21 Jump Street-2012

21 Jump Street-2012

Director-Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Starring-Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

Scott’s Review #992

Reviewed February 20, 2020

Grade: C+

21 Jump Street (2012) is a nostalgic ode to the general style of the 1980’s, more specifically a popular television series that ran from 1987 to 1991. The teen police drama launched the successful career of actor Johnny Depp. He starred as the good-looking leader of a team of young police officers who can pass for high school students, and infiltrate potential drug rings, prostitution circles, or other such shenanigans.

Let’s be clear- the film is hardly high art nor cinematic genius. The gags are silly and trite, other times not funny at all. But the film contains a freshness that feels cool, sleek, and fun and a throwback to the decade of materialism, and the film never apologizes for this. The combination of stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have nice chemistry, turning a standard buddy film into something bearable to watch. The film is formulaic, but not dull.

The film makers strive for an action-comedy hybrid even though the series was only conventional drama and taught a lesson with each episode. They also change course and focus on two characters instead of a group making it more of a guy movie. Honor roll student Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and popular underachieving jock Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) reunite seven years after graduating high school at the police academy where they are studying to be cops.

Eager to leave their juvenile problems, and their dislike for each other behind, they use their youthful appearances to go undercover at a local high school as part of a Jump Street unit. As they trade in their guns and badges for books and bagged lunches, Schmidt and Jenko risk their lives to investigate a violent and dangerous drug ring. They slowly realize that high school is nothing like they left it just a few years earlier, and they revisit the terror and anxiety of being a teenager again and all the issues they assumed they had left behind.

The film is only mediocre and while there is nothing wrong with the film, there is also nothing terribly outstanding about it either. As the setup clearly poises the audience for, Morton and Greg are opposites in every way and must come together to achieve a common goal. This is a standard cliche told countless times in films such as Stir Crazy (1983) and 48 Hours (1982), the clear reference being one of the 1980’s.

Speaking of the decade of excess, 21 Jump Street achieves what it sets out to in this regard with a clever nod to a revived scheme from that decade. Set in present times, the film is nonetheless a nod to teen films of the day. Wild comedy and lavish adventures are in order in every high school situation imaginable. Dating, AP chemistry class, and the senior prom are heavily promoted so that any viewer above the age of twenty-five can reminisce.

A fun, and necessary quality is the inclusion of a few of the original cast of the television series-Holly Robinson Peete, Peter DeLuise, and of course, Johnny Depp all appear in cameo roles. This is a treat for fans of the original series and a tribute to its creation, though nothing else is utilized very well and no other history ever quite measures up. Robinson Peete’s role is nice because she appears as a police officer.

While doing little to honor the television series it is based off, instead churning out more of a male cop film, the incorporation of the original cast does deserve praise. The lead actors are charismatic and clever in their roles which saves the film from being a disaster. 21 Jump Street (2012) kvetches too far into slapstick instead of sending an important message to its audience, which it could have. The box-office hit was followed in 2014 by an unnecessary remake, aptly entitled 22 Jump Street.

The Leopard-1963

The Leopard-1963

Director-Luchino Visconti

Starring-Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale

Scott’s Review #991

Reviewed February 18, 2020

Grade: A

One of the great works in cinematic history, I preface this review by stating that I viewed the English dubbed version of the brilliant The Leopard (1963) starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale. This version is considerably shorter, at two hours and forty-one minutes, than the Italian version, which is three hours and five minutes. As grand as the former is, my hunch is that something is lost in translation put side by side with the latter. The English version has no subtitles and is available only on DVD, so the film is difficult to follow, but is still rich with texture.

An interesting tidbit is that the film surgery was performed without director Luchino Visconti’s input – the director was unhappy with the editing and the dubbing. This point is valid since some of the voices are Italian and French, sounding too American and unauthentic. Admittedly inferior, the English version is nonetheless extravagant and lovely by its own merits, though I am dying to see the original version, if available.

The time-period is during the 1860’s as the tumultuous era effects the country of Italy and more specifically, Sicily. Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Lancaster) is at a crossroads, torn between holding onto glory he once knew, and accepting the changing times, welcoming a more modern unity within the country. He is surrounded by a new mayor, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) who has a gorgeous daughter, Angelica (Cardinale), who intends to marry Fabrizio’s French nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon). The film dissects the changing times in Italy.

The visual treats that await the viewer are astounding and by far the best part of the film. The lovely and palatial estates are gorgeous with decorative sets, bright and zesty colors, and ravishing meals displayed during parties to make any audience member salivate with joy. The costumes are state of the art, as each frame can easily be a painting on a canvas. A tip is to periodically pause the film and study and immerse oneself in its style.

Many film comparisons, both past and yet to come, can easily be made when thought about. An Italian Gone with the Wind (1939), if you will, with Angelica as Scarlett and Tancredi as Rhett (okay, the chemistry is not quite the same, but similarities do exist), and Concetta as the long-suffering Melanie, the characters can be compared. The great ball, the costumes, and the ravaged country are more prominent comparisons.

Nine years post The Leopard, a little film entitled The Godfather (1972) would change the cinematic landscape forever. Director, Frances Ford Coppola must have studied this film, as the plentiful scenes of Italian landscape and the Italian culture are immersed in both films. Even snippets of the musical score mirror each other. What a grand film to borrow and cultivate from!

Despite all the beautiful trimmings that make The Leopard a masterpiece, the film belongs to Lancaster, in his best role of his career. The hunk in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, as the Prince, he is aged to perfection, distinguished looking with graying sideburns. The film is an epic extravaganza and the actor leads the charge, carrying the film. He is a stoic man, but not without fault and emotion, wearing his heart on his sleeve, realizing that he must adapt to the changing times. We feel his quandary and embrace the character as a human being.

Attention paying fans must be forewarned that the plot is basic and while difficult to follow because of the absence of sub-titles, at the same time there is not a highly complex story to follow. The story is about how the Prince maneuvers his family through troubled (and changing) times to a more secure position. This is the overlying theme of the film.

Suffering from dubbing and quality control issues can do nothing to ruin a spectacular offering that is obviously a cinematic gem and testament to the power of The Leopard’s (1963) staying power. I eagerly await the day when the traditional Italian version can be located, and discovered, as this will assuredly be a treat to sink my teeth into. Until then, the film is a historical epic that can be appreciated for the dynamics and importance it so richly deserves.

21 Grams-2003

21 Grams-2003

Director-Alejandro G. Inarritu

Starring-Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro

Scott’s Review #990

Reviewed February 14, 2020

Grade: A

21 Grams (2003) is a superlative independent drama that contains crisp writing, top-notch acting, and a unique directing style by Alejandro Inarritu. An early work by the acclaimed director, he delivers a powerful exposure of the human condition using intersecting story lines. The result is a powerful emotional response that resonates among any viewer taking the time to let the story evolve and marinate. Outstanding film making and a sign of things to come for the director.

The film is the second part of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s and Iñárritu’s Trilogy of Death, preceded by Amores Perros (2000) and followed by Babel (2006), 21 Grams interweaves several plot lines in a nonlinear arrangement. Viewing the films in sequence is not necessary or required to appreciate and revel in the gorgeous storytelling and mood.

The story is told in non-linear fashion and focuses on three main characters, each with a “past”, a “present”, and a “future” story thread. Events culminate in a horrific automobile accident, which is the overall story. The sub-story fragments delve into the lives of the principals as the audience learns more about them. Ultimately, all three lives intersect in dramatic fashion leaving the viewer mesmerized and energized by the deep connections.

Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is a successful, married college mathematics professor who desperately needs a heart transplant. He and his wife are considering having a baby in case he should die. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts) is a recovering drug addict now living a happy suburban life with a loving husband and two young children. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is a former convict who is using his new-found religious faith to recover from drug addiction and alcoholism and live a happy existence with his wife and kids. After the car accident each life takes a shocking turn forever changing things.

The multiple time lines and back and forward story telling are an excellent part of 21 Grams, adding layers upon layers of potential entanglements among the characters. On paper this could be a confusing quality, but instead it provides mystique and endless possibility. What worked so well in the outstanding Traffic (2000) is used by Inarritu and delivers. The recipe of clever plotting, characters the audience care about, and top-notch acting is created, mixed, and served up on a silver platter.

Penn, Watts, and Del Toro are stellar actors who each give their characters strength, sympathy, and glory. Each has suffered greatly and faced (or faces) tremendous obstacles in life, soliciting feeling from viewers. All three are good characters, trying to do the right thing, and grasp hold of any sliver of happiness they can find. They have moral sensibilities without being judgmental, delicious is how each character interacts with the others, but in differing ways.

The film is not a happy one and certainly not for young kids, but the brilliant elements will leave the film lover agape at the qualities featured. The dark, muted lighting of the film is perfect for the morbid stories told throughout and the common themes of anguish, courage, and desperation. The clever title refers to an experiment in 1907 which attempted to show scientific proof of the existence of the soul by recording a loss of body weight (said to represent the departure of the soul) immediately following death.

Only the second full-length film in Inarritu’s young career, 21 Grams (2003) is a brilliant film nuanced in human emotion and connections. The powerful director would go on to create Babel (2006) and The Revenant (2015), two vastly different films but with similar heart. 21 Grams is a wonderful introduction of good things to come while utilizing crafty acting and layered writing to create a gem well worth repeated viewings.

101 Dalmatians-1996

101 Dalmatians-1996

Director-Stephen Herek

Starring-Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson

Scott’s Review #989

Reviewed February 13, 2020

Grade: C+

The classic animated Disney film 101 Dalmatians (1961) is brought to life in a live-action format thirty-five years later to create a fresh spin on the revered original film. Unfortunately, the result is nothing special save for Glenn Close’s brilliant performance as the dastardly Cruella De Vil. Otherwise, the reworking is too amateurish and largely unnecessary, especially as compared to the brilliance and charm of the original.

Thankfully not modifying the London setting, American video game designer Roger Dearly (Jeff Daniels) lives with his pet dalmatian, Pong. Lonely, Roger trudges along through life without a love interest. During a walk, Pongo sets his eyes on a beautiful female dalmatian named Perdy. After a chase through the streets of London that ends in St. James’s Park, Roger discovers that Pongo likes Perdy. Her owner, Anita Campbell-Green (Joely Richardson) immediately falls in love with Roger and the duo are inseparable.

They get married along with Perdy and Pongo. Anita works as a fashion designer at the House of de Vil. Her boss, the pampered and glamorous Cruella de Vil (Close), has a passion for fur. Anita, inspired by her Dalmatian, designs a coat made with spotted fur and Cruella is intrigued by the idea of wearing Anita’s dog. She hatches a plot to steal and kill the puppies for her own lavish gain.

The scenes between the dogs are cute and work better than the intended romance relationship between the humans. What was a darling pursuit in the animated feature does not shine through with real actors. Either the chemistry between Daniels and Richardson does not exist or the scene is too forced, or perhaps both. I did not buy the love at first sight, stars aligning moments. I bet most audiences didn’t either. The result is a banal and stale connection between Roger and Anita, meant to be the core of the story.

Enough cannot be said for what Close brings to the role. The actress gives a tremendous performance and sinks her teeth into the most prominent and interesting part of the film. With a sinister sneer, a flowing red and white coat, and a token cigarette holder, she infuses Cruella with dazzling menace. Careful not to overact and result in a juvenile character, she relishes the role, providing just enough comedy without being too scary. The performance is perfect.

A negative is that, unlike the animated version, none of the animals have speaking voices. This detracts from the earnest quality of expressive, talking animals. What pet owner does not imagine what their cat or dog would sound like if they talked? Instead the puppies sniff and look cute, making themselves distracting and unclear what feelings they have. One wonders why the decision was made in this way, but it does little to provide texture.

101 Dalmatians is too cute for its own good, limiting any sophistication. The original had a British intelligence and a cultural voice, with small, yet important details, like falling rain, that live action cannot mimic. The 1996 version is kid-friendly, but brings little to the table, lacking interesting flair. Why not teach a lesson about the dalmatian dog breed rather than settle for simply an adorable slant? Rumors abound that parents adopted dalmatians for their children after seeing the film and were forced to return them, rather than invest time to study, realizing that raising a dalmatian is hard work.

The idea to remake an adorable and cozy Walt Disney classic from the 1960’s with a fresh approach is admirable. The live-action detail could add a new twist or an inventive spin that could appeal to a new generation of youngsters. Unfortunately, 101 Dalmatians (1996) does not work well, barely rising above mediocrity, with an aura of fluff and gimmicks that feel forced and trite. The saving grace is Glenn Close, a tremendous talent who gives it her all despite sub-par material. Stick to the original 1961 version.

10,000 B.C.- 2008

10,000 B.C.- 2008

Director-Roland Emmerich

Starring-Steven Strait, Camilla Belle

Scott’s Review #988

Reviewed February 11, 2020

Grade: F

10,000 B.C. (2008) is a by the numbers adventure/action hybrid film that attempts to be slick and modern with catchy visual elements and instead bottoms out resulting in an example of terrible film making. The CGI usurps all other qualities providing no historical accuracy, with a ridiculous 2008 feel rather than the time-period at hand. Those involved only had maximum box office returns in mind when the film was created. There is an irritating formulaic quality and poor acting across the board that leaves this one dead on arrival.

Fierce, masculine mammoth hunter D’Leh (Steven Strait) sets out on an impossible journey to rescue the woman he loves, Evolet, (Camilla Belle) from an evil warlord and save the people of his village. While venturing into the unknown and frightening territories, D’Leh and his fellow warriors discover an amazing civilization rife with possibilities. In predictable fashion, the warriors are attacked and slaughtered, leaving the young man to protect the remaining group while winning the heart of a princess, well above his station in life.

The story is complete schmaltz and easy to predict from nearly the very beginning of the film. Powerful invaders force the hunters of D’Leh’s tribe into slavery and accost the princess in such a fashion that the setup is all put neatly in place for the viewer, providing nothing out of the ordinary. When the young and naive boy has an epiphany and realizes he is the only one who can save his tribe from extinction, it is all too much. The film is riddled with cliche after cliche after cliche.

A tough ask to lead a film with summer blockbuster written all over it, newcomers Strait and Belle do their best, which only enhances how poor their acting is. Clearly cast for their good looks, they can offer little else. Strait is costumed with a bad wig, dripping sweat, and bulging muscles, purely for audience delight. Belle is also victimized as she pouts and sulks wearing skimpy clothing. The result is a standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy becomes a man to save the girl mess. Inexplicable is how they meet and fall in love before ever speaking or getting to know each other.

If only the bad acting were the only negative the film might be fair to middling, but nothing good is ever offered. All the hunters and tribesman look like modern people dressed to look from a different time-period. The endless battle scenes borrow from the legions of action and adventure films that have come before it. The animals prance across the screen in obvious timed moments providing little in the way of authenticity.

Director, Roland Emmerich, known for films such as Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) has a knack for creating large epic adventures to please mainstream audiences. There is nothing wrong with a conventional film if it manages to teach the viewer something or offer something of merit. With a target audience of pubescent boys and girls yearning to learn, Emmerich misses a golden opportunity to present an imaginative prehistoric moment and provide a lesson.

Complete with bad story and bad acting, the drivel conjured up is nearly too much to take. 10,000 B.C. (2008) cannot be saved by the over stylish visuals because they are so phony one cannot even fathom any credibility out of them. The good-looking main stars look straight out of a glossy magazine and hardly from the prehistoric era presented. With little attempt at giving audiences anything of substance, this film is an epic fail and is to be missed.

The Lighthouse-2019

The Lighthouse-2019

Director-Robert Eggers

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #987

Reviewed February 5, 2020

Grade: A-

The Lighthouse (2019) is the sophomore effort by acclaimed and novice horror director, Robert Eggers. His first, The Witch (2015) garnered praise and independent film award nominations, and his latest offering has also received many accolades across the board. This time around, he wisely secures top-notch talent casting the incredible Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson to star.

The result is a well-acted, gorgeously photographed film, that is odd beyond belief, requiring a second viewing to even attempt some understanding. The atmosphere of this film will draw some viewers in and push away others. It is that type of film experience.

Shot in startlingly good black and white, the time is the 1890’s, set somewhere off New England. The film stars Dafoe and Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who start to lose their sanity when a storm strands them on the remote island where they are stationed. They spar, love, and play games, while imaginations run wild with bizarre images of mermaids, death, and claustrophobic storm conditions. Frequent hallucinations render the plot unclear of what is fantasy and what is reality.

The technical aspects of The Lighthouse are superior to the story elements. The gorgeous camera work, looking like either a modern film or a film from the 1940’s is superior. Almost never is a film made like this, and the black and white filming provides a cold and bleak atmosphere. The prevalent wind and driving rain buttress with flying objects and mud to create a looming and foreboding danger. The viewer can tell that sinister events are on the horizon, perfectly encrusting the increasingly dangerous storm.

The story is tough to figure out with the exception that one or both men are losing their minds. Winslow (Pattinson) is the newbie, sent to assist the elder lighthouse keeper, the elderly and cranky Thomas Wake (Dafoe). Wake forbids Winslow to ever set foot in the lantern room, insisting that task is his job alone. This piques the interest of the young man especially when Winslow observes Wake going up to the room at night and stripping naked. Winslow begins experiencing visions and dreams of tentacles in the lighthouse, tree stumps floating in the water, and distant images of a mermaid.

Peculiar scenes exist that make The Lighthouse both memorable and tough to figure out. The presence of seagulls makes the film authentically beach-like with the cawing and flying around. Their existence soon becomes an ode to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as a one-eyed gull begins to stalk Winslow. Told it is bad luck to ever kill a gull since they harbor the souls of sailors, Winslow finally kills the attacking one-eyed gull in a fit of rage during one of the film’s most brutal scenes. Wake seethes with rage.

The film is homoerotic in many scenes, none more so than the lovely scene when the two men begin to dance and sway to music. About to kiss, reality strikes, and the two drunk men come to blows. The scene reminds me of an important one in the groundbreaking LGBT masterpiece Brokeback Mountain (2005). The combustible pent up masculine tension explodes, and we wonder if in another time the men lovers might be. This aspect is cerebral, filling The Lighthouse with psychological mystique.

A common element is the two men’s distrust of one another. Trapped by the bad storm they frequently drink themselves into oblivion- what else is there to do? They sit and stare at each other, sometimes filled with rage, sometimes suspiciously. In a scene both jaw-dropping and hilarious, Winslow forces Wake into a collar and leash and leads him on his hands and knees into a muddy grave. Unsure if the scene is fantasy or reality, it could almost be taken from a gay leather porn film.

Eggers has a bright future ahead of him and I am eager to see his next project. I am not averse to odd or even nonsensical films if the intent is good, but I would recommend a more straight-forward approach next time to see what he comes up with. The Lighthouse (2019) successfully offers a creepy and bizarre tale of men losing their sanity in a dream-like and creative way that will assuredly divide audiences.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2019

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2019

Directors-Daria Kashcheeva, Matthew A. Cherry, Karen Ruper Toliver, Rosana Sullivan, Kathryn Hendrickson, Bruno Collet, Jean-Francois Le Corre, Siqi Song

Scott’s Review #986

Reviewed February 4, 2020

Grade: A-

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2019 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at my local art theater was pretty amazing. Far too often dismissed as either irrelevant or completely flying under the radar of animated offerings, it is time to champion these fine little pieces of artistic achievement. On par with or even superseding the full-length animated features, each of the five offers a vastly different experience, but each offers either inspired or hopeful messages or dark, devious, and edgy stories. The commonality this year is relationships, and not necessarily between human beings, as one of them features a darling relationship between cat and dog. Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Memorable-2019 (France)

This offering is the most visually enticing of the five nominees. In the story, a French painter slowly falls prey to the ravages of dementia, while his wife suffers alongside him as his memory disintegrates. He sinks into a world of impressionistic shapes, vivid with gorgeous color. The film is both beautiful and heartbreaking, and not an easy watch. The swirling colors and fragmented shapes provide a lush and melancholy feel. The viewer will likely envelope the only two characters to appear (husband and wife) and relate to each of them and the misery and confusion they experience with assurance of what the result will be.  Grade: A

Sister-2019 (China)

Sister is a touching tribute to a person who does not even exist. A man thinks back to his childhood memories of growing up with an annoying little sister in China in the 1990’s. What would his life have been like if things had gone differently? Would the siblings annoy each other or be the best of friends? With political overtones, the piece describes the inhumane law that Chinese parents could only have one child, the mother forced to abort an impending birth. Traditional Chinese colors of red and black are used, and the imaginary sister is cute and energetic, a tragic realization of the terrible loss of potential life in a damaged nation. Grade: A-

Hair Love-2019 (USA)

Created by a team from the United States and strongly considered the front-runner, Hair Love feels the shortest of the bunch and is the most accessible of all the nominees, but hardly fluff either. A young black girl battles with her wild head of hair on a special day. After she unsuccessfully tries to create a gorgeous hairstyle by watching You tube videos, she desperately enlists the help of her kindly father. At first disastrous, they manage some success. The relationship is at first unclear. Is he a single dad? Is he her dad at all? Is he an older brother? The puzzle is quickly resolved with the revelation of the mother’s whereabouts in a tender and heartfelt ending. Grade: A

Kitbull-2019 (USA)

My personal favorite of the bunch, Kitbull starts off tough to watch. Any animal abuse in film makes my stomach turn and the beginning turned me off as I anticipated giving the piece a low rating. Instead, Kitbull results in a marvelous experience as a darling and compassionate story of the relationship between a kind cat and a suffering dog. The unlikely connection brought tears to my eyes as the cat, presumed to be an independent alley cat, comes to the rescue of the pit bull, presumed to be a made to dog fight. Any animal lover will watch this short with a mix of anger, empathy, and finally, joy. The sobering reality that so much animal abuse still exists in the world is both mind blowing and a cruel reality. Grade: A

Daughter-2019 (Czech Republic)

Daughter is a vague short film that is confusing to watch, but resilient and creative. The story consists of two characters- a father and daughter- both who seem to suffer from regret.  The father appears to be either sick and recovered, or to have died (unclear is if the story is told via flashbacks). The frequent pained expressions of both characters as they yearn to rewind the clock and treasure moments of the past, both of hardships and joy, are lessons that every viewer can appreciate and relate to. The misshapen ceramic figures and the facial movements, especially the blinking eyes, do much to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. Grade: B+

May-2003

May-2003

Director-Lucky McKee

Starring-Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris

Scott’s Review #985

Reviewed January 30, 2020

Grade: B+

May (2003) is a macabre and twisted psychological horror film and the directorial film debut from Lucky McKee. Though not a box-office success, the film has become a cult favorite and is a feast for lovers of the depraved and tormented. The wicked fun is to watch the main character, already troubled at the start of the film, dissolve into complete and utter madness. The acting and the mood are exceptionally crafted.

Growing up with a lazy eye leaving her scarred with never-ending insecurity, May Canady (Angela Bettis) is a twenty-eight-year-old woman who has suffered from a troubled childhood. Having always had trouble making friends, she is finally able to befriend a lesbian colleague, Polly (Anna Faris), and a handsome mechanic, Adam (Jeremy Sisto). Before long, she spoils the friendship when her oddities brim to the surface. May descends into utter madness and decides to build a new friend using human body parts. Will bits and pieces of her friends be used in the creation?

Bettis is a goldmine in the central role and provides a healthy dose of sympathy and creepiness. Many film characters have been outright disturbing in cinematic history, but May is wounded and victimized so we, as viewers, want to see her win out for once. All May wants is a friend and, especially with Adam, we root for her to find true love. May is like a combination of Carrie and Frankenstein.

Adam, while handsome, is also weird, and a good mate for May. He introduces her to a bizarre movie in which two characters embark on a romantic picnic and then eat each other. Adam reveals that he created the film for a college project. This impresses May- finally she has a soulmate! She quickly ruins the moment by biting his lip, turning him off and destroying her mounting confidence.

McKee is successful at making the film flow with precision and good pacing. Many rookie directors seem overwhelmed by a major motion picture undertaking, perhaps feeling more comfortable with short films. McKee proves he knows his stuff with an elegant and icy atmosphere that is just perfect for this type of film. May is a quick one hour and thirty-three minutes, which is all that is needed to make its mark.

The final thirty minutes is the best part as the proverbial s@#% hits the fan in a big way. McKee’s choice to use the holiday of Halloween night as the backdrop is both obvious and ingenious. May is not only ignored by Adam, but she learns he has a new girlfriend. To add insult to injury, Polly also finds love with new girlfriend Ambrosia. May feels isolated, finally snapping when she is ignored by her cat. She goes on a rampage and hacks up not only her friends, but her own eye.

May (2003) is a clever and atmospheric horror/thriller film with bursts of creativity and good-flowing storytelling. McKee may not always use originality and borrows heavily from other genre films, but he creates a nice blueprint of what his talents may lead to. The film leaves the viewer unnerved and aghast, but isn’t that the point of a good horror film? May could disappear over time, but provides a worthy dedication to the horror genre.

1900 (Novecento)-1977

1900 (Novecento)-1977

Director-Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring-Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu

Scott’s Review #984

Reviewed January 28, 2020

Grade: A

An epic to rival all epics, 1900 (Novecento) (1977) is a grandiose offering of monumental proportions featuring legendary actors and created by a brilliant director. With a running time of a whopping three-hundred and seventeen minutes in its original version, 1900 is known for being one of the longest commercially released films ever made. The cinematography is breathtaking, and the historical value powerful, as friendship, class distinction, and rivalry are outlined and explored in depth. The key is to let the experience marinate and blossom with a slow and patient build.

Brilliant director Bernardo Bertolucci’s tale follows the lives of two Italian men, a peasant named Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) and landowner Alfredo, (Robert De Niro), both ironically born on January 1, 1900. Inseparable as children, the two become estranged as their differing social status pulls them apart. Their personal conflicts mirror the political events in Italy, as both fascism and socialism gain prominence in the country.

Here is a bit of background on the film. Due to its length, the film was presented in two parts when originally released in many countries, including Italy, East and West Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Colombia, Pakistan and Japan. In other countries, such as the United States, a single edited-down version of the film was released. The latter is not the way to watch this film. I am not a fan of severely edited films, especially in an epic such as 1900, so the full-length version is highly recommended.

The film opens on April 25,1945, the day Italy is liberated from the fascists, and this is key to the political message Bertolucci crafts. As peasants’ revolt against the owner of the land, Alfredo (De Niro), and female laborers wield deadly pitchforks, the resulting ambiance is one of chaos. We know nothing of Alfredo yet but know enough to realize he is rich and perceived a tyrant. The natural reaction is to sympathize with them because they are oppressed.

As the film back tracks to the turn of the century, a more elegant scene emerges with the birth of two infants, Alfredo and Olmo. The sequence is sweet, both babies bright and filled with promise. Sadly, this is not meant to be. A railway track is an important addition to the film and one that culminates in the climactic finale.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the dynamic and development of Alfredo and Olmo as they grow. Alfredo resents his family’s wealth and sides with Olmo, a socialist. Alfredo sees his family as false and Olmo and his family as genuine. This aspect is timeless and can be related to by any viewer with any intelligent sense of the world today. The obvious analogy of the haves and have nots cannot be clearer in this film. Scary, is that some have nots are convinced they will one day become the haves.

The message and feelings that 1900 elicit are emotional and strong. Aren’t all men created equal? On the surface they are, but Alfredo and Olmo are not equal. As the birth scene reveals and as Bertolucci makes clear, they are born with advantages and disadvantages. These characteristics simply are what they are, and as human beings grow and learn social norms the financial differences become stronger and the humanistic connections weaker.

If the social aspects of the film or the brilliant cinematography are not enough to please a viewer, the historical lessons presented are second to none. One can simply revel in the political and historic excitement that existed in Europe throughout the forty-five years in which the film is set. I wish Hollywood made more films like this.

1900 (Novecento) (1977) can be enjoyed as both a grandiose dramatic period piece, revered for its majestic and flourishing design style, or as a thought-provoking message film, about the unresolved social class distinctions that exist in the world. I found the film a treasure that works on all levels and showcases just how good a director Bertolucci is. This film is not his best-known work, but for fans of cinema as an art form this is a must-see.

1408-2007

1408-2007

Director-Mikael Hafstrom

Starring-John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Scott’s Review #983

Reviewed January 23, 2020

Grade: C+

A bundle of film adaptations of Stephen King novels has been birthed over the years. 1408 (2007) is one of many and while suspenseful, the project might have been better served as a quick fifty-minute episodic television event rather than a big-screen effort. The content seems displaced and disjointed, stretched too thin. Nonetheless, big stars like John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson provide some stamina to a film that slowly teeters into nonsense and a confusing conclusion.

Based on Stephen King’s 1999 short story of the same name, the film follows Mike Enslin (Cusack), an author who investigates allegedly haunted houses, and rents the titular room 1408 at the Dolphin, a New York City hotel, to see what all the fuss is about. Although skeptical of the paranormal, he is soon unable to leave the room as he experiences bizarre events. The hotel manager, Gerald Owen (Jackson) attempts to convince Mike not to inhabit the notorious room, and intriguing is why?

The film has key success when it focuses on the atmospheric and the tense moments. The lighting and the camera techniques elicit a closed-in and claustrophobic aura because the set is mostly the hotel room. The use of psychological tension works better than a slice-’em, dice-’em approach.

During Mike’s examination of his room, the clock radio suddenly starts playing “We’ve Only Just Begun”, a hit song by The Carpenters. Mike assumes that Olin is pulling a prank to scare him. At 8:07, the song plays again and the clock’s digital display changes to a countdown starting from “60:00.” This is creepy, and the viewer is intrigued by what will happen next.

The window slams down and wounds Mike’s hand. He begins to see ghosts of the room’s past victims, followed by flashbacks of his dead daughter Katie, and his sick father. This catapults Mike into a terror and he attempts to escape the room, fearing for his life. He is unsuccessful in his escape and the room appears to have him prisoner until his wife, Lily (Mary McCormack) comes to the rescue. What does Olin have to do with the events? Is Lily sinister or benevolent?

When Mike is out of the hotel room the film falls apart. Containing too many weird circumstances to make much sense- a surfing event on the beach, a Molotov cocktail, a fire alarm, and a return to the hotel room spin the viewer in too many directions as a hallucinogenic experience is created. Before long the viewer will stop caring. I know I did. On paper these oddities sound intriguing, but they did not translate to screen well.

Hafstrom directs the action adequately and uses actors that viewers are familiar with, adding to the credibility. With lesser talents or unknowns, the film may have felt low budget or independent, and I think the film, while not great, needs these actors to add professionalism. The star is naturally Cusack, who enjoys the most screen time as a man who only believes what his eyes and ears tell him, and not the silliness of spirits and ghosts. The actor possesses an offbeat look which adds to the film.

From a story-line perspective, 1408 (2007) never really catches fire. The film is not pitiful, nor is it a great adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The novel is hardly a household name, which does the film few favors. The result is fair to middling, with a promising first half followed by a dour second. 1408 will certainly be forgotten five years after its release.

Little Women-2019

Little Women-2019

Director-Greta Gerwig

Starring-Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh

Scott’s Review #982

Reviewed January 21, 2020

Grade: A-

Numerous creations of the illustrious 1860’s classic novel by Louisa May Alcott have been forged upon the silver screen, some good and some not as good. The consensus is that Little Women (2019) is one of the better offerings, if not the best. Director, Greta Gerwig crafts a clear feminist, progressive version of the trials and tribulations of the March family, led by spirited spit-fire, Jo (Saoirse Ronan). Gerwig’s telling is fantastic, breathing fresh life into a classic story.

The story fluctuates heavily between 1868 and 1861, during and after the United States Civil War. Liberal, the March’s reside in Massachusetts, led by matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) mainly living life while their patriarch, Father March (Bob Odenkirk) is off at war. The rest of the household includes sisters Jo, Meg (Emily Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and the youngest daughter, Beth (Eliza Scanlen). The family endures joy, hardship, romance, love, and death as they carry on through the decade.

The focal point is Jo, a determined young lady, who moves to New York City, frequently reflecting on her life through back and forth sequences. She begins, an aspiring writer as she grows up, eventually becoming a success and boldly having her novel published. She resists the tried and true and questions why a woman must rely on a man for success rather than her own efforts and talents. During the story she is pursued by two young men, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and Friedrich (Louis Garrel).

Little Women is a fantastic and emotional story and a film that has no need for CGI, car chases, explosions, or any ingredients meant to enliven a film. It does not need them. The excitement is in the plot, as we thirst for more of the ups and downs that the March family faces. With any successful drama, there are nuanced characters, each taking a turn at story. While Jo is the headliner, Amy, Meg, and Beth are much more than opening acts. They each have their own lives, dreams, triumphs, and hardships, and the audience cares about each of them.

To capitalize on this point, the casting is dynamite. In a small, but brilliant role, Meryl Streep gives bombast to her character of Aunt March, the wealthy widow who owns a gorgeous house and vacations in Paris. She is cranky, but wise, only wanting the very best for her nieces, which is, of course, to marry rich! Ronan is well cast and charismatic as Jo, the actress losing her Irish accent for an American one. She uses her acting chops to infuse Jo with determination and just enough empathy to win over audiences.

Gerwig assures that the audience is reminded of the times and what it meant to be female during the 1860’s, with minimal chance at self-achievement, having to rely on a man for nearly everything. She in no way demeans or ridicules the male gender though. In fact, she paints no villains in her film, instead showing men as supportive at times, enamored at other times, but never exerting their power over women.

Little Women receives a small demerit in the pacing department. The film sharply plows back and forth, in too rapid a way, from period to period, at times leaving the viewer unclear as to what section in the film he or she is in. Blessedly, this ceases about midway through, but the technique is jarring and unnecessary. One wonders what the action was intended for and why not a more straightforward approach to the story telling was used.

A key facet of any outstanding film is the emotional reaction and Little Women had this viewer with tears streaming down his face. Sometimes for joy, sometimes for sadness, all in an organic way given oomph by a powerful musical score that resonates but never overwhelms. The film is one in which most of the elements come together in perfect harmony.

The film was served up six nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Pugh), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Sadly, and in a never-ending slight for female directors, Gerwig was overlooked. Prior to 2019’s Little Women, the novel was adapted six times for film, most successfully in 1933 and 1949. Seventy years later, the most modern version is arguably the best, with a left-leaning stance that is oh so necessary in modern times.

The Lion King-2019

The Lion King-2019

Director-Jon Favreau

Voices-Donald Glover, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #981

Reviewed January 17, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex Tape-2014

Sex Tape-2014

Director-Jake Kasdan

Starring-Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel

Scott’s Review #980

Reviewed January 15, 2020

Grade: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1917-2019

1917-2019

Director-Sam Mendes

Starring-George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman

Scott’s Review #979

Reviewed January 14, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reptile-1966

The Reptile-1966

Director-John Gilling

Starring-Ray Barrett, Jennifer Daniel

Scott’s Review #978

Reviewed January 10, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

300-2007

300-2007

Director-Zack Snyder

Starring-Gerard Butler, Dominic West

Scott’s Review #977

Reviewed January 7, 2020

Grade: D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-1970

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls-1970

Director-Russ Meyer

Starring-Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers

Scott’s Review #976

Reviewed January 2, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabaret-1972

Cabaret-1972

Director-Bob Fosse

Starring-Liza Minnelli, Michael York

Scott’s Review #975

Reviewed December 31, 2019

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Night, Deadly Night-1984

Silent Night, Deadly Night-1984

Director-Charles E. Sellier Jr.

Starring-Robert Brian Wilson, Gilmer McCormick

Scott’s Review #974

Reviewed December 30, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 1/2-1963

8 1/2-1963

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Marcelo Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale

Scott’s Review #973

Reviewed December 27, 2019

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bombshell-2019

Bombshell-2019

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #972

Reviewed December 26, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Passage to India-1984

A Passage to India-1984

Director-David Lean

Starring-Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft

Scott’s Review #971

Reviewed December 24, 2019

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A League of Their Own-1992

A League of Their Own-1992

Director-Penny Marshall

Starring-Geena Davis, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #970

Reviewed December 19, 2019

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knives Out-2019

Knives Out-2019

Director-Rian Johnson

Starring-Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig

Scott’s Review #969

Reviewed December 17, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas Story-1983

A Christmas Story-1983

Director-Bob Clark

Starring-Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon

Scott’s Review #968

Reviewed December 16, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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