Onward-2020

Onward-2020

Director-Dan Scanlon

Starring Tom Holland, Chris Pratt

Scott’s Review #1,164

Reviewed July 23, 2021

Grade: B+

An emotionally satisfying adventure film that the whole family can enjoy Onward (2020) feels fresh and inventive while still employing some standard plot points. Pixar/Disney sure knows how to churn out animated features with a nice message and a family unit sensibility.

There is also plenty of diversity that delivers an inclusive feeling so hugely important in the modern age. Kids are impressionable and learn so much from the films they watch so this quality brought a smile to my face in an otherwise enjoyable experience.

The film also celebrates non-traditional families and shows that not having a traditional mother and father and pet dog doesn’t make you strange or unworthy of love and understanding.

Onward is not completely outside the box, however, and is careful to lure in the mainstream middle America audience but some progressive treats mix well with a robust brotherly adventure tale.

Though the title, Onward, doesn’t stick in my mind very long the film itself does.

I may have even shed a tear or two during the heartfelt finale.

Teenage elf brothers Ian and Barley (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) embark on a magical quest to spend one more day with their deceased father who loved magic. Their journey is filled with cryptic maps, overwhelming obstacles, and discoveries like any good adventure.

But when their Mom (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds out her sons are missing, she goes into mother lion mode and teams up with the legendary manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) to bring her beloved boys back home.

The lead character, Ian, is a sixteen-year-old boy with growing pains and vulnerabilities that immediately make him likable. He is eager to make friends but awkward about doing so. It is suggested that he has no friends coming to his birthday party but it’s unclear why not. Ian is also a nervous driver, terrified of traversing a busy freeway.

Basically, he is an ordinary kid who the audience can see in themselves or a former self of years gone by.

His brother, Barley, is the opposite. He is afraid of nothing and cares not who he befriends or what people think of him. His outrageous vehicle, named Guinevere, is a rebuilt van. Think the mystery mobile from Scooby-Doo.

The crux of Onward is about relationships. At first, we assume that the big payoff will be between Ian/Barley and their father. While that sort of happens, a surprise blossoms along the way, and instead of a standard father/son dynamic we get a brother/brother one. This is a treat and manufactures a dual message. Never take for granted a loved one already in your life because one day they may be gone.

I enjoyed the adventures of Ian and Barley mostly because I just knew that some sort of reunion would occur between the boys and the father. Their gift of one day spent with their father was marred by only his bottom half being visible, but I suspected we would see all of the father eventually. Avoiding complete predictability, only one of the boys gets to interplay with his father as the other looks on longingly.

I enjoyed this element quite a bit as it avoided cliche and offered raw emotion.

Speaking of diversity, two gay female police officers appear in one scene and a suggestion that some of a motorcycle gang of pixies might be gay is also noticed. Again, this is important for child viewers to be exposed to.

Another win is the animation itself- just look at the cover art above for proof. With gorgeous purple and blue color, the nighttime scenes work especially well with a bright and luminous look that I adored.

A slight miss was that the boy’s mother never got to reunite with her dead husband and their relationship was treated as merely an afterthought. The featured plot was only that the brothers missed their Dad. A reunion between husband and wife would have been nice.

With a tender and emotionally satisfying conclusion, this cemented my appreciation for Onward (2020). There may be a tad too many car chase scenes and a couple of hokey plot ploys but the film has a lot of heart that shines through.

Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan-1989

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan-1989

Director-Rob Hedden

Starring-Jensen Daggett, Scott Reeves

Scott’s Review #1,163

Reviewed July 21, 2021

Grade: D+

After eight installments in only nine years of the iconic horror Friday the 13th series fans by this time know what they are in store for. The title of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhatten (1989) and its accompanying cover art offers a glimmer of originality and intrigue.

If this were 1989 I would be excited at the prospects of what this film could deliver.

Hell, the city of New York was dour and dirty in the late 1980s, filled with grit, grime, and seediness. What a perfect setup for our crazed killer Jason to mix and mingle with the dregs of society. I conjured up images of Jason chasing frightened teenagers through graffiti-laced subways and x-rated peep show theaters in the Times Square district.

We get a few location shots of Times Square but not much more.

Unfortunately for fans, only the final thirty minutes or so of the film is even set amid the Big Apple and for eagle-eyed viewers, much less than that is even filmed in New York City. Years later, director Rob Hedden would blame Paramount studios for severely limiting the budget allowed for on-location filming.

The result is that Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhatten feels like a sham.

Okay, the film is a terrible, cheesy, poorly acted, jaggedly paced film, but on a late Saturday night, it provides some fun and comfort alongside the proper mood and spirits.

A few years following the events of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) multiple mass murderer Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) is resurrected from the bottom of Crystal Lake after an underwater electrical fire.

After he kills a passing boat’s occupants, he stows away on a cruise ship filled with a high-school graduating class excitedly bound for New York City. Strict Biology teacher Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman) is on board with his niece, Rennie (Jensen Daggett), who has visions of Jason drowning as a child. They temporarily escape his bloody rampage, but, when Rennie and Charles reach Manhattan, Jason is hot in pursuit.

Apparently, the ten million other Manhattanites are uninteresting and Jason must kill Rennie and cohorts.

There is an unnecessary side story of Uncle Charles having pushed Rennie into Camp Crystal Lake in a sink or swim moment where she first saw glimpses of Jason. This has nothing to do with the main story nor is it needed.

The rest of the film is exactly as one might suspect with very few surprises. The character development, limited in slasher films like this, is extremely pitiful and uneven. One female character is a rocker chick who clutches her electric guitar and plays it nonstop, practically during her own death scene.

Other unintentionally laughable characters include a young black man who is an aspiring boxer and attempts to spar with Jason on the rooftop building. This proves to be a big mistake when Jason takes one punch at him and decapitates him. The popular blonde prom queen/mean girl, Tamara (Sharlene Martin) decides to throw Rennie overboard after she catches Tamara doing drugs. Apparently murdering a fellow student is a better option than being caught.

Finally, the deckhand played by Alex Diakund is a carbon copy of the Crazy Ralph character from Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th: Part II (1981) even uttering the famous “You’re all doomed” line.

The stereotypes are rampant. However, unusual in the slasher genre for 1989, diversity is apparent with African-American, Hispanic, and Asian characters. While all are supporting characters and know their purpose is to be bludgeoned, the inclusiveness is at least a slight win.

Other positives are the familiar Camp Crystal Lake setting not being completely scrapped as the title might indicate. There is something nice and familiar with Jason, a lake, darkness, and murder.

Rob Hedden’s idea to take much of the action to an unfamiliar setting like a metropolis is a good one, a city is the opposite of a lake, but the studio screwed the director over royally with their limitations. Still, a wonderful shot of Times Square can easily transplant a viewer watching the film in present times back to 1989 and experience, if only for a minute, what life was like.

That’s worth a small something.

What’s Up, Doc? -1972

What’s Up, Doc? -1972

Director-Peter Bogdanovich

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal 

Scott’s Review #1,162

Reviewed July 20, 2021

Grade: B+

Careful trepidation must be advised for filmmakers chartering into humorous or slapstick comedy waters especially if known more for dramatic films. Since we’re talking 1970s cinema here, there is only one Mel Brooks and plenty of films with physical humor and gags fail miserably.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972) is not one of them and is a refreshing success.

Brooks’s influence can easily be seen throughout the film and this is no surprise. Before doing any post-film research I immediately was reminded of the popular television sitcom Get Smart which ran from 1965-1970.  Buck Henry, a frequent Brooks collaborator, co-created Get Smart and wrote the screenplay for What’s Up Doc?

The antics and comedic moments scream Brooks. If one is unfamiliar it really is like watching a Mel Brooks film.

Director, Peter Bogdanovich, most notably known for the 1971 masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, changes course and instead goes for comedy with lots of screwball situations and physical comedy activities that are completely different from his previous works.

Speaking of Brooks, Madeline Khan, a mainstay of his films, makes an appearance as a particularly neurotic character named Eunice Burns. It is her first film role.

I must say I was thoroughly impressed by What’s Up, Doc? that oddly pairs two Hollywood superstars of the time, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. One might be surprised to think of the duo as romantic partners, and the chemistry comes and goes throughout the film but the antics and quick dialogue is joyous and timed perfectly between the actors.

What’s Up, Doc? intends to pay homage to comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s, especially popular Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons, hence the title, but the reference doesn’t appear until the final scene. This caused me to ponder why the specific title was used.

The premise goes something like this. Doctor Howard Bannister (O’Neal) arrives in San Francisco to compete for a research grant in music. He is accompanied by his overbearing wife, Eunice (Khan).

Already nervous and on edge because of Eunice, he meets a strange yet charming woman named Judy Maxwell played by Streisand in the drug store. They are drawn to each other yet are not sure why. She both annoys and fascinates him.

In a subplot, a woman has her jewels stolen and a government whistleblower arrives with his stolen top-secret papers. Ironically, all the players have an identical red plaid bag and stay in neighboring hotel rooms, adding to the confusion and the hilarity.

My favorite moments are the screwball scenes. Especially memorable are the hilarious sequences that take place in and around the hotel guest rooms as a constant in and out of parallel rooms transpires. Each character has a particular motivation as he or she sneaks around the hallways and rooms. It is delightful fun.

When I realized that Streisand and O’Neal were the romantic leads I was skeptical at first but their chemistry is not bad. They are not the sort of couple that he and Ali MacGraw were in Love Story (1970) and certainly have no heavy drama to play but they play comedy off of each other well. In fact, the film makes a joke about the film Love Story.

Unfamiliar to me, I am glad I took the chance and watched What’s Up Doc? (1972). The film provides laughs, entertainment, and good chemistry among the cast who know how to deliver rapturous humor with perfect timing.

Rated G, the film can be enjoyed by the entire family as there is not a double entendre or otherwise offensive moment to be found. Just good, old-fashioned humor. I would argue that the film influenced the 1970s as much as paid homage to comedy films made decades earlier.

I would see it again.

Nanny McPhee-2005

Nanny McPhee-2005

Director-Kirk Jones

Starring-Emma Thompson, Colin Firth

Scott’s Review #1,161

Reviewed July 15, 2021

Grade: B

Clearly patterned after the classic family film Mary Poppins (1964), but with a slightly harder edge, Nanny McPhee (2005) attempts to recreate the iconic character with a similar storyline setup.

But a couple of other family films make their presence known.

The Sound of Music (1965) is quickly added to the mix with a well-meaning but absent daddy and a slew of siblings who terrorize former and present nannies.

A scullery maid with big dreams ala Cinderella (1950) solidifies the harkening back to 1960s cinematic family fun.

Great British actors like Emma Thompson and Colin Firth add much to the film which would be mediocre without their benefits. And the iconic Angela Lansbury hops aboard in a small yet important role. They make what would be a disposable kid’s movie into something respectable, romantic, and fairly cute.

The film tries a bit too hard with the comical moments, losing the magical moments that would have made it feel more alive. Instead, most scenarios come across as campy or family-oriented. Of course, the conclusion can be seen from the very beginning.

The effort is admirable but the story experience never feels very compelling. Thinking demographically, Nanny McPhee has much to offer the younger set. The kids will love the candy-box sets and costumes like confectionery-shop windows, the whimsy and farcical grotesqueness of it all.

The adults might be won over by the creativity and the cast.

Clearly, Thompson has fun playing ugly and getting her feet dirty, her snaggletooth almost a character itself, so prominent is it featured. In a way, she is even the anti-Mary Poppins, lacking an umbrella or the high-class pose that she had.

Each time the children learn a lesson, one of Nanny McPhee’s facial defects magically disappears.

But why not just dust off the original Mary Poppins? Nanny McPhee will inevitably be forgotten since an actual remake of the Mary Poppins film was released in 2015 all but confirming the Nanny McPhee franchise as the second tier.

And Nanny McPhee made me want to revisit Mary Poppins instead of watching Nanny McPhee again.

The premise goes something like this. Set in Victorian-era England, lonely widower Cedric Brown (Firth) hires Nanny McPhee (Thompson) to care for his seven rambunctious children, who have terrified and chased away all previous nannies. But McPhee is different and will have no such nonsense. She slowly wins over the children with magic and a bit of discipline.

And when the children’s great-aunt and benefactor, Lady Adelaide Stitch (Lansbury), threatens to separate the kids, the family pulls together under the guidance of their new leader.

Lansbury nearly steals the show. Short-sighted and domineering, the family is financially supported by her and Cedric cowers to her every request until she demands custody over one of the children. She also viciously threatens to reduce the family to poverty unless Cedric remarries within the month, meaning the family would lose the house, and be forced to separate.

She is deliciously wicked in the role and plays it to the hilt.

The sweet romance between Cedric and scullery maid Evangeline, played by Kelly McDonald, works well. They resist at first, but then realize their feelings for each other and agree to marry, satisfying Aunt Adelaide’s conditions for maintaining her financial support. Nanny McPhee (who is now fully beautiful), magically makes it snow in August, transforming the wedding scene and changing Evangeline’s clothes into a beautiful wedding dress.

This is the fairy tale ending that ultimately makes the film work and won me over.

Nanny McPhee (2005) is solid if not remarkable.

Stage Fright-1950

Stage Fright-1950

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding

Scott’s Review #1,160

Reviewed July 9, 2021

Grade: A-

Stage Fright (1950) is a British film directed by Alfred Hitchcock right before his American invasion. The film feels like a hybrid British/American project with the leading lady, Jane Wyman, being American, but otherwise is set in London with many British actors. Hitchcock mixes plenty of film noir influences with the typical thrills and suspense creating an excellent product that flies under the radar when matched against his other films.

Wyman is cast well as an attractive aspiring actress who works on her craft by going undercover to solve a mystery. There are Nancy Drew elements and it’s fun to watch Wyman, who would become Mrs. Ronald Reagan before he entered politics and later would become President of the United States. She reportedly divorced him because she had little interest in entering the political spectrum by association.

The action gets off to a compelling start with two characters driving in a car in clear peril. Hitchcock loved driving scenes like these. It is learned that the police think actor Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is a murderer, and now they’re on his tail. He seeks shelter with his ex-girlfriend Eve (Wyman), who drives him to stay in hiding with her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim).

He explains that it was his lover, the famous and snobbish actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), who killed the victim (not coincidentally, her husband). Convinced Jonathan is innocent, Eve plays detective and assumes multiple disguises, slowly developing feelings for Detective Inspector, Wilfred O. Smith (Michael Wilding). Once she becomes embroiled in a web of deception, she realizes that Shakespeare was right and that all the world is a stage.

Wyman is the Hitchcock brunette as opposed to his later fascination with the blonde bombshell. Therefore, her role is more sedate and astute than the sex appeal that would come with Hitchcock’s later characters. Eve closely resembles the character of Charlie that Teresa Wright played in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. They are both astute and investigative with a mystery to unravel. Interestingly, they both fall for detectives.

All the glasses! Hitchcock’s fetish with women wearing glasses is on full display especially with the character of Nellie, a cockney opportunist played by Kay Walsh. Look closely and one can spot several minor or background ladies sporting spectacles and even Eve dons a pair as a disguise.

Pat Hitchcock, the director’s daughter, plays a small role as she would in Strangers on a Train (1955) and Psycho (1960).

Speaking of Strangers on a Train, there are similarities to mention. Both involve a tit-for-tat exchange where one character is requested by another to kill someone in exchange for either a payoff or another form of motivation.

Marlene Dietrich is as sexy as ever in the pivotal role of Charlotte. She is self-centered, self-absorbed, and thoughtless, constantly mispronouncing Eve’s fictitious name and barely noticing that she is covering for her regular maid/dresser.

But is she evil and capable of killing her own husband?

Stage Fright has a thrilling finale. In the climax, the audience finally finds out who has been telling the truth and who has been lying and what explanations are revealed. There is a pursuit, an attempted killing, and a shocking death by way of a falling safety curtain, in the theater naturally. Just what one would expect from a Hitchcock final act.

The focus on theatrical stage actors is a nice topic and adds to the existing drama as the implication of playing various roles comes into play big time. So is the prominence very early on of the Big Ben landmark in London and other location trimmings.

Stage Fright (1950) doesn’t get the love saved for other Hitchcock masterpieces and that’s a shame because the film is excellent.

In the Name of-2013

In the Name of-2013

Director-Malgorzata Szumowska, Mateusz Kościukiewicz

Starring-Andrzej Chyra

Scott’s Review #1,159

Reviewed July 8, 2021

Grade: B+

In the Name of (2013), not to be confused with In the Name of the Father, a 1993 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is a Polish independent LGBTQ+ genre film directed by a female, Malgorzata Szumowska. I point out the gender only because the subject matter skews heavily towards male homosexuality which is an interesting one for a female to tackle.

Szumowska does so with gusto providing wonderful cinematography and quiet dialogue.

She casts her own husband, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, in the central role of an outsider who stirs up the sexual feelings of a priest struggling with his long-repressed sexuality.

If one looks carefully, each character struggles with conflict and self-acceptance in some way, restless and hungry for peace of mind and satisfaction. We wonder if any of the characters will ever find this.

The priest in question is played by Andrzej Chyra. It’s revealed that Adam joined the House of God at age twenty-one to escape issues he wrestled with concerning his own sexuality. He has spent his life basically running away from his true self.

Now in his forties, he currently leads a rural parish having been transferred from the lively city of Warsaw, and is still tormented by desire. To make matters even more difficult he mentors troubled young men with lots of testosterone.

When Adam attempts to help troubled teen Lukasz (Kościukiewicz), long-suppressed feelings begin to surface as the men grow closer. A townsperson catches wind of possible shenanigans and Adam is transferred yet again to another location. This has happened before. But, will Adam and Lukasz have a chance at happiness if they play their cards right?

The obvious comparison of In the Name of is to Brokeback Mountain (2005) which set the standard and paved the way for many LGBTQ+ films to be made. All of Adam’s and Lukasz’s dalliances, and there are romantic suggestions, but nothing animalistic is secretive. Both men are repressed but are at different stages of life.

I can’t say In the Name of hits the mark in this regard because the film is less about a male romance than about the characters being unhappy. In fact, it’s not until the end of the film that any blossoming develops between Adam and Lukasz. I wanted more meat between the characters, pun intended but was left knowing almost nothing about Lukasz specifically.

I also yearned for more backstory from three supporting characters. Ewa (Maja Ostaszewska), an attractive local woman, flirts with Adam and the coach on occasion and drinks too much, later regretting her actions. How does she happen to be in the town and why is she without a man already? Is the coach gay or straight? It is suggested he is gay but this remains unclear. Finally, Blondi is a bleached blonde troubled boy played by Tomasz Schuchardt. He beds another boy and senses Adam’s sexuality filling Blondi with venom. I wanted to know more about Blondi.

Despite these slight yearnings for more the film is very good. Chyra does a terrific acting job in the main role of Adam and easily wins over the audience who will root for his happiness. During a great scene, the typically reserved Adam explodes with self-deprecating rage while on a video call with his sympathetic sister. He struggles for self-acceptance that many of the LGBTQ+ community can relate to.

I sense that having seen In the Name of when it was originally released in 2013 would have made the experience even more powerful. By 2021 the cinema world has been saturated with films containing similar story points and religious conflict issues so that appears a commonality rather than originality.

But I’ll never complain about too many LGBTQ+ films being made.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and recommend it to anyone seeking a quality character-driven experience.

Foreign Correspondent-1940

Foreign Correspondent-1940

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Joel McCrea, Laraine Day

Scott’s Review #1,158

Reviewed July 2, 2021

Grade: B+

As a superfan of all films Alfred Hitchcock, I had been chomping at the bit to see some of his older selections before he took American audiences by storm throughout his 1950’s and 1960’s heyday. Many people do not realize just how many films the “Master of Suspense” actually made that are not household names.

Foreign Correspondent, made in 1940, is a black and white production and an obvious precursor for his later works. In fact, much of the fun is zeroing in on particulars that would be featured in later films. Some Hitchcock favorites like a tower, a circling airplane, an unwitting and innocent man involved in a political plot, and false identity are served up. And the director’s obsession with female characters wearing glasses is certainly part of the fun.

What Hitchcock fan doesn’t giggle with glee after discovering the director’s trademark cameo appearance in each of his films?

As an aside, I just love the cover artwork for this film.

There are reasons why Foreign Correspondent isn’t one of the best-remembered Hitchcock films because it’s only very good rather than exceptional. In 1940 the director was just getting his groove following a surprising Best Picture Oscar win for Rebecca (1940), a film that was a very early American effort. He was still finding his footing in production values.

The legendary Costume Designer, Edith Head, and Music Composer Bernard Hermann had not joined the fold yet as they would in masterpieces like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) and it really shows. The musical score is ordinary, more or less what a picture made in 1940 sounded like. The costumes are decent but lacking the grandeur and style that Head brought to the productions.

New York City-based crime reporter John Jones, later renamed Huntley Haverstock played by Joel McCrea is reduced to producing dull copy despite the world being on the cusp of war. His editor hopes a change of scenery will be the thing Jones needs to get back on track and also to provide the juicy story.

He is re-assigned to Europe as a foreign correspondent. When he stumbles on a spy ring, he attempts to unravel the truth with the help of a politician, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), his daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and an English journalist (George Sanders). But can any or all of them be trusted or are they in cahoots with the bad guys for their own personal gain?

I immediately was reminded of Saboteur (1942) by way of the plot alone. Both involve a complicated (maybe overly?) story of government, investigations, and sabotage. They also each focus on a couple either attempting to outwit or outrun authorities. And, they are both filmed with black and white cinematography.

Foreign Correspondent contains its share of thrills and compelling moments. The best sequence is when John is nearly shoved off Westminster Cathedral tower by a hitman who is ultimately the one who plummets to his death. The obvious parallel is to Vertigo especially when the nuns give the sign of the cross after the body falls.

Other mentions are a terrific airplane finale that contains special effects astounding for such a long time ago. Also unforgettable is a windmill sequence that will remind any Hitchcock fan of the famous cropduster scene from North By Northwest. I half expected a character to exclaim, ‘the windmill is turning where there ain’t no wind”.

At two hours even in run time, Foreign Correspondent is a good fifteen minutes or so too long. The plot takes a bit of time to pick up speed and the chemistry between John and Carol is rather weak. They are certainly no Mitch and Melanie like from The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent (1940) is a second-tier Alfred Hitchcock film with enough components to serve as a solid opening act for North By Northwest. This is not such a bad thing and the film holds its own against similarly patterned films of its day.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Alan Basserman, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects

Ocean’s Twelve-2004

Ocean’s Twelve-2004

Director-Steven Soderbergh

Starring- George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon

Scott’s Review #1,157

Reviewed June 30, 2021

Grade: B-

The casino heist gang is back together again for more action and adventure in a film that was most certainly only made because of the success of its predecessor, Ocean’s Eleven (2001). The uninspiring title of the film, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) is a letdown as compared to the fantastic and enthralling 2001 film. What felt like a purely original idea, even though it was a remake, now feels like stale bread that was fresh only yesterday.

Thankfully, Steven Soderbergh returns to the fold which adds some style and general good direction.

The story is slow to kick off and provides an implausible and unconventional ending that doesn’t work nearly negating most of the previous activity. There is something a bit irritating about watching a film with the knowledge that it was only made for one reason and the plot seems to be rushed and poorly thought out.

But that’s Hollywood, isn’t it?

Undoubtedly, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and other top talent enjoyed the hefty paychecks they received. This is also perturbing as the performances seem ho-hum and clearly inspired by the big bucks being deposited into big bank accounts for services rendered.

The inauthenticity all around is evident in lazy acting and writing.

The foil and mark, Terry Benedict, once again played by Andy Garcia realizes that the gang has robbed him of millions and demands the money back with interest. Unfortunately, much of it has already been spent. Unable to come up with the cash, the crew is forced to come together to pull off another series of heists, this time in Europe. Presumably, they are not well known there.

Being “forced” to do what the career criminals love to do is far-fetched.

Danny (George Clooney)and the gang hatch a plan to swap a Fabergé Imperial Coronation Egg for a holographic recreation. Linus (Damon) comes up with a second plan involving Danny’s wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), posing as a pregnant Julia Roberts to get close to the Egg and swap it. They are foiled by Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a coincidentally present Bruce Willis, and the rest of the group are captured.

While it’s slightly clever having Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts appear as themselves especially when Julia Roberts plays another character in the film, it doesn’t work as well as it sounds on paper.

The story is way too convoluted and Ocean’s Twelve quickly turns into the sort of film that you tune out of enjoying the non-story points more than the written word. In this case, that’s not a positive aspect.

The film’s successes, mainly the returning A-list cast, are also negative. While it’s fun to reconnect with familiar characters like Danny Ocean, Rusty (Pitt), and Linus, we know the characters too well and they become caricatures. Meaning, they behave exactly as one would expect them to.

Still, it is admittedly juicy and exciting to witness so many A-listers on one big screen especially when there is trickery, scheming, and just a hint of romance to be had.

I’ll also partake in just about any film that goes on location to Paris, Rome, Monte Carlo, and Amsterdam. It’s an orgy of European history and goodness adding cultural trimmings to a sub-par storyline. Particularly inviting are the villa scenes in luscious Lake Como.

Ocean’s Twelve (2004) will please only those who are obsessed enough with the franchise to enjoy what is basically a retread of the 2001 film only set in various parts of Europe instead of Las Vegas. It isn’t nearly enough for me as most cleverness and bright and crisp writing are gone.

Pan’s Labyrinth-2006

Pan’s Labyrinth-2006

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Ivana Baquero, Sergi López

Scott’s Review #1,156

Reviewed June 25, 2021

Grade: A

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a treasure of a film. In fact, I would classify it as a masterpiece for creativity alone. It is not for children! The fact that it has some fantasy trimmings and tells its story from a child’s perspective is misleading. The film deals with some heady and heavy stuff that will both frighten and be lost on the younger crowd.

A clue is that Guillermo del Tor directs the film, he of well-known note for creating films such as Hell Boy (2004), Hell Boy II: The Golden Army (2008), and The Shape of Water (2017) the latter winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar Award.

I adore that Pan’s Labyrinth is Spanish-Mexican. Somehow that makes the experience a bit mysterious and exotic right off the bat. The frightening time period of 1944, directly post World War II is also key to the good story since war and mayhem are themes. The main character, Ofelia, meets several strange and magical creatures who become central to her story, leading her through the trials of the old labyrinth garden.

Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant and sick mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) arrive at the post of her mother’s new husband (Sergi López), a sadistic army officer who is trying to prevent a guerrilla uprising. Lonely and feeling lost, Ofelia explores an ancient maze, encountering the faun Pan, who tells her that she is a legendary lost princess and must complete three dangerous tasks to claim immortality.

She is completely and utterly spellbound and intrigued all at once. Finally, she can escape the ravages of real life and immerse herself in a fantasy world all her own. She hates her stepfather, worries for her mother, and can’t wait to traverse her new world. If only life were that simple.

In a fairy tale, Princess Moanna, who Ofelia becomes, visits the human world, where the sunlight blinds her and erases her memory. She becomes mortal and eventually dies. The king believes that eventually, her spirit will return to the underworld, so he builds labyrinths, which act as portals, around the world in preparation for her return. Enter Ofelia.

About that creativity, I mentioned earlier. Pan’s Labyrinth is Alice in Wonderland for adults, taking some similar points and adding the horrors of both reality and fantasy blended into an extraordinary, spellbinding fable. The darkness of the forest is the best and most memorable part.

The art direction is astonishing to see. Bewildering forest trimmings and haunting lighting make their appearance as Ofelia immerses herself in her new world. The viewer sees her new world through her eyes, that is through the eyes of a child. So authentic are the sets and ruins that it is impossible not to be thrust full-throttle into the fantasy sequences.

The story can be downright horrifying at times. Carmen eventually dies and Ofelia is taken under the wing of Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), Ofelia’s stepfather’s housekeeper, and also a revolutionary harboring dangerous secrets. Ofelia and Mercedes team up to save Ofelia’s baby brother from the hands of the dastardly.

The strange fantasy world may confuse some viewers. It’s simply not the imagination of Ofelia (or is it?) because Vidal, Mercedes, and the baby all play a part in the eerie labyrinth.

Guillermo del Toro creates a world so imaginative and magnificent that we see this world through the eyes of a child but also the clear glasses of the adults. Scenes of torture mix with scenes of innocence so well that it is impossible not to be transported to a magical world where reality often disrupts the pleasurable fairy tale.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2008) is a visionary film and must be experienced to be believed.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Makeup (won), Best Original Score

The Day of the Jackal-1973

The Day of the Jackal-1973

Director-Fred Zinnemann

Starring- Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale

Scott’s Review #1,155

Reviewed June 22, 2021

Grade: A

Political thrillers can run the gamut of taut plots involving espionage assassinations, and car chases all woven into the political landscape. They often run the risk of being overly complicated and losing their audience with too much wordiness and not enough meat and potatoes.

The Day of the Jackal (1973), telling the story of an assassination attempt on a world leader is perfectly paced and intriguing offering some titillating elements and nothing run of the mill. It’s not lazy and can be classified as a thinking man’s film.

I loved it.

Certain complexities and trysts experienced by the deadly title character add extra pizazz and spiciness to the already compelling plot. And the sequences of Paris and its lovely metropolis can aid any film.

A cagey and intelligent underground French paramilitary group is determined to execute President Charles de Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand), but when numerous attempts on his life fail, they resort to hiring the infamous hitman known as “The Jackal” (Edward Fox). As he plots to assassinate de Gaulle, he takes out others who stand in his way. Meanwhile, Lebel (Michel Lonsdale), a Parisian police detective, begins to solve the mystery of the killer’s identity.

The film is not in French but is English speaking.

Fox is the major draw. Charismatic, handsome, and athletic, he hardly looks like a fiend.  But that’s just the point. A lesser film would have cast an actor who looks like a killer. With Fox, we get many more intricacies. He beds women…..and men. Think- a bisexual James Bond. This is enchanting to see in 1973, though the film is British and sometimes the Brits were well ahead of American filmmakers in this regard.

The director, Fred Zinneman, is actually Austrian and boy can he direct.

I wasn’t sure how engaged I would be. After all, the history books can tell us how the assassination attempt ended. It failed. What was the motivation for watching a film, especially one destined to be complicated? I quickly realized that The Day of the Jackal had that special sauce. It’s more than engaging, it’s enthralling.

Obviously, the audience is meant to root for Lebel to best Fox but there is so much more bubbling under the circumstance. The villain is mysterious and we know almost nothing about him. The ambiguity continues after the film ends. This is definitely a positive to the character and subsequently to the film.

Meanwhile, the hero of the film, the guy after the “Jackal”, is your average, every day, Joe. He is unexciting but very smart and determined to capture Fox. Lebel is quite likable for his savviness alone but I still argue many will root for Fox to escape the clutches of Lebel. I know I did.

Great scenes occur in a swanky hotel when Fox becomes intrigued by Madame de Montpellier, played by Delphine Seyrig. He picks up the rich and mysterious woman as they chat in the dining room. He later sneaks into her room and gets the girl. Whoever cast this woman must have seen the Hitchcock classic Frenzy (1972) because she’s a dead ringer for Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt).

Is it an accident that both meet grisly ends?

Not to be satisfied with merely bedding rich women he goes to a Turkish bath to avoid the police and picks up a French gentleman. It is implied they have a romantic date before the gentleman catches onto Fox’s identity (he is now on the run from the police) and meets his maker in his own kitchen.

The Day of the Jackal (1973) is a meticulously crafted film that should be the blueprint for anyone intent on creating a political thriller. It avoids hokey stereotypes or predictability instead offering an edge-of-your-seat experience with nuances for miles.

It’s exceptional on all levels.

Oscar Nominations: Best Film Editing

Quarantine-2008

Quarantine-2008

Director-John Erick Dowdle

Starring-Jennifer Carpenter, Steve Harris, Jay Hernandez

Scott’s Review #1,154

Reviewed June 18, 2021

Grade: B+

Clearly patterned after 28 Days Later (2002), Cloverfield (2008), and other horror zombie offerings popular during the 2000s, Quarantine (2008) is more of a film of its day than anything fresh or original. The funny thing is it works fairly well as an entertaining popcorn horror flick. It’s not going to be remembered very well but it provides jumps, frights, and thrills.

It’s shot like a reality television show with seemingly handheld cameras following the characters which also gives it a 2000s feel. The irony is that the story involves a reality television series (all the craze in those days).

The dark glowing lighting and Los Angeles apartment building setting provide a good amount of peril.

While suspenseful, that doesn’t mean that Quarantine is necessarily a good film. It’s not and my grade of a B+ feels awfully generous but the bottom line is that every film is not a cinematic gem and some just plain ole entertainment. Quarantine is one of those types of films.

Apparently, Quarantine is a remake of a 2007 Spanish film called REC which is set in Barcelona. The United States replaces Spain and the characters are Americanized for the mainstream masses.

Reporter Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris) are doing a story on night-shift firefighters for a reality television program.  One night while filming, a late-night distress call takes them to a Los Angeles apartment building, where the police are investigating a report of horrific screams.

Angela, Scott, and firefighters Jake and Fletcher, played by Jay Hernandez and Johnathon Schaech respectively report to the building to find a loony old woman who suddenly attacks with teeth bared. Alarmed, they realize that the building has been sealed by CDC workers. Then they really start to panic.

Of course, laughably, they continue to film despite feeling desperate. Gotta keep those television ratings intact. In this way, it pairs well with The Blair Witch Project (1999) though nowhere near as fresh and inventive as that film. Instead, it feels like a copy of that film and other films with very little originality of their own.

Again, this didn’t bother me so much as I had no expectations of cinematic art when I agreed to see Quarantine. I had entertainment on my mind and that is what I received.

John Erick Dowdle writes and directs this project and creates a frenzied horror film. The action is quite quick and instantaneous amid a lightning-quick one-hour and twenty-nine-minute runtime. Interesting to note is that Quarantine features no actual musical score, using only sound effects. As a fan of background music in cinema, this wasn’t a great decision but I understand the intent.

After all, the Hitchock masterpiece The Birds (1963) featured no music.

Of course, the plot can be picked apart like a salad onion, but that’s not the point. But, for fun, why didn’t the firefighters provide the trapped residents with weapons or objects they could fight with? Why did characters try to ‘save’ characters who had been bitten only to put their own lives at risk? Hasn’t anyone ever seen Dawn of the Dead (1978)?

All events and storylines feel like some sort of setup.

I’ve seen better acting. Jennifer Carpenter, whom I have never heard of, is in a constant state of hysterics. That’s fine but her endless cowering, whimpers and hyperventilating does nothing to evoke a strong female character.

On a hot summer day, in a cold air-conditioned movie theater, is the perfect environment for a type of film like Quarantine (2008). There are worse ways to spend an hour and thirty minutes than munching on popcorn and being on the edge of your seat.

Rachel Getting Married-2008

Rachel Getting Married-2008

Director-Jonathan Demme

Starring-Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt

Scott’s Review #1,153

Reviewed June 17, 2021

Grade: A-

Rachel Getting Married (2008) is the film that really put Anne Hathaway on the map as a powerful and respected actress. Deserving the heaps of praise put upon her she was congratulated with an Oscar nomination for the role and would win a few years later for Les Miserables (2012). Hathaway proves that good nuts and bolts acting never goes out of style.

Director Jonathan Demme goes for simplicity with his project. The film is a quiet family drama with members gathered for a specific event. As the film progresses we witness deep-seated emotions and history bubble to the surface through terrific scenes exposing quality acting chops by the entire cast. Pain, truth, and wry humor are explored as a naturalistic approach is possessed. Not all the characters are likable and debatable is if any of them are.

Thankfully, humorous moments are added to lighten the mood.

The screenplay was written by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of famed director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne. Filming took place in Stamford, Connecticut, a small city outside of New York City.

The Buchman’s, an affluent New England family, prepares for the wedding of their daughter, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Their other daughter, Kym (Anne Hathaway), is permitted to attend the wedding despite being in the middle of a stint at rehab- she’s been there before. As Kym causes upheaval and drama, Rachel resents her sister causing family tensions to resurface.

Parents Paul and Abby, played by Bill Irwin and Debra Winger do their best to calm the flames created by the bickering siblings. Unfortunately, tensions begin to erupt between Rachel and Abby and away from Rachel.

Obviously, events come to a head-on Rachel’s wedding day, hence the title.

Under different circumstances, Rachel Getting Married could have been a standard lifetime television film. A girl with a drug addiction returning to the fold to stir up family drama is hardly a novel idea and has been told many times before in almost every medium. I cringed at first when I read the premise.

But, the film feels as fresh and energetic as a new idea. The pacing is the first notice as it moves at a brisk pace and the running time is under two hours. Kym is frenetic acting at times which also helps the allusion of a faster pace.

A dark secret is quickly revealed. Due to drunkenness, Kym caused the car she was driving in to careen off a bridge, killing her younger brother. She has harbored guilt ever since and endured the wrath of her family. It has made her struggle with addiction even worse.

I don’t think enough praise can be given to Hathaway for quite simply kicking the film’s ass. Nearly destined for wimpy romantic comedies, Kym gives the actress a role she can not only sink her teeth into but infuse with emotion and empathy.

At times the audience will hate Kym and other times will sob along with her.

DeWitt and especially Winger, returning to the cinematic spotlight after a long absence, have plenty to infuse their characters with. Anger, jealousy, and unbridled sympathy are just a few of the emotions their characters experience.

Demme creates an independent film that feels raw and is filled with naturalistic settings and emotions. He takes a basic story and ravages it completely with great acting, handheld cameras that provide a real-life approach, and a story that will leave audiences thinking about the events and perhaps their own lives after the credits roll.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Anne Hathaway

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Film, Best Director-Jonathan Demme, Best Female Lead-Anne Hathaway, Best First Screenplay, Best Supporting Female-Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen-2011

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen-2011

Director-Lasse Hallstrom

Starring-Ewing McGregor, Emily Blunt

Scott’s Review #1,152

Reviewed June 15, 2021

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Friends of Eddie Coyle-1973

The Friends of Eddie Coyle-1973

Director-Peter Yates

Starring-Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle

Scott’s Review #1,151

Reviewed June 11, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Shelter-2011

Take Shelter-2011

Director-Jeff Nichols

Starring-Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #1,150

Reviewed June 9, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenet-2020

Tenet-2020

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-John David Washington, Robert Pattinson

Scott’s Review #1,149

Reviewed June 4, 2021

Grade: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where the fun ends.

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

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

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

Just like the viewer.

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

The French Connection II-1975

The French Connection II-1975

Director-John Frankenheimer

Starring-Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey

Scott’s Review #1,148

Reviewed June 2, 2021

Grade: B

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

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

Is anyone surprised?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think I was supposed to.

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

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

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

Ugetsu-1953

Ugetsu-1953

Director-Kenji Mizoguchi

Starring-Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo

Scott’s Review #1,147

Reviewed May 31, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Black and White

Valentine-2001

Valentine-2001

Director-Jamie Blanks

Starring-Denise Richards, David Boreanaz

Scott’s Review #1,146

Reviewed May 26, 2021

Grade: C

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

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

It’s painfully mediocre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for Guffman-1996

Waiting for Guffman-1996

Director-Christopher Guest

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

Scott’s Review #1,145

Reviewed May 24, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are that good!

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

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

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

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

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

Yentl-1983

Yentl-1983

Director-Barbra Streisand

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin

Scott’s Review #1,144

Reviewed May 20, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

But I’ll get down from my soapbox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fame-1980

Fame-1980

Director-Alan Parker

Starring-Irene Cara, Paul McCrane, Maureen Teefy

Scott’s Review #1,143

Reviewed May 18, 2021

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This film ages well and stands the test of time.

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

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always-2020

Director-Eliza Hittman

Starring-Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

Scott’s Review #1,142

Reviewed May 14, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

I was enamored from scene one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernice Bobs Her Hair-1976

Bernice Bobs Her Hair-1976

Director-Joan Micklin Silver

Starring-Shelley DuVall, Veronica Cartwright 

Scott’s Review #1,141

Reviewed May 12, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

The idea ends up biting her in the ass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross of Iron-1977

Cross of Iron-1977

Director-Sam Peckinpah

Starring-James Coburn, Maximilian Schell

Scott’s Review #1,140

Reviewed May 8, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to my blog! Over 1,150 reviews to share! My name is Scott Segrell. I reside in Stamford, CT. This is a diverse site featuring hundreds of film reviews I have created ranging in genre from horror to documentaries to Oscar winners to weird movies to mainstream fare and everything in between. Please take a look at my Top 100 Films section! This list is updated annually- during the month of September. Simply scroll down to the Top 100 Films category on the left or right hand side of the page. Enjoy and keep the comments coming!