The Lion King-2019

The Lion King-2019

Director-Jon Favreau

Voices-Donald Glover, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #981

Reviewed January 17, 2020

Grade: B

An impossible feat would have been to eclipse the magic of the stage version or the loveliness of the animated version, but The Lion King (2019) offers a different approach well. Arguably, animated in a way and in a way not, this version is heavily CGI (or in this case computer-generated animation-CGA) infused with marvelous visual effects and creativity. Partial to the two-former offering, this telling is lovely and perfect for the entire family. The realism of the animals and scenery is remarkable.

To recap new viewers, the story centers on a den of lions living among the creatures in the “Pride Lands of Africa”. They hunt, prance, love, and guard their territory, mostly from the hungry hyenas, who are kept at bay during peaceful times. King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) are fair rulers and anticipate their son, Simba (Donald Glover), taking over the throne one day much to the chagrin of Mufasa’s evil brother, Scar (Chiwetal Ejiofor), who was passed over for the crown.

Envious of Simba, Scar tricks him and his friend Nala (Beyonce) into wandering in the land of the hyenas hoping to cause their deaths. When his plot is foiled by a heroic Mufasa, Scar ups the ante and hatches a scheme to kill his own brother. He not only succeeds, but makes Simba believe he caused his father’s death. Ashamed, the youngster runs away to begin a new life unaware that he will one day return to save the day.

Props must be given to the filmmakers for inclusion and cultural authenticity as many of the characters, especially those front and center, are voiced by African- American talent. This is high achievement since the film is set in Africa and why would the voices be Caucasian? Heavyweights like Jones and Woodard sound polished, especially Jones with his deep and dominant, yet fatherly voice, perfectly cast as the King. Woodard provides a gentle warmth and confident complexity.

The musical numbers are terrific. The film begins with an energetic and tribal rendition of “Circle of Life” where a legion of wild animals dance around together in a warm example of diversity. The song appears later in the film. The powerful and romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is performed against a lovely moonlight sky with decadent stars. The new song “Spirit” performed by Beyonce is adequate but does not figure into the story as much as it should, seeming more like an afterthought.

The best parts of The Lion King, however, are the astounding visuals. With contrasting sequences of bright, sprawling African terrain and a magical oasis of colorful flowers and running water, set against the dark and foreboding land of the dangerous hyenas, offers the viewer a multitude of treats to dine on. The orange and red colors during the climactic finale is unrivaled in dazzling bombast of adventure.

As realistic as the elements are in the film, they are also a negative. Watching the animals talk and prowl amid the lush landscape felt wonderful, until realizing that all of it is fake. Real animals were never used, and it is all a virtual reality tool making the effects look real. This aspect slightly saddens me as the genuine quality left me feeling robbed. The possibility of another alternative would have meant a reboot of the animated classic and I am not sure that would have been wise.

Favreau, once an actor and now a director, known for creating films such as Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), certainly knows his way around an adventure film. The story, while containing some menacing moments, also feels a bit safe and lacking a freshness or edginess that the 1994 version possessed. Something seems watered down and the excitement and heart of the original feels missed.

I will always go back to the animated 1994 treasure for a cinematic feast, but while The Lion King (2019) could have been a disaster, it really isn’t. With modernized songs and enough CGA to last a lifetime, I could easily see some people hating the film, but I embraced it for what it is. Spectacular visual treats await any fan of cinema as one will ponder how the project all came together.

Sex Tape-2014

Sex Tape-2014

Director-Jake Kasdan

Starring-Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel

Scott’s Review #980

Reviewed January 15, 2020

Grade: C

Sex Tape (2014) is a cliched, by the numbers, standard romantic comedy that meets expectations, but does little to exceed them. It is a raunchy affair, perhaps too raunchy for some, and riddled with juvenile moments. The film contains good chemistry between the leads and is fun up to a point. The final sequence strays too far into dumb, situation comedy style moments, with way too many seen before stereotypes, that take most of the preceding fun away.

With universally scathing reviews, I expected to hate the film, and salivated over the opportunity to craft a good, old-fashioned terrible review, but alas, Sex Tape is marginally fair to middling. Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, reuniting again after starring in Bad Teacher (2011), do what they can with the material given, offering strong convictions and fluid moments of enamored charm. In a supporting role as the boss, Rob Lowe is fine in a stock role, and the child actors are abhorrent (what else is new in romantic comedy casts?)

The film treats the viewer to a brief backstory, narrated by Annie, about the fresh romance between twenty-somethings, Jay and Annie Hargrove (Segel and Diaz). Much in love, they can barely keep their eyes off each other and have sex at the drop of a hat. Once they settle down and have kids, their romantic interludes must be balanced and scheduled amid bath time, feedings, and the necessity of sleep. Annie writes a popular blog, expressing the challenges of being a mom, as she bucks for a well-paying job at a company run by Hank Rosenbaum (Lowe).

One day, while feeling naughty, Jay and Annie rapturously and spontaneously decide to record their session of hanky panky on video, to enjoy later. Predictably, an error occurs, and their lovemaking session is inadvertently synchronized to video to several iPads the couple had given away over time, which ridiculously is the entire cast. They struggle to retrieve the iPads one by one and erase their session, while being blackmailed by an anonymous viewer.

The strength of Sex Tape is in the pairing of Diaz and Segel because without these actors the film would be drivel. In physical comedy films, chemistry and antics are everything, and these two have it down. We accept that the married couple, despite it being ten long years, are still smitten with each other, avoiding the doldrums. What they need is a spark and it is fun watching them come up with a sneaky idea. Even when the film gets bad, the actors are a hoot.

The supporting cast is what one usually gets in a romantic comedy and wonder of wonders is why these characters are always written as a “type” and not better fleshed out. Examples are Jay and Annie’s best friends, Robby and Tess Thompson (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper), one-dimensional and offering merely extensions of the lead characters, with no character development of their own. The same can be said for Annie’s mother (played by Nancy Lenehan), and the children.

To say nothing is how the studio clearly attempt to promote the latest technological tool, the iPad, to death is strongly evident. If one more iPad appeared on screen I would have screamed. And how is it possible to record yourself in numerous sexual positions with an iPad? If they were filming themselves how did they move the iPad and get into those positions? Why did everyone and their brother have an iPad? A weak explanation alluded to Jay’s occupation being somehow responsible.

Sex Tape (2014) does not rewrite the comedy road map and will assuredly be forgotten over time- might this film’s bad reviews and the disastrous remake of Annie (2014) be the reason why Diaz retired from acting altogether? Regardless, for a pleasant Saturday night of silly laughs over a cosmopolitan or two, this film may be the way to go, but for fans of Diaz, watch There’s Something About Mary (1998) instead.

1917-2019

1917-2019

Director-Sam Mendes

Starring-George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman

Scott’s Review #979

Reviewed January 14, 2020

Grade: A

My personal tastes do not always lean towards the standard war film, so when I first heard about 1917 (2019) I was less than enthusiastic for no other reason than my own pre-conceived perceptions. Though peaked with the idea of a World War I film rather than the standard World War II or Vietnam War film, I anticipated a run of the mill experience, or a story that had already been told. Boldly told with incredible intensity and a brilliant technical style, director Sam Mendes creates a memorable cinematic treasure.

In April 1917, during the height of World War I, two British soldiers are tasked with a daring assignment, to hand deliver crucial news to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off their planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have faked a retreat to the Hindenburg Line and are ready to ambush the battalion, intending to kill sixteen-hundred soldiers. Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are chosen, Blake’s brother Joseph among the soldiers bound to meet their fate.

As they journey, the young men face a myriad of hurdles including booby traps left by the Germans, terrain littered with dead bodies of their comrades, a precarious helicopter crash, giant rats, and the rapidly approaching deadline to deliver their message. If they do not accomplish their mission in a timely fashion (twenty-four hours) the results will be devastating. Mendes keeps the tension high because he tells his film in real-time style.

1917 is raw and emotional and hits a hard punch. Powerful scenes of dead bodies riddle the land, fat and pale from days spent immersed in cold water, young soldiers once handsome, now dead and bloated, remind the viewer what a terrible thing war is, and the ravages caused. Unlike other war films, the patriotism and nationalist pride is not there. Rather, the soldiers are weary and angry, confused as to why they are sent to fight for land as ugly as where they are, to die for land that is not even their own. They are depressed and confused.

The relationship between Schofield and Blake is wonderful. Both men are weary and afraid but have each other’s backs throughout their assignment. It is not clear how long they have known each other, but they are at least acquaintances. They each come to the others rescue and a pivotal scene occurs in a dusty hideout where they nearly die after a cave-in. The characters have grit and determination, but a humanity and a connection with each other that resonates powerfully to the viewer.

A wonderful scene is produced as day turns into night, Schofield well into enemy territory. To avoid a pursuant German soldier, he hides in a dusty basement area and finds a cowering young French girl. At first fearful, the pair quickly bond, and a realization occurs to Schofield. The girl is accompanied by a newborn child.

Assumed to be hers, the soldier immediately parts with his stash of food, not realizing the baby can have only milk. A ghastly realization is that the baby is not the French girls at all but was instead found and rescued to prevent its death. The scene is tender and beautiful, perfectly contrasting the ugliness of the war. The wonderful scene gives the viewer pause wondering what will become of the girl and the baby.

Nearly rivaling this lovely scene, another poignant moment occurs when Schofield stumbles upon a group of soldiers watching another soldier perform a rendition of the melancholy war tune, “Wayfaring Stranger”. This moment slows the action down to a crawl with a dedication to loneliness and sadness amid the terrible battles.

The technical aspects that Mendes creates are spectacular and meant to be enjoyed on the largest screen possible. He uses a one-take approach which keeps the action fast and furious. The lavish and grandiose exterior scenes of immense dry land perfectly counterbalance a terrific watery scene when Schofield is chased into the river and soon embarks into wavy grand rapids. The camera remains on the soldier throughout the scene as the viewer is the one taken on the wild adventure, sweeping every morsel of up and down motion with the tide.

To piggy-back this point, a scene occurs when one of the young men is knocked unconscious. It is daylight, but when he regains consciousness it is night. The cinematography is brilliant with a sharp left turn to translucent colors and blurry images of buildings. The viewer is as disoriented as the soldier and fears what lurks in the shadows, as is found out when an unknown approaching figure begins to fire his gun.

1917 (2019) is a progressive leaning gem with an anti-war message and a genuine approach to a “day in the life of a soldier”. It is not glossy or contrived, but a candid realistic view of the savagery of war. With a creative technical style, it is one of the best of its genre ever made.

The Reptile-1966

The Reptile-1966

Director-John Gilling

Starring-Ray Barrett, Jennifer Daniel

Scott’s Review #978

Reviewed January 10, 2020

Grade: B

While watching a Hammer horror film production, there are always little treats offered and enjoyed. The budgets are always small which only adds to the mystique and the fun and the wonderment of what can be done. Impressive are how creative they get with a shoestring budget. The Reptile (1966) is a nice offering with enough murder and intrigue to mildly satisfy, though many plot holes and illogical sequences occur. The British class and murky locales are fantastic.

Set in Cornwall, England, events begin in a macabre way when a middle-aged bachelor hears noises coming from a nearby estate. When he investigates, he is bitten by a demonic figure and rapidly develops the “Black Death” which kills him. Many locals succumb to a similar fate. The bachelor’s brother, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett), inherits his brother’s cottage and moves in despite the warnings of resident tavern owner, Tom (Michael Ripper), the only one of the townspeople to befriend Harry and his wife, Valerie (Jennifer Daniel).

Meanwhile, the sinister Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman), the owner of the nearby estate, is the only resident near the cottage and he lives with his daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce). The Doctor treats his daughter with contempt as she is attended by a silent servant (Marne Maitland). When Anna asks Valerie for help, this leads Valerie and Harry to the estate where dire events occur, but could this be a trap?

The setting of the coastal town is well created and scenes in cemeteries, par for the course with Hammer productions, add a good vibe. The cottage and the estate are well manicured, and the film simply feels like a British gem. Since the sets are low budget, the exterior sequences add a great deal to The Reptile. Assumed is that the film was shot with a “day for night” technique, a trick used to simulate a night scene while filming in daylight. This makes for positive cinematography.

The final thirty minutes or so is the best part of the film when Harry and Valerie are invited to dinner at the doctor’s estate. Banished to her bedroom for most of the evening, Anna emerges looking ravishing in an evening dress, but is soon revealed to have been met with a curse and sheds her skin and becomes a frightening reptile. The servant has a hold over Anna and her father, while a sweet black kitten comes into play.

The characters are interesting. Benevolent Harry and Valerie mix well with the dark and cynical Dr. Franklyn, and the servant. Franklyn is irritable and the servant, though he does not speak, is devious and riddled in mystery. Ignoring warnings to flee the town, never to return, the newlyweds refuse, blissful in their new cottage and filled with the promise of a fresh life. Their spirit counterbalances their neighbors and when the characters intersect the real fun begins.

The creature is a tad on the corny side and is hardly scary. The makeup, reportedly difficult for actress Jacqueline Pearce to wear looks amateurish. The cover art makes the creature look much better than in the film, but again, the budgetary limitations made things tight. Kudos for the idea for the creature to be a female. It was tough to either root for her or against her though since we know little about why she turns from gorgeous to evil.

From a plot perspective, the viewer is encouraged not to try too hard to figure out how circumstances relate to one another. Why and how did Anna become cursed? Did the servant curse her and why is he there? Are the group of caged animals’ creatures that Anna eats? It is mentioned that Anna needs a hot environment- is the hot molten in the basement to keep her human? These and many other inquiries could be made, but it really doesn’t matter too much.

The Reptile (1966) is worth a watch especially for fans of classic, Gothic horror. With an unfamiliar cast, the project would have been assisted by the additions of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, mainstays of Hammer films in either of the central male roles. Still, the film succeeds with unpredictability and the low budget creates a fabulous texture. The main appeal is that it is a good, fun horror film with little expectations.

300-2007

300-2007

Director-Zack Snyder

Starring-Gerard Butler, Dominic West

Scott’s Review #977

Reviewed January 7, 2020

Grade: D

On paper 300 (2007) could have been a good or even a great film under different circumstances, if a historical realism or a message of some kind had existed. Unfortunately, what sounds like an interesting premise is met with a cartoon quality, over-acting, and cheesy testosterone laden bombast. Little more than drivel, the film is saved slightly by a charismatic lead, male flesh, and potent homo-eroticism, but this is no Magic Mike (2012), and the content fails because it is intended to be taken seriously. The result is a silly affair, with predictability, and cliches for miles.

The story is based on a 1998 comic series of the same name that is a fictionalized retelling of a battle within the Persian War. The flimsy plot revolves around King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who leads 300 Spartans into battle against the Persian “God-King” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his invading army of more than 300,000 soldiers (hence the title).  As the battle rages on, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) attempts to rally support in Sparta for her husband (Leonidas) and conquer the army.

Butler is the only slight positive worth mentioning as he preens and prances in little more than a loin-cloth with chiseled abs during the battle scenes, ferociously bellowing at his enemy. A fine-looking man, he is unarguably charismatic and poised, so the audience is strongly encouraged to root for him, and naturally for the Spartans. Leonidas makes for a powerful leader and is great to look at, but that is where any positives to this film end.

The scantily clad gimmick is not intended to draw female viewers to the film, or at least the intent doesn’t seem to be there, unless the marketing was botched. There is enough male nudity to go around and the beefcake and machismo are clear in most of the characters. Laughable is how the Spartans all have washboard abs and appear to be freshly waxed. Did they have access to state-of-the-art fitness centers in 479 BC? The Persians are mostly face-pierced and sneering, the clear enemy, which does nothing to diminish racist overtones. Spartan-good, Persian-bad.

Zack Snyder’s (Dawn of the Dead-2004) motivation seems to be to market this film to pubescent teenage males or the low-IQ crowd so the stereotypes are not the best thing to witness nor will they cause anyone to feel very liberated or united. The characters are either cookie-cutter or grizzled and violent, which is in tune with most of the film- bloody, but without reason, substance or merit. One-note character after one-note character appear through each scene. Most bothersome is the intent to stir a pro-war stance, not helpful given the target audience.

300 was filmed mostly with a superimposition chroma key technique, to help replicate the imagery of the original comic book which does nothing but make the film look like a high energy video game. The product is quite stylized with gloomy battleground scenes and dire bleakness and derives a graphic novel or comic book approach but lacking any subtle qualities or pretty much anything else interesting from a cinematography perspective.

The battle scene finale is by the numbers and should come as no surprise who the inevitable victor is. The film requires little thought or attention span and one can simply immerse themselves onto a cushion and absorb the nonsense couch-potato style. Battle after battle erupts with cliched earnestness and a bevy of blood spurting wounds and kills. This would be okay if there existed any point or good plot twist. Any character development is missing.

300 (2007) is a weak offering and decidedly boring, a surprise since much of the events take place on the battleground where action is produced a mile a minute. The experience is forgettable, and a legion of other action fueled films exist with more meat and potatoes on their plate. The sinister and stereotypical aspects make the resulting film less than fun and the big, loud, dumb product is only marginally cinematic. We can do better.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-1970

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-1970

Director-Russ Meyer

Starring-Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers

Scott’s Review #976

Reviewed January 2, 2020

Grade: B+

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) was originally intended as a sequel to the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls but was revised as a parody of the commercially successful but critically panned original. This was not altogether a smart move since it would have been interesting to see a coherent follow-up exploring the lives of the original characters instead of a similar named film with little to do with the first.

Instead the film plays like frenetic mayhem with jarring edited scenes, a peculiar character switch and story line, and completely over the top vulgarity. Still, the film is fun and extravagant, but hardly on par with Valley of the Dolls. I would not even recommend watching them in sequence- the confusion would only be doubled.

To call Valley of the Dolls a “serious” film is laughable, but compared to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it is. Director Russ Meyer, known for successful sexploitation films that featured campy humor, satire and large-breasted women, such as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Supervixens (1975), is at the helm to create the bombastic and eye-dropping shenanigans. Famous film critic Roger Ebert co-wrote the screenplay along with Meyer.

Three young women-Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and “Pet” Danforth (Marcia McBroom) front a struggling rock band, The Kelly Affair, managed by Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), Kelly’s boyfriend. The four travel to Los Angeles to seek Kelly’s estranged aunt, Susan Lake, heiress to a family fortune. Fans of Valley of the Dolls will need to know that Susan is supposed to be Anne Welles, the central character in that film.

A battle ensues as Susan graciously offers to give some of her fortune to Kelly, but Susan’s unsavory financial adviser, Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) will have none of it. Amid the drama, Kelly meets a gigolo who feuds with Harris, while Harris is pursued by a sexually aggressive porn star named Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). Events all take place against the backdrop of night after night Los Angeles partying.

While the plot is not the central aspect of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the renaming of Susan from Anne, the same character, as well as recasting Barbara Parkins with Phyllis Davis, make things confusing. Adding to this point, Parkins was originally cast as Anne/Susan, but was abruptly fired from the production. This makes any comparisons to Valley of the Dolls other than the title alone, unwise and a waste of time.

The lively revelry is the fun and the beauty of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film has a cool and groovy vibe and epitomizes late 1960’s psychedelic and colorful aura. The free love and the expressionism make the experience a wild but liberal minded experience and that is suitable for a film like this. The intention is to entertain and express the confidence of women. While the female characters are exploited, they are also driven and comfortable with themselves.

A fun fact, and cause for musing, is that as wild and exploitative to women (and men) as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is, that Ebert was largely responsible for penning the script. In the 1980’s the critic, who I am a cherished fan of, panned many of the 1980’s horror/slasher flicks, especially Friday the 13th (1980) for exploiting women, but he had no issue exploiting them years early. Makes one ponder the hypocrisy of his comments.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is daring and never plays things safe. With a hip edge and plenty of way ahead of its time same sex character representations, the film is unique and brimming with hilarious and bizarre antics. The plot is rather silly and goofy and unsurprisingly panned by critics but has become a cult classic and with repeated viewings, grown on me more and more. The production is meant to be watched late at night for better appreciation.

Cabaret-1972

Cabaret-1972

Director-Bob Fosse

Starring-Liza Minnelli, Michael York

Scott’s Review #975

Reviewed December 31, 2019

Grade: A

If not for the mighty and powerful The Godfather (1972) blocking its path (but who’s complaining?), Cabaret (1972), with eight academy award nominations, surely would have won Best Picture in its year of release. The film thus has the dubious honor of receiving the most nominations of all time without whisking away the ultimate trophy, but no matter, Oscars are not everything. The production, acting, and story are inventive and envelope pushing, both serious and fun, and proof that 1972 was one of the greatest years in cinema.

The story envelopes a circle of friends enjoying the decadence and jovial nature of the decade, although they have their struggles. Energetic Kit Kat Klub performer, Sally Bowles (Minnelli) takes a shine to British scribe, Brian (Michael York) when he moves in to her boarding house. Despite having night and day personalities, they become deeply bonded and best friends. Rich playboy baron, Maximilian (Helmut Griem) woos the pair with money and travel and beds each of them separately, eventually dumping them both.

In a supporting yet important subplot, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) is a German Jew passing himself off as a Protestant. He falls madly in love with Natalia (Marisa Berenson), a gorgeous and authentic German Jewish heiress. Their love story is comic relief, but a dangerous aspect of the film given the foreboding political events. The safety of the cabaret serves as a haven while the outlandish Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) appears throughout the film performing risque numbers.

Adapted from the popular Broadway stage show, the musical drama is set in 1930’s Berlin, and the story begins in 1931. Historians will realize that the decade of the 1930’s Germany was frightening, giving rise to the deadly and hated Nazi Party. While the film never goes full-fledged dark, there are snippets of beatings and ridicule at the hands of the Nazis, powerful stuff and tough to take, especially given the Jewish religion of some of the principals.

Liza Minnelli has never had a better role as she simply becomes Sally. The character is vivacious, zesty, and emotional and Minnelli dives in head first and wins viewers hearts. Beneath her bubbly exterior Sally is wounded, yearning for love and peace of mind. She pretends that she is close with her wealthy father, but this is far from the truth. The most powerful scene is when a pregnant Sally comes to terms with the heart-wrenching decision to abort the baby.

For both the time-period setting, the 1930’s, and the year the film was made, 1972, the sexuality dynamic is powerful and worth a nod. Brian, openly bi-sexual, and in a different time certainly gay, is a great character. He beds Sally more out of friendship than anything else, while delving into an admiration (or a lusting) for suave and dashing Maximilian. The fact that his sexuality is embraced and explored is to be celebrated and respected. It’s also a damned interesting part of the film.

Of course, Cabaret being a musical, the performance numbers are superlative. With gorgeous choreography by director, Bob Fosse, (and who would expect anything less from the seasoned artist), the sets and costumes are stylish. The conclusion, featuring “Cabaret”, is done in a grand way as Sally performs on stage with precision and bombast. “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time” are also dynamic favorites.

Cabaret (1972) is a spirited, intelligent experience, never glossing over the historical period, nor assuming viewers are too dumb to have a handle on those events. The film plays best to smart audiences able to appreciate artistic merit and enjoy the robust musical numbers. In a careful way, the film is designed to never shy away from the crucial Nazi power that was creeping up and leading to a generation of despair and repercussions.

Silent Night, Deadly Night-1984

Silent Night, Deadly Night-1984

Director-Charles E. Sellier Jr.

Starring-Robert Brian Wilson, Gilmer McCormick

Scott’s Review #974

Reviewed December 30, 2019

Grade: B

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is a fun, holiday-themed horror/slasher flick that is cheery mayhem in the spirit of the season, and a worthy addition to any horror fans collection. The film is best watched late at night for appropriate effect, and obvious to view around the holiday that it celebrates. It would make a great companion piece to Black Christmas (1974), clearly a superior film, but both containing eerily similar musical scores, the former updated with electronic beats for the 1980’s.

The horror film was met with ridicule and protest upon release for the promotion of a killer Santa Claus, despite the story being slightly overreacted to and not interpreted correctly. The “real Santa Claus does not perform the slayings, but rather a mentally unstable young man dressed in the red suit does the dirty deeds. Nonetheless, the film was unceremoniously yanked from theaters after parents expressed fear that their kids might be traumatized by the film. Silent Night, Deadly Night has graduated to cult-classic status and is entertaining, perhaps embracing its derision instead of running from it.

The action begins in rural Utah in 1971, as the Chapman family drives to a retirement home to see their catatonic grandfather. When left alone, the elder warns five-year-old Billy to fear Santa Claus, which his parents disbelieve. On their way home, they stop along the roadside to help a man dressed as Santa Claus, whose car appears to have broken down. The man robs and kills the parents, sparing Billy and his brother from death. Three years later Billy and Ricky reside in an orphanage led by the sadistic Mother Superior, and a kindly nun, Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick).

Ten years later (present times), the now grown Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is benevolent and friendly, obtaining a job as a stock boy at a toy store with the help of Sister Margaret. As Christmas Eve approaches, Billy has flashbacks of his parents murders and later is forced to play Santa Claus for the Christmas party when a co-worker falls ill. As the staff become inebriated, a female co-worker is nearly raped causing Billy to go berserk and kill both the assailant and the victim who blames Billy. He then spends the night prowling the area for victims he can stab or behead.

Fun is the name of the game with Silent Night, Deadly Night. The film is to be enjoyed and is a macabre treat for slasher fans. The kills are respectable with the traditional methods used- an ax to the head and a bow and arrow death, along with more elaborate deaths like strangling with a chain of Christmas lights, and a bare-chested female victim being impaled on a moose head. The highlight is the beheading of a mean teenage bully as he gleefully sleighs down a hill on a stolen sled.

Plenty of gratuitous bare chests (female) common in these types of films are in store for the lusty male viewer, but a nude male is glimpsed as well to make for some R-rated diversity. Par for the course with slasher films made decades ago are the omission of cultural diversity. Not one Black, Latin, or Asian character is ever seen. The pure as snow Utah setting might be one justification.

If one were to attempt to analyze Silent Night, Deadly Night (not recommended) one can deduce a specific religious message or at least a questioning of Catholicism, specifically the harshness of Mother Superior and her interpretation of punishment being good and implemented in the name of god. Or maybe she is just a sadistic character? In perfect contrast, Sister Margaret is loving, protective, and nurturing to the orphans. Whatever the intention of the film makers, humor is the recipe as the strictness and rigidity are played for laughs.

Proper for any horror film, the final scene leaves room for a sequel. Indeed, there were four follow-up films made with the younger Ricky taking over as the serial killer. In satisfying form, Ricky glares at Mother Superior and exclaims “naughty!” before the credits roll. The unrated version of Silent Night, Deadly Night is the preferred version to watch.

Pull up the covers, light the fire, and kick back with a six-pack of Bud lite, roast some marshmallows, and enjoy Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) for what it is. Bad acting, sins of the flesh, and a delightful holiday slaughter with unintentional (or intentional) humor and cliched characters make for robust enjoyment on a light-weight scale.

8 1/2-1963

8 1/2-1963

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Marcelo Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale

Scott’s Review #973

Reviewed December 27, 2019

Grade: A-

For fans of acclaimed and experimental Italian film director, Federico Fellini, a clear plot is rarely the recipe of the day with his projects. With 8 1/2 (1963) he creates a personal and autobiographical story of a movie director pressured into another project but lacking creative ideas and inspiration to fulfill the task. We can all relate to this in one way or another.

The film is confusing, beautiful, elegant, and dreamlike, exactly what one would expect of a Fellini production. His film also hints at a deeper message and complexities. The recommendation is to experience the film rather than analyze or worse yet, over-analyze it, simply letting it marinate over time and relish in the offerings.

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a famous Italian film director suffering from director’s block after he is tasked with, and attempts to direct, an epic science fiction film. Experiencing marital difficulties, he decides to spend time at a luxurious spa where he has strange reoccurring visions of a beautiful woman (Claudia Cardinale), is visited by his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), and is berated by a temperamental film critic.

When Guido’s film crew arrives at his hotel in the hopes of starting production, he becomes overwhelmed by the mounting pressures and escapes into a world of memories. He visits his grandmother, dances with a prostitute, and relives his time at a strict Catholic school. Attempts to add these memories to his new film are dismissed by the film critic. The rest of the film is a mish mash of odd occurrences as Guido attempts to make his film.

Fans of Fellini’s other works will undoubtedly fall in love with 8 1/2, and since the film is about film this scores points in my book. His other famous works like Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973) are similarly semi-auto biographical but differ in that they are more straightforward stories- as much as can be said about a Fellini film. Usually lacking much plot 8 1/2 resembles Juliet and the Spirits (1965) more than the others for comparisons sake. Fantasy and reality are interspersed, making the film tough to follow.

It appears to be about a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown and is a complex and personal study. As Guido spirals out of control and teetering towards insanity, he also muses about his situation. These highs and lows told in a comical fashion make 8 1/2 even more difficult to figure out and react to.

My previous suggestion to simply experience 8 1/2 achieves credibility as the film rolls along. Viewers may be unsure of what is happening, if not downright perplexed by the whole thing, but there is an energy that pulls one into its clutches with masterful sequences and potent embraces of life, loves, and culture. This must be attributed to the look and style of the film.

8 1/2 won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design (black-and-white) and is considered a highly respected and influential work of art by most film critics. Appreciated mostly for its beautiful cinematography, it also delves into the meaning of life with a live and let live approach.

Lovers of avant-garde works of interpretation and expressionism will be giddy with delight while experiencing ruminating thoughts following 8 1/2 (1963). Having only seen the film once and embraced it wholly as a work of art, but frustrated by the lack of tangible meaning, my own advice is to see the film a second, a third, or even a fourth time for a deeper appreciation and understanding. I plan to heed my own suggestion.

Bombshell-2019

Bombshell-2019

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #972

Reviewed December 26, 2019

Grade: B+

Bombshell (2019) is the type of the film that depending on your political affiliation, you will either refuse to see, or see and have a love/hate reaction to. As a non-lover of “news” network Fox News I am firmly ensconced in the latter camp, so my opinion of the film is mixed. The importance of releasing the film in the time of political turmoil during 2019 is crucial and intentional, which is why I commend the film but the subject matter of sexual harassment against women is difficult to watch and a sobering reminder that this behavior continues to occur.

The performances of the principle players- Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Kate McKinnon, and John Lithgow are wonderful and key to the film’s power. Theron and Lithgow receive the lion’s share of makeup and prosthetic work, making them look identical to their real-life counterparts. Beneficial are a myriad of Fox News political figure portrayals (Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Bill O’Reilly) with frighteningly good accuracy creating a surreal effect.

The film centers on female Fox News personnel in Manhattan and their sexual harassment allegations against founder Roger Ailes (Lithgow). The central figure- Megyn Kelly (Theron) is conflicted over the risks to both her career and her financial stability if she comes forward and admits her own harassment by Ailes years ago after Gretchen Carlson sues the network. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a young Fox employee, who is also harassed by Ailes.  McKinnon plays closeted lesbian and confidante to Kayla, who works for the network despite being liberal and a huge admirer of Hillary Clinton.

The plot is fast-paced and plays out like a quick page-turner, with some of it narrated by Kelly. Bombshell feels timely and has a distinct “ripped from the headlines” makeup. The fact that the real-life events occurred as recent as 2016 is an unmistakable aspect that will grip the viewer, especially those who follow United States politics or current events. The story is fresh and vibrant with familiarity, not a story from an event decades ago that many viewers have forgotten or were too young to remember.

I had difficulty feeling much sympathy for most of the characters which knocks the film down a notch. The standard definition that the term “Fox News” usually conjures is one of male chauvinism and the good old boys club with old fashioned machismo ruling the roost. Why would any woman choose to work for them or align themselves with the Conservative party which is not a fan of women or women’s rights? With this fact in mind, it was difficult for me to watch the film.

To build on this, CEO Roger Ailes is written as the clear villain with no redeeming value. During one scene, he salivates over Kayla when she visits him in his office and instructs her to lift her skirt higher and twirl for him. The scene is sickening, and we feel Kayla’s embarrassment and humiliation. In a cheer out loud moment at the end of the film, she ups and quits, unable to remain in such a corrupt corporation.

One of the only likable characters is Jess Carr (McKinnon), probably fictitious. Hardly fitting the mold of the female staff, not perky or showing leg, she goes out for drinks with Kayla and admits to being gay, the two ending up having a one-night stand. The character is unique, and McKinnon makes wise acting choices. Worth mentioning is Ailes’s long-time secretary Faye (Holland Taylor). Surely, she has knowledge of the antics that go on in her boss’s office, but she almost serves as an accomplice. Why?

Sad to realize is that as recent as 2016, women were still having to face discrimination in the workplace. Industries with powerful men still can be toxic and poisonous to women attempting to climb the ranks. If the women harassed at Fox News were not top anchors there is no way the accusations would have even been heard. What about the receptionists, the cleaning staff, or the admins who are harassed? Would anyone listen to them? This message crossed my mind while watching Bombshell.

With fantastic acting and incredible makeup, time will tell if Bombshell (2019) remains a relevant film. Leaving the viewer with an unsatisfying ending rather than a hopeful one, it is tough to sympathize with most of the characters even when supposed to. Bombshell would make a perfect companion piece to Vice (2018), a similar political, yet superior film.

A Passage to India-1984

A Passage to India-1984

Director-David Lean

Starring-Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft

Scott’s Review #971

Reviewed December 24, 2019

Grade: A-

David Lean, famous for his sweeping, masterpiece epics including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), returns with his swan song, a grandiose and lavish film, A Passage to India (1984). Though not quite on the same level as the two other mentions, the brilliant cinematography alone makes this one a winner. The story is compelling with a mystery and a he said/she said rape story that deepens, exploring racism and religion, assuredly switching viewer allegiances between characters.

A Passage to India is based on the famous E.M. Forster novel from 1924. Along with A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), the three makes up a series that examines class differences and hypocrisy among the British. All three are set at least partially in England and were all adapted to film with immeasurable success. While the film is potent and meaningful, it is the least brilliant of the three, but only by a hair.

Set in the 1920’s, the British had control over India causing some tensions in the air. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) sails from England to India with Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), the mother of her intended bridegroom, who they plan to see when they arrive at their destination. The women have a wonderful relationship and excitedly anticipate their adventure.

After Mrs. Moore meets the kindly Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), becoming enamored and enraptured, the women accompany him to an exploration of ancient caves, along with a guide. When Adela and Ahmed are left alone, she suddenly appears frantic, accusing the Indian Doctor of attempted rape, setting off a blistering scandal that causes public debate and divides the townspeople, culminating in a trial.

The story is naturally the focal point of the film, but not the strongest part. At first left aghast at the accusations hurled at Aziz, by all appearances a wonderful man, the intention is for the viewer to be unclear of what transpires when Aziz and Adela are alone. The events, if any exist, take place off-screen, so we only see a disheveled Adela flee the caves in panic.  The rest is left to the viewers imagination and to wonder what happened. As the truth is eventually revealed, we wonder about the intended motivations and the ramifications the accusations will have on the central characters.

The film is successful at discussing racism and assumptions in an interesting way, leading major characters to disagree. Adela and Mrs. Moore wind up at odds after the events, with Moore refusing to believe Aziz did anything wrong. This is a bold stance to take as the women are good friends and we would assume one would support the other. While Moore is liberal and open-minded, Adela is conservative and buttoned up, making the ideological differences clearer. Did Adela imagine the attack? Did somebody else attack her?

The cinematography is brilliant and the pure excellence of the film. The plentiful exterior scenes are delectable and simmer with beauty within each frame. Since many of them take place in the grandiose mountains or caves the results are exquisite. One can easily sit back and revel in the majestic sequences and many scenes are still and quiet which enhances the effects. As with other Lean epics, advisable is to see this film on the biggest screen known to mankind.

At one-hundred and sixty-four minutes the film is hardly non-stop action, but rather slightly laborious and lumbering. Some parts are a tad too slow, but the payoff is mighty and there is a measure of intrigue throughout, especially once the cave incident occurs. I hate to say the film drags, but perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes could have been shaved off. When Lean is at the helm, a hefty running time is a guarantee.

A Passage to India (1984) is a film by a respected director that culminates a lengthy and inspired career in bold fashion. While not his best film, this should not detract from the excellent experience the film provides. Grandiose sequences and sophisticated style make the film able to be viewed more than once, a marvel for a film released in the lackluster 1980’s.

A League of Their Own-1992

A League of Their Own-1992

Director-Penny Marshall

Starring-Geena Davis, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #970

Reviewed December 19, 2019

Grade: B

Sports films are too often predictable affairs with fairy tale endings. They are also typically male driven. A League of Their Own (1992) is warm and sentimental, and while director Penny Marshall plays it way too sweet and safe for my tastes, there is a measure of feminism that is admirable and a bit different. The cast is well-known and provides professionalism and energy, but the film is little more than mediocre and strikes out towards the end with a far too pretty ending, doing exactly what these genre films normally do. It’s as if Marshall has a great idea, but then decides not to teeter too far left of center.

Beginning in 1988 (present times), elderly Dottie Hinson attends an opening of the new All-American Girls Professional Baseball League exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. She reunites with several of her former teammates and friends, prompting a flashback to 1943, when the main story takes place. With many young men off fighting World War II, the Major League Baseball franchise is at risk. A women’s league is bankrolled which prompts the recruitment of several players, forming the Peaches and the Belles. They face off in the World Series to dramatic effect.

To be fair, the film is nice and welcoming, providing a haven for film goers seeking a solid story and a heartwarming sensibility. The lead actors, Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, respectively the team manager and star player, provide strength and do the best they can with the roles given. During the early 1990’s both were big stars, and while their characters are not romantically linked, their chemistry is zesty. Hanks as Jimmy is a bit predictable and gruff, at first being little more than a male chauvinist, but eventually coming around to respect the women.

For fans of the sport of baseball, the film will be delightful. With enough action scenes on the outdoor diamond to please those fans, one might forget that the teams are made up of women. The demographic sought after is clearly female, but the sunny settings and standard hot dogs, peanuts, and popcorn, result in the film drawing a wholesomeness that should also please men.

The supporting characters are too one-dimensional and cliched. The biggest offenders are the characters of “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell). The pop star, a horrid actress in my opinion, is written way too corny, cracking gum and talking tough, while O’Donnell is intended to be her sidekick. The duo is street smart and grizzled New Yorker’s, but the casting never really works, and the act feels very formulaic, losing its luster very early on.

While Marshall incorporates brief moments of tragedy, one minor character’s husband is killed in action during the war, all the action is safely in the United States, the war serving as more of a backdrop than a major player. More common are syrupy scenes between characters who at first have a miscommunication or misunderstanding, but then forge their way to a close bond. And do we ever really believe Jimmy will not become the women’s biggest fan?

A League of Their Own (1992) is a decent watch and marginally enjoyable in a fluff way. It provides little edginess and could have provided darker story points than it does. Instead it shows a slice of Americana and Apple Pie approach that while not all bad, is not all good either, feeling limited by its own sentimentality. The film could be much worse and possesses characters that the viewer can root for and cheer along with a home run or a safe slide into third base. This is mainly a result of the stellar cast that Marshall presents.

Knives Out-2019

Knives Out-2019

Director-Rian Johnson

Starring-Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig

Scott’s Review #969

Reviewed December 17, 2019

Grade: B+

Knives Out (2019) is a cleverly constructed whodunit, created in a style not too dissimilar from the famous board game, Clue. In fact, this facet is mentioned by one character during a scene in the film. With a hefty cast of film stars both young and old (mostly old), the result is a good time with intelligent writing and surprises and a crowd-pleasing tone. The project is presented by a cast who undoubtedly had a ball during filming. The point of the film is to try and figure out whodunit and why, in perfect murder mystery form.

It is explained through narration that wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has invited his family to flock to his mansion for his eighty-fifth birthday party. The next morning, Harlan’s housekeeper Fran finds him dead, apparently having slit his own throat. An anonymous figure hires private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the situation. When Blanc arrives at the grand estate to interrogate family and friends, tidbits of scandal and intrigue slowly brim to the surface as layers are revealed.

The sizable cast features Hollywood stalwarts like Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda, Harlan’s daughter), Don Johnson (Richard, Harlan’s son-in-law, and Linda’s husband), Chris Evans (Ransom, Harlan’s grandson), Michael Shannon (Walt, Harlan’s youngest son), and Toni Collette (Joni, widow of Harlan’s deceased son Neil). Helpful is how the film spends time introducing and explaining each prominent character so that the viewer has a good sense of who’s who and how one character relates to the others before the tangled web unravels.

The delicious aspect of Knives Out are the many twists and turns offered throughout the course of the run time. Surprising me was a key revelation exposed quite early on, so that the pacing is more left of center than classic whodunits of days past. Once the new story arc is revealed the plot thickens further and we know more events will ultimately abound as the story just cannot be this simple. This successfully kept me as a viewer engaged during the entire experience.

Having witnessed the previews at length and the way the trailer presents a Hercule Poirot/Agatha Christie/Jessica Fletcher type sleuth to solve, it was delightful to see one-character snuggling on the couch absorbed in an episode of the 1980’s television series “Murder, She Wrote”. Director, Rian Johnson offers several sly homages to influential tidbits of pop culture that helped create his film and retain the amusements.

Another momentous positive is the incorporation of a political discussion among the family as they brood and fret over how much money they stand to inherit from their dead patriarch. Donald J. Trump, a man who catapulted the United States into controversy post 2016, is never mentioned by name, but immigration, children in cages, and expletives are carefully hurled about in his honor so there is no question the connotations. Harlan’s caregiver is Marta (Ana de Armas), the heroine of the film and the standout, and whose mother is an undocumented immigrant. So political overtones abound.

Knives Out mixes dark humor with traditional mystery and is never dull. The big reveal at the end is not brilliant nor is it disappointing. It simply satisfies after numerous red-herrings and lies bubble to the surface. The final sequence is palpable and smart viewers will wonder what one character will possibly do next to either please or anger the rest of the characters. Might a sequel be at hand?

A film not meant to be high art or anything more than an entertaining good time, Knives Out (2019) achieves its intent by offering an experience reminiscent of an Agatha Christie tale that is fun for the audience. The benefits are reaped as an enormous box office return was awarded the film. Thanks in large part to a talented cast, a gloomy mansion, and wealthy people faced with peril and comeuppance, these elements are a wonderful recipe for a good solid mystery.

A Christmas Story-1983

A Christmas Story-1983

Director-Bob Clark

Starring-Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon

Scott’s Review #968

Reviewed December 16, 2019

Grade: B+

A festive holiday film sure to be watched during late December, A Christmas Story (1983) is a wholesome family treat with heart and a good slice of Americana. A clever gimmick of an adult narrating the story of his childhood holiday experience feels both fresh and nostalgic. Some hairstyles, looks, and camera styles feel more like the 1980’s than the 1940’s and the subject matter of a gun becomes questionable with the passing years, but the film enchants and warms the soul with famous cult classic moments mixed in making the film memorable.

The central character is Ralphie Parker (played as a child by Peter Billingsley and voiced as an adult by Jean Shepard). Nine-years-old and clad in distinguished eye-glasses, he anticipates the approaching Christmas holiday with both excitement and trepidation. He longs for his dream gift, a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, which every adult he meets hazards “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Determined, he schemes to find a way to make his dreams come true and his parents to buy that gun, while avoiding the neighborhood bully.

The film has mass appeal in the casting department with each principal actor adding value, and the story just feels warm. With lesser talent the results may have been over-the-top, forced or too melodramatic. Accolades are especially deserved by Billingsley, who carries the film with his sincerity and giant blue eyes. He is a natural and fantastic actor especially during the more emotional scenes. Ralphie’s mother, father, and teacher are wonderful in their respective parts adding the right level of earnestness and pizzazz in support roles.

A Christmas Story gets props for avoiding any silly romantic story-line commonplace in “feel good” films of similar ilk. The plot is clearly defined and the antics of Ralphie make the film fun, but not too sentimental or corny. Cringe-worthy is the thought of a little neighborhood girl that Ralphie might want to impress. The little boy’s somewhat infatuation with his teacher is innocent and whimsical and not to be taken too seriously.

The incorporation of now legendary props and story points add texture and comfort to the viewing experience, especially the lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg and high-heeled shoe. The garish prize Ralphie’s father wins after entering a contest becomes his pride and joy making his wife and the neighbors cringe. Assuming the piece is lavish art mistaking the word “fragile” for a fancy Italian word, the scene is humorous.

The final scene of the family being reduced to eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant after their turkey is ruined still provides a smile. As the years pass the scene teeters on racist and has been changed during stage productions to avoid controversy. The Asian characters possess too many cliched stereotypes for my taste, but the intent is innocent and wraps the film nicely.

Peculiar and noticeable with each viewing experience, is the glaring locale of Hammond, Indiana when the film is clearly shot in and around Cleveland, Ohio. The famous Higbee’s Department Store in downtown Cleveland is pivotal to the story and world-renowned, so the Indiana locale is perplexing and out of place. Many may not realize the Cleveland surroundings, but eagle-eyed viewers will take notice. The exteriors look nothing like Indiana.

Known for having aired since 1997 on television stations TNT or TBS in a marathon titled “24 Hours of A Christmas Story”, the event has consisted of twelve consecutive airings of the film on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day each year. This has resulted in its being deemed one of the best Christmas movies ever made and exposed new generations to the work. I’m not convinced it is “the best”, but nothing feels cozier on a cold holiday night snuggled by the fire than this cult classic. 

127 Hours-2010

127 Hours-2010

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-James Franco

Scott’s Review #967

Reviewed December 13, 2019

Grade: A

A biography of epic proportions, 127 Hours (2010) provides a stunning account of one man’s journey and near tragic fate. If not for his resolve and determination this would surely have been the result. Director, Danny Boyle casts the charismatic James Franco in the role of the hiker who was forced to amputate his own arm after becoming pinned by a rock. The effective title gives a non-stop active feel, a five-days in the life production if you will, and a pulsating ninety minutes of crafty film making.

The film starts off a cheery story of an excited mountaineer, Aron Ralston, (Franco) who prepares to embark on a long-awaited adventure. The time is April 2003. His goal is to enjoy a few days of hiking, reveling in the freedom the fresh Utah air offers him. Somewhat of a daredevil, he happily anticipates adventure as he begins his journey. He meets two attractive young women, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) and the trio swims in an underground pool before going their separate ways.

Had 127 Hours been a horror film there would be a sense of suspicion or dread surrounding the female hikers, but the scene is enchanting and pure innocence. Once again on his own, Aron suddenly slips and falls, knocking over a boulder which crushes his right hand and wrist against the wall. He calls for help but realizes that he is alone. Aron begins recording a video diary and reflects on his past, for example forgetting to leave a note to his whereabouts, while becoming more and more desperate to escape.

Most of 127 Hours is set within a state of claustrophobic peril in the tiny walls of the rocks that Ralston is trapped between. The film quickly becomes an emotional and personal experience as the camera is focused on Franco, mostly in close-up form. At times the shots are too close for comfort, but this is a necessary way for the viewer to experience events the way that Aron did, the style tremendously effective.

At the risk of diminishing the amazing direction, editing, and cinematography offered, the film belongs to Franco. As Aron faces peril, growing frantic with each passing hour, but trying to remain calm and focused, Franco does a tremendous job of balancing and revealing the proper emotions. He whimsically recounts memories while forbidding himself to lose sight of escape, rationing what little food and water he has. The gruesome amputation scene is gory and powerful and may necessitate closing one’s eyes.

The remainder of the elements come together perfectly. The editing, cinematography and pacing of the story are all spot on. The musical soundtrack is key to the pacing of the film. At first energetic and excitable, the music slowly becomes darker and more subdued, while at the end it is low-key. Aron is thankful to simply be alive as he walks a lonely walk to help as the film concludes.

Since the real-life figure is still very much alive, the historical accuracy of the experience is preserved, as confirmed by the hero. He only showed Kristi and Megan basic climbing moves and they never swam together, but the remainder is a brilliant documentary style film experience. The real Ralston himself, along with his wife and son make cameo appearances at the end of the film, providing good authenticity.

127 Hours (2010) scores big, creating an experience that is breathtaking, disturbing, and real. Inspiration will be given to each viewer and a lesson in endurance and perseverance will resonate in their own life. The film deservedly received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Film Editing, but sadly coming up empty handed.

Toy Story 4-2019

Toy Story 4-2019

Director-Josh Cooley

Voices-Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts

Scott’s Review #966

Reviewed December 10, 2019

Grade: B

Toy Story 4 (2019) is the fourth installment in the Pixar/Disney produced Toy Story series, now nearly twenty-five years old! The glitter is beginning to fade on a once endearing franchise and hopefully this is the last one- additional segments are not needed unless desperation develops.

After a slow start and too many retread moments, the film shows bombast and familiar heart and tenderness in the finale, presumably wrapping up the lengthy story with a neat bow. The animation is vivid and colorful, almost astounding, making up for an unnecessary story.

In a flashback sequence, nine-years after Toy Story 2, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is donated to a new owner and Woody (Tom Hanks) begrudgingly decides to maintain his loyalty to owner, Andy. Years later and now a teenager, Andy donates a forgotten Woody to a young child named Bonnie, who lacks the affection for the toy that Andy had. When Bonnie makes and bonds with Forky, a toy made of plastic, Woody struggles to convince Forky that each is more than garbage.

When Bonnie and her parents embark on a summer road trip to an amusement park, Woody and other familiar faces are along for the ride. The group meets other forgotten toys, some benevolent and some sinister, at the park and a nearby antique store. Woody’s dear friend and comic relief, Buzz (Tim Allen), is in the mix and helps all the toys realize that they are not forgotten, and that they can still bring joy to children.

The film provides an unwieldy list of celebrities in major and minor roles. The incorporation of characters like Chairol Burnett, Bitey White, and Carl Reineroceros (voiced naturally by Carol Burnett, Betty White, and Carl Reiner) may not be necessary, but it’s fun to watch the credits roll and see who’s who from the cast. The minor characters are little more than window dressing, but the creativity is admirable.

The main story of abandonment, loyalty, and discarding of one’s toys is ample and nice, but has occurred in every segment thus far in the series. Do we need to see this again? Yes, it is an important message for both children and adults, but why not simply watch the first three installments of Toy Story, each brilliant in their own right? Ty Story 4 plays by the numbers with little surprises.

One glaring notice is how almost every single adult is either incompetent or played for laughs. I get that the main draw is the toys and outsmarting the adults is half the fun, but when Bonnie’s father assumes his navigation system is on the fritz, rather than catching on to the fact that one of the toys is voicing the system, one must shake his or her head. Suspension of disbelief is required more and more in these types of films.

Toy Story 4 picks up steam in the final twenty minutes with a thrilling adventure through the amusement park and a cute romance between Woody and Bo Peep. When long forgotten toy Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) emotionally rescues a lost child, she is rejuvenated and breathes new life into both the child’s life and her own. In a darling moment, Forky meets another creation named Knifey. Knifey suffers from the same existential crisis as Forky once did, and Forky immediately becomes smitten with her, both realizing that even though they are odd looking, they still matter.

The nice lesson learned is that even toys from the 1960’s and 1970’s can provide warmth and comfort to a young child and are more than “of their time”. This is a clear and bold message that correlates with human beings and how advanced age does not come with an expiration date. Everyone matters and brings importance. The overlying theme is heartwarming and central to the film, bringing it above mediocrity.

What should certainly be the final chapter in a tired franchise that continues to trudge along, the bright message and strong animations remain, but the film feels like a retread. Given that Toy Story 3 was made in 2010, Toy Story 4 (2019) needs to bring the series to a conclusion before installment 5, 6, 7 or 8 results in dead on arrival.

Mary Poppins-1964

Mary Poppins-1964

Director-Robert Stevenson

Starring-Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke

Scott’s Review #965

Reviewed December 9, 2019

Grade: A-

Mary Poppins (1964) is a lovely Walt Disney production that shines with zest and an ample supply of good, cheery tunes. A family affair, it will hardly disappoint, with sing-along’s and enchanting story for miles. It’s tough to knock a film that has it all, but it does border on sickeningly sweet wholesomeness at times with too much schmaltz mixed in. This can easily be forgiven because of the robust music, dazzling visual effects, and perfect casting, making the film enjoyable entertainment for all to enjoy.

The Banks family reside in London, England, the foursome consisting of George and Winifred Banks, along with children Jane and Michael. They live a comfortable and happy upper-middle class existence. When their nanny quits after the children run away to chase a kite, the panicked George requests a stern, no nonsense nanny, while the children (now returned home) desire a kind, sweet one. Through the marvel of magic, a young nanny (Julie Andrews) descends from the sky using her umbrella. Mary Poppins teaches the children to enjoy chores through tunes with the help of a kindly chimney sweep, Bert (Dick Van Dyke).

Mary Poppins cheerily take the children on several adventures teaching them valuable lessons along the way. The drama created involves light situations such as the irritable George threatening to fire the nanny because she is too cheerful, or a mini-scandal at the bank where George works. These side stories are trivial and nonthreatening since the film is really about the antics of the magically odd nanny and her relationship with the children.

The film is unique in that it combines live-action with animation so that the result feels magical and inventive. This is most evident during sequences that feature animals, especially the superb scene where Mary Poppins transports Bert, Jane, and Michael into a picture where they ride a carousel and leisurely stroll the day away. The appearance of horses and a fox makes the scene both beautifully crafted and filled with joy.

The casting could be no different and is flawless across the board. Standouts are Andrews and Van Dyke, the former appearing in her very first film role. Not to be usurped by her most iconic role as Maria in the following year’s brilliant The Sound of Music (1965), Andrews possesses a benevolent and delightful spirit which works perfectly in the role, to say nothing of her powerful voice. Van Dyke as the romantic interest, is equally well-cast, and together the chemistry is easy and apparent.

Mary Poppins was met with critical acclaim when it was released, during a time when Disney ruled the roost and musicals were a dime a dozen. It received a total of 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture – a record for any film released by Walt Disney Studios – and won five: Best Actress for Andrews, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Original Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. This was quite a feat as the film was up against My Fair Lady (1964), a similar film, which won the biggest prize of the year.

Rated G and a box-office success, Mary Poppins (1964) is a legendary Walt Disney film that uses creative techniques and musical numbers to develop a fine finished product. The song standouts are “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, as each offers candy for the ears and immeasurable fun. The classic songs and the cohesive sentimentality make this one easy to enjoy with repeated viewings.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-2019

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #964

Reviewed December 6, 2019

Grade: A

Any viewer seeking a weepy affair should look no further than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). The film is sentimental, without ever feeling sappy or overwrought, instead abounding with freshness and authenticity. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the iconic children’s television personality and Matthew Rhys holds his own as he gives a fantastic performance as an angry journalist tasked with doing a magazine article on the legend. The film is heartwarming and teary with a poignant and inspirational message, and in 2019 we could all use a little Mister Rogers in our lives.

The time-period of the film is 1998, and on the outs with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) works for Esquire magazine as a writer. Both attend Lloyd’s sister’s wedding where the two men come to blows over past disputes, ruining the wedding reception and reigniting their feud. Lloyd’s wife, Andrea, serves as mediator when their newborn son becomes an interesting link between father and son. When Lloyd meets with Mister Rogers (Hanks), he at first is skeptical of the man’s benevolence, but the two men slowly develop a strong bond, forging a deep friendship.

Director, Marielle Heller drew acclaim for her recent film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), a project about a grizzled New York writer. Once again, her lead character is a dark and troubled writer, but with enough humanity bubbling under the surface to make the character likable. The contrast between the two main characters (Lloyd and Mister Rogers) is palpable and central to the story, making it intriguing and successful. Her message is a strong lesson in humanity.

The setup is tremendous for anyone possessing a clue to the unconditional kindness that Mister Rogers has. He not only adores children but all mankind and, as referenced, he is attracted to wounded or broken people. The legend sees the goodness in all human beings and focuses on everyone he speaks with rather than on himself. What a wonderful message of patient, goodness, and empathy Heller carves from start to finish.

No surprise is how Rogers teaches Lloyd to accept and forgive Jerry. During a thrilling scene Lloyd lashes out at his father, reminding him that when he was bedding other women, his wife (Lloyd’s mother) lie riddled with cancer, not dying in peace, but screaming with agony. The irony is that Jerry is now at death’s door, attempting to make amends with Lloyd before he dies. Both men are wounded and damaged, but because of Mister Roger’s kindness, come to an understanding. The message is lovely and kind.

I was surprised at how emotionally fulfilling the film turns out to be. Mister Rogers simply cares, and one can easily slip into a fantasy that as he sits and holds a conversation with Lloyd, gazing whimsically and thoughtfully into his eyes, that he is gazing into our very own eyes. I sure did and what a powerful emotion that conjures. When Mister Rogers asks to take a moment of silence to think about the people who have shaped our lives, there is no doubt that each member of the movie theater audience did just that.

Hanks is a godsend and simply perfect in the role. Known to be a kindly humanitarian himself, he easily slips into the role of Mister Rogers, and imitates the mannerisms perfectly. Especially impressive is when Danny, a puppet bear, appears on screen. Smart viewers will realize that Rogers channels his own childhood through this character, and the pain he felt as an overweight child. Hanks is a tremendous actor, winning Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), so we have every confidence in his ability to craft a new character so well.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) wins the years award for the most emotion it will elicit from viewers. The familiar Mister Rogers Neighborhood tune will bring up memories and add a level of sentiment to a heartwarming film. Instead of crafting a sterile or preachy film, Heller delivers a simple message of kindness and understanding and a lesson in accepting people as they are.

Parasite-2019

Parasite-2019

Director-Joon-ho Bong

Starring-Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin

Scott’s Review #963

Reviewed November 28, 2019

Grade: A

Parasite (2019) is a South Korean language film that has it all. The writing is powerful and thought-provoking, the direction is unique and intriguing, the acting stellar, and the story perfectly paced with dizzying twists and turns. The film is uncomfortable and unsettling (in a good way), catapulting from dark humor to horror by the time the shocking finale plays. An experience to be dazzled by and ravaged at the emotions it will instill in the viewer.

The story centers on two families. The affluent Park’s live in the lap of luxury, enjoying the finer things in life like a lavish residence, a personal driver, and a live-in housekeeper. Park Dong-ik is the CEO of an IT company, his beautiful wife, Park Yeong-gyo, stays at home with their two children, Park Da-hye and Park Da-Song. They are rich and, on the surface, rather spoiled and superficial.

The struggling Kim’s reside in a semi-basement that constantly floods, accept menial jobs to pay the bills, and are grifters. Patriarch Kim Ki-taek and wife Kim Chung-sook have two teenage children, Kim Ki-woo and Kim Ki-jeong. They are cagey and resourceful and think up schemes to garner money. Each is good-looking but struggles to find much success in life.

Kim Ki-woo’s friend tutors for the Park daughter and will soon travel abroad for studies. He convinces Kim Ki-woo to interview for the position, who easily gets the job by charming the gullible Park Yeong-gyo. He and the rest of the Kim’s create an elaborate ruse to insinuate themselves into the Park family by tricking Mr. and Mrs. Park into dismissing their driver and housekeeper. The Park’s are unaware that their new staff are related!

The underlying theme of Parasite is one of class distinction and social inequality. The tension builds more and more with each scene and the monetary differences between the haves and have nots is always on the surface. Once the Kim’s get a taste of the good life they have no intention of being satisfied merely as hired help- they want it all for themselves.

The fact that the Kim’s are clever, and manipulative is no accident on the part of director, Joon-ho Bong. Conversely, the Park’s are gullible and easily outsmarted by the Kim’s. Why are they rich and the Kim’s poor, the audience wonder? Are we to root for the Kim’s to overtake the Park’s? The Kim’s are no saints as they resort to the firings of other people to get what they want. Allegiances to characters will shift along the way.

As the Kim’s get comfy one night in the Park house when the family goes on a weekend camping trip, the film really takes off. Drunk and sparring with each other, the doorbell rings and the haggard former housekeeper begs to be let in. When she claims to have left something behind in the basement, this leads to a shocking secret and dramatic turn of events. I did not see the revelation coming and events only catapult the film into something else. The pacing and tension during this scene are outstanding.

Tough to rival this scene, the film does just that with the gruesome and bloody birthday party scene. The proverbial “sh## hits the fan” as the tensions among the characters come to life. The scene results in several deaths and the rage of a prominent character reaches a crescendo. The scene is set on a gorgeous sunny day, perfect for birthday cake, balloons, and shiny wrapped presents. After a lovely start the party becomes laden with blood, screams and intensity.

Bong writes the Kim patriarch as the most sympathetic character, and a montage at the end of the film makes this clear. The other characters are less benevolent and more complicated. When Mrs. Kim shoves the family dog she is unlikable, but then she is kind to the former housekeeper. Mrs. Park appears innocent at first but then is a shrew when she plans her son’s birthday party, expecting all to cater to her every whim. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Park mock Mr. Kim behind his back and insinuate that poor people “smell funny”. Do the Park’s deserve their fates?

Parasite (2019) is a dark film filled with clever writing, good character development, that takes audiences on a roller coaster ride. The sub-titles do little to detract from the fantastic experience this film offers as Bong spins a spider-web of deceit, desperation, and tragedy. Viewers will certainly be thinking and talking about this one for days.

Shoplifters-2018

Shoplifters-2018

Director-Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring-Lily Franky, Sakura Ando

Scott’s Review #962

Reviewed November 26, 2019

Grade: A-

Shoplifters (2018) is a fabulous Japanese offering, directed, written and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda. The film is awfully slow-moving and understated, but provides a moving and poignant message about family, by blood or not, and the powerful ties that bind individuals in a compassionate and emotional way. The film is character driven and humanistic, offering sentiment and emotion without ever feeling overwrought or manipulative. It is not to be missed.

A dysfunctional group of outsiders reside together in a dingy basement establishment in Tokyo, Japan, escaping their poverty by shoplifting and embarking on mild adventures to pass the time. They share a deep bond and look out for each other. The audience assumes they are family, which they are, but not in the biological sense. The family rescues an abused young girl and takes her into their home, showering her with love and affection. Eventually, trouble comes when one of them is caught shoplifting, which leads to a domino effect of terrible events.

The group consists of Osamu (Lily Franky), a day laborer forced to leave his job after twisting his ankle; his “wife” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works for an industrial laundry service; Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works at a hostess club; Shota (Kairi Jo), a young boy; and Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who owns the home and supports the group with her deceased husband’s pension.

The film showcases most of the characters equally as they work, drink and hang out together. The abused girl, named Yuri, is given a haircut and renamed Lin, and is central to the plot. Nobuyo and Shota take a shine to her, she teaches Lin that parents who love their children hug them and do not hit them, while Shota teaches her the ins and outs of stealing groceries.

Though the watch is a slow one the audience inevitably falls in love with the characters and the connection becomes powerful before the viewer knows it. We know Osamu and Nobuyo should leave Yuri where she is when they see her unattended and shivering on a cold balcony, but they cannot help themselves. Their actions lead the audience to immediately realize that they are good, kind people, who have been handed bad life circumstances to deal with.

The film is a tough watch and is not one ever to be defined as edge-of-your seat. Many scenes involve characters walking around the streets, almost aimlessly, commenting that the weather is cold or other trivial conversational bits. The scenes could be defined as boring or bleak, but eventually something magical happens and the characters become favorites, the viewer immersed in their world unflinchingly.

The character of Yuri is a tough one to observe. With bruises on her arms and a burn from a hot iron, tearful is the imagining of the terror the little girl has already been through at the hands of blood relatives, especially since her parents assume she has run off and are thrilled she is out of their lives. The conclusion of the film is cold and harsh, hitting home that the justice system is flawed and cruel, as Yuri ultimately is returned to her parents, certain to face more abuse and eventual death. Doesn’t child abuse usually turn out like this?

Director, Kore-eda, could have spun a feel-good story with the family parading onto the beach in sunshine, but he chooses not to. We wonder how Yuri’s life might have turned out under better circumstances and if the courts had not gotten involved. Kore-eda instead paints of stark picture of reality and not the fictional happily-ever-after that films too often rush to craft.

Shoplifters (2018) offers a look at humanity at its best and its worst with a story about joy and pain. The film is quiet and careful and ultimately keeps one in its grips. It sticks with the viewer and makes one question what a family really is and what it is defined as in the court of law. Who is to decide who is family and who is not family? The film will make one ponder many things which a treasured quality of good cinema is.

The Magnificent Seven-1960

The Magnificent Seven-1960

Director-John Sturges

Starring-Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen

Scott’s Review #961

Reviewed November 22, 2019

Grade: B-

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a western in the classic sense that will satisfy fans of the genre. It features Hollywood stars of the day in heroic roles that give an aura of nationalism and conservative Americana. Other than a wonderful musical score, a pleasant romance, and some male bonding, the film feels quite dated with racial overtones that probably were not as irksome in the 1960’s as they are now. The film is a remake of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai.

The bullied residents of a small Mexican village decide to hire seven American gunslingers to defeat a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach), who terrorize the villager on a regular basis. The gunslingers are led by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) and feature Vin (Steve McQueen), Bernardo (Charles Bronson), Lee (Robert Vaughn), Harry (Brad Dexter), Britt (James Coburn), and Chico (Horst Buchholz). Each is distinctive in some way- Lee is a veteran while Vin is a drifter, and so on.

The musical score is to be praised for its high energy and adventurous timing especially during key scenes. The introduction of the seven gunslingers is fun and popular for the western genre, especially in television series of the time. Considering most of the cast were handsome leading men this is a treat for audiences. The music also infuses the film with some pizzazz and is perfect for the genre that it is.

A romance between the hot-blooded Chico and gorgeous Mexican girl, Petra also works. An unlikely pairing, the couple has resounding chemistry and a West Side Story style connection. Not supposed to be attracted to one another, or hardly soul mates, the two blessedly share a happily-ever-after roll-up as the entire film does. Westerns in the 1960’s were meant to be crowd pleasing and not especially daring. Chico and Petra are a nice addition and provide a bit of diversity.

The swagger of Brynner and McQueen is filled with machismo that in a different film might be annoying, but in The Magnificent Seven, works. They both look great, are clearly in their prime, and are well suited for a feature meant to satisfy the tastes of men and make the women swoon. They prance around on their horses looking serious, cool and confident. But the film’s target demographic is clearly men and not teenage girls.

The over-arching story is irritating. The viewer is supposed to believe that the Mexican men are so incompetent that they do not even know how to shoot a gun or how to defend themselves. This seems to be a gimmick and a pro-American stance more than a reality. The gunslingers swoop in and take complete control showing the Mexicans how real men fight. It’s silly and trite and an obvious plot device. Contrived and offensive but common for the genre.

During the middle of the film the story meanders and the thirst for the inevitable, climactic finale makes the viewer a bit restless. Finally, we are treated to the battle between good and bad where much blood is spilled and even a few of the gunslingers are slain. Laughable, is how the characters die on cue but still look great while dying. The finale is marginally satisfying but predictable in its outcome.

Made during a time when the western was a popular genre and a box office success, decades later the film feels dated and rather unnecessary. Featuring big stars of the day this is not surprising and better genre films with more grit were soon to be on the way, think The Wild Bunch (1967), and are superior to The Magnificent Seven (1960).

The Irishman-2019

The Irishman-2019

Director- Martin Scorsese

Starring-Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

Scott’s Review #960

Reviewed November 20, 2019

Grade: A

Any film created by legendary director, Martin Scorsese is sure to impress legions of adoring followers and most critics. Every project he touches results in something fantastic, and easy to revel in good analysis and discussion about the movie moments after the closing credits have rolled. The Irishman (2019) is a film that requires repeated viewings and thought to obtain the full flavor and relish in the savory and vast cast of characters.

The picture may not be on the same level as Goodfellas (1990) or The Godfather (1972), which it seems patterned after, but the work is highly impressive and should stand the test of time resulting in a fine wine analogy. The years will likely be kind to the film and enrich the experience- it’s that kind of film. With stars like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel on board, the viewer expects a plethora of riches and that is exactly what is delivered.

The film spans the period of the 1950’s through the 1970’s and follows the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hit man and gets involved with mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his crime family, including his time working for the powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran is dubbed “the Irishman”. He narrates much of the story, now quite elderly and residing in a nursing home, of his time in the mafia and the mystery surrounding the death of Hoffa.

The only negatives to the film are the suspension of disbelief that De Niro is Irish- was there ever a more Italian New Yorker? But, alas, this film is Scorsese directed and De Niro produced, so they could tell me the sky is green and I would readily nod in agreement. At three hours and twenty-nine minutes, the film is a long haul and towards the middle the film meanders a bit. Perhaps twenty or thirty minutes could have been sliced to the cutting room floor.

The rest of the experience The Irishman serves up is brilliance, with rich characters and wonderful atmosphere. Have I mentioned that Scorsese directed this film? The cast of characters is endless and drizzles with zest speaking volumes for what The Godfather did with casting. Many recognizable actors appear in small roles like Ray Romano as attorney Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale as “Skinny Razor”, and Anna Paquin as Frank’s estranged daughter, Peggy. An endless supply of character actors fleshes out the remaining cast.

Wonderful are the plethora of food references that would impress notable food director, Alfred Hitchcock, known for incorporating meals into many of his scenes. The delectable early scenes when Frank delivers meat to grocers and gets in with a gangster over a discussion about a good steak will leave viewers mouth-watering for a tender sirloin.

The conversations between characters are interesting, slowly building and adding robust grit to a packed film. They have good, careful dialogue exchanges and talk matter-of-fact about life and experiences. Characters are given a chance to develop and grow and even small characters like a nurse or a wife add a good, comforting aura. It is evident what treasured films look like when a director can simply create and develop without outside interference.

The standouts in the acting department are Pacino and De Niro, the former crossing my fingers will receive an Oscar nomination. The pairing is flawless and eagle-eyed fans will recall that both actors appeared together in The Godfather Part II (1974) yet never shared a scene. In The Irishman they appear together in pivotal scenes. Pacino infuses Hoffa with humor and poise as only Pacino can do with a character. He is my favorite character and is tough to look away from.

Both actors, along with Pesci, are treated to a recent marvel in cinema- that of the de-aging process. Each actor, well into his seventy’s, is transformed to mid-forties in many scenes and then aged to appear elderly later in life. While each has a strange unnatural look to him as a younger man, the process is impressive and an innovative technique that assuredly will become more common in film, and subsequently offer limitless possibilities.

The Irishman (2019) is a cinematic gem by a storied director advancing in years, but still offering grandiose films. With stalwarts like De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, the players are well cast, and nuanced touches add dimensions to the finished product. Offering a gangster film with grace and style, the story is poignant and crisp and a thoughtful approach to one of the legendary mysteries- what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

Marriage Story-2019

Marriage Story-2019

Director-Noah Baumbach

Starring-Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson

Scott’s Review #959

Reviewed November 14, 2019

Grade: A

Marriage Story (2019) is a film that could have been generic, melodramatic, or contrived. Before it was released it was described as a “really good” version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or Terms of Endearment (1983). Those are excellent films but marginally sappy and overwrought. Marriage Story excels at being a smart, powerful, and realistic portrayal of a marriage disintegrating, painting a picture of how good people can turn ugly under certain circumstances. Believe the hype of how good this film is.

Taking place in both New York City and Los Angeles, we meet Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a theater director and his wife, an actress who stars in his plays. They fill notebook paper of what they love most about each other, and the list is lengthy. Appearing to be madly in love, the audience soon realizes that the couple is amid an amicable separation, the writings a result of an assignment by a “separations counselor”, hired to make things easier.

Charlie and Nicole share an eight-year-old son named Henry. Nicole returns to Los Angeles to resume her acting career and spend time with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). Adam, successful in New York City, plans to stay and reside with his son. Nicole hires a tough lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), while Charlie begrudgingly hires semi-retired attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), and later Jay (Ray Liotta). Nicole and Charlie are sensible, planning to work things out by themselves, only needing representation for formalities, or so they think.

The situation escalates, spinning out of control as their divorce becomes increasingly hostile as custody of their young son ups the ante. Qualities they once loved about each other become hate filled arguments as the couple fights and feuds as their attorney’s scramble for a leg up. Can the couple save themselves as secrets bubble to the surface and situations are used against each other?

The film is a lengthy two-hours and sixteen minutes, so the plot takes time to capture its viewer. When it eventually takes grip it never let’s go, forcefully enrapturing the watcher. We care for both Charlie and Nicole and while sympathizing with each at different times, both characters are written as benevolent. There is no villain except the divorce itself.

The key to the success is in the writing. Director, Noah Baumbach, known for The Squid and the Whale (2005), and Frances Ha (2012) knows how to craft witty and clever dialogue, weaving comedy and drama intricately together. He can make the viewer laugh and cry within the same scene. The screenplay is the best part of the film because it is laden with crackling words and interesting situations.

Marriage Story reminds me of a Woody Allen film. Feeling improvised, unknown if any of the dialogue is, the characters speak long soliloquies and endless chatter between each other or themselves. This results in a powerful medium of self-expression and a “talkie” movie. The banter between characters is not drivel nor gibberish, but contains important, emotionally rich meaning and flavor.

The film belongs to Driver and Johansson, each delivering a home run. Driver is the stronger of the two but not by much and this is only because his emotional scenes feel rawer than hers do. When the actors have a knock-down drag-out fight the scene is long and exceptionally acted, each taking turns verbally attacking the other. Vicious rage and emotional fury come to the forefront. This is the best scene in the film.

Dern, Alda, and Liotta are wonderful, bringing respect to the film. Each has been on the Hollywood scene for forever and each plays an attorney. While Dern’s and Liotta’s characters are sharks, Alda’s is a reasonable and realistic older man who has seen it all. Burt lays down the facts for Charlie and makes his realize how much is at stake. Dern shines as the sexy blonde attorney who wears revealing clothes and legs for miles. Grizzled Liotta plans to win at all costs. What a delight to see these veterans bring electricity to each scene.

Lastly, I adore the bi-coastal locales of New York City and Los Angeles. The big cities burst with meaning and are as different as day and night as the film explains. Charlie is a New Yorker and Nicole a California girl at heart. is L.A. The plentiful scenes of both cities on location gives the film richness and texture.

With Marriage Story (2019), Baumbach creates his best and most personal film.  Rumored to be partly autobiographical he takes a subject matter most assume has already been exhausted and spins the story in a different direction that makes it feel fresh. The aspects all come together in an experience that is emotional, powerful, and intelligent. The film is a treasure and an example to young film makers that good writing always wins the day.

Dr. Strangelove-1964

Dr. Strangelove-1964

Director-Stanley Kubrick

Starring-Peter Sellers, George C. Scott

Scott’s Review #958

Reviewed November 13, 2019

Grade: A

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, more commonly known simply as Dr. Strangelove, is a 1964 political satire black comedy film that satirizes the Cold War and fears of a nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The film, timely in the 1960’s, is as relevant decades later amid the chaos that ensued during the 2016 United States Presidential election, and the tumultuous years to follow. The film is powerful, brave, and important.

The story centers around an unhinged United States Air Force general (Sterling Hayden) who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The plot then follows the President of the United States, (Peter Sellers), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. The film also follows the crew of one B-52 bomber as they try to deliver their payload.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was fresh in viewers minds when this film was released, and President John F. Kennedy was recently assassinated. The United States and the Soviet Union were hardly best buddies. The film was a robust offering not just for the timing but also because political satire in film was fresh. Unintentionally clever is the ironic controversy that exists between the two leaders of the nation’s nearly sixty years after the film was released.

The acting is great. Peter Sellers plays three prominent roles, and each is quite different from the others. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer, President Merkin Muffley (what a name!) , the President of the United States, and Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-using nuclear war expert and former Nazi. Each glistens with goodness as the actor chomps at the bit, making them precise and unique, careful never to stray too far overboard into ridiculousness.

Director Stanley Kubrick wisely chooses black and white cinematography with stellar results and prominent film making techniques. The film, creative and progressive as many 1960’s films started to become as the decade blossomed, feels like it could have been made in the 1940’s. Kubrick, well known for masterpieces such as The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) delivers perhaps his oddest film in his catalog with Dr. Strangelove.

The story does not feel dated and the dialogue remains crisp and razor-sharp in its delivery and meaning. With fast dialogue delivery and a monotone vocal style, the film is entertaining and humorous, not taking itself too seriously, yet offering a poignant and important idea come to life. The film keeps gnawing at the viewers that as far-fetched as events seem, the possibility they could become real is more than a bit scary.

Who can possibly forget the final sequence of the looming nightmare of the mushroom clouds, set to Vera Lynn’s hopeful We’ll Meet Again?  Since the film has hints of 1940’s cinema style, the rude awakening that the 1960’s produced in terms of nuclear weapons and insecurity, hits home in this sequence.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) is pure satire but frightening in its realism and the uncertainty that one crazy leader could lead an entire nation to detrimental results. The film highly influenced later satires and unique styles in film making- Wes Anderson creations immediately spring to mind. One can ruminate in the differing possibilities the film offers- in a way the absurdity of the situation, and the unthinkable way the situation could easily become reality.

Midsommar-2019

Midsommar-2019

Director-Ari Aster

Starring-Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

Scott’s Review #957

Reviewed November 11, 2019

Grade: B+

Director Ari Aster made a splash with his feature length directorial debut, the horror-drama film, Hereditary in 2018. The film received enormous accolades, even considered for an Oscar nomination, and was quite bizarre and horrific. Aster follows up with Midsommar (2019), a film arguably even more freaky and ambitious. The film is very slow-moving and foreboding, but finally reaches a macabre and perplexing climax. My initial reaction is the film is a fine wine with additional richness upon subsequent viewings.

The film quickly gets off to a creepy start in the United States as college student Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) receives a cryptic email from her troubled sister. Her sister soon kills herself and her parents by filling the house with carbon monoxide fumes. Dani is devastated and needs support from her distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology student. The couple continue to feel disconnected from each other as months go by.

Dani and Christian decide to join some friends at a midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. One friend has relatives in the village and another decides to work on his thesis. What begins as a carefree holiday takes a devious turn when the villagers invite the group to partake in festivities that grow increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. Strange events begin to occur as the subsequent series of celebrations gets underway.

Any horror film that mixes pagan cults, folklore and religion easily provides the creeps and Midsommar successfully hybrids American culture with Swedish culture in frightening form. Much of the film takes place in a remote area, with sprawling sunny lands, and a deathly silent atmosphere. The cheery locale has a peculiar California vibe and the Charles Manson era hairstyles are adorn by the Swedish women. Uncertain is whether this was Aster’s intent or not.

I love how the students are intelligent and worldly, using their time in the village to learn and study. The traditional horror stereotype involving high school or college students is their desire to guzzle beer, party, have sex, and do little else. Aster wisely makes his group intellectual and more studious than the norm. The students do partake in drugs, but this has more to do with the villagers having healing remedies and other sorts of herbal delicacies.

Midsommar contains many lengthy nude scenes, both male and female, the actors readily baring both their fronts and their rears. This is almost unheard of in American film, but Midsommar is a co-production between the United States and Sweden, providing more leeway in the nudity department. When Christian is given a strong psychedelic and beds a virginal villager eager to mate, the poor chap winds up chased around the village in the buff. This occurs after he inseminates the girl as they are surrounded by nude female villagers cheering them on.

Confusing and left unclear is the motivations of the villagers. The point is made that nine human sacrifices must be made to rid the village of evil, but why is the evil there to begin with? During a ritual it is revealed, in gruesome form, that elderly folks commit suicide at age seventy-two and their names given to newborns. The handsome Christian is a prime candidate to provide life, but why are the others killed? Were they lured intentionally and does their being American have anything to do with it? Was the intent all along to crown Dani May Queen or did she win the dancing competition?

The climax of the film ties back to the beginning portion only in terms of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship and her family’s deaths seem to have little to do with anything. Does Dani intend revenge on Christian or is she so drugged she knows not what she is doing? Will she remain in the village?

A film heavily influenced by The Wicker Man (1973), Midsommar (2019) has divided audiences based on common reviews. Some despise the film, calling it one of the worst ever seen. Others herald it as a work of art, an unsettling offering that provokes thought and provides a sinister feel. I found an enormous amount of questions left unanswered and this may be a good thing. It only makes me want to see the film again or peel back the onion post-film to dissect the many layers Aster creates.

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