Category Archives: 2003 Movie reviews

Elf-2003

Elf-2003

Director-Jon Favreau

Starring-Will Ferrell, James Caan

Scott’s Review #846

Reviewed December 20, 2018

Grade: B-

Elf (2003) is one of the few lasting Christmas hits of recent memory or at least one that many fans make a regular viewing experience each holiday season. The film is light and unarguably a safe, feel-good experience mixing a hopeful Christmas message with comic gags and romance. The key to its success is Will Ferrell who possesses wonderful comic timing. More wholesome than my tastes and lacking plausibility the film does succeed as a family friendly, ready-made, fun experience.

The story revolves around one of Santa’s elves (Ferrell) named Buddy who learns he is human and was orphaned as an infant. Revealed that his biological father Walter (James Caan) resides in New York City, Buddy embarks on a trip to find the man and spread Christmas cheer in a world filled with grizzled and cynical human beings. In predictable comic form Buddy has trouble adjusting to the human world and the fast-paced lifestyle with misunderstandings arising repeatedly. Buddy eventually wins over his father and family finding love with downtrodden Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).

Hot on the heels of his Saturday Night Live stint ending in 2002, Ferrell was primed to embark on a successful film career. Elf is a great role for him as it capitalizes on his comic timing and energy and the setup works. At 6’3″ who better to play an elf for laughs than a hulking middle-aged man? Due to his talents Ferrell makes the role of Buddy fun, appealing, and the highlight of the film. With a lesser talent the character would have been too annoying (as it is there are too many hug jokes) and the overall film would have suffered.

Other than Ferrell the supporting roles are nothing memorable other than Caan’s role. The once dashing star of films such as The Godfather (1972) Caan still has the charm and charisma to appeal, though the balding and dyed head of hair does nothing for him. A small role by television star Bob Newhart as Papa Elf is fine, but Deschanel’s role and Mary Steenburgen’s role as Emily, Walter’s wife, could have been played by many actresses and nothing is distinguishable about either part. Lesser roles like Walter’s secretary, Walter’s boss, and the Gimble’s store manager are stock parts with no character development.

A major high-point is the New York City setting and the exterior scenes are aplenty. Filmed in 2002 and released in 2003, the location shots were completed not long after 9/11 and showcasing a city with such recent decimation adds to the film’s appeal. Scenes in Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and the Empire State Building are prominently featured making the film festive and merry. What greater city is there at Christmastime than New York?

Elf remains an entertaining experience with enough shiny ornaments and fun moments in the department store and Walter’s office to hold interest. The luster wears thin at the conclusion as all the traditional elements come together. Jovie leads a chorus of strangers in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, Walter quits his job without concern for paying bills, and everyone happily rides off into a sparkling winter wonderland. This may satisfy some, but I wanted more conflict than a troupe of Central Park Rangers chasing Santa through the park.

A film that might be paired nicely with holiday favorites of similar ilk such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) or Christmas with the Kranks (2004), Elf (2003) is an energetic affair with a charismatic lead actor. Containing silly moments, but a spirited and worthwhile message nestled nicely within, the film is worth a watch if in the mood for slapstick. More thought-provoking holiday films with deeper merriment and stronger flair exist, but for a chuckle or two Elf works well.

Mystic River-2003

Mystic River-2003

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Sean Penn, Tim Robbins

Scott’s Review #801

Reviewed August 10, 2018

Grade: A

Mystic River (2003) is a film that I consider to be the second best offering directed by Clint Eastwood. Along with Million Dollar Baby (2004), Eastwood successfully creates two compelling back-to-back dramas, not too dissimilar from each other. He was unquestionably the “it” director of the early 2000’s, and with Mystic River, helms a gritty, mystery drama with a stellar cast, nuts and bolts storytelling, and enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing and ultimately shocked. All of these pieces result in a memorable experience.

The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Dennis Lehane. A tremendous element is the locale of Boston, and an Irish, blue-collar/working class theme, prevalent throughout the story. Thanks to the cinematography, illuminating a grey and stormy look, this enhances the rest of the film. I adore films shot in and around Boston as so much culture and flavor are provided. Eastwood hardly misses a beat with some cold and grizzled touches that play into the hardships and struggles of the characters everyday lives.

The story itself begins as we meet the central characters (Jimmy, Dave, and Sean) as young boys, a three musketeers type scenario where they are almost like blood brothers. After an incident occurs where Dave is accosted by men and sexually abused, he is ultimately rescued after four tortuous days, but his life is never the same. Fast forward twenty-five years and the boys are now men, still living in a working class Boston neighborhood. Each is now married, their lives having moved on, drifted away from each other and containing vastly different personality types. They reunite after a tragedy occurs.

For starters, a major win by Eastwood is the casting of each of the male characters. Sean Penn plays Jimmy, the volatile ex-con, who runs a small store, while Sean, played by Kevin Bacon, has become a Massachusetts State Police officer, putting him directly at odds with Jimmy. Sadly, Dave (Tim Robbins), now lives a quiet life, still harboring trauma, shame, and guilt from his childhood experience. When Jimmy’s daughter (Emmy Rossum) is brutally murdered, the three friends lives are intertwined as the search for the killer takes the viewers down a dark path filled with secrets, some from the past. Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden give tremendous performances as Jimmy’s and Dave’s wives, respectively.

Mystic River is a film where all of the great elements come together in perfect fashion. From the acting to the components of the story, to the whodunit involved, to the exciting twist and conclusion to the overall film are truly exceptional. But what really sets it apart from a standard drama or thriller are the characterizations and relationships among these characters. Childhood memories can last a lifetime in their monumental importance and this is evidenced many times between Jimmy, Dave, and Sean. Blood brothers, yes, but when tragedy strikes, old wounds and fresh wounds together run deep.

The themes of violence and revenge are firm staples of this film, and these are commonalities for many Eastwood films. Viewers may also find themselves conflicted with whom to sympathize with or where their allegiances should lie. Jimmy, certainly the anti-hero, will garner sympathy for the vicious loss of his daughter- pain that can never be fully healed. Did Dave, the obvious prime suspect, kill the girl? If so, was it on purpose or by accident? Are others, specifically his wife, involved in a cover up? Eastwood carves the setup in spectacular fashion, but is it a simple red herring? These events make the film unbelievably compelling.

Fabulous are the performances all around, but especially by Penn and Robbins, both awarded with Oscar wins for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Penn never delivers a poor performance, but Jimmy is one of his best characters yet. As for Robbins, he fills the character of Dave with empathy- a wounded bird, left damaged through no fault of his own, suffering a terrible fate due to circumstances, misunderstandings, and ultimately tragedy.

Mystic River (2003) watched alongside Million Dollar Baby (2004) would make for an excellent Saturday night for fans of Clint Eastwood’s directorial talents. These two are the best of the best with great character development and rich writing. The direction, however, enhances the spectacular elements and takes it a bit further providing appropriate texture and wonderful atmosphere.

Latter Days-2003

Latter Days-2003

Director-C. Jay Cox

Starring-Steve Sandvoss, Wesley A. Ramsey

Scott’s Review #679

Reviewed September 7, 2017

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Decade Under The Influence-2003

A Decade Under the Influence-2003

Director-Ted Demme, Richard LaGravenese

Starring-Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin

Scott’s Review #392

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Reviewed April 5, 2016

Grade: B+

Produced by the cable network Independent Film Channel (IFC), A Decade Under The Influence explores the decade of 1970’s film, a decade that was arguably the most creative and liberating to filmmakers and audiences alike. A period in film defined by the directors securing creative freedom instead of the studios, where artists instead of corporations finally ruled the roost. A Decade Under The Influence gives us an overview of the era. Despite some conspicuous omissions, I enjoyed this informative piece a great deal.

The documentary is divided into numerous segments including sections on women in film, the transition into a different period in Hollywood, and the subsequent close of the decade. The interviews are plentiful including a who’s who of stars: Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, Julie Christie, Francis Ford Coppola, and numerous other influential directors, actors, and filmmakers. Each individual describes his or her perspective on 1970’s cinema, and personal anecdotes of experiences or challenges are shared.

Ellen Burstyn, for example, describes how the success of The Exorcist afforded her a plethora of other film offers, but all of the roles were of prostitutes, dutiful wives, or women in peril. She needed roles more stimulating than those so she chose to star in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which was a much better written role. What I found a bit sad is how there are still limited, layered roles for women in Hollywood to this day unless one goes the independent film route, which this documentary touts as a savior.

Francis Ford Coppola relays how The Godfather was never expected to be a success, but rather, how he was chosen to direct the film merely because he worked for cheap and was Italian-American. How ironic that the film became such a monumental success and influential to film making as a whole for generations to come.

The documentary, at times, seems like an overview of the decade, with many clips of classic 1970’s cinema interspersed with the talking points. Despite being three hours in length, I still felt that there was so much more that the documentary could have explored. Not surprisingly, the stars granting interviews were granted heavy screen time for their films. The documentary was fine, but could have delved much deeper- I could see a multiple disc set totally ten or more hours dedicated to the decade.

One conspicuous omission was of Robert Altman’s Nashville, arguably, the best film of the decade. While it was ever briefly mentioned, and a still frame of a scene from it did appear, I personally felt that it warranted more dissection and discussion. This was more surprising given that Altman was interviewed for the documentary.

Another miss was Halloween, or any mention of John Carpenter films. Halloween clearly influenced many horror films to come and while The Exorcist received heaps of coverage, undoubtedly because star Burstyn and director William Friedkin appear at length throughout the production,. Additionally, in the horror genre, Black Christmas (a highly influential horror film) was not mentioned at all.

A celebration in my favorite decade of cinema, A Decade Under the Influence is a documentary that is a basic must see for fans of 1970’s cinema, or a film student perhaps immersing themselves into the world of great film for the first time.

Monster-2003

Monster-2003

Director-Patty Jenkins

Starring-Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci

Top 100 Films-#83

Scott’s Review #347

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Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

Monster may feature one of the best acting performances of all time-Charlize Theron simply embodies the role of notorious female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, in a simply astounding triumph. The mannerisms, the anger, and the charisma that Theron portrays is nothing short of brilliance. This brazen acting is simply the best aspect of Monster and the main reason to witness the film. Besides this, the film itself is also great.

The film immediately focuses on Theron- we meet the down on her luck prostitute sitting in tatters underneath an overpass. Suicidal and with five dollars to her name, she goes to a dive bar for one last beer- having blown someone for the five dollars she surmises that the money will go to waste if she does not spend it.

Her older confidante is Thomas, a grizzled man assumed to be an occasional client of hers, is played by Bruce Dern. She goes to a gay bar and meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a lesbian. Aileen insists she is not gay, but winds up spending the night with her in Selby’s family home. The two form a connection and bond immediately, spending more time together and becoming immersed in each other’s lives.

When Aileen is brutally raped and beaten by a client, she begins down a dark and murderous path, killing men she meets after she steals their money. Selby eventually catches on to this and is conflicted over whether to turn her friend in or serve as an accomplice to her crimes as the police close in on the pair.

Enough cannot be said of Theron’s performance. She simply becomes Wournos- from her walk, to her infamous manic mannerisms, and her hair flip. Theron, a gorgeous woman, gained weight, used false teeth, and became simply unrecognizable in the role as a brutal, angry, and trashy looking woman.

Ricci also deserves praise, but plays her role as a bit clueless or dimwitted, counterbalancing Theron’s manic, in your face role. It works well. Both characters are longing for love and companionship and both are clearly misfits. In a sweet scene the pair go roller skating together, hand in hand, to the famous rock song, “Don’t Stop Believin”. This is a great scene.

One can argue the fact that director, Patty Jenkins, softens the way that Wournos is written. Known as a hardened, mean woman, Jenkins writes her as much more sympathetic. This can also be attributed to the fact that Theron emits some vulnerability to the character- the woman really never knew love until she met and bonded with Selby.

Needless to say, Monster is a dynamic, energetic film, thanks in large part to the powerful performance of Charlize Theron- a role that obviously awarded her the Best Actress Academy Award.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Volume 2-2003/2004

Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Volume 2- 2003/2004

Director-Quentin Tarantino

Starring-Uma Thurman, David Carradine

Top 100 Films-#58

Scott’s Review #322

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Reviewed January 3, 2016

Grade: A

Despite being released as separate films (Fall of 2003 and Spring of 2004), Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2 are really one grand, sprawling feature. In fact, the films were shot as one, but at a running time of over four hours, it was impossible to release them as one, so director Quentin Tarantino decided to release his masterpiece martial arts film as two sequential films. I have decided to simply review them as one since Volume 2 is a clear continuation of Volume 1.

From a story perspective, Kill Bill is a basic revenge thriller. The plot is not complex nor ingenious and is rather ordinary containing B-movie components- think the really bad Kung-Fu films of long ago. What makes Kill Bill an extraordinary masterpiece, however, is the style that exudes from the film, thanks to the direction and creation of Tarantino. The film is brimming with good flavor and crackling dialogue of an intelligent sort. Characters have long conversations with each other-not for redundancy sake- in between the endless martial arts and bloody sequences.

We meet our heroine, The Bride (Uma Thurman), in a chapel in El Paso, Texas. About to be married to her groom, the entire wedding party is suddenly assassinated in bloody fashion by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Their leader, Bill (David Carradine), shoots The Bride after she reveals to him that she is carrying his baby. The film flashes forward four years later- The Bride has survived the massacre, but has been comatose ever since. When she is raped by a hospital worker, she escapes and vows revenge on each and every one of her attackers- the revenge culminating with Bill. Her path of destruction leads her to Japan. Similar to most of Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill is divided by chapters and often goes back and forth from the past to present times.

The brilliance of Kill Bill is its pizazz. We know The Bride will get her revenge on the assassins, we just do not know in what way or how bloody the slaughters will be. The film contains copious amounts of blood and swords and machetes are everywhere to be found. The slow drawl dialogue as The Bride has conversations with her prey before she kills them, oftentimes ends in a big fight scene. Her first revenge, against Vernita (Vivica A. Fox) is unique in that it takes place in Vernita’s kitchen as her young daughter is happily eating her breakfast cereal. The entire battle ensues in the kitchen and we are left watching blood and cereal.

It is Tarantino’s unique style of film making and story-telling, adding violence, and long character conversations, that gives Kill Bill, and all of his other classic films, his own unique brand and stamp of approval. I dearly hope he continues to make films that challenge the norm, for years to come.