Rabbit Hole-2010

Rabbit Hole-2010

Director-John Cameron Mitchell

Starring-Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart

Scott’s Review #1,115

Reviewed February 23, 2021

Grade: A

Rabbit Hole (2010) is a raw and brutal film. I say that with major praise because it’s also a great film with much humanity and pathos. The dreariness of the film makes one relate to and empathize with the characters and perhaps recall a loved one who has died. It’s truly brilliant if the viewer can withstand the sadness. I was able to tolerate the tone and immerse myself in it.

Thankfully, there are snippets of humor to offset the heavy drama.

Every film is not meant to be feel-good and enjoyable but they all should conjure emotions and Rabbit Hole succeeds in spades.

Yes, it’s a downer given the topic of the day is the loss of a four-year-old child but it’s a tragedy worth enduring to experience the powerful acting from its stars. It’s a gem because it shows how people deal with and recover from loss if there even is a way to cope with and live and feel again without destroying oneself.

Eight months after the accidental death of their son, Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) struggle to overcome their grief. He wants to hold on to everything that reminds him of Danny, while she would rather sell their home, relocate, and make a fresh start. Trauma and conflict begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of his therapy group and Becca reaches out to a teenage boy with telling facial scars.

The drama is based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and the film version has the look and feel of a stage production.

Not much is shown before Danny’s death. I love this because it asks that I use imagination. The cleverness is that Danny was not killed by a drunk driver or a speeding car. It was an accident and this point feels genuine.

The pain is watching a once-loving couple crumble from the weight of the devastation they have been dealt. Neither parent is to blame but do they blame each other? Do they resent each other because each reminds the other of Danny’s death?

A pivotal and necessary story point is watching Becca and Howie become drawn to other people, some of them surprising. Becca bonds with the teenage driver of the car that killed Danny. Howie nearly is drawn into a lurid affair with Gabby (Sandra Oh) whom he connects with at group therapy. Is it healthier for Becca and Howie to go their separate ways? Do they stand a chance?

Most can ask themselves the same question as to their partners if faced with devastating qualities. How does one pick up the pieces alone let as part of a couple?

Kidman is breathtaking in her ability to generate the emotions she does. She was recognized with an Academy Award nomination. Terrific, but Aaron Eckhard, forever an underappreciated actor missed out on a nomination. This is a shame because he is just as good as Kidman. Together, they are flawless, building and playing off the emotions and feelings of the other.

A film about grief, Rabbit Hole (2010) bravely tells the story of how an incident can ravage not only a relationship but our inner being turning us into someone we don’t know. This is a terrifying thought and the stellar acting and pacing only make us feel the pain others can suffer.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Nicole Kidman

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Portrait of a Lady on Fire-2019

Director-Céline Sciamma

Starring-Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel

Scott’s Review #1,114

Reviewed February 19, 2021

Grade: A-

A film with tremendous artistry and a cool LGBTQ+ vibe, gay director Céline Sciamma interestingly deliver the goods with Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). She takes modern-looking actors and transplants them to the era of France during the late 18th century. The film tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait.

The viewer will ask themselves the following questions. What would become of two young gay women in this long-ago age? How many people repressed their true feelings and desires because of the times they lived in? Would their different classes and backgrounds cause strife within their burgeoning relationship? I know I constantly asked myself these questions.

To those with limited cinematic patience be forewarned. A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very slow and plodding. I didn’t mind this aspect but some might. The payoff is not bombastic in an act of violence or an explosion sort of way but it’s well worth the effort put in.

In a common approach in modern film that is feeling more standard than special, the first scene actually postdates the events in the rest of the film so that we sort of know-how events will turn out. But we do not know the how’s and the why’s. It is immediately assumed that one character has suffered some loss or misfortune related to a painting.

Painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is summoned to a remote island inhabited by very few people. She is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haene) who is destined to be married to a nobleman in Milan, Italy. Héloïse is depressed and despondent, wanting nothing to do with her intended whom she has not met. The portrait is a gift to the never-seen husband-to-be. It is revealed that Héloïse’s sister leaped to her death from the cliffs on the family estate so it’s suggested throughout that she may suffer the same fate.

Needless to say, Marianne and Héloïse fall madly in love.

Their love is hardly ever a question as the chemistry is immediately noticed. Sciamma, who wrote the screenplay, avoids stereotypes that would give away the sexuality of the main characters. They are not butch nor do they possess masculine qualities. In fact, we wonder if they are bisexual? They never struggle with their sexuality, a dramatic cliche in other LGBTQ+ films.

I adore this because it makes the love story more powerful rather than one character pursuing the conflicted other.

As brilliant and artistic as I found Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be there are a couple of unexplained or unclear aspects. I am not even sure how they relate to the main story.

Waifish housemaid Sophie has an abortion with assistance from Marianne and Héloïse. Later, the three go to a bonfire gathering where women sing, during which Héloïse’s dress briefly catches fire (just as shown in the painting featured in the beginning). When Sophie is having the abortion there is an infant and child nearby. Are they her children? Who are the women who sing?

I didn’t understand the point of these items.

Fortunately, these missteps can be forgiven for the grander piece is amazing filmmaking. The final shot of Héloïse sitting in a theater is phenomenal and clearly borrowed from Call Me By Your Name (2017) which featured an identical scene. The camera focuses on the face of actress Haene as she emits many emotions during the flawless scene. What a win for an actor!

Despite some side story flaws, I adored Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). The film is exceptionally shot and almost all shots could be portraits in their own right. Especially lovely are the beach sequences as when Marianne and Héloïse first ignite the flames of their passion. My takeaway is that it tells the story of fate but doesn’t feel like a downer. Rather, it feels like life.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Booksmart-2019

Booksmart-2019

Director-Olivia Wilde

Starring-Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever

Scott’s Review #1,113

Reviewed February 17, 2021

Grade: A-

I usually avoid teenage coming-of-age comedies or more to the point, being not of that demographic, they are not usually even on my radar. The only reason I saw Booksmart (2019) is but for the Independent Spirit Award it won and the Golden Globe nomination it achieved. Still, I was skeptical of what the appeal of two female teenaged bookworms who decide to become party animals would have on me.

Boy, was I wrong? The film is a fabulous and fast-paced experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Director, Olivia Wilde, in her very first effort, believe it or not, delivers the goods. She takes a genre absolutely told to death and knocks it on its keester offering a fresh and creative spin on a tried and true formula that feels anything but formulaic. There is diversity, inclusiveness, and heart for miles without the feeling that these add-ons were done intentionally for a modern spin.

Before I get carried away too much Wilde carefully keeps the standard moments of teenage angst, rejection, breakups, and makeups, and there are one or two of the commonplace high school “types”- loner, jock, weirdo, etc. but evident is a strong LGBTQ+ stronghold including one of the main female characters. Booksmart sure feels authentic to me.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy are forever friends. The girl’s study, they giggle, they hang-out, and they tell each other about their problems, sexual and otherwise. The kicker is that Molly is straight and Amy is gay. Amy is happily “out” and nobody gives a damn. Her parents, played in small but juicy parts by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are hilarious and progressive in their approach to understand a gay child. They incorrectly assume that Molly and Amy are a couple which the girls use to their advantage.

Anyway, Amy and Molly are intelligent and anticipate graduation day and going off to great schools. Once they realize that their fellow students who in their minds slack off and party are also going off to Ivy League schools, they panic. They realize they have wasted four years studying and decide to let finally let their hair down the night before graduation, intent on attending a popular boy’s (and Molly’s crush) party.

The situations the duo get themselves into are clever and witty and the most fun of the film. Feldstein and Dever have exceptional chemistry and I bought them as best friends from the moment of their first scene. When they have a knock-down, drag-out argument towards the end of the film it’s acting at its finest, which made me feel proud. I admire young talent with great acting chops and pride in their craft and Feldstein and Dever both have it.

Wilde peppers much of the film with hip and trendy pop songs that surprisingly enhance rather than slow down or take away from the viewer enjoyment. The lyrics match the specific events of the particular scene.

The romanticism is pivotal as the crushes Molly and Amy have are not necessarily who they wind up with at the end of the film, which naturally culminates on graduation day. I love how their ceremony includes no parents.

The creativity within Booksmart is admirable. When Molly and Amy trip on a hallucinogenic they accidentally ingest they imagine they are barbie dolls. The scene is laden with hilarity as they bend and twist and turn. Later, Molly imagines a dance with Nick amid a colorful, slow-motion sequence that is beautiful, while Amy has an awkward unexpected sexual experience with a mean girl.

Booksmart (2019) is quite R-rated almost shockingly so, which is not a negative. In fact, it’s a positive. Too many films of this ilk try to soften how teenagers really speak and the feelings they really have which are usually sexual. It’s raunchy and definitely not for the younger teen set but mature audiences will reminiscence about their own high school days.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature (won)

Q: The Winged Serpent-1982

Q: The Winged Serpent-1982

Director-Larry Cohen

Starring-Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree

Scott’s Review #1,112

Reviewed February 15, 2021

Grade: B-

A campy and tongue-in-cheek work, Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) is an amusing monster movie affair. It’s best suited for the post-midnight hour when not much else is on television. I jest because it’s really not a bad watch at all, but neither is it to be taken very seriously.

It’s terribly overacted, overplayed, and over-the-top and not remembered very well. In fact, soon after watching it I almost forgot the entire experience.

This is never a positive for a film. Q: The Winged Serpent is forever destined for placement in the cult horror category for a good laugh or three. Sadly, most will laugh at the film rather than with it.

There are tidbits added about the mass media, politics, and even the police force that don’t seem necessary for this type of film and don’t really go anywhere. A film like Q: The Winged Serpent should stick to entertaining the audience instead of incorporating any serious messages.

Larry Cohen, best known for cheap horror and science fiction films directs Michael Moriarty as Jimmie Quinn, an angry aspiring jazz pianist who leads a life of crime to get by. Purely by accident, he stumbles upon Q,  a winged, dragon-like, female lizard, who resides atop New York City’s Chrysler Building. The police are on the hunt for Q, who enjoys killing residents atop rooftops for fun. Jimmie plans to tell the police where Q lives, for a price tag of one million dollars.

Speaking of Cohen, never did he deliver better work than when he directed an episode of the Showtime Masters of Horror anthology in 2006. The episode, entitled “Pick Me Up” was fantastic and also starred Moriarty.

We never really know why Q arrives in Manhattan. There is a quick reference that she is an Aztec god or something, but we never know what motivates her or why she slices and dices New Yorkers. Maybe there is some message of overindulgence there, but we never find out much about her or really care why she is who she is.

There is a silly side story of the detectives cheating Jimmie out of his just desserts which only makes the police seem like assholes. Life in New York City during the 1980s was fraught with crime and corruption and while the knock against authority might be justified it’s also not entirely helpful either.

David Carradine and Richard Roundtree play the main detectives which add a bit of star quality to the picture. Neither of them has much substance to do and adds little beyond name recognition to one-note roles.

The best parts of Q: The Winged Serpent are the genuineness of the filming. It was really shot on location in and around New York City’s Chrysler Building and uses the interior of the building’s tower crown as a primary location. This is fabulous for fans who have never been inside the historic building or for those who have it’s a cool reminder of just how incredible the building is.

Many shots of mid-town Manhattan are included which is an absolute treat.

Cohen also wrote and produced the film so he clearly has a passion for the project he is admirable for. He wasn’t simply some hired gun for an uninspired effort. He is setting out to create a nod to the legendary monster-horror film King Kong (1933) or those old Japanese monster films of the 1950s like Godzilla where a monster wreaks havoc on a metropolis.

The special effects for the flying serpent are not very good and seem quite amateurish and clay-like. Therefore, the entire tone of Q: The Winged Serpent is that of a B-movie. I’m not usually a CGI fan, but the film could have used a boost in that department.

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) gives a nice representation of life in another time in New York City. I loved the cabs, the traffic, the noise, the grizzled residents, the street vendors, and the corruption. The film is largely messy and uninspired, but not completely a dud either.

Wild Strawberries-1957

Wild Strawberries-1957

Director-Ingmar Bergman

Starring-Victor Sjostrom, Bibi Andersson

Scott’s Review #1,111

Reviewed February 10, 2021

Grade: A

A seventy-eight-year-old man (Victor Sjostrom) reflects on life, loss, and a million other emotions as he ponders his inevitable death in the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957). The film has a melancholy tone and forces the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of the old man and wonder how senior citizens view death. One great point is it represents the geriatric demographic, which has traditionally been sorely lacking in cinema.

It’s cerebral and reminds me in a peculiar way of A Christmas Carol in the way an old man ruminates over his forgotten and sometimes misbegotten youth.

Bergman creates genius on par with his most famous work The Seventh Seal also released in 1957. I’d list these two films as his very best and most inspiring.

Do older people fear death?  Do they whimsically revisit their youth from time to time or do they live with regret and unfulfilled desire? My hunch is that it’s probably a bit of all. Wild Strawberries made me think like the old man and the effect was powerful, making me worry and fear my own death and relive my glory days.

Isak Borg (Sjostrom) begins to reflect on his life after he decides to take a road trip from his home in Stockholm to the distant town of Lund to receive a special award. Along the way, a string of encounters causes him to experience hallucinations that expose his insecurities and fears. He realizes that the choices he’s made have rendered his life meaningless, or so he perceives it.

He is accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who doesn’t like Isak too much, is pregnant, and plans to leave her husband. They meet a trio of friendly hitchhikers led by Sara (Bibi Andersson) who reminds Isak of the love of his youth. A bickering couple reminds him of his unhappy marriage, while his elderly mother reminds him of himself.

The best part of the film is when the group stops at Isak’s childhood seaside home and imagines his sweetheart Sara, with whom he remembered gathering strawberries, but who instead married his brother. Anyone who has returned to their own childhood home or neighborhood can easily relate to the powerful memories that are served. I pretended I was in Isak’s character and several emotions occurred.

Sjostrom is incredibly good and infuses a natural range of emotions. At first crotchety and distant I grew to admire his sentimentality as he fondly recalls innocently picking strawberries on a summer day. How glorious and innocent to reminisce in an act so mundane yet monumental. An old man, he was once young. How quickly the years go by. I took this as a lesson to appreciate each day and experience. Sjostrom had me mesmerized.

Some find Izak unsympathetic but I disagree. I found him incredibly likable.

Relationships are a strong element of Wild Strawberries. Izak muses over past loves, but also his mother, daughter-in-law, housekeeper, and hitchhikers. Peculiar is his relationship with his housekeeper, Agda, played stunningly well by Julian Kindahl. Are they secret lovers or platonic friends? They seem like husband and wife.

While the story is astounding, the visual qualities of Wild Strawberries are amazing. For starters, the video content is crisp and clear with very bright black and white photography. Each shot is mesmerizing and reminiscent of paintings.

To that end, there is so much going on in Wild Strawberries if one looks closely enough. The closest adjectives to describe the experience are hallucinogenic and mesmerizing. The group of people gathered over a meal was young, fresh, and carefree. They all have a life ahead of them and almost every viewer can recount a time where he or she felt that way. It’s both nostalgic and sad to realize it doesn’t last as Bergman makes so painfully evident.

The scene where Isak witnesses a hearse approaching is terrifying. When he realizes it is himself lying in the casket it’s enough to give one a chill. It’s creepy and powerful in tone and affects.

Wild Strawberries (1957)  possesses many facets of the human experience. Sorrow, joy, depression, acceptance, frustration, and fulfillment. This is a work of genius and is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates great experiences in cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Mank-2020

Mank-2020

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey

Scott’s Review #1,110

Reviewed February 9, 2021

Grade: A

Everyone knows that Citizen Kane (1941) is one of the greatest films ever made. Well, I hope so anyway. Almost always appearing at the top of ‘best of’ lists its merits are justified and creativity astounding. In a word it’s groundbreaking. The visual beauty, tone, and lighting are exceptional, to say the least. But this review is not meant to kiss the ass of that treasured masterpiece.

Mank (2020) is a film that is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For those unfamiliar with Citizen Kane, please see the film immediately or the beauty of Mank will be missed.

The film celebrates the brilliance of Citizen Kane by offering new fans a glimpse into the creation of the film while breathing life into the 1930s and 1940s film for new and younger fans to experience. It also gives classic film fans something to sink their teeth into and reaffirmation of their passion for the cinema. Film lovers will adore Mank.

The project stems back to the 1990s when director David Fincher’s father, Jack, began work on the film. It never came to fruition, and Jack Fincher died in 2003. Eventually, the project was officially announced, and filming took place around Los Angeles from November 2019 to February 2020.

The film is about Citizen Kane specifically but is so much more than that. It’s part biography about alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he scrambles to finish writing Citizen Kane given a tight deadline while also trying to recover from a broken leg. He is hired by the famous Orson Welles (director and star of Citizen Kane) to pen the script without any credit.

As terrific as Oldman is, as he always is, Mank also explores and dissects the politics of California of that time, the impending Nazi regime that soon led to World War II, and the rich and powerful producers. It harkens back to the 1930s so genuinely that I felt I was living this important decade through my cinematic eyes. How different Hollywood was then!

Oldman is the star of a large cast with many actors being given small yet important roles. Nearly unrecognizable with a bloated beer belly and stringy hair, Herman is a lifelong boozer. Mank spans ten years, from 1930 to 1940, and going back in forth between the years. Mankiewicz dictated dialogue to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins) in one scene while visiting the set of films made in the early 1930s.

Fun fact- Collins is the daughter of British pop artist Phil Collins and is on the cusp of a big career.

With his wit and humor, never afraid to call a spade a spade, or insult billionaire American businessman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), he offends glamorous starlets over an extravagant dinner, forcing them to depart one by one as he gets drunker and drunker.

Never a big fan of Amanda Seyfried’s, the actress impresses with a fabulous performance, the best of her career. Playing Marion Davies, the inspiration for a character in Citizen Kane, she befriends Mankiewicz platonically, and the pair become close. Seyfried nails it with a giving performance. Tom Pelphrey plays Herman’s handsome brother, Joseph, on the cusp of becoming a famous writer and director and the actor is terrific.

The look of Mank is delicious. The black and white cinematography offers an homage to Citizen Kane with the stark use of dark and light contrasting each other in gorgeous form. Two great scenes come to mind- In 1933 Herman and Marion go for a stroll in a lavish courtyard, where they bond over discussions on politics and the film industry. It’s a benevolent and sweet scene where many topics are explored and embraced and is a definite ode to Hollywood.

The other takes place within the Hearst Mansion, directly before the aforementioned scene, where a drunken Herman lets loose on some of the Hollywood elite. He insults Louis B. Mayer, founder of the famous MGM studios, the most famous and influential of all studios.

A gem is the addition of so many historic Hollywood figures, a treasure chest for fans of old cinema. Joan Crawford, Great Garbo, and Bette Davis are featured, although if you blink you’ll miss them.

A wonderful suggestion is to work double-time and follow-up a viewing of Mank with Citizen Kane (I did!) for further appreciation of the film. A gift is realizing how the characters who appear in the classic film are based on real-life characters in Mankiewicz’s world.

Mank (2020) should be appreciated and revered for its lovely hybrid of crisp dialogue and wry comedy based on a real-life Hollywood director, and its cinematography and visual appreciation of a long-ago era of cinema. I hope this inspires some to appreciate and salivate over films created almost a hundred years ago.

Hercules-1997

Hercules-1997

Director-Ron Clements, John Musker

Starring-Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito

Scott’s Review #1,109

Reviewed February 7, 2021

Grade: B-

Hercules (1997) is a modern-day Walt Disney film that centers on the world of Ancient Greek mythology. The premise is one I find fascinating and the characters of Hercules, Zeus, Hades, and Pegasus are the focus. The names alone hold intrigue and appeal but the film is only an adequate watch.

The product feels “produced” and lacks the authenticity and sincerity that is rich and seamless in beloved Disney classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Bambi (1941). Besides the initial story intrigue, the animations are nothing particularly special and it feels too kiddie-like.

It’s like comparing The Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band historical album to a latter-day solo effort by Paul McCartney and that’s being generous. It may be fine but can’t hold a candle to the former. And “fine” is not what I wanted from a Disney film. That’s what I felt about Hercules. It’s okay and entertaining but not up to snuff as compared with finer films.

The film is equipped with a fantastic villain though, the best part of Hercules other than the mythological elements. James Woods, who voices the character of Hades, is wonderful and I’m hardly a James Woods fan but for other reasons, like his politics. Anyway, the rivalry and competitive edge of Hercules and Hades is unique and compelling and will hold one’s attention.

It all begins in a perfect Disney way when Hercules (Tate Donovan), a son of gods, is snatched as a baby by Hades and forced to live among mortals as a half-man, half-god. When he grows to be an adolescent, Hercules needs to perform a rite of passage on Earth to prove himself worthy of living with the gods on Mount Olympus. With his sidekick, Philoctetes (Danny DeVito), in tow, Hercules must learn to use his strength to defeat evil creatures.

The strong message is written in Hercules to appeal to a sense of good overthrowing evil. It’s a Disney film, trust me it will. Though predictable the story feels good in a world where far too often the bad guys get away with bad things and the good guys don’t get enough credit.

Appealing and targeted mostly to kids, the film made a ton of money which means a lot of kids saw it. A great reminder is that with any luck truth and honest will win out. So will remaining true to one’s self.

Woods makes Hades a villain with an edge rather than a generic, cookie-cutter type. Hades speaks rapidly, like a used car salesman trying to sell a customer a good deal. We can tell we are trying to be swindled but there is fun in that. Megara (Susan Egan), the intended love-interest for Hercules, is working for Hades, which adds a level of intrigue.

Unfortunately, the romance between Hercules and Meg never gets off the ground or works too well. The main issue is that there is little chemistry or rooting value for the couple. Meg isn’t my favorite Disney character. She is a sarcastic damsel whom Hercules saves from the centaur Nessus. After Hercules and the others leave, Meg is revealed to be Hades’ servant, having sold her soul to him to save a lover who then left her. She’s had a tough life and finally does the right thing but I never felt invested in the character.

The main song from the film is okay but rather forgettable. The title of “Go the Distance” is a song of determination but also generic and unmemorable. The look of the animations has a 1990’s vibe with bright, vibrant colors that look “of the time” instead of feeling classic or alive.

A decent effort, Hercules (1997) hits its mark sometimes and other times misses completely. I was enraptured with the historical and mythological gods and the trimmings that go along with that mystique, but the modern spin doesn’t work and only made me yearn for the classics from the 1940s and 1950s.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Song-“Go the Distance”

Excalibur-1981

Excalibur-1981

Director-John Boorman

Starring-Nigel Terry, Nicholas Clay, Helen Mirren

Scott’s Review #1,108

Reviewed February 4, 2021

Grade: B+

John Boorman, most famous for directing a 1972 disturbing classic film Deliverance returns to the fold with steamy fantasy rich with lavish sets, visual treats, and an incredible atmosphere. This is where the film really succeeds. We are taken to a medieval world where we escape to jealousy, sex, and schemes. Boorman not only directs but produces and co-writes the project along with the screenwriter Rospo Pallenberg.

Excalibur (1981) retells the legend of King Arthur, a British leader from the fifth and sixth centuries mostly told by folklore, and the knights of the Round Table, based on the 15th-century Arthurian romance Le Morte d’Arthur, at behemoth length, by Thomas Malory. The table is symbolic because it implies that there is no head and therefore a democratic forum.

This telling is quite adult and not suitable or comprehensible for children.

Famous legends like Merlin (Nicol Williamson), Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), Queen Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), and Morgana (Helen Mirren) appear alongside Arthur (Nigel Terry) in a furious battle for control.

In a flurry of handsome European actors who would later become famous, Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson both appear.

In fact, most of the male cast are masculine, hunky, and very handsome. These traits cascade to how good they look in full body armor, shields, and swords doing bloody battle with each other. Homoerotic scenes exist just as they did in Deliverance. Lest we only focus on the male cast, Helen Mirren is delightful as an evil seductress who oozes sex appeal.

The magical sword of Excalibur actually starts in the hands of a British lord Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) and then, years later, finds its way to his bastard son, Arthur, who is destined to become king but doesn’t realize why. Merlin helps Arthur fulfill his fate by bringing together the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot and unifying the country.

Years later Arthur faces greater tests ahead in pursuit of love, the Holy Grail, and his nation’s survival as some attempt to steal the treasure for their own advantages.

Excalibur had me with the visuals and I was able to immerse myself in the spectacular style and artistic set design with gorgeous sequences. Several creative and glimmering shots of someone either emerging from or submerged underwater are featured. They are startlingly beautiful. I pretended I had been whisked away to an otherworld of enchantment that I could sit back and enjoy.

The knowledge that the entire film was shot in Ireland captured and enraptured me. The breathtaking greenery and waterfalls are dreamlike. When Lancelot beds Guenevere in the forest they both appear nude. Their pale white flesh against the green is both magical and seductive. And a treat for one’s curious eyes.

The story is overly complicated with reality mixed with either dreams or fantasy and some of the plots confused me. I finally got to a point where the intricacies became too much for me to comprehend especially against the stunning backdrops. The plot became too jumbled and messy so it is advisable to drift off and take it all in rather than trying to make sense of everything.

A visual marvel Excalibur (1981) will delight the apt film fan. I fantasize about how the picture would look and feel on the big screen but I wasn’t that lucky. The story is obviously far-fetched and ludicrous at times, but somehow that doesn’t matter and didn’t hinder my enjoyment of it. I was treated to good-looking people in armor, unique costumes, and various states of undress. And that’s just fine with me.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-2020

Director-George C. Wolfe

Starring-Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Scott’s Review #1,107

Reviewed February 3, 2021

Grade: A-

Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman lead tremendous performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a film fueled by exceptional acting. The production is shot like a play and is based on one written by August Wilson. He also wrote Fences, turned into a film in 2017, which also starred the terrific Davis.

As wonderful as Davis is amid a bruhaha of hype over how powerful her performance is, it’s an ensemble event that makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a memorable experience.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts a fast-paced screenplay with quick dialogue, long scenes, and a startling turn of events. The action takes place over the course of one day, similar to other Wilson works, which adds a robust and powerful strength as the situations unfold. The time-period and the racial aspects are key to the crackling dialogue.

Most of the cast is black and it’s 1927 so how can the work not be about race? In clever and heartbreaking form, much of the racism is internalized pitting black versus black instead of the standard white versus black.

Despite the wonderful singing and acting this point hit home the most with me and was the most uniquely palpable. It’s bad enough when black people, or any other minority group, faces hatred and resentment from other people, but when it’s one of your own this is bitter and hard to watch.

The conflict and fury escalate to a vicious climax as one character lashes out in deadly form ruining more than just their own life. It has a spiraling effect that utilizes the claustrophobic rehearsal hall where these scenes take place as a backdrop.

There are two different stories taking place here and both are superb.

Ma Rainey (Davis) is a superstar, being female and black, her victory is achieving that success, to begin with, against insurmountable odds. We only imagine this because the film doesn’t go into her back story too much- they don’t need to. Her struggle is obvious and we can only imagine how she was able to manage to get so far in her career. Was she able to capitalize on her success with her voice alone?

Ma is immensely talented and angry. She is pouty and tough as nails with her white producers, who have invited her to Chicago to record an album. She knows they want one thing from her and that’s money-making profits from her talent.

She demands a Coke before she will perform. She smirks as the producers scurry to fulfill her request, not daring to show too much irritation that will cause her to cancel the session and return to the South. Is she a diva? Well, yes, but shouldn’t she be? If she were gracious people would walk all over her?

We learn she would easily be arrested for causing a stir in the streets if not for her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) schooling the police on who she is.

Davis, who can play any role handed to her is brilliant. Ma is brazen, tough, but releases emotion when she belts out her tunes.

Though Davis is the star, Ma is almost a supporting player against the robust and juicy other plot occurring among the male cast, one floor below. Boseman is flawless as the trumpeter in her band, Levee Green. His humor masks a wave of anger and cynicism lurking beneath that slowly builds as he feels jealous and cheated by the older members of Ma’s band.

Colman Domingo and Glynn Turmann are fantastic, adding stability and wisdom in supporting roles. Their characters try to teach the younger Levee that being a black man also represents stoicism, a calm demeanor, and wisdom.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, the film features Ma’s bi-sexual girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) who stutters. This offers LGBTQ+ and disability inclusion.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is a film that celebrates fearlessness, determination, and the ugliness and frustration of inner turmoil within one’s own race. It also features gorgeous and emotional songs from the roaring 1920s and top-notch acting performances.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Viola Davis, Best Male Lead-Chadwick Boseman, Best Supporting Male-Colman Domingo, Glynn Turmann

P2-2007

P2-2007

Director-Franck Khalfoun

Starring-Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley

Scott’s Review #1,106 

Reviewed January 29, 2021

Grade: B

Franck Khalfoun, a French filmmaker known for the horror genre, makes his directorial debut with P2 (2007). As a horror buff, the film has a great premise which made me immediately want to see it. Unfortunately, while the film has its moments of intrigue and plenty of gore, the climax ultimately disappoints and it turns run-of-the-mill. Like many of its modern-horror brethren, there is little that separates it from other similar films.

It’s fine Saturday night viewing fare but quite predictable.

Films set during the Christmas holiday and especially in festive New York City always enrapture me so P2 gets a leg up. The film doesn’t utilize the holiday very well save for a smattering of decorations within an office building, some snow, and one creepy holiday song.

Set on Christmas Eve, the plot follows a young businesswoman named Angela (Rachel Nichols) who becomes trapped in an underground parking garage in midtown Manhattan, where she is pursued by a psychopathic unhinged security guard (Wes Bentley) who is obsessed with her.

Bentley, known for his terrific role in American Beauty (1999) is the main reason to see this film. He plays creepy and obsessed very well and is a great villain. His piercing blue eyes are intense and frightening and his obsession with Elvis Presley and his dog is revealed. He is clearly disturbed though for no apparent reason, which is not positive to any character development. Why is he crazy?

When Thomas plays Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” over the intercom it’s a festive and delightfully morbid highlight.

I desired to know what makes Thomas tick and why he prays on Angela. Has he been watching her for months or does he simply see an opportunity on this particular night and go for the gusto? The plot reveals a bit of both which is unsatisfying because there is no payoff. Does he knock out and kidnap Angela because she rebuffs his advances or would he have done this anyway if she agreed to dinner?

He is in love with her but why? It’s not that she isn’t a catch. She is pretty and a successful businesswoman with a good head on her shoulders. Does she reject him because she gets a bad vibe or because he’s a security guard? I wanted more backstory for both main characters but once she is chained to a table it hardly matters. He’s gone too far off the deep especially after it’s revealed he has killed others. Thomas’s motivations are not satisfying.

Nichols, a novice actress, is very good at her role. She carries the film and is in a state of peril most of the time. But she neither overacts nor plays the victim. There is a nice balance of terror and figuring out what steps to take to save her life and flee the madman.

P2 possesses a female-empowerment vibe but Angela does appear in skimpy clothing thus issuing the standard state of undress required by their female stars, a formula many horror films stick to. Angela is smart, quick-thinking, and strong. She tries to outsmart her capturer and more often than not she does and she is victorious in the end. Surprise!

I noticed multiple nods to the Saw (2004-2017) franchise since this series introduced and embraced the torture-horror genre. Many horror films used this technique to shock and startle viewers instead of providing clever writing or story. The use of videotape appears in P2 which borrows heavily from Saw.

P2 (2007) is a fine effort and will satisfy horror fans. It may tread into familiar territory and back itself into a corner with limited story possibility, but I did look over my shoulder a couple of times after viewing the film when I was in my building’s parking garage. Ironically, I was on level P2. Maybe the film did leave an impression after all?

Ocean’s Eleven-2001

Ocean’s Eleven-2001

Director-Steven Soderbergh

Starring-George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt

Scott’s Review #1,105

Reviewed January 28, 2021

Grade: A-

Steven Soderbergh was awarded the Best Director Academy Award for his exceptional direction in Traffic (2000) one of my all-time favorite films. He follows up that gem with a slick, commercial film that is stylish and looks cool. It’s fast-paced with quick editing and is set in the dangerously appealing world of casinos as a group of sophisticated thieves attempt to steal $160 million from a casino owner with whom they have a vendetta.

I expected a film of this type to be generic and by-the-numbers but instead, it’s unpredictable and unexpected.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is the first (and best) installment of the popular Ocean’s franchise and a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film of the same name.  George Clooney was in his film prime and leads the pack of A-list stars like Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and Matt Damon in a packed and brimming two-hour entertainment fest.

A nice touch is inviting two stars from the original, Henry Silva and Angie Dickinson, to appear as themselves.

Clooney leads the charge and embraces his leading role status with charm, polish, and style. He plays a handsome Danny Ocean, a man with a plan. Less than one day into his parole from a New Jersey penitentiary, the thief is already traveling to California to arrange his next plan with his partner-in-crime Rusty (Brad Pitt). It’s tinged with revenge.

They abide by three rules: Don’t hurt anybody, don’t steal from anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and play the game like you’ve got nothing to lose. Danny orchestrates his charges into creating the most sophisticated, elaborate casino heist in history. And it will take place in glitzy Las Vegas on the night of a boxing match.

By providing the rules it makes me think fondly of a similar proclamation in David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club, Danny and the gang immediately feel sympathetic to me. After all, they don’t intend to hurt anyone, and the money stolen will be from folks who are dastardly and might even deserve to be penniless. Didn’t JigSaw from the Saw films only kill those who harmed other people? Suddenly their motives are clear and justified making them the good guys.

As a bonus, the “victim” of the heist is the unlikable Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who owns three casinos and is worth billions. Making the bad guys the heroes and Benedict the bad guy is clever and situates the players properly so the audience is sure who to root for. As if the film doesn’t have enough treats some drama is thrown in.  Danny’s ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), is Benedict’s girlfriend. Is she loyal to Danny or Benedict or might she be playing both sides?

Loyalties are tested and questioned and the intricate bank heist sequence is titillating and an edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride. The Las Vegas backdrop with the casino bright lights, bells, and like elements cement Ocean’s Eleven as one of the best of its genre.

It’s also tough not to root for Clooney, Pitt, and Damon in or out of character.

Ted Griffin writes the screenplay and adds some nice characters, more than one-note bank robbers or thieves. Along with Soderbergh’s direction, which adds the nice atmospheric trimmings like the razzle-dazzle casino scenes they make a great pair.

I love how Danny and Rusty recruit a team with specialized skills like mechanics, pickpockets, and an electronics and surveillance specialist. There’s even an acrobat! This seems an ode to the 1960s television series Mission: Impossible as the team is carefully selected based on skill.

A highly entertaining popcorn film just perfect for a summer night, Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is sure to satisfy. The intention is to sit back and enjoy what is offered and all the elements come together perfectly. The culminating main event boxing match and subsequent twist catapults the film from pure entertainment to something more nuanced and exciting.

The film was a success at the box office and with critics leading to two sequels directed by Soderbergh and a spin-off with an all-female lead cast, was released in 2018.

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult-1994

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult-1994

Director-Peter Segal

Starring-Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy

Scott’s Review #1,104

Reviewed January 26, 2021

Grade: B-

Despite being the third and final (get it?) installment in the popular Naked Gun (1988-1994) franchise, Naked Gun 33 1/3 The Final Insult (1994) is my favorite of the trio despite having a silly title. The title of “33 1/3” is a reference to the revolutions per minute of an LP playing on a phonograph, a point that has nothing to do with the actual film. It was also inexplicably decided to leave off the “The” in the title, leaving Naked Gun instead of The Naked Gun. Why is anyone’s guess? Nor does it matter.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great film but it’s better than the other two, which is shocking in a spoof/screwball comedy going for the standard gags. But, as dumb as the film is, it’s also kind of fun and light-weight. Think- a needed chuckle requiring little thought following a rough day at the office.

A familiar formula is followed and this time the events culminate at the glorious Hollywood Oscar celebration, the apple in the eye of all Los Angeles, undoubtedly the main reason this effort is marginally enjoyable. For unfamiliar viewers, the Naked Gun films are a combination of the Airplane! (1980-1982) and the over-exhausted Police Academy (1984-1994) franchises. The films were out of gas by 1994.

The franchise is based on the short-lived television series Police Squad! (1982), a procedural comedy about bumbling police personnel and the situations they get themselves into to showcase their ineptness.

The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult was O.J. Simpson’s final role before he was damned for all eternity for his presumed role in the murder of his wife and her friend in a ritzy area of California.

Leslie Nielsen returns as Frank Drebin, retired and living with his wife Jane (Priscilla Presley). Bored with life, they experience marital problems and seek counseling. Six months after Frank’s retirement, he is visited by Captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) and Officer Nordberg (Simpson), who ask for Frank’s help with an investigation. Police Squad has caught wind that mischievous bomber Rocco Dillon (Fred Ward), who is currently incarcerated, has been hired by terrorists to conduct a major bombing against the United States.

As Frank tries to keep Jane from finding out that he is dabbling in detective work again, he jokes that he is having an affair to throw her off the track. When she begins to suspect he really is having an affair this leads to a silly series of misunderstandings and gags which naturally are wrapped up as is always the case in films like this.

Nielsen is the main draw and he does what he does best and what makes him the king of spoof films. A serious actor before Airplane! he became typecast but had lots of successes ahead of him. He embraces his role which adds freshness. He doesn’t take himself so seriously so audiences can sit back and relax, enjoying the entertainment.

The lavish awards ceremony and the ingenious idea to plant the bomb within the coveted Best Picture Oscar sealed envelope is delicious, especially when the bomb is set to detonate when the card is pulled from the envelope and the winner crowned. This creates a good measure of suspense as the award show carries on toward the big finale.

George Kennedy has little to do but it’s the inclusion of stars like Vanna White, Weird Al Yankovic, and Pia Zadora that add zest to the production.

Director, Peter Segal, famous for lightweight comedies with heart, is wise to keep the running time at a quick one hour and twenty-two minutes. If longer, any momentum the film musters would have disintegrated. This was his feature-length directorial debut.

The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) may be the best in the trio but that says quite little considering it’s based on funnier and fresher endeavors. I champion the early Police Academy films for a needed dose of police incompetence and hilarity done up in a fun way. If one must watch a Naked Gun film and is partial to the Academy Awards, this one is begrudgingly suggested.

Ma Mère-2005

Ma Mère-2005

Director-Christophe Honoré

Starring-Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel

Scott’s Review #1,103

Reviewed January 21, 2021

Grade: A

Brilliant French film actress, Isabelle Huppert, turns in another outstanding performance in Ma Mère (2005). The film is a daring and sometimes shocking experience met with mostly derision from many fans and critics. The subject matter is hard for the weak of heart to take or understand, or maybe even put up with. The taboo nature of incest is what the film is about but also the dark and far reaches of the human psyche and emotion. A heavy and ingenious film for where the filmmakers dare to go. I found it brilliant.

Fun fact Ma Mère was rated NC-17 when it was released in the United States. The reason was “strong and aberrant sexual content”. Despite the sexual fetishism, there is NO drug use.

Huppert plays a recently widowed and sexually adventurous woman named Hélène. She is visited by her young and restless son, Pierre (Garrel) just before his father’s death when he plans to reside with his parents on their lavish island villa. Instead of mourning the loss of her husband, Hélène boasts about her infidelities to Pierre as he copes by masturbating to and then urinating on his father’s pornographic magazines.

Ma Mère is not a happy film but quite intriguing. Of course, the film is french which automatically gives it a sense of style and sophistication which writer/director Christophe Honoré dazzles the audience with. If the film were American it would not work at all. The characters need to be European.

An intense attraction develops between mother and son when Pierre struts around the villa naked and broods. Instead of acting on her impulses, Hélène encourages her uninhibited sex partner Réa (Joana Preiss) to have sex with Pierre.  They do so at a popular shopping and nightlife complex. Hélène looks on longingly as the partially clothed couple makes love with passersby raising no objections. Hélène appears to be turned on.

Things get stranger when afterward, Hélène includes her son in an orgy with her friends. After the orgy, Hélène decides that she must leave her son to travel. While saying goodbye to Pierre, she implies that something taboo has happened between them and that she must leave to prevent it from happening again. We are left unsure of what she means.

Hélène’s motivations are unclear or is she simply a good poker player? Does she feel bad about her attraction to her son or does she secretly revel in it?

There is a ton of masturbating and jealousy in this film. There is also a hefty dose of sadomasochism and such talk. It’s for the extremely adult viewer.

Ma Mere leaves the viewer to ponder many questions over the course of the running time. Is Hélène a lesbian or just sexually promiscuous? What is the back story with her husband? Do they happily cheat on each other or what is their arrangement?

I completely get why people wouldn’t be enamored with Ma Mère. It’s a tough watch though I laughingly find myself wondering if those skeptics are mostly prudes. I found myself absorbed by the machinations of the characters, especially Pierre and Hélène, and chomping at the bit to figure out what would eventually happen to the characters. Spoiler alert- the film does not end happily.

A criticism hurled at Ma Mère is that why we should care about the characters? There is nobody to root for. While mother and child partake in orgies and other sexual dalliances, it’s not as if Hélène exactly takes advantage of the boy, nor is he especially likable. I deem the film fascinating.

For a weird trip inside the minds of sexual deviants and those who love the joy of sex and sexuality, Ma Mère (2005) is a delightful experience. It’s also creepy shit. The ending is dire and dreary and will make the viewer think long after the film ends. And that what provocative films do. And so do great films. Anyone who thinks they have a mommy complex will soon be cured.

Isabelle Huppert does it again.

L.A. Confidential-1997

L.A. Confidential-1997

Director-Curtis Hanson

Starring-Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger

Scott’s Review #1,102

Reviewed January 19, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Prom-2020

The Prom-2020

Director-Ryan Murphy 

Starring-Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #1,101

Reviewed January 17, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the Lights On-2012

Keep The Lights On-2012

Director-Ira Sachs

Starring-Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth

Scott’s Review #1,100

Reviewed January 16, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J. Edgar-2011

J. Edgar-2011

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

Scott’s Review #1,099

Reviewed January 12, 2021

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terror Train-1980

Terror Train-1980

Director-Roger Spottiswoode

Starring-Ben Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis

Scott’s Review #1,098

Reviewed January 5, 2021

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Sam-2001

I Am Sam-2001

Director-Jessie Nelson

Starring-Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #1,097

Reviewed December 30, 2020

Grade: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Sean Penn

The Witches-1967

The Witches-1967

Director-Cyril Frankel

Starring-Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh

Scott’s Review #1,096

Reviewed December 29, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hairspray-2007

Hairspray-2007

Director-Adam Shankman

Starring-Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Christopher Walken

Scott’s Review #1,095

Reviewed December 28, 2020

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Change-2012

Game Change-2012

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris

Scott’s Review #1,094

Reviewed December 23, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Director-Michael Moore

Starring-Michael Moore

Scott’s Review #1,093

Reviewed December 22, 2020

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East of Eden-1955

East of Eden-1955

Director-Elia Kazan 

Starring-James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet

Scott’s Review #1,092

Reviewed December 17, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dances with Wolves-1990

Dances with Wolves-1990

Director-Kevin Costner

Starring-Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Scott’s Review #1,091

Reviewed December 14, 2020

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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