a mainstream piece of blockbuster movie-making-Tarantino is not a typical Hollywood guy. The film is exceptionally carved and constructed in a way that challenges the viewer to endure what some of the characters (specifically Django and Broomhilda) are made to go through. This discomfort and horror makes the inevitable revenge all the more sweet and satisfying.

Quentin Tarantino has created masterpiece after masterpiece throughout his filmography of work. Proudly, I can herald 2012’s  Django Unchained as one of the unique directors very finest and will be sure to be remembered decades and decades in the future as being able to challenge, provoke thought, and satisfy legions of his fans.

Murder on the Orient Express-2017

Murder On The Orient Express-2017

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #698

Reviewed November 25, 2017

Grade: B+

Kenneth Branagh leads an all-star cast as well as directs them in a 2017 remake of the 1974 thriller, Murder On The Orient Express. The film was, of course, based on the famous 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name. With a ritzy cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Defoe, top-notch acting is assured. The cinematography is tremendous as the film looks gorgeous from start to finish and the story is an effective, good, old-fashioned whodunit that will satisfy audiences.

We meet our hero, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), in Jerusalem as he has recently solved a murder mystery and is anticipating a good rest. Poirot is invited by a friend to travel back to his homeland of London via the lavish Orient Express. Amid a group of thirteen strangers, all inhabiting the luxurious first-class accommodations, one of them is savagely murdered in the middle of the night, as a blustery blizzard and subsequent avalanche, derails the train atop mountainous terrain. The strangers are trapped together with a murderer on the loose. Poirot must deduce who has committed the crime and why.

Murder On The Orient Express has all the trimmings for a good, solid murder mystery, and director Branagh sets all of these elements in motion with a good flow. Paced quite nicely, each of the principle characters is introduced in intriguing fashion, so much so that each contains a measure of juicy intrigue. The film gives a brief background of each character as he or she boards the grandiose train. Judi Dench broods as rich and powerful Princess Dragomiroff oozing with jewels and a chip on her shoulder. Corrupt American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is suave and shady as he seems destined to cause trouble. Finally, Penelope Cruz gives her character of repressed Pilar Estravados enough shame and guilt that we cannot think something may be off with her motivations. The details to the characters are rich and compelling.

With actors such as Dench and Depp the acting playing field is set very high, and all of the actors play their parts with gusto. Wonderful to experience with Murder On The Orient Express is the true nature of an ensemble casteach character is relevant in his or her own way, regardless of screen time, and the casting works well. Evident is how the cast must have enjoyed working together on this nice project. Each character is written in a way that the individual actor can sink his or her teeth into the role and the wonderful reveal at the end of the film allows for each a chance to shine so that equal weight is given to each part.

After the actual murder is committed the story really takes off as each character is interviewed by Poirot and given a glance of suspicion. The first half of the film is really just the buildup and, at times, the story slightly lags, but this is fixed when the film kicks into high gear mid-way through. Sometimes a climactic conclusion makes up for any slight lag time suffered in the first portion of the film and Murder On The Orient Express is a great example of this.

The standouts for me are Branagh himself as Poirot and Pfeiffer as the sexy Caroline Hubbard, an American man-crazed older woman.  How wonderful to see Pfeiffer back in the game in 2017- with wonderful roles in both Murder On The Orient Express and Mother! She has the acting chops to pull off sex-appeal, vulnerability, and toughness.  In the case of Branagh, the actor never disappoints in any film he appears in, but seeing him in a leading role is fantastic and he has the ability to carry a film with such a dynamic cast. Branagh’s Poirot is classy, intelligent, and charismatic.

I adored the conclusion of the film and found the explanation and the reasoning of the murderer or murderers quite effective and believable. Through use of black and white flashback scenes, the action aboard the grandiose, yet slightly claustrophobic train scenes, are a perfect balance. Furthermore, the explanation and the motivations of the killer or killers makes perfect sense and much sympathy is evoked. In this way, the story is moralistic and certainly not a black and white subject matter.

Murder On The Orient Express succeeds as a wonderfully shot and star-studded affair. The filming is grandiose and the production values high as a caper film with a mystique and class. The film may not be a true masterpiece or necessarily remembered ten years from now, but what it does it does well. The original film from 1974 is a tad bit better, but as remakes go, the 2017 offering is quite good. A rumored sequel, Death on the Nile, is planned.

Little Miss Sunshine-2006

Little Miss Sunshine-2006

Director-Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring-Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #697

Reviewed November 23, 2017

Grade: A

A film that became a sleeper hit at the time of release in 2006 and went on the achieve recognition with year end award honors galore, Little Miss Sunshine holds up quite well after over ten years since its debut. Combining family humor with heart, audiences will fall in love with the antics of the dysfunctional Hoover family, warts and all, as they strive to persevere endless obstacles to enable precocious, seven year old daughter, Olive, a chance at competing in a beauty pageant hundreds of miles away. The film is a comedic treat with charm and contains uproarious fun.

Directors  (and husband and wife team) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris start right to work kicking off the humor in style as the one hour and forty one minute film introduces depressed Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) to the rest of the Hoovers as he comes to live with the family after a failed suicide attempt. Frank, who is gay and has recently been dumped, is Sheryl Hoover’s (Toni Collette) brother, and has a dry sense of humor. He fits in well with the other peculiar members of the clan- Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear), a struggling motivational speaker, Grandpa Edwin, a vulgar, irritable man, brother Dwayne, angry and refusing to speak, and finally, pudgy faced, Olive.

The brightest spots in Little Miss Sunshine are the exceptional writing and the nuanced, non one-dimensional characters. Each character is both good yet troubled in their own way and the overall message of the film is an important one. The plot of the film encompasses a beauty queen pageant and the lifestyle this involves- the hypocrisy and plastic nature is a main theme. When the family stops at a roadside cafe for breakfast, Olive hungrily orders ice-cream and is shamed by a member of the family- she must watch her figure, she is told. Other members instead encourage Olive to be herself. In this way, Little Miss Sunshine poses an interesting dissection of the pressures very young people face to be perfect, especially in the beauty pageant business, and the message society sends. Shocking is a scene where many of the contestants, all under the age of ten, appear in sexy, glamorous makeup, and bikinis.

Little Miss Sunshine is a very funny film and this undoubtedly is due to the chemistry that exists among the cast of talented actors. Quite the ensemble, all five of the principle characters has an interesting relationship with each other. Too many film comedies suffer immensely from forced jokes or typical “set-up” style humor, plot devices created to elicit a response from the audience- to which I call “dumbing down”. Little Miss Sunshine, however, feels authentic and fresh- a situation becomes funny because there is an honest reaction by the characters. The film is a slice of life experience of an average blue-collar family.

A standout scene to mention is the hysterical one in which the Hoovers are pulled over by a highway police officer. To say nothing of the fact that the Hoovers are “escorting” a corpse to their destination, along with pornographic magazines, their classic, beat-up, yellow Volkswagen bus barely runs and contains a malfunctioning horn that beeps at inopportune times. This hilarious scenes works on all levels as the comic timing is palpable and leads to a laugh out loud response.

Furthermore, the climactic “beauty pageant” scene is fraught with physical humor. Olive, clearly the oddball in a group of hypersexualized, young starlets, takes inspiration from her grandfather to simply “be herself”. She does so in a hilarious version of “Super Freak” that is clearly R-rated, both shocking the audience and celebrated by others- specifically her entire family. Olive successfully proves that she can be herself and happily do so.

How wonderful and refreshing to find a comedy with honest, ample humor and real integrity that is able to shine many years after its first release and retain the richness and zest that originally captured legions of viewers. As proven over time with many independent films, wonderful writing and directors sharing a vision, go a long way in achieving a quality piece of film making.

Wonder Woman-2017

Wonder Woman-2017

Director-Patty Jenkins

Starring-Gal Gadot, Chris Pine

Scott’s Review #696

Reviewed November 20, 2017

Grade: B

Wonder Woman is a 2017 summer offering (and a mega success) that is firmly nestled in the comfort of the super hero, adventure genre, but is quite unique in that it is directed by a woman in what is typically a male dominated field. This must be championed, and the film has a palpable, female empowering quality that I adore since it is still lacking in most mainstream film.

However, at times, the film teeters too much around predictability and possesses many traditional super hero elements, such as good versus evil, climactic fights scenes, and stock villains. But liberties must be taken and overall I saw the film as a female driven work. The fact that Wonder Woman was celebrated by the masses is wonderful news.

Director Patty Jenkins, notable for having previously tackled weighty subject matter in films such as 2003’s Monster, is at the helm of this project and embodies her lead character with a good blend of earnestness, pizzazz, and heart. “Wonder Woman” is a likable character and newcomer Gal Gadot, an unknown to me, is interesting casting. Certainly, there are a myriad of young Hollywood “names” who could have championed the part- Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence may have been palpable in the role. Seemingly a brave choice, Gadot clearly takes command of the character and fills her with substance.

We meet “Princess Diana” as a young girl, living on the protected Amazon island of Themyscira- inhabited only by females. The time is around 1918, amid the harsh reality of World War I, though the members of the tribe know nothing about the war or any other current events- nor do any males live on the island. Most of the women are trained warriors, presumably to protect the island from potential dangers. It is soon revealed that Diana has special powers, and after meeting a lost American soldier, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), she embarks on a mission to save the world from the ravages of war. Mixed in with the main story is a briefly mentioned ancient legend of Zeus’s son Ares plotting to return and destroy the Amazons, whom Zeus created.

My only issue with Wonder Woman as a whole, is with the story.  The plot is not weak, but simply put- it is nestled in Hollywood predictability rather than containing any surprises along the way. Despite deserved kudos for the characterization of Diana, the story ultimately turns ho-hum like many super hero films do- peppered with the inevitable battle scenes. The genre specific “save the world” is played to the hilt as Diana takes it upon herself to stop the war with the belief that people are not entirely bad. With this thought, Diana finally learns a valuable lesson about the complexities of human beings- in this way Wonder Woman contains a moralistic tale- but then come more battle scenes.

The villains are mainly cartoon-like and what one might expect for a film of this kind.  Chemist Isabel Maru/Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), dons a mask to hide a disfigured face (intentionally to test the poison gas), and General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) plans to destroy all of mankind. These characters are straight out of comic books and contain no redeeming qualities.

Contrary to where the main story may be a tad lacking, the romantic element is nicely done and the scenes involving Diana and Steve are sweet and romantic in nature making them fun to watch and a good balance against the action sequences. Gadot and Pine have great chemistry, adding humor, so the scenes are not forced. As Diana sees Steve naked for the first time a clever sexual flirtation develops and a sly lesbian backstory is briefly hinted at. Diana remarks with a smirk that men are only needed for procreation and that the women on the island “can satisfy themselves”. The duo also have a play of words about his “manhood”.

Due to the success of Wonder Woman, a sequel, again directed by Jenkins is in the works. My hope is that because of the box office performance many more liberties can be taken by the talented director and she can further push the envelope as she did with Monster. Wonder Woman is a good film, let’s hope the next installment is a great film.

A Room with a View-1986

A Room with a View-1986

Director-James Ivory

Starring-Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands

Scott’s Review #695

Reviewed November 3, 2017

Grade: B+

A Room with a View (1986) is one of four major films to be based on famed British author E.M. Forster novels- Howards End (1992) and A Passage to India (1986), and Maurice (1987) being the other three. The foursome contain common elements such as vast English countrysides and class distinctions, leading to heartaches and passion. In the case of A Room with a View, the film traverses from artistic Florence, Italy to a cozy village in England.

The film is a period drama mixed with lots of authentic, unforced, good humor and at its core is a solid romantic drama, though if comparing with the aforementioned other films, is not quite on par, though is still an entertaining watch- given the dismal year of cinema circa 1986. The film was considered one of the best releases that particular year and was awarded a handful of Oscar nominations- winning Costume Design, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction.

Cultured and often times brooding, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), goes on holiday to Florence with her rigid and conventional older cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith), who also serves as her chaperone. While enjoying the artistry of the European city, Lucy meets and falls madly in love with free-spirited George Emerson (Julian Sands), who is also visiting Florence with his easy going father, Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott). The men seem oblivious to Lucy’s (and Charlotte’s) Victorian era upbringing, which attracts Lucy and appalls Charlotte. Months later, the would-be lovers reunite in England and spend time averting obstacles thwarting their love, while admitting to themselves that their love is blossoming.

As Lucy has become engaged to snobbish Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), a sophisticate deemed suitable by her family to marry Lucy, the pair lack the romantic connection that she shares with George. Day-Lewis, on the cusp of becoming a breakout star and brilliant talent (think Maurice a year later), gives Cecil a somewhat comical, yet endearing persona, that makes him the main foil, but also breathes sympathy into the character. This is especially evident during the Lucy/Cecil break-up scene.

The standout performance in A Room with a View is the comic brilliance of Smith as the manipulative and witty, Charlotte Bartlett, and this is evident throughout. Smith injects vigor and comic wit into her character, as Charlotte seemingly makes one blunder after the other in the self deprecating way she manages to use to her advantage to humorously manipulate other characters into doing things her way.

A risqué and quite hysterical all male frontal nudity scene occurs mid-way through the film and, while not advancing the plot in any way, steals the entire film in its homoerotic and free-spirited way. As the Reverend, young George, and Lucy’s energetic brother, Freddy, walk along a beautiful path, they decide to skinny dip in a pond where they horseplay and wrestle with each other completely in the buff. As they chase each other around the pond, grab each other, and lightly smack bottoms, one cannot help but wonder if this scene set the tone for 1987’s gay themed period piece based on another E.M. Forster novel, called Maurice. A coincidence? I think not. As the trio of rascals come upon the properly dressed girls on the path, hilarity takes over the scene.

The art direction and costumes are of major excellence to A Room with a View as the film “looks” like a 1910 time period rather than it seeming like it is 1986 with the actors donning early twentieth century styles. In fact, each and every scene is a treat from this perspective as we wonder who will wear what attire in the next scene.

As with the other aforementioned E.M. Forster films, class distinctions and expectations are a major element to A Room with a View and makes Lucy and George all the more likable as a couple. Still, from an overall standpoint there is something slightly amiss in the story department. I did not find Helena Bonham Carter, an actor I like, overall very compelling as Lucy, and I think this leads to the story being slightly less than it might have with another in the role. We may root for Lucy and George, but if the pair do not wind up together it is more of a pity rather than a travesty.

To summarize A Room with a View, the story is good, not great, and other key components to the film are much better than the central love story of Lucy and George, but are therefore secondary to the main action. Given a Charlotte romance, the films best character, now that would have catapulted this film to the exceptional grade. Imagine the possibilities? Or more of the two Miss Alan’s and their gossipy nature, or even a story to the rugged nude horseplay among men. Many of the aspects that could have made A Room with a View great, were too often on the sidelines.

Roman Holiday-1953

Roman Holiday-1953

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn

Scott’s Review #694

Reviewed October 26, 2017

Grade: B+

Roman Holiday, released in 1953, was a box office hit, pleasing legions of fans at the time, in addition to being a critical darling. The film reaped a series of Academy Award nominations including the coveted Best Actress statuette for a young Audrey Hepburn. A happy, uplifting story, the film is not diminished by the Cinderella in reverse story-line, but rather is a charming, romantic experience immersing itself in pleasing locales of the cultural city of Rome. Admittedly, Roman Holiday is an example of a film in which I preferred the latter half to the former, but succeeds in setting the bar high in the romantic comedy genre.

Our heroine, Princess Ann (Hepburn, has it all- a glamorous life, gorgeous clothes, and assistants tending to her every need and want. However, she is unhappy and trapped in a rigid life that lacks freedoms or decisions of any kind, to say nothing of the fun she catches glimpses of party-goers reveling in each night from her expansive palace window. Simply put, she is lonely and unfulfilled. When she sees an opportunity to escape her life for a night of fun, she snatches it and stumbles upon an American reporter, Joe Bradley. The two, despite differing backgrounds, fall madly in love with one another.

At first I found something missing with the film and the chemistry between Peck and Hepburn did not immediately embrace me. As the duo meet, Ann, drunk from sleeping pills, and Joe being the ultimate nice guy and allowing her to sleep in his apartment, the story seems somewhat lagging and lacking a good punch. The pair drive around the city of Rome on a scooter and act childish and silly, Ann acting girlish because fun is an entirely new concept to her. At this point the film was reasonable, but little more than a farce.

As Roman Holiday plugs along, and especially through the final act, the film sheds a bit of its light skin and becomes much more poignant and meaningful. Ann and Joe, while in love, realize they will not and cannot embark on a fairy tale ending, which truthfully, would have made Roman Holiday little more than a standard romantic comedy we have all seen before- you know the type- boy meets girl, roadblocks persist, boy whisks girl away and ride off into the sunset together. Roman Holiday, while not a dark film, goes much deeper than a transparent, predictable ending.

Related to this point is that Roman Holiday contains a realness that sets it apart from many films undoubtedly drawn from it, but unlike this film, lean into contrived or predictable situations. As Joe and Ann fall in love, the audience falls in love with them. In fact, the main plot hurdle- Joe’s temptation to profit off of Ann once he realizes her true identity by way of a sought after interview- is earnestly done with a lack of any pretension. Other similar films ought to take note of this.

Certainly, the historic and culturally relevant locales of Rome are a major sell of the film and, if these scenes were shot on a movie set, a lack of authenticity would surely have emerged. Instead, we are treated to such fabulous location sequences as the Colosseum, the Tiber River, the Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Venezia. Such a delight is the long sequence of Roman escapades as Joe and Ann traverse the city in giddy bliss.

Enjoyable is how Roman Holiday contains no real villain of any sort. Nowhere to be found is any physical hurdles to the duo’s relationship- no outside forces plotting to keep Joe and Ann apart, other than merely their individual lifestyles. Ann is in a world of royalty and pampering, but Joe is an every man, so the chances of living happily ever after are slim to none.

Film lovers intent on discovering one of the early romantic comedies- one could argue that It Happened One Night was the first- ought to take a watch of a feel-good, Hollywood classic from 1953 that is rich in honesty, good humor, and raw emotion without being too much of a heavy melodrama. After a middling start the film finishes with gusto.

Don’t Look Now-1973

Don’t Look Now-1973

Director-Nicolas Roeg

Starring-Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland

Scott’s Review #693

Reviewed October 22, 2017

Grade: A

Don’t Look Now is an exceptional 1973 supernatural horror film that is as thought provoking as it is intelligently written and directed. Combined with riveting acting by famous Hollywood stars of the day, the film is simply an anomaly and must be seen to be appreciated. It is also the type of film that can be watched again and again for better clarity and exhibits the age old “it gets better with age” comparison. The film is rich with story, atmosphere, and cerebral elements, as well as being highly influential to horror films which followed.

Affluent married couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), live happily together in their English country home, raising their two children, Johnny and Christine. After a tragic drowning incident, resulting in the death of Christine, the devastated couple relocates to Venice, after John accepts a position restoring an ancient church. Soon, Laura meets a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be clairvoyant, warning her of imminent danger and that Christine is attempting to contact her from beyond.

Don’t Look Now is hardly your standard horror film, which is a main part of its appeal- psychological in nature, the film holds only one gruesome death- not including the death of Christina, which is a terrible accident- not malicious. Rather, director Nicolas Roeg quietly builds the suspense to a startling final sequence by using a chilling musical score to elicit a reaction from the audience. We know not what will happen, only that something sinister is bound to.

Due to the successful chemistry between Sutherland and Christie, in 1973, both cream of the crop in terms of film success and marketability, the actors deserve much credit for making Don’t Look Now both believable and empathetic. As John and Laura, each gives their character a likable nature and immeasurable chemistry, which makes the audience care for them. Despite the supernatural elements in the film, at its core the story is quite humanistic. John and Laura have tragically lost a child and we see them deal with the painful grief associated with this loss. The famous sex scene between the pair is shocking given the time period, but also tastefully done, as Roeg uses a fragmented filming style that mixes the nudity with the couple dressing for dinner.

Visually, Don’t Look Now is a pure treat. The viewer is catapulted to the cultural and wonderful world of watery Venice, where scene after scene feature gondola rides, exterior treats of the city, and filming locations such as the famous Hotel Gabrielli Sandworth and the San Nicolo dei Mendicoli church, wisely chosen as shooting locations giving the film an effective realism.

The characters of the elderly sisters, Heather and Wendy, are wonderfully cast. Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania are fantastic and believable as the mysterious duo. Seemingly kindly and eager to help, I was never really sure what the characters true motives were. Was Laura paying them for their assistance? The film never reveals this information, but Heather especially, contains a sinister look that shrouds her motivations in uncertainty. Fabulous actress Mason shines in her important role.

As John begins to “see things”, the use of the color red becomes very important. Christine died wearing a red coat and John sees a child wearing a red coat walking around the city, but cannot make out her face. When he then sees Laura and the sisters at a funeral, we begin to question his sanity. But are the sisters up to something and attempting to trick him or is his mind playing tricks on him? The terrific conclusion will only lead the viewer to more questions.

Don’t Look Now is a unique, classic horror film, with incredible thematic elements, an eerie psychological story, fine acting, and location sequences that will astound. Mixing the occult with an unpredictable climax, the film is influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and succeeds in achieving a blood curdling affair sure to be discussed upon the chilling conclusion. The film is non-linear in storytelling, which only makes it more challenging to watch and appreciate.

Welcome to my blog! My name is Scott Segrell. I reside in Stamford, CT. This is a diverse site featuring hundreds of film reviews I have created ranging in genre from horror to documentaries to Oscar winners to weird movies to mainstream fare and everything in between. Please take a look at my Top 100 Films section! This list is updated annually- during the month of September. Simply scroll down to the Top 100 Films category on the left or right hand side of the page. Enjoy and keep the comments coming!