The Godfather: Part II-1974

The Godfather: Part II-1974

Director-Frances Ford Coppola

Starring-Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro

Top 100 Films-#3

Scott’s Review #197

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Reviewed: November 25, 2014

Grade: A

Frances Ford Coppola’s sequel (and technically also a prequel) to the highly regarded and successful The Godfather is one of the rare sequels to equal and even surpass the original in its greatness, creativity and structure. The Godfather Part II feels deeper, more complex, and ultimately richer than The Godfather- and that film itself is a masterpiece. Part II is much darker in tone. Ford Coppola had complete freedom to write and direct as he saw fit with no studio interference. The results are immeasurable in creating a film masterpiece.

The film is sectioned into two parts, which is a highly interesting and effective decision. The story alternates between the early twentieth century following Don Corleone’s life, now played by Robert DeNiro, as his story is explained- left without a family and on the run from a crime lord, Don escapes to the United States as a young boy and struggles to survive in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. He obtains a modest job as a grocery stock boy and finally celebrates his eventual rise to power in the mafia. The other part of the film is set in 1958 as Michael Corleone is faced with a crumbling empire, through both rivals and the FBI- investigating him and holding Senate committee hearings in Washington D.C., and a failing marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton). Betrayal is a common theme of the film from Michael’s wife, brother, and mobster allies revealed to be cagey enemies. Michael grows uncertain and mistrustful of almost everyone surrounding him. Is Kay a friend or foe? Is Fredo plotting against him? He even begins lashing out at Tom Hagen on occasion.
What makes The Godfather Part II so brilliant, and in my opinion richer than The Godfather, is that it is tougher to watch- and that is to its credit. Now, instead of being a warm, respected member of a powerful family, Michael is questioned, analyzed, and betrayed. New, interesting characters are introduced- Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg, a former ally of Don’s, and Frankie Pentangeli, played by Michael V. Gazzo are intriguing characters and their allegiances are unknown throughout most of the film- are they loyal to the Corleone’s or deadly enemies?

The character of Michael goes from conflicted to all-out revenge minded, including revenge sought on members of his own family. Michael is now a dark, angry character- gone is the nice, decorated war hero with his whole life ahead of him. He is much older and a changed man. Similar to the original Godfather, the opening scene is a large celebration- this time of Anthony Corleone’s first communion celebration. Also in comparison, the finale of the film involves major character deaths one after the other.

Unique to this film are the multiple location scenes- New York, Nevada, Italy, Florida, and Cuba are all featured making for an enjoyable segue throughout and a bigger budget. The blow-up confrontation between Michael and Kay is devastating and shocking in its climax. When Michael punches Kay in a sudden rage, the audience also feels punched. The wonderful scene at the end of the film with the entire family gathered around for Don’s fiftieth birthday in 1942 is a special treat for viewers; familiar faces make cameo appearances. I love these aspects of the film.

The rich history of Don is the greatest aspect of The Godfather Part II as simply known as “Godfather” and patriarch of the family, his life as a boy and young father are explained so we see how he became one of the most powerful men in the crime world. I love how he remains a decent man and helps the poor and the victims of ruthless Don Fanucci, his predecessor. He loves his wife and children, but also loves his neighbors, and helps them, believing in fairness. Ultimately, the characters of Don and Michael are worlds apart.

The Godfather Part II is one of the most complex and well-written films in movie history- studied in film school, discussed, imitated, and championed. It remains vital and should be viewed and analyzed again and again and again.

The Godfather-1972

The Godfather-1972

Director-Frances Ford Coppola

Starring-Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan

Top 100 Films-#10

Scott’s Review #196

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Reviewed November 24, 2014

Grade: A

The Godfather is one of the most identifiable and brilliant film masterpieces of all time. It is so ingrained in pop-culture and film history and was such a blueprint of 1970’s cinema that its legend deservedly lives on. The film has not aged poorly nor been soured by over-exposure. It is as much a marvel today as it must have been when originally released in theaters in 1972.

The film revolves around the Corleone family- a mob family living in New York. They are high powered, wealthy, and influential with politicians and law enforcement alike. They are the cream of the crop of the organized crime families. The patriarch of the family is known as “The Godfather”, real name Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. The eldest son is hot-headed Sonny, played by James Caan. Middle son Fredo, played by John Cazale, is dim-witted and immature and clearly the weak link of the family. Finally, the youngest son is the central character in the film. Michael, played by a very youthful Al Pacino, has just returned home from World War II, a decorated and Ivy League educated hero. Throughout the film Michael wrestles with either steering the Corleone family business towards the straight and narrow or continuing the death, blood, and corruption that currently encompasses the family. Rounding out the Corleone family is Tom Hagen, an Irish surrogate son of sorts, who serves as the family attorney. Connie- the temperamental and emotional sister, and Mama Corleone, the passive wife of Don’s complete the main family. The various supporting characters are immense, from family friends, relatives, corrupt mob figures, and characters introduced when Michael lives in Italy.

The brilliance of The Godfather is clearly the richness of the enormous amount of characters on the canvas and the structure and pacing of the film. Even small characters are vital to the film and every scene is important and effortlessly paced so that they neither seem rushed nor drag, and the film is immeasurably character driven. My favorite character is Michael Corleone as he is the most troubled and complex. Pacino plays him to the hilt as, initially, a nice guy trying to do the right thing, going against the grain, and non-traditional- he proposes to a waspy woman who has no Italian heritage. When events develop in a particular way, Michael suddenly becomes the leader of the family, despite being the youngest son, and the complexities of the character deepen from this point. Specifically, the revenge killing sequence is brilliant as the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat through a car ride, a meal in a restaurant, a men’s room scene, until finally, all hell breaks loose, all the while Michael is conflicted, unsure, and intense. Has he veered too far from being a nice guy? Can he salvage the family business without being ruthless? Michael faces a battle of good vs. evil. The scenes are brilliantly structured- the grand opening scene alone is beautiful as the audience is introduced to the entire family- cheerfully dancing and frolicking during a bright and sunny outdoor wedding (Connie’s) at the Corleone estate, while inside a dark interior study, a man begs Don Corleone to help avenge his raped and beaten daughter by having her attackers killed. Several scenes in The Godfather are my personal favorites- the aforementioned restaurant scene, where Michael is faced with a dilemma involving a corrupt policeman and a high powered figure, one can feel the tension in this extended scene. The scene in a Hollywood mansion where poor, innocent, horse Khartoum meets his fate in the most gruesome way imaginable. Later, Michael’s beautiful Italian wife, Apollonia, has an explosive send-off. Towards the end of the film, the improvised tomato garden scene with an elderly Don Corleone playing with his young grandson. Finally, the brutal scene involving Corleone son Sonny at the toll booth is mesmerizing, brutal, and flawlessly executed.

The lack of any strong female characters and the way in which women are treated (either beaten or passively following their husbands) is bothersome, but unfortunately, circa 1940’s mafia, this is the way things were. One could make the argument that Kay Adams, played by Diane Keaton, is the strongest female character as she questions the Corleone family’s motives and attempts to keep Michael honest and trustworthy. She has little in common with the other female characters. Lines such as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Don’t forget the cannolis” are unforgettable and quote-worthy.

The finale of the film is breathtaking- a combination of bloody kills mixed in with a peaceful scene of Michael accepting the honor of becoming his nephew’s godfather. As he pledges his devotion to God and denounces Satan, the murders he orchestrated are simultaneously being executed. The character, while complex, suddenly becomes a hypocrite. Some view Michael as strictly a hero whose choices should not be questioned or analyzed- other’s view Michael as not a hero, but rather a complex, tortured, bad guy. One simply must watch The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as companion pieces, as Part I is slightly more straightforward and easier to follow than the more complex and layered sequel.

The Godfather is storytelling and film making at its absolute best and continues to influence films to this day.

Mommie Dearest-1981

Mommie Dearest-1981

Director-Frank Perry

Starring-Faye Dunaway

Top 100 Films-#44

Scott’s Review #195

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Reviewed November 20, 2014

Grade: A

Camp, camp, camp! By this point in film history Mommie Dearest and this description go hand in hand, but when made in 1981, it was meant to be a much more serious film than it turned out to be. Sadly, due to a few very over-the-top lines, it is forever inducted into the halls of cult classic memory. Based on the scandalous tell-all book written by Christina Crawford (Joan’s adopted daughter), Mommie Dearest tells the story of Joan Crawford, Hollywood screen legend, from her heyday in the 1930’s, until her death in 1977, and mostly focuses on the tumultuous relationship with Christina- played as an adult by Diana Scarwid. Convinced a baby was missing from her life and unable to conceive after several miscarriages with a former flame, Crawford’s beau at the time, an attorney, wrangles a way for her to adopt both Christina and later, Christopher Crawford. Dealing with her mother’s demands and abuse, Christina goes from happy little girl to rebellious teen sent to live in a convent and later struggling to find her way as an actress in New York City with no financial support from Mom. The film also wonderfully describes the career of Crawford- from highs (winning the Academy award for Mildred Pierce) to lows (being cut from MGM and reduced to screen tests). The film also recounts Joan Crawford’s continuing battles with booze and neuroses.

From start to finish the film belongs to Dunaway as she simply becomes Crawford- the eyelashes, the mannerisms, every detail is spot on. Unfortunately for Dunaway, due to the unintentional comedic view of this film, she was robbed of an Oscar nomination, shamefully so. In fact, the film was awarded several Razzie’s- a derogatory honor given to the years worst films. Dunaway must have put her heart and soul into this performance. During the infamous wire hanger scene, Dunaway looks frightening as her face, caked with cold cream, reveals a grotesque mask- reminiscent of Batman character The Joker- as she shrieks at her daughter in the middle of the night, during a drunken tirade, after finding beautiful clothes on wire hangers. She then trashes her daughter’s bathroom insisting it is already filthy. One shrieks with gales of laughter as Crawford berates her maid Helga for not scrubbing beneath a potted plant, only to insist, “I’m not mad at you Helga, I’m mad at the dirt”. In another haunting scene, Joan throws a birthday party for Christina complete with a merry-go-round, balloons, presents, and the paparazzi. Joan’s attire is a little girl dress matching young Christina’s- a morbid foreshadowing of the competition that is to exist between them as the years go by. The secondary characters are merely an extension of Dunaway’s character and do their best to support her- her harried live in assistant, Carol Ann, played by Rutanya Alda, both of her love interests, lawyer, Greg Savitt, played by Steve Forrest, and later, Pepsi-Cola mogul Alfred Steele, played by Harry Goz. The actors do their best with the material given and are neither exceptional nor flawed. None of these supporting characters have any backstory other than to react to Crawford’s drama and, if written better, may have given the film a bit more depth.

The look of the film is pleasing- Crawford’s house is beautifully decorated with lavish furniture and the colors throughout the film are both bright and vivid. The now legendary lines of “No wire hangers ever!”, “Christina! Bring me the ax!”, and “Don’t f### with me fellas, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo” are hysterical in their melodrama and effect. Crawford is clearly portrayed as an obsessive-compulsive, demanding, control freak. One may debate the authenticity of the claims Christina made against Joan Crawford until the end of time. Not the masterpiece it was intended to be, the film can be enjoyed viewing after viewing for some campy silliness, with one hell of a great performance by Dunaway mixed in.

The Towering Inferno-1974

The Towering Inferno-1974

Director-John Guillermin

Starring-Paul Newman, Steve McQueen

Top 100 Films-#43

Scott’s Review #194

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Reviewed November 15, 2014

Grade: A

The Towering Inferno epitomizes the disaster film craze heaped on audiences throughout the 1970’s (Airport, Airport ‘75 and ‘77, The Poseidon Adventure, and Earthquake to name a few). I am (guilt-free) a huge fan of this 1970’s movie genre, though some certainly look down on it, I am not one of them, and feel The Towering Inferno is one of the greats. The film is enormous and has such a sense of adventure and danger.

The grand film tells of the trials and tribulations of an enormous cast of characters trapped inside an inferno flamed skyscraper – led by Paul Newman and Steve McQueen (fun fact- the two actors reportedly despised each other). An incredible skyscraper is erected in San Francisco, at 138 floors it is professed to be the tallest building in the world and incredibly state of the art. At the ribbon cutting ceremony, an elaborate party is held atop the building overlooking the gorgeous Pacific Ocean. Due to faulty electrical wiring, the building catches fire and the cast of characters face one challenge after another to escape the grips of death. The stellar cast features stars like William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson in addition to Newman and McQueen.

The film is quite soap opera style- numerous characters are introduced, many having affairs with each other or suffering some sort of conflict with each other- Wagner having a torrid office romance with his secretary played by then up and coming star Susan Flannery is deliciously sexy. Holden’s son-in-law is responsible for the faulty electrical system yet blames his father-in-law for cutting budgets. Another subplot involves Astaire’s character attempting to swindle Jones’s character, but then falling in love with her. The plots are so melodramatic that, given the time period of the film, it has a definite primetime television soap opera style to it- think Dallas or Dynasty in a state of peril.

I enjoyed the enormous cast and trying to guess who will be killed off next and in what elaborate way the film will create to burn them to death is a joy to watch- several victims fall or jump to their deaths, which eerily (and sadly) bring back morbid images of jumpers from the World Trade towers on 9/11. The beginning of the film shows a dedication to firemen everywhere and the film has a definite moral and hero quality to the firemen sent to rescue the people in the building. They are portrayed as heroes and intended not to be forgotten in the midst of all the drama encompassing the story. This is admirable.

The special effects are elaborate and quite impressive- the glass elevator rescue scene is amazing! The beautiful set designs are a treat to watch as each lobby, apartment, or lounge in the skyscraper is exquisitely designed in the height of 1970’s style. Every sofa or carpet featured is plush, colorful, and sophisticated. The skyscraper, made of glass, is an amazing element of the film and the aerial views of the building, especially while ablaze are impressive to say the least- remember- 1974 was long before CGI. I am assuming small replicas of the building were used, but what an achievement from a visual perspective. The effects certainly champion the syrupy story elements.

My only small gripe with The Towering Inferno is, assumed to be 138 stories high, the action taking place at the top of the tower- the rooftop as well as the party scenes on the top floor- do not feel that high- The scenic outlook overlooking the water and some land feel about 25 stories high not 138. Some find The Towering Inferno to be nothing more than schmaltzy drama- I say schmaltz was never done better. Enjoy this feast of a big film.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?-1962

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?-1962

Director-Robert Aldrich

Starring-Bette Davis, Joan Crawford

Top 100 Films-#71     Top 20 Horror Films-#18

Scott’s Review #193

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Reviewed November 14, 2014

Grade: A

Kicking off a trend, prominent throughout the 1960’s, of aging Hollywood actresses starring in horror films (interestingly Bette Davis and Joan Crawford each did two- the others being Dead Ringer and Strait-Jacket), with varying degrees of success, Baby Jane is top of the heap.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, directed by Robert Aldrich, stars aforementioned Davis and Crawford as, ironically enough, two aging Hollywood actresses, Jane and Blanche Hudson. Jane (Davis), a child star in the 1920’s nick-named Baby Jane, with an adorable signature song, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”, has long since faded from the spotlight, but continues to dress in her Baby Jane costume, consisting of a little girl dress with hair in curls and ribbons. Blanche, however, garnered her success as an adult in the 1930’s and until a tragic accident, which left her wheelchair bound and subsequently ruined her career, was a popular film star- much more popular than Jane. Blanche and Jane now wither the years away in a crumbling mansion in Los Angeles. Blanche is completely dependent on her unbalanced sister for care. Jane, resentful of Blanche’s success and popularity, plans to re-launch her career in her once famous alter ego.

The film certainly has macabre comedic elements, but never veers too far over the edge as to reach camp or foolishness. It is also a very psychological film as Jane mentally abuses Blanche and plays mind games with her to achieve the upper hand. Davis obviously had a ball with this role as her appearance alone is frightful- a grown woman of a certain age in blonde curls, pancake makeup, and a baby doll dress- she looks positively hideous! What Ever Happened to Baby Jane reminds me quite a bit of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard in several ways- both feature successful stars of years past with delusions of returning to their former fame, both feature older women more than a tinge unbalanced, and both films are set in sunny Los Angeles.

Two of the films supporting actors are well cast, adding much to this film and simply must be given recognition- Victor Buono, later made famous for his role of King Tut in the popular late 1960’s television series Batman, is highly effective as the opportunist sloth, Edwin Flagg, who aids Jane in her comeback attempt. Maidie Norman as the Hudson sisters black housekeeper, Elvira, loyal to Blanche, but never a fan of Jane’s, slowly becomes wise to Jane’s sinister plot and does a wonderful acting job when she stands up to the manipulative sister- for 1962, a black maid verbally assaulting a white woman employer was still rather taboo and kudos to the film for bravely going there in a highly effective scene. The fact that Davis and Crawford famously despised each other in real life adds an edge that does wonders for the audience during scenes where the two women fight and claw at each other, both physically and verbally.

The film has wonderfully quotable dialogue- “we got rats in the cellar”, Jane utters matter-of-factly, as she serves Blanche a cooked rat on a bed of lettuce for lunch one day and cackles fiendishly when she hears Blanche screams of disgust. One aspect of the film that has taken me three viewings to become aware of and that I simply love is the musical score throughout the film- it features multiple and creepy versions of Jane’s signature song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” with varying tempos.

Certainly, suspension of disbelief must be used in this film- why couldn’t Blanche pound and scream at her bedroom window to alert the neighbor of trouble instead of casually tossing a note out the window? Blanche struggling to descend steps by sliding down them and then is unable to slide across the floor to escape the mansion is silly, but alas, the film is so gripping that I happily overlook these errors and instead enjoy the suspenseful film with two actresses, rivals onscreen and off screen, that make this film a bit too realistic, a realism that makes for delightful film watching.

Whiplash-2014

Whiplash-2014

Director-Damien Chazelle

Starring-Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Scott’s Review #192

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Reviewed November 13, 2014

Grade: A

Whiplash is a film about an aspiring nineteen year old Jazz drummer- Andrew Neyman, played by rising star Miles Teller (known for 2013’s indie teen drama The Spectacular Now), who is attending one of the most revered musical schools in the country, the Schaffer Conservatory in New York. There, he is both mentored and terrorized by his intense and sometimes sadistic conductor- Terence Fletcher, portrayed by J.K. Simmons. Andrew aspires to be the best drummer that he can be and worships Buddy Rich- a famous Jazz drummer from the 1930’s and 1940’s, who he constantly listens to and emulates. While Andrew aspires to make the school orchestra that desperately needs a new drummer, he meets a cute girl, Nicole, at the concession stand of his favorite movie theater, and they bond. Also in the mix is Andrew’s father, played by Paul Reiser. Once an aspiring writer, who never made it big, he struggles as a high school teacher. Andrew’s mother left the family when Andrew was just a toddler leaving just father and son.

The film mainly centers on the tumultuous relationship between Andrew and Terence and Andrew’s determination to be the best drummer in the world. J.K. Simmons is simply mesmerizing in his role of Terence and this is wonderful to see as Simmons has struggled as a character actor for years. He gives a powerhouse performance and plows full steam ahead in his viciousness and extreme brutality towards the student’s, and on more than one occasion reduces a student to tears- if the tempo is not to his liking he shakes his clenched fist in disapproval. The audience wonders if Terence is simply mean and sadistic or is tough on the students simply to make them work harder and achieve all that they are capable of. Throughout most of the film I wondered if I should hate this character or have sympathy towards him for wanting the students to excel. The sexuality of Fletcher is ambiguous. He belittles and ridicules the students with fat jokes- he hatefully taunts an overweight student about Mars bars and happy meals, uses Irish digs, and inevitably gay slurs on other students, but is he hiding something in his personal life? Is he a closet case? His private life remains a mystery. As brutal as Terence can be, there are moments of sensitivity that the character exhibits- he tearfully tells the orchestra a heartbreaking story of a former student, whom he admired, who recently died in a car accident. In another scene he warmly bonds with a friend’s young daughter.

As brilliant as Simmons is we must not forget to recognize the immense talent of Teller. The young actor does a fantastic job of portraying determination, drive, anger, and vengeance. Andrew has a wonderful relationship with his dedicated father, a love/hate relationship with Terence, (are they bitter enemies or do they have the respect of a mentor/student?) and a sweet yet uneven relationship with Nicole. He successfully portrays a myriad of different emotions over the course of the film. Paul Reiser is wonderful in an overlooked and, quite frankly, thankless role as Andrew’s unsuccessful, yet forever faithful father. Thankfully the film chose to center on the conductor/student dynamic and Andrew’s romantic relationship with Nicole did not take center stage and usurp the main point of the story, as I felt that the dynamic between the two was of lesser importance to the greater whole of the film.

The finale, an intense concert performance scene focusing on the intensity between Terence and Andrew, is superbly done. The close-up camera shots of the two added much to the climax of the film. In fact, throughout Whiplash, extreme close-up shots of sweat and blood and intensity during performances and practices add to the overall rawness of the film. Whiplash is an intense, sometimes brutal, assaulting experience, but what an amazing film it is.

Scarface-1983

Scarface-1983

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Al Pacino

Scott’s Review #191

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Reviewed November 13, 2014

Grade: B

Scarface is a 1983 mob film directed by Brian De Palma and is certainly an atypical film for the acclaimed director of several stylistic thrillers such as Dressed to Kill, Sisters, and Carrie. In this film, the subject matter centers on the mob and the world of drug trafficking, in this case cocaine, a very popular, powerful drug that ran rampant throughout the 1980’s. Jealousy, greed, and deceit are common characteristics of Scarface and the story focuses on a temperamental, cocky, and arrogant Cuban refuge sent to Miami by Fidel Castro, as a way of banishing criminals from Cuba and shipping them off to the United States to survive on their own.

Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino, goes from dishwasher to crime lord by selling drugs and creating an empire for himself. He manipulates, tricks, and makes enemies left and right including stealing his boss’s girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer) and eventually falling into a troubled marriage with her. He loves his financially struggling mother and sister, giving them money and opening a salon for his sister, but he also controls them, especially his sister, and is filled with rage whenever she attracts the affections of a potential suitor. In his mind nobody is good enough for her and he is filled with machismo and over-protectiveness. Tony eventually self-destructs due to jealousy, rage, and heavy drug use. I found the film overall quite compelling but kept thinking to myself how much it resembles a lite version of The Godfather I or II and Goodfellas. I am fully aware that Scarface preceded Goodfellas, but seeing it for the first time in 2014 this was my initial reaction. I was also kept aware of the fact that it must have been influential in the creation of the popular NBC television series Miami Vice, which debuted a year or two after Scarface was released. Similarities such as crime lords, Miami Beach, and drugs mirrored the slick feel of the hit television drama as well as the look, style, and fashions.

The performance of Al Pacino is problematic- in my view this is not at all his best work. For starters his accent keeps going in and out and I found him slightly unbelievable in the role. A phenomenal actor, something with his performance did not sit well. The musical score to the film is terribly cheesy- almost shockingly so. Granted this was 1983, but the silly dance beats sporadic throughout now seem completely dated.

Parts of Scarface dragged a bit, however a sudden dramatic scene (the dismembering of Tony’s friend by mobsters and Tony’s meltdown in a fancy restaurant) more than make up for the occasional lags in drama. Scarface is certainly not on the level of other contemporary violent mob films, but for fans of the genre, it will be enjoyed.

Birdman-2014

Birdman-2014

Director-Alejandro G. Inarritu

Starring-Michael Keaton, Edward Norton

Scott’s Review #190

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Reviewed November 6, 2014

Grade: A

Birdman is a very unique art film, which happily, has garnered major exposure and publicity, because a movie like this runs the risk of receiving praise and notice only from the art house crowd itself. The film’s star-Michael Keaton, portrays Riggan Thomson, a former action hero superstar from the 1990’s, who was made famous for the “Birdman” character he created. Having made sequels to the film, his career has since dried up and he hopes to establish credibility and prove himself a real actor by writing, directing, and starring in his own play.

The film is set in and around the Broadway theater in New York City. As opening night approaches, he struggles to pull everything together and emit a successful production while faced with an injured terrible actor, a difficult actor, his own insecurities, and a miserable theatre critic destined to ruin his big chance. To make matters worse, his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone is a recovering drug addict who hangs around the theatre distracting actors with her charm and good looks.  Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play Leslie and Mike, other cast members in the production. Watts is sympathetic as the emotional actress with the heart of gold who finally has her dream of performing on Broadway realized. Norton, outstanding as Mike, is blunt yet socially awkward and can only perform truthfully on the stage. Keaton is simply a marvel as he plays a dark and vulnerable man hating and wishing to shed his ridiculous movie persona of yesteryear and secretly cringes when recognized by fans. He communicates with a voice inside his head, the voice he used when he played “Birdman” years earlier.

The uniqueness of the film is the use of what seems like one long take as the action rarely stops and seems to be ongoing. In my opinion, the film belongs to Keaton- he wonderfully relays vulnerability, pain, and fear within with an outward persona of bravery and masculinity. Throughout the film I wondered, is Riggan suicidal? What is real and what is imagined? Are certain scenes foreshadowing for later events? The film has much depth. One marvels at how art imitates life- Is Keaton really portraying himself? Keep in mind that Keaton was the original Batman in the successful superhero franchise beginning in 1989 and his career tanked shortly thereafter. Birdman is a comeback film for him and he is devastatingly good. Norton’s character Mike impressed me- blunt and honest he is also flawed and scared and in some ways addicted to the stage.  Stone has one particularly brilliant scene as she lambasts her father and with regret later on, tells him that the world has moved on without him and that he is irrelevant just like everyone else- it is a powerful scene. In another, Riggan is locked outside of the theater during the performance, clad only in his underwear- how on earth will he return to the stage and complete the show? The quick slights at current Hollywood superstars playing superheroes, specifically Robert Downey Jr. are deliciously naughty.

A dark comedy for sure, it is impossible to predict what will come next and the film is very New York theater style. Keaton’s run in with a theater critic in a cocktail bar is the best scene in the film as the critic’s vicious critique of “You’re a celebrity, not an actor” resonates both pain and tremendous anger for Riggan. Riggan is a sensitive, struggling man and Keaton so wonderfully shows his vulnerability in every scene. Bravo!

Diary of a Mad Housewife-1970

Diary of a Mad Housewife-1970

Director-Frank Perry

Starring-Carrie Snodgress, Frank Langella

Scott’s Review #189

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Reviewed November 5, 2014

Grade: A

The film version of Diary of a Mad Housewife, based on the best-selling novel by Sue Kaufman, is a tremendous, unique story of one woman’s frustration with her irritating life. A superb Carrie Snodgrass stars as a haggard, insecure, yet affluent housewife named Tina Balser, who lives in New York City, surrounded by an unpleasant family. The family is led by Tina’s verbally abusive and neurotic husband Jonathan- a successful attorney, played flawlessly and rather comedically by Richard Benjamin, and her two brattish daughters Sylvie and Liz. Bored, Tina decides to embark on an affair with crude artist George Prager, wonderfully played by Frank Langella. She teeters on the edge of an emotional breakdown throughout the film and trudges through life depressed and disappointed with all aspects of her life except for her affair with George. George, however, is a womanizer and openly has other conquests besides Tina.

The brilliant idea of the film is that the story is told strictly from Tina’s point of view. All of the action centers on her character, which makes the film so interesting. On the surface one might argue she has everything- she is intelligent, well educated, and affluent. A stay at home mother, she is treated like a servant by husband Jonathan, as he constantly berates her appearance and criticizes her activities- she is always doing something incorrectly.

The film though, is not a downer. It is a dry, satirical comedy that reminds me very much of a Woody Allen film. Tina is depressed, yes, but she goes through life with a realistic, almost chin-up, outlook. Her marriage to Jonathan is loveless yet why doesn’t she leave him? Her affair with George is sexually satisfying, but she has no intention of pursuing anything further with him, nor does he want to. Tina dotes over her husband- planning dinner parties, sending Christmas cards and various other wife duties.

I’m not sure that the films true intent is to show Tina as either a strictly sympathetic character nor as completely downtrodden- the film is not a moral tale nor is it a schmaltzy, woman victimized and will rise up against the world generic drama- it is witty and filled with black humor. Despite her unkind husband, I found myself envying Tina’s life, in a way, and I think the film expects that of the viewer. I never got the impression that Tina is suicidal in anyway. It’s not that type of film. Instead, she has wealth, she goes to fancy restaurants, but she also has a very needy husband- he does not abuse her in a physical sense, nor is she reduced to tears by his outbursts. She gets annoyed and merely accepts that this is the way life is and gets by with the assistance of an occasional swig of alcohol while doing dishes or preparing dinner, or when the dog has “an accident” on the living room rug and Tina’s kids cannot wait to tattle on her. She is a sophisticated woman, trapped in an unhappy yet financially secure relationship.

Diary of a Mad Housewife is an interesting character study for all women to view and perhaps even slyly wink at.  Many women would champion Tina. She is a likeable, sarcastic, cool chick. Audiences will find themselves drawn to her and even falling in love with her before long- I know I did. Without the talents of Carrie Snodgrass, who completely carries this film, it would not be the wonder that it is. A wonderful satire, the film is not as wry or satirical as the novel, but how many films are? The novel delves more into detail and the role of the Balser’s maid is barely mentioned in the film, yet plays a larger role in the Kaufman novel. I loved the portrayal of Jonathan by Richard Benjamin who must receive some honor for most annoying character ever in film,  when he repeatedly screams for his wife by bellowing “teeeenaaaaa!”, or initiating sex by asking “would you like a little roll in dee hay?”, one wants to choke him. The way Tina’s daughters whine “mudder” instead of “mother” is comically brilliant. And her simmering hatred of all of them is dark hysteria.

Diary of a Mad Housewife is genius and should not be forgotten.

West Side Story-1961

West Side Story-1961

Director-Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins

Starring-Richard Beymer, Natalie Wood

Top 100 Films-#64

Scott’s Review #188

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Reviewed November 3, 2014

Grade: A

West Side Story is a musical from 1961 (based on the Broadway stage production from the 1950’s), during a period in Hollywood where every other film released seemed to be a version of an enchanting musical. This particular film version is much darker than most  contemporaries within this genre. The dreary ending, fantastic and compelling in its dramatic elements, does not dour the rest of the musical and its hum-along tunes. West Side Story was crowned the 1961 Best Picture Oscar winner.

West Side Story is certainly based on the Shakespearean tragedy of Romeo and Juliet- the Capulets and Montagues becoming rival teen street gangs of the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the Polish”Jets”, with the lovesick teens Tony and Maria serving as Romeo and Juliet. And yes, spoiler alert, the story does not end in a happily ever after fashion.

Loads of suspension of disbelief must be taken- How many gangs sing and dance to each other, snapping their fingers in unison to perfectly choreographed beats? Additionally, some of the gang  characters are not so authentic looking- either in clearly dyed hair, bronzed with tan, or some other phony looking get-up, but the film is a cherished friend and these can be overlooked for my enjoyment of the film.

The story, set in 1950’s New York City, pits the Sharks (a gang led by Bernardo) against the Jets (led by Riff), who have been bitter rivals for the turfs of the rough streets of Manhattan’s west side for many years. In tow are the gang’s girlfriends, along with one female, named “Anybodys”- who longs for the day when she will be allowed to join the Jets and fight alongside the boys. The other supporting characters largely include various policemen (Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke) attempting to keep the gangs apart, as well as a local shopkeeper, Doc, who is the moral compass of the story, encouraging the gangs to get along with each other and questioning the logic of gang fights. After a scuffle, the gangs decide to have at it after an upcoming dance and the Jets elect Tony to square off against Bernardo.

The story is surprisingly dark- especially in the inevitable final act. Amid all this darkness, however, lies a musical with cheery and catchy numbers (I Feel Pretty, Jet Song) as well as love struck tunes (Maria and Somewhere). A musical about diversity and rivalry, the story centers on lovesick Maria and Tony, a la Romeo and Juliet and their struggle to be together despite adversity from their friends and family due to their extremely different backgrounds.

Throughout the film we get to know other characters well- Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo, for example, played by Rita Moreno, is the stubborn yet likable, best friend of Maria, who thinks that Maria and Tony are wrong for each other and that things just are not supposed to be that way when you mix cultural diversity.

The film moves along at a quick pace with standoffs, fights, plots to get the other gang, a failed attempt at a dance to co-mingle the two groups and girlfriends, and Tony and Maria sneaking off to meet together. The lack of chemistry between Natalie Wood (Maria) and Richard Beymer (Tony) is quite noticeable, especially upon multiple viewings, but all of these decades later it is also tough to imagine anyone else in either role- so ingrained are the duo in film culture.

The cultural diversity of much of the cast (Rita Moreno was the only Puerto Rican) is interesting, as is the fact that most of the singing was dubbed by other singers. Yet, the film still somehow works very well.