L.A. Confidential-1997

L.A. Confidential-1997

Director-Curtis Hanson

Starring-Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger

Scott’s Review #1,102

Reviewed January 19, 2021

Grade: A

An enormous critical and commercial hit of 1997, L.A. Confidential spins a tale of intrigue and mystery during the 1950s with plenty of big-name stars to go around. The film can be classified as a throwback, neo-noir escapade, but it’s quite stylistic and fleshed out. It’s well-made with slick elements and Hollywood look and feel like the lavish production design and musical score, but it’s the seduction and bevy of secrets that will keep and viewer glued to their seats, trying to guess what happens next.

As if it doesn’t have enough great elements a powerful whodunit is constructed leading viewers to question if the bad guys are good or the good guys bad?

Stalwarts like Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, and Danny DeVito bring star power, while unknowns at the time, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are the real reasons to tune in. L.A. Confidential has a seemingly endless tangled web to absorb and unravel, but the film is paced well and never overcomplicates itself. The strong art direction and musical score make it a delight on the eyes and ears.

The film is fraught with a saucerful of secrets just waiting to be brought to the surface.

Based on the James Ellroy 1990 novel of the same name, it’s the third book in his L.A. Quartet series, the others being The Black Dahlia (1987) and The Big Nowhere (1988). All focus on the Los Angeles Police Department, corruption, and scandal. The former was turned into an unsuccessful film in 2006 starring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson.

I love films set in the City of Angels with the focus on Hollywood darkness lurking beneath the sunny and swanky exterior. Especially effective is the 1950s time-period, post World War II, when everything seemed to be coming up roses. Naturally, murder is the offering of the day.

To summarize, three policemen, each with his motives and obsessions, tackle the corruption surrounding an unsolved murder at a downtown Los Angeles coffee shop in the early 1950s. Detective Lieutenant Exley (Pearce), the son of a murdered detective, is out to avenge his father’s killing. The ex-partner of Officer White (Crowe), implicated in a scandal uncovered by Exley, was one of the victims. Sergeant Vincennes (Spacey) feeds classified information to a tabloid magnate (DeVito). Basinger portrays Lynn Bracken, a glamorous prostitute.

It’s nice watching the film with the knowledge of the big stars Crowe and Pearce would become. Also interesting is to see Spacey when he was a big star, eventually destined to turn into Hollywood mud due to a scandal. That’s the beauty of watching a classic film and adds a realistic element unknown at the time of the first release.

From a romantic angle, it’s fun and juicy wondering who Lynn, a Veronica Lake lookalike, will wind up with. Basinger has chemistry with all of the handsome cops and one wonders who she will screw and screw over. The role is the best of Basinger’s career.

L.A. Confidential (1997) is a film that can be viewed multiple times to notice intricacies missed during the first go-around. It harkens back to the 1940s in style, pizazz, and texture. There is something for everyone and it develops well beyond the film noir genre. It contains great acting, exceptional writing with twisting storylines and events, bloodshed, and thrills. It is an exceptional crime drama almost on par with one of the greats, Chinatown (1974).

The 1990s was an excellent decade for well-made films and L.A. Confidential is near the top of the pile.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Curtis Hanson, Best Supporting Actress-Kim Basinger (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (won), Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

 

The Prom-2020

The Prom-2020

Director-Ryan Murphy 

Starring-Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #1,101

Reviewed January 17, 2021

Grade: A

Hollywood legends Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman take on singing and dancing roles in the lovely and timely film, The Prom (2020). James Corden joins them in a prominent role in a musical based on the popular and recent Broadway production of the same name. The LGBTQ+ storyline is important and powerful but doesn’t overshadow the colors and the fun. The message is perfectly incorporated in the delicious comedy romp.

The Prom reminds me of John Waters Hairspray from 1988 or even the fun remake from 2007. Instead of racism, the topic is now homophobia, with a few characters rebuffing the lifestyle. Most of the performances are over-the-top, but the film works on all levels. The one-liners are crackling and polished, especially by Streep and Corden.

As should be the case, the homophobic characters are written as fools and finally come to realize the error of their ways.

Director, Ryan Murphy, has become a favorite of mine for creating both extremely dark and light-hearted projects that usually slant towards LGBTQ+ recognition and inclusion. His treasured FX series American Horror Story (2011-present) and miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story are excellent examples of this. I drool with anticipation over what his next offering might be.

High school student, Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), wants to bring a female date to the upcoming prom. Chaos has erupted after the head of the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association), Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington) has canceled the prom. The setting is Indiana and the same gender coupling conflicts with the town’s traditional beliefs and values. Little does she know that her daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is Emma’s secret girlfriend. The school principal, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) supports Emma and has leaked the story to social media outlets.

Meanwhile, in sophisticated New York City, snooty broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) are devastated when their new musical flops. They join forces with struggling performers Angie Dickinson (Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and take a bus trip with the cast of Godspell to remote Indiana to champion Emma’s cause, and drum up sympathy from their fans and critics.

The rest of the film is as one might expect with bursts of song and dance combined with teaching the stuffy residents of small-town Indiana to accept and embrace Emma and her LGBTQ+ brethren. Amid a flurry of misunderstandings, mainly between newly dating Tom and Dee Dee, Emma and Alyssa, and Alyssa and her mother, a lavish prom is funded for the town, high school students straight and gay, to flock to and co-mingle in unity.

While The Prom is sheer fantasy and real-life doesn’t usually work out so perfectly, the sentiment is meaningful and the film takes a progressive stance.

I adore the song and dance numbers with my favorites being rapturous “It’s Time to Dance” and “Tonight Belongs to You”. They match well with the meaningful “The Acceptance Song”.

My curiosity wonders how residents of Indiana or other small towns might react to The Prom. While the film depicts a stuffy, close-minded viewpoint by many of the residents- besides the ones already mentioned, two male students, and two cheerleaders bully and ridicule Emma, other characters like Emma’s grandmother (Mary Kay Place) are kind and accepting. The bullying is a soft touch and Murphy keeps the plot light.

The contrasts of Dee Dee and Barry’s derision of Edgewater is comical and delightful, the main fun of the film. Dee Dee has never heard of the restaurant, Applebees, or knows not what it is. Barry and Dee Dee are horrified to have to stay in the local hotel because it is beneath their standards. The hotel is pretty nice.

A beautiful moment occurs towards the end of the film when Barry reunites with his mother, played by Tracey Ullman. Distant for years because of his parent’s inability to accept him as gay, the old woman comes to terms, and the two reunite with tears. A sad reality is that the dad still cannot come to terms with his son’s sexuality. This is surprising and hurtful that some parents still have a tough time with lifestyle choices in the year 2020.

The Prom has heart and the side story of the blossoming romance between Dee Dee and Tom, opposites, is charming and sweet.  Learning to curb her narcissism and doing for others as tough as that might be for her, Streep is a hoot and has tremendous chemistry with Key. The interracial match is a bonus for a film keen on promoting diversity and inclusion.

Related to this, one preposterous notice is the small Indiana town having oodles of Hispanic, black, and Asian townspeople. A real small town in Indiana would almost certainly be 99% white. But, the message is diversity so Murphy does what he sets out to do. I just don’t feel it’s accurate.

Those desiring a pulsating, riotous comedy musical with snippets of cutting humor are in for a treat with The Prom (2020). The musical numbers may fade and are not as memorable as instantly recognizable songs from classics like West Side Story (1961) or The Music Man (1962), but enough is on the table for pure enjoyment for the entire family. And the strong message is enough reason to tune in.

Keep the Lights On-2012

Keep The Lights On-2012

Director-Ira Sachs

Starring-Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth

Scott’s Review #1,100

Reviewed January 16, 2021

Grade: A

With such a healthy dose of LGBTQ+ films released during the 2010’s, most independent productions, enough exists to please nearly everyone striving for good diversity in film. Over the years in cinema, it was tough to find specific genre films, rather being forced to seek out subtle clues that filmmakers would incorporate. LGBTQ+ films are now a dime a dozen, which is good but makes some films fall under the radar.

Keep The Lights On (2012) is a romantic drama, rather mysterious, about two men and the nine-year-long love affair they share. It’s not a happy watch because drug addiction is a large part of the story. It portrays the men as human beings with passion, feelings, and experiencing joys and pains, instead of being written as caricatures or comic relief. This is progress, and worthy of much praise.

The only issue with the film is that by 2012, and the decade as a whole, there were so many similar films being made that there’s not enough to distinguish it from other high profile works. The LGBTQ bar was set very high with Brokeback Mountain in 2006, and recent offerings like Carol (2015) and Moonlight (2016) thrust the LGBTQ+ community into the spotlight. Keep The Lights On has many positives, especially cinematically, but it risks getting lost in the shuffle matched up against other genre films. Advisable, is to check out this gem.

It might best be compared to the exceptional same-sex love story, Call Me By Your Name (2017). Both are character-driven and are both happy and tragic.

Keep The Lights On is technically an American film. It feels like an international film, though, because it centers around a Danish filmmaker who lives in New York City. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is a troubled, creative soul, struggling to complete a documentary about an artist named Avery Willard. He meets and enters into a loving but complicated long-term relationship with Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer in the publishing industry who struggles with drug addiction. Therein lies the complicated nature of their relationship. They are bonded but plagues with outside challenges. It begins in 1998 and ends in 2006.

They meet via a phone sex chatline which adds to the sexual mystique. Erik is gay and happily out, but Paul indulges in both men and women and is conflicted sexually. He gets Erik high. Will he lead Erik down a dark path? Will Paul clean up his act or die? Erik and Paul bed numerous other men throughout the story. This is an intriguing addition to the complicated events.

Since the film is about a filmmaker it ought to include cool and inventive camera angles and trimmings, and it does. Ira Sachs, an American director, provides flourishing shots of New York City and gazes through the lens of an actual creative spirit, which justifies the character of Erik.

The story builds quite slowly and plenty of times I awaited something exciting to happen. But real-life is compiled of many small moments and I loved how the film simply is instead of big momentous scenes being added for effect.  The audience is meant to root for Erik and Paul to trot into happily ever after territory. This may or may not happen. Keep The Lights On has a vague ending open to interpretation.

Erik and Paul look similar to each other which I found very interesting. They say that many same-sex couples are attracted to individuals who look like themselves. I’m not sure how true this is, but I wondered if Sachs had a point to make. Can a person have multiple sides to themselves they see through other people? Keep The Lights On is told more from Erik’s perspective and seeing in Paul the dark side of himself.

Key to the honesty that exudes from Keep The Lights On is that the story is based on Sach’s relationship with a publisher he met and fell in love with. The truthfulness comes across on screen, which is a main appeal to the overall experience. I love the title which can be interpreted in a few different ways, especially once the conclusion is upon us.

I admire the fact that Keep The Lights On (2012) was made and the characters provide a longing and yearning that is quite humanistic. It feels like it was created based on fact rather than a studio idea conjured up around a boardroom table. Ira Sachs creates an excellent, quiet film about two men and the love story they share. Their troubles come and go but their passion and bond never waver.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Ira Sachs, Best Male Lead-Thure Lindhardt, Best Screenplay

J. Edgar-2011

J. Edgar-2011

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

Scott’s Review #1,099

Reviewed January 12, 2021

Grade: A

When director Clint Eastwood and actor Leonardo DiCaprio align, exceptional things can happen. This is evidenced by J. Edgar (2011), a compelling and well-constructed drama with a biographical and character driven focus. One gets inside the head and psyche of the title character, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, with DiCaprio playing him flawlessly.

The film is left-of-center, surprising for the mainstream director, though his film-making style is familiar. Eastwood does what he does best by constructing a slick and “Hollywood” experience. There are not the daring camera angles or unique uses of light that Kubrick might use.  He creates a steady affair that will appeal to the American heartland, getting viewer’s butts to the movie theater on his name alone.

The film opens in 1919, when a young Hoover (DiCaprio) is tasked with purging radicals from the United States and obtaining their secrets, something he’d carry with him for decades. He meets a new Secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who he makes an awkward pass at, and an even more awkward marriage proposal. She refuses, and they become professional and personal allies. The story then plods along with historical stops through the decades like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon. Hoover is always involved in these escapades.

Hoover, who served as the head of the bureau from 1924 until his death in 1972, was a powerful and ruthless man. Eastwood carefully dissects him, professionally and personally. He never married, lived with his mother, traveled and enjoyed dinners with one man who in death, bequeathed his estate to. You do the math. He was a gay man when one couldn’t be an openly gay man. Thus, he is conflicted, and Eastwood does a great job at showing the demons he wrestled with.

The relationship between Hoover and lawyer, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is my favorite part of J. Edgar because it is interesting and humanistic. DiCaprio and Hammer give outstanding performances with flawless chemistry and charisma. When Hoover professes his love for Tolson and quickly recants his statement then professes love for an actress, we view his turmoil. He loves Tolson but cannot bear to accept it even though it would free him from his chains.

Despite the tender nature of the sequence above or that his mother was a traditional, no-nonsense, shrew, Hoover is not portrayed as a hero. He was a complicated and damaged man and Eastwood hits this point home. He blackmailed Martin Luther King Jr., kept sexual secrets on several Hollywood stars, and participated in various abuses of power. The film does admit that the director also instituted fingerprinting and forensic measures that reduced crime.

Those who desire a straight-forward lesson in history may be slightly perturbed by the focus on Hoover’s personal life. Eastwood could have easily made Hoover’s career the only facet of the production-enough material exists for this. But instead, we get to see the inner working of the man. Kudos for this.

Dustin Lance Black, who wrote Milk (2008), a portrait of a gay man, is back at the helm serving as screenwriter. But the two films are not modeled after one another. They are very different animals. While Milk celebrates a man refusing to deny who he and others are, demanding their just civil rights, J. Edgar provides the narrative of a man fleeing from who he is.

Offering a rich and complex biography of a tortured man, the audience is exposed to a person wrestling with inner turmoil. Hoover was a famous man, but the film could easily represent those thousands of men who could not bring themselves to accept who they really were. Largest praise goes to DiCaprio who makes us sympathize, pity, and admire the complexities of his character. J. Edgar (2011) hits a grand slam.

Terror Train-1980

Terror Train-1980

Director-Roger Spottiswoode

Starring-Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis

Scott’s Review #1,098

Reviewed January 5, 2021

Grade: B+

Terror Train (1980) is a creepy slasher film released amid the heyday of the genre’s popularity. It embraces a familiar formula of teenage party victims but adds a helping of red herrings/whodunit twists, which catapults it above mediocrity and will keep audiences engaged until the finale.

Helpful is the casting of the “scream queen” of the time, Jamie Lee Curtis, who is the main attraction and obviously the “final girl”. Her casting adds credibility and star power. The film serves as a puzzle and the ending is difficult to predict with many twists and turns along the way. A perfect watch for a snowy New Year’s Eve, when the film is set.

Events begin three years prior to the happenings in the main story, naturally at a New Year’s Eve fraternity party, inhabited by a group of energetic pre-medical students looking for a good time. Alana Maxwell (Curtis) is coaxed in to participating in a cruel joke meant to lure an insecure pledge, Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) to a bedroom with the promise of sex. Instead of becoming a light-hearted prank the group later laughs about, the joke spirals Kenny into insanity, and a long stay at a mental institution.

Reunited for another party, this time on a train, a bitter cold and snowy New Year’s Eve is again the setting. The same group, now forgetting all about the prank, unwittingly boards the train for a night of booze, laughs, and partying. This time, a costume party is on the menu, which is convenient for a disguised killer intending to spend the night murdering the partygoers. He first kills Ed (Howard Busgang) on the tracks and takes his Groucho Marx costume to confuse everyone else. A mysterious magician and assistant are aboard to provide entertainment.

The film belongs to Curtis, of course. The idea was to create “Halloween on a train”. As much as Halloween (1978) is superior and scarier, Terror Train is cleverer. Many a red herring can be found throughout the story so that a deduction of the killer’s identity can quickly be questioned. Curtis, a popular star with the younger set in 1980, inevitably led fans to the movie theater to see Terror Train. The comparisons to Halloween are apt- both feature disguises, masks, costumes, and mayhem.

The casting of Ben Johnson as Carne, the train conductor, an actor making films since the 1930’s, and winning an Oscar for The Last Picture Show in 1971, provides the patriarchal character like Donald Pleasance did in Halloween. Despite the vulnerability of being on a train speeding through the middle of nowhere on a frigid winter night with a killer onboard, having a father figure and voice of reason is reassuring. And the casting agents were lucky to get him.

The vibe in Terror Train is great and the setting works wonderfully. An ode to Hitchcock, the train is an effective place for suspense or murder. The victims have few places to hide and a long tube with dark seats and hidden compartments while they disappear one by one is perfect horror fodder.

The gripe is that the identity of the killer is painfully obvious. Spoiler alert- it’s who you think it is! At the conclusion of the film, I was left feeling tricked and bamboozled. But, just like the mysterious magician, all is not what it seems. Newcomer director, Roger Spottiswood, casts real-life magician, David Copperfield, for good effect, and the star does a fairly good job of adding tension and looking sinister. When the big revelation is upon us, a cool gender-bender treat awaits, but the killer is predictable, nonetheless.

A quick nod to the inclusion of some diversity, few and far between in 1980 slasher fare. One of the fraternity brothers is a black male. The character is handsome, arrogant, and quickly gets his comeuppance, but the addition is to be noted.

Terror Train (1980) is an atmospheric and surprisingly good holiday themed slasher film that flies under the radar. Snuggle under a warm blanket, break open the midnight champagne, and enjoy the claustrophobic and frightening post-Christmas trimmings.

I Am Sam-2001

I Am Sam-2001

Director-Jessie Nelson

Starring-Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #1,097

Reviewed December 30, 2020

Grade: B-

Sean Penn stars as a mentally disabled man who fathers a child and is determined to cling to custody of her after he is deemed unfit to parent in I Am Sam (2001), a drama that garnered Penn an Oscar nomination. The brilliant actor may have deserved the win since he breathes life into a film riddled with every cliché imaginable. Besides his performance, and that of novice Dakota Fanning, the film would be drivel. As it is, it’s mediocre at best.

Somewhere, sometime, somehow, in cinema history, the consensus became that if an actor plays a mentally challenged character, he or she is assured an Academy award nomination. Juliette Lewis tried and failed with the cringeworthy The Other Sister (1999), but Penn has better credibility. Dustin Hoffman also succeeded with Rain Man (1988).

Sam (Penn) is well-adjusted man and has a supportive group of friends with disabilities. His neighbor, Annie, (Dianne Wiest) assists with raising Sam’s daughter, Lucy (Fanning), but the eight-year-old quickly exceeds the mental capacity of her father, leading to frustration and conflict. Lucy’s mother, a homeless woman, has vanished from the scene.

The justice system determines that Lucy must go to a foster family led by Randy (Laura Dern), which results in Sam hiring a no-nonsense attorney, Rita (Pfeiffer). Both Randy and Rita sympathize with Sam and must convince the courts that he can raise her.

Jessie Nelson, who directs I Am Sam, also directed safe films like Corrina, Corrina (1994) and Stepmom (1999), so her intention to present a warm and soft experience is easy to figure out. This is not meant to criticize her direction style as much as to point out that the  result is not a hard-edged, gritty experience. It’s a crowd-pleaser and there is never a moment where Nelson wants the audience to root against Sam keeping custody of Lucy, regardless of the reality.

Penn saves the film from being a complete stereotype. It’s apparent that Sam adores Lucy and the actor is not afraid to cry and express genuine emotion on cue. He’s a great actor and makes the most out of the role. He does his best to insinuate that mentally challenged people are like everyone else- they can keep a job, pay bills, hire a lawyer, and fight for their kids. His task is tough, but he succeeds. That’s what raises I Am Sam as an overall product.

Fanning, who in 2001 was about to embark on a fabulously rich acting career, is wonderful. Unlike many child actors, cast because they are cute or bubbly, she has real acting chops. She is neither girly nor overly sad in her emotions. Fanning is as strong, focused, and detailed as her eight-year-old character is.

Speaking of stereotypes, Pfeiffer is awarded the grand prize in female attorney banality. She is haggard, absorbed in her work, and has no time for her own son, only taking Sam’s case to prove she is a kind person since she agrees to pro bono work. Predictably, she realizes, through Sam, that she is wasting her life away, leaves her husband, and spends more time with her son. Dern does her best with a weak role as the one-dimensional foster parent who realizes she cannot be half the parent that Sam can.

The film’s title is derived from the opening lines “I am Sam / Sam I am” of the book Green Eggs and Ham, which is read in the movie. This makes the film showcase a sentimentalism and hammers home the point that the mentally disabled are child-like and need the help, patience, and understanding of non-disabled adults, as if that isn’t obvious.

The conclusion to I Am Sam is expected. The lengthy courtroom scenes are wrapped with a nice shiny bow as Sam predictably retains custody of Lucy as the supporting cast gather on a soccer field and dutifully gush with delight at how great a father he is. This is a fine tribute, or fantasy, and if only real-life were like this what a better world it would be. I would have preferred a story with more meat.

I Am Sam (2001) is recommended only for huge fans of Sean Penn or those who desire an oversentimental experience. It might have been better suited for Lifetime television.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Sean Penn

The Witches-1967

The Witches-1967

Director-Cyril Frankel

Starring-Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh

Scott’s Review #1,096

Reviewed December 29, 2020

Grade: B

Legendary film actress Joan Fontaine chose a Hammer horror film as her final role. While not high-brow art, these films are entertaining and a fun treat for horror fans. They are frequently macabre, clever, and make the most of a small budget. In The Witches (1967), Fontaine leads the way adding class and huge star quality. The film is good, but not great, with an unfulfilling ending. The cinematography and Fontaine’s involvement are the best aspects.

Also worthy of mention in the acting department is Kay Walsh, a talented British actress, who is terrific as the seemingly kind woman turned crazed witch. She adds professionalism to a pivotal role. The other supporting actors play their parts well to ensure that the craft of acting is respected. I adore the British flair that Hammer films always have.

Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, an English schoolteacher who accepts a new job as the headmistress of the local school in the quaint village of Heddaby. The quiet town is exactly what Gwen needs after suffering a nervous breakdown while residing in Africa. She experiences a small flirtation with the Reverend Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), who confesses that he is not overly religious. Stephanie is his sister, played by Walsh.

Before long, Gwen becomes immersed in the worlds of two of her students, Ronnie (Martin Stephens) and Linda (Ingrid Brett). Ronnie insists that Linda is being abused, which prompts Gwen to investigate. Meanwhile, Gwen discovers a voodoo doll and sleuths to find out what is going on in the village. Events lead her to a sanitarium, and finally to a coven of witches, intent on human sacrifice.

The Witches has a late 1960’s look and feel which gives some sophistication. Gwen is draped in stylish clothes and jewelry, and wears a cute, trendy bob haircut. The set design is cool with groovy, colorful furniture that enhances the tight budget to full advantage.  Alan and Stephanie’s estate is particularly impressive with modern furniture, drapes, and various trimmings.

Another positive is the hefty amount of exterior sequences offered. Director, Cyril Frankel, who directed many episodes of the popular British television series, The Avengers, provides a similar production so The Witches feels like a long episodic series. The luxurious English village is sunny, calming, and atmospheric brightening the atmosphere of the film. This counterbalances the themes of demons, voodoo, and witches, well.

Frankel builds the story momentum throughout The Witches in good pace, but this is lost in the final act, which is way too abrupt. During the first three quarters of the production we are led to believe that Gwen is either crazy, imagining the strange events, or that one of the townspeople is gaslighting her. It’s easy to deduce the latter is what is going on, and the fun is figuring out who or whom is doing the dirty deeds.

When the culprit is revealed (and it’s displayed on the cover art!), the conclusion is underwhelming. An attempted cemetery human ritual to remove life from Linda and infuse into Stephanie so that she can live forever is weak. After an odd sequence of the townspeople dancing and writhing around like nutcases in an unintentionally laugh out loud example of overacting, Gwen foils Stephanie’s plan. The witch succumbs to death, a victim of her own heinous plan backfiring.

It is hinted that Gwen and Alan (who is revealed to be good) will forge a romance in the future, but I would have liked if we had gotten more of a taste of their budding attraction during the film. Still, it is likely the two will ride off into the sunset together in safety.

While not as gory as other Hammer films, The Witches (1967) instead casts exceptionally well and tells a decent story, interesting until the low-key finale. I expected a bit more from the ending, which simmers out instead of electrifying.

Hairspray-2007

Hairspray-2007

Director-Adam Shankman

Starring-Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Christopher Walken

Scott’s Review #1,095

Reviewed December 28, 2020

Grade: B+

Hairspray (2007) is a fun film, without being superfluous. The third incarnation of the musical treat doesn’t disappoint, offering a brighter production. A safer affair than the 1988 escapade directed by naughty film maker John Waters, it’s nonetheless not a “watered” down version either. It loses none of the charm that the original had and includes plenty of big-name stars. In short, it’s a solid summer popcorn flick with sing along tunes and a cool vibe. The important message of racial relations is not lost nor dismissed.

The setting is early 1960’s Baltimore, Maryland, a city rife with racial problems representing the entire United States during that decade. Our star, Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is a chubby, bubbly, sixteen-year-old, who wants nothing more than to trudge through the school day and come home and indulge in her favorite television show, The Corny Collins Show, a popular local dance competition.

Tracy auditions for a spot on the show, and wins. She becomes an overnight celebrity, a trendsetter in dance, fun and fashion. She and her fans hope that her new status as a teen sensation is enough to topple Corny’s reigning dance queen, Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and bring racial integration to the show. Amber’s racist mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) manages the television station and thwarts Tracy’s efforts, leading to tension and dance competition between Tracy and Amber.

The casting is a big part of the success. Blonsky, making her film debut, carries the film flawlessly. Both energetic and empathetic, she is the perfect girl next door and relatable for any young girl who is not a stick figure. More broadly, she represents anybody who feels like a misfit or put upon for not being classified as perfect. Her joy and sincerity as she sings and dances to “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “I Can Hear the Bells” is infectious and makes her a perfect protagonist.

The supporting cast is delightful and laden with A-list Hollywood stars clearly having a ball with their over-the-top roles. My favorite is John Travolta as Tracy’s mother and compadre, Edna. Fans of Hairspray know that Edna is always cast with a male actor in drag and Travolta is fantastic. His mannish body and movements only make the character more fun and fabulous. And with his beehive hairdo and pink ribbon he is so darn cute!

Tracy’s father, Wilbur, is played by Christopher Walken. His love for his wife and daughter is sweet. Pfeiffer fuels her one-note character with venom as the racist woman gets her just due.

Director, Adam Shankman, puts the focus on the musical numbers, and that’s just fine. For added pleasure, he includes both John Waters and Rikki Lake (the original Tracy) in cameo roles, which is a treat for anyone who has seen the original. The best numbers occur when the entire company join in, especially the wonderful finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Besides being musically contagious, the song sends an important message of progression and embracing change.

Despite the fluffy trimmings, the important message of racial inequality is not overlooked, nor does it feel dated in the year 2007. Clearly racism is still an issue. Justifiably so, the racist characters like Velma and Prudence Pingleton (Allison Janney) look ridiculous with outrageous fear for anyone different than themselves. Tracy and her friends champion causes like racism, integration, and being true to oneself, which are themes at the heart of the film, along with the merry songs.

While I still prefer the 1988 version of Hairspray for more seediness and a colder vibe, Hairspray (2007) is a colorful rendition exposing a new generation to the chirpy and danceable tunes while maintaining the important themes. It’s family friendly affair and very funny experience without sacrificing any credibility.

Game Change-2012

Game Change-2012

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris

Scott’s Review #1,094

Reviewed December 23, 2020

Grade: B

Sarah Palin is an idiot. John McCain is not. We didn’t know that in 2008-we do now. Somehow their different worlds collided as partners in crime for the 2008 United States Presidential election, she the vice-presidential nominee to his presidential. McCain’s people wanted a fresh face, someone with charisma, who could help defeat the surging U.S. Senator from Illinois, named Barack Obama.

Game Change (2012), an HBO film, chronicles how an unknown female governor from Alaska was chosen as McCain’s running mate without proper vetting, leading to one of the biggest political fiascos of the twenty-first century.

The production is a well-acted, well-paced affair that makes even the most liberal viewer (me!) sympathize, ever so slightly, with Palin, who was thrust into the spotlight at lightning speed. Julianne Moore takes center stage, giving the political figure empathy and some heart. Supporting turns by Woody Harrelson as the campaign’s senior strategist, Steve Schmidt, and Ed Harris as John McCain provide levity.

The acting is the best part of the film. Otherwise, the film might have been best served as a documentary (more about that below). As believable as Moore, Harrelson, and Harris are, they feel like performances rather than authenticity. They try to give their best interpretations of the players instead of immersing themselves into their bodies. Maybe that’s the point of the film?

I love how the film opens. In 2010, after the debacle has ended, Steve Schmidt sits uncomfortably before Anderson Cooper from CNN. He asks Schmidt if Palin was chosen as the VP candidate because she would make the best vice president or because she could win the election? The question is quite poignant and the basis for the entire film.

Another excellent sequence is set during the Republican National Convention. Palin’s speech is well received, bombastic even, and energetic, catapulting her as the potential saving grace of the party. Sadly, for her, the campaign becomes concerned that she is ignorant about many political issues and grossly unprepared. These scenes are the weakest- the audience laughably realizes she believes Korea is one country, and many other gaffs follow. But, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, this is common knowledge.

Game Change makes a mistake by editing too many snippets of real-life interviews and other news media moments. This detracts from the dramatization that is the intention and makes me wonder why a solid documentary wasn’t made instead.

Jay Roach, who directs Game Change, revels in close-ups, especially of Palin, perhaps as a nod to her being thrust onto every television station in the United States. Danny Strong screen writes the project. The duo sets up the predictable situations nicely. Palin’s disagreements with McCain, the woman clearly not his choice. For reference, he wanted Joe Lieberman, a moderate from Connecticut who was considered “boring”.

Let’s give the most credit to Moore. The actress doesn’t exactly embody Palin. She is more like a dressed-up impersonator, hardly Charlize Theron flawlessly playing Aileen Wuornos. But what she does do is successfully make the audience care about her and feel sorry for her. Palin had no idea what she was in store for, nor knew what she signed up for. Moore portrays the emotions well.

Moore carries the film. Palin became a source of venom and mockery after her embarrassing interview with Katie Couric in which she was unable to name any magazines. She quickly became the whipping girl rather than the ‘it” girl.

The message is competent without feeling preachy or overpowering, but there is something a bit dull about Game Change. Schmidt and Nicole Wallace chose Palin, making the enormous mistake of knowing very little about the woman.

Game Change (2012) is recommended for those who want to be entertained or who desire a history lesson without seeing the real people. I still think a documentary would have worked better.

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Director-Michael Moore

Starring-Michael Moore

Scott’s Review #1,093

Reviewed December 22, 2020

Grade: B

Reviewing a political documentary about a president considered incompetent pre-Donald Trump is a tough task. Can anyone rival Trump’s incompetence? In the United States circa 2016 the proverbial shit hit the fan as no other controversial figure had ever set foot in the White House. Let’s hope that’s as bad as it gets.

To watch a documentary that ridicules George W. Bush knowing what we now know with the widespread notion that we would love Bush back in office makes Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by liberal film maker Michael Monroe, dated and rather superfluous. It’s still a good watch, but it was better in 2004.

But ever the professional, I will soldier on and review this documentary with gusto and try to remember the time it was made and the issue at hand.  The United States was a tragic war zone in 2001. I am salivating at the thought of a Moore helmed follow-up documentary about Donald Trump, considered the worst United States president of all time. In a clever play on titles, Moore would release Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018, and unleash a documentary tirade on the 45th president, but only at half-way through his term.

Released only half-way through Bush’s reign, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) focuses on the devastating events of 9/11, hence the title, while questioning the how’s and why’s Bush found himself in office. The main point is how he bungled the response to 9/11 and his selfish and inept focus on Afghanistan and Iraq. The documentary is a good piece of work and a history lesson.

To elicit controversy, and it did, Moore bravely and brazenly calls out the reasons why the United States was the target for terrorism. The events leading up to the gruesome day are chronicled, with bombast and humor, sure to provoke debate among viewers not aligned politically. But, Moore’s documentary is not a debate. It’s a one-sided attack on Bush. Anyone with a firm “United States is the greatest country in the world” will not like the experience, and Moore knows this, teetering carefully around mockery.

The cover art is brilliant, featuring a sly Michael Moore holding hands with a goofy looking Bush, a shit eating grin on his face. This implies that Bush was carried along throughout his term and helped to win the presidency. The title in bold red emergency letters amid the White House background tells you all you need to know about the tone of the documentary. Republicans will despise the work.

Helpful to the documentary is that Moore narrates it, adding a good dose of sarcasm and wit to the myriad of verbal insults he hurls at the former president. If one isn’t familiar with Moore, his hoodie and baseball cap look and garish Michigan accent cements his “regular Joe” persona, though he is intelligent beyond belief.

Moore’s commentary isn’t only a way to smack Bush upside the head, but there is substance here. He angrily points out the interminable amount of time it took Bush to abort story time on 9/11 and drag his ass to a camera and microphone to address the startled nation.

The point of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to label Bush as a dangerous and flawed president and describe why. The motivation is clear- it’s an attack on Bush pure and simple. But it’s hardly sour grapes or dark and dreary. Moore instills humor and an exposé on the multitude of gaffs Bush made and adds appearances by Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice. Should he be the president? Hell no! This comedy makes the fact that he was easier to absorb.

At just over two hours running time the documentary feels slightly long. I got the point of it quickly enough and had my fill around the ninety-minute mark- the ideal length for this genre. The rest feels like overkill and redundant, though I get Moore’s point of hammering home the necessary discussion points.

I’m not sure Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) needs more than one viewing to absorb its point. It’s a well-made documentary obviously slanted to Moore’s political leanings. But, the points made are relevant and thoughtful and factual. For a tribute to the World Trade Center attacks this is not a good reason to watch. For a proper dissection of why they occurred and where the United States goes from here (in 2004 anyway), the documentary is a solid watch.

East of Eden-1955

East of Eden-1955

Director-Elia Kazan 

Starring-James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet

Scott’s Review #1,092

Reviewed December 17, 2020

Grade: A

James Dean wasn’t with us for very long, tragically dying at the tender age of twenty-four, but he made three films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and East of Eden (1955), all powerful showcases and unique. In each, Dean gives a brilliant, humanistic, and sometimes tragic performance. East of Eden, his first film, is the only one he got to preview. I hope he liked it, because it will live on forever as a gem.

Based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, the story is also a biblical retelling of Cain and Abel, brothers who clash and spar. Director, Elia Kazan, famous for supporting and using Method actors in his films, was able to get a tremendous performance out of Dean, which was key to the empathetic nature of the film. The key to East of Eden is that it reflects on several characters, who are both good and bad, possessing qualities of each, detailing their struggles.

Nobody is completely good or completely bad. The story is an analysis of good versus evil and the multitude of layers that exist in between both extremes. It’s complicated, which makes the experience juicy, truthful, and brilliant.

Set during World War I, around 1917, two sunny coastal California towns are the backdrop for the action, Cal Trask (Dean) perceives his father, farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) as favoring Cal’s brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), which leads to much resentment, jealousy, and conflict. Aron is the apple in Adam’s eye, and we wonder why?

Furthering the drama is that Cal is in love with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris) who doesn’t rebuff any advances. Cal and Aron’s mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), who they think is dead, is alive and well and running a brothel in a nearby town. Assuming a different name, she harbors secrets.

Before you get the impression this is some cheesy form of soap opera, East of Eden, like the novel, is heavily character driven and nuanced with development. It completely draws the audience in and envelopes one around the simmering qualities of everyone.

East of Eden is packed with powerful scene after powerful scene and in more than one the allegiances and rooting values shift from character to character. Some of the best are when Cal self-destructs following his father’s refusal of his birthday gift, or when Cal cruelly exhibits the true nature of their mother’s vocation to the innocent and unsuspecting Aron. Finally, Cal and Abra’s kiss atop a Ferris wheel is filled with both smoldering desire and deadly consequences.

The acting tremendous across the board, much of the thanks must go to Kazan for being able to pull the fabulous performances out of the players- a talent only a Method acting director can achieve. While the entire cast is exceptional, the film belongs to Dean, who provides enough emotion and vulnerability to sustain his character’s topsy-turvy and tortured existence. Knowing that the actor died soon after filming gives an eerie and sentimental feeling. This is comparable to a more modern-day example, when Heath Ledger died after giving a brilliant performance in The Dark Knight (2008).

This is hardly a war film or a guy’s film, as the ladies get to shine with rich characters too. Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet portray flawed characters in juicy roles rife with meaty scenes filled with conflict.

As with most of Steinbeck’s works, specifically The Grapes of Wrath, the landscape is a character and East of Eden is no exception. With dusty roads and mountainous backgrounds, events ooze with atmosphere and beauty. The lush northern, coastal, California landscape portrays a grandiose magnificence that counterbalances the conflict its human beings are dealing with.

The major note to take away from East of Eden (1955) is that we are complex creatures with a mixture of good and bad. We sometimes want to do the right thing but end up hurting those we love. The main characters suffer from pain, regret, good intentions, poor decisions, and loss. The rich dialogue, adaptation, acting, and cinematography make the film near perfection.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-Elia Kazan, Best Actor-James Dean, Best Supporting Actress-Jo Van Fleet (won), Best Screenplay

Dances with Wolves-1990

Dances with Wolves-1990

Director-Kevin Costner

Starring-Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Scott’s Review #1,091

Reviewed December 14, 2020

Grade: A

A western epic of grand proportions, Dances with Wolves (1990) is a quiet, yet bombastic story of one man’s yearning to understand and appreciate a different culture. The liberal leaning story is of dire importance in American history, which is my main love of it. This project matters and it has sincerity and truth. The content and the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography make this a must-see on the big screen for full appreciation. Sort of like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), western style.

The lovely musical score is well-paced and simply gorgeous, only enhancing the experience and appreciation of the film.

The directorial debut of a then inexperienced and up-and-coming star, Kevin Costner, the success catapulted him into the big leagues, garnering tremendous respect among the Hollywood community. He also produced the film and used his own money when budget ran over. The accolades were justified, leading him to become an A-list star. He never achieved anything comparable to Dances with Wolves again.

The time is 1863, the United States embroiled in the Civil War. Union soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), depressed and suicidal, is injured in battle and receives a hero’s praise. He requests to be transferred to the western frontier, where he lives in solitude. He slowly befriends the local Sioux tribe and eventually becomes an honorary member, falling in love with a white woman, Stands with a Fist, (Mary McDonnell), who was raised by the tribe. They name him Dances with Wolves. Chaos erupts when the Union Army arrives to snatch the land at any cost.

Never the greatest actor in the world, but certainly competent, this is the role of a lifetime for Costner. That Dances with Wolves is Costner’s project is crucial. He had a vision and saw that vision to fulfillment. To my knowledge, the studio didn’t interfere and strive for control, but gave Costner the freedom to do whatever he wanted. It shows in the final product.

The romance between Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist is tender, alive, and without standard obstacles. No silly misunderstandings or drama. Theirs doesn’t need any trimmings. The chemistry between Costner and McDonnell is strong. At over three hours in length, the film has time to carefully pace these brilliant moments.

The film is clearly a political vehicle to teach the audience of the ravages and unfairness that Native Americans suffered at the hands of the White Man, and that is huge. Too often the issue is skimmed over or diminished in school textbooks so it’s nice to see the truth given its due. Dances with Wolves serves as an educational tool and no happy ending is provided. How great would it be if the film were shown in high schools and colleges around the United States?

I love how the film, a western, avoids the stereotypes always included in that genre. There are no good guys wearing white or bad guys wearing black, no shoot ’em ups at local saloons, and no cowboys to save the day. Dances with Wolves provides a character study with pivotal thoughts and motivations from the three central characters. Graham Greene must be mentioned as an integral part of the supporting cast. His authenticity is illuminating.

Over the years Dances with Wolves (1990) doesn’t hold up as well as other films- Silence of the Lambs (1990) and Goodfellas (1991) are legendary contemporaries that everyone remembers better. Dances may suffer from an “of its time” label, justifiably so, but the film is a masterpiece. Recommended is to dust this one off and give it a whirl, if even for old time’s sake.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Kevin Costner (won), Best Actor-Kevin Costner, Best Supporting Actor-Graham Greene, Best Supporting Actress-Mary McDonnell, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

Calendar Girls-2003

Calendar Girls-2003

Director-Nigel Cole

Starring-Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton

Scott’s Review #1,090

Reviewed December 11, 2020

Grade: B+

A clever female version of The Full Monty (1997), the middle-aged bordering on senior citizen characters, nudity comparisons notwithstanding, Calendar Girls (2003) has standard similarities. The film is a light-hearted affair, charming and fun with positive and inspiring messages about friendship and helping with cancer research. How can a film like this not bring a smile to the viewers face? It did to mine.

That said, it’s hardly high drama or material that requires much thought or dissection. I’d wager to say you only need to see it once. There lies a situational or clichéd theme as the women face the standard and guessable awkward moments, but the film entertains in style.

Calendar Girls is based on a true story adding merit, appreciation, and an endearing quality. It’s a feel-good film if there ever was one which is just fine in this case. The film was a box-office smash, and why not? It’s a comically robust experience.

A likable group of “women of a certain age” conspire to launch a calendar, baring their best assets for all to see. Before this sounds too scandalous or corny, the ladies do it for a good cause and not for any titillating pleasure. The women are British and, while attractive, are average looking gals with womanly figures. These tidbits lead to humorous and embarrassing situations as some of the women are more modest than others especially laid parallel to the conservative and crusty town that they live in. This leads to shocks among the prudish townspeople.

Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are best friends. When Annie’s husband dies of leukemia, they conjure up an idea of creating a nude calendar, where women pose while doing traditional duties like baking and knitting. The proceeds will go to research for the deadly disease. Unexpectedly, Chris and Annie, along with others from the Women’s Institute in which they are members of, achieve worldwide success even invited to Los Angeles to appear on television’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The women clash due to their success and differing lifestyle directions, before reconciling and deciding that their ordinary lives aren’t so bad. They happily resume their nice lives away from the spotlight.

The comparisons to The Full Monty must be mentioned because they are so obvious. Whereas the men in The Full Monty strip on stage, the women prefer more modesty, nestled behind calendars for safety, but both groups hail from the English countryside and are regular folk. Since nudity is the word of the day, both groups possess average bodies and are championing worthy causes. Like it or not, this setup produces giggles.

The “calendar girls” are a relatable group which is marketing genius and allows the film to achieve much merit. Who would care if a bunch of supermodels posed nude while baking cookies? No, the everywoman factor is sky-high, allowing the film to be appreciated and savored.

Because Mirren and Walters, two respected British actresses appear in Calendar Girls, there is an added respectability. After all, would either choose a project less than credible? The obvious answer is they make the film better than it might have been. Penelope Wilton does too. There is a classiness the ladies bring, so that we can sink into our theater seats and revel in the good-natured comedy, assuring ourselves we are seeing something of quality too.

Calendar Girls (2003) is so like The Full Monty that they ought to be watched back to back. Perhaps a naughty night in, with a bottle of wine and some cheese, ready to embark on delights and jolly laughs.

Back to School-1986

Back to School-1986

Director-Alan Metter

Starring-Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, Sally Kellerman

Scott’s Review #1,089

Reviewed December 7, 2020

Grade: B

Back to School (1986) is a formulaic, mid-1980’s comedy featuring obnoxiously loud funnyman, Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian you may love-to-hate. On paper, this film might have been a train wreck, but some proper pacing and good casting save it from being classified as drivel. Let’s be clear- it’s not great film making, but it serves a purpose- to amuse and delight.

Clearly, a vehicle for Dangerfield with a character mirroring his real personality, the film works. With a brisk one hour and thirty-six minutes, the film sticks to the script, not wasting time getting its point across, nor pretending to be some serious film with a clever message. No, there is little special or inventive about the film, but it’s light, entertaining fun.

The premise, a middle-aged man who returns to college and tries to persevere, is a setup rife with standard situations and comedic moments. Director, Alan Metter, known for gag films, this one his most notable, and big studio, Orion, take full advantage of the task at hand. They provide a mainstream, summer popcorn flick approach. Presumably, the story was conjured up by a group tasked with crafting an appropriate story for Dangerfield, and they succeed. The film delivers what it sets out to.

This might be a nice, nostalgic watch for parents and soon to be college-bound kids to watch together.

Thornton Melon (Dangerfield) is a wealthy corporate tycoon who wants his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) to get the college education that Thornton was unable to receive. While Jason is enrolled in college, he is unhappy and ready to quit. Thornton decides to enroll in the same college, determined to achieve his respect. Jason tries to fit in with his peers while Thornton falls in love with his literature professor, the sophisticated Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), while feuding with the college dean, David Martin (Ned Beatty).

Predictably, Thornton is hardly the college type, so he pays others to write his papers for him, which is all the fuel that the dean needs to ruin him. He also attends parties and raucous events, preferring these to study groups. Thornton is eventually found out and forced to pass an exam to prove himself.

A more straight-ahead approach would have been to make Thornton an unsuccessful man, making his need to return to school more important, and the desire for his son to obtain a college education more powerful, but this might have made Back to School too serious a film.

We can ponder why Thornton joining Jason in college will do anything but alienate the kid, and we can ask ourselves why Jason is bullied by the swim team. He is a nice, likeable kid and students aren’t typically bullied in college- this is more a junior high or high school torture. There’s also little reason Diane would have romantic interest in Thornton, and clichéd characters like the dean and Thornton’s bitchy ex-wife, Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) surface along the way. But, Back to School isn’t a film to be overanalyzed either.

On the positive side, the chemistry between Dangerfield and Kellerman is a nice addition, not feeling forced like it might have. They flow through their scenes with a light-hearted innocence. The father and son relationship is a success. Gordon’s brooding counterbalances Dangerfield’s over-the-top nature, so they possess differing personalities.

I’m not sure Back to School (1986) has the legs to be remembered very well. Too similar to other successful comedies of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s like Porky’s (1981) or Animal House (1978) to stand out, the film is for fans of Dangerfield only. Perhaps served up as an opening act to the better and much funnier Caddyshack (1980), one of the best genre films of the decade.

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Sammy Leakey

Scott’s Review #1,088

Reviewed December 5, 2020

Grade: B+

Gretel & Hansel (2020) is not a film with a plot that makes complete sense, but in this instance that’s okay, making the experience creepier by the wonderful trimmings provided. A horror film released in the month of January has the cards stacked against it- most studios use quarter one as a dumping ground for films with little box-office hope or much fanfare. Predictably, the film flopped, but it’s a diamond in the rough.

For fans of horror post 2010, this film immediately reminded me of The Witch, the 2015 independent film, and the directorial debut by director and screenwriter Robert Eggers. The slow pacing and assumed seventeenth century remote village setting is an instant comparison. The dark sets and candle lit scenes grabbed me in their startlingly good ambience.

With exceptional cinematography, eerie lighting and the obvious Brothers Grimm fairy tale theme, always a plus in horror, who cares if the t’s are all crossed. The elements supersede the story, though with a witch and two children at play I was immediately hooked. The follow through is crooked and confusing, not the wrapped up in a bow variety. Expect to be perplexed by the ending.

We are provided a quick story of a little girl wearing a pink dress who frightens the village with her special powers. Because she nearly died as a baby and was taken to an enchantress who saved her life, she is odd. She makes her father commit suicide and causes other deaths, so she is taken to the middle of the forest to fend for herself or starve. She manages to find her own way and makes other children die. Pay close attention because this story will tie into the end of the film.

In present times we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sam Leakey). Gretel is sixteen years old while Hansel is eight. Their mother goes mad and they are forced to provide for themselves as they hit the road. Gretel is both drawn to and fascinated by the story of the girl in the pink dress. They eventually stumble upon a cabin with tons of lovely food, which they hungrily devour. A mysterious woman named Holda/The Witch (Alice Krige) takes them in, but is there a price the children must pay for the riches they enjoy?

Unclear is where the film is set. Is it Germany, where the folklore is derived? Is it supposed to be in the United States? The actors have American accents. It was shot in Ireland, but this hardly matters. It’s a village and a forest in an anywhere land though I fantasized the setting was a northern country like Norway or Finland. Maybe the ambiguity is a good thing.

I like how Gretel & Hansel has a feminist vibe and the perspective is from her point of view. That is why her character is older, hence the title. She is a coming-of-age teenager, so there is a more measured approach. Gretel even has a short pixie, almost boyish herself, giving the character a more modern look. This serves the film well adding an interesting take on the classic fairy tale.

There’s also a weird mommy theme played out in two different stories that end up connecting. Gretel and Hansel’s mother are psychotic while Holda is revealed to be a mother herself and harbors a deep secret about what she does with children who wonder into her house. Spoiler alert- it isn’t good.

The acting is very good especially on the part of Sophia Lillis as Gretel and Alice Krige as Holda. Lillis, an up and coming star after appearing in It (2017) and It: Chapter II (2019) is a talented commodity, while Krige gives Holda a ghastly and convincing persona. She is ambivalent and we mostly don’t know what to make of her, or what her intentions are. Lillis and Krige have delightful chemistry.

The cretins that the children meet along their journey to anywhere are worthy of any devilish story. A creepy gentleman who Gretel intends to cook and clean for to make money eyes her greedily and asks about her virginity. A bald wailing monster chases Gretel & Hansel but is shot by a stranger.

Anyone with a hankering for a good, old-fashioned, ghostly, gothic horror film, Gretel & Hansel (2020) is a recommended watch. The film has a hearty recipe of horror elements like eeriness, dark sets with illuminating lighting, and forbidding sequences in the forest featuring nice production design. It may leave you scratching your head but enjoy the ride.

Airplane!-1980

Airplane!-1980

Director-Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker

Starring-Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty

Scott’s Review #1,087

Reviewed December 2, 2020

Grade: A-

Airplane! (1980) is a landmark film in the spoof genre, leading the pack in the decade of silly (the 1980’s) where films of this ilk and dumb comedies in general became a dime a dozen oversaturating the market. While the film is unabashedly brainless with gags for miles, the jokes work, and the tasteless brand of humor provide plenty of belly laughs.

Better yet, Airplane! never ages, holding up incredibly well long after its initial release. It’s just perfect for a Saturday late-night watch, or when one needs cheering. It’s in my Top 10 of comedies.

When it was originally released, the timing was perfect to spoof the by then aging world of disaster films. I refuse to believe that Jim Abraham and the Zucker brothers had malcontent on their minds since they created a friendly and benevolent yarn that’s just perfectly timed. Good comedy is tough to find, but this film gets it right. The monotone dialogue said with straight faces is what makes the hysterics genuine and palpable.

Not unfairly, is to say that Airplane! is to disaster films what Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was to daytime soap operas. A celebration and a clever wink to each, infusing much needed light-hearted appreciations. It’s fun to re-watch Airport (1970) and Airport ’75 with fresh eyes and a new perspective in parallel to this film.

Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is an ex-fighter pilot traumatized by the war, now working as a taxi driver. He is now terrified of flying despite his previous occupation, His girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Haggerty), conveniently a flight attendant, dumps him just prior to her flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Naturally, Ted throws caution to the wind and boards the flight in hopes of reconciling.

When several of the passengers and flight crew succumb to food poisoning, an inflatable named Otto must steer the plane towards Chicago. The crew convinces Ted to muster up the courage to safely land the plane because Otto cannot do it and subsequently conquer his fear of flying. A perilous yet comical landing ensues, and Ted and Elaine happily reunite.

The plot is a direct steal from Airport ’75 when poor Karen Black’s flight attendant character famously is instructed how to land the aircraft. Until, in sexist fashion, the men arrive to take control, sending her back to serve coffee. This is intentional and spot-on to show the ridiculous nature of that plot point.

The gags are legendary, the “Surely you can’t be serious”, “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” exchange the most famous one, always providing a laugh. The effortless dialogue as inane as it is somehow works exceptionally well and combines brilliantly with the pacing and delivery. It’s like a long and wonderful episode of television’s Saturday Night Live.

The chemistry between Ted and Elaine is very strong, making the audience root for their eventual reconciliation though it’s obvious they will ride off into the proverbial sunset together. Actors, Hays and Hagerty deserve tremendous praise for aligning the characters so well. Also of note, are the efforts of Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves as Doctor Rumack and Captain Oveur, respectively. Nielsen would subsequently become famous for spoof films, none of them as good as Airplane!

I’ll never profess to be a slapstick person, but Airplane! (1980) is one that I embrace, undoubtedly because of my love for disaster films and fondness for airplanes. Advisable is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the zany ride that this satirical and very funny film offers.

Cats-2019

Cats-2019

Director-Tom Hooper

Starring-Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson

Scott’s Review #1,086

Reviewed November 27, 2020

Grade: C

Branded with the pesky “one of the worst film’s of all time” title, the 2019 rendition of Cats, made famous by the 1981 Broadway show, has also been met with “it’s so bad it’s bad” jokes and snickers at its mere mention. While it’s not quite abysmal as a total package, the derision is justified mostly because the cat characters look beyond strange. The studio scrambled the film into theaters just in the nick of time so it would receive Oscar consideration. It backfired and the film received no nominations.

Unsurprisingly, Cats was a box-office disaster.

I’m going to defend Cats…..slightly. Sometimes a film with so much promise and possibility become like the poor kid on the school playground; bullied because somebody must be the outcast. It’s not fair, but there it is.

Having never seen the Broadway musical despite living just outside of New York City my entire life and the show running for forever, the premise seems silly enough. A band of singing felines spend one memorable night in a London junkyard belting out musical numbers as they look forward to an upcoming ball, and take a young, abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) under their wing.

Many characters (all cats) are introduced at various periods of time through song. Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) and Asparagus (Ian McKellen) are the senior members, providing wisdom and stoicism. Idris Elba plays the mischievous Macavity, while Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, the outcast cat once a legend at the theater, but now in tatters. Finally, Rebel Wilson and James Corden provide comic relief as Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, respectively.

The unwieldly cast featuring more than a handful of respected Hollywood legends and A-list stars leads me to believe that the studio and film makers had high hopes for the project. At a budget of 100 million, expectations were high, but things quickly went south. Respected director, Tom Hooper, well-known for churning out the powerful The King’s Speech (2010) and Les Misérables (2012) was awarded the embarrassing Golden Raspberry awards for Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. Yikes!

Okay, the art direction and the set design are fantastic and the high point of the film. Once I was quickly over the plot, garish costumes, and weird choreography, I immersed myself in the look and the production values, thankful that someone did their job correctly.

The colors are glossy and bright, giving a shimmering, lush tone that dazzled me. The London backdrop is magnificent, and many scenes provide glimpses of Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and other lovely landmarks. The rundown theater set is a highlight and adds murky and dusty atmosphere, creatively done.

The songs start out shaky, but quickly escalate into respectability and even grandiose pizazz. Teetering too long in the first act with a seemingly never ending “Overture” and “The Naming of Cats”, the film finally evens out with the best numbers in the production. The gorgeous and powerful “Memory” introduces the wonderful “Beautiful Ghosts” and fortunately are reprised later. Hudson nearly deserves a second Oscar for her haunting rendition of “Memory” while Hayward does well with “Beautiful Ghosts”.

That’s where the positives end.

Stalwarts, Dench, McKellen, Hudson, and newcomer Hayward perform their parts with dignity and refined professionalism, but it’s hard not to giggle anytime they are onscreen. Not that this is their fault and hopefully they were spared watching dailies or attending the film premiere. At least they can console themselves with a hefty paycheck. Each looks beyond ridiculous in their costumes, looking like a cross between a human being in bad attire and a strange creature from another planet.

This is what happens when things are half done. Any attempts to re-release the film with “improved effects” seem desperate and unprofessional.

The problem is not only that the actors look funny, but that it distracts from any other real enjoyment because a viewer will need to talk about the costumes above and beyond any other aspects. Each character looks awkward and uncomfortable with misused CGI and weird creeping, crawling, and prancing around the stage…..or in this case film set.

Besides the two awesome musical numbers, Cats feels watered down and not about anything specific, lacking any deeper meaning I picked up on. At the end of the day, it’s merely about a bunch of cats singing songs, occasionally hissing or swatting at each other for effect.

Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved stage musical will take time to recover from the film version of Cats (2019). Advisable is to watch the film once to experience and elicit a reaction, then put the film away in a secure box forever and pretend it never happened.

Air Force One-1997

Air Force One-1997

Director-Wolfgang Petersen

Starring-Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close

Scott’s Review #1,085

Reviewed November 21, 2020

Grade: B+

If ever a straight-ahead, summer blockbuster, popcorn flick ever existed, Air Force One (1997) is it. Surprisingly, this is not a bad thing. It’s not cerebral, but it’s never dull. The film has hooks and muscle, and assembles a thrill ride, edge-of-your-seat action fest. Some would say this is just what the doctor ordered, and they’d be right, provided the mood is for a mind escaping, meat and potatoes affair.

Air Force One is pure Americana. With a patriotic musical score and a clear hero and villain, it’s easy to know who to root for. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory since some scenes are as implausible as Santa Claus really shimmying down a chimney on Christmas Eve, but the film is entertaining and fun. The action is non-stop.

At the tail end of his prime action star years (the 1980’s and 1990’s), Harrison Ford stars as the president of the United States of America, James Marshall. After making a bombastic speech in Moscow vowing never to negotiate with terrorists, a group of them led by the dastardly Ivan (Gary Oldman) hijack Air Force One with the president and his family on board. Marshall, a former soldier, hides in the cabin of the plane and races against time to save his family and those aboard the flight from the terrorists.

The plot is implausible and hokey and reeks of plot points to carry the story along, but surprisingly, the film works. There is no way a president would ever race around performing stunts aboard an airplane, conquering the villains like clockwork. But Ford has the charisma to make us believe it could happen, and his character is a family man, a Vietnam veteran, and a Medal of Honor recipient. Can this guy be any more perfect?

Oldman, always reliable as a villain, is perfectly cast. His character’s motivations are simplistic and nationalistic. Ivan believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union has ruined his country and somehow it’s the fault of the United States. The reasoning is silly, but it’s in keeping with the patriotic nature of Air Force One- the us versus them mentality. United States is good; Russia is bad. It’s what middle America wants, and the target audience of this film is clear. Back to the Cold War.

Wolfgang Petersen, who directs the picture, knows his way around the action genre. After all, he crafted the memorable Das Boot (1981) and Outbreak (1995). The film has a Tom Clancy-Patriot Games meets Die Hard (1988) style. Petersen meshes the score with the quick editing style to layer the film with more action than slowed down conversational scenes. We know how it’s going to end but enjoy the ride.

Looking closely, the film is not just for the guys. Glenn Close is cast as a female Vice President and a strong gender twisting presence. Kathryn Bennett is a bold, careful woman and the implication is that she is more than capable of taking over should anything happen to the president. Her scenes mostly take place in the White House Situation Room and provide a nice calm as she is pressured by Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) to declare the president incapable. The scenes between Stockwell and Close are very strong.

Air Force One (1997) is cliché-riddled and mainstream Hollywood creation to the max. Both the pacing and the pulsating style make the film a guilty pleasure and is quite enjoyable. When the mood strikes to kick back and relax with a fun, action-packed affair, this one is your choice. Just don’t dissect the details too much or expect real-life to mimic art.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound, Best Film Editing

Psychomania-1973

Psychomania-1973

Director-Don Sharp

Starring-Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, George Sanders

Scott’s Review #1,084

Reviewed November 19, 2020

Grade: B-

Psychomania (1973) is a film that has an intriguing premise turned messy and confusing by aspects not coming together. A motorcycle gang wreaking havoc on their English small town decides to kill themselves and come back from the dead to live forever. They intend to do so with the aid of witchcraft and a sinister cult. Unfortunately, neither the gang come back to everlasting life nor does the premise provide an adequate pay off. The film meanders along without much intrigue or interest except for an above average finale. But even that is too little, too late.

Renowned film and television actor, George Sanders, famous for powerful roles in classics like Rebecca (1940) and All About Eve (1950), in which he won an Academy Award, and numerous other roles, co-stars as a butler.

His role in Psychomania is barely more than a throwaway part since he has little of interest to do. Hardly the crowning achievement of his long career, he committed suicide soon after shooting wrapped. Star, Nicky Henson joked that Sanders saw the finished film and overdosed on pills, realizing how far his career had descended. Hopefully, that’s urban legend.

Beryl Reid, wonderfully bitchy in The Killing of Sister George (1968) as a lesbian soap opera star is similarly downgraded, playing a glamorous matron who gets her kicks by holding seances for her neighbors. She is the mother of the psychopathic leader of a violent teen gang.

Tom Latham (Henson) is the handsome leader of “The Living Dead”, said motorcycle gang, who enjoy driving around town intimidating folks. He is joined by his pretty girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), who is good natured and not as rebellious as the others. Tom has time to flirt with other girls and uses his good looks to his advantage. He is in cahoots with his mother (Reid), and they have a penchant for frogs and black magic.

The gang decides, through Tom’s encouragement, to each commit suicide and if they really believe in it, they will return as one of the “undead”. Each follows suit, except for Abby, and engage in ritualistic activities at their hangout, “The Seven Witches”, which is a poor man’s Stonehenge. They decide to kill Abby because of her defiance.

The DVD quality (mine anyway) was atrocious and did the film no favors. My enjoyment would have increased if the luscious English landscape and its vibrant colors could have been capitalized on. Mrs. Latham’s home, filled with creative antiques and oddities, would have been enhanced with better quality.

The story never comes together. I like the main character of Tom and find his sneering and posturing appealing in a light-hearted way. Henson is way too good-looking to be believable as a foreboding and crazy guy, but he sure is easy on the eyes. No chemistry is to be found between him and Larkin, but they are cast well for this type of film- looks over acting talent. Neither is terrible in the acting department, nor great either.

The supporting characters look very British and of the 1970’s, which is to be expected. This isn’t an annoyance as much as an astute observance. From the doctors who perform the autopsies to the constables, to the chief inspector, everyone looks their part. Psychomania has a 1970’s look and feel, so it ultimately feels like a dated film because there is not much else to distinguish it from others. It’s adequate, but little more.

On the positive, some of the music is chirpy and hip, which adds a bit of an upbeat, contemporary vibe. The numerous motorcycle scenes make me wonder if a motorcycle company has stock in the film, but surprisingly work.

The film, targeted as a horror film, is a strange one to categorize. The cult and witchcraft elements give off that vibe. The title of Psychomania (1973) creates a motorcycle/horror affect. I’m not sure what to make of this film other than a sleazy, greasy, devil-worshipping mess. Poor Don Sharp, well-known for directing many Hammer horror films, seems not to know what to do with the silly script he is handed. It’s goofy comedy or straight-ahead horror?

Horror of Dracula-1958

Horror of Dracula-1958

Director-Terence Fisher

Starring-Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee

Scott’s Review #1,083

Reviewed November 17, 2020

Grade: B+

The first colorized retelling of the classic vampire film starring Bela Lugosi from 1931, Horror of Dracula (1958) infuses style and a modern feel into the production making it a formidable entry as compared to the original. The film launched the popular and delightful British Hammer Horror film series, which included eight Dracula sequels.

British horror films nearly always add macabre elements and a British sophistication that merge class with gothic, and the film is a perfect late-night watch during the Halloween season for maximum effect. The atmospheric tone is key and will leave horror fans in bliss. The addition of horror stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee only increase the pleasures.

On a gloomy night in 1885, a librarian named Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Count Dracula’s castle in Romania to begin his new assignment. Secretly a vampire hunter, he is bitten by a desperate woman, really a vampire, begging for help. Jonathan manages to kill the woman but is then killed by Dracula (Lee). Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing) arrives at the castle to investigate, but Dracula already has designs on Jonathan’s fiancée, Lucy (Carol Marsh). A battle of good versus evil ensues.

Lee brings a sexuality to Dracula that Lugosi lacks, though Lugosi is the creepier of the two. I love the close-up scenes where Dracula bares his enormous fangs and his eyes turn red in good close-up style. The casting of Lee is perfect as he becomes identifiable even in the first installment. I also love how Lee is a tall man, giving the character a menacing, foreboding, distinguished look. Many might secretly welcome him nibbling on their necks!

Cushing, later to be cast as villains, is wonderful as the empathetic Van Helsing. Lee and Cushing play well against each other. Van Helsing is stoic and confident as he smoothly leads the charge against Dracula and guides Jonathan’s loved ones into unchartered and unimaginable territory. It’s almost as if he has been through this before. A great scene occurs when Van Helsing arrives in town for a brandy and a drink at the local pub, it’s inhabitants suspicious and frightened, draping garlic over the entry way and hoping he will leave soon.

The best part of House of Dracula is the atmosphere that we are treated to and the color really razzle dazzles. The story is very good, but the texture powerfully shines through. Careful not to be too showy, director Terence Fisher, soon to be a Hammer horror main fixture, uses his limited budget to his advantage in clever form.

Fisher realized his project was a colorized version and created a polished looking, colorful, stained glass window, prevalent in several scenes. Dracula’s castle, and especially the bedroom where Jonathan stayed, is part cozy and homespun, part gothic and chilling. The cellar crypt is equally vast yet confining, as the open coffins provide wonders of who lies in them. The plethora of books illicit a cerebral feeling.

The finale is well done, but not as spectacular as expected. Other parts are better. Van Helsing chases Dracula in a race against sunrise, ripping curtains down to provide harsh light, and turning Dracula to dust. I was expecting a little more gusto and more blood or a good stake through the heart. Fortunately, that entertainment was provided earlier in the film.

Shamefully, having never read the 1897 Gothic horror novel written by Bram Stroker (it’s on my list!), my understanding is that the film is pretty on target. The film bestows creepy elements and a sexuality with great color, lighting, and set design. Lesson learned is that a hefty budget and CGI can’t replicate creative design and good effects.

Corpus Christi-2019

Corpus Christi-2019

Director-Jan Komasa

Starring-Bartosz Bielenia

Scott’s Review #1,082

Reviewed November 14, 2020

Grade: A-

Questions of faith and redemption enshroud the powerful film, Corpus Christi (2019), directed by Jan Komasa, a Polish filmmaker. Many viewers will not possess the patience to get through the slow pace of the film, but I’ve seen enough of these quiet films to know that the payoff is usually worth the time invested. I was right and there is a prize to be awarded at the end of the film while gradually sucking the viewer in along the way.

Komasa creates some beautiful camera work and shows what life is like in a small Polish village, but the culminating story and its afterthought is the main attraction. I imagined myself living in this sleepy village where church and religion are the main highlights, while scandal and gossip seep below the surface. The church where some of the action takes place is stunningly beautiful.

Juvenile delinquent, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) resides in a Warsaw detention center, serving time for second-degree murder. He has bonded with the resident priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), and spiritually awakened, determined to become a priest himself. He is disappointed to learn this is an impossibility because of his conviction. Released and sent to work doing manual labor in a sawmill, Daniel stops in the village church to pray and pretends to be a priest. Assuming he is a real priest, the local priest asks him to temporarily fill in for him, which he eagerly does.

The main ingredient of the story is the plight of Daniel and his yearning for redemption, and this is wise on the part of the screenwriter (Mateusz Pacewicz). In a more conventional story, Daniel might pretend to be a priest to avoid capture or a redundant existence at the sawmill. Instead, Daniel desires to be a priest and he wants to do right by the parishioners who warm to his overt and unconventional style. He is seen as a leader and a moral compass, and Daniel adores and needs that.

Others side stories emerge to compliment the main story and flesh out the happenings even more. This gives supporting characters more to do than merely support Daniel’s story. This is a refreshing choice and makes it more of an ensemble piece.

A recent car wreck has devastated the village, angering the inhabitants. The driver, reportedly a drunk, killed several teenagers and himself in the crash. His widow bears the rage of the villagers, receiving hate letters and nasty notes written on her house. Marta (Eliza Rycembel), whose brother died in the accident, sympathizes with the widow and wants the driver to be buried alongside the other victims, but everyone else refuses.

Marta’s mother, a religious woman, is conflicted and devastated. The mayor supports the villagers in their anger, even going so far as threatening Daniel. A fellow inmate spots Daniel and blackmails him. Marta and Daniel begin an affair. There is so much going on with the different characters that the film could be turned into a miniseries. Despite the slow pace, I became fully enveloped in the lives of the villagers and began to care about other character’s conflict, not only Daniel’s.

Inevitably, questions will need to be answered. When will Daniel be found out? Who will rat him out or who will harbor his secret? What will happen to him if he is discovered? How will Marta react to the news? These questions constantly went through my mind as the plot unfolded which kept me wonderfully engaged.

Bielenia is fantastic in the lead role. The complexities of Daniel are seen during intense sequences when he abuses drugs, has tawdry sex, and bludgeons a fellow inmate during a bloody fight. He is not always the peaceful young man befitting of a priest. But that makes the character nuanced and complicated.

Corpus Christi is about conflict and character’s wrestling with their demons. It’s a character study. Marta, her mother, the widow, the priest at the youth detention center, and Daniel’s prison buddy, are all multi-dimensional. Each of the central character’s face a demon: regret, sorrow, conflict. This is what makes the film so intriguing.

The events unfold at a slow, but steady pace sure to enrapture the thinking man’s viewer. A similar American film would be Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring Ethan Hawke. Corpus Christi (2019) needs no explosions, CGI effects, bombs, or car chases to grip the viewer and provide a truthful story based on honest emotion.

Oscar Nominations: Best International Film

House of Wax-1953

House of Wax-1953

Director-Andre De Toth

Starring-Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk

Scott’s Review #1,081

Reviewed November 13, 2020

Grade: B+

House of Wax (1953) is a classic horror film that should be watched by anyone with a fondness for the genre as the macabre elements make it a must-see. Be sure to watch the 1953 version and not the mediocre 2005 remake that starred Paris Hilton with a severely changed storyline. Interestingly, the 1950’s version is a remake of a 1933 film named Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I was not aware of until recently. Pre-code 1930’s horror is brilliant, so I cannot wait to watch this offering soon.

The production has the honor of being the first color 3-D film released by a major film studio and the result is stylish and impressive for that early in cinema. If this isn’t enough, the incomparable Vincent Price also has the starring role. With these riches one could anticipate a masterpiece like Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933). It’s not quite on that level with a B-movie vibe, but rises immensely in respectability with exquisite human art, a chilling premise, and a lesson in historical figures of long ago. The film is a very short eighty-eight minutes.

The haunting and atmospheric opening titles, to immediately showcase the 3-D, appear in the first shot, alongside a rainy and dreary New York City set. The time is the early 1900’s. Director, Andre De Toth makes clear to his audience that it’s a 3-D film with the bold title leaping out of the screen within seconds. This sets the tone perfectly as the illustrious wax museum set is up next. Wax creations like Marie Antoinette, John Wilkes Booth, and Joan of Arc pose in the vast gallery.

Henry Jarrod (Price) is a Professor who views his creations as his children, each unique and human-like to him. Marie is his ultimate masterpiece and one wonders if she is his fantasy wife. His business partner, Burke (Roy Roberts) wants out of their partnership and goes to drastic measures to gain insurance money. He sets fire to the museum which burns to the ground, horribly disfiguring Henry. The Professor goes off the deep end and rebuilds the museum using real human beings that he steals from the morgue! The Frankenstein influence is obvious.

Other than Price, the star of the film is the wax museum, almost a character, but never upstages Price. Henry is both sympathetic and menacing, and I felt sorry for the guy. Not only is his house of wax destroyed, but he has a disfigured face for life. His insurance policy benefit is of little comfort, nor is killing the man responsible for his misfortune.

I guess we are supposed to root for Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) and Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni), who are the main couple and attempt to solve the mystery of why the wax figures look like dead people they know. They are not the strongest element of the film, though. Like other famous horror villains Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, Henry is appealing, and we like him.

I would have liked to learn more about Henry before his ruination. Besides a brief tour of his museum, where he cleverly describes each work, we don’t know much about his life. He is creepy, but what else? Has he ever married? What are his parents like?

Charles Bronson and Carolyn Jones have small roles as Henry’s mute assistant Igor and Burke’s gold-digging girlfriend, Cathy, respectively. This is fun since both went on to legendary careers in film and television.

A must-see for anyone studying cinematic technique or good horror trimmings, House of Wax (1953) contains state-of-the-art effects for the time, luminating gas lit streets of New York City, and a finale that includes a boiling hot vat of molten wax (what else!) that clearly inspired a James Bond film. These facets are nice, but any horror film starring Vincent Price is worth the price of admission.

The Nightcomers-1972

The Nightcomers-1972

Director-Michael Winner

Starring-Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham

Scott’s Review #1,080

Reviewed November 11, 2020

Grade: B-

The Nightcomers (1972) is a disappointing prequel to Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which had already been adapted into the 1961 film The Innocents. The dreadful title is neither catchy nor means anything specific to the film. The lackluster and unmemorable result is jarring given the masterpiece that is The Innocents. Unclear is whether the intention was to build on the film or directly base it on the novella forgetting The Innocents. Not worth the effort is to ruminate over the answer.

The most interesting, and strange, comparison is that the film was released the same year as The Godfather (1972), in which the iconic role of Vito Corleone, the mafia head of household, and arguably the best role of Marlon Brando’s career, was created. Mirrored against his role as a bizarre gardener named Peter Quint, with a broken Irish accent, one can guess why one role is memorable and why the other isn’t.

Flora (Verna Harvey) and Miles (Christopher Ellis) are recently orphaned children living in a vast English estate. Their absent guardian pays for the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird) and governess, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) to keep things running smoothly. Jessel and Peter embark on a torrid and sometimes abusive relationship that the children witness and emulate through play acting. Flora and Miles suffer from isolation and must use their imaginations to make the best of their idle days.

Watching in sequence with The Innocents is not encouraged. The Nightcomers is best served as a stand-alone product. The events and continuity are muddy and will confuse the most astute viewer. Flora is much older than she is in The Innocents even though the action takes place before those events. The characters being played by different actors doesn’t help. Finally, The Nightcomers contains none of the ghostly mystique and spookiness that The Innocents does. So, advisable is to watch putting The Innocents out of mind.

Admittedly, events do come together in the final act and the best part of the film. When two simultaneous deaths occur, they are quite shocking and powerfully filmed. I felt more emotionally invested during the final ten-minute sequence then I had for the rest of the film.

Brando has one emotional scene worthy of his talents. Given the actor’s powerful chops, he can make any scene believable, but this is cream of the crop material. Stephanie Beacham is an okay casting choice, but I never felt the chemistry or connection between Jessel and Quint. Their relationship didn’t work for me. Suspension of disbelief is required to power through a scene where a character drowns in what looks like two feet of water, making the scene lose some power.

Harvey and Ellis as the children are okay but nothing spectacular. I am jaded to compare again to The Innocents, but those actors are just better and more haunting, especially the character of Miles. The subject of mental illness and the questioning of reality versus imagination is not as explored in The Nightcomers.

The production is not a total dud, containing enough exterior elements of the plush and English landscape to please and make viewers feel they are on the country manor themselves. The interior scenes are just as good. The children gallop through the enormous house to their hearts delight making the viewer feel like a kid along with them.

The sado-masochistic scenes between Peter and Miss Jessel are quite titillating and border on the X-rated. During the bedroom scenes I nearly blushed from embarrassment. But, as erotic as they are they also don’t do much to further the plot or add to the story. They have a kinky sex life- so what? There is also a weird suggestion of incest since Flora and Miles imitate what Quint and Jessel do, how far would they take it? The plot has good possibility, but the film and the direction are not executed well, and things don’t come together.

If you’ve never heard of The Innocents (1961) then The Nightcomers (1972) is recommended. If viewing a cinematic masterpiece is desired, however, stick with the former and never look back.

House of Dark Shadows-1970

House of Dark Shadows-1970

Director-Dan Curtis

Starring-Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall

Scott’s Review #1,079

Reviewed November 9, 2020

Grade: B

House of Dark Shadows (1970) is undoubtedly meant mostly as a treat for fans of the popular gothic soap-opera, Dark Shadows, which aired on ABC television from 1966-1971. The soap was groundbreaking for its gloominess and its focus on the world of vampires, eliminating the tried and true apple pie wholesomeness of serials like As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. The film was an enormous hit with followers at the time of release and while it can be enjoyed by all, it screams of having a specific target audience in mind.

Released during the height of the television show popularity in 1970, it must have been enthralling to be the first feature film based on a daytime soap opera. And how exciting for fans to see their favorites on the silver screen. I tried to keep this in mind as I was watching, and it helped me enjoy it more. In later years I watched bits of season one, so some knowledge exists.

If memory serves, some of the action happens in the series and in the film (like Barnabas rising from his coffin), but that doesn’t seem important and served as more of a recap to me. The film is entertaining enough on its own merits in a spooky, atmospheric way, although besides more blood and chills, it follows the same formula that the series did.

Our star, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerges from his coffin in the family mausoleum much to the chagrin of the family handyman and introduces himself to the Collins family as a distant cousin from England. He has an uncanny resemblance to a figure on a portrait displayed in the estate that is over a hundred years old. A fancy ball is thrown to celebrate the family where Barnabas bites Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) turning her into a vampire. He quickly becomes obsessed with governess Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) while awakening suspicions in psychologist, Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall).

The whole package is stylish and haunting with lots of necessary goth attire like coffins, capes, fangs, and blood red lips. The production style is appealing and not the least bit cheesy or amateurish. The famous Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York was used during the shoot and with good results. The interior lavish, the exterior is just as grand with lush grounds and a hidden driveway being useful to the plot. The eerie attic with macabre and stifling trimmings is vital in one scene. This works much better than a studio set, and the overall production is superior to the series.

The final thirty minutes or so is the best part with a cool Hammer horror likeness. When Julia gives Barnabas, a powerful injection meant to cause him to age rapidly, all hell breaks loose. You see, while Barnabas is obsessed with Maggie, Julia is secretly in love with Barnabas, so the dramatic soap opera necessities are intact. The makeup during this sequence is highly effective and downright creepy.

Other characters are likable and respectable to the film, but the acting isn’t so great, which reduces the believability factor just a bit. Stalwarts like Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Roger Davis as Jeff Clark, and David Henesy as little David Collins have prominent roles. It’s an ensemble effort as each character has something to do to support the main story. This is a nice add-on and gives everyone time to shine.

Regardless of knowledge of the daytime drama series, one can enjoy the film on its own merits, though how exciting it must have been for fans to see their favorites on the silver screen in 1970. I am not sure how many viewers will need to invest in the film because it feels like a reward for viewers of the series and in present day a retro nostalgic experience. The series was again celebrated in film with the mediocre 2012 effort entitled Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp.

House of Dark Shadows (1970) is a compelling watch around Halloween time since it has nice autumnal, gothic elements fitting for the season of the witch. The ghastly (in a good way) makeup and bloody bites and pretty people turned vampires, suffering with stakes through the heart is worth the watch.

The Concorde…Airport ’79-1979

The Concorde…Airport ’79-1979

Director-David Lowell Rich

Starring-Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, George Kennedy

Scott’s Review #1,078

Reviewed November 7, 2020

Grade: B

The fourth and final installment of the popular Airport film franchise, The Concorde…Airport ’79 (1979) has an appealing and sophisticated international flavor, mainly French culture, that may turn off some viewers seeking a more traditional and domestic offering. The three previous installments contained a wholesome Americana quality that is lacking in this one. The rich culture is the high point for me in a film that by all accounts is not very good. By the late 1970’s the disaster genre had all but crashed and burned so the film was commercially unsuccessful, and the franchise thus abandoned.

The plot is utterly ridiculous even by disaster standards and my hunch is that ideas of what could possibly go wrong on an airplane were hard to find. After all, it’s not easy to top an airliner crashing and sinking into the ocean, leaving most passengers unscathed. This time we experience an airplane flying upside down (more than once!), nose-diving (more than once!), and nearly doing backflips and summersaults (more than once!). Disappointing is the limited amount of deaths that occur despite these treacheries unless you count a shooting inside an apartment and a suicide that have little to do with the plane ride.

Back to my original point, the cultured and vibrant foreign presence, specifically Paris and its lustrous and historic offerings, is the high point of The Concorde…Airport ’79. The City of Lights is heavily featured as a team of American Olympic athletes is traveling from Washington D.C. to Moscow by way of a layover at Charles De Galle airport. The heavenly site of the Eifel Tower is an immediate identifier as French pilot, Captain Paul Metrand (Alain Delon), flies the state-of-the-art Concorde to the United States to transport its passengers to the games.

There is a strong French flavor to this film. During the Paris layover, George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni, now a pilot, befriends a gorgeous woman named Francine, who he bonds with over dinner. They, and others, embark on a fabulous French bistro and have the time of their lives. Who cares that she is later revealed to be a prostitute? The setting oozes with French goodness, food, and sexy accents.

One peculiarity is why the trip goes from Paris to Washington D.C. back to Paris and then on to Moscow. It’s a bit confusing and unnecessary. Unintentionally funny is how the Concorde is attacked by a drone in route to Paris, then a bomb is planted on the plane before takeoff to Moscow. Trouble occurs in the same plane with the same passengers. You would think anyone with half a brain would sit the second leg out, perhaps hopping on the nearest boat or train out of town.

The main story is secondary and quite superfluous. Robert Wagner plays Kevin Harrison, a corrupt arms dealer who plots the destruction of the Concorde because news reporter and girlfriend, Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) has evidence of his weapons sales to communists. He plans to blow up the plane, killing all the passengers, instead of hiring an assassin to kill only Maggie when she lands and before she can tell authorities. The plot is completely story driven.

Several celebrity cameos are added mostly for comic relief and largely go nowhere. Jimmie Walker as the pot smoking, saxophone playing Boise, and Martha Raye’s bathroom crazed Loretta are ridiculous by any standards. Charo’s one scene as Margarita, a woman who sneaks her dog on board and is subsequently kicked off the flight is a time waste. I would have rather witnessed another scene of Loretta needing to use the restroom or Boise getting high. And Susan Blakely overacts throughout the film.

Despite all these hard knocks, The Concorde…Airport ’79 (1979) is good entertaining fun, not to be taken seriously, and encouraged for fans of the genre. There is much fun to be had with the guest stars, once A-list, now B or C list, and the crash-landing finale over the snowy Alps is pretty cool. Just know what you are getting yourself into.

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