My Cousin Rachel-2017

My Cousin Rachel-2017

Director-Roger Michell

Starring-Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin

Reviewed September 25, 2017

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It-2017

It-2017

Director-Andres Muschietti

Starring-Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher

Reviewed September 20, 2017

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Shoes-1948

The Red Shoes-1948

Director-Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring-Moira Shearer, Marius Goring

Reviewed September 19, 2017

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronic-2015

Chronic-2015

Director-Michel Franco

Starring-Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett

Reviewed September 18, 2017

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clown-2016

Clown-2016

Director-Jon Watts

Starring-Laura Allen, Christian Distefano

Reviewed September 16, 2017

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bride of Chucky-1998

Bride of Chucky-1998

Director-Ronny Yu

Starring-Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif

Reviewed September 11, 2017

Grade: D+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latter Days-2003

Latter Days-2003

Director-C. Jay Cox

Starring-Steve Sandvoss, Wesley A. Ramsey

Reviewed September 7, 2017

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections in a Golden Eye-1967

Reflections in a Golden Eye-1967

Director-John Huston

Starring-Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor

Reviewed September 3, 2017

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XX-2017

XX-2017

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

Starring-Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey

Reviewed September 1, 2017

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other People-2016

Other People-2016

Director-Chris Kelly

Starring-Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon

Reviewed August 24, 2017

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Thing-1996

Beautiful Thing-1996

Director-Hettie MacDonald

Starring-Glen Berry, Scott Neal

Reviewed August 20, 2017

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

Director-Raoul Peck

Starring-Samuel L. Jackson

Reviewed August 19, 2017

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanna-2016

Tanna-2016

Director-Bentley Dean, Martin Butler

Starring-Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa

Reviewed August 18, 2017

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annabelle: Creation-2017

Annabelle: Creation-2017

Director-David F. Sandberg

Starring-Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson

Reviewed August 17, 2017

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire At Sea-2016

Fire at Sea-2016

Director-Gianfranco Rosi

Reviewed August 12, 2017

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punish Me-2005

Punish Me-2005

Director-Angelina Maccarone

Starring-Maron Kroymann, Kostja Ullman

Reviewed August 9, 2017

Grade: A-

Punish Me (sometimes titled Hounded) is a provocative 2005 German language film that pushes boundaries and titillates the viewer with its racy themes of masochism and pedophilia that will be way too much for your average viewer to marinate and digest. In fact, some may be completely turned off (rather than on) by this film. However, for the edgy thinker, the film is quite the find. Unique, extreme, and thoughtful, Punish Me is an experience to remember.

Shot entirely in black and white (rare for twenty-first century cinema) the film appears bleak and harsh, cold almost- and that is no doubt an intentional measure. The grizzled German landscape (the city is unidentified), gives the film an interesting and effective cinematography, transforming the black and white colors exceptionally well, whether the scene is set in daylight or night time. Something about the black and white decision is genius.

Elsa Seifert (Maren Kroymann) is a fifty year old probation officer. Married and raising a teenage daughter, she appears to live a stable, middle class existence. When one of her charges, Jan (Kostja Ullman), a sixteen year old, handsome young man, gives a pursuit of her, their relationship turns into an obsessive, lustful situation for both. Jan, you see, likes to be sexually beaten, and, at first, hesitant, Elsa slowly gets immersed in Jan’s world.   When other characters begin to catch wind of the situation between Jan and Elsa, the film really becomes intense.

Astounding to me is the fact that Punish Me is directed by a woman, Angelina Maccarone. This both surprises, and impresses me. Thought-provoking is the female perspective in the film. Elsa is not an unhappy woman- though she nervously chain-smokes in almost every scene. She initially has no intention of being sucked into Jan’s eccentricities. As she awkwardly spanks him in their first steamy, sexual encounter, she is gentle, yet she quickly intensifies. Is she insecure with her middle-aged body? She certainly gets carried away by Jan’s charms, putting both career and husband at risk. Can she stop herself before it’s too late?

One wonders a few things- How would this film feel if it were directed by a man? Maccarone centers the perspective on Elsa more than she does Jan- or are we to assume that Jan, at sixteen, is merely experimenting with his sexuality and therefore not the more interesting character?  This was my determination. Elsa has way more to lose than Jan does. We are not sure why Jan is so troubled to begin with or why he likes to be beaten- was he abused by his parents? sexually or otherwise? What deep rooted issues does Elsa have?

I imagined the complexities offered had the film gone something like this- Elsa is a male character. Would man on boy be too much? Is female on boy safer? One wonders, but if Elsa was a male and Jan a female, I do not think the film would be half as controversial or daring. It would seem more exploitative, or dare I say, conventional. Instead, Maccarone, turns the film into a psychoanalytical feast as we wonder what makes both Elsa and Jan tick and why they enjoy the discipline scene? Perhaps there is not clearly defined answer.

The supporting characters are not explored very well, other than a fellow troubled girl that Jan beds, commenting that she is too fat (she is not) or Elsa’s husband being revealed to have once had an affair with another woman pronouncing “it was only sex not love”. From this, one draws the conclusion that Elsa and her husband will reunite and resume their middle class life together, but what will become of Jan?

Thanks to effortless direction and good choices by Maccarone, she makes Punish Me an examine-worthy look at sexuality, desire, and emotions. Many will loathe the film or not bother to give it the time of day based on the subject matter, but the film is a treat for the creative cinematic lover and lovers of analysis.

13th-2016

13th-2016

Director-Ava  DuVernay

Reviewed August 5, 2017

Grade: B+

Hot on the heels of her successful feature film Selma (2014), director Ava DuVernay follows up with another race relations piece- this time with an informative documentary entitled 13th, after the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, freeing slaves and banning slavery.

The documentary, however, brings to the surface, loopholes to the constitution, and how progress has been too slow for black people following the Civil war and into modern times. It looks at the escalating incarceration rates of the United States black population over the years. and how the prison system as a whole has been used as both a money-making system and as a way of controlling minorities.

The United States prison system is examined throughout the documentary and gets off to a compelling start as we hear an audio clip of former President Barack Obama inform us that the United States has five percent of the worlds population yet twenty five percent of the worlds prisoners, a direct message to those convinced that the United States is the greatest country in the world. This powerful message sets 13th off right as we begin a journey into why the statistic exists.

I thoroughly enjoyed the high production values that the documentary offers, including modern graphics as the numbers of the incarcerated blacks came on screen in an edgy way. 13th does not feel dated or monotone as some documentaries do. Rather, it feels creative and nuanced with interviews and news clips of events such as the Civil Rights movement to Depression era footage and to very modern day footage so that over a hundred years of history is represented.

A great add on to 13th is the chronological path through history that the viewer experiences, beginning with the Civil War and ending with 2017- with the unpopular Donald Trump as President of the United States. In fact, the gloomy implication is that, with the current (2017) presidency, the minority population is still repressed and discriminated against by many political figures and that they are still largely feared and blamed for the “perceived” high crime rates.

DuVernay’s major point of her documentary is that many political figures use “scare tactics” to influence voters to vote a certain way and throughout history voters have fallen for this measure time and time again. She wisely goes through history and dissects several presidents terms and individual campaign messages. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr., and Obama are heavily featured. I loved this aspect since it was like a fresh history lesson for me and how the times have not only changed, but in some ways stayed the same.

13th avoids being too preachy, and, to its credit, presents “both sides of the aisle”. There are some who feel that political figures tough take on crime is not meant to repress minorities- a few of these folks are interviewed and given time to explain their viewpoints, but the film is largely left-leaning in tone and views- the negative portrayals of Trump, Nixon, and Reagan, are proof of this.

Enjoyable are interviews with prominent activists such as Angela Davis, leader of the Communist Party USA, and a woman with close ties to the Black Panthers. Considered a radical in her day (the 1960’s), the documentary features clips of her interviews both then and now. Current political figures Van Jones and Newt Gingrich are featured giving 13th a crisp, modern, and relevant feel to it, rather than a period of time long ago.

Overall, I found 13th to be an educational and historical lesson in the challenges and the race issues that people of color have dealt with over the years and how their world is still effected by current legislation and decisions by political figures (mainly white), who hold all of the cards and repress people who speak out against them.

The Salesman-2016

The Salesman-2016

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti

Reviewed August 2, 2017

Grade: A

The Salesman is the latest film directed by Asghar Farhadi to win the coveted Best Foreign Language film Oscar-2011’s A Separation also won the crown and 2013’s The Past, nestled in between the other films, is nearly as good. All contain mesmerizing and gripping plot elements that leave the audience in good discussion long after the film has concluded- that is what good storytelling is all about.

Rich with empathetic elements and good, crisp writing, Farhadi has quickly become one of my favorite international film-makers as each of his pictures are as powerful in humanity as their counterparts. Along with fellow contemporary Claude Chabrol (admittedly around a lot longer), similarities abound between the two creative maestros in the form of thrills, mystery, and differing character allegiances. I adore how both directors incorporate the same actors into their films.

In clever fashion, Farhadi incorporates classic stage production, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, into the story and the play and the film contain similar themes- humiliation and secrets.  Young and good-looking couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are community theater actors living a happy existence in metropolitan Tehran, Iran. They have a wonderful array of friends and companions and are popular with their close neighbors and theater buddies. Emad, a well-liked high school teacher, and Rana, a housewife, make a perfect couple, but their bond will soon be severely tested.

Forced to move from their crumbling apartment into temporary quarters owned by a theater friend, they are unaware that the former tenant worked as a prostitute and had a bevy of gentleman callers. What they do know is that she left the unit in a hurried way, leaving behind all of her belongings for them to sift through. One night when Rana is home alone, she inadvertently allows a mystery person to enter, which leads to a terrible incident. The film centers around determining what exactly happened between Rana and the intruder. Is she hiding the truth? Can she and Emad get past the implications of the events?

The audience is left  with a powerful and intriguing mystery to absorb and unravel. Throughout most of the film questions are brought to the surface to be thought through. Who was the intruder? Will Emad exact revenge? What happened?

The brilliance of The Salesman is that we, as the audience, never actually see the incident inside Emad and Rana’s apartment take place, so we are baffled by what has transpired. We merely witness the after-effects and the questions the characters (mainly Emad) have. Is Rana being truthful? Did she know the man who entered the apartment? Was it even a man or perhaps the former female tenant? With Farhadi, anything is possible, but rest assured, a startling climax will ensue.

Compelling and the pure genius of the film is how the viewer’s loyalties will not only be divided by character, but will also change within an actual scene. In one tense sequence, a heroic character becomes the villain and slowly returns to being the hero again-talk about a topsy turvy experience! The Salesman is smothered with a roller coaster of emotions and feelings.

In fact, the way that more than one of the central character’s change their motivations is largely the film greatest success. Rana, Emad, and “the Man” are flawed, complex characters, and what a treat it must have been for these actors to sink their teeth into these roles.

A special mention must be given to the other actors involved in the film. The Salesman is fraught with great performances big and small. In addition to the leads (Hosseini and Alidoosti), the supporting cast exudes immeasurable talent. Farid Sajadhosseini as “the Man” is simply astounding in his performance and his family members, appearing largely in the conclusion of the film, deserve much praise. These small characters appear in the most pivotal time of the film and give it the needed acting chops required to pull off the end result.

Asghar Farhadi hits another one out of the park with The Salesman and how deserving is the Oscar win for this man- a director whose films are always sure to be compelling, thought provoking treats. I cannot wait for his next film.

Dr. No-1962

Dr. No-1962

Director-Terence Young

Starring-Sean Connery, Ursula Andress

Reviewed July 27, 2017

Grade: A-

Watching the 1962 film that launched the James Bond franchise into the legendary status that it has since become, Dr. No is rich in history and is a blueprint of what the Bond films would encompass in the decades to follow. Admittedly more basic in comparison to the more sophisticated and fleshed-out chapters to come, the film is nonetheless a superb entry in the franchise and a chapter to be cherished on its own merits.

Charismatic Sean Connery, soon to forever be identified in the role of James Bond, fills the role with a suave, masculine, confidence oozing from the screen in each and every scene. In fact, his performance in the role is so seamless, one might assume he had been playing Bond for years, rather than being a novice. And who can forget the characters first entrance- in a casino, confidently gambling, and introducing himself to Sylvia Trench, a character originally slated to be his steady girlfriend.

The film version of Dr. No is adapted from the first Ian Fleming spy novel of the same name, which is clever. As the years have gone by, the Bond films were modified a great deal from the original written pages, so it is cool and original to have the film closely mirror the book.

Lacking a hefty budget, the action mainly takes place in both London and Jamaica, and at Crab Key, a fictional island off of Jamaica. When Strangways, a British Intelligence Chief, is killed and his body taken by assassins known as “the Three Blind Mice”, who also steal files related to Crab Key island and a mysterious man named “Dr. No”, Bond is summoned to his superior’s (M) office in London and tasked with determining whether the incident has anything o do with radio interference of missiles launching in Cape Canaveral.  Natural, it does and the adventure sets off  a series of dramatic events involving henchmen, scrapes with death, and  Bond’s bedding more than one beautiful woman, before facing the ultimate showdown with the creepy title character., who is missing both hands.

Notable  and distinguishable to the film are the fabulous, chirpy, child-like songs featured in the film. From the tuneful, harmonic, nursery rhyme, “Three Blind Mice”, sung calypso style, to the sexy and playful, “Under the Mango Tree”, both are light, yet filled with necessary mystery too. The fact that the former is featured in the beginning of the film and implies that the named the same villains are joyfully singing the happy tune, is a good indicator.

Dr. No is also inspired for the introduction of the crime organization, SPECTRE, that any Bond aficionado knows very well is a staple of the franchise. Joseph Wiseman, as Dr. No, is well cast, though sadly, we only see him at the latter part of the film. Much more character potential is left untouched, though the mystique of knowing the man exists, but not what he looks like is worth mentioning.

Admittedly, rather silly is the assumption that the audience will not be witty enough to realize that both  the characters of Dr. No and Miss Taro (a villainous secretary) are  clearly caucasian actors wearing unconvincing makeup. Why the choice was made not to cast authentically ethnic actors is unclear. My guess is the powers that be wanted to go a safer route due to the uncertainty of the franchise at that time.

Still, for a first try, Dr. No gets it just about right. What woman in 1962 was sexier or cast more perfectly than Ursula Andress as the gorgeous and fiery sex kitten, Honey Ryder? This casting was spot on and who can forget her sultry introduction to the film as she emerges from the roaring waves on the beach in a scantily clad bathing suit. The set designs and locales also work well in the film. Contemporary are the set pieces, specifically the spacious prison apartment Bond and Honey briefly reside in. Sleek and sophisticated, the sofa, rug, and tables all exude luxury and class.

Dr. No is a worthy film on its own merits and a fantastic introduction into the world of James Bond and the many trademark elements and nuances that the films contain.

Dunkirk-2017

Dunkirk-2017

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy

Reviewed July 24, 2017

Grade: A

Of the hundreds of war films that have been made over the years, most have a similar style with either a clear patriotic slant, or, of a questioning/message type nature. Regardless, most  have a certain blueprint from the story to the visuals to the direction- and rarely stray from this. The genre is not my particular favorite as the machismo is  usually overdone  and too many  of the films turn into standard “guy films”, or the “good guys versus the bad guys”. Finally, along comes a film like Dunkirk that gives the stale genre a good, swift, kick in the ass.

The story is both simple, yet historical. In 1940, Nazi Germany, having successfully invaded France, pushes thousands of French and British soldiers to a seaside town named Dunkirk.  With slim hopes of rescue or survival, the soldiers are sitting ducks for the raid of German fighter planes, who drop bombs both on the soldiers and rescue ships. In parallel stories, a kindly British civilian (Mark Rylance) and his son sail to Dunkirk to help rescue the soldiers, and two British fighter pilots chase the German fighter planes, attempting to thwart their deadly intentions.

One will immediately be struck by the pacing of the film as it is non-stop action from start to close. The action, combined with very little dialogue, and an eerie musical score, are what make the film feel so unique and fresh. Directed by Christopher Nolan, (The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception) critics are heralding this film as his greatest work yet- I tend to agree.  Scenes involving such differing musical scores as screechy violins mixed with thunderous, heavy beats, really shake up the film and keep the audience on their toes as to what is coming next.

An interesting facet to the film, and certainly done on purpose, is that the backstories of the characters are not revealed- we know very little about any of them.  Do they have families? Are they married? This is a beautiful decision by the screenwriters and by Nolan.  For instance, the very first scenes involve a disheveled private, named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead).  Panicked, he runs through the streets in pursuit of the beach, where he meets a fellow soldier named Gibson, who is burying another soldier in the sand. Together, they find a wounded soldier and carry him to a departing ship- the men never speak, but communicate through their eyes and gestures-it is  a powerful series of scenes.

Another positive to Dunkirk is the anonymity of the enemy. The German soldiers are never shown. Certainly, we see many scenes of the fighter planes overhead, pummeling the soldiers with bombs, and pulsating gunfire in various scenes, but the mystique of  the enemy troops is a constant throughout the film. The faceless component to the villains adds a terror and haunting uncertainty.  In this way, the film adds to the audiences confusion about where the enemy may be, at any given moment.

The visuals and the vastness of the ocean side beach, forefront throughout the entire film, at one hour and forty six minutes relatively brief for a war film, elicits both beauty and a terrible gloominess. Scenes of the vastness of the beach peppered with thousands of cold and hungry men is both pathetic and powerful.

The best scenes take place on Mr. Dawson’s  (Rylance) mariner boat. Aided by his son Peter, and Peter’s frightened schoolmate, the trio head for dangerous Dunkirk to help rescue, but en route pick up a shell-shocked soldier determined to stay as far away from Dunkirk as possible. This leads to compelling drama and a deep characterization of all the central characters.

Many list 1998’s Saving Private Ryan as tops in the modern war genre, but Dunkirk may very well rival that film in intensity and musical effectiveness. Dunkirk also contains shockingly little bloodshed or dismembered soldiers- it does not need this to tell a powerful story. At times emotional,  the film is always intense and never lets go of its audience from the very first frame. A war film for the history books and a lesson in film creativity and thoughtfulness.

Closet Monster-2016

Closet Monster-2016

Director-Stephen Dunn

Starring-Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams

Reviewed July 22, 2017

Grade: B

Closet Monster is a 2016 Canadian LGBT drama that had the honor of being featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was crowned the Best Canadian Drama winner. Upstart director, Stephen Dunn, directs the film and adds some interesting visual techniques as well as some imagination. The story is a compelling coming of age piece, but the film as a whole is uneven at times, mainly with some character underdevelopment. Still, for the subject matter, a nice film for LGBT teenagers to be exposed to.

The film is set in Newfoundland, where eighteen year old Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) is a closeted, creative, teenager, with aspirations of being accepted into a prestigious school in New York, designing special effects makeup. Through the opening scenes, featuring Oscar as an eight year old child, we learn that his mother has left the family to begin a new life, and that Oscar witnessed a vicious beating of a gay teen, leaving him terrified of his own developing feelings towards the same sex.

Oscar has issues with both of his parents- his mother’s abandonment, and his father’s temper and homophobia. He frequently escapes into a private tree-house he and his father have built and daydreams of happier childhood times with his father. Oscar’s best friend is Gemma, who his father mistakenly assumes is his girlfriend. When Oscar meets suave co-worker, Wilder, he immediately becomes smitten with him.

Director, Dunn, creates a talking pet hamster for Oscar, voiced by actress Isabella Rossellini, a wonderful, creative add-on to the film. Buffy is a source of advice and wisdom throughout Oscar’s constant trials and tribulations and has been with him through the years. In a clever revelation that goes over his head, Buffy reveals to Oscar that she, in reality, has been replaced several times by other hamsters over the years.

Closet Monster has its positives and negatives. Certainly, for teenagers, or for any age group, struggling with either sexuality issues or for children of divorce, the film hits it out of the park, and serves as a relatable film. Dunn successfully makes Oscar an empathetic character, with wit and charm, and just the perfect amount of vulnerability. In many ways, Oscar is mature beyond his years. For the most part a careful character, he is surrounded by a world of chaos and disorder and uses escapism (his fantasies and secluded tree-house) to get through life. In this way Oscar is a very strong and well-written character.

Also a hit is the love interest of Oscar’s- the sexy Wilder. More of a bad boy, and assumed to be straight, Wilder, while rebellious, also becomes a sweet and trusted friend to Oscar. When he realizes Oscar’s sexual preference and that he is the object of Oscar’s affections, he does not freak out or dismiss Oscar. Rather, the young men become even closer. In a tender scene, Wilder offers to be Oscar’s first kiss, so that he can experience the monumental moment in a special way.

Still, the film would have been wise to develop Oscar’s parents better. At first, the father (Peter Madly), appears to be a decent man, dumped by his wife, and forced to raise his son alone. Conversely, the mother (Brin), is written as abandoning her child to selfishly start a new life with a new family (Oscar even spits in her face!). Somewhere along the line, Peter becomes a reckless homophobic with severe anger issues and Brin is painted as the sympathetic one who suddenly is “there for Oscar”. Better development would be recommended for these characters as I found their motives either unclear or perplexing. Why did they split in the first place?

Dunn is great at making Closet Monster an atypical film. He does not pepper the story with predictability or tried and true story points when it comes to the same sex romance, which is a brave choice. Rather he fills the film with non cliche moments. Closet Monster is a worthy entry in the LGBT film category and a must see for those struggling with identity issues- the film acts as a form of therapy.

Hair-1979

Hair-1979

Director-Milos Forman

Starring-Treat Williams, John Savage, Beverly D’Angelo

Reviewed July 14, 2017

Grade: B+

Hair is a 1979 musical film that, in addition to catchy singing and dance numbers, possesses quite a serious theme- that of the Vietnam war. This film is not your traditional Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer style musical prevalent in the 1950’s. Rather, the entire experience is a unique one with an underlying dark tone and is presumably a message film with a liberal slant.

Made in 1979, yet set in the late 1960’s, Hair centers primarily around two young men, along with a bevy of hippie friends, while most of the action is set in New York City. Despite the time period, the film does not always succeed in the authenticity category- many of the costumes and hairstyles scream late 1970’s. The film also has a late 1970’s “look”, clearly on the cusp of the 1980’s with poofy hair associated with the times. This forces the viewer to escape into a world largely of make-believe.

Claude (John Savage) is a naïve young man from folksy Oklahoma, clearly having lived a sheltered and religious life,  proper and away from big city living.  He is drafted and sent to the Big Apple, where he will wait assignment. Charismatic Berger (Treat Williams) and company befriend Claude after he gives them spare change, soon becoming the best of friends. Claude falls in love with socialite Sheila Franklin (Beverly D’Angelo) in town from neighboring Westchester County, NY and a love story ensues.

When Claude, Berger and company interrupt a lavish dinner party hosted by Sheila’s parents, a hilarious yet informative scene develops.  While  Sheila secretly is gleeful at the arrival of her new friends, Sheila’s parents are none to pleased, which results in a standoff between Berger and  Sheila’s family. Part comical, this scene also displays the severe class distinctions between many of the characters.

The rest of the film centers on the friends antics involving drug use, relationship trials and tribulations, and culminates in a cross country drive to desperately see Claude before he is shipped to Vietnam. Multiple scenes involve songs in relation to the turbulent race issues of the times- my personal favorites are the opening number, “Aquarius” and the scandalous, “Black Boys” and “White Boys”, performed by Nell carter.

Never one to be disappointed with a film set in Manhattan, Hair is a film basking in fantasy and the entire production seems to be one big dream as the carefully crafted musical numbers intersperse with the more dramatic elements. Still, much of the film consists of the group prancing around Manhattan and wonderful areas such as Washington Square park are featured as well as several changes of seasons, giving the film a slice of life feel.

My favorite performance is that of Treat Williams as Berger. Part showman, part jokster, and part earnest, he fills the role with dynamic energy that comes full circle in the last act when he drastically changes his appearance for the sake of a friend.

The ending of the film is melancholy and an inevitable reminder of the coldness and finality of war in relation to human life. The encompassing song is “Let the Sunshine In”, a powerful and worthy conclusion to the film as the gang visits Arlington National Cemetery, to join an anti-war peace rally and say goodbye to a friend.

The film version of Hair may be drastically changed from the stage musical version,  a version I shamefully have yet to see, but on its own merits the film is a poignant, powerful, and wholly entertaining musical adventure.

In the Flesh-1998

In the Flesh-1998

Director-Ben Taylor

Starring-Dane Ritter, Ed Corbin

Reviewed July 10, 2017

Grade: B

In the Flesh is a steamy, pre-Brokeback Mountain, LGBT film from 1998. The budget for this film is very small and the acting quite wooden. My initial reaction was that In the Flesh is a terrible film, yet something sucked me in as a fan, whether the crime theme or the romance (or both). The atmosphere is quite dreamlike and moody, which I find appealing and the addition of a whodunit murder mystery amid the romantic drama is highly appealing- therefore I hesitantly recommend this film for perhaps a late night adult viewing. But be prepared for endless plot holes and unnecessary sub-plots.

Oliver Beck (Dane Ritter) is a handsome college student who works as a hustler in a dive bar named The Blue Boy in Atlanta, Georgia. He has his share of loyal, older men who use his services and adore him, especially a lonely man named Mac- a barfly at the watering hole. When closeted Detective Philip Kursch (Ed Corbin) begins an undercover assignment to bust a drug ring at The Blue Boy, their lives intersect, as Philip falls in love with Oliver and investigates his past.

As the drug investigation seems to be quickly forgotten, a murder mystery develops when Mac is murdered at the ATM machine- Oliver looks on, panics,  and speeds away. When Philip covers for Oliver as an alibi, the plot really thickens. Other side stories like a flashback sequence involving Oliver’s past- while driving drunk he killed his best childhood friend, the introduction of his sometime boss and girlfriend, Chloe, and his caring of Lisa, his sister, addicted to heroin- are brought to the table, but really have little to do with the main story and only confuse the plot.

The most compelling element is the relationship between Oliver and Philip and their dysfunctional love story, but many questions abound. Is Philip secretly married or dating a female? We know nothing about his personal life. Oliver, hustling and hating every minute of it, merely as a way to support Lisa’s habit is ridiculous- why not get her help?

Neither actor Ed Corbin nor Dane Ritter will ever be accused of being the world’s greatest actor, and can hardly act their way out of a paper bag. Both actors performances are wooden and unemotional, even when emotion is required in the scene. Still, oddly this somewhat works in the film.

Regardless of In the Flesh being riddled with plot holes and sub-par acting, the film has some charm. The moody Atlanta nights, rife with sex and secrets , is quite appealing. A murderer on the loose and disguised save for a green watch is intriguing. The film also has a mysterious, almost haunting nature, and the muted camera work, whether intentional or the result of a poor DVD copy, works very well.

Since the time is 1998, a time period where more and more LGBT films were beginning to be made, but not overly so, In the Flesh and director, Ben Taylor, deserve credit for even being able to get this film produced and made. The mainstream success of LGBT juggernaut, Brokeback Mountain, undoubtedly was helped, albeit in a small way, by this film. Though, strangely, I never noticed the two main characters ever kiss- too soon for 1998?

Not the finest acting nor the best written screenplay, In the Flesh is a bare bones film that will be enjoyed largely by an LGBT audience seeking a peek into a time when these types films were not running aplenty and typically made in the independent film venue.

Life, Animated-2016

Life, Animated-2016

Director-Roger Ross Williams

Starring-Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind

Reviewed July 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Autism is still a baffling disease to many people (myself included) since I know nobody personally who is afflicted with it and, before watching this documentary had many questions. How wonderful to see a documentary that not only teaches the viewer about autistic people, but presents a wonderful story of how Disney films helped an autistic child into a world of normalcy with the aid of loving parents. Life, Animated is an empathetic film with a positive and inspirational message.

The production is based on a 2014 novel, written by journalist Ron Suskind, entitled Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, in which Ron tells the story of his son Owen and how Disney films helped him communicate with the outside world. The documentary, however, is told from Owen’s perspective, through childhood years into adulthood. The story incorporates not only Owen’s challenges with autism, but also his love life, relationship with his brother and parents, and various other autistic people he has come to bond with. He also was fortunate enough to be invited to Paris, France to speak at a conference.

How Owen, an energetic and “normal” three year old, suddenly shrunk into himself and away from the rest of the world is mysterious, but also how autism works. Owen’s parents, baffled at the sudden change in Owen’s behavior, did the dutiful parental actions of doctors and studies, but, in essence, helped Owen on their own. When Ron, on a lark, and with some desperation, began speaking in the voice of a Disney character, Owen sprung to life like magic.

The film will please fans of Disney films since Owen lives and breathes the various classic movies, immersing himself in their worlds and memorizing scenes and dialogue alike. Specifically, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are heavily featured as reference points.

As a teenager, Owen sadly was tormented by school bullies, which caused him a setback. Fortunately, through his creative mind, he began to write stories and come up with his own characters as a sense of relief from everyday stress. The film intersperses various drawings of Owen and his family throughout, adding a creative edge to the documentary.

The documentary wisely does not state that Disney films will cure anyone with autism, but rather Owen’s love of these films served as a stimulus to bring him back to life. Presumably any autistic child could find a source or something he or she loves, to help build self esteem and achieve skills.

I highly recommend Life, Animated to anyone with an autistic child, sibling, relative, or friend, or anyone seeking an empathetic experience and a heartwarming tale of achievement. From a film perspective, the documentary is clear, concise, and to the point, with videotaped images of Owen’s life as a child through adulthood. Life, Animated received a 2016 Best Documentary Oscar nomination.

Homicidal-1961

Homicidal-1961

Director-William Castle

Starring- Jean Arless, Patricia Bresling

Reviewed July 8, 2017

Grade: A-

Homicidal is a 1961 horror film, shot in black and white, that is a direct homage to the successful Psycho, made only a year earlier. In fact, while some would argue Homicidal is a direct rip off of Psycho, I see the film as containing elements of Psycho, but twisted around so that its own unique story is created.  Regardless, Homicidal is a fantastic, edge of your seat film, that never drags or slows down, and the film deserves recognition. The surprise ending is terrific.

The story gets off to an intriguing start as a tall, leggy, blonde woman confidently walks into a local California hotel to request a room-there is something mysterious about the woman. She appears to be a woman of some wealth and convinces a young bellboy to marry her for $2,000.  Hesitant, but also enamored by the woman, he accompanies her to the local justice of the peace, who marries them in the middle of the night. The woman (Emily) then savagely bludgeons the justice of the peace and flees the scene. Later, she brags about the murder to a mute and sickly old woman named Helga, who Emily is caring for.

From this point, other characters in the small town are introduced and we slowly learn more and more about the intriguing Emily (Jean Arless). Flower shop owner, Miriam (Patricia Bresling) and her brother Warren are central to the story as Warren will inherit a fortune on his twenty-first birthday, which is the next day. Miriam’s boyfriend, Karl, is the local pharmacist, who Emily appears to fancy. All of these characters come into play as the intriguing plot develops. Is Warren’s inheritance a motivating factor? Will he be killed? Why isn’t his sister, Miriam receiving any money? Could she be secretly plotting something?

The comparisons to Psycho are endless. The gender bending twist during the final act is the most obvious one- Arless deserves kudos for tackling both roles in wonderful, compelling fashion. The fact that Arless resembles Psycho actress Janet Leigh is another similarity. Otherwise, Miriam and Karl resemble characters from Psycho and Helga could be a dead ringer for Mother Bates. Even some of the sets, specifically a staircase, resembles the one in Psycho.

Director, William Castle, brilliantly adds a gimmick to Homicidal that works very well- as the film is about to reach its shocking climax, the action suddenly stops and the introduction of a “fright break” ensues. At this point, Castle gives the audience forty-five seconds to leave the room to avoid what is to come next-we see the clock countdown in real time. What a fantastic idea!

Throughout the film, I noticed some of the actors, most notably Jean Arless, playing their roles in a slight melodramatic way. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door, or a car drives up, and the character quickly turns their head in a fast movement, to look in an almost cartoonish way. Rather than see this as a negative, this style of acting works for me and adds a bit of humor to the film.

Another positive for me is the way the film is gruesome in several parts. As a character descends the staircase from a stairlift, the image of the body is shrouded in dark shadows. When the dismembered head topples down the staircase, it is macabre and effective. The justice of the peace death scene is also well done and will please horror fans in its hefty bloodletting. Surprisingly, only two murders occur.

Certainly not as crafty, and containing a smaller budget (though Psycho was also small), Homicidal is quite the solid effort in a B-movie way. Success is largely thanks to the fantastic direction of William Castle, who carves a similar story to Psycho, but in a  different way so that his film does not feel like a carbon copy. Homicidal is a film for fans of classic, solid, horror films.

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!