Taxi Driver-1976

Taxi Driver-1976

Director-Martin Scorsese 

Starring-Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd

Scott’s Review #776 

Reviewed June 20, 2018

Grade: A

It is incredibly tough to choose a favorite of all Martin Scorsese films since nearly all of them are incredibly well made. Certainly Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980) and Taxi Driver (1976) immediately come to mind. In fact, Taxi Driver may be Scorsese’s darkest film of all. The thriller is intense, dangerous, and ferocious led by a riveting performance by Robert De Niro- a regular in the director’s earlier films. The film is nail biting and compelling and a great, character driven watch.

Set in the bustling and (at that time) decrepit New York City shortly following the Vietnam War, Travis is a veteran clearly suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. Lonely and angry, he works as an overnight taxi driver who falls for a snooty presidential campaign worker, Betsy, (Cybill Shepherd). He also forges a relationship of a protective nature with an underage prostitute, Iris, (Jodie Foster). As he gradually spirals out of control due to the unhappiness surrounding him, he plots to kill Betsy’s boss while protecting Iris from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).

One great aspect of Taxi Driver is the insanely good performance by De Niro. Along with the later role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, that and his role of Travis Bickle are my two favorite roles of his. With Bickle, he is unpredictable, on edge, and angry, as De Niro infuses the character with those qualities in seamless fashion. As he teeters on the brink of insanity and ready to snap at any given moment, the character is impossible not to watch with both fear and marvel. De Niro is that brilliant. 

While not to be outdone by the aforementioned negative and dangerous qualities, Travis also possesses a few benevolent traits making the character complex. In large part this comes into play with the protective nature he develops towards Iris.  Almost like a big brother/kid sister dynamic, the deranged man treats her with kindness rather than taking advantage of her as he easily could have. The diner scene the two actors (De Niro and Foster) share is so rich with interesting dialogue and bonds the characters together.

Travis also harbors love and hate emotions towards Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). As she is a political volunteer for a potential presidential candidate, Travis first encounters her by way of spying on her through large glass windows where she works. Coaxing her to accept a date, they have coffee and eventually attend a film together. Betsy is offended since the film is pornographic and their date goes south fast. After a vicious showdown between the pair at the campaign office, Travis goes off the deep end and plots revenge.

The gritty atmospheric approach that Scorsese provides when filming Taxi Driver is an enormous highlight of the film. Dingy, dark, and dangerous, the director creates ample scenes showing just how seedy New York City was in the 1970’s. Working the night shift, surely to bring out the rancid and most decaying elements of the city, Travis experiences many cretins and undesirables in his work- and arguably is one of them! Many scenes feature the notorious 42nd street and its accompanying porn theaters that made New York City famous (or infamous!) at the time.

In one of the film’s most frightening (and best) scenes, Travis is able to get his hands on a gun. He practices drawing his weapon in the mirror repeatedly uttering the famous line “you talkin’ to me?” as we wonder if he will pull the trigger. The scene is fraught with cerebral tension and quite frightening. Later, when Travis shaves his head and brandishes a mohawk, his new look is downright terrifying.

Scorsese creates a dark world that is enriched by his incredible cinematography and astounding representation of interesting characters in dangerous and unstable times. Taxi Driver (1976) is a treasure to watch closely and appreciate as a timeless piece of art. Instead of decaying in the vaults of cinema. Taxi Driver is a film that gets better and better with age.

Schindler’s List-1993

Schindler’s List-1993

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

Scott’s Review #775

Reviewed June 19, 2018

Grade: A

Schindler’s List (1993) is a film that is arguably Steven Spielberg’s finest directorial work and Liam Neeson’s finest acting performance. The film is as disturbing as it is awe inspiring as many emotions will undoubtedly envelope any viewer- most of them dark and dire. Spielberg’s most personal story centers on the devastating Holocaust of World War II that will grip and tear audiences to pieces. The work deservedly secured the Oscar award for Best Picture and Best Director as well as numerous other accolades.

Oskar Schindler (Neeson) is a powerful German businessman who arrives in Krakow, Poland during the antics of World War II, presumably to make his fortune. Handsome and respected, he is charismatic and feared by the German army, who have forced most of the Polish Jews into the overcrowded ghettos where they await their fates. Schindler himself is a Nazi, but becomes more humanistic than most and ultimately against the Holocaust killings. He establishes a factory and hires a Jewish accountant (Ben Kingsley) to assist.

As he is tremendously affected by the inhumanity he sees all throughout the city, he makes arrangements to hire and thus save the lives of over a thousand Polish refugees. He does so by allowing them to safely work and be productive in his factory. The story is reportedly true and was a rare instance of humanity in a cold and ugly chapter in world history.

To be clear, Schindler does not start off as a hero and is admittedly rather an unlikely one. The man is a businessman, greedy, and undoubtedly flawed. He plans to use the Jews because they are cheap labor and can be used to his advantage. Because of the very lengthy running time of the film (over three hours) Spielberg slowly depicts Schindler’s complex character growth and eventual determination to save these poor people from the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Spielberg shoots Schindler’s List entirely in black and white with tremendous results. The camera works adds such ambiance and style to the 1990’s film- so much so that throughout the film I felt as if I were watching a documentary from the 1940’s. The film is epic and choreographed with precision and timeliness- some of the best camera work in cinema history as far as successfully creating the perfect solemn and dreary mood.

Supporting turns by Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes must be noted. In vastly different types of roles, both shine. As the understandably nervous, Jewish accountant for Schindler’s factory, Itzhak Stern is most notable for creating the famous “list”. This contains the names of those who would be transferred to the factory and thus have their lives spared. Kingsley, a brilliant actor, fills the character with empathy and heart.

Conversely, Fiennes plays a dastardly character in that of Amon Goth, a commander at the concentration camp. Evil and known for taking glee from killings, he is the man instrumental in deciding to exterminate all of the people in the ghetto. A pivotal character, Goth is important because he is the man who makes Schindler realize how sickening and inhumane the treatment is. Fiennes carves the character with so much hate that he is believable in the part.

One of the most beautiful scenes is aptly named “the girl in red” and is highly symbolic and worthy of analysis. Oskar watches as prisoners are escorted, presumably to their executions. He notices a three-year-old girl walking by herself- she is clad in a bright red coat. The coat is Spielberg’s only use of color throughout the entire film. The scene is incredibly important as the girl stands out, proving that all the Nazi commanders are accepting of her death. In tragic form, Oskar later sees her dead body draped in her red coat. The scene is sad and powerfully distressing.

Schindler’s List (1993) is an outstanding film that elicits such raw emotion from anyone who view’s the masterpiece. Certainly by no means an easy watch and most assuredly “a heavy”, the film depicts the true struggles and catastrophic events occurring not all too long ago. A film for the ages that simply must be seen by all to appreciate the terror and inhumanity that occurs throughout the world.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #774

Reviewed June 15, 2018

Grade: A

For fans of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, creator of such disturbing and bizarre films as 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be a treasure. As with those films, the odd story and the peculiar acting styles are prevalent making the film quite the experience. I relish the film and its unusual nature, offering a cinematic experience that is insightful, mesmerizing, extreme, and quite frankly, brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is an esteemed cardiac surgeon who “befriends” a troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keogen) whose father had died years earlier as a result of Steven’s negligence. When Martin slowly insinuates himself into Steven’s family life, they begin to fall ill. Martin threatens to kill the entire family unless Steven kills either his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children- the victim can be of his choosing.

The creepy premise is enormously intriguing as the conclusion cannot be foreseen.  A basic yet deep story line is wonderfully spun with many possible directions for the plot to go in. After forty-five minutes or so of the audience wondering why Steven and Martin meet secretly in diners, hospital corridors, or other remote areas, the teen boy’s true motivations come to the surface as he rapidly and calmly puts his cards on the table for Steven.

Surprisingly, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. One would assume that the Murphy family- wholesome, affluent, and astute, would garner audience support, but we slowly peel back the onion on each character. With a gorgeous house in a quiet Cincinnati neighborhood, Steven and Anna (a doctor herself) are sometimes harsh and physical with their kids, while the kids (Bob and Kim) develop a strange fascination toward Martin. In this way each character is peculiar and has his or her own dire motivations as the plot unfolds.

Lanthimos is quietly becoming one of my favorite new directors as he slowly churns out one disturbing film after the next. Particularly in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his clear Stanley Kubrick influences bubble to the surface. With plodding then sudden bombastic classical music pieces, the score is crisp with uniqueness, eliciting emotions like surprise and terror from the audience.

From a visual perspective, fans of Kubrick will no doubt notice the long camera shots and slowly panning camera angles. The hospital’s long and foreboding hallways are prominently featured as we follow a character walking along the corridors. This is highly reminiscent of the Overlook hotel sequences in the 1980 Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining.

One particularly jarring nuance to the film is the speech patterns of most of the actors- clearly dictated by Lanthimos and also occurring in 2015’s The Lobster. The character of Steven talks very quickly, but with monotone delivery and in a matter-of-fact style; Kim and Martin also speak this way. I didn’t notice the quality as much with Kidman’s Anna, but Farrell really went to town. I’m not sure this totally works throughout the entire film since the mannerisms give off almost a comical element. To be sure, this uniqueness makes the film more quirky and decidedly non-mainstream, which is to be celebrated.

The climax of the film is brutal. As Steven brandishes a loaded shotgun, the family gathers in their family room, Anna fussing over her new black dress. As the group dons pillow cases, Steven goes Russian roulette style on the family, randomly firing a shot until one member is killed. When the remaining family members see Martin at the diner the next day, they provide him with icy, hateful looks. The entire scene is done without dialog and is tremendously macabre.

Rest assured, I am eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’s next project (reportedly already in the works) and hope against hope he continues to use the superb Colin Farrell, the brilliant Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Barry Keoghan again. Thanks to tremendous acting, a riveting score, and enough thrills and creeps to last a lifetime, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is at the top of its game.

God’s Own Country-2017

God’s Own Country-2017

Director-Francis Lee

Starring-Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

Scott’s Review #773

Reviewed June 13, 2018

Grade: B+

God’s Own Country (2017) is a British, romantic, LGBT themed drama directed by Francis Lee, making his directorial film debut. The setting is farming land in the Yorkshire (northern England) territory making the film quite lovely to watch and the pace of the film therefore is slow. Lee does not rush the pace of the story either so it mirrors the slow life that farmers must endure. The film is somewhat autobiographical to Lee’s own life.

The connection and chemistry between the two leads is palpable and the love story endearing, especially impressive to show two different cultures coming together and merging as one. The film is a nice watch and an above average story making it worthy for LGBT audiences worldwide. Those believing in true love and finding ones soulmate will be deeply satisfied.

Twenty something Johnny (Josh O’Connor) lives a dull existence on his father’s farm in remote Yorkshire, England. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) also lives there and due to his father’s recent stroke, the success of the farm is in question. Johnny is depressed; drinking regularly and engaging in sexual encounters with men. Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), is hired to help out and the two young men eventually fall in love. After some ups and downs in their relationship, they decide to live on the farm together and presumably live happily ever after.

God’s Own Country is a rich story of romance and the only real obstacles that Johnny and Gheorghe face are internal struggles. In unique fashion for LGBT films, neither of the men are necessarily unhappy with their sexual identities nor do they face hurdles by other characters because of their sexuality. Gheorghe faces harassment because he is Romanian and deemed an “outsider”. Besides Johnny’s grandmother and perhaps his father, no characters seem aware that the men are a couple.

The cinematography is gorgeous and a perfect backdrop for the love story. The farm is lush with spacious green rolling hills for miles and miles. The animals the family raise are lamb and cattle and more than one scene features a beautiful birth and the nuzzling of the parent to its newborn baby. Sadly one birth is also a breach, which is tough to watch. The themes of life and birth perhaps mirror the feelings and emotions that Gheorghe and Johnny experience- new love.

Throughout God’s Own Country I frequently drew comparisons to arguably the most mainstream and revolutionary film in LGBT history- that of 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. Certainly similar elements of animals, farming, and the outdoors are featured in both films. Additionally, commonalities like loneliness and loss are heavily featured. Finally, the rough and tumble, machismo fueled wrestling scenes that result in rough sex between the men are used in both Brokeback Mountain and in God’s Own Country. In fact, both films could be companion pieces.

The film does not delve too much into the back story of the main characters; at least I did not catch many mentions. Admittedly, viewing the film on DVD with no closed captioning or subtitle capability made capturing all of the dialogue very difficult. Especially with English and cockney accents this was made doubly challenging. Regardless, both men are lonely, even despondent, but why? What happened to Johnny’s mother? Where is Gheorghe’s parents or his family?

Upstart Francis Lee carves a quiet, thoughtful yet compelling story of unexpected love that develops between two lonely men in a remote area of the United Kingdom. God’s Own Country (2017) paints a nearly perfect experience, slow yes, but featuring exceptional acting from both leads, as well as the two supporting turns. A film recommended for those seeking a poignant and fulfilling story of love.

Vanity Fair-2004

Vanity Fair-2004

Director-Mira Nair

Starring-Reese Witherspoon, James Purefoy

Scott’s Review #772

Reviewed June 12, 2018

Grade: B

An adaptation of the classic 1848 novel written by William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (2004) softens the traditionally unlikable and roguish character of Becky Thatcher quite a bit. This proves not to be the smartest move as the character, now more of a heroine, is watered down and forever changed, as is this film adaptation. Reese Witherspoon (Becky) drew harsh criticism for her starring turn, but I personally do not think she is so bad; and the costumes and set designs are wonderful and quite the highlight of the resulting period piece.

In 1802 England, we meet Becky Sharp, a young woman who has just graduated from a School for Girls and been sent to work as a governess. Because her father, a talented painter, is impoverished, Becky is cast aside as lower class and deemed undesirable to anybody upper class- the men she is most interested in. Despite her reputation as a tart, Becky aspires to marry rich and frequently gets into trouble with her shenanigans and smart tongue while romance blooms with the handsome Rawdon Crawley (Purefoy).

The story is supposed to encompass Becky’s life from approximately age eighteen through her mid-thirties (though Witherspoon never appears to age), and displays her trials and tribulations, her loves and losses through the years. We follow her from rural England to London and to Belgium, eventually residing in Germany, reduced to working in a casino, where the film concludes. In this way the film is a treat as the various countries as they appeared in the nineteenth century, and the wars and battles occurring during this time period are featured making for an interesting history lesson.

The main appeal should be Becky Thatcher since the film revolves around her, and numerous criticisms were thrown around accusing the film for casting Reese Witherspoon in the important and demanding role based on her star power at the time.  In 2004 Witherspoon was experiencing enormous film success after 2001’s Legally Blonde and 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama- admittedly fluff films- but securing her box office power nonetheless. These films undoubtedly led to her being cast in the pivotal role, but I thought the star was perfectly adequate and gave Becky appropriate humor and zest.

Based on Witherspoon’s “girl next door” persona and the fact that she just looks like a good character- perplexing is the decision to cast her if film makers wanted to be true to the character.  Admittedly though, Witherspoon was delicious in 1999’s Election as villainous Tracy Flick, a role of a lifetime. But that is the exception and not the standard. But I digress- the bottom line is that while she is a capable actress, she does not give the gritty performance that many were expecting to be true to the character in the novel.

The rest of Vanity Fair is really just mediocre as far as story goes. While the antics of Becky are both humorous and dramatic, her rooting value in the romance department does not come across in the 2004 film offering- not enough chemistry exists between the leads to warrant much support. Rumors abound that other incarnations of Vanity Fair are far more superior and compelling than this film is, but I have yet to have seen any.

Compliments must be reaped on the costume department and the art direction- both are superior. Such a treat are the lavish and colorful costumes and gowns that mark the time period. From the classic style hats and highfalutin dresses featured in ball after ball, this aspect is nearly enough to recommend a watch over the dull story and immeasurably the highlight of the entire film.

Apparently, Vanity Fair (2004) is considered a messy travesty to those well-read enough to have turned the pages of the classic novel. Since I have not yet read the book, perhaps I enjoyed the film slightly more than I should have, but alas, I did not find the casting of Witherspoon as Becky nor the overall product to be drivel as many did. I recommend the film for the gorgeous visual treats if nothing else.

Gook-2017

Gook-2017

Director-Justin Chon

Starring-Justin Chon, Simone Baker

Scott’s Review #771

Reviewed June 11, 2018

Grade: B+

Gook (2017) is an independent film drama starring and directed by the rising talent, Justin Chon, The film is made on a very limited budget, nonetheless delivering a powerful story with a particularly jaw-dropping final sequence that I did not see coming. In fact, if I am being an honest critic, the film drags at times and is not wholly attention grabbing, but the wrap up is exceptionally done. The use of black and white filming and a poor, ethnic, Los Angeles setting are wins for the film and proof that Chon in becoming someone to keep an eye on in the years to come.

The time period is 1992 amid the soon to be ending Rodney King police brutality trial- news stations and radio programs are abuzz with developments. Intensity and racial strife is in the air as the trial is reaching its controversial conclusion resulting in tumultuous riots across Los Angeles. Two Korean American brothers, Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So) attempt to keep their deceased father’s shoe store alive in a predominantly African American neighborhood.  The twenty something men hold a unique bond with eleven-year-old Kamilla (Simone Baker), the younger sister of their nemesis, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr).

Initially I was immediately struck (and impressed!) by the clever use of black and white cinematography, which I was not expecting from a film with such a small budget. In addition to adding grittiness and texture of the spread out city, this technique also enhanced the film’s beauty. There exists something so lovely and peaceful, especially since the shoe store location is centered in a rather remote area, against the looming violence and brutality of some of the roughest scenes the film showcases.

The harshness of the obvious racial slur title that Chon chooses, Gook, is both shocking and brave, immediately grabbing one’s interest and piquing curiosity. Wisely, this sets the tone for the entire film and viewers will certainly not mistake it for a feel good affair. Sure there are some light moments of banter between Kamilla and the brothers, but the conclusion of the film brings a painful reminder of how precious life really is.

Yes, the film is admittedly uneven, but that should not be a surprise with a film that teeters around student film making territory. This is hardly a slight, but merely a mention since Chon is so new at his craft. For example, the pacing is very bizarre; at a sleepy, whimsical pace most of the way, the aforementioned final sequence comes in breakneck fashion. As a terrible, accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound sends one character to the emergency room, the speed at which the scene occurs is strange in comparison to the rest of the film.

The highlight of Gook is a tremendous, humanistic element.  The earnest and endearing relationship between Eli and Kamilla really shines through the ugliness of other components. Since the young girl comes from a broken home led by tyrannical older brother Keith, she has no father figure to speak of. To compensate for what she lacks she spends a great deal of time with the brothers helping out at the store. Naturally, she bonds closely with Eli, whose father (presumably murdered) is not on the scene either- so they really embrace each other. Eli serves as a big brother to Kamilla and their scenes are crisp with good dialogue and emotionally pizzazz.

Another nice touch that Chon provides with his creation is an instance where the first scene is the same as the last scene- Kamilla doing a ceremonial dance amid the burning storefront. The final scene is obviously more meaningful and powerful than the opening scene since by this time the audience knows Kamilla’s fate. Another shining example of the artistic talent that Chon has.

Props must be given to a talented up and comer in the cinematic scene. Justin Chon serves as actor, director, creator, and all around talented performer. Gook (2017) is far from perfect and suffers from choppy story-telling and erratic elements, but is impressive in the good qualities it brings to the big screen. Celebrating young film makers is fun, encouraging, and necessary to ensure that ambitious ideas are embraced.

Moonraker-1979

Moonraker-1979

Director-Lewis Gilbert

Starring-Roger Moore, Lois Chiles

Scott’s Review #770

Reviewed June 8, 2018

Grade: A-

Moonraker (1979) is an installment of the James Bond film franchise not usually well regarded and rarely appearing on critics top ten lists. Perhaps a reason for this is the timing of the film, hot on the heels of the late 1970’s Star Wars craze. Plans for a different Bond film were scrapped in favor of an outer space story. Regardless, I adore most of Moonraker, save for the final thirty minutes when the plot gets way too far-fetched for anyone’s good. The rest of the film is a superior entry and holds up quite well in the modern age of all things Bond.

Many of the familiar elements remain intact following the successful and lavish The Spy Who Loved Me (1975). An even heftier budget featuring gorgeous locales like Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and the Amazon rain forest are featured as well as a capable, intelligently written “Bond girl”. The villains, compelling and suave, including the return appearance of Jaws (Richard Kiel), and handy, dandy gadgets make Moonraker a treat for fans. Therefore, I find the non-love for the film rather mystifying.

The action starts off as a jumbo airplane carrying a Drax Industries Moonraker space shuttle is hijacked in midair causing the plane to crash and the shuttle to disappear. Since the space shuttle was on loan to the United Kingdom from the wealthy and powerful Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), 007 (Roger Moore) is tasked with finding its whereabouts. He visits the grand shuttle-manufacturing plant in California where he learns that Drax and his bodyguard Chang are sinister and plotting global destruction.

Bond befriends the gorgeous and highly intelligent Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), an astronaut who works at the facility, and Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery), the beautiful personal pilot of Drax. As events roll along Jaws returns to the story seeking revenge on Bond and subsequently serving as Drax’s new bodyguard. Of course, treasured favorites like M (Bernard Lee), Q (Desmond Llewelyn), and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), return to the fold.

To explain the weakest portion of the film first, producers were clearly attempting to capitalize on the tremendous success of 1977’s Star Wars by featuring a space exploration theme. Interestingly, only the final half hour does this come into play as Bond and Goodhead, and nearly all the cast, don bright yellow space suits. Drax’s evil plan is to eradicate all human kind and begin a new world with only beautiful people existing and reproducing.

The inevitable final battle scenes take place in a sprawling space station amid laser guns shooting bright beams- a direct rip off from Star Wars. In fact, the entire sequence is too long and quite reminiscent of my criticism of the tedious finale from the otherwise brilliant The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker’s predecessor.

Otherwise, the film is top notch. Fantastic sequences involves Bond’s mid-air fight with a bad guy and a dangerous struggle for a parachute, a fight scene high atop a Cable Car during Rio Carnival, a vicious sparring in a Venice museum, and a female character chased and torn to bits by Drax’s carnivorous dogs, all make for great action sequences. The highlight though, may very well be Bond’s harrowing ordeal inside an out of control centrifuge chamber.

The return of Jaws is certainly a highlight to Moonraker especially as the popular villain turns “good” and finds a love interest! When he sees the cute blonde girl with pig tails and glasses, both characters eyes light up in a “love at first site” moment. As Jaws realizes Drax plans to both of them exterminated his alliances suddenly switch resulting in a touching scene between the two over champagne.

Moore and Chiles have tremendous chemistry as the MI-6 agent teams with the capable female CIA agent. In fact, Holly Goodhead is portrayed exceptionally well: female, intelligent, gorgeous, and savvy. Impressive (and progressive) is how Goodhead takes charge as she and 007 make a harrowing journey back to planet Earth and then work nicely together to destroy Drax’s deadly missiles. Sure the romance is there, but also the mutual respect between the two.

Fondly recalling childhood memories watching this film numerous times, Moonraker (1979) holds good memories for me. More importantly, it possesses wonderful Bond qualities that will enchant many Bond fans seeking fun and entertainment. The film admittedly contains a ludicrous plot attempting to fit the times, but thanks to lavish sets and a competent main Bond girl, the film is quite memorable.

The Breadwinner-2017

The Breadwinner-2017

Director-Nora Twomey

Voices-Saara Chaudry, Ali Rizvi Badshah

Scott’s Review #769

Reviewed June 7, 2018

Grade: B

Certainly a timely and politically charged story, The Breadwinner (2017) provides relevance and a progressive women’s empowerment message. This should be championed above all else and for that reason alone is recommended as a worthy watch. The film itself is dark and not entirely a children’s movie nor necessarily family friendly either, but rather a good lesson learned. Dragging just a bit throughout, this is small potatoes compared to the importance of the overall story.

The animated feature is based on the best-selling novel by Deborah Ellis, which focuses on life in dangerous Afghanistan (circa 2001) under constant threat by Taliban rule. Since women are not allowed to leave the house and any men daring to question the Taliban are either slaughtered, beaten, or arrested, the film is quite the heavy compared to typical animated fare.

The Breadwinner’s main character is a likable eleven year-old girl named Parvana, who lives in metropolitan Kabul, Afghanistan. Along with her father, she sells items on the city streets to support the rest of the family- wife, daughter and male toddler. Parvana’s older brother has died years ago.  Parvana’s father, Nurullah, is a former teacher left crippled by an injury sustained during war. When he is arrested, Parvana must disguise herself as a boy and work to support her family as she traverses the city with her best friend Shauzia in tow.

The animation is lovely and a definite high point of the film. All of the details look crisp and fresh- from the stark village houses to the vegetable stands and other more metropolitan aspects of the bustling cities, the film just looks very good and professional. The flawless art direction and visuals aid in the believable nature of the story.

Another high point to The Breadwinner is the substance that the story contains- it is not fluff as commonly seen in modern animated films.  All throughout the film I knew that I was watching something of meaning. Parvana faces true danger; if she is found out not to be a young boy but instead a young girl she could be beaten, raped, or worse. Unwisely, early on in the film she makes an enemy of a young, sadistic soldier, who continues to resurface and threaten Parvana throughout the film.

More than a handful of frightening scenes occur, evidence that director Nora Twomey’s intentions are not for a family friendly affair. Given the subject matter at hand this is a wise move. Toning down the violence and treachery of the Taliban would make the film feel insincere and dishonest. Rather, because of the violence and deaths and beatings that occur throughout, the film feels genuine and the characters emotions real.

If I were to point out a shortcoming to the film, The Breadwinner suffers a bit from an erratic approach. I adore the straightforward aspects of the main story and enjoyed not only the survival instincts and female empowerment, but of her innocent friendship with Shauzia. However, a handful of times the film goes in a different direction as Parvana tells stories of a young man’s journey to retrieve seeds stolen from him. Frankly, this slowed down the main plot and one has little to do with the other making them seem disjointed.

With a worthy and meaningful central story line, how nice to feast one’s eyes on an artistic animated production so marvelously made. The Breadwinner (2017) is a treat for those animated film fans yearning for something more intelligent than the standard “kid’s film”. Perhaps not a perfect “A”, but something of quality nonetheless.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail-2017

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail-2017

Director-Steve James

Scott’s Review #768

Reviewed June 6, 2018

Grade: B+

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) is a compelling documentary that received a fair amount of notice after earning an Academy Award nomination. The straightforward story never dulls nor drags, but rather stays on point by telling a gripping courtroom style legal thriller of a Chinese family’s struggle to keep their small banking business from criminal prosecution.

The documentary features the Sung family, led by patriarch Mr. Sung who brought the family from China to start a banking business decades ago. Since then the family has set up roots in downtown New York City launching a community style bank to help people living and working in the Chinatown section. The bank had come to be tremendously popular and culturally centered as a way to help struggling neighbors and their business has thrived.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank became the only bank to face criminal charges following the mortgage crisis in 2009. The documentary argues that this was because the larger banks were untouchable and prosecutors desired to make an example out of the bank because they were an easier target. The documentary wisely presents both sides featuring family interviews as well as the prosecutor’s arguments.

I found Abacus: Small Enough to Jail to move along quite smoothly and at a quick pace. The documentary mainly focuses on the Sung’s- all very driven people. They reside in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, and consist of the mother and father and three grown daughters in their twenties and thirties. The daughters are highly intelligent and the entire family are intensely loyal to each other and their business despite scenes showing them bicker over trial strategies and take out lunch.

The documentary mainly chronicles the prolonged five year ordeal that the Sung’s endured involving a myriad of paperwork, trial dates, and other particulars. All the while the family continues to uphold their business with gusto, but the trial takes quite a toll on the individuals, particularly the elderly patriarch. It is tough to imagine anyone rooting for a bank, but that is exactly the end result.

Director Steve James is wonderful at portraying the Sung family sympathetically in his work. There is never a doubt that he feels they have been victimized and sought after because they are a relatively easy target compared to the big boys of the banking world- J.P. Morgan and Chase are deemed untouchable, which is a large source of the problem and the film’s main objective to show.

Heartbreaking is a scene containing footage of at least a dozen or so Chinese bank employees being led to processing all chained together- chain gang style. This scene, shown relatively early on in the documentary, cemented my support for the Sung’s. I asked myself, even if they were guilty, why the inhuman and racist treatment? When questioned about the poor treatment of the indicted all the prosecution could muster was that it was “unfortunate”, hardly an apology.

The key element here and the main point of the story is that wrongdoing was committed, but the question asked is if the Sung’s had knowledge of a few of their employee’s shenanigans and I truly think not. As the documentary explains, the jury had extreme difficulty reaching a concrete decision, which is why the trial dragged on and on. All the while I asked myself, “If the large banks were bailed out with no prosecutions whatsoever why should a mom and pop bank be targeted?”

Steve James creates an unexpectedly fast paced piece, tough to do with dry financials, spreadsheets, and other banking type particulars, but that is just what he does. Objectively presenting the facts on both sides and offering a multitude of interviews and court room drawings, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) is a treat to view and captures a terrible time in United States history and how the undertones of racism still exist.

Good Time-2017

Good Time-2017

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Robert Pattinson, Ben Safdie

Scott’s Review #767

Reviewed June 5, 2018

Grade: B+

Every so often an actor who is known for either doing mainstream films or for portraying a mediocre character risks being typecast. Fortunately for actor Robert Pattinson, known mostly as the heartthrob from the trite Twilight films, he has been given the best role of his career. The actor hits the jackpot with a challenging and edgy performance in the fast-paced independent crime drama, Good Time (2017).

The film is a very good ride, and directors Ben and Joshua Safdie successfully provide excellent tension and compelling action scenes (Ben even gives a worthy supporting performance as a mentally challenged character). The overall tone of the film is that of an edge of your seat experience. As enjoyable and taut as the film is, a few minor criticisms must be mentioned below.

Good Time begins with Nick Nikas (Ben Safdie) being quizzed by a therapist. They are quickly interrupted by Nick’s brother Connie (Pattinson), who removes him from the facility so that he can assist with a bank heist. When the attempt goes awry and Nick is arrested, Connie does his best to spring his brother from jail then from the hospital following an altercation with another inmate. All the while, Connie must also evade the police as he forms a strange connection with a sixteen year old girl, Crystal (Taliah Webster).

The fun part of Good Time is that the film is fast paced and filled with twists and turns. Largely taking place over the course of one night, we are compelled by Connie’s journey and wonder if he will outrun the cops. In a way a standard thriller, Good Time rises slightly above this ranking with its wonderful New York City setting with numerous exterior scenes- this is a major plus.

Also garnering props for the film is the look of it. With a slick yet gritty and grainy  feel, the camera angles are quick and plentiful. This is a great tool to keep the action going at lightning speed and the editing deserves kudos too. In this way the intensity and tension runs rampant throughout. A good example of this is the bank robbery scene- as the teller disappears into the vault to get the requested amount of money she takes what seems like an eternity to return, leaving the audience (and Connie) wondering if she has alerted the authorities.

Otherwise, the film is helped immensely by the acting performance of Pattinson who owns the film. Having not seen him in anything before I was surprised at how good he is. Thinking of him as more a matinee idol versus a serious actor, I was proven wrong. Grizzled, temperamental, but being a decent guy at times, Pattinson’s Connie is loyal to a fault, putting his brother first and foremost.

Fans of Captain Phillips (2013) will be delighted to see Barkhad Abdi cast in a small yet pivotal role of an amusement park security guard. Nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award for Captain Phillips, the Somali- American actor has been able to find steady work in film since his acclaimed debut performance.  In his role in Good Time, the character is instrumental in kicking off the final act that leads to the downfall of at least one other character.

Worth mentioning are a few small but notable flaws (rather unnecessary) that Good Time contains. Perplexing to me is the casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Connie’s girlfriend Corey. Decades older than Connie, Corey is written pretty much as a nitwit- attempting to use her mother’s credit card to bail out Nick. The film does not mention the age difference nor provides much meat to the role- Jason Leigh deserves better than a throwaway role like this.

Otherwise, none of the female characters are treated especially well. Connie frequently directs or shouts at either Corey or even Crystal eliciting a “man in charge” vibe that is slightly off-putting. Also, a gay slur uttered by Connie is thrown into a scene for seemingly no reason, which in 2017 surprises me. Still, there is something that makes the audience root for Connie while we still want him to get his punishment.

Good Time (2017) provides quality entertainment in a specified genre with good acting all the way around. With a weird Ocean’s Eleven style (only with one prominent character) the bank robbery theme will satisfy those in the mood for a good heist film. The title of the film is a mystery (is it irony?) and not sure it totally works, but overall the film is a very good watch.

Women in Love-1969

Women in Love-1969

Director-Ken Russell

Starring-Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed

Scott’s Review #766

Reviewed June 2, 2018

Grade: A

Women in Love (1969) is a British romantic drama film that is truly one of a kind. The film is quite cerebral and requires a bit of thought which undoubtedly will lead to good conversation with film connoisseurs everywhere following a viewing. The four central characters are complex and flawed and intersect in each other’s lives in dramatic fashion making the film a “thinking mans” feast. The film is adapted from a popular D.H. Lawrence novel of the same name.

In 1920, set in the Midlands section of central England, sisters Ursula (Jennie Linden) and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) attend the wedding of an acquaintance, Laura Crich. The Crich family are enormously rich and own a good portion of the mining town. During the ceremony, Gudrun and Ursula fantasize about Gerald Crich (Oliver Platt) and Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), respectively. When the foursome cross paths again at Rupert’s pretentious girlfriend’s party, attractions and conflict arise.

The film being described as “character driven” does not begin to do it justice. Each of the four principle characters are richly written with intelligence and gusto. All of them are either flawed or insecure in some way, while the fact that Gerald and Rupert share sexual attraction for each other is another nuance explored throughout the film. In fact, Rupert is confident and outspoken about his bisexuality- extremely rare for a 1969 film. In this way, Women in Love is ahead of its time.

The major themes in Women in Love are commitment and love and how each character handles these emotions-sometimes either embracing them or running away from them. Clearly, Gudrun and Gerald are in love with each other, while Rupert and Ursula are too, but one couple is unsuccessful at reaching any sort of bliss. The characters possess a bevy of emotions making their happiness almost impossible and the characters feel doomed to failure from the onset. This is an example of the tremendous writing on the part of Larry Kramer and bringing the characters to the big screen in a memorable way.

Jackson’s Gudrun and Bates’s Rupert are my favorite characters because they appear to have slightly more depth to them and feel like the standouts. Gudrun appears to have love/hate feelings toward Gerald and often is downright cruel to him. As they vacation in the Swiss Alps, Gudrun purposely and inexplicably flirts with a gay artist leaving Gerald insanely jealous and resulting in tragedy. Counter-balancing Gudrun’s anger, Rupert showers in fun and zest for life, happily bi-sexual and thinking nothing of it, enjoying his sexually charged affections for both men and women.

The supporting characters, specifically of snobbish Hermione and mentally unstable Christianna Crich are examples of perfect casting. Eleanor Bron plays Hermione as garish, mocking, and teetering on unhinged. As she psychologically bullies poor Ursula when it’s clear Rupert prefers the more innocent woman, Hermione becomes frightful. Actress Catherine Willmer takes Christianna to a new level in creepy. Already appearing psychotic, when her daughter tragically drowns the woman goes over the edge, unleashing vicious dogs on any visitors to her estate. Both actresses give unforgettable performances.

Women in Love contains a scene that may very well be the most homo-erotic scene in film history. As Rupert and Gerald decide to partake in a Japanese style wrestling match one evening, they strip completely naked and grapple in front of a roaring fire. In this lengthy sequence, both front and rear nudity is provided, leaving nothing to the imagination. When Rupert suggests they swear eternal love for each other, Gerald cannot commit to the emotional union. One wonders if this outstanding scene influenced 2007’s Eastern Promises.

1969’s Women in Love is an amazing film with terrific acting all around. Taking romantic drama to an entirely different level and setting a new standard for brilliant complexities in film, the work of art from director Ken Russell is peppered with nuances making it rich with great story telling and character development. The fact that one couple ends in bliss and the other in tragedy is sheer excellence.

Malice-1993

Malice-1993

Director-Harold Becker

Starring-Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman

Scott’s Review #765

Reviewed May 29, 2018

Grade: B+

Malice (1993) is only one of a slew of husband and wife themed thrillers to emerge from the early 1990’s- Unlawful Entry (1992), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and Deceived (1991) are other similar films that made lots of money during this time period. This genre of slick film making was popular as the new decade emerged and more complex story-telling graced the screens.

The myriad of twists and turns are both a positive and a negative to this film.  Certainly keeping the audience guessing and on pins and needles is a key success, eliciting a fun sort of tone, as well as the tremendous star power of the casting (George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft are big time heavies).  Then again a few of the plot points become red herrings and thereby meaningless and the overall plots, and endless subplots, become way too complex than they need to be.

In a plot that is dizzying to explain, Associate Dean Andy Safian (Bill Pullman) and wife Tracy (Nicole Kidman) are embarking on a life together in Massachusetts as they purchase a grand Victorian house and plan to begin a family. As a serial killer stalks the campus where Andy works and implausibly resulting in him being the prime suspect, Tracy experiences health turmoil and is operated on by cocky yet brilliant Dr. Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin). When dire events occur the plot escalates and the motivations of the main characters are questioned as truths and deceptions unravel.

When I first saw Malice in 1993 (in fact I saw it twice the same year), I adored the multitude of plot points and devices. The film had the same effect as a speeding roller coaster ride- with endless twists and story revelations.  And to be fair the film holds up pretty well, never seeming dated or of its time like many mainstream films. The two startling reveals- Tracy and Jed being in cahoots and the mysterious eye witness living next door really being blind, are clever bits of writing that immerse the audience on many levels.

The acting is top notch- Kidman plays good and evil oh so well and Bancroft’s cameo as Tracy’s mother is Oscar worthy. The chemistry between Pullman, Kidman, and Baldwin, and Pullman’s “nice guy” to Baldwin’s “jerk” work quite well as the overlapping relationships play out. Small yet meaningful roles by Bebe Nuewirth, Peter Gallagher, and Gwyneth Paltrow add layers to the wonderful casting.

And who can forget the often parodied scene where arrogant Dr. Jed launches into a monologue where he claims to be infallible and that he literally is god. This scene received tons of publicity and is arguably the defining moment of the film.

However, Malice’s strengths also sometimes become its weaknesses. As events go along the plot becomes too confusing. The school serial killer plot soon becomes a red herring as we realize it has little to do with the central plot- the Tracy/Jed alliance- except only to raise parenting questions. Therefore the big reveal of who the killer is becomes for naught. It’s the creepy janitor named Earl (Tobin Bell) hardly a surprise. Furthermore, after the film ends and the viewer plays events back to make them add up, he or she will likely give up in frustration.

All in all Malice (1993) is an above average entry in a popular genre- who doesn’t like a good, solid thriller? With a talented cast and enough good medical thrills to balance with a college campus whodunit, there is plenty to please everyone who views this film.  Yes, some of the writing is preposterous and tough to believe, but Malice is a movie meant to escape with, sit back and enjoy.

A Ghost Story-2017

A Ghost Story-2017

Director-David Lowery

Starring-Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Scott’s Review #764

Reviewed May 27, 2018

Grade: A-

Marvelous is it to support independent film and I get most of my selections via the annual independent spirit award nominations announced each and every November. In this way rich, creative films that ordinarily would be overlooked are recognized and sometimes treasured instead of forgotten entirely.

A Ghost Story (2017) is a small film fortunate to land big name stars undoubtedly increasing its audience- I am unsure if this film even played in theaters anywhere. Nonetheless, the film is a thought- provoking experience that left me both perplexed and fascinated, but with the knowledge that I had seen something of worth. I may not have completely understood it, but I also adored it.

Writer and director David Lowery must be in good with Hollywood A-listers Casey Affleck and Roony Mara, who star in A Ghost Story. The pair also appeared in Lowery’s first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) which received critical acclaim.

Somewhere outside of Dallas, Texas a young married couple known only as “C” (Affleck) and “M” (Mara) move into a small house. “C” is a musician with an unusual fondness for the small house that the couple rents. While “M” desires to leave the house “C” wishes to stay, somehow drawn to it. After “C” is tragically killed in a car accident his spirit returns unable to let go of either his wife or his home eventually stuck in time to watch generations come and go.

A Ghost Story is a cerebral experience as we watch the events from the perspective of “C”. Adding an eerie quality is that “C” is in the form of a ghost- shrouded in a plain white bed sheet with dark circles for the eyes. While “C” does not speak we experience his perceptions and feelings through what he sees. At first following “M” around as she mourns his loss, eventually she moves on and “C” is forced to watch others live in the house. Pitifully, he awaits the return of “M” as hundreds of years go by.

Lowery is so good at creating an ominous and haunting tone mostly through his classical musical score. In this way the film is wonderfully original. The audience feels the loss and loneliness of both “C” and “M”, but there is a scary quality too. Not in the horror genre way, but rather we do not know what will happen next. When “M” brings a man home “C” is furious and knocks books to the ground and turns the lights on and off. Later, a new family is terrorized when an unhappy “C” breaks all of their dishes in a fit of rage.

A scene that gave me the creeps is when “C”, in spirit form, gazes out the window of his house and notices another ghost looking out the window of the house next door. This ghost looks exactly like him except is female- we know this because her sheet has a flower pattern. They are able to communicate without speaking and “C” learns that she has been waiting for someone to come home to her, but it’s been so long that she can’t remember who it is. This scene is sad and filled with despondence.

A forewarning is that the pacing of the film is very slow- perhaps too slow for most. After “M’s” landlord brings her a pie we watch her devour the pie in a very long five minute scene after which she vomits the contents up. Despite long this scene is powerful and important as the entire time we view her depression and longing for “C” to return absorbing some little comfort from the pie.

A Ghost Story reaches its creative climax towards the end as the film sort of comes full circle and we begin to understand the circumstances. A dynamic sequence of the passage of time occurs showing the demolition of the house and the development that becomes a thriving city over time. Depressed and desolate “C” jumps off of a high rise.

I was mystified, however, by the final scene and was unable to completely make A Ghost Story (2017) add up (was there a second ghost or a rebirth of “C”?), but that is also part of the intrigue of the film. Regardless, the film is a worthy watch if only for a story that is cerebral and makes one think. Its central themes of loneliness and loss are depressing, but also fascinating in relation to the good story that Lowery creates.

Twister-1996

Twister-1996

Director-Jan de Bont

Starring-Bill Pullman, Helen Hunt

Scott’s Review #763

Reviewed May 25, 2018

Grade: B+

Twister (1996) is a film that contains amazing and groundbreaking special effects- that blew people away (pun intended!) when released to the masses over twenty years ago. Moviegoers flocked to theaters everywhere to partake in the escapist summer feel good hit starring popular movie stars of the time. The film spawned amusement park rides and lots of other fun things during its run.

The visuals are what truly are to be enjoyed here and not the generic, tried and true subplots of romance, childhood trauma, and corporate greed that are mixed in. The film does not hold up well in present times as the dazzling effects now look rather dated when lined up again modern blockbusters. This results in Twister being reduced to “one of those 1990’s films”.

Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt star as American storm chasers, Bill and Jo, obsessed with their craft of tracking tornadoes throughout the United States mid-western region. Adding drama to the plot is that Bill and Jo are an estranged married couple in the midst of a divorce. Bill brings his new fiancee Melissa (Jami Gertz) along as numerous meteorologists converge to track storms using newly invented devices. Predictably, a series of vicious storms commence while Bill, Jo, and Melissa play out a love triangle.

Twister gets off to a fantastic start as a wicked storm kills then five year old Jo’s father, prompting her to pursue her career of choice. Jo has never gotten over her father’s death becoming fascinated by deadly storms. The effects of this initial storm are very well done as Jo’s father’s death scene is riveting- the poor man being sucked into the deadly cyclone is memorable. Regardless, this scene sets the tone for the ample effects to follow- most notably the terrifying sound of the swirling storm as farm tools and animals fly around onscreen.

After the initial introduction the rest of the film is mainly of the group driving around and encountering storms, with Bill and Jo taking center stage. As a child having spent many summers in the mid-west, sans tornadoes thankfully, I felt a sense of nostalgia watching the film.  Assumptions being made that Twister was indeed filmed on location (with studio help), the authenticity is apparent. From the vastness of the plains to the dusty roads, cornfields, and small town U.S.A. I enjoyed the down home, slice of life feel.

The action and effects are lightning quick and quite realistic. As mentioned the sound effects are as strong as the visual effects and I never doubted for a second that the twisters had a realism to them. This successfully merges into the summer blockbuster that Twister’s producers undoubtedly were going for. Making a ton of money, the end result was clearly successful and inspired by Hollywood.

Despite the superlative special effects, though, this is really the only reason to watch Twister and seeing the film once is enough excitement. The writers (Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin) attempt to incorporate a romance into the story and this does nobody any good. This negative aspect is even more apparent since the chemistry between Paxton and Hunt is non-existent and Gertz’s Melissa is clearly meant to be the odd woman out all along.

A large amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary to “buy” various scenes. Ludicrous are countless scenes where characters either outrun the monstrous twisters or somehow the storms encircle them, but miraculously never touch them. When Jo, Bill, and Melissa’s truck is captured inside the funnel cloud the vehicle and its passengers somehow remain unharmed.  And tornadoes do not simply come out of nowhere to attack without any indication on radar. But alas this is a disaster film and liberties must be taken.

The famous “cow scene”, notoriously used twice in the film seemed groundbreaking and cutting edge in 1996, but in 2018 now seems hokey and unnecessary. Times sure do change in cinema especially with technical effects and CGI growing each year.

Admittedly, the film does contain a good, all-american rockin’ summer tune by Van Halen named “Humans Being”, which always makes me think of summertime when I hear it. In fact the entire Twister soundtrack was an enormous success with radio airplay given and led to further successes for the film.

Perhaps now watched as a blast from the past or a revisit to some sort of nostalgic time for folks, Twister (1996) is a great example of a once popular popcorn movie falling into semi-obscurity. Given another twenty years the film will undoubtedly fall all the way. A nice film for the time it was, but little more years later.

Goat-2016

Goat-2016

Director-Andrew Neel

Starring-Ben Schnetzer, Nick Jonas

Scott’s Review #762

Reviewed May 23, 2018

Grade: D

Goat (2016) is a film that made me angry throughout the entire duration of its one hour and forty minutes and that I therefore deride. Incorporating outrageous and unnecessary scenes for no other reason than to offend, the film fails to achieve either a lesson learned or any major point. I do understand what the film makers were going for by portraying fraternities as bad and their member’s monsters, but Goat never provided logic, much character development or any good intentions. I was left disturbed by what I had just seen.

College student Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) is viciously attacked by two peers following a party one summer night. As the police search for the assailants, Brad begins the fall semester at a college also attended by his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas). There he decides to pledge a fraternity during “Hell week”, enduring one humiliation and degradation after another. When a fellow pledge dies following the fraternities abuse, someone rats the fraternity out with Brad as the likely suspect.

Brad is an interesting study. Clearly intended to be the films protagonist, he makes his first mistake by giving ominous looking strangers a lift home. At this point we do feel some sympathy for the character and we should root for him throughout the film, but somehow I didn’t.  As nasty as the fraternity brothers are it is not until nearly the end that Brad ever stands up to any of them and he oddly refuses to point the finger at his assailant despite being right in the police lineup. Huh? I found the character all over the place and never knew his motivations.

Most of the other characters (including the victimized pledges) have little rooting value and are mostly one dimensional “frat boys” written poorly. The writers of the script do their best to make fraternity brothers look awful- they beat, berate, humiliate, and degrade not only the pledges, but they barely treat females or animals any better. This was quite disturbing to witness- especially as there was little point. And the humiliation scenes went on and on and on and on- as if watching the same scene over again.

Ludicrous scenes of the guys drinking, acting belligerent, using anti LGBT slurs, and taunting each other commenced almost from the get go. A ridiculous cameo by James Franco went nowhere and made little sense other than his character being a former frat boy the current members looked up to. If I had a nickel for every “bro”, “dude”, or “man” that was used in the film to show machismo I’d be a rich man.

In the final segment the film does make a feeble effort at humanizing Brett, who inexplicably is hot and cold towards his brother all along (this is never explained). They also write a few of the frat boys as feeling sorry for the sudden heart attack suffered by one of the pledges, but this only fueled me with rage as unknown was whether they were genuine or wanted to save their own asses (they caused his death!). My vote goes for the latter.

The only prop that I will give to Goat is that a middling glossy Hollywood affair it is not and goes for the jugular in its intensity and brutality. But the point I thought the film was trying to make (that of a thought provoking look at the problem of fraternities) only made me hate fraternities and develop a negative view towards them.

From the despicable scenes where the frat feeds a poor goat chocolate laxatives and forces a blindfolded pledge to eat what’s thought to be excrement, to the concussion they give a pledge before he succumbs to a heart attack, the film is not an easy watch. Too many scenes felt overly hammered home and redundant and the conclusion was completely unsatisfying. We were left with Brett and Brad gazing out at the spot where Brad was attacked and this scene did nothing to wrap up the film.

Almost from the onset I squirmed uncomfortably during Goat (2016) and never felt the least bit connected to the film nor to any of the characters. Perhaps with more development and more of a purpose Goat might have been a success or appreciated more, but the film was a complete fail for me.

The Blair Witch Project-1999

The Blair Witch Project-1999

Director-Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Starring-Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams

Scott’s Review #761

Reviewed May 22, 2018

Grade: A

When a horror film “scares the viewer to death” than that film has superseded what is has intended to do since horror films are really a dime a dozen these days. Fondly remembering sitting in a crowded and very dark movie theater to see The Blair Witch Project (1999), I was left both mesmerized and clutching my seat for dear life. This film had an enormous impact on me.

The film wisely uses hand-held cameras (black and white 16mm film) and Hi-8 video, manipulating the audience into using their imaginations leading to terrifying results making the film one of the scariest horror films of the 1990’s. Sometimes what you don’t see is much more frightening than what is seen on screen.

In 1994 three college aged amateur film makers (Heather, Michael, and Joshua) decide to hike to Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about a legend known as the “Blair Witch”.  The witch is reportedly responsible for mysterious deaths and disappearances over the past two hundred years. They interview, wander, and joke around with each other as a sense of dread begins to develop.

According to the film the trio themselves disappear, but a year later their equipment is uncovered fully intact with the film footage able to be viewed. The 1999 film is professed to be the footage left behind by the group. Throughout the film we watch the individuals conduct interviews with the townspeople and eventually get lost in the woods at nightfall, forced to stay the night as a mysterious entity terrorizes them. Numerous creepy noises and rustlings scare the group.

In retrospect, with more insight and knowledge about the film, it may be easy for critics to dismiss The Blair Witch Project as either a hoax or a complete manipulation, but in 1999 audiences flocked to the theaters in droves as word of mouth spread. In fact, I myself saw the film twice on the big screen and was frightened equally with each viewing. More importantly, with the onset of the reality television craze the film was clever in capitalizing on this trend, so it is to be championed. Timing is everything!

In the film genre, The Blair Witch Project used buzz and word of mouth to elicit interest before the film was even released- and then the craze began. The film was highly influential to subsequent releases that also chose to utilize camcorders as their method of storytelling- think 2007’s Paranormal Activity and 2008’s Cloverfield.

Additionally, The Blair Witch Project is similar in tone to older masterpieces such as 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 1968’s Night of the Living Dead- independent releases made on a shoe-string budget that became enormously successful. As with these films the camerawork was tremendously important in eliciting necessary realism.

What makes The Blair Witch Project enormously authentic is the tricks used not only on the audience, but on the cast. Reportedly the film was almost entirely improvised including dialogue and situations that the characters faced. The actors began to feel as if events they were supposed to act were actually happening- their map disappeared and noises were created to frighten them. This clever approach to Method acting elicited the perfect responses from all involved- especially as they got colder and hungrier and more desperate.

My concern is how well 1999’s The Blair Witch Project will hold up as the years pass. Phenomenally effective and tremendously profitable at the time, dozens of imitations have arisen since the films idea was novel. So much so that it makes the original idea seem dated. One thing remains true- the film gave the horror genre a much needed breathe of fresh air and influenced many films to come.

Girls Trip-2017

Girls Trip-2017

Director-Malcolm D. Lee

Starring-Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith

Scott’s Review #760

Reviewed May 18, 2018

Grade: D-

I am truly baffled by some of the positive reviews of the film Girls Trip (2017), not only by viewers but respected critics. Attempts to make females as raunchy as the guys in R-rated comedies never works in my opinion (good writing does!) and the result is a largely unfunny, crude, piece of drivel.  The fact that the film which goes for a “female empowerment” theme is directed by a man is as much disappointing as disrespectful, especially given the fact that the writers are female- they couldn’t find a black female director?

At the risk of giving a testimonial, I am fully aware of the importance of creating good female roles in cinema- especially good female black roles. Unfortunately the roles in Girls Trip do nothing to further the cause as tried and true, standardized parts commence with nary a well-written character to be found. In modern film look to Black Panther (2018) or Hidden Figures (2016) for examples of positive black female role models- they do exist!.

The weak plot involves four forty something lifelong friends who regroup for a reunion after years apart. Famous lifestyle guru Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) decides to take her “Flossy Posse” to a music festival in New Orleans where they will spend the weekend partying like it’s the 1990’s once again. Ryan is married to a man who cheats on her, Sasha (Queen Latifah) runs a failing gossip site, Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a divorced, overbearing nurse, and slutty, aggressive Dina (Tiffany Haddish), who has just been fired from her job.

In predictable form- think 2009’s The Hangover or a multitude of other raunchy comedies since then, the girls get into trouble, drink too much, have sex, and partake in other hi-jinks throughout the weekend. The central plot is Ryan’s potential investment deal with rigid and uptight Bethany (Lara Grice) and a wisecracking agent in tow. As events unfold a female nemesis of Ryan’s shows up to cause trouble and stir up drama, testing the group’s patience.

Girls Trip is a typical American comedy film (not a compliment!) that offers weak writing and instead promotes stereotypical stock characters. Many similar comedies have come before it- many more will come after it. Since I disliked the film so much I decided to ask myself a few rhetorical questions as I observed the mess. In films with a group of women why is there always a slutty one (Dina)? Why is there always a mousy one (Lisa)? Why is there always a fat one (Sasha)? Why is it deemed funny to watch women pee or suffer bathroom issues?

The only positives to Girls Trip come in one humorous scene when Dina mixes absinthe into the girls drinks before a meeting causing them to hallucinate. As the girl’s begin to imagine themselves talking in deep baritone voices and Ryan imagines a waitress is her arch enemy the hilarity briefly ensues. A quick wrap up speech by Ryan at the films conclusion does send a nice message about being yourself and staying true to your loved ones, but why we have to suffer through two plus hours of crap to get to the inspiration and point of the film is beyond me.

The success of Girls Trip (2017), which will inevitably produce a sequel leads me to believe that the masses prefer their films idiotic, redundant, and fraught with cheap, crude laughs. The films intention seems to be to push the envelope- not to create great art- but just to make the film as crass as possible. This is presumably to prove that girls can be as nasty as boys, which the film succeeds at portraying.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-1984

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-1984

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw

Scott’s Review #759

Reviewed May 17, 2018

Grade: A

The second in the trilogy (I refuse to acknowledge the middling Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is easily my favorite of the group. Much darker than its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is also better, with more flare and pizzazz.  All three (1989’s The Last Crusade added) could be watched in sequence and easily enjoyed as companion pieces for a slice of 1980’s nostalgia.

A prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the action picks up a few years prior as our hero narrowly escapes the clutches of a crime boss in Shanghai, China. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), along with sidekick’s eleven-year-old Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), embark on an adventure to retrieve a stolen sacred stone. The poor villagers have also lost their children to a lavish palace where they are forced to work as slaves.

Wisely in keeping with the continuity of the first story, director Steven Spielberg and writer George Lucas return to the fold. This enriches the experience as both men clearly are in touch with the character of Indiana Jones and do not try to change him. His familiar wittiness and charismatic nature return and the dashing hero shows more skin this time around with more than one shirtless scene. To cement the good character, Harrison Ford returns to the role he created and made famous.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is layered with positive aspects and holds special childhood memories for me. I vividly recollect going to the movie theater and excitedly watching the film on the big screen clutching a tub of buttery popcorn. For a young boy this is the best- an adventure story for the ages with thrills and edge of your seat sequences. In fact, the film is perfect for the entire family.

Many gorgeous exterior sequences abound throughout the film and a prime example of this is when the trio encounter deadly assassins on a precarious rope bridge high atop a crocodile infested murky river.  This scene is fraught with tension and “how will he ever get out of this?” thinking when dear Indie is cornered by the killers. With lightning quick thinking he severs the bridge resulting in a dangling escapade. As numerous bodies fall into the river they are chopped to bits by the hungry reptiles. The fact that the action is all shot outdoors in lush scenery only adds to the enjoyment.

The film is admittedly filled with dark and scary aspects necessitating a PG-13 rating versus a PG one. As Indie, Willie, and Short Round are held hostage in the evil palace, a dangerous sacrifice occurs. One poor man is chosen to give his life by way of being burned alive in a roaring fire. Indie is then forced to drink potion presumably suffer the same fate.  Other bloody moments occur as a bad guy meets his fate after being flattened like a pancake by a steamroller. So clearly the tone of the film is much darker than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

To offset the blood, guts, and voodoo, the film occasionally parlays into humor mostly at the expense of Willie- the comic relief of the film. Accustomed to the glamour of costumes and luxurious hotels, the singer is forced to fend for herself amid snakes, elephants and other creatures. As she hungrily sits down for what she thinks is a scrumptious dinner, she is treated to monkey brains and bulging eye balls in soup- deemed Indian delicacies.

Lost on me seeing the film as a youngster and readily apparent watching it now are glaring negative stereotypes associated with the Indian culture. As I am sure the intent was not to insult, some stereotypes do abound with the hokey cuisines and the severe poverty. The underlying image of tribal Indians as being weird or out of touch is prevalent to say nothing of the odd religious overtones.

Kate Capshaw as Willie is the complete opposite of the central female character of Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whereas Marion is intelligent and serious, Willie is pampered, rich, and gullible. I find the camaraderie between Indie and Willie much more palpable than between Indie and Marion and the romantic overtures appealing. Who can forget the famous “bug scene” in the palace?

Conjuring up wonderful and exciting childhood memories, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is a treasure for the eyes and the strongest entry in the bunch. If in the mood for a good, fun-filled experience with a healthy dose of Indian culture and adventurous antics with a slice of darkness this one is a must see.

Shelter-2007

Shelter-2007

Director-Jonah Markowitz

Starring-Trevor Wright, Brad Rowe

Scott’s Review #758

Reviewed May 16, 2018

Grade: B+

By the mid 2000’s independent LGBT films were coming fast and furious as the genre was still relatively new and ripe for the picking with good ideas.  With Shelter (2007) we have a sweet film that focuses on new romance between two young men, one of whom is coming to terms with his own sexuality. The lead characters are not gay stereotypes and could easily pass for straight men, a characteristic impressive in LGBT film- and other mainstream films for that matter.

Rather than focusing on discrimination the characters may face or any obstacles from other characters (family and friends), the film wisely makes the story a character study and the demons one man wrestles with while “coming out”. The small film is written intelligently save for one supporting characters plot driven decision. Also, in the modern age we are beginning to see a bevy of similar themed films emerge from the LGBT community and Shelter offers nothing we have not seen before.

Set in sunny southern California, our main protagonist is Zach (Trevor Wright), an aspiring artist in his early twenties. The ultimate “good guy” he is popular with friends and girls and frequently babysits his five year old nephew Cody while his sister parties and has one night stands. When Zach meets his best friends older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe), the pair fall in love as Zach wrestles with his sexuality and conflict with his future plans. The sexual and family struggles of Zach are the main themes of the film.

Shelter (not sure I get the title’s meaning) is a solid slice of life story. Zach initially dates a pretty girl, Tori, who is blonde, wholesome, and a girl next door type. This is done intentionally to show that Tori is a girl any young straight man would have interest in. We never see Zach show interest in any other men besides Shaun so the film leans towards a solid romantic drama once the fellas get together. Still, we see Zach’s internal struggles and accepting himself for who he is played out. Actor Wright and director Jonah Markowitz, capture this successfully.

Shaun, arguably second fiddle to Zach, is a character that I feel is very well written. Avoiding negative stereotypes, Shaun is handsome, masculine, and charismatic. Completely confident and exuding great poise, he is a character that any gay male should look up to. He is openly gay yet “one of the guys” as he should be. He immediately connects with Cody becoming a father or cool surrogate uncle figure for the lad. A quick concern of Zach’s sister Jeanne’s of having the boy around a gay man is trivialized in quick form.

Another positive to the film are the multiple scenes showing Zach, Shaun, and Cody as a happy family and how normal this is. Examples of this are the frolicking around the beach playing football or horseplay. A quiet dinner of barbeque steaks and red wine  for the men and macaroni and cheese for Cody elicit images of a connected family unit despite some in society still poo pooing this idea. The film presents the connectivity as normal.

A tiny flaw in the character of Jeanne shows her willingness (almost eagerness) to leave Cody (and her ailing father) behind when she decides to take off to Oregon with her brand new boyfriend. This point seems rushed and out of character. While a party girl with a crappy job in a grocery store Jeanne did exhibit heart and written as sympathetic and caring all throughout the film. Surprising and unrealistic to me is that she would up and leave her life. A paltry excuse of “Oregon not allowing kids” was left unclear and unexplained.

Part coming of age story, part coming out story, Shelter (2007) is an example of the little film that could with an appreciation of independent cinema. The film tells a nice story of one man’s journey to self-discovery and the individuals he surrounds himself with.  With impressive California oceanfront and working class principles as a backdrop, the film has a calming texture and weaves a solid experience for viewers to enjoy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark-1981

Raiders of the Lost Ark-1981

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Harrison Ford, Karen Allen

Scott’s Review #757

Reviewed May 15, 2018

Grade: A

A film that kicked off the tremendously successful and ever so fun 1980’s trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a treasure in the adventure genre time capsule. Director Steven Spielberg embarks on the journey of one of the most highly visible film heroes in that of Indiana “Indie” Jones, a swashbuckling, aww shucks kind of guy. Harrison Ford is perfectly cast in a role that perfectly fits him and, besides Han Solo, defined him during the decade- his best role of his career if you ask me.

Wonderful to watch in sequence with the even more superb Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), these two films are pure pleasure as our hero faces dangerous obstacles at every turn while either chased by or pursuing sinister robbers or other undesirables. All the while Indie keeps his familiar sly grin and numerous jokes to entertain audiences.

As a piece of film making Raiders of the Lost Ark has it all with superior writing, editing, cinematography, art direction, sound, and visuals effects. The reaped many Oscar nominations, quite uncommon for an adventure tale, but nonetheless the merits were warranted. Atypical compared to other films of this type, the film is not overly saturated with phony machismo or unnecessary “guy” stuff, but rather appealing and genuine.

The time period is 1936 and archaeologist Indiana Jones works as a professor at a University. Known for retrieving ancient artifacts he is contacted by Army intelligence officers who ask him to help stop the Nazis from acquiring the Ark of the Covenant which they believe will make their armies invincible, allowing them to conquer the world in sinister fashion. Events lead Indie to Marion (Karen Allen), who harbors resentments towards him for a failed past romance. The rest of the film follows the pair throughout Nepal and Cairo in an attempt to recover the Ark before the Nazis do.

Raiders of the Lost Ark contains all of the elements for a successful “hit” movie and has blockbuster written all over it. This is not a slight against the film, but rather a testament to all involved. Led by successful Spielberg who knows how to connect all the dots, first and foremost Ford infuses charisma into his character so that the audience enjoys his sensibilities and desire for the truth. Indie is intent on protecting humankind so Spielberg carves a “good versus bad” approach- making the villainous Nazis the antithesis of Jones which creates a clear rooting value.

My personal favorite scene in the film comes towards the conclusion. Nicknamed the “face melting scene” this scene contains then state of the art special effects that compelled and mesmerized me and also led to light nightmares for any kid under the age of twelve. The way that the bad guys see swirling, benevolent ghosts- first beautiful and peaceful, but soon turning deadly- cause their faces to literally melt off or shrivel-the scene is both inventive and dramatic.

Not to be dismissed as trite or fluff are the exciting and memorable scenes dubbed “the snake scene” and “the rolling boulder scene”.  In the former Indie wryly admits his fear and trepidation of snakes as he must traverse a huge pit filled with thousands of them and he comes face to face with a deadly King cobra. In the latter scene, Indie must outrun a speeding boulder as he takes an ancient artifact from a sacred spot inside a cave, causing boulders to collapse around him. Both scenes are enormous fun and immeasurable edge of your seat sequences.

I never sensed much chemistry between actors Ford and Allen, but writing the characters of Indie and Marion as former lovers adds a good bit of tension and sparring between the characters- this provides for some good fodder and humorous situations. Thankfully the romance between the two is neither the focal point of the film nor all too important, but rather, in the safety that the 1980’s cinema was- merely a necessity.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a superb adventure film holding up better than it should decades beyond release. The film is rich with good old fashioned action, a charismatic hero, thrills, intrigue, and a good history lesson for those interested in the build up to World War II. The accounts are fictional of course, but Spielberg offers a fine 1980’s cinematic experience that’s got it all.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial-1982

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial-1982

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace

Scott’s Review #756

Reviewed May 10, 2018

Grade: A

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is a wonderful, magical film that will succeed in melting the hearts of anyone with even a tad of cynicism. The film is otherworldly (quite literally) and contains a message of acceptance and appreciation of other beings. Mixing many humorous moments with tender drama and tears, the film becomes part fantasy, science-fiction, and humanistic story. The film still feels fresh and relevant today with a bevy of forever remembered scenes and references- a wonderful story of friendship.

The audience is immediately introduced to a pack of alien botanists, arriving in a California forest from their far away planet to study plants one night. When government agents interrupt the peaceful moment, the “extraterrestrials” are forced to depart leaving one creature behind. When ten year old Elliott (Henry Thomas) discovers and begins to communicate with what will come to be known as “E.T.”, the duo forge a wonderful, lasting friendship as they attempt to return E.T. to his homeland.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is crowd pleasing in every way offering a bit of everything for all of its lucky viewers. Director Steven Spielberg reportedly made this film as a result of his desire to share a childhood imaginary friend with the world so the charm really shines through in this very personal story. The film contains an overall innocence that is pure benevolence- E.T. teaches Elliott as much as Elliott teaches E.T. Who can ever forget the pairs initial interaction as the use of Reese’s Pieces candy became a huge cultural phenomenon? The lovely quote of “E.T. phone home!” is still as poignant and teary eyed as it was in 1982.

Enjoyable and recognizable is E.T. himself becoming a cult figure. Odd looking, wide-eyed, and yet of a lovable nature, even cute, the film makers were careful not to make him too frightening. Using real actors and distorted voices E.T. became famous, appearing on lunch boxes, tee-shirts, notebooks, and binders throughout the early 1980’s.

The film, released in the “modern age” of 1982, provides a genuine portrayal of suburban life at that time. From the sunny sub-division style neighborhood that Elliott and his family live in, the absent father figure (so common in many 1980’s films), the single-mom/divorced parents phenomenon takes hold and makes families like this common place. If made in the 1960’s Elliott would for sure have had two happy parents and a white picket fence. Dee Wallace as Elliott’s mother Mary, received several mom roles throughout the decade, portraying them with a wholesome middle-America quality.

Henry Thomas, as Elliott, is crucial to the success of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and sadly the actor never did much beyond this great film. While tough to create chemistry with a creature from outer space, the young actor does just that as we buy the two as connected friends. The duo especially shine during the emotional “death” scene and the farewell scene finale.

The other supporting characters rounding out Elliott’s family are well cast and appropriate at relaying what a typical suburban family looks like. Michael (Robert MacNaughton) is slightly surly yet protective as the older brother and Gertie, played by a very young Drew Barrymore (soon to experience super stardom throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s) is cute, bubbly, and teeters on stealing the show as the precocious five year old.

At its core and what makes E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial so appealing is its heart- a sympathetic creatures desire to return home and be with his loved ones is the main focus. In this way, only slightly reversed is a comparison to the 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. As Dorothy yearns to return to her home amid of an exotic, unknown, and sometimes scary world, the same can this be said for E.T. and this makes both films similar and equally appealing.

Rich with elegance, intelligence, and creativity, Spielberg creates a tale that is both primed for mass consumption and rife for mainstream appeal. Rather than weave a contrived or cliched story, he spins a magical and long-lasting, good story that will appeal to the kid in all of us. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) reaped many Oscar nominations, but lost out on the big prize to the epic Ghandi that year.

The Breakfast Club-1985

The Breakfast Club-1985

Director-John Hughes

Starring-Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald

Scott’s Review #755

Reviewed May 8, 2018

Grade: A

The Breakfast Club (1985) is one of the most beloved films of the 1980’s and perfectly captures being a teenager during this time. Containing both an innocence and an authenticity rarely found in films targeted for younger audiences (and there were plenty in the 1980’s), the film is timeless and holds up exceptionally well, still feeling fresh. Director John Hughes avoids cliche’s and creates genuine truth in cinema. The theme song, “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” is nearly impossible to hear without associating it with this film.

The story line is uncomplicated; five high school students (Bender, Claire, Andy, Brian, and Allison) of differing social classes gather one Saturday morning in the high school library for a day of detention. Each student appears to know the others, but only peripherally, having little in common. Assistant Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) assigns them to complete a thousand word essay by the end of the day. The group engages in mischievous antics, squabble, and discuss their respective roles and troubles in life over throughout the day.

The film looks and feels like a small independent feature rather than a big budget (Universal Pictures) offering, which is of enormous praise. The cast is very small- only the aforementioned six principles and two minor characters. The setting is almost entirely inside the walls of a suburban high school with only a few exterior shots to speak of. Mainly what succeeds is that the characters interact with rich dialogue, good texture and underlying insecurities that make the screenplay bristle with genuine angst.

It is tough to pinpoint who the lead characters would be, but arguably Claire and Bender (Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson) are the pair expected to unite as a couple, as they do in the conclusion- this is predictable yet sweet. Unexpectedly however, the film pairs Andy and Allison (Emilio Estevez and Allie Sheedy). Both couples are complete opposites, Claire and Bender even despising each other throughout most of the film, but realize their mutual attraction.

Careful not to weigh down the film with too much heavy drama, Hughes, who also wrote and produced the work, peppers in some comedic moments as well. Gleason is the easy foil as the sole authority figure, a bit too dedicated to his job of humiliating and disciplining the students, but he does get his due in humorous fashion. In fact, either on-screen or off screen, no adult figures are written in a positive light giving The Breakfast Club a complete teenage perspective.

But the main appeal goes to the teenagers and the message that Hughes successfully relays- that of the misunderstood young adult. Each character is unhappy in some way and feels put into a category or defined by the individual cliques they each belong to- whether they want to or not. In this way Hughes makes the film a treasure in terms of relating to the characters- everyone remembers high school and the insecurities wrestled with while attempting to get good grades and obtain acceptance. Hughes brings these aspects to life with his slice of life tale.

Even if every character is not immediately recognized within the viewer themselves, each is empathetic nonetheless. When Andy reveals his father’s criticisms or Bender painfully recounts his father’s physical abuse, we feel for them, suddenly seeing the strong athlete or the burnout from our own high school days in an entirely new way. Mousy Allison gets a makeover from Claire and suddenly shines like a new dime- finally not being ignored. Brian’s overbearing parents pressures are almost too much for him to bear.

At the conclusion of the film, we are left to wonder what will happen on Monday morning during homeroom. Will the group continue their new friendships (or more) or simply return to the normalcy of their respective peer groups? Hughes wisely does not satisfy our piqued curiosity but rather leaves it to our imagination. The Breakfast Club (1985) holds appeal for the masses without feeling cliched or put upon- only feeling insightful and inspired to accept others we may have preconceived notions about.

Witness-1985

Witness-1985

Director-Peter Weir

Starring-Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis

Scott’s Review #754

Reviewed May 7, 2018

Grade: A-

Witness (1985) is a slick crime thriller that may at first glance seem like just another by the numbers genre film, but instead is well above average. As the plot unfolds there are key nail biting and edge of your seat scenes that build the tension in such a way that suspense master himself, Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. Decades later it is tough to watch the film and not notice a slightly dated quality, but at the time it was well regarded and terrifically paced. Charismatic Harrison Ford and novice child actor Lukas Haas make the film more than it could have been.

The setting of the film is twofold and presents two different cultures- rural Pennsylvania’s Amish country and the bustling metropolitan Philadelphia. The death of her husband leads Amish woman Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (Haas) to the big city to see her sister. While transferring trains Samuel witnesses a brutal murder in the men’s room- unbeknownst to the killers. This riveting scene (explained more below) triggers the rest of the story.

When Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned to the case and questions Samuel, he is unable to determine who the assailants are. After Samuel fingers an unthinkable suspect, events escalate and John uncovers a mighty corruption circuit within the police force. John, now targeted, must assimilate into the Amish culture as he strives to protect both Samuel and Rachel (as well as keep himself alive), while embarking on a relationship with Rachel. The story wisely focuses on the differing lifestyles of the principle characters.

What I enjoy most of all about Witness is the nice mix between both types of people and different cultures and how they can learn from one another. John is so used to and desensitized by being in the midst of the rat race that he often forgets the nicer things in life- peace and quiet or even love. Rachel and Samuel, of course, are highly sheltered, living in a bubble, and are fish out of water amid the bustling streets of Philadelphia. The counter-cultures offer a nice balance in this masculine film with female sensibilities.

Not to be usurped by purely romance, Witness is at its core, a fleshy, male driven crime thriller. Adding some softer edges, Weir pleases both male and female audience members and appeals to the masses. John’s precinct, filled with detectives, police officers, and criminals, gives the film appropriate “guy elements”.  So director Peter Weir offers a good balance here.

I like how Weirs chooses to portray the Amish- not caricatures, stereotypes, or to be made fun of, they are sweet, stoic, and intelligent, accepting of John into their lives. As John learns more of the Amish culture and becomes one of them, this is even more prevalent as an immersing of different cultures- a good lesson to even apply to other differences between peoples.

The acting is a strong component to Witness. Charismatic and handsome, Ford is believable as a fast paced, busy detective. To add further substance, Ford transforms his character (written as one note in typical films of this nature) into a sympathetic and inspiring man as he slowly becomes father figure to wide-eyed youngster Samuel and falls in love with Rachel. Ford is the standout, but the film would not work with lesser supporting actors. Both innocent and gentle characters, McGillis and Haas add layers to their roles with pronounced toughness  and resilience- saving John as much as he saves them.

Two scenes are pure standouts and successfully elicit tension and dramatic effect. As Samuel witnesses the murder in the bathroom, he is seen in a stall peeking through a crack with only one eye exposed. When he makes a slight noise the assailant violently goes through each stall intent on shooting whatever he finds. Samuel must think quickly to avoid being caught. The camera goes back and forth between Samuel’s looks of panic and the assailant getting closer and closer to catching him. Viewer’s hearts will pound during this scene.

Later, as Samuel sees a newspaper clipping framed among a case of awards, he recognizes one man as the assailant. In this scene Weir shoots it in slow motion so that the reactions of John and Samuel characters are palpable and effective. The scene is tremendously done and cements the bond and trust between these characters.

Thanks to a wonderful performance by Ford and the cast surrounding him, Witness (1985) successfully widens the traditionally one-dimensional masculine crime thriller into something deeper. Providing slick entertainment with a great story and substance, the film crosses genres and offers a substantial cinematic experience woefully needed in the mid 1980’s.

The Social Network-2010

The Social Network-2010

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer

Scott’s Review #753

Reviewed May 3, 2018

Grade: A

When released in 2010 The Social Network was a timely and brazen look into the world of social media and the powers and dangers it encompassed. Any film of this nature that chooses to incorporate either a current event or a current fad runs the risk of either being forgotten soon after or becoming irrelevant as the years go by. So far, almost a decade later, The Social Network is even more of an interesting film in the age of embattled political turmoil involving the social media world- with Twitter and Facebook constantly in the headlines.

Director David Fincher (Zodiac-2007, Fight Club-1999) creates a stylistic piece masked behind the biography of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (still relevant in 2018) and tells of his rise to fame from a Harvard student to an internet genius. Throughout all of his meteoric success, the driven young man let his personal relationships suffer as feuds and backstabbings encircled his life resulting in bitter legal entanglements. The film is flawless in every way- the screenplay, the score, the acting, the cinematography, and especially the editing all lend themselves to a memorable experience.

We first meet Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a teenager, recently dumped and bitter, he posts a scathing editorial on his personal blog and somehow hacks into the college site to allow all the student body to read. Along with his friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss  (Armie Hammer), they come up with the initial concept of Facebook. This leads to others becoming involved in the project including Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) as events spiral out of control due to deceit, jealousy, and conflicting accounts.

Fincher’s style is riveting and fast-paced with snappy edits and lightning fast scenes giving the film a crisp and sharp look. The story is told via the Harvard events interspersed with the numerous courtroom scenes as each of the principal characters are represented by legal council adding drama. In this way the point of the film is of a cynical nature and despite being a biography on Zuckerberg’s rise to fame, the overall theme is the effects that social media has had on the entire world- in this way the film elicits a message without being preachy.

Trent Reznor, from the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, creates an amazing musical score that adds a modern touch with both techno and electronic elements. This is not so overdone as to take away from the main theme of the film nor is it too distracting, but rather provides a moody yet intensive element that is highly effective to the overall film.

What riveting acting The Social Network provides! Young upstart Eisenberg is perfectly cast as Zuckenberg and the similarities between the two are uncanny. With his quick wit and neurotic mannerisms, intelligent yet insensitive to others, Eisenberg not only looks the part he seems to embody the character and deservedly received an Oscar nomination for the role. Garfield and Timberlake are nearly as compelling in supporting yet important roles. Finally, Hammer portrays indistinguishable twins with a smug, cutting edge perfect for the way the parts are written.

The Social Network (2010) is a tremendous film with modern technologies and a brilliant screenplay. Beyond the spectacular writing the film contains other top notch qualities that make for a memorable experience. The film holds up exceptionally well with current relevance and features a stellar cast of young actors (Eisenberg, Garfield, Hammer, and Timberlake) who all went on to become heavy hitters in the world of cinema years later.

Stand By Me-1986

Stand By Me-1986

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Will Wheaton, River Phoenix

Scott’s Review #752

Reviewed May 2, 2018

Grade: A

Stand By Me (1986), is a sweet, coming of age story that every male  (or female for that matter) who grew up in small town america will undoubtedly relate to. Set mostly outdoors in the remote pacific northwest, the film successfully shows the deep bonds of friendships over the course of a Labor day weekend as four youths set out on an adventure of discovery. In 1986 I was able to completely relate to the film and in present day Stand By Me holds up quite well.

Stephen King, a tremendous author known mostly for horror novels, created a short story named The Body in 1982- Stand By Me is based on this story. Instead of traditional horror however, the story is more of a straight up adventure, though in pure King style- a dead body is front and center (naturally). Stand By Me is directed by Rob Reiner, and its success led to other mainstream achievements for Reiner (1989’s When Harry Met Sally and 1990’s Misery- also a King novel). The legendary theme song by Ben E. King plays over the closing credits and became a smash hit again in 1986.

The film starts off in intriguing fashion as the main character, Gordie, as an adult, learns that his childhood friend Chris Chambers has tragically been stabbed to death. Gordie then narrates a flashback to the summer of 1959 when he and three other boys embarked on a childhood adventure one Labor day weekend. Along with Gordie (Will Wheaton), we meet Chris (River Phoenix) a rebellious boy with a troubled home life, Teddy (Corey Feldman), who is scarred as a result of being burned by his mentally ill father, and Vern (Jerry O’Connell)  an overweight kid insecure about his looks.

The wonderful aspect of Stand By Me is that each of the four central characters is flawed either physically or by some other insecurity-giving depth to each character. In this way, each character is highly empathetic to an audience member who may see him or herself in these characters. This point carries through for the entire length of the film. Through conversational scenes with one another each weakness is exposed and dissected- Teddy becomes vulnerable about his relationship with his father when a character refers to him as “loony”. Vern’s weight bothers him, and Chris aspires to be so much more than people anticipate he will ever become.

Not to be weighed down by too many dramatic elements, Stand By Me incorporates much needed humor into its story. My favorite sequence is the delightful story that Godie regales the other boys with one night as they camp outdoors.  Town legend has it that a rotund, picked on boy nicknamed “Lard-Ass” enacts the perfect revenge on the townspeople one summer as he enters a pie-eating contest resulting in a torrent of vomiting. This scene is very well shot by Reiner and brilliantly balances the differing tones of the film all the while nestled in a connecting package.

The film belongs to the young actors each of whom is cast extremely well. Of course, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix went on to major success in the 1980’s. Phoenix who tragically died in 1993, and Feldman, who suffered through numerous problems in his short career, are forever youthful with promise and poise in this film. In Phoenix’s case, he seemed most on course for leading man status with his dashing youthful looks and clean cut appearance. Watching in later years it is bittersweet to watch both actors and recollect the promise of each.

Mixing both drama and comedy but at its core a true adventure story best watched on a summer evening, Stand By Me is memorable and poignant. The setting of late summer, outdoorsy camping and green scenery is resilient and stands the test of time. Anyone who ever has embarked on a good journey as a kid or formulated everlasting memories of those from their youth (which should be all of us) can appreciate this timeless gem.

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!