Salmon Fishing in the Yemen-2011

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen-2011

Director-Lasse Hallstrom

Starring-Ewing McGregor, Emily Blunt

Scott’s Review #1,152

Reviewed June 15, 2021

Grade: B-

Despite exceptional chemistry between leads Ewing McGregor and Emily Blunt, who were also bankable stars in 2011, the romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in The Yemen (2011) is predictable, dull, and lacks a good identity. It is the feel-good film of the year and that is not meant as a compliment.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s above par as compared to the usual drivel emerging from one of my least favorite dramas, the rom-com, but it should offer more than the by-the-numbers plot it churns out. Someone either felt lazy or was instructed to create a banal film.

With good actors and fabulous locales, I expected more edge from Swedish director, Lass Hallstrom. But, alas, we get something merely adequate.

Doctor Alfred Jones (McGregor) is a fisheries scientist who one day receives an unusual request from a strong businesswoman named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Blunt). She wants his help in fulfilling a request from a wealthy sheik played by Amr Waked who wants to bring sport fishing to Yemen.

Jones declines at first, but when the British prime minister’s spokeswoman (Kristin Scott Thomas) latches on to the project as a way to improve Middle East relations, he joins in. Romance blooms as Jones and Harriet work to make the sheik’s dream come true.

If this brief synopsis sounds like it’s taken from a novel that’s because it is and it is as straightforward as you can imagine. The film is based on a 2007 novel which certainly must have been better than the film.

Let’s be fair and clear. McGregor and Blunt are as good as they can be with the material they are given and they succeed in bringing some life to the big screen. The trouble is there isn’t very far to go with their characters. Harriet is a businesswoman with a task at hand. Alfred is a handsome doctor with something she needs. Did I mention he’s a doctor?

Harriet’s romantic interest is hardly a surprise and Hallstrom puts nary any real obstacles in their path towards getting together. The fact that early in the film Harriet is dating British Special Forces Captain Robert Meyers played by Tom Mison and Alfred is married to a woman named Mary (Rachael Stirling) is laughable after Robert is quickly killed off and Mary is sent away to Geneva for a conference. Predictably, Alfred and Mary realize their marriage is over.

But wait, there’s more! Robert resurfaces from the dead alive and well. Harriet struggles with her emotions and quickly realizes that her feelings for him have changed leaving her to be with Alfred.

The setup for Harriet and Alfred is as predictable as what peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will taste like.

Poor Kristin Scott Thomas, a fantastic actor is reduced to playing the cliched role of Public Relations Patricia Maxwell. She straightforwardly plays her as aggressive, impatient, and bitchy. The performance doesn’t work well.

Second, to the sweetness of McGregor and Blunt, the locales are thankfully plentiful. Visits to London, Scotland, and Morocco are blessed treats.

A silly subplot of the salmon being removed from British rivers and something about farming goes nowhere and is not worth the effort to go into. Suffice it to say it does little for the film or as a companion to the main plot. The only thing viewers should focus on is Harriet and Alfred’s romantic involvement.

I only recommend Salmon Fishing in The Yemen (2011) for those fans of either McGregor or Blunt or who yearn to escape to a fantasy world with a happily ever after ending.

If one enjoys fishing or fly-fishing (is there a difference?) that may be enough cause to give the film a twirl too.

Otherwise, the film offers nothing that hasn’t been seen countless times before. By the conclusion of the film, I felt weary and bored for so much unchartered potential left on the cutting room floor….or somewhere else.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle-1973

The Friends of Eddie Coyle-1973

Director-Peter Yates

Starring-Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle

Scott’s Review #1,151

Reviewed June 11, 2021

Grade: B+

Borrowing heavily from the standard cop thriller films to emerge during the early 1970s but containing a unique cynicism and a point of view all its own, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is a taut and engaging crime thriller that will please fans of the genre but never bailing on those cinema fans seeking a more intellectual experience.

The Boston landscape is plentiful and a treat for fans of locale shoots and 1970s qualities.

A superior film based against the many similar films to be created during the decade, there is a moroseness that encompasses the experience. I felt sorry for the main character and The Friends of Eddie Coyle lacks a clear good guy versus bad guy standard. This actually helps the film.

What I’m trying to say is that those crime thriller fans desiring a clear hero or standard characterization might be unsatisfied or miss the point, though the bank robbery scenes alone are worth the price of a ticket.

Some say, Robert Mitchum, cast in the title role gives his finest film performance but I wasn’t entirely blown away.  The film is an ensemble and at times Eddie Coyle feels like a supporting character.  Think Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). Instead, I ruminated over his brilliant performances in my two favorite films of his, The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

His performance is fine but all the actors bring their A-game.

Aging low-level Boston gunrunner Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) is fearful of the possibility of several years of jail time for participating in a truck hijacking in neighboring New Hampshire. Having a wife and kids dependent on him, and feeling old and desperate, he volunteers to funnel information to Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), an ATF agent.

Eddie buys some guns from another gunrunner, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), then gives him up to Foley, but the agent isn’t satisfied. Panicked, Eddie decides to also give up the gang of bank robbers he’s been supplying, only to find that Foley already knows about them, and the mob believes Eddie snitched.

These events do not bode well for poor Eddie who now has a mark on his back.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a handful of plots happening simultaneously. There is Eddie’s predicament, the saga of the bank robbers and the bank owners they put in peril, and a bartender played by Peter Boyle (of televisions Everybody Loves Raymond fame), who is also an informant. The stories intertwine but sometimes not quite enough and a conclusion over how the players relate is sometimes unclear.

From the get-go, I was reminded of Dirty Harry (1971) which arguably propelled the cop/crime thriller/crime drama to mainstream audiences. Dave Grusin gets credit for the music composition and creates a similar score to Dirt Harry with funky tempo, time-relevant arrangements. They really work and fit the times perfectly.

Differing from Dirty Harry, which is a superb film in many ways, is the messaging. Whereas, Dirty Harry professes a good vs. bad approach and a conservative pro-gun stance, The Friends of Eddie Coyle doesn’t partake in schooling the audience on the viewpoints of most cops. The bad guys are complex and nuanced characters with worries and fears to wrestle with themselves.

The location sequences are plentiful and give the film authenticity and Boston appreciation. The classic Boston Garden is featured as two characters attend a Boston Bruins hockey game. The Charles River, downtown, and surrounding areas like Quincy are featured. Director, Peter Yates certainly creates a blue-collar, Irish-represented community.

Lovers of classic 1970s American automobiles will be in heaven. I spotted a Ford Galaxy, Chevy Impala, and similar full-sized cars. One character drives a green muscle car. I mean, there are tons and tons of car sequences in this film.

The seedy Boston underworld, a terrific performance by Robert Mitchum, and enough guns, car chases, and bank robberies to satisfy the action audience, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is a win. The film didn’t stick with me as much as I would have liked but it’s a striking entry in the crime thriller genre.

Take Shelter-2011

Take Shelter-2011

Director-Jeff Nichols

Starring-Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,150

Reviewed June 9, 2021

Grade: B+

Michael Shannon is a great actor. Appearing mostly in supporting roles and breaking out big time in 2008’s Revolutionary Road he gets the lead in Take Shelter (2011) and is more than up to the task of creating a great character. The ambivalence and uncertainty his character feels are monumental to the enjoyment of the film.

It’s a slow burn and an unsatisfying payoff but I mean that with positive praise.

The plot is set in a small rural town in Ohio. Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a working-class husband and father and provider to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah. Curtis begins to have scary apocalyptic dreams which he keeps from his family.

He decides to build a storm shelter in his backyard which raises concerns for Samantha. His strange behavior creates a strain on his family. As he builds the shelter, Curtis is afraid of his dreams, or rather, afraid that they are a premonition and will come true. Is he going crazy, or will his dreams become a devastating reality?

Curtis, Samantha, and the entire audience will ponder this note throughout the course of the film.

An interesting add-on is that Hannah is deaf so the way her parents embrace and accept her disability is a nice nod to the inclusiveness of people with disabilities.

Take Shelter is delightful to revisit and discuss ten years following its release. In 2011, both Shannon and Chastain were up and coming stars and only barely on the cusp of A-list status so it’s fun to see them in an independent film that showcases their acting chops. They would grow to be big stars and flourish their talents in many other roles so it’s fun to see them in early-career performances.

Shannon is careful not to outshine Chastain, but Curtis’s focal point is what is going on internally. His conflict is palpable and written all over his face in quiet scene after quiet scene after quiet scene of his gazing at the luminous skies. He wonders what is coming next.

His dreams and hallucinations and auditory experiences involving swarms of blackbirds are creepy and well-made on a small budget. A clue is when it is revealed that Curtis’s mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia at roughly the same age that Curtis is.

A drained Curtis seeks counseling but still cannot shake his feelings of impending doom. I felt completely empathetic to his plight and never saw Curtis as crazy or out of control. He possesses controlled restrain.

In fact, director Jeff Nichols does an exceptional job of making the film largely quiet and peaceful with a gnawing and foreboding dread just as the expected apocalypse might come upon the lonely town.

Take Shelter is the debut by Nichols who followed up this gem with two other low-key but critically acclaimed films Mud (2012) and Loving (2016). He knows how to get to the core of his character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Unexpectedly, he wrote each of these works and received praise for fine writing.

The film is really about the relationship between the characters and the possibility that Curtis is going insane. I’m not sure Take Shelter provides a neatly wrapped conclusion but boy is it an edge-of-your-seat thrill. And why does it need to?

Shannon’s best scene occurs at a Lions Club community event. With most of the town gathered in the hall for a delicious dinner of pot luck dishes things go bad when Curtis loses his temper and verbally berates the townspeople. He warns them that they are unprepared for the doom. They look at him as if he belongs in a padded cell. Shannon’s explosion is frightening and frighteningly good.

As good as Shannon is, Chastain must not be dismissed. She barely holds it together as a woman with a special needs child and an unbalanced husband. When they lose their health insurance she nearly comes apart at the seams.

I love the ending because Nichols leaves the truth of reality a mystery to the audience. This may dissatisfy some but I thought it’s how Take Shelter should be. Unclear, just like the thoughts of its main character.

Take Shelter (2011) succeeds with a powerhouse performance by its star Michael Shannon and wonderful direction and a refined imbalance. The quiet and thoughtful cinema fan will endear the most to this film.

Tenet-2020

Tenet-2020

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-John David Washington, Robert Pattinson

Scott’s Review #1,149

Reviewed June 4, 2021

Grade: C

For those film lovers craving a plot that serves as a weaving puzzle that can never be figured out Tenet (2020) is highly recommended. Others who crave a more defined and linear story and character development will be disappointed by the film. Tenet is a visuals only experience as I tuned in and out of the actual plot points after realizing they intersect past present and future elements.

I really did try from the outset to understand but ended up falling flat.

One’s enjoyment will depend on your own cinematic desires and expectations.

I skew much more towards a good story with excellent acting and an emotional reaction to the project. I’m not as focused on brilliant CGI or dazzling visuals as some but I recognize that Tenet has these elements.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the film’s Oscar win for Best Visual Effects or nomination for Best Production design- thank goodness the terrific Mank (2020) won the latter award.

I’ll try to summarize the plot. A secret agent simply named the Protagonist (John David Washington) embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III. The villainous Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branaugh) is a Russian oligarch who communicates with the future and is intent on destroying the world. His wife, Kat Barton (Elizabeth Debicki) despises her husband and aligns with the Protagonist to stop him. They fall in love.

Along for the ride are an arms dealer, Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia), and Robert Pattinson plays the Protagonist’s handler who may or may not be trusted.

Let’s start with the positives. Tenet gets off to a terrific start with a scene at the Kyiv opera house in Ukraine. Though silly, the invasion of the theater and massive sleeping effect of the theater attendees and performers is like a domino effect. The scene is fast and exciting. Later, a daring car chase featuring a car speeding down a highway in reverse gear is pretty exciting. Add a character bound and tied in the passenger seat with no driver and no way to get out provides a cool James Bond moment.

Another positive are the luscious locales like Estonia, Oslo, Norway, London, and the Amalfi coast.

That’s where the fun ends.

I have to admit that I expected more from Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed the project. The man has churned out superlative efforts like The Dark Knight (2008) and Dunkirk (2017), but Tenet will not rank among his finest moments.

To that end, it’s a Nolan film. Sound and visuals are his trademarks and the bombastic, booming score is tight and familiar. The mixing of loud, techy, thundering beats is commonplace but sadly does little for the film. They almost become annoying.

The cast is seasoned and capable. With Washington, Pattinson, Branaugh, and Debicki onboard there is a talent to be found. Even Michael Caine is cast in one wasteful scene. Nonetheless, the actors drift through their scenes looking perplexed and stiff. Probably because they didn’t know what the hell was going on in the scenes.

Just like the viewer.

The dialogue is an issue because it’s not written well. Why would Kat want to kill a man who is already dying of terminal cancer? Why not wait out his demise? And the time travel was lost on me from the first sequence. I simply didn’t care.

The most laugh-out-loud line occurs when Kat exclaims to the Protagonist, “I just knew you’d have a backup plan. Wait, you do have a backup plan, right?” With juicy dialogue like this, it’s a wonder Tenet didn’t receive a Best Screenplay nomination. I jest, of course.

Little nitpicky items like the Protagonist and Kat having zero chemistry even though an interracial romance had so much potential are disappointing.

I can’t say I’d recommend Tenet (2020), but I can provide details of what you can expect from the experience. Some cool visual moments can’t overcome the lack of any storyline and the viewer will become lost in the tired moments. By the final sequence, I thought I had watched a generic episode of a network television series like NCIS.

Ouch.

Oscar Nominations: Best Visual Effects (won), Best Production Design

The French Connection II-1975

The French Connection II-1975

Director-John Frankenheimer

Starring-Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey

Scott’s Review #1,148

Reviewed June 2, 2021

Grade: B

The French Connection, the winner of the coveted Best Picture Academy Award for pictures released in 1971, is a brilliant film, holding up well as a cream of the crop cop film. An action film winning an Oscar is as rare as a horror film winning it. It’s rare.

The decision to make a sequel is debatable but The French Connection II (1975) forges as a decent action crime thriller but hardly on par with the original.

Is anyone surprised?

Sequels rarely usurp their predecessors especially when The French Connection is such a superior genre film. In a way, Part II didn’t have much of a chance measured up against Part I. Films like The Godfather only come around once in a lifetime. Unfortunately, William Friedkin did not return to the fold to direct, replaced by John Frankenheimer, best known for the nail-biting The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Thankfully, Gene Hackman did return. He helps the film from an acting perspective and gives his all in a tough role. His partner, played by Roy Scheider does not appear and is not mentioned.

Picking up a couple of years after the first one ended, Detective “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) is still hot on the heels of cagey and sophisticated drug trafficker Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle hops a flight to lovely Marseilles, France. Away from his familiar New York City territory, he struggles to assimilate himself in a strange city and conquer the drug ring to bring Charnier down.

Doyle is accosted and spends time as a dreary heroin addict in rough confines before being tossed away and forced to recover cold turkey style. He becomes even more determined to bring the bad guys to justice- dead or alive.

As a stand-alone action film, The French Connection II is not a bad experience. It is certainly better than the still-to-come 1980s doldrums like the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon cop/buddy films that marginalized the genre into cookie-cutter popcorn films.

The gripping New York City is replaced by the equalling compelling French landscape. Gorgeous locales like the French Riviera and the Meditteranean Sea are featured but Marseilles is not Paris. There exists a seediness and dirtiness that helps the film a bit.

Hackman acts his ass off especially as a drug addict. I shudder to think of a weaker actor trying to pull off this acting extravaganza. From scenes featuring his withdrawals to his drug cravings are exciting to watch and showcase Hackman’s wonderful acting chops.

But the intent is to produce a good action film after all and that effort is mediocre. The French Connection II is simply not as compelling as The French Connection and despite some decent chase scenes and a cool finale where Doyle gets his satisfaction there is little else but by the numbers activity.

To be fair, the final fifteen minutes is the best part of the film.

Remember the frightening car chasing a subway sequence? Or the delicious cat and mouse subway sequence between Doyle and Charnier? Brilliant scenes like this do not exist.

A few clichés are bothersome. Predictably, Doyle stands out like a sore thumb in France and his hot-headedness emerges quickly, offending or pissing off the French authorities. He is not the most likable character and I frequently found myself rooting for the bad guys!

I don’t think I was supposed to.

Other implausibilities occur like the boneheaded decision to send Doyle to Marseilles, to begin with. Was he the only detective, including the French authorities, capable of catching Charnier?

What was the point of the old-lady heroin addict stealing Doyle’s watch?

A shadow of The French Connection, The dull titled The French Connection II is a weaker effort but still respectable as matched against other genre films. This is mostly because of the French landscape and the return of Gene Hackman.

Ugetsu-1953

Ugetsu-1953

Director-Kenji Mizoguchi

Starring-Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo

Scott’s Review #1,147

Reviewed May 31, 2021

Grade: A

Kenji Mizoguchi, who directs the brave Japanese masterpiece, Ugetsu (1953), successfully brought eastern cinema to western audiences at the time the film was discovered. The result is a groundbreaking ghost story that fuses reality with the supernatural in the most gorgeous ways.

It’s not always clear what is going on but in only the best of ways. It’s like being inside a dream.

The notice is a long time coming since Mizoguchi had been making films since the 1920s! But his forever stamp on cinema is worth the wait and Ugetsu is a timeless treasure.

Ugetsu is not the easiest plot to follow but that is just fine because its brilliance lies in other areas. Like, every area to be clear. The cinematography, the mix of reality and supernatural, the tone, and the questioning messages and character conflict all add muscle.

It’s cinema to be experienced and mesmerized by. Haunting, sad, and stoic, it explores themes such as war, family, and forbidden relationships.

Its cultural exploration is important and teaches Japanese customs. This film taught me what great cinema is- not necessarily linear or explained, but drenched with brilliance, thoughtfulness, and art. I was able to escape the confines of traditionally constructed films and it was an awakening in pleasure and creativity.

The lesson learned is great cinema knows no boundaries and the film was helpful to open my eyes to types and styles of films that may be deemed difficult.

Drawing its plot particularly from Ueda’s tales “The House in the Thicket” and “The Lust of the White Serpent”, the film is set in Azuchi–Momoyama period Japan (1573–1600). Mizoguchi was fascinated and inspired by these fables and the supernatural style from the long-ago stories are powerful and classic.

A peasant farmer and potter, Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori) leaves his wife and young son behind during the civil war and is seduced by a spirit that threatens his life. He finds himself at a Kutsuki mansion in the hopes of selling his pottery. The mansion is run by the fabulous Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) who seduces him and requests he marry her.

But is Lady Wakasa real or a ghost from the past? She harbors a horrific secret.

A subplot involves Genjūrō’s friend, Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of becoming a great samurai and chases this goal at the unintended expense of his wife. He steals the head of a well-known general and is rewarded with shiny armor. Eager to tell his wife he instead finds her working at a local brothel.

The costumes specifically deserve a shout-out. Drenched in Japanese drawings and colors they are exquisite to the eye despite Ugetsu being a black and white film. The obvious art actually looks better without color adding mystique.

My favorite visual is when two couples drift along in a boat on a tremendous lake. Amid fog and haze, the scene is gloomy yet magnificent offering the lushness of Japanese geography. It’s a breathtaking visual with a fabulous texture and tone that, once again, is aided by black and white filmmaking.

The ghost story also is aided by the black and white cinematography. Isn’t everything? The scenes seem to scroll by in a fusion of live-action and gorgeous landscapes. What is reality and what is not is up for debate? This adds to the confusion and overall beauty.

The humanity and moral conflict the two main characters face is hearty and worthy of a discussion. They strive for great success and riches but live in a cruel world with challenges. I found the men to be heroes. Ugetsu is as much a character study as it is an art film.

Ugetsu (1953) is a must-see for film lovers and those intrigued by other cultures. It should definitely appear on lists of superior films shown at film schools if it is not already.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Black and White

Valentine-2001

Valentine-2001

Director-Jamie Blanks

Starring-Denise Richards, David Boreanaz

Scott’s Review #1,146

Reviewed May 26, 2021

Grade: C

Valentine (2001) is a horror film made in the wrong decade. The film could have been more meaningful or relevant if only it had been made in the early 1980s. Sadly, it feels like a weak retread and an ode to a former time. Its flight took off twenty years ago.

1981 or 1982 was the heyday of the slasher flick. It’s kind of like a band attempting to play 1980’s pop hits passed off as original music- it doesn’t work. Or, a cover band belting out Bon Jovi hits as their own. What’s worse is that it’s set in 2001. It might have been a better film with some feathered hair or parachute pants and a direct tribute to the 1980s.

It’s painfully mediocre.

If I sound harsh that is not my intention. Valentine is not a disastrous film and the pacing is fine at a short one hour and thirty-six minutes. It’s just that it’s dreadfully unoriginal and therefore uninspiring.

It’s like the filmmakers thought, ‘let’s put some hot chicks in a slasher film and off them one by one and make some money”. Valentine didn’t make much money and was universally panned.

Borrowing from several popular flicks like Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), and My Bloody Valentine (1981), director Jamie Banks even steals the familiar holiday theme so necessary for this type of genre.

Even the final twist is unfulfilling because, like in almost all slasher films, a twist is almost mandatory and therefore unsurprising.

Before I forget, the acting is painfully bad. So there’s that bonus.

The action begins at a junior high school Valentines’s Day dance in 1988. An outcast named Jeremy Melton, asks four popular girls to dance and is disdainfully rebuffed by each. They are clearly mean girls. Their overweight friend Dorothy accepts Jeremy’s invitation and they make out underneath the bleachers.

When bullies discover them they are ridiculed. Dorothy lies and claims that Jeremy sexually assaulted her resulting in his being beaten, expelled, and eventually institutionalized after the group testifies against him, lying on the witness stand.

Years later, on Valentine’s Day, Kate (Marley Shelton), Paige (Denise Richards), Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), Lily (Jessica Cauffiel), and Shelly (Katherine Heigl) begin receiving scary messages from an unknown sender, signed “JM”. The women then are killed off one by one by a psycho in a Cupid mask. They reside in San Francisco.

They suspect the murderer is Jeremy, having returned to exact revenge. Ya think?

There is entertainment in the mean girls being hacked to bits unceremoniously and it is definitely satisfying. I clearly sided with the Cupid killer but was I supposed to? Well, I did anyway. Jeremy is handsome and sympathetic. After all, they ruined his life. Why would we root for the girls to be spared?

And it’s enjoyable. The deaths include a slit throat, a brutal beating with a hot iron, and death by electrocution. A special edition for Valentine’s Day is a box of chocolates filled with maggots!

I won’t ruin the final twist by revealing any specifics but suffice it to say that, yes, Jeremy is indeed the killer. But it’s not quite in the way you’d think.

There is nothing original about Valentine (2001) which is about as formulaic a film as there ever was. Instead of ever watching or thinking about the film again I’ll happily break out my copies of Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980).

But still, it’s not the terrible film most people think it is.

Waiting for Guffman-1996

Waiting for Guffman-1996

Director-Christopher Guest

Starring-Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara

Scott’s Review #1,145

Reviewed May 24, 2021

Grade: B+

Somehow mocking local community theater troupes with questionable talent couldn’t be funnier with the right premise and an outstanding cast. The added fun of midwestern traditions like barbeques and good manners and spot-on imitations put on display for humor works well. They should be celebrated and appreciated in Waiting for Guffman (1996).

The hysterical Best in Show (2000) is probably my favorite Christopher Guest film but Waiting for Guffman is a hoot and hollering good time. The ‘B+’ rating comes largely because Guffman is an opening act to the fab Best in Show. They can easily be watched back to back and perhaps should for further cherishing.

When the town of Blaine, Missouri approaches its sesquicentennial, the residents decide to celebrate by performing a musical revue called “Red, White, and Blaine.” Flamboyant director Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) is determined to return to Broadway success by casting untalented but passionate individuals to perform. Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara play the main cast members.

When Corky reveals that influential theater agent Mort Guffman will attend the opening, the cast is convinced that they will be rewarded with accolades and appearances on the Broadway stage if they perform successfully. They become titillated, flustered, and manic as the pressure of opening night approaches.

I daresay, some folks from the midwest United States or those faithful to the local theater may not enjoy Wating for Guffman but I sure did. Most of the characters are written as buffoons and lacking any talent. The hysterics come because they think that they actually possess what they lack.

The aforementioned Guest, Levy, Willard, and O’Hara work so well together they are the reason Waiting for Guffman is so damned funny! The comic timing between the actors is flawless and timed perfectly.

Levy and O’Hara appeared together in the Canadian television sketch comedy series SCTV in the 1970s and 1980s before hitting the jackpot with the television series Schitt’s Creek in later years so a fun thing to do is watch them in whatever they appear in together.

They are that good!

There abound many stereotypes in Waiting for Guffman since Corky is written as a walking gay stereotype with mascara and flamboyancy. The irony is that he reportedly has a wife who is never seen so the audience can draw their own conclusions.

Given the casting and the director, Christopher Guest takes on acting and directing duties, the experience is the largely improvisational and witty result.  Guest treats his actors, and himself, to famous Director Robert Altman’s mantra of letting his actors release and act on their own terms, presumably knowing the characters better than anyone else.

The tactic works. Too often comedies are stagey and situations forced in an attempt to make the viewer laugh because he or she thinks they are supposed to laugh. My favorite characters unsurprisingly are Ron and Sheila Albertson (Willard and O’Hara) as travel agents/amateur performers. They are zany and unpredictable and their antics cannot be superseded by anyone else.

Recommended mostly for the artistic and the improv comedy crowd. The spoofs are all over the place and fans of documentaries and talent shows can appreciate the gags.

Waiting for Guffman (1996) targets an intelligent audience craving fresh and original comedy. Being a cinema fan largely immersed in drama and horror, I was won over nonetheless. The only drawback is the film pales in comparison to the brilliant Best in Show (2000) with largely the same cast and tone, but still should be watched.

Yentl-1983

Yentl-1983

Director-Barbra Streisand

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin

Scott’s Review #1,144

Reviewed May 20, 2021

Grade: B+

Feeling slightly dated nowadays, perhaps for the year it was made, Yentl (1983) is nonetheless a very good watch if only for Barbra’s performance, in multiple ways, alone. Who else could I be talking about other than superstar Barbra Streisand?

Astounding is that she also directed the film, rare as hen’s teeth for a female to direct in those days. Even circa 2021, there have only been two women to win the coveted Best Director Oscar prize. Mind-blowing. Streisand was snubbed in this category and was understandably miffed.

But I’ll get down from my soapbox.

Streisand plays the title role. Yentl is a bookish girl and daughter of a respected Talmud teacher who instructs her although she is female and not male. This is forbidden in their culture. Her father dies leaving Yentl to her own devices and determinations. She disguises herself as a boy to gain entry to a yeshiva and meets Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who she becomes fascinated by. But he only has eyes for Hadass (Amy Irving) who he is supposed to marry.

This results in a triangle of sorts but not in the traditional sense. Hadass develops feelings for Anshel (really Streisand as Yentl in drag). After they marry (unconsummated) Anshel falls in love with Avigdor. This may sound like a comedy rather than drama and it does contain a bit of each but the romantic interludes, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations are not really the best parts of the film.

The main themes of faith and romance are center stage. Streisand may have had feminism on her mind with the film but I didn’t find this a major point except for Yentl refusing to marry a man.

She pretends to be a boy because females are repressed in the religion. A real win would have been Yentl embracing faith as she really is, but for 1983 the message isn’t a bad one.

Still, we are supposed to want Yentl and Avigdor to live happily ever after but I never felt very much of a connection to the couple.

The best parts of Yentl are the musical score and the songs the audience is treated to. The highlight for me is the emotionally charged “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” which is a gorgeous moment for Yentl. Yentl leaves Europe on a boat bound for the United States, where she hopes to lead a life with more freedom. With a smile on her face, she rises above and into a new day.

It’s a dynamic singing performance and rises the film above where it would have been without the number. It’s like the perfect culminating Streisand moment.

The romantic moments are unfulfilling and predictable, but the film is about Streisand and Streisand alone. As good as Patinkin and Irving are they take a backseat to the illustrious star. We never even get to see Patinkin sing.

I’m okay with this. I watched Yentl (1983) for the enormous talents of its star. Her singing, acting and directing all make the film a worthwhile and engaging experience. It’s not a great film and other Streisand films are better- I’m thinking of Funny Girl (1968) and Hello, Dolly (1969), but it’s way above average.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Amy Irving, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score (won), Best Original Song-“Papa, Can You Hear Me?”, “The Way He Makes Me Feel”

Fame-1980

Fame-1980

Director-Alan Parker

Starring-Irene Cara, Paul McCrane, Maureen Teefy

Scott’s Review #1,143

Reviewed May 18, 2021

Grade: A-

Fame (1980) is a teen high school musical drama centering around the trials and tribulations of gifted New York City kids. Anyone with musical, theatrical, or dance talent can relate to the film. The rest of us can merely live vicariously through these kids and the potential careers that lie ahead of them wishing we had half of their talent and drive.

This is not your standard musical from the 1950s or 1960s and the pace is quite frenetic. Fasten your seatbelts because there is a lot packed in.

The film oozes with an upbeat musical score and the flavor of New York City, quite gritty and dangerous circa 1980. The now-legendary musical numbers where the cast dances together with faculty and strangers alike atop Manhattan taxi cabs is silly beyond belief but the title song by star Irene Cara is a danceable and hummable classic.

In a way, these scenes offset the muscular dramatic scenes with lightness and comedy, but in another way, they diminish the credibility of the serious moments.

Events get off to a chaotic start as we witness a mass of teenagers frenetically scrambling to remember audition lyrics and dance numbers as they vie for entry into the High School of Performing Arts, with free admission for only the cream of the crop.

The film chronicles the lucky lives from their auditions to their freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years.

The main group features Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane), a closeted gay male; Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish girl; Ralph Garci (Barry Miller), and Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies the conservative music teachers. They align with Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean), Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara), and Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) a gifted dancer who cannot read.

All have interesting backstories or problems to work through during their four years in school and this is the main appeal of the film. The dance numbers, of course, are fabulous too.

I immediately became enamored with sensitive Doris, whose mother’s (Tresa Hughes) emotions elicit viewer emotion simply with her own emotions. Her passion for her daughter and her talent is infectious.

Alan Parker, who directs Fame, offers extremely heavy topics that the students must face. It’s not all fun and dance. The youngsters grapple with issues such as homosexuality, abortion, interracial dating, class systems, attempted suicide, and illiteracy. Their pain is readily offered to audiences who become entangled in their worlds.

A negative is that as much as the issues are brought to the forefront, the sheer number of them result in few resolutions.

On top of their unique struggles, the students must deal with the mundane pressures of adolescence like homework, heartbreak, and rejection. Their talent doesn’t make them any more special than anyone else in the growing-up department.

My favorite moments in Fame are the quiet ones. When Doris and Montgomery share a chat on the stairs that skirts around the talk of his absent mother I thought what a delightful couple they would make. Montgomery’s repressed sexuality slowly surfaces while Doris develops a crush on an older popular boy.

As if the heavy topics eventually subside, they don’t. As the students age and start to plan careers, Coco is lured by a man claiming to be a director only to realize he is a porn film “director”. He coaxes her into taking off her shirt and photographs her sobbing. The scene is heartbreaking in its power.

The atmosphere of Fame also works well. There is a strong and suffocating feeling of heat and humidity. Anyone who has spent time in New York City during the summer months knows the stench and thickness of the stuffy weather. I got the impression the school had no air conditioning as the running perspiration of the music teacher is evidence of.

A coming of age film that delivers hard-hitting messages only offset by the climactic dance-celebration numbers, Fame (1980) is a winner and gives teen angst its due.

This film ages well and stands the test of time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score (won), Best Original Song-“Fame” (won), Out Here on My Own”, Best Film Editing, Best Sound

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

Scott’s Review #1,142

Reviewed May 14, 2021

Grade: A

I’ll confess that a teen drama centered on abortion involving conflicted female characters wouldn’t be the first film I’d sit down and watch. Done before and not my demographic I assumed little in common with the characters. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) blew me away and taught me a valuable lesson- never judge a film by its synopsis.

The film only entered my radar because of positive buzz and a handful of independent film awards. Hopefully, this recognition catapults the director and actresses to other excellent projects.

It’s not that director, Eliza Hittman does anything particularly different with the vehicle on the surface. I jest slightly because she takes a standard story and hits it out of the ballpark so that even us middle-aged folks with no kids can remain engaged. The film can be watched by anyone as it compels completely.

I was enamored from scene one.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t get on a soapbox about whether abortion is right or wrong. It’s not about that though I can guess Hittman’s likely position on the topic. Rather, it gives a fresh, raw, and realistic depiction of what it’s like for a seventeen-year-old girl to be scared and pregnant and, in some parts of the United States, unable to get proper guidance or treatment. This could shape her whole life.

The kicker is that one doesn’t necessarily need to live in the middle of nowhere for this to occur. This note shocked me and quite frankly frightened me.

Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), travel from suburban Pennsylvania across state lines to New York City on a challenging journey of friendship, compassion, and a bit of adventure.

Autumn is brooding and upset yet holds it mostly together. She performs beautifully at a high school pep rally despite being snickered at by a rude boy in the audience. Afterward, her family goes for pizza and soda to celebrate where her stepfather is unable to praise Autumn.

The tension between Autumn and her stepfather is very ambiguous. Could he be the father or the boy she presumably dated and now wants nothing to do with her?

We realize that the males in Autumn’s life pretty much suck after her boss disgustingly kisses her hand as a daily ritual.

She goes to a discreet mom-and-pop clinic where she learns she is pregnant. The woman in charge callously shows Autumn horrific abortion videos when she suspects Autumn might be flirting with the idea of getting one.

Autumn and Skylar realize they must flee their one-horse town for the hustle and bustle, and better medical care, provided by New York City. They steal cash from their job and make the jaunt on a bus.

This is the point where the film really takes off. As the girls arrive at the chaotic Port of Authority bus terminal I felt like I was on the journey with them. They arrive at a clinic and meet a kind receptionist and technician who tell her she is actually sixteen weeks pregnant instead of the ten weeks she thought she was. Her procedure will take two days.

Where will they stay? What will they eat? The procedure is costly so how will they pay for the bus fare home? A boy they meet on the bus reappears and maybe their savior but at what price?

These are some of the questions I as the viewer was thinking throughout the experience just as Autumn and Skylar were.

The most powerful scene occurs when Autumn receives question after question from the technician which is the crux of the title of the film. We sadly realize that Autumn has faced some sort of sexual abuse before. The film does not reveal exactly what happened which is clever and makes the scene more powerful.

Never Rarely Sometimes Never is a slow-moving vehicle but because of the outstanding acting talents of Flanigan and Ryder, I was completely engaged, hooked, and suckered. I fell in love with these characters and the entirety of the film feels incredibly authentic.

A film that grapples with despair, hope, fear, journey, friendship, and much much more than its main storyline offers, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) is a brave film that hits a home run.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Eliza Hittman, Best Female Lead-Sidney Flanigan, Best Supporting Female-Talia Ryder, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Bernice Bobs Her Hair-1976

Bernice Bobs Her Hair-1976

Director-Joan Micklin Silver

Starring-Shelley DuVall, Veronica Cartwright 

Scott’s Review #1,141

Reviewed May 12, 2021

Grade: B+

Much transpires within Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976), a short film based on a short story by famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the non-literary crowd, Fitzgerald penned the worldly The Great Gatsby, a treasured story from the 1920’s Long Island, New York setting.

The story was made into television production in 1976 for PBS for The American Short Story.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair is a quieter story than Gatsby, and more peculiar, resulting in a fabulous tale of revenge with a similar time period of 1920, the cusp of the American Jazz Age. The setting is presumed to be Long Island or Westchester County, New York though that’s never confirmed. Regardless, our main character, Bernice (Shelley DuVall) hails from Wisconsin and comes to visit family.

The visit isn’t exactly peaches and cream as you can imagine.

The bitchy and sophisticated Marjorie (Veronica Cartwright), Bernice’s cousin, pities her for being awkward and unlikable, far inferior to the elitist company that Marjorie keeps. She rolls up her sleeves and becomes determined to shape Bernice into a sophisticated vixen, molding her into a girl who gets what she wants.

The idea ends up biting her in the ass.

Bernice, mocked for being quiet and dull, blossoms into a brave young woman, titillated by the attention of the society boys. She delights in having her pick of the litter and daringly proclaims to have her hair bobbed in a few days, to the shock and chagrin of the rich group of friends.

Would a young woman ever dare to do something so drastic for attention? Hell, she’ll have to go to a barber and be sheared!

Marjorie’s jealousy increases as Bernice’s confidences soar leading to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

DuVall is delightful in the role. The actress, very unconventional looking, appears the prettiest I’ve ever seen her, even when she plays dowdy. Telling so much with her wide-eyed and expression-filled eyes, she seduced me into her world of mystique and wonderment. DuVall has a charisma all her own and fascinates in any film she appears in.

Not to be overlooked, Veronica Cartwright, possesses Marjorie with fury and pizazz, also doing so much with her trademark blue eyes. The actresses work so well together as they eventually play a seductive game of will and wit.

For the boys, there are a few love interests to note. I loved seeing Bud Cort, struggling for work after his groundbreaking role in 1971’s Harold & Maude, appear in the short film. Insecure, he is nonetheless smitten with Bernice, just as Draycott Deyo (Patrick Byrne) is. Other handsome suitors like Mark La Mura, of daytime television fame, appear.

The costumes and sets are lavish and fitting to the 1920s which enhanced my enjoyment. The hot summer setting also infuses the film with smoldering and rigid tension enhancing the experience. There is nothing like escaping into the past in style and enchantment.

The final revenge is extremely fulfilling as the classes clash. The socially awkward Bernice conquers the WASP’y Marjorie like a plain Jane would a beautiful evil princess. It’s quite satisfying.

The entire experience of Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976) is pleasing and compelling. The kicker is when Bernice does indeed ‘bob her hair’ she looks amazing and trendy for the decade to follow. She gets her just desserts in more ways than one and the audience cheers her to victory!

Cross of Iron-1977

Cross of Iron-1977

Director-Sam Peckinpah

Starring-James Coburn, Maximilian Schell

Scott’s Review #1,140

Reviewed May 8, 2021

Grade: B+

Cross of Iron (1977) is a film that sticks with you. I appreciate that it’s not a standard, cookie-cutter war film that too often graces the big screen decade after decade featuring different wars but applying virtually the same message. The tone is usually pro-United States with little explanation or defense of the other guys. This is not one of those films.

That said, I could have used more of a straightforward approach because Cross of Iron is all over the place. It’s like a fragmented puzzle that doesn’t add up or come together but the experience is something both mind-blowing and unforgettable. Sometimes confusing and unpleasant, it’s directed by Sam Peckinpah so anyone possessing knowledge of some of his other works knows what the experience will be like.

His best films, Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972), are famous for their lightning-fast editing sequences galore and sudden still frames. Violence and mistreatment of female characters are also Peckinpah staples and Cross of Iron sure has those elements. But it’s definitely not on the level that Straw Dogs and The Getaway is as far as a solid storyline. Not even close.

The synopsis goes something like this. The time period is World War II and Corporal Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is a well-respected member of the German military and a recipient of the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military honor. He leads a group of soldiers to battle somewhere in Russia, presumably.

Envious of Steiner’s Iron Cross award, Captain Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a Prussian officer clashes with Steiner when he joins the unit near the Russian front. Desperate to receive his own Iron Cross, Stransky takes the credit for a significant attack and sparks a heated rivalry with Steiner.

Mixed in with all this machismo drama between Stransky and Steiner are several brooding German soldiers, one French soldier, and a rescued Russian boy. A homosexual relationship between the French soldier and another soldier is discovered by Stransky and used as blackmail while Stransky himself may also be gay. Yet another soldier kisses a fellow soldier on the mouth.

Sadly, these story points go nowhere. And I didn’t care one iota about the Iron Cross.

To add to the confusion, a few of the German soldiers appear to be German while the others, especially Steiner, seem American. They frequently denounce Hitler which makes the viewer wonder why they are fighting for him. Are they forced to? Were many German soldiers not pro- Hitler but had to fight to avoid execution? Again, these points are not explained.

The film introduction features children singing German songs amidst real-life footage of Hitler and Nazis and the conclusion also features children singing and still frames of children suffering during the war. The sequences, while powerful, have nothing to do with the story since the story has nothing to do with children except the one lone Russian boy.

If you can get past the cloudy storylines Cross of Iron has some delicious stuff to chew on. Besides the fantastic editing, the film features one of the most intense and interesting scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time. When the soldiers stumble upon a group of female Russian detachments things really heat up. A despised Nazi Party member takes one of the women into a barn and rapes her. She bites off his penis and he kills her. Steiner allows the remaining women to exact revenge on the rapist and they beat him to death.

A couple of things stand out in this scene. As much as Peckinpah usually reduces his female characters to victims, in this scene there is a strong feminist angle which I love. Were there actually Russian female soldiers in real life including a high-ranking major? Steiner allowing the women to kill the Nazi would make his group anti-Nazi?

There are lots to ponder throughout and after watching Cross of Iron (1977). I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of the film or ever need to see it again but maybe I should. So much goes on throughout the film that either adds or detracts from the experience that it’s a perplexing watch.

Personally, I’d add much more to the relationships between the characters, especially the male-male sexual dynamic to bring more substance. The dynamic of Steiner taking the Russian boy under his wing had more to offer and I’d also reduce the number of battle scenes seemingly thrown in every so often to prove or justify that Cross of Iron is a war film.

The Bible: In the Beginning-1966

The Bible: In the Beginning-1966

Director-John Huston

Starring-George C. Scott, Ava Gardner

Scott’s Review #1,139

Reviewed May 5, 2021

Grade: A-

An epic of grand proportions that nearly rivals the magic cinematography of Lawrence of Arabia (1963), The Bible: In The Beginning (1966) embraces its own definition of majestic, magnificent, and sweeping. The story follows the chronological telling of The Bible book, beginning with Adam & Eve.

Important to remember is that one need not be of Catholic, Christian, or any religious persuasion to enjoy the rapturous beauty encompassing the film.  The pious and the non-believers alike can enjoy the experience though there is a hint of the unbelievable and suspension of disbelief in some of the stories gracing the “good book” by director John Huston. He also narrates some of the stories and appears as Noah.

Nobody is mocked for their beliefs and the film is a straight-ahead interpretation of the first twenty-two chapters of the Book of Genesis, covering the stories from The Creation and Adam and Eve to the binding of Isaac. Abraham (George C. Scott) and Sarah (Ava Gardner) are heavily featured.

The film strongly focuses on five main sections: The Creation, Garden of Eden, Cain, and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the story of Abraham. Some other stories are given less screen time and attention but are featured.

Speaking of Adam & Eve (Michael Parks & Ulla Bergyrd), they kick off the action with the fateful decision to pick and taste the luscious fruits dangling in front of their eyes as the Serpent fiendishly looks on. God punishes Adam & Eve for their temptations setting off a common theme amidst the film, and certainly of the good book, of resisting pleasures of the flesh and of being punished for caving into desires.

Apparently, God is happy when people are unfulfilled and joyless. Sadly, some have taken this too much to heart.

We could debate religion until the cows come home, and many have, but I became aware of a hint of ridicule or at least strong questioning on the part of Huston. He creates scenes that most would deem ridiculous if not written in the words of the Bible. Again, Huston is careful not to mock anyone, shrouding any antics in good, stylized 1960’s film, but a woman being turned into a pillar of salt for looking at the sky could be found amusing.

Admittedly, some chapters are better than others.

The trials and tribulations of Abraham & Sarah get off to a slow start as Abraham and company traverse miles and miles of the lonely desert so much so that I was left wondering if they were on the road to nowhere. Finally, the action takes off as Sarah realizing she is barren, makes her maid conceive a child with Abraham. I never knew this saga had so much in common with the Hulu hit The Handmaid’s Tale but the similarities are eerie and uncanny.

Noah and his Ark is also a very good sequence and brings more humor than might be necessary but I guess this is to counterbalance more serious stories. Noah adores animals, especially cats, and lions and he treated them beautifully choosing to save and live in harmony with the creatures. They love him. The flooding scenes related to this chapter are exquisite and adventurous.

The film depicts God as a bit of a son of a bitch as he calls to Abraham to lead his only son to a high mountain and sacrifice him. This tests Abraham’s will and is somber and thoughtful.

If one notices many of the actors look Italian it’s because they are. Noah’s wife for example is played by Pupella Maggio, famous for her role in Fellini’s Amarcord (1973). Much of the film was shot in and around the Italian city of Rome.

Huston not only narrates some of the sections but appears as Noah himself!

The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) is exquisite to look at and pleasing cinematically. Many fans of religious cinema will prefer the more conventional The Ten Commandments (1956) to this one and, while slow at times, by the conclusion the film has aged like a fine wine and had me enthralled and appreciative of its achievements.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Music Score

The Cincinnati Kid-1965

The Cincinnati Kid-1965

Director-Norman Jewison

Starring- Steve McQueen, Karl Malden

Scott’s Review #1,138

Reviewed April 29, 2021

Grade: B

I suppose anyone that is really into poker playing or similar casino games might be partial to The Cincinnati Kid (1965) especially if they are a die-hard Steve McQueen fan. But for those with no interest in the ‘sport’ and think that McQueen is a royal douche who received a modicum of film success the film is a marginally decent effort.

For those who don’t know, Steve McQueen, the actor and not the British filmmaker, was nicknamed the “King of Cool” and played the anti-hero in most of his films. His heyday was the mid-1960’s through the early 1970s and he garnered success for playing the same role over and over again. He was notorious for insisting his hair was just perfect and for being selfish and a royal prick. He died of cancer in 1980.

An earlier film of his, The Cincinnati Kid (1965) is set in Depression-era New Orleans, though it’s almost impossible to determine it’s not the 1960s since the film has a severe 1960s look. Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) is a cocky poker player nicknamed the Cincinnati Kid who challenges longtime champ Lancey “The Man” Howard (Edward G. Robinson) to a showdown at the table, where a war of persistence and luck ensues.

To add energy, Rip Torn is cast as Slade, a villainous man who seeks revenge against Howard and tries to help Stoner best him.

In addition to the inevitable final poker game, Stoner is immersed in a romance with good girl Christian Rudd (Tuesday Weld) as he tries unsuccessfully to fend off the seductive advances of his best friend Shooter’s (Karl Malden) girlfriend (Ann-Margret) who is also a close friend of Christian. Romance and double-dealing are in the air.

The main draw is McQueen because he is charismatic and carries the by the numbers film. The story point appears to be a battle between youth (Stoner) and seasoned wisdom (Howard) but other than the fantastic finale involving (what else!) a tense game of cards I didn’t find the main story experience all too interesting.

There are other impressive aspects, however, as the trimmings. How the actors handle the playing cards, speak the game terminology, and smoke a fat cigar is realistic and adds some good authenticity to the film. The New Orleans flavor provides some culture and many black actors appear in small roles that at least provide some representation of the real southern city.

Despite the talented cast only McQueen really shines. Weld and Ann-Margret are extremely one-note characters and opposites (good girl and bad girl) with little development. Malden is the moral compass of the film but otherwise has little of importance to do.

Interestingly, Norman Jewison replaced original director Sam Peckinpah shortly after filming began. He described The Cincinnati Kid as his “ugly duckling” film that enabled him to transition from the light films he had previously been making and take on more serious films and subjects. Cinema lovers know that he directed the 1971 masterpiece Fiddler on the Roof, a completely different film altogether.

I wonder if Jewison’s heart was in this film or if he simply did the best he could with a subject that was not close to his heart.

I also wonder, knowing Peckinpah’s brilliant work, if he would have made The Cincinnati Kid darker and more violent.

One scene that turns my stomach is a gruesome and violent cock-fighting scene. Any sort of animal cruelty makes my blood boil so I turned my head and refused to watch the scene or the group of merrymakers sitting around cheering the bloodbath.

For poker lovers or fans of Steve McQueen The Cincinnati Kid (1965) is an enjoyable watch and not bad either for the casual fan. Though I have not seen it my understanding is that The Hustler (1961) is a similar themed and better-made film.

Femme Fatale-2002

Femme Fatale-2002

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas

Scott’s Review #1,137

Reviewed April 28, 2021

Grade: B+

The plot of Femme Fatale (2002) is muddy, to say the least, and I was left perplexed by the details by the time the film concluded. I even needed to review a synopsis to figure out what the hell went on but I was willing to do so. But, let’s remember that it’s directed by Brian De Palma so the beauty is in the visuals’ style and stimulation, which makes the film pay off in spades.

Probably more similar to a modern De Palma film like 2012’s underrated and underappreciated Passion than more familiar turf like Carrie (1976) or Dressed to Kill (1980), Femme Fatale has juicy trademarks that only fans of the director will immediately notice and revile in.

The entire experience that De Palma creates is titillating, erotic, fetishist, and thrilling. It’s an enrapturing piece. Unfortunately, Femme Fatale was a box-office dud but has subsequently amassed a cult following status likely by the legions of De Palma fans who appreciate the good stylistic film.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, with legs for miles and an abdomen to fry eggs off of, stars as Laure Ash, a master manipulator, who takes part in one last jewel theft intending to leave behind her life of crime. Her intention predictably doesn’t turn out so well but Laura sure does look great in her leather-clad outfits and affair with a female supermodel.

Later, Romijn-Stamos also plays an odd character named Lily, who is suicidal.

Reinvented under the presumption of a respectable married woman, Laura captures the attention of eager photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas). He becomes mesmerized by the elusive woman amid the gorgeous locales of Paris and accidentally shatters her carefully crafted world by way of his photo taking.

The steamy women’s bathroom love scene between Laura, who is bisexual, and Veronica, a model with a diamond gold ensemble top, is not just a male chauvinistic turn-on, but hugely important to the storyline. Laura is supposedly in cahoots with thugs “Black Tie” and Racine who aggressively wait outside the restroom, but is Laura double-crossing them both? Is she partnered in crime with Veronica or is she just a mark?

The riddles of the plot are both positive and negative especially when one scene plays out twice, midstream and during the finale. There is a mystique that forces the viewer to give up on any comprehension and plausibility over Laura and her motivations and modus Operandi. I chose to immerse myself in the bevy of trimmings that De Palma tosses our way like a hungry dog salivating over a bone.

He borrows a bit from the best of Alfred Hitchcock films (when doesn’t he?)and his own, neither a bad thing. The most obvious is from the 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, an orgy of fetishism, which appears throughout, mostly concerning Nicolas as he spies on Laura again and again, almost obsessively.

Romijn-Stamos isn’t the best actress in the biz and Banderas would grow as an actor after this film but Femme Fatale is about style, not Academy Award acting and the beauty is trying to figure out a puzzle and being startled by a twist ending and a replay of the events to provide some sort of explanation.

The twist is quite a doozy and had me rethink the entire film. Plot holes be-damned it was a very good reveal but also made most of the rest of the film a bit worthless.

Femme Fatale (2002) will never reach the upper echelons of the best of Brian De Palma films but it’s hardly a waste of time to give it a spin either. Forgetting the steaminess altogether, pleasing will a European appreciating viewer be with the astounding and plentiful sequences in and around Paris.

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7-2020

Director-Aaron Sorkin

Starring-Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scott’s Review #1,136

Reviewed April 26, 2021

Grade: B+

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) is a Hollywood film with an important message. It’s conventional and explores a historic episode of great importance and the story is told well with many liberties taken for effect. Director, Aaron Sorkin sticks to a familiar formula, peppering humor with the standard heavy drama, and creates a film that will appeal to mainstream audiences. He was rewarded with several Oscar nominations for the film.

It’s a crowdpleaser first and foremost.

I would have been bothered more by the traditional approach had the subject matter not been so weighty or not presented in a left-leaning way, which it was. Solidly anti-war, this made the film more powerful and meaningful though some of the comedic elements seemed silly and trite and added on simply to lighten the mood.

The time period is 1969, though the main subject at hand occurs in 1968 so there is much back and forth. After antiwar activists clash with police and National Guardsmen at the important 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, violence erupts. Charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot, seven of the protestors are put on trial. The charges are controversial because a new president, Richard Nixon, has just been elected and a revenge-seeking Attorney General lusts for an example to be made of them.

The casting is tremendous. John Doman is fabulous in the quick role of the evil Attorney General John Mitchell (historians know that he was later a convicted criminal) and Frank Langella makes Judge Julius Hoffman into the asshole he really was. I’ve never been as impressed with Sacha Baron Coen (or rather, this is the first time I’ve been impressed) as he steamrolls into the role of Abbie Hoffman, a social and political activist. Eddie Redmayne, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Rylance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deserve praise as either a member of the 7 or lawyers for either side.

Whether or not specific accuracy is achieved is not top of mind for me. The Trial of the Chicago 7 gives a history lesson of what occurred the night of the riots and what subsequently occurred in the courtroom the following year. I’m okay with a few exaggerations for cinema’s sake. The product is a safe and glossy affair and extremely slick to the eyes.

The editing is fantastic. Snippets of the real Chicago riots of 1968 are interspersed with the created scenes and have a good effect with the back and forth. But before this, real-life comments from Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy kick off the action. Both assassinated, their existence is important to witness before the point of the film is ever made. Justice is not always served. Sorkin’s point in including the sequences seems to hit home that there are good politicians out there fighting for truth and fairness.

My favorite scene is the final one. At the end of the trial, Hayden (Redmayne) is given a chance to make a case for a lenient sentence. However, over Judge Hoffman’s objections, Hayden uses his closing remarks to name the 4,752 soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War since the trial began. This act prompts many in the court to stand and cheer. Viewers will as well.

The main problem that gnawed at me is the same concern I had when I realized that Sorkin was at the director’s helm. He is a dazzling screenwriter making the dialogue crisp and rich with intelligence. But, known for television successes such as The West Wing (1999-2006) and Sports Night (1998-2000), this causes The Trial of the Chicago 7 to look like a made-for-television production versus a raw film experience. I realize that Sorkin will likely never be a film auteur.

Sorkin is the reason that The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a B+ film and not an A film.

The late 1960s was a prominent and sometimes tragic time in United States history. The Trial of the Chicago 7 explores and deep-dives into a pivotal event in which several were railroaded and punished for something they did not do. The film makes sure that the railroaders get their just desserts and that’s fun to see.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Sacha Baron Cohen, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song-“Hear My Voice”

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films-2020

Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films-2020

Directors-Madeline Sharafian, Michael Capbarat, Adrien Merigeau, Amaury Ovise, Will McCormack, Michael Govier, Erick Oh, Gisli Darri Halldorsson, Arnar Gunnarsson

Scott’s Review #1,135

Grade: A-

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2020 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at my local art theater was pretty amazing. Especially in the year of Covid! Far too often dismissed as either irrelevant or completely flying under the radar of animated offerings, it is time to champion these fine little pieces of artistic achievement.

On par with or even superseding the full-length animated features, each of the five offers a vastly different experience, but each offers either inspired or hopeful messages or dark, devious, and edgy stories. The commonality this year is that there really are no similarities. The overall tone is mostly dour in tone save for one cute short featuring a rabbit and a peculiar look at the everyday life of Icelandic people.

Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Burrow-2020 (USA)

A darling story, Burrow tells the tale of a young rabbit who tries to build the burrow of her dreams, becoming embarrassed each time she accidentally digs into a neighbor’s home. By far the safest of the five shorts, and the most hopeful, the experience is pleasant and comical as the rabbit’s exuberance and joys are infectious. I got a real sense of community and warmness seeing the rabbits and other creatures pull together and form a communal bond rather than living in separation. It’s an inspiring and wholesome story. Grade: B+

Genius Loci-2020 (France)

One night, Reine, a young loner, sees the urban chaos as a mystical oneness that seems alive, like some sort of guide. Genius Loci is dark and depressing and tough to understand but my takeaway was one of mental illness and struggle to face daily life. Reine appears to either live with someone or has a child but this is tough to determine. Reine sees the world through watercolors and muted shapes which is quite beautiful to experience but the plot is tough to exactly determine. I used my imagination. Grade: A-

Opera-2020 (USA)

Our society and history, which are filled with beauty and absurdity are experienced with Opera, the oddest of the bunch. At merely nine minutes, it’s a short piece, but intriguing nonetheless. It is one giant shot of all sorts of activity going on within a pyramid shape, meant to represent the history of the world and daily life. There are tons of windows showing different activities. Oddities like a brothel and someone being fed plate after plate of food are featured. This one is also open to much interpretation as so many events can be seen.  Grade: A-

If Anything Happens I Love You-2020 (USA) (Won)

If Anything Happens I Love You, produced by Laura Dern, describes the aftermath of tragedy, as two grieving parents journey through an emotional void as they mourn the loss of a child. This short will make the tears flow if not a downright sob and is my favorite of the group. The viewer is aware that the parents have lost their ten-year-old daughter but not how until close to the end. We wonder how death occurs. The timeliness makes it the most powerful in a time of school shootings and constant gun control battles. Yes, it’s depressing but necessary. Grade: A

Yes-People-2020 (Iceland)

As one who has an adoration for Iceland and has been lucky enough to visit the country, I was thrilled to see it represented. One morning an eclectic mix of people face the everyday battle – such as work, school, and dish-washing. As the day progresses, their relationships are tested and ultimately their capacity to cope. Besides Burrow, Yes-People is the only one to include some humor, and the boozy housewife and her fat working husband are my favorites. Joyous is also the couple who have loud sex for their neighbors to hear. Clever is how the word “yes” can be meant in so many tones and textures. It’s a slice of life short giving a glimpse into people’s ordinary lives.  Grade: A-

Zodiac-2007

Zodiac-2007

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. 

Scott’s Review #1,134

Reviewed April 16, 2021

Grade: A

Zodiac (2007) is a great film in its mood alone. The attention to detail circa the 1960s and 1970s is spot on and adds to the flavor of the entire experience. The locale of San Francisco is moody and lurking with the antics of the self-professed zodiac killer. With excellent acting, the sum of its parts adds up to a wonderful film experience.

The film is incredibly well-paced, character-driven, and layered in rich texture. What more can be asked of a cinematic production? It simply has it all and will engage any viewer craving mystery and intrigue.

David Fincher, at the director’s chair, creates a world unto itself with carefully crafted sets, artistic nuances, and of course a superb story. A lesson learned is that sometimes evil exists and cannot be caught despite best efforts and the ramifications are endless. Painfully, the characters in Zodiac slowly realize this.

Zodiac is based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith, a pivotal character in the film. The novel is very similar to James Elroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, another unsolved case set in California.

The film tells the story of the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorized the foggy San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Investigators (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.) become obsessed with learning the killer’s identity and bringing him to justice.

Meanwhile, Zodiac claims victim after victim and taunts the authorities with endless and specifically graphic letters, bloodstained clothing, and cryptic messages shrouded in menacing phone calls. The case remains one of the United States’ most infamous unsolved crimes.

Much of the acclaim must go to the three actors cast in the central roles and Gyllenhaal is top of his game in the leading role. As cartoonist Robert Graysmith he is the main hero and the person who spearheads the investigation, prompting disbelievers to listen to him. Gyllenhaal is sensitive, sympathetic, and obsessed and at first, perceived to be a laughing stock, but audiences will immediately get behind the man and this is thanks to Gyllenhaal’s powerful acting.

The character-driven approach continues as Mark Ruffalo gives a wonderful portrayal of Inspector David Toschi. The tough-as-nails and no-nonsense approach led Toschi into obsession and fudging evidence.

Finally, Robert Downey Jr. provides energetic gusto as Paul Avery, a journalist who turns to drugs and alcohol because of the intensity and emotional investment in the case.

Plenty of red herrings make the film fun and the prime suspect of Arthur Leigh Allen, played by character actor John Carroll Lynch may or may not be the assailant. It’s breathtaking watching all the twists and turns in this ferociously complex film.

Zodiac is based on real events and reportedly is extremely historically accurate. In fact,  Fincher and others spent eighteen months conducting their own investigation and research into the Zodiac murders. So, authenticity is everywhere in this film.

Watching a film beginning in 1969 and ending in 1983 is a joy for someone who grew up in that era. Fincher drizzles the film with timely automobiles, clothes, and other sets so it appears to be walking into a time capsule. I’m sure this only will add to the viewer’s enjoyment.

For fans of films based on the zodiac killers, the 1971 film Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood delivers an exceptional experience based on the real-life case. But Fincher’s Zodiac is just as good.

Despite the behemoth running time- two hours and thirty-seven minutes, Zodiac (2007) is an edge of your seat thriller. The pulsating yet prowling pace is worth several viewings to appreciate the juiciness of all of the elements David Fincher offers.

A hefty round of applause is deserved.

Zero Dark Thirty-2012

Zero Dark Thirty-2012

Director-Kathryn Bigelow

Starring-Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,133

Reviewed April 14, 2021

Grade: A-

Director Kathryn Bigelow, not far removed from her Oscar win for The Hurt Locker (2008), returns with a similar style film centering around war and more specifically about the emotional tolls and psychological effects from not just the battlefields but from dangerous missions. The main character suffers from many conflicts and inevitably the viewer will as well.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is unique for the genre by having a female in the lead role and star Jessica Chastain is front and center and just terrific. She is calm, restrained, and in control. She is tough to rattle and a powerful and inspirational character to be admired. Chastain exudes cool in the face of danger.

Chastain does have a brilliant emotional scene at the end of the film. Her character, Maya, boards a military transport back to the U.S., the sole passenger. She is asked where she wants to go and begins to cry. The emotion finally gets the better of her as it would to anyone.

The film is not all Chastain’s to brag about. In fact, there is little wrong with the film. Beautifully directed, Bigelow layers her film with enough tension and magnificence to enshroud the moral questions viewers will ask, specifically about torture. It’s somewhat fictionalized, to be sure, and in fact, Chastain’s character is made up, but Zero Dark Thirty is a gem nonetheless.

But we also know the events really happened.

The film starts incredibly well and immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with a brilliant first scene. Amidst a dark screen and soundtrack of actual calls made to the 911 operator from inside the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11, the scene is about as powerful an opening a film can have and bravely sets the stage for what follows.

These include many scenes of Arab detainees being interrogated (that is, tortured) for information about Al Qaeda. Is this justified or unnecessary abuse?

The viewer is immediately saddened and in tears and conflicted about whether the torture is justified having just heard the 911 calls. I know I was.

From there, the viewer also is told a summary story putting the pieces of the first scene together. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden becomes one of the most-wanted men on the planet. The worldwide manhunt for the terrorist leader occupies the resources and attention of two U.S. presidential administrations.

This is the crux of the film and the story told.

Ultimately, it is the work of a dedicated female operative  (Chastain) that proves instrumental in finally locating bin Laden. In May 2011, Navy SEALs launch a nighttime strike, killing bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

We all know this but troubling is the use of torture. I keep coming back to this point.

I think what I like most about the film besides the riveting pacing, action sequences, and psychological appeal is the controversy that surrounded it. The fact that it ruffled feathers at the CIA and in Congress about whether the info was leaked to the filmmakers makes me think that at least some of it is based on facts, despite what other reviewers (likely with a strong political bias) might claim to the contrary.

But as a political junkie that’s just my belief.

The film’s reproduction of enhanced interrogation techniques is brutal. Some critics, in light of the interrogations being depicted as gaining reliable, useful, and accurate information, considered the scenes pro-torture propaganda. Acting CIA director Michael Morell felt the film created the false impression that torture was key to finding bin, Laden. Others described it as an anti-torture exposure of interrogation practices.

I guess we may never know the truth. But the film compels and provokes feeling.

Bigelow is at the top of her game with Zero Dark Thirty (2012) crafting a genre film (the war one) way too often told from only a masculine “us versus them” mentality and leaving behind the fascinating nuances that can make the genre a more interesting and less one-note one. The masterful director does just that and makes us think, ponder, and squirm uneasily.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress-Jessica Chastain, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing (won), Best Film Editing

Promising Young Woman-2020

Promising Young Woman-2020

Director-Emerald Fennell

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Scott’s Review #1,132

Reviewed April 13, 2021

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, making her film directorial debut, kicks her viewers in the ass with major help from star Carey Mulligan, with Promising Young Woman (2020). The actress gives the best performance of her career. The film is a sexy and haunting experience mixing black comedy and witty dialogue with an important and timely subject matter- the abuse and victimization of young women by men.

Both men and women can be held responsible as Fennell make abundantly clear. Predators often have a share of people who choose to “look the other way” and thereby enable. This is a constant theme throughout the film involving many characters who are called out for their passivity.

Fennell makes this point during two of the best scenes of the film as she calls out a high-powered dean and attorney for their betrayals. The scenes are so powerful that I wanted the characters to suffer as much as the revenge seeker does.

There is also a wackiness in the pacing and dialogue that reminds me quite a bit of the 1999 masterpiece, American Beauty.

The film is depravity, bizarreness, and brilliance all rolled into one. I felt this film in my bones.

Almost every scene is a treat in the mysterious and unexpected and the film features peculiar characters and creative musical score renditions and includes a scene and music from the underappreciated masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). Fennell knows her classic cinema.

Mulligan stars as a woman named Cassie who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend, who was a victim of rape when they were in medical school and their young lives had potential and such possibility lay ahead of them. Cleverly, we never see her friend, named Nina Fisher, but she is of vital importance and nearly a major character herself despite her absence.

Everyone said Cassie was a “promising young woman” until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But now at age thirty and still living at home, her parents suggest via a giant suitcase for her birthday, it may be time for her to move on.

Cassie is tough to figure out since she’s wickedly clever, sometimes wisecracking, and tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. She goes to nightclubs looking drop-dead gorgeous and lures men to her rescue pretending to be inebriated.

What happens when they go back to their pad is shocking, dark, and justified. The men will never see this coming.

Before the presumption is that Cassie is nothing more than a bad-ass, her intentions are not only admirable, but she has a heart and desires love. Promising Young Woman is a dark character study.

Besides the powerful story, Promising Young Woman is riddled with interesting cinematic techniques. Cassie’s parents lounge in their afternoon one afternoon watching The Night of the Hunter, a dark fairy tale for adults. Later, a haunting version of Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” complete with a string arrangement is featured most uniquely.

All the supporting players add pizzazz and strength, some in odd or unclear ways until certain revelations bubble to the surface. Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s strange mother, Bo Burnham as the smitten Ryan Cooper, and Alison Brie as Cassie’s college friend Madison McPhee are the best examples.

Bo and Madison have the most to hide but will they or won’t they face Cassie’s wrath is the question. Not much is worse than a woman scorned.

But the main draw is Mulligan. Startlingly good, with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by her. She showcases a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternates from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in her best performance to date.

Two scenes stand out to me. The first is a delicious scene between Cassie and the female dean of her school, played by Connie Britton. At first dismissive and annoyed by Cassie’s accusations, Dean Elizabeth Walker finally takes notice when she believes that Cassie had kidnapped her teenage daughter and left her with a group of drunken frat boys. What comes around goes around!

The second is the finale wedding scene, interestingly not featuring Cassie other than by text messages. As the happy young couple says their vows a parade of police cars ruins the moment and the audience cheers victory. It’s a satisfying moment.

The screenplay is original, fresh, and timely. In the “Me Too” movement the timing is vital and makes the subject matter relevant. Fennell wrote the screenplay- is there anything she can’t do?

Promising Young Woman (2020) is an exceptional film. It’s a controversial revenge film but it’s so much more. Taking a powerful subject matter and examining the hypocrisy, from men and women, is telling and eye-opening. That is why this film is very important to see and brings awareness to a situation society still too often deems as okay.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Female Lead- Carey Mulligan (won), Best Screenplay (won)

Year of the Dog-2007

Year of the Dog-2007

Director-Mike White

Starring-Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly

Scott’s Review #1,131

Reviewed April 9, 2021

Grade: B-

Comedienne, Molly Shannon stars in Year of the Dog (2007), a quirky independent film that can be classified as a hybrid of the comedy and drama genres. It’s peculiar, sometimes being very creative and nuanced while other times feeling generic and clichéd. Somehow it’s not predictable either- a plus.

Certainly, it’s not the cute, sentimental film the premise might lead one to believe and at times it’s downright dark and depressing.

A story centering around dogs seems pretty cool but it usually conjures up a pitifully dreary family-style affair with a husband, wife, two cookie-cutter kids (a boy and girl naturally), and some story and drama involving the family pet. And, of course, a happy ending. Thankfully, Year of the Dog bears little resemblance to that type of film.

While it could have been more cohesive and less messy, the film deals with pet death in the most interesting ways and the effort is there. While it’s not a downer it’s not cheery either.

After her beloved beagle, Pencil dies unexpectedly when she lets it stay outside all night, an administrative assistant named Peggy (Shannon) strives to find ways to fill the void in her life while blaming herself for his death.

She becomes lonely and despondent, finally bringing in treats for her co-workers and fussing over other people’s kids. An ill-advised love affair with a gun fanatic (John C. Reilly) leads to more misery causing Peggy to go off the deep end and change her life completely.

Shannon, unsurprisingly, is the best part of the film, though she doesn’t quite cut it as the lead. She is cast perfectly as the odd-ball secretary with no life outside of her pet dog, but isn’t she better as the interesting sidekick?  It’s tough to imagine another actress being as believable in the part and her comic timing is on fire. The dramatic parts are a bit of a stretch and I like her in comedic situations better.

The supporting characters are where Year of the Dog really lacks. None of them are very interesting. Laura Dern and Regina King are reduced to caricature types as the loyal best friend, Layla, and the cold sister-in-law, Bret, respectively. Layla is only interested in finding romance for lonely Peggy while Bret barely notices Peggy’s suffering. Yawn!

Characters like these occur so often in stock comedies I can hardly keep count. Talents like Dern and King deserve better than one-note characters.

Reilly, as the intended love interest has no chemistry with Shannon and it’s obvious from the start that Al is written as the foil and opposite in every way from Peggy. It’s just another standard cliché screaming from a mile away. Peggy dates Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) but the romance isn’t there either.

Where the film gets both interesting and lost, is when Peggy becomes an animal rights activist. It sets up Year of the Dog as a message film which never really works. Peggy ruins furs, attempts to show children a slaughterhouse, and spontaneously adopts fifteen dogs because another injured dog dies.

It just doesn’t flow together with the comedy stuff. Especially when the ending takes Peggy in yet another direction. It’s like the filmmakers decided to try and roll things up in a neat little bow but instead have a sloppily wrapped present with a nice bow on it.

Director, Mike White, also producer and writer, creates a great concept but Year of the Dog (2007) hardly lights the world on fire.  The finale is too sentimental and too many cliches surface as the action plays out. Shannon is the only interesting character and the supporting players are stock written. White also penned School of Rock (2003) which is a better film.

W.-2008

W.-2008

Director-Oliver Stone

Starring- Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks

Scott’s Review #1,130

Reviewed April 7, 2021

Grade: B+

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again- the United States political landscape forever changed with the dastardly 2016 presidential election. Presidents pre and post-2016 are held to a completely different standard. We didn’t see this coming.

That said, the film W. (2008) is a biography and satire of George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, who held office during the deadly 9/11 attacks. Thought by some to be a moron, director Oliver Stone is careful to ease up on the obvious mockery and barbs that are usually thrown at Bush. There is some of that but surprisingly the film contains some sympathetic moments.

For example, a clever addition is a complex relationship between father and son, something shadowed from the spotlight. At least I was never aware there was any friction between Dad and son.

Fans who lean or are conservative may not like the film. It’s not exactly pro-Bush but neither is it anti. It simply tells a good and accurate story.

Stone wisely features an all-star cast and offers a retrospective chronicling the life and political career of George W. Bush, from his troubles as a young adult through his governorship of Texas and all the way to the Oval Office. It’s well-made because it provides the uninformed viewer with an important history lesson.

The lineup is juicy featuring an array of elite Hollywood stars. Josh Brolin sinks his teeth into the title role while Elizabeth Banks is more low-key as former First Lady Laura Bush. In support, James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn play George H.W. Bush and Barbara, while Richard Dreyfuss is fantastic as Dick Cheney. Finally, Thandie Newton is delicious as Condoleeza Rice.

Flashbacks are key to his life events revealing the rise of George W. Bush from ne’er-do-well party boy and son of privilege to president of the United States. After giving up booze for religion, George mends his restless ways and sets his sights first on the Texas governorship, which he achieves, then on the presidency. By a fluke, he achieved this too but lost the popular vote, forever a bee in his bonnet.

But the country’s involvement in the Iraq war affects his reign and decreases his approval rating.

Critics are damned the historical accuracy appears to be valid and most details are taken from the non-fiction books. That’s why the film is perfect for those who wish to brush up on their history or who are intrigued about the life and times of a modern president. Just be prepared for a bit of comedy.

To be fair, there are moments in W. when it feels like a long Saturday Night Live sketch and the characters are caricatures. It’s not exactly a parody nor is it a documentary either. Sort of a hybrid.

The heart of the film belongs to Josh Brolin (reportedly he stepped in for Christian Bale at the last minute). Major props go to Brolin for a nuanced, spot-on characterization of the former president. He’s got the mannerisms down and turns of the head, his walk, and speech patterns. He is careful to take a controversial public persona and portray him with both humor and humanity. Never completely silly but not as a straight man either. The real Bush always had a bit of a devilish aww shucks persona.

Post 2016 it’s tough to care much about W. (2008) though. It’s sort of an “of its time” film.  Too much has happened since the Bush years, or even since 2008 when the film was made. Donald Trump made so many things irrelevant. I can’t wait until a satire emerges about him. You know one is coming.

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Pieces of a Woman-2020

Director-Kornél Mundruczó

Starring-Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn

Scott’s Review #1,129

Reviewed April 2, 2021

Grade: A-

One of my favorite things is to watch an actor blossom into creative stardom by choosing the right film roles. We all know that many actors wind up choosing the wrong roles or accepting what is offered to them, so when a young actor is given a chance to shine it’s reaffirming.

Vanessa Kirby, known for her supporting turn on the magnificent Netflix hit, The Crown, as the rebellious and restless Princess Margaret, gives a powerful and unrecognizable performance in Pieces of a Woman (2020).

Not only does she play a completely different character but she does so in brilliant fashion, in an emotionally exhausting performance. She plays a woman who experiences a devastating loss and must come to terms with her feelings and the effect on her partner and family. Pressure mounts at every turn especially while she is immersed in a trial based on the actions of another character.

A minor miss is the film doesn’t provide much background or explanation of the character set on trial. I yearned for more in this regard.

When her baby dies after a botched home birth, Martha (Kirby) faces unthinkable grief and soon faces a crisis in her relationship with the dead infant’s father, Sean (Shia LaBeouf). Alienated from him and her affluent family led by her difficult mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) Martha must work through the tragedy’s painful aftermath on her own terms.

She wrestles with whether to donate the infant to science or have a traditional funeral ceremony and the impending trial of the midwife.

Director, Kornél Mundruczó creates an astounding first thirty minutes of film that makes the remainder of the experience quite tepid in comparison. The confines of the scene are in Martha and Sean’s apartment as they jovially prepare for the birth, call the mid-wife, discourage at the appearance of a substitute, and finally succumb to panic when all does not go well.

The scene appears to be shot in one take, is stifling, claustrophobic, and explicit, and oozes with authenticity. I truly believed Kirby was really giving birth and felt her discomfort. It’s some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen and then when you’ve suffered from exhaustion the title credit appears and you’re in shock. The film is just beginning!

Kirby, LaBeouf, and Burstyn knock it out of the park. Their characters are not always nice people and are flawed. Martha gets the most sympathy because she faces the biggest loss but Sean loses his baby too. It’s how they deal with the aftermath that is telling.

Martha is shattered and instead of settling into maternity leave she angrily returns to her corporate job. We get the sense she is either feared or unliked by her colleagues since nobody says a word to her and she scolds someone who has taken her office. Still, her loss is devastating and Kirby makes her pain relenting. The audience feels for her tremendously. In the final sequence, her act of kindness cements her character as “good”.

Sean is a different story. Excited to be a father and build a life with Martha he doesn’t handle the aftermath well. After being sober for seven years he begins using cocaine and embarks on an affair with Martha’s cousin. LaBeouf is terrific as the grizzled, angry blue-collar builder who reaches beyond his class level and is sadly paid off by Elizabeth to leave town and never return.

Elizabeth is the cringe-worthy mom. With good intentions, she instead makes things worse with a cutting remark masked as a helpful suggestion. When she says Martha looks “cute” and then asks why she isn’t more dressed up for dinner, her passive-aggressive nature takes hold. Despite these traits, Burstyn makes the audience feel her pain especially during a weepy scene where it is explained why she is the way she is, having nearly died as a baby.

The acting is amazing in Pieces of a Woman.

Pieces of a Woman on paper could have been little more than a lifetime television movie. Told from the female perspective, it’s a tried and true subject, not meaning to belittle the importance of it. But, the film is so much more than just the story. It’s very much character-driven in the detail and the intensity and emotions that the characters face.

Each has a side that is explored and their motivations understood.

From a local perspective, it’s fun watching the events unfold in Boston, Massachusetts. Beginning in September, with autumn in full bloom and much hope and anticipation for Martha and Dean, by January and February their emotions are as bleak as the driving snow, the grey atmosphere, and the frozen Charles River.

Pieces of a Woman (2020) will grip the viewer and explores a sad story that happens more than we want to admit.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Vanessa Kirby

Emma-2020

Emma-2020

Director-Autumn de Wilde

Starring-Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn

Scott’s Review #1,128

Reviewed March 31, 2021

Grade: B

I haven’t read the classic Jane Austen novel written in 1815 nor have I seen the 1996 film version starring Gweneth Paltrow. Neither of these is a prerequisite to enjoy the 2020 version of Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role of Emma Woodhouse.

The film, while set in the early nineteenth century, feels incredibly contemporary and seemingly makes little attempt at a classic style save for the hair, makeup, and costumes. These items are splendid, and the high point, and make the film stylish and bright.

Beautiful, smart, and rich, Emma (Taylor-Joy) enjoys her matchmaking skills that sometimes lead to awkward or failed matches and romantic missteps. She claims to not be interested in her own romance or potential suitors though that changes with time.

She struggles with the challenges of growing up, though she is terribly pampered and has a habit of involving herself in other’s business. Emma is also mischievous and not always kind though deep down she is a good person and has regret when she hurts someone’s feelings with her antics.

In a good, coming of age way, she finally realizes that love for her and a proper match of her own has been there all along and staring her in the face.

The film begins with Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), marrying and becoming Mrs. Weston. She and Emma are best friends and Emma is saddened so she settles on Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a younger girl whom Emma supposes is the unclaimed child of a gentleman; Harriet’s parents are unknown, but her education has been provided for. They become bonded and Emma’s influence is immeasured.

Taylor-Joy does a wonderful job in the title role and carefully makes Emma naughty and sometimes unlikable before carefully reeling her in with an act of kindness. She has no malice in mind but is often bored and looking for excitement. I found myself rooting for her to find romance with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), which she does but not without a hurdle or two on the way.

Other characters come and go with flirtations and romantic possibilities explored.

Speaking of Flynn, the actor is rumored to play rock icon David Bowie in a future theatrical feature. A real musician, Flynn should be the perfect casting for that important part. He is the only character to show some flesh, his bare bum, in Emma and one wonders if female director Autumn de Wilde did this purposefully. After all, traditionally in cinema, it’s been the female who is more commonly nude. Turnabout is fair play.

While Taylor-Joy is good she is nearly upstaged by the delightful Goth who is fabulous as the insecure and impressionable Harriet. With humor and innocence, she makes her character quite likable. I’d like to see more from this young actress. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as the comical father of Emma while Miranda Hart as Miss Bates steamrolls over every scene she is in.

Apparently, some inconsistencies exist especially where Miss Bates is concerned. A quick mention that Miss Bates and her family had once been rich and are now struggling is not explored where it reportedly was in the novel.

Dividing the film into seasonal sections (Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer) is a good decision and makes it more like a novel. The winter snow and Christmas festivities along with a summer picnic do wonders to add fresh atmospheric tidbits. The many scenes of delicious spreads of food and drink laid out for hungry eyes to see offer a robust and colorful glimpse of the culture.

The vibrancy, the food, and the aforementioned clothing, all brimming with richness based on the seasons are the main draw. The castles and large houses featured surely small-town English style brim with vastness and atmosphere.

Emma (2020) is a fun film and the story is not the best part of it. Predictable, all characters wind up with romantically who they should wind up with and there is a happily ever after sensibility.

Adolescents can easily sit in comfort with their mother and father and enjoy the lightweight affair. Nobody will be offended and all will be satisfied. It’s a solid romantic period piece.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Welcome to my blog! Over 1,150 reviews to share! 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!