A Room with a View-1986

A Room with a View-1986

Director-James Ivory

Starring-Helena Bonham Carter, Julian Sands

Reviewed November 3, 2017

Grade: B+

A Room with a View (1986) is one of four major films to be based on famed British author E.M. Forster novels- Howards End (1992) and A Passage to India (1986), and Maurice (1987) being the other three. The foursome contain common elements such as vast English countrysides and class distinctions, leading to heartaches and passion. In the case of A Room with a View, the film traverses from artistic Florence, Italy to a cozy village in England.

The film is a period drama mixed with lots of authentic, unforced, good humor and at its core is a solid romantic drama, though if comparing with the aforementioned other films, is not quite on par, though is still an entertaining watch- given the dismal year of cinema circa 1986. The film was considered one of the best releases that particular year and was awarded a handful of Oscar nominations- winning Costume Design, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction.

Cultured and often times brooding, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), goes on holiday to Florence with her rigid and conventional older cousin Charlotte (Maggie Smith), who also serves as her chaperone. While enjoying the artistry of the European city, Lucy meets and falls madly in love with free-spirited George Emerson (Julian Sands), who is also visiting Florence with his easy going father, Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott). The men seem oblivious to Lucy’s (and Charlotte’s) Victorian era upbringing, which attracts Lucy and appalls Charlotte. Months later, the would-be lovers reunite in England and spend time averting obstacles thwarting their love, while admitting to themselves that their love is blossoming.

As Lucy has become engaged to snobbish Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), a sophisticate deemed suitable by her family to marry Lucy, the pair lack the romantic connection that she shares with George. Day-Lewis, on the cusp of becoming a breakout star and brilliant talent (think Maurice a year later), gives Cecil a somewhat comical, yet endearing persona, that makes him the main foil, but also breathes sympathy into the character. This is especially evident during the Lucy/Cecil break-up scene.

The standout performance in A Room with a View is the comic brilliance of Smith as the manipulative and witty, Charlotte Bartlett, and this is evident throughout. Smith injects vigor and comic wit into her character, as Charlotte seemingly makes one blunder after the other in the self deprecating way she manages to use to her advantage to humorously manipulate other characters into doing things her way.

A risqué and quite hysterical all male frontal nudity scene occurs mid-way through the film and, while not advancing the plot in any way, steals the entire film in its homoerotic and free-spirited way. As the Reverend, young George, and Lucy’s energetic brother, Freddy, walk along a beautiful path, they decide to skinny dip in a pond where they horseplay and wrestle with each other completely in the buff. As they chase each other around the pond, grab each other, and lightly smack bottoms, one cannot help but wonder if this scene set the tone for 1987’s gay themed period piece based on another E.M. Forster novel, called Maurice. A coincidence? I think not. As the trio of rascals come upon the properly dressed girls on the path, hilarity takes over the scene.

The art direction and costumes are of major excellence to A Room with a View as the film “looks” like a 1910 time period rather than it seeming like it is 1986 with the actors donning early twentieth century styles. In fact, each and every scene is a treat from this perspective as we wonder who will wear what attire in the next scene.

As with the other aforementioned E.M. Forster films, class distinctions and expectations are a major element to A Room with a View and makes Lucy and George all the more likable as a couple. Still, from an overall standpoint there is something slightly amiss in the story department. I did not find Helena Bonham Carter, an actor I like, overall very compelling as Lucy, and I think this leads to the story being slightly less than it might have with another in the role. We may root for Lucy and George, but if the pair do not wind up together it is more of a pity rather than a travesty.

To summarize A Room with a View, the story is good, not great, and other key components to the film are much better than the central love story of Lucy and George, but are therefore secondary to the main action. Given a Charlotte romance, the films best character, now that would have catapulted this film to the exceptional grade. Imagine the possibilities? Or more of the two Miss Alan’s and their gossipy nature, or even a story to the rugged nude horseplay among men. Many of the aspects that could have made A Room with a View great, were too often on the sidelines.

Roman Holiday-1953

Roman Holiday-1953

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn

Reviewed October 26, 2017

Grade: B+

Roman Holiday, released in 1953, was a box office hit, pleasing legions of fans at the time, in addition to being a critical darling. The film reaped a series of Academy Award nominations including the coveted Best Actress statuette for a young Audrey Hepburn. A happy, uplifting story, the film is not diminished by the Cinderella in reverse story-line, but rather is a charming, romantic experience immersing itself in pleasing locales of the cultural city of Rome. Admittedly, Roman Holiday is an example of a film in which I preferred the latter half to the former, but succeeds in setting the bar high in the romantic comedy genre.

Our heroine, Princess Ann (Hepburn, has it all- a glamorous life, gorgeous clothes, and assistants tending to her every need and want. However, she is unhappy and trapped in a rigid life that lacks freedoms or decisions of any kind, to say nothing of the fun she catches glimpses of party-goers reveling in each night from her expansive palace window. Simply put, she is lonely and unfulfilled. When she sees an opportunity to escape her life for a night of fun, she snatches it and stumbles upon an American reporter, Joe Bradley. The two, despite differing backgrounds, fall madly in love with one another.

At first I found something missing with the film and the chemistry between Peck and Hepburn did not immediately embrace me. As the duo meet, Ann, drunk from sleeping pills, and Joe being the ultimate nice guy and allowing her to sleep in his apartment, the story seems somewhat lagging and lacking a good punch. The pair drive around the city of Rome on a scooter and act childish and silly, Ann acting girlish because fun is an entirely new concept to her. At this point the film was reasonable, but little more than a farce.

As Roman Holiday plugs along, and especially through the final act, the film sheds a bit of its light skin and becomes much more poignant and meaningful. Ann and Joe, while in love, realize they will not and cannot embark on a fairy tale ending, which truthfully, would have made Roman Holiday little more than a standard romantic comedy we have all seen before- you know the type- boy meets girl, roadblocks persist, boy whisks girl away and ride off into the sunset together. Roman Holiday, while not a dark film, goes much deeper than a transparent, predictable ending.

Related to this point is that Roman Holiday contains a realness that sets it apart from many films undoubtedly drawn from it, but unlike this film, lean into contrived or predictable situations. As Joe and Ann fall in love, the audience falls in love with them. In fact, the main plot hurdle- Joe’s temptation to profit off of Ann once he realizes her true identity by way of a sought after interview- is earnestly done with a lack of any pretension. Other similar films ought to take note of this.

Certainly, the historic and culturally relevant locales of Rome are a major sell of the film and, if these scenes were shot on a movie set, a lack of authenticity would surely have emerged. Instead, we are treated to such fabulous location sequences as the Colosseum, the Tiber River, the Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Venezia. Such a delight is the long sequence of Roman escapades as Joe and Ann traverse the city in giddy bliss.

Enjoyable is how Roman Holiday contains no real villain of any sort. Nowhere to be found is any physical hurdles to the duo’s relationship- no outside forces plotting to keep Joe and Ann apart, other than merely their individual lifestyles. Ann is in a world of royalty and pampering, but Joe is an every man, so the chances of living happily ever after are slim to none.

Film lovers intent on discovering one of the early romantic comedies- one could argue that It Happened One Night was the first- ought to take a watch of a feel-good, Hollywood classic from 1953 that is rich in honesty, good humor, and raw emotion without being too much of a heavy melodrama. After a middling start the film finishes with gusto.

Don’t Look Now-1973

Don’t Look Now-1973

Director-Nicolas Roeg

Starring-Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland

Reviewed October 22, 2017

Grade: A

Don’t Look Now is an exceptional 1973 supernatural horror film that is as thought provoking as it is intelligently written and directed. Combined with riveting acting by famous Hollywood stars of the day, the film is simply an anomaly and must be seen to be appreciated. It is also the type of film that can be watched again and again for better clarity and exhibits the age old “it gets better with age” comparison. The film is rich with story, atmosphere, and cerebral elements, as well as being highly influential to horror films which followed.

Affluent married couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), live happily together in their English country home, raising their two children, Johnny and Christine. After a tragic drowning incident, resulting in the death of Christine, the devastated couple relocates to Venice, after John accepts a position restoring an ancient church. Soon, Laura meets a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be clairvoyant, warning her of imminent danger and that Christine is attempting to contact her from beyond.

Don’t Look Now is hardly your standard horror film, which is a main part of its appeal- psychological in nature, the film holds only one gruesome death- not including the death of Christina, which is a terrible accident- not malicious. Rather, director Nicolas Roeg quietly builds the suspense to a startling final sequence by using a chilling musical score to elicit a reaction from the audience. We know not what will happen, only that something sinister is bound to.

Due to the successful chemistry between Sutherland and Christie, in 1973, both cream of the crop in terms of film success and marketability, the actors deserve much credit for making Don’t Look Now both believable and empathetic. As John and Laura, each gives their character a likable nature and immeasurable chemistry, which makes the audience care for them. Despite the supernatural elements in the film, at its core the story is quite humanistic. John and Laura have tragically lost a child and we see them deal with the painful grief associated with this loss. The famous sex scene between the pair is shocking given the time period, but also tastefully done, as Roeg uses a fragmented filming style that mixes the nudity with the couple dressing for dinner.

Visually, Don’t Look Now is a pure treat. The viewer is catapulted to the cultural and wonderful world of watery Venice, where scene after scene feature gondola rides, exterior treats of the city, and filming locations such as the famous Hotel Gabrielli Sandworth and the San Nicolo dei Mendicoli church, wisely chosen as shooting locations giving the film an effective realism.

The characters of the elderly sisters, Heather and Wendy, are wonderfully cast. Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania are fantastic and believable as the mysterious duo. Seemingly kindly and eager to help, I was never really sure what the characters true motives were. Was Laura paying them for their assistance? The film never reveals this information, but Heather especially, contains a sinister look that shrouds her motivations in uncertainty. Fabulous actress Mason shines in her important role.

As John begins to “see things”, the use of the color red becomes very important. Christine died wearing a red coat and John sees a child wearing a red coat walking around the city, but cannot make out her face. When he then sees Laura and the sisters at a funeral, we begin to question his sanity. But are the sisters up to something and attempting to trick him or is his mind playing tricks on him? The terrific conclusion will only lead the viewer to more questions.

Don’t Look Now is a unique, classic horror film, with incredible thematic elements, an eerie psychological story, fine acting, and location sequences that will astound. Mixing the occult with an unpredictable climax, the film is influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and succeeds in achieving a blood curdling affair sure to be discussed upon the chilling conclusion. The film is non-linear in storytelling, which only makes it more challenging to watch and appreciate.

Grindhouse: Planet Terror-2007

Grindhouse: Planet Terror-2007

Director-Robert Rodriguez

Starring-Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez

Reviewed October 15, 2017

Grade: B-

The umbrella title of “Grindhouse” is part of a 2007 double-feature, one film directed by Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof), and the other directed by Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror). The gimmick was part of an attempt at something novel and also book-ending fictional trailers within the films. The term “grindhouse” refers to a cinematic specialty of either B movie or exploitation films- largely during the 1970’s. While Planet Terror gets credit for being unique and fun, it is often times too cartoon-like and rather over the top throughout.

The premise of Planet Terror is certainly not one to be taken seriously- as our heroine, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), quits her stripper job vowing to move on to bigger and better things, she runs into her ex-boyfriend, El Wray (Freddie Rodriguez), and the two team up to lead a group of rebels, who are fleeing for their lives after a vicious zombie outbreak. The attack was caused by a group of military officials, led by the vicious Lieutenant Muldoon (Bruce Willis).

The film contains an undeniable retro feel- the sets and the props traverse back to the 1970’s in style and look, however, characters do use cellular phones. In this way, Rodrigues attempts to make the film an homage or a throwback to a different time in cinema- this feat is quite impressive and the film is a marvel from a stylized perspective. Another positive is that the film is reminiscent, by the camera styles and angles, to an actual 1970’s film, with grainy elements and a comforting old-style texture, which really works.

The plot, though, is the source of frustration, and many aspects of the film are just plain silly. The actors play way over the top- as they were probably directed by Rodriguez to do, but the end result is too much like watching a cartoon rather than a piece of art. Rodriguez appears to be copying many aspects of Quentin Tarantino films- specifically, the mixture of violence with camp, although these attempts do not always work.

The acting and casting is fine- in fact, Bruce Willis shines in the lead villain role and plays demented to the hilt. Unquestionably “borrowed” by Rodriguez through Tarantino, Willis, who was dynamic in Pulp Fiction, knows how to do his thing well in films such as this. Muldoon is quite the different character than boxer Butch Coolidge in 1994’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, but the acting style is the same. Stars such as Josh Brolin, Kurt Russell, and Rosario Dawson also make appearances so the film is assuredly a star-studded affair.

The casting of McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez as the leads is acceptable and the pair make a decent screen coupling. Still, her artificial leg which doubles as a deadly machine gun and his maniacal persona seem somewhat forced and, again, way over the top.

Planet Terror was a moderate box office success upon release in 2007, but watching the film in 2017, ten years later, unfortunately some of the luster has been tarnished and the gimmick not as catchy as at the time of release. Still, a decent offering in the horror, cartoon, campy genre, but much better films exist- think anything by Tarantino.

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Director-Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring-Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Reviewed October 11, 2017

Grade: A

Battle of the Sexes is a film that achieves worth on many levels- equal parts sports film, drama, and biography, the film excels across all genres, with exceptional acting and crowd pleasing storytelling. To boot, the film is a true story based not only on the very famous pro tennis match of 1973, termed the “Battle of the Sexes”, but a story of the sexual identity conflict of one of the opponents, in a time where being ones true self was not easy, especially for a public figure.

Emma Stone might very well have given her best portrayal of her young career as Billie Jean King, the talented tennis pro featured in the film. She is kind and fair, but a fierce proponent of women’s rights in a time in the United States when feminism was beginning to first take shape and women, and their male supporters, demanded equal treatment. At first uncertain whether Stone could pull the role off (not because of lack of talent, but the women seem so different), she truly shines as the tomboy athlete with shaggy, feathered locks, and a toothy grin.

Equally worthy of praise is Steve Carell, who bolsters his film credo by tackling the role of King’s opponent and foe in the big match, Bobby Riggs. Portrayed as a certifiable “jerk” and a sexist pig, Carell somehow pours the perfect amount of sympathy and likability into the part. We witness scenes of Riggs’ playfulness with his young son and tender yet troubled relationship with his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue in a well cast role), that never seems neither trite nor contrived, but rather quite genuine.

In fact, the acting in Battle of the Sexes is across the board good. Sarah Silverman drips with confidence and humor as Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine and leader of the troupe of female tennis players she parades around southern California seeking the same respect and pay as their male counterparts. Bill Pullman, makes the most of his one dimensional role of Jack Kramer, a wealthy and male chauvinistic  promoter, while the talented Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as Marilyn, the bisexual, closeted lover of Billie Jean- giving a blend of vulnerability and toughness to her role.

The romantic scenes between Stone and Riseborough smolder with tenderness and heart as they forge ahead with their forbidden romance. The film makes clear that a same sex romance in those days, while accepted by those around them, would be met with shame and rejection by a large part of King’s legions of fans- this is a heartbreaking reality. One of the most tear-jerking scenes comes at the end of the film, when a victorious King is unable to acknowledge Marilyn- her openly gay male dresser earnestly whispers to her that one day she will be free to love who she truly loves- the scene is poignant.

Directors Dayton and Faris carve a finale that is careful not to fall into cliched territory. Given that Battle of the Sexes is a sports film, this is a real risk, as typically these genre films teeter into the “good guys beat bad guys” fairy tale land. Rather, while the film does champion King in the end, the moment is laced with good humor, drama, and sentimentality that does not seem forced, but rather honest and real- I enjoyed the final act immensely.

As the film progressed I found myself drawing parallels to the ever dramatic and historical 2016 Presidential election- sure to have films made in years ahead-and King in many ways mirrors Hillary Clinton while Riggs resembles Donald Trump in the sexist department. The political and sports “Battles of the Sexes” warrants an amount of analysis. My point is a sad one and as much as I love the film, I was left with a cold feeling that forty five years after the famous Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match, male superiority and chauvinism is alive and well in the United States- we still have so much progress to make.

Battle of the Sexes is a film with fantastic acting, stellar casting, passion, excitement, and a telling of a historical, true story. In short the film contains all of the elements of a compelling cinematic experience.

O.J.: Made in America-2016

O.J.: Made in America-2016

Director-Ezra Edelman

Starring-Various

Reviewed October 8, 2017

Grade: A

Simply put, O.J.: Made in America is one of the greatest documentary films that I have ever scene- if not the best. The level of detail that is thoroughly explored without being over-inflated is to be marveled at. In fact, it is much more than a documentary, it is more a chronicle of one of the most talented professional athletes and one of the most controversial figures of our time. The piece dissects not only O.J. Simpson and his tumultuous life, but also how race, wealth, and celebrity factored into the infamous trial that took over the world in 1994. Basically, this story tells of the examination of the rise and fall of an American sports hero.

At seven hours and forty three minutes in length, I had no intention of actually committing to watching the entire saga, surmising that I could easily obtain a good grasp after watching only one disc, but it needs to be viewed in its entirety to be fully realized and appreciated. The documentary is an ESPN production and part of the 30 for 30 series plays out more like a mini-series, with multiple chapters (five in total) encompassing the entire chronicle. The title of O.J: Made in America is of vital importance and a powerful reason for the success the documentary achieved as film makers question whether many factors were instrumental in making O.J. Simpson what he became rather than creating merely an overview of the events.

An immediate positive, and successfully got me immediately intrigued, is how the documentary begins in present times, O.J. Simpson, now imprisoned and presumably at a parole hearing, he is asked about his duties in the prison and how old he was when he was first arrested- the answer is age forty six, when he was accused of murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. The documentary then immediately returns to Simpson’s humble upbringing in the ghettos of San Francisco and how, through scholarships, was able to attend and become a major star at University of Southern California in the mid 1960’s.

What I adore most of all about O.J.: Made in America is that it is a multi-faceted story. Instead of a straight up biography about the troubled celebrity, the film-makers instead choose to balance the documentary with related stories about racial tensions. Certainly, a chronological approach is taken when it comes to Simpson- yes, we learn his skyrocketing trip to super-stardom as a college football player and then professionally as a Buffalo Bill. We are educated of his achievements in commercials, films, and various endorsements, but the documentary relates this to what America made O.J. Simpson into- a beloved star.

Finally, the documentary explains his relationship and marriage to Nicole Brown and the dreaded death and subsequent trial that was sensationalized beyond belief. Lots of time is spent on the trial portion with oodles of interviews ranging from the prosecution- Marsha Clark, Gil Garcetti- as well as numerous friends and relatives of both Simpson and Nicole Brown. An astounding seventy two interviews were conducted.

Surprising to me at first, but making total sense in retrospect, is how the issue of race relations, especially in Los Angeles, have an enormous amount to do with the O.J. Simpson murder case. Film-makers draw many wise comparisons to the history of poor relations between blacks and the Los Angeles Police Department and certainly, the documentary explores the Rodney King incident from the late 1980’s and poses a crucial question- was O.J. Simpson found “not guilty” as a way of exoneration for Rodney King? More than one juror has admitted she refused to find O.J. Simpson guilty and send a black man to prison.

O.J.: Made in America is a superb, well-rounded, concise, and brilliant study of a troubled man- deemed a hero, who obviously had a dark side. The excellent documentary wholly explores his life and provides a fair, unbiased assessment of the events and the thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the case. It is a sad story, but one that is told in brilliant fashion.

Black Orpheus-1959

Black Orpheus-1959

Director-Marcel Camus

Starring-Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn

Reviewed October 8, 2017

Grade: A

Black Orpheus is a 1959 French film, made in Brazil, honored with a win in the coveted Best Foreign Language Film Academy award category in 1960, considered somewhat of a surprise to actually win. The film is adapted from the well known Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, now set in Rio de Janeiro during the festive celebration of Carnaval. Containing a cast of almost all black actors and providing a look at life on the streets of Brazil, Black Orpheus is vivacious, and filled with lively song and dances.

The setting is key to the film as the beauty and merriment is mixed with loss and tragedy- loads of exterior shots of Rio de Janeiro flesh out the film with many shots high atop a hill in a quaint village where all of the characters live-and most in very close proximity to each other. Similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the film is romantic and lovely, but the story is also mired in jealousy and drama amid the dancing and many celebrations. Many of the actors, certainly leads Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, are non-actors, cast undoubtedly because of their gorgeous, authentic looks, but surprisingly both are phenomenal in their roles, perfectly cast.

Wholesome Eurydice (Dawn) arrives in the city of Rio de Janeiro by way of a trolley driven by Orpheus (Mello), intent on visiting her cousin, Serafina. There is an instant attraction between the young man and woman as he provides directions to her cousins village, which is also his. Orpheus, however, is engaged to be  married to his possessive and demanding fiance, Mira, though he is less than enthused about the impending marriage and would rather fix his guitar than buy Mira an engagement ring.

As the Carnival festivities get underway, Orpheus and Eurydice give in to their mutual attraction and dance the night away while subsequently trying to avoid the wrath of Mira, and avoid a mysterious costumed man who has been stalking Eurydice since  she escaped her village and fled to Rio.  Eurydice is terrified that the man may want to kill her and his motivations are unknown. His character is particularly frightening as he is known as “Death” and dons a tight, skeleton costume.

The tragic conclusion culminating in a wonderful chase scene in Orpheus’s trolley station is fantastic. The morbid ending is unsurprising based on the legendary Greek tale and the Romeo and Juliet comparisons, but is still heartbreaking and difficult to experience, most notably the final scene atop a cliff. As the lovelorn couple topples down a hill together at the hands of another central character, the scene is shocking and difficult to watch. Intertwined in each others arms, the scene is also gorgeous and a confirmation of true love and artistic beauty.

Some accusations of racial stereotypes within this film have abounded over the years, mainly the depiction of Brazil being inhabited by party-going, sex-crazed people, but I find the film a masterpiece and the type of cinematic experience to be enjoyed rather than over-analyzed. Particularly, the almost non-stop musical score created by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim is to die for and an enormous part of what makes the film so engaging and entertaining.

Perfectly capturing the spirit of a jovial, cultural, environment, Black Orpheus spins an interesting, heartbreaking tale of love amid a musical. Tragedy, art, true love, romance, and death, are all elements captured in this wonderful film.

Black Narcissus-1947

Black Narcissus-1947

Director-Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring-Deborah Kerr

Reviewed October 5, 2017

Grade: A

A British film made in 1947 that is way ahead of its time, Black Narcissus is a brilliant foray into the mysterious entity of nuns and the bitterness, both from humanity and from the elements, a group of nuns must face as they attempt to establish a new school atop the hills of the Himalayas. The look of the film is as fantastic as the story itself, with incredible cinematography, and a foreboding eerie quality to it. Black Narcissus is one of the great treasures of classic cinema.

Based on the 1939 novel written by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus tells the story of revolving jealousy, rage, lust, and tension, amid a convent of nuns living in isolation. Deborah Kerr, wonderful in the lead role of Clodaugh, Sister Superior, and leader of the group, faces the temptations and anger of men, while dealing with an unbalanced nun, Sister Ruth, played terrifically by Kathleen Byron.

The cinematography and the art direction first and foremost must be praised as the lavish sets are just that- sets. However, the average viewer will be whisked away on a magical experience where it seems the sets are real locales- high atop the Himalayan mountains. Scenes contain howling wind, mist, and fog that are believable- all of the sets are built and structured and Black Narcissus was filmed entirely on a set. This tidbit is unbelievable given the realism that is the end result, especially since the film was made in 1947.

The lighting in the film is unique, specifically the vibrant colors of the pink flowers, and later, the closeups of Sister Ruth. A fantastic example of this is her decent into madness during the final act as her face, maniacal, yet lovely, is heavily featured. Her face appears bright and hypnotic.

The main event, though, belongs to the tales that the film tells, which are quite edgy for the year the film was made. The subject matter of religion is always a risky matter, and the treatment of the nuns as real human beings with true emotions, even lustful ones, is brazen. Specifically, Clodagh (Kerr),  is an interesting study as the character teeters on a romance with charismatic, handsome, local British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) while attempting to forget a failed romance during her youth in Ireland. Meanwhile, Sister Ruth spirals out of control leading to a dire climax involving a enormous church bell atop the restored structure.

A slight misstep the film makes is casting mostly white actors with heavy makeup in the Indian roles instead of actors with authentic ethnicity. This detail is glaring because the makeup used is not overly convincing and especially guilty is the casting of the gorgeous Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a lower class dancing girl, who the Prince becomes infatuated with in a sub-plot. Still, this pales in comparison to the fantastic story and look of the film.

Black Narcissus is a classic film that contains a bit of everything- drama, thrills, intrigue, gorgeous sets, lavish design, even a bit of forbidden passion- and executes all aspects of the film in brilliant fashion. A film admired by critics and directors through the ages, specifically championed by Martin Scorsese, the film has the unique quality of getting better and better with each viewing.

Mother!-2017

Mother!-2017

Director-Darren Aronofsky

Starring-Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Reviewed October 4, 2017

Grade: A

Mother! is an intense, disturbing, and brilliant 2017 work by acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, having crafted left of center works such as 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and 2010’s Black Swan- I shudder to think this film rivals the other in the insanity department. Stocked with four principal characters portrayed by mainstays in the Hollywood world, much buzz circled around this film upon release. The film is thought provoking, analytical, and surely will be discussed following the conclusion. I appreciate complex, difficult watches and Mother! succeeds in spades.

The film is set entirely within the confines of one enormous house in the middle of a vast field of land. Aronofsky never reveals the location adding mystery to the already intriguing premise. A young couple known only as Him (Javier Bardem) and mother (Jennifer Lawrence) cheerfully enjoy married life together and seem very much in love. Him is a renowned author suffering from writer’s block and mother having fixed up the house after it had burned long ago. One day Man (Ed Harris) arrives looking for a place to stay- while Him is delighted by the visitor and encourages Man to stay, mother is not as pleased. When Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, the house guests turn Him and mother’s lives upside down. This is merely the beginning of a complex puzzle.

As the plot unfolds, Mother! is oozing with one bizarre event after the other. mother witnesses unsettling images such as a beating heart within the walls and a bloodstain within the floor that will not go away. When relatives of Man and Woman’s overtake the house and a violent event occurs, events go from dark to downright chaotic.

By giving too much more of the plot points away would ruin the element of surprise, making Mother! a difficult film to review- the film is polarizing and mesmerizing and each of the principle characters can be analyzed and their motivations questioned. Why do Him and mother react differently to the visitors? What manifests the resentment each has towards mother?

Each actor gives a compelling turn and Aronofsky has admitted the character of mother is the one he related to most of all- logically one might assume that Bardem’s Him might receive that honor since the character is famous and a writer. How strange and this revelation by the director will only result in more character analysis.

How wonderful to see Michelle Pfeifer back in the forefront of a Hollywood film- it seems eons ago since we have seen her grace the silver screen, and she is back with a vengeance. Her bitchy portrayal is purely delicious and she encompasses Woman with the perfect amount of venom, toughness, and mystery. As she icily quizzes mother about her intentions of starting a family, she slowly immerses herself in mothers life without missing a beat.

The film is clearly unconventional and layered with symbolism and differing interpretations. Is Aronofsky’s message biblical? Is it political? Or could it be a reference to the obsessions everyday folk have with celebrity? After much pondering, and all three possibilities went through my mind, the biblical message seems the most solid and plausible explanation, but with Aronofsky films, the pleasure is in the analysis.

The final act of the film is particularly macabre as, until this time, the action exclusively centers on the four principal characters and the setting is largely bright.  A slow burn if you will, suddenly, all hell breaks loose as mobs, blood, fire, death and darkness takes over. The brutality and cannibalism involved will churn anyone’s stomach.

Quick to note are the lurid closeups of Jennifer Lawrence’s face during most of her scenes. Certainly, the camera loves her, but there is more going on here. Is the intention to make the viewer focus more on her character or to sympathize more with her character?

Mother! is a film that has stirred controversy among film-goers with some ravishing its elements and themes, while others have reviled and been revolted by the film. Time will tell if Mother! holds up well, but my hope and guess would be that it will become a film studied in film schools everywhere.

Toni Erdmann-2016

Toni Erdmann-2016

Director-Maren Ade

Starring-Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller

Reviewed October 1, 2017

Grade: A-

Reaped with a slew of award nominations in 2017, mostly in the Foreign Language film categories, Toni Erdmann is a unique film that I must champion, but for its imagination and humanistic perspective alone. At two hours and forty two minutes in length, it can almost be watched in segments- miniseries style. The film is set in Bucharest, Romania, so viewers are treated to several exterior scenes of the bustling city and interesting European culture. However, the film is actually German and Austrian made and produced.

Winfried Conradi is a hippie-type man in his sixties. Divorced and working as a music teacher, his dog suddenly dies resulting in his decision to reconnect with his corporate, power hungry daughter, Ines. She is forging her career in business consulting, currently on assignment in Bucharest. Winfried insinuates himself into Ines’s busy life as she wants little to do with him or the petty practical jokes he continues to play on her. Gradually, involving a few hysterical antics and embarrassing situations, father and daughter reunite and forge the loving relationship that they once shared.

What makes Toni Erdmann an unusual film is simply that one will not know what to expect from the film or what direction the film will go in as we get to know and love the characters. We do know that Ines is a driven career woman, busy beyond belief, with no time for her father. Yet, in all of the scenes that Ines and Winfried share, in large part due to fantastic and believable acting by the two principles (Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller), there is an underlying love and appreciation for each other that comes across on-screen. This chemistry made me root for the father-daughter reunion and re-connection.

When Winfried dons his garish wig and horrid false teeth, naming himself “Toni Erdmann”, a series of hilarious scenes ensue. Winfried is successful at being noticed in important corporate functions and dinners he follows Ines to, as well as a ladies dinner with Ines and her friends as he explains to the women that he is in Bucharest to attend a funeral that a friend is having for his pet turtle. The way that actor Simonischek fills his character with an earnestness and dry wit is what makes these scenes so hilarious.

My favorite scene of all and, if this film goes down in history as remembered, is a scene that will surely be talked about for years to come, is the “naked party” scene. Not only is the scene comical, it is also fraught with meaning as it is a turning point for the character of Ines. Hosting a team building party for her birthday, the party is set to begin, except Ines cannot get her dress on and her shoes do not match. Frustrated, with a guest already at the door, Ines strips naked and decides to turn the party into a naked, team building experience. Some guests are disgusted and leave, others reluctantly agree to strip nude. It is the point where Ines sheds not only her clothes, but her stodgy, rigid persona and begins to appreciate and enjoy life again- thanks to her father.

Toni Erdmann is a unique and unpredictable film by a female director (Maren Ade), who has an interesting and strong perspective on the female psyche. She carves a thoughtful tale about a damaged father and daughter with characters to root for and a realism. The film is a fun, laugh out loud romp, that also goes into dramatic territory, careful to remain playful and not be too overwrought. I enjoyed the film tremendously.

My Cousin Rachel-2017

My Cousin Rachel-2017

Director-Roger Michell

Starring-Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin

Reviewed September 25, 2017

Grade: B-

My Cousin Rachel has the advantage of providing wonderful, scenic locales of Florence, Italy and lovely scenes filmed around England that makes the film a joy to watch from a cinematic perspective. The acting, especially by seasoned veteran Rachel Weisz,  is also stellar and noteworthy. The plot, however, is a big negative to the film as My Cousin Rachel suffers from weak dramatic storytelling, an anti-climactic conclusion, and missed opportunities with the plot.

The film is based on the 1951 novel of the same name, written by Daphne du Maurier. I have yet to read the book, but I am certain the film does it no justice. The overall tone of the film contains little mystique to say nothing of lacking any sort of haunting elements as one might expect to receive with titillating anticipation.

The story begins well enough as, through narration, we learn that a young man named Philip, having been orphaned as a child and raised by his older cousin, Ambrose, returns home from school to his childhood home in lavish Cornwall. He learns, through a letter, that Ambrose has married his widowed cousin, Rachel, and has moved to Florence. He also cryptically writes that he is in fear for his life and suspects Rachel of poisoning him. The main plot kicks off after Philip finally meets Rachel and astonishingly begins to fall madly in love with her.

To be fair, the film is shot beautifully and glimmers with interesting camera angles and in a few hallucination scenes, uses a blurry, almost magical film-making style. The aforementioned locales give My Cousin Rachel a sophisticated, graceful look. On the negative side of this filming evaluation, the lighting is much too bright, appearing more like an episode of the PBS series Downton Abbey, rather than the mysterious, cryptic film that My Cousin Rachel is promoted as.

The best thing about the film, though, is the wonderful acting performance by Rachel Weisz as the title character, Rachel. While not played quite as mysterious, Weisz envelopes her character with a passionate, earnest quality that sells the character as enchanting. With a winning smile, and a polite, dutiful manner, Rachel is tough to imagine as a murderess, which helps the lackluster plot just a bit. She happily goes about making a “special” tea, or performing other household tasks in cheerful, uniform pizzazz. Without Weisz in the role, I shudder to think how bleak the end result might have been.

It is mentioned early on in the story how Philip’s wealthy family, the Kendalls, are surprised that Ambrose married, as he was never known to be in, or enjoy, the company of women. It also must be noted that in flashbacks, Ambrose is portrayed as somewhat effeminate, or at most, less than manly. This seems a blatant attempt to question the character’s sexuality, yet the film chooses never to pursue this topic again. I am unaware of how the novel handled this plot item, but it seems rather a wasted opportunity.

Chemistry, or lack there of, is also an issue with My Cousin Rachel, as no connection between Weisz and Claflin exists throughout, nor is there any between either character and Philip’s intended love interest, Louise Kendall, played by Holliday Graingier. The actress herself is fine in a role that is given little meat or substance.

Uneven at best, My Cousin Rachel is a beautiful looking period piece, but mostly is just a mediocre piece of film-making. The ending is quite sudden and answers definitively none of the main plot questions. Released in 2017, the film will likely be forgotten by 2018.

It-2017

It-2017

Director-Andres Muschietti

Starring-Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher

Reviewed September 20, 2017

Grade: A-

An enormous amount of hype has gone into the first big-screen adaptation of the epic length 1986 Stephen King novel, It. An above average mini-series based on the book was released in 1990, but the film version is much more effective. Officially entitled It: Chapter One, it divides the story in half, only focusing on the characters as children not as adults decades later. The film is highly effective with fantastic story, visuals, cinematography, and a rocking musical score. Simply put, it is one of the better Stephen King film adaptations.

As rabid Stephen King readers will understand, at over eleven hundred pages in length, and spanning a time period of thirty years, a two hour and fifteen minute film simply wouldn’t do to encompass the author’s artistic vision. To be determined is how chapter two will measure up to the glory of the first chapter.

Derry, Maine is the sleepy little town where the action takes place and the time period is 1988- worth pointing out is that the novel takes place in the late 1950’s. On a stormy afternoon, seven year old Georgie takes a paper boat, constructed by his older brother Bill Denbrough, outside to see if it sails. He meets a clown in the storm drain, who introduces himself as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown”. Pennywise toys with Georgie, turns vicious, and tears the boy’s arm off. Months later, life goes on as Bill and his group of friends known as “The Losers Club” all separately begin to see variations of Pennywise.

The film is really part teenage summer adventure balanced with a terrifying horror film and director Andres Muschietti achieves this mixture seamlessly. In fact, the use of lighting is one example of how the film goes about in this fashion. Most of the outdoor sequences, are bright, sunny, and airy. Conversely, the truly scary scenes, usually involving the entity of Pennywise, are shot using dark lighting, thereby eliciting fear and a perfect mood.

The casting is terrific- I specifically found actor Jaeden Lieberher as Stuttering Bill, Jeremy Ray Taylor, as Ben Hanscom, and actress Sophia Lillis, as Beverly Marsh, wonderful performers, and the clear standouts among the teenage characters. Lillis, bright-eyed and possessing a strong-willed composure, is reminiscent of a young Scarlett Johansson, and could have a bright future ahead of her. Lieberher contains an every-kid innocence and is believable in his earnestness and stuttering ability. Lastly, Taylor fills pudgy new kid in town, Ben, with comedy and a romanticism in his unrequited love for Bev.

Successful is the portrayal and appearance of the demonic entity, Pennywise. Since the fictional clown has over thirty years of interpretation and imagination, bringing him to cinematic life was surely a challenge. A risk would have been to make him either too horrific or too cartoon-like- the end result is a perfect hybrid. Bill Skarsgard exudes crazy in his brilliant performance, teetering between goofy and playful with Georgie, and evil personified as he taunts and terrorizes the kids in his dusty hideaway.

Interesting, and to be noted, is the fact that none of the adult characters are written in a sympathetic fashion. From the creepy Alvin Marsh, to the nerdy pharmacist, even the stern librarian, and the overbearing Mrs. Kaspbrak, they are each laden with an unlikable quality. The closest adult to being “nice”, Bill’s father, finally screams at his son to accept the fact that Georgie is dead.

Two small complaints include the two secondary bullies- king bully Henry Bowers cohorts are not given their comeuppance and simply vanish from the screen never to be mentioned again. Secondly, the sound exterior shots of Derry, Maine exude a New England freshness and a small town mystique. Too bad that the scenes were not filmed in Maine at all, but somewhere outside of Toronto, Canada- more realism would have been nice.

Due to the huge success of the adapted film, legions of fans will undoubtedly hold their breaths waiting for the resurrection of Pennywise and “It” to be unleashed on film fans everywhere- probably in 2019. I will be one of those fans.

The Red Shoes-1948

The Red Shoes-1948

Director-Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring-Moira Shearer, Marius Goring

Reviewed September 19, 2017

Grade: A

Certainly the best of the bunch in the collection of cinematic ballet films, 1948’s The Red Shoes is a highly artistic and influential film undoubtedly studied in film schools everywhere. One cannot view The Red Shoes without amazement and the realization that this piece must have been dissected by legendary director Darren Aronofsky before he created his creepy 2010 psychological thriller, Black Swan, is evident.

The Red Shoes is a British film which gives it a clear element of grace, class, and sophistication, perfectly enveloping the themes of love, ambition, and jealousy- the Brits simply do it right and director, Michael Powell, later crafting the odd and controversial 1960 film, Peeping Tom, certain to have wholly ruined his career, brings his A game to this 1948 work. Decades later, Powell now is considered a genius director.

The film is laden with foreshadowing, at least a handful of times during its running time, as we meet our heroine, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a bright-eyed young woman with flowing red locks and aspirations of grandeur as she emerges as a fledgling ballerina in the Covent Garden area of London. Partially due to her aristocratic upbringing and her assertive and snooty aunt, she lands an audition for the ballet company, led by sophisticated Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). he is immediately enamored by her yet gives her the cold shoulder, making her question her talent. The incorporation of trains in multiple sequences is the key here.

As Lermontov and Vicky’s lives begin to intertwine, a young music student named Julian (Marius Goring) is perturbed by the plagiarism of his music by his own professor, having conducted Heart of Fire under the guise of it being his own work. When Julian expresses his displeasure to Lermontov, he is hired to perform with the orchestra. The addition of Julian to the plot kicks off a compelling triangle between the three characters- their lives overlapping in a mixture of young love, passion, and jealous rage.

The action takes off even further as the film moves to the gorgeous setting of Paris and Monte Carlo, a treat for any worldly or aspiring world traveler, as the photography and cinematic angles of the lush locales are simply breathtaking. As former prima ballerina, Irina Boronskaya, decides to leave the company to be married, Lermontov decides to create a new ballet, The Red Shoes, starring Vicky, with music composed by Julian. This creates enormous pressure for all involved as the film then takes a dark turn.

Dashes of influence surrounding the exquisite performance of the famous Swan Lake dance number heavily influenced 1950’s classic, An American in Paris. The long, colorful, and dramatic sequence is splendid, emitting lush, vivacious music and performance. This “time out” from the heavy drama encompassing the rest of the film is beautiful and peaceful and one of the sheer highlights of The Red Shoes.

The heart of the film really belongs to the dynamic between the three principal characters as the performance of each actor is spot on and rich with flare. Especially profound are the performances by Shearer and Walbrook, as each actor gives their respective character a perfect amount of fury, ambition, and tension, but Goring as Julian is equally worthy of mention and kudos.

I adore witnessing Moira Shearer dance as her talent and tenacity are astounding. An internationally renowned British ballet dancer and actress, the role of Vicky is perfectly carved out for her as the character must have been close to her heart.

Who can forget the most famous scene of all in The Red Shoes as a determined and crazed Vicky finishes her stage performance, Powell firmly holding the camera on her makeup stained face, her blue eyes wide and hair wild. Her look of triumph and insanity, lost in the moment, is a grand moment and unforgettable image seen time and time again in cinema reference books.

Equal parts dramatic, romantic, eerie, lustful, and wise, The Red Shoes is a classic film made way ahead of its time, with startling visuals and treasured art and set designs, to say nothing of powerful acting and a story that compels. No wonder this film easily influenced other masterpieces to come.

Chronic-2015

Chronic-2015

Director-Michel Franco

Starring-Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett

Reviewed September 18, 2017

Grade: A-

Chronic is a brave film, a character study, that offers an in depth look at the life of a male nurse and his rich relationships with his patients. What the film also does quite soundly is reflect on not just the obvious physical needs of the patients, but the deep effects that the main characters dying patients have on himself as well. The film is quite bleak with a quiet element and very long scenes containing little dialogue, but is a treasure in bold storytelling and brazen reflection.

The film is a subdued work requiring attention and focus. Yes, some would deem Chronic to be slow and certainly most would describe it as “a downer”, but to dismiss the film is a mistake as it offers rich writing and an in depth look at a vocation and lifestyle misunderstood or confusing to most people.

Tim Roth, famous for his bad boy roles, especially in Quentin Tarantino films, does an about face, delivering a superb, subdued performance as David Wilson, a lonely and depressed nurse living in the Los Angeles area. He is a quiet, kindly man whose internal pain registers on his face as he dutifully treats his mostly close to death patients, sometimes attending their funerals after they have expired.

Initially, we meet David as he tends to a sickly young woman. Clearly once beautiful, she is gaunt and haggard and I cringed when the woman’s nude, skeleton-like body, is on display as David washes her with a wash cloth. The film makers do not gloss over his tender attention to her private areas, which is shot gracefully and certainly not done garishly. Still, the long scene is unnerving and frightening in its realism.

When the woman succumbs to AIDS, David reluctantly becomes involved in a celebratory drink with a newly engaged young couple after he goes to a bar to unwind. When he pretends the deceased woman was his wife, he receives sympathy, but the couple quickly become aloof when he reveals what she died of. Does he do this purposely to push the couple away? Throughout the film we realize that David thrives on being with his patients, and can do no other type of work. In contrast, he has difficulty with relations with “normal” people.

Perplexities abound in this film, which make the viewer think and ponder throughout, and certainly after the story ends. For example, David searches through a young girls Facebook account looking at her photos- he later finds the girl, revealed to be studying medicine, and they happily reunite. Is she his daughter or the daughter of a deceased patient? Later, David is sued by an affluent family, and subsequently fired, after he watches porn with an elderly man to lift his spirits. There is a glimmer of uncertainty where we are not sure what David’s sexual orientation is.

In the most heartbreaking sequence of all, David begins caring for a middle-aged woman with progressive cancer. Martha (Robin Bartlett) is strong-willed and no nonsense and makes the painful decision not to continue with chemotherapy after suffering chronic nausea and later soiling herself. It is apparent that her family only visits her out of obligation as she lies to them that her cancer is gone and she is in the clear. She then pleads with David to end her life with dignity using a heavy does of morphine- the sequence is heartbreaking.

The final scene of the film will blow one away and I did not see this conclusion coming. The event left me questioning the entire sequence of the film, wondering how all the pieces fit together. Surely, being overlooked for an Oscar nomination, Tim Roth proves he is a layered, complex, full-fledged actor, in a painful, yet necessary story.

Clown-2016

Clown-2016

Director-Jon Watts

Starring-Laura Allen, Christian Distefano

Reviewed September 16, 2017

Grade: B-

As a fan of all things horror, and with a robust appreciation for the horror film genre, the inclusion of clowns in said genre films is always a stroke of genius, and the 2016 film aptly titled, Clown, establishes a creepy premise right off the bat. After seeing the film, it was not until a few days later that the story began to marinate more with me and I gained a bit more appreciation than I had once the film originally ended.

Clown reminds me quite a bit of the mid-2000’s Showtime horror anthology series, Masters of Horror, though, in fact, the film is a full running length of one hour and forty minutes. The film has a unique, creepy vibe that was also a highlight of the cherished series of yesteryear and this film oddly also plays out like a vignette.

The premise is laden in the creep factor as the action kicks off. When Kent McCoy, a likable young father, who works far too much maintaining his real estate business, is notified by his wife, Meg, that the clown they had hired to entertain at their son Jack’s birthday party, has canceled. Determined to save the day, Kent discovers a very old clown suit in the attic of one of his abandoned houses and dons the costume. The next day, Kent and Meg are startled when Kent is unable to remove the costume even when pliers, a hacksaw, and other horrid machinery is used on him.

The story then introduces a strange character named Herbert Karlsson, who informs Kent that the clown costume is not a costume at all, but rather the hair and skin of an ancient demon from Northern Europe. The demon needs to feast on and devour children in order to survive, Kent realizes, as he begins to become ravenous with hunger. Karlsson attempts to kill Kent, revealing that the only way to destroy the beast is via beheading.

The clever and compelling part of the story is the mixture of clowns and children in peril- a recipe for success in most horror films- and at the risk of being daring. The fact that Kent and Meg slowly begin the temptation to harm children is both shocking and effective. The McCoys are average, everyday folks, Meg even working as a nurse, so the likelihood of the pair harming kids on any other day is remote, but tested by a vicious demon and their own son Jack in peril makes Clown work well.

My favorite sequence of the film occurs during a birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese. While the kids play in a lavish and dark tunnel, the demon (Kent) is on the loose, causing havoc and eating two children. When Meg drives an unwitting young girl home, she is conflicted and tempted to offer the girl to the demon as a sacrifice in order to hopefully save Kent. The girls pleading is palpable.

The film is gruesome from a violence perspective and hesitates not in going where many horror films dare not to go- with the death and slaughter of young children. One kid in particular is basically shown disemboweled, granted the kid is written as a bully and therefore gets his comeuppance in grisly form. Sad is the death of a lonely trailer park type kid, only looking for just a friend in Kent- little does he know his short days are numbered.

As strong and measured as the story idea is, Clown does have some negatives. The film has an overall amateurish quality to it, and certainly not because it is an independent film. Rather, the style almost comes across as a student film project. Some of the acting is not great, specifically actress Laura Allen as Meg. In fact, the filmmakers might have been wiser to make this project more of an episodic venture instead of a full length release.

Clowns, kids, and demons make a fun combination for horror and the aptly named Clown is a solid B-movie effort in the glorious chambers of the cinematic horror genre. With a few tweaks and zip-ups, Clown might have been an even more memorable film. It will not go down in history as a masterpiece, but does have the necessary elements for a good watch.

Bride of Chucky-1998

Bride of Chucky-1998

Director-Ronny Yu

Starring-Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif

Reviewed September 11, 2017

Grade: D+

Bride of Chucky is the fourth installment in the famed late 1980’s Child’s Play hit franchise. The late 1980’s was not the best time for the horror genre in general, but the film was quite the highlight in a slew of duds. By this time in the series, (1998), the child/victim of the doll premise is dropped in favor of dark humor, thus the series immerses itself more into the horror-comedy arena. A treat is the inclusion of a fantastic hard rock soundtrack led by the Rob Zombie classic, Living Dead Girl, adding some points to the films final grade, otherwise having been more dismal.

The film is certainly not a great film and I find perverse pleasure in reviewing poor films. However, Bride of Chucky does have its place- as a late Saturday night viewing choice amid strong cocktails it contains a certain charm. Not to be taken seriously, the placement of a love interest for Chucky gives the film macabre romantic humor. Still, the film suffers from lackluster acting and quickly turns into drivel by the time the credits finally roll.

The action picks up from where Child’s Play 3 leaves off and the appearance of Chucky is now a weathered, stitched appearance that gives the doll a more gruesome and maniacal look- this works given the elimination of a child lead character. Left for evidence in a police compound, Chucky is stolen by Tiffany Valentine, played by Jennifer Tilly. The girlfriend of a deceased serial-killer, Tiffany is convinced that the spirit of her boyfriend exists within Chucky and she is determined to bring him back to life using a voodoo ritual. When the act finally works, Chucky and Tiffany reunite, but shortly afterwards, Tiffany is also turned into a doll and the duo set out on a killing spree.

The best aspect to the film is the camaraderie between Tilly and actor Brad Dourif, who voices Chucky. The duo have a light, comic banter that is fun to watch, as well as fantastic chemistry. Granted the actors only voice the dolls for a large part of the film, but their back and forth works well. This is what makes Bride of Chucky tongue in cheek- let’s face it, with talking dolls as your main characters, director Ronny Yu wisely avoids making the killings too grisly or heavy-handed, but rather, frequently uses quips and one-liners throughout the film.

As Chucky and Tiffany slice and dice their way to Hackensack, New Jersey, their motivations are to embody a neighborhood boy, Jesse, and his girlfriend Jade, played by a young Katherine Heigl. Along the trek, the foursome are faced with ludicrous obstacles, such as the brief introduction of a con artist couple who meet their doom by flying shards of glass after stealing Jesse’s money. The side story of Jade’s overprotective police chief Uncle, played by a miscast John Ritter, does not work at all. His schemes to plant marijuana in Jesse’s van are little more than plot driven machinations to advance the thin plot.

The characters of Jesse and Jade are trivial and secondary and Heigl’s acting is particularly garish to say nothing of the lack of any chemistry between Heigl and actor Nick Stabile. In fact, Heigl seems to wear a pout throughout the entire film. But, not to worry, these characters are as meaningless as all the others.

The gimmick ending, surely meant to “spawn” yet another sequel is as interesting as it is grotesque and a small highlight in a poor film. Bride of Chucky provides a nice lineage to the history of the franchise, a killer musical score, and decent chemistry among the leads, but also suffers a similar fate of many horror films, especially sequels- poor acting, a silly tone, and no character development.

Latter Days-2003

Latter Days-2003

Director-C. Jay Cox

Starring-Steve Sandvoss, Wesley A. Ramsey

Reviewed September 7, 2017

Grade: B

In the now saturated genre of LGBT film, novel little more than a decade ago, Latter Days, released in 2003, tells a story with an interesting religious spin and the first LGBT film to my knowledge to depict a clash of religious values, which deserves kudos. The film was popular among film festival goers, yet critically, received only mixed opinions. There are both positives and negatives to this film.

When rigid Mormon innocent meets plastic Los Angeles playboy, anything is bound to happen as a surprisingly sweet romance develops between the two young men. While the overall feeling of the film is rather “cute”- not exactly a rallying cry of cinematic excellence- Latter Days suffers mostly from some sophomoric acting, and an odd combination of a soft-core porn film and a wholesome Hallmark channel television movie quality. This, in turn, allows the film to achieve only slightly above mediocre as a final score.

Young Mormon missionary, Aaron Davis, just out of Idaho, is sent to Los Angeles with three fellow missionaries, to spread the word of faith. Soon, he meets openly gay waiter, Christian, promiscuous, brazen, and proud of it. After a silly bet with friends predicting how long it will take Christian to “deflower” Aaron, the young men become enamored with each other as Aaron’s secret desires for men are exposed. This leads to a test of faith for Aaron, especially with his religious and rigid parents, waiting with fangs drawn as he is banished back to small town Mormon territory.

The romance and chemistry between the lead actors is the best part of Latter Days. Though Aaron and Christian could not be more opposite, there is a warm chemistry that actors Sandvoss and Ramsey successfully bring to the screen.  Sandvoss’s “aww shucks” handsome, innocent looks compliment Ramsey’s extroverted, pretty-boy confidence and the film succeeds during scenes containing only the two actors. As much is gained from a throwaway laundry scene as the young men chat and get to know one anothers backgrounds, as during the brilliant soft-porn scene as the nude men thrash around a hotel bed making love. Though, admittedly, neither actor is the best in the acting department.

The nudity in the film is handled well- explicit, yes, but never filmed for cheap or trashy effect. In fact, while the nudity is sometimes sexual in nature, the men also lounge around nude in bed while chatting about life and their various ideals.

Also a positive is the casting of Jacqueline Bisset in the motherly role of Lila. Suffering from her own personal drama (an unseen gravely ill romantic partner, and admittedly an unnecessary add-on to the story), she is the sensible, liberal minded owner of Lila’s restaurant, where Christian and his friends work and socialize. The film creates a “family unit” in this way that is rather nice. Bisset and her British sophistication add much to the film.

Contrasting Bisset’s character is the fine casting of Mary Kay Place as Gladys, the rigid mother of Aaron. Hoping to “pray the gay away”, she and her husband banish Aaron to a garish rehabilitation facility to turn him straight after a suicide attempt. The character does show unconditional love for her son, but simply refuses to accept his sexual preferences. There is no question that director C. Jay Cox slants the film in one clear direction as the Mormon characters are portrayed as stodgy and bland.

Latter Days slips when the focus is on the other supporting characters. I tend to champion large casts and neat, small roles, but Christians friends are largely self-centered, bantering about either their sexual escapades or their career aspirations as they wait tables hoping to get a big break. Worse yet is when a silly side story is introduced focusing on a misunderstanding between Christian and best friend Julie. I could have done well without many of these secondary characters.

In the final act, the film goes the safe route with a brief red-herring about a character’s death only to then quickly wrap the film in a nice happy ending moment featuring a nice Thanksgiving dinner at Lila’s restaurant. Latter Days contains a good romantic story between two males that does just fine without the added trimmings that occasionally bring the film down. All in all a decent effort.

Reflections in a Golden Eye-1967

Reflections in a Golden Eye-1967

Director-John Huston

Starring-Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor

Reviewed September 3, 2017

Grade: A

Reflections in a Golden Eye is a film made during the beginning of a rich and creative time in cinema history (the latter part of the 1960’s and the beginning part of the 1970’s), where films were “created” rather than produced. Less studio influence meant more creative control for the director- in this case, John Huston, who cast the immeasurable talents of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in the key roles. Worth mentioning is that Montgomery Clift was the intended star, but died before shooting began. Richard Burton had turned the role down.

The film is an edgy and taboo story of lust, jealousy, and sexual repression set amid a southern military base. Novel for 1967, repressed homosexuality is explored in full detail, as well as heterosexual repression and voyeurism. Originally a flop at the box-office, the film has since become and admired and a cherished part of film history. Reflections in a Golden Eye is based on the classic 1941 novel, written by Carson McCullers.

Major Weldon Penderton (Brando) resides with his spoiled wife Leonora (Taylor) at a US Army post somewhere in the south during the 1940’s and 1950’s era. A neighboring couple, that of Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his depressed wife, Alison (Julie Harris) are also featured and the trials and tribulations of Army life are exposed. Playing key roles are the Langdon’s effeminate houseboy, Anacleto, and a mysterious Private Williams, played by a young and dashing Robert Forster.

Weldon is a repressed homosexual, rigid, and very unhappy with himself and his life, despite being successful professionally. To make matters worse, he is repeatedly needled and tormented by Leonora, who is having an affair with Morris. Leonora adores her prized horse Firebird, who becomes a major part of the story. When Weldon and Leonora spy Private Williams completely naked in the woods riding bareback, Weldon feigns disgust, but his secret desires for the young man are revealed. The two men then begin a secret cat and mouse game of spying and following each other around until a tragedy occurs.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is not a happy film, but rather a depressing piece of troubled lives and emotions. Passions are unfulfilled and repeatedly repressed as each character is able to be dissected in complex fashion. I am intrigued most of all by the character of Private Williams. A bit of an oddity, he mainly watches the action from afar learning Weldon and Leonora’s secrets- they keep separate bedrooms and repeatedly squabble. We wonder- is Williams obsessed with Weldon or Leonora? Or both? He sneaks into her room and rummages through her lingerie and perfume drawers. Would he, in a different time, consider himself to become transgender? Or merely intrigued by cross-dressing?

Weldon can also be carefully examined- he has fits of rage and violence frequently erupts. Poor Firebird suffers a violent beating at his hands to say nothing of a main characters fate at the end of the film. Having a macho and masculine exterior, his job is that of a leader, but the perception of a homosexual male during that time period- if it was thought of at all- was more like the femininity portrayed by Filipino male, Anacleto. Huston wisely casts both males well in this department as the men, along with Williams, could not be more different and nuanced.

A wise and telling aspect of the film is how it was originally shot with a muted yet distinguishable golden haze- appropriate to the film’s title- and much of the action seems to be viewed from the viewpoint of the horses. The color theme was reportedly changed because it confused audiences, but my copy has the intended golden haze and I find this tremendous and works brilliantly with capturing Huston’s original intentions.

The film is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the former made only one year earlier. Arguably Taylor’s character in that film is very similar to Leonora. In ways, Reflections of a Golden Eye could have been a stage production. One thing is clear- the film explores deeply the human psyche. I look forward to repeated viewings and further digging into the feelings and motivations of every principle character in a groundbreaking film by Huston.

XX-2017

XX-2017

Director-Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama

Starring-Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey

Reviewed September 1, 2017

Grade: B

XX is a 2017 American anthology film consisting of four unique horror vignette’s all directed by female directors- a brazen feat in itself as this gender is too often under-represented in the genre. The chapters do not always make complete sense, but what they do achieve is a creative, unpredictable edge and a feeling of having watched something of substance. Surely, another anomaly is that each features a female lead, giving the film as a whole a measure of female empowerment.

Immediately we are treated to an odd tale named The Box, based on a short story written by an author notable for composing tales of the gruesome, Jack Ketchum. In this story a young boy named Danny, cheerfully riding a train with his mother and sister during the holidays, innocently asks an odd-looking man if he can peek inside a shiny, red, gift-wrapped box. When the man agrees, Danny initially goes about his day, but proceeds to stop eating, much to his parents horror. This installment is my favorite of the four as it is the only holiday themed chapter, and contains a morbid quality amid the cheeriness of the season. The perspective soon switches from Danny to his mother, Susan, and the conclusion is a surprising one.

Next up, The Birthday Party features middle-aged Mary, intent on holding a birthday party for her young daughter, Lucy. When Mary finds her husband dead, she dresses him up in a panda costume and attempts to conceal him from the group of anxious young party-goers. The conclusion is a mix of the hilarious and the disturbing. This vignette features a nanny and a neighbor, both odd and mysterious characters. I admire the black comedy in this one most of all.

Third in the series is Don’t Fall, which transports the viewer to the middle of the desert, where four friends are on an expedition, seeking adventure. The main character, Gretchen, is deathly afraid of heights. When the group discovers a cave with ancient, evil writings on it, one of the group becomes possessed and embarks on a killing spree against the others. Very short in length, Don’t Fall suffers a bit from absurdity and the least character development of the four- it is also the one I found to be the weakest.

Finally, Her Only Living Son is the strangest in the quartet. Working class single mom, Cora, has only one son, Andy. About to turn eighteen, he is rebellious and known to be cruel to classmates- even gleefully tearing off one poor girls fingernails. Ironically, the high school faculty seems to worship Andy, deeming him remarkable and seeming somewhat entranced by him. As Cora becomes influenced by her mailman, Chet, it is revealed that Andy’s father is a Hollywood star, wanting nothing to do with Cora nor Andy. When Andy develops claws on his fingernails and toenails, Cora fears that he is not her ex-husband’s son at all, but rather the spawn of Satan. Clearly, this tale is a miniature of the classic 1968 horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, both haunting and devious in tone.

Enticing is how each chapter runs the gamut in theme and each is unique and different enough from the others so that they are distinguishable and do not suffer from a blended or all too similar feel. Certainly, each situation is implausible in “real life” and some head scratching plot points abound. For instance, how is is possible for a emaciated child, under doctor’s care, not to be force fed? Also, a teenager growing claws and hooves? Really? But, it is horror, and sometimes supernatural, or even silly, elements can be fun.

XX, new for 2017, is reminiscent of the successful horror anthology that the Showtime cable network was daring enough to air from 2005-2007- this series ran the gamut in stylized and edgy horror escapades, using various directors to achieve this result. Here’s to hoping that XX opens some new doors and prompts a new horror series. XX has a few flaws, but is successful in undoubtedly pleasing the legions of horror fans.

Other People-2016

Other People-2016

Director-Chris Kelly

Starring-Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon

Reviewed August 24, 2017

Grade: B+

2016’s recipient of numerous Independent Film award nominations is equal parts a touching drama and equal parts witty comedy, providing a film experience that successfully transcends more than one genre- is it a heavy drama or is it a comedic achievement? Without being sappy or overindulgent, Other People is a film that will elicit both laughs and tears from viewers fortunate enough to see this film focused on a tough to tackle subject- a woman dying of cancer. The title of the film, which one character states he always thought cancer was something that only happened to “other people” is poignant.

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon play son and mother in the brave film both written and directed by Chris Kelly. The very first scene is a confusing one and caught me off guard- we see the entire Mulcahey clan- father Norman (Bradley Whitford), three kids, David (Plemons), Alex, and Rebeccah, along with their dead mother Joanne (Shannon), all lying in the same bed, sobbing and clutching hands. Clearly Joanne has just succumbed to her battle with cancer. This powerful opening scene, which ironically is also the final scene, sets the tone for the entire film as Kelly, works his way back, beginning a year prior to the important “death scene”.

Cancer is a very tough subject to cover in film, especially going the comedy/drama route. The sensitive film maker must be careful not to trivialize the subject matter with too many comedic elements nor go for the heavy drama. Kelly successfully mixes the humor and drama well so that the film works as a cross-genre film. He achieves this by putting capable talents like Plemons and Shannon to good use- they share tremendous chemistry in every scene they appear in together. Scenes that show David and Joanne cry in each others arms work as well as others, such as when David takes a giddy Joanne to meet his comedy friends.

Most impressive is that the story in Other People is largely autobiographical- Kelly, a gay man like the character of David, moved from New York City to Sacramento, California, to tend to his ailing mother, who had also died from cancer. Actress Shannon reminded him so much of her that he had the fortune of casting the talented lady in his film- the part originally slated to go to Sissy Spacek instead.

Mixed in with the Joanne’s battle with cancer is also a nice story about David. A gay man, David has broken up with his boyfriend Paul, previously living together on the east coast (though still pretending to in order to spare Joanne worry), to return to the west coast. Over the course of the next year we see Joanne and Norman slowly come to terms with David’s sexuality- more so Norman than Joanne. In fact, the turbulent father/son relationship is explored during the course of the film as Norman, initially hesitant to even meet David’s boyfriend, Paul, in the end, pays for his airline ticket to attend Joanne’s funeral.

A slight miss with the film is the Norman/David dynamic-besides a few hints of Norman encouraging David’s struggling writing career and his obsession with David joining the gym and boxing, it is not really clear what issue he takes with his son being gay or why he is uncomfortable with it- other than the implication that the family is rather conservative no other reason is given. David’s sister’s and grandparents do not seem to take issue with David’s sexuality, though it is not made certain if the grandparents are even aware of it. Is it a machismo thing with Norman? This part of the story is unclear.

Still, in the end, Other People is a good, small, indie film, rich with crisp, sharp writing and a tragic “year in the life of a cancer patient” along with good family drama and the relationships that abound when a family comes together and unites based on a health threat. The film is certainly nothing that has not been done before, but thanks to good direction and a thoughtful, nuanced, approach, along with one character’s sexuality mixed in, the film feels quite fresh.

Beautiful Thing-1996

Beautiful Thing-1996

Director-Hettie MacDonald

Starring-Glen Berry, Scott Neal

Reviewed August 20, 2017

Grade: B

Based on the play of the same name, Beautiful Thing is a heartwarming 1996 British LGBT film written by Jonathan Harvey and directed by Hettie MacDonald. Incorporating music from the Mamas and the Papas, and specifically Mama Cass, the film undoubtedly was groundbreaking upon release in the 1990’s due to its taboo (at that time) gay romance, but in the year 2017, this film suffers a bit from both a dated feeling and a play it safe vibe.

The action, just like a play would be, takes place almost entirely within a working class London apartment building-present times. The lead character is Jamie (Glen Berry), a high school student, intrigued by his male classmate and neighbor, Ste (Scott Neal). He also must keep an eye on his flighty mother, Sandra, who changes boyfriends like the weather, and aspires to open her own pub- she is currently dating neighbor and understanding hippie, Tony.

Ste is the other central character. Shyer than Jamie, he has a difficult upbringing, living next door to Jamie with an abusive father and brother. Ste and Jamie eventually bond and a secret love story begins as the young men conceal their relationship from everyone else. In the mix is a vivacious black teenage neighbor girl, Leah, who is obsessed with Mama Cass records, which her grandmother owns and frequently plays. Leah and Sandra are engaged in a lightweight feud, in large part because Sandra believes Leah is a bad influence on Jamie.

Keeping in close mind when Beautiful Thing (1996) was made, the film deserves an enormous amount of praise for, at the time, simply existing during a time when LGBT films were hardly the norm. Watching in 2017, though, the film loses a bit when compared with subsequent LGBT releases that broke more barriers with their mainstream viewership and much darker themes (LGBT masterpieces like 2006’s Brokeback Mountain and 2016’s Moonlight immediately come to mind).

Beautiful Thing also contains a safer, lightweight touch than the aforementioned films, making it now seem too much like fluff. Director, MacDonald, mixes in humor so that while the message of a same sex relationship is important, it is softened a bit by the comedy. Specifically, the sidekick character of Leah, lightens the message. In fact, the supporting characters may get a bit too much screen time. Sandra’s giggle-worthy job interview attempting to do “respectable work” in an office environment, or her man-hungry escapades, take away from the main story.

I also never felt any real threats or danger to the same sex relationship. Sure, there is some brief disapproval, and a quick mention of Jamie not liking football (a negative gay stereotype that is unnecessary) combined with Ste’s abuse at the hands of his family, but even that is not perceived as a major obstacle to their, at that time anyway, shocking relationship.

On the other hand, the chemistry between the two leads (Berry and Neal) is wonderful and the best aspect of the film. Both actors convey the characters emotions perfectly- both coming into their own individual sexuality, Berry’s Jamie is the more confident one, asking Neal’s Ste, in a sweet scene, whether he has ever been kissed. This leads to a sleep-over scene that is innocent and tender rather than steamy or sexual. I completely buy the characters as young lovers, coming to terms with their own identities while supporting the others needs, becoming a good team.

The final scene, naturally accompanied by a Cass Elliot song “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”, is a touching, wonderful scene. Jamie and Ste dance together in broad daylight, for their entire complex to see, and subsequently are circled by both supporters and the curious. As their own show of support Sandra and Leah join the boys and end their dispute. It is a heartwarming conclusion to a fine, yet lightweight by modern standards, LGBT romantic film.

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

Director-Raoul Peck

Starring-Samuel L. Jackson

Reviewed August 19, 2017

Grade: B

I Am Not Your Negro, a 2016 documentary created by director Raoul Peck, chronicles an unfinished manuscript written by social critic James Baldwin, entitled Remember This House. The memoir is a series of recollections by Baldwin, who died in 1987, of his experiences with famous civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

Released in a year that saw similarly racial themed documentaries such as 13th and O.J.: Made in America emerge, all were recognized with award nominations in several year end ceremonies. If comparisons are drawn, 13th, the most similar in theme to I Am Not Your Negro, is the superior piece. While interesting, the latter did not quite grip me as much as the former. Still, I Am Not Your Negro is worth a watch if nothing else than to understand and be exposed to the continuing battle for racial equality in the United States.

The documentary itself teeters around discussion and back-story of all the leaders mentioned. Lots of location shots are used, as well as speeches made by and old footage of each of the men. A high point are interviews by Baldwin himself, and his insight about his own racial experiences, both positive and negative. Each of the leaders, King, X, and Evers receive roughly the same amount of screen time and the best part is Baldwin’s own dealings with each man.

I enjoyed immensely the multitude of scenes featured of racial history in cinema and the harsh reality is that blacks have not been given their due until quite recently in how their characters are portrayed. As recent as the 1950’s and 1960’s, and arguably later than that, blacks were demeaned or treated as nothing more than secondary characters. Worse yet, some were portrayed for laughs or as caricatures.

A startling admission comes from Baldwin himself. Having been an enormous John Wayne fan as a child, and reveling in the joy of his films, it was a harsh reality to understand that the Indians in Wayne films, seen as the “bad guys”, were really Black Americans- therefore himself. Certain films Baldwin watched were viewed through the innocent eyes of a child- real life was harsher.

Unnecessary is the narration by Samuel L. Jackson and the actor being a well known name, distracted from the message being told. Jackson seems to read Baldwin’s words as if he were acting, and Baldwin and Jackson are two very different types of men, so the result is disjointed.

The most important takeaway that I Am Not Your Negro left me with is a crucial one- better understanding of the historical plight of the Black American and how far the United States has come in better racial equality. Even more important, however, is the realization that we still have so much work ahead of us as a nation to ensure even better race relations and this is a sobering message.

Tanna-2016

Tanna-2016

Director-Bentley Dean, Martin Butler

Starring-Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa

Reviewed August 18, 2017

Grade: A

Tanna, named for the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu in close proximity to Australia, is a small film made in 2016 and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award. A marvelous work in every way, the crowning achievement is how this particular film was made. Shot entirely on the island with a minimal budget and the use of non actors, the result is  a  romantic, yet tragic  love story that will move its viewer to tears in its innocence and beauty. Tanna is shot in the  Nauvhal and Nafe languages.

Film-makers reportedly spent seven months in the village of Yakel, immersing themselves in the culture and civilization of the tribe. The people are the last of their kind, rebuffing nearby colonial and Christian influences in favor of their own traditional values and beliefs. The story that the film tells is based on a true story of love inflicting two tribe members and played out by the villagers- each portraying a role very close to their own lives and hearts.

As the movie opens, we are immediately exposed to a tribal community going about their daily life- they wash, hunt, and wander through the jungles exploring their natural surroundings. The men wear simple penis sheaths and the women are mostly topless. We sense a great community and a sense of togetherness. When Dain and Wawa  (I am admittedly unsure if these are the “actors” names or the real-life people) lay eyes on one another from across the jungle, they instantly fall in love and begin to secretly spend time with one another in a tender and romantic courtship.

A traditional rule of the tribe is arranged marriage, which becomes a major problem for Dain and Wawa as their love blossoms. When a neighboring tribe attacks the Shaman over a dispute regarding bad crops, Dain wants revenge. When cooler heads prevail, the leaders of each tribe decide that Wawa will marry a member of the other tribe, which leaves she and Dain distraught and desperate- their love is then tested in the ultimate way.

The individuals who play both “Dain” and “Wawa” offer an authenticity and  truth that astounds as reportedly, in addition to never having acted, neither had never seen a camera before, but both pour their souls into the characters they portray. This also goes for the little sister of Wawa, who is a goldmine in her honest portrayal. In fact, all the performances are rich.

Visually, Tanna is just breathtaking. The exotic lushness of the green jungles mixed with the gorgeous running streams and waterfalls are one thing, but the oozing volcano that inhabits the island is both colorful and picturesque during the night scenes.  In fact, the entire film is shot outdoors and is captured incredibly well. In this way, the film immerses the audience wholly in the tribal world.

Comparisons to the William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet must be made. The film is a romantic tragedy of epic proportions and the doomed couple share  everlasting love and a bond that can never be broken. The truth in this tale is genuine as the couple must agonize over a decision to either remain together or risk the threat of Dain’s life and Wawa’s freedom if they return to their native village. The film is almost poetic, never more so than in the final act, which is set upon the glorious spitting volcano.

Sadly, films similar in both richness and honesty are rarely made in modern times, but that just makes Tanna stand out as a treasure in beauty and thought. Interestingly, because of the real-life couple’s determination and strength, the age-old tradition of chosen marriages has since been lifted and true love encouraged.

Annabelle: Creation-2017

Annabelle: Creation-2017

Director-David F. Sandberg

Starring-Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson

Reviewed August 17, 2017

Grade: B+

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to the successful 2014 horror film, entitled Annabelle, and the fourth installment in total of the popular The Conjuring series.  Over just a few years these films have become well-crafted, intertwined stories in the modern supernatural horror genre. As a comparison to another latter day horror franchise, Saw, Annabelle/The Conjuring elicits more of the classic spook factor rather than the gore associated with the Saw franchise.

Set somewhere in the desert and mountainous region of California, the time is 1943. Doll maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and wife Esther (Miranda Otto) live a cheerful existence with their young daughter, Annabelle, who they nickname Bee. The family attend church services regularly and engage in cute games of hide and seek in their vast farmhouse and land. When one sunny day Bee is struck and killed by a passing car, the couple is devastated beyond repair.

Twelve years later, a group of orphans led by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), are invited by Mr. Mullins (Mrs. Mullins now bed-ridden due to a mysterious accident) to spend some time at the farmhouse when their orphanage shuts down. The six orphans, led by best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman), and Linda (LuLu Wilson) embark on the quiet farmhouse and immediately are met by strange goings on, most notably a life-sized doll living inside a forbidden room, which Janice inevitably stumbles upon out of curiosity. Stricken with polio, Janice is left a cripple, unable to move around very well.

As Janice discovers the creepy doll, or shall we say, Janice awakens the doll from a strange closet covered with bible verses, the doll begins to terrorize the girls and wreaks havoc on Janice and Linda in particular. Apparently, the doll is inhabited by an evil entity and the peculiar circumstances following Annabelle’s death years earlier rise to the surface as secrets are revealed and demons seek refuge in the farmhouse.

Annabelle: Creation is quite well made and inundated with scary elements of surprise. The farmhouse, in particular, is a fantastic setting for a horror film- the remote locale, the eerie quiet, the dark, unfamiliar layout of the house, all come to fruition throughout the film. Specifically, a scarecrow, a stairwell chair-lift, and the years between 1943 and 1955 are of special importance.

Besides the common horror elements that the film uses to its advantage, the film is just downright scary and tense. On plenty of occasions the cameras are positioned as such so that a figure or object could easily be lurking behind a particular character, but out of sight from the audience. Sometimes nothing will appear and the scene goes on, but other times a scare occurs that makes us jump out of our seats- this is good, classic, horror at its finest- one knows not what is, or could, be coming next. I did not find Annabelle: Creation predictable in the slightest, which makes the film succeed.

As if I was not entertained enough throughout the duration of the film, the final set of scenes, now some twelve years after 1955, brings us to the very beginning of 2014’s Annabelle, as we witness the very first scenes of that picture, now making perfect sense and weaving the two films together in compelling fashion. Apt viewers will remember that Annabelle begins with a horrific home invasion scene, brilliantly crafted and shot. Now, the story line will make more sense and an “oh wow” moment will be experienced.

Certainly, I was left with a couple of slight gripes about Annabelle: Creation. The characters appearances are quite modern day, not the clothes per se, but the hairstyles, mannerisms and figures of speech- I never, for a second, believed the time period of the mid-1950’s. To build on this point, and at the risk of an honest historical inaccuracy critique , a black orphan would never have resided with white orphans, let alone be one of the “popular girls”, nor would the orphans ever have been led by a sexy, Indian nun wearing heavy mascara.

I get that the film makers deemed inclusiveness a higher priority over historical accuracy, but these details are noticed and readily apparent to me as not having  existed if the film were “real life”. Furthermore, the point was repeatedly hammered home that the film was a huge supporter of Christianity and went out of their way to promote the goodness of religion over evil.

Annabelle: Creation reaffirms my belief that good, old fashioned horror films can still be successfully made in the modern era, using elements firmly etched in the genre, but used in a  modern, scary and sinister way. Here’s to hoping the creators think of another good idea and make another segment in this thrilling dual franchise.

Fire At Sea-2016

Fire at Sea-2016

Director-Gianfranco Rosi

Reviewed August 12, 2017

Grade: B+

Fire at Sea was honored with a coveted 2017 Best Documentary Feature Oscar award nomination, but despite this high achievement, was met with largely negative reviews from its viewers- this is not as surprising as it might seem. Furthermore, the documentary was also the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language film category, but was not chosen. In this way, the piece is rather a hybrid between a “typical” film and a documentary, making it all the more unique in itself.

The lackluster comments are undoubtedly due to both the very slow pace and the way the documentary is jagged- interspersing snippets of story not seeming to go together with the main message. Compounded by the sheer length of the film (one hour and fifty four minutes is very long for a documentary), the work will not go down in history as a rousing crowd-pleaser. But it is an important film.

The story tells of a group of modest individuals inhabiting a tiny Sicilian fishing island named Lampedusa, located somewhere between Sicily and Libya. The island is prominent for being a rescue area for migrants forging a treacherous journey from African countries (mostly Libya and Sudan) to the island for safety and medical treatment. It is implied that the migrants do not actually stay on the island for very long, but rather Lampedusa serves as a temporary sanctuary. It is not explained where the migrants go or what happens to them after medical treatment.

After a slightly tedious start, I began to become immersed in the various stories and began to appreciate the slow pace- I actually found this calming. We see snippets of the ordinary daily events of the residents: a young boy and his friend carve faces out of cactus plants, later the boy experiences an eye exam and is told he needs glasses- later we see a lengthy scene merely of his family eating pasta. We also get to know a resident doctor, grandmother, disc jockey, and scuba diver.

Admittedly, I began to wonder what a young boy preparing a sling-shot, or a grandmother preparing sauce,  had to do with the main content of the documentary- that of migrants coming to the island. Then I realized that director Gianfranco Rosi is telling a human story and witnessing the ordinary Lampedusa citizens going about their lives is in strong contrast to the fleeing and terrified migrants. I was able to put all the pieces together.

Told without narration and with the dialogue in Italian containing  sub-titles, additional unique aspects to the project, Fire At Sea is unusual, but I admired its important message.

The most powerful scene in the film is a quiet one- a resident doctor describing his experiences with the migrants. He professes how any decent person should help any needy souls and describes the grisly task of performing autopsies on the people (many women and children), who do not survive the harried journey across the Mediterranean Sea- many dying of hunger and thirst or being burned by the diesel fuels from the tiny boat they are stuffed into. His long, yet powerful account will move one to tears.

This testimonial by the doctor speaks volumes regarding the current influx of needy individuals, mainly from Syria, who need help from both neighboring countries and countries far away. Some have been kind and have let individuals into their countries, while others have shunned the migrants (namely in 2017 the United States). The honest account from the doctor summarizes the message of humanity that Fire at Sea represents.

Another powerful scene emerges towards the end of the documentary as several African men are rushed from their ship to another ship and tended to by rescue individuals. Sadly, the barely alive, yet conscious men are not long for this world as a few minutes later we see a series of body bags lined up containing the expired men. This tragic realization speaks volumes for the need for such humanistic individuals as some who reside on Lampedusa.

Fire at Sea, the title a World War II reference to the fiery waters that the residents could see from a far distance during that time, is a story that is worth watching. It provides a lesson in kindness and good decency and a reminder that some people are just good, generous souls, all but willing to help those in need. We can all learn from this documentary.

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