The Wicker Man-1973

The Wicker Man-1973

Director-Robin Hardy

Starring-Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee

Scott’s Review #245

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Reviewed May 31, 2015

Grade: B+

The Wicker Man is a cult horror film from 1973 that is considered one of the finest by horror critics. While the film does not enamor me quite as much as some other favorites in the horror genre (Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Dressed to Kill, and Suspiria) immediately spring to mind while thinking of 1970’s style horror gems, I cannot help but admire The Wicker Man’s creativity and religious overtones. In fact, despite not awarding the film a solid “A” rating, I look forward to viewing this film again and, perhaps over time, as some films do, it will see an adjustment in scoring.

Set on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, named Summerisle, a devout Christian (Edward Woodward) named Sergeant Howie travels to the island in search of a missing young girl named Rowan Morrison, thought to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The inhabitants are vague, aloof, or hostile towards the policeman. He immediately is disturbed to notice the group worships Celtic gods and notices other strange acts of worship and sexual behavior (a naked dance), which he resists and disapproves of. He is tempted by gorgeous seductress, Willow, played by Britt Ekland- most notably known as a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun, and butts heads with the island leader, Lord Summerisle, played by horror legend Christopher Lee. As he attempts to locate the missing girl, he uncovers some very dark goings-on around the island as the annual Mayday harvest celebration is about to occur. He deduces that Rowan is slated to be the sacrifice at the celebration and he races to find her before it is too late. But is there more to the island than meets the eye?

The Wicker Man is not mainstream fare and that is what I admire most about it, as well as its British flare. It strives to challenge the norm in horror and question who is right and who is wrong and who the audience should champion. Certainly religion and the occult have been portrayed in horror films for eons, but rarely given a normal face. Typically, the villains are scary, horrid, or even cartoonish, clearly defined as bad. Despite all of the townspeople being in on the sacrifice, they are seemingly quite ordinary appearing. They raise their kids, farm, run stores, and teach the kids in a classroom setting. On the surface they appear wholesome and that is part of what makes The Wicker Man so scary. Rosemary’s Baby did the same thing. Typically, any sort of satanic overtones or human/animal sacrifices, frighten audiences, especially if the culprits could be their neighbors, friends, or even loved ones. The realness is unnerving.

Differing, controversial, religious beliefs are a prevalent theme throughout The Wicker Man as are elements of good vs. evil. The film is not predictable. It delves into questions of morals and beliefs- for example, Howie is a virgin- saving himself for marriage and trying to be a good, decent person. He is the moral center of the film and, in his belief everyone on the island is either perverted, crazy, or a sinner. By this logic Howie looks down on others who are dissimilar to him and comes across as preachy. I do not get the impression that the film wants the audience to love Howie- nor hate him. The balance between the old gods (Christianity) and new gods (Celtic paganism) makes the film interesting.

The shocking conclusion involving an enormous, life-sized burning wicker man is terrifying beyond belief and by far the best part of the film, as the hero must come to terms with his fate. The final thirty minutes is quite spectacular from the final twist through the ending. My lacking of an exceptional grade for The Wicker Man stems from it being a tad too slow moving. Perhaps with a few additional jumps or frights along the way would have been beneficial, but, on the other hand, it is not a scary film, nor does it try to be. It is, however, quite intelligent and, I suspect will increase my enjoyment with each subsequent viewing. A fine addition to the relics of classic horror, The Wicker Man is creative, mysterious, and left of center film.

Frenzy-1972

Frenzy-1972

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Jon Finch, Barry Foster

Top 100 Films-#24     Top 20 Horror Films-#8    

Scott’s Review #244

Frenzy_movieposter

Reviewed May 17, 2015

Grade: A

Frenzy is a latter day Alfred Hitchcock film that returns the masterful director to his roots of London, England, Hitchcock’s country of origin, and where his early films were made. As with numerous other Hitchcock stories, the protagonist is falsely accused of a murder and struggles mightily to prove his innocence before time runs out and he meets his doom. The film is quite British, with an entirely British cast, and mixes in a humorous side story of the primary investigator’s wife, a horrid cook, who prepares exotic, yet tasteless meals for her husband. This comic relief perfectly balances the heavy drama encompassing the main murder story as Frenzy is one of Hitchcock’s most violent and graphic. Made in 1972- post movie sanctions, he was able to get away with much more explicit content.

A neck-tie murderer, who also rapes his female victims, is on the loose in London. In the opening sequence we see a dead woman floating in the Thames river during broad daylight, nude, except for a neck-tie that she has been strangled with. A crowd of spectators races to see what all the fuss is. We then meet the central character of the film- down on his luck bartender Richard Blaney, who is fired from his job as a bartender by his hateful boss. Blaney has a loyal girlfriend in Babs, a bar maid at the same local watering hole. Babs is sexy, yet plain. He also has a successful ex-wife, Brenda, who runs a dating company. Blaney regularly sponges money and dinners from Brenda. Also in the picture is successful fruit-market trader, Bob Rusk, who is a friend of Blaney’s. All four of these central characters have much to do with the main plot.

As events begin to unfold, the film is not a whodunit as traditionally it could have been. Instead, the audience knows very quickly who the murderer is and his motivations, which is an interesting twist in itself. Regardless of this knowledge, the film is quite compelling as a classic Hitchcock horror thriller.

It is interesting for Hitchcock fans to compare this film with many of his earlier works. Released in 1972, at a point in film history where aforementioned censors were much more lax, it is the first Hitchcock film to feature nudity. It is also the film of Hitchcock’s that features the most brutal rape/murder scene of all, surpassing the shower scene from Psycho, in my opinion. The victims ordeal is prolonged, as she begins praying, thinking she will only be raped, at first unaware that her attacker is also the neck-tie murderer and her life is running short. This leads to a sad, gruesome outcome for her.

One of the most interesting murder scenes actually takes place off camera and is an ingenious idea by Hitchcock. The neck-tie murderer lures a victim to his apartment complex under the guise of being a friend of hers. They walk upstairs to his unit and go inside, all the while the camera remains poised outside of the apartment so the viewer only imagines the horrors occurring inside. The camera then slowly goes back down the stairs and out onto the street and looks up at the murderer’s window. The fact that the victim is one of the principal characters makes ones imagination run wild as to what is transpiring inside the apartment and the viewer is filled with grief. This is a brilliant choice by Hitchcock and so terribly effective to the story.

Another great scene is the potato truck sequence. As the neck-tie murderer has dumped his victim, like garbage, into a potato sack, he is panicked to realize that she has taken his pin from his jacket and presumably clenched it in her fist as a clue, despite her demise. What will he do now? The long scene features the murderer inside the potato truck attempting to unclench his pin from her hand and escape the moving truck without being caught. It is my favorite scene in Frenzy.

Frenzy is a return to triumph for Hitchcock, after the complex Topaz and Torn Curtain, underappreciated political thrillers made a few years before this film. He returns to the horror genre like gangbusters throwing some good, sophisticated British humor into his recipe for good measure. What a treat this film is.

The Virgin Spring-1960

The Virgin Spring-1960

Director-Ingmar Bergman

Starring-Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg

Scott’s Review #243

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Reviewed May 15, 2015

Grade: A

The Virgin Spring is a quiet masterpiece by director Ingmar Bergman. A Swedish language film, it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1960, surprising for such a dark film. I have heard about this film for years, but it had alluded me up until this point, and I am finally glad that I viewed it. It is breathtaking and mesmerizing. A unique film for many reasons, it inspired “revenge” films to follow, specifically The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, which are horror films, yes, while The Virgin Spring is interestingly an art film. The film also questions morals and the main characters religious beliefs and reflections of guilt.

Filming is in black and white and the first point that struck me about the film is its gorgeous cinematography and lighting. The brilliant deep contrast of black and white with the illumination of a characters face while the background is death black is very brazen and reminiscent of Citizen Kane. It gives the film a warmth and glow that contrasts perfectly with the bleak subject matter.

The story of The Virgin Spring is a tragedy, yet the filming is so magnificent that it was not until the film concluded and I pondered the actual story that I realized just how horrific it truly is. And that is was Bergman was going for-provoking thought. This is not a film to kick back and be entertained while munching a tub of popcorn. It is a film meant to make one think.

An affluent Swedish couple, who owns a farm, lives a peaceful, quiet existence. They are stellar members of their community and church. They are humble, but they can afford to have servants. They have a beautiful and pampered young daughter named Karin, who is sent to deliver candles to their church one sunny day. Karin is a trusting, virginal, and proper girl. She comes upon a trio of males- two adults and a young boy. At first gleefully sharing food with them and enjoying her new found friends, they soon turn on her and she is viciously raped, robbed, beaten, and murdered. The look of surprise, pain, and horror on Karin’s face is monumental. As this occurs, a pregnant and spiteful servant, Ingeri, watches in horror from a hiding place. A rival of Karin’s, Ingeri wanted misfortune thrust upon Karin, but as she watches in horror, the expressions on her face portray regret.

As the family hope and pray that they can find the missing Karin, the men and boy show up at the farmhouse in need of food and shelter. Unbeknownst to the family, they are Karin’s rapists and killers, and once the truth is known, the once sweet parents are out for brutal revenge. The young boy of the trio is guilt ridden and physically sick from the circumstances. Is the families revenge justified or should they (as good Christians) forgive? This is the moral point of the story.

The conclusion of the film is powerful as the father begs god for forgiveness. He questions his actions. But is he a changed man? Bergman uniquely and intelligently shoots these scenes with only the fathers back in view as he throws his hands to go. We, the viewer, become one with the father in these moments, which makes for powerful storytelling.

Influential to many subsequent films, The Virgin Spring is a powerful tale, reminiscent of a fairy tale, that makes the viewer think upon the ending. Subdued yet horrifying, it is meant to be viewed and analyzed.

Pulp Fiction-1994

Pulp Fiction-1994

Director-Quentin Tarantino

Starring-John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman

Top 100 Films-#22

Scott’s Review #242

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Reviewed May 12, 2015

Grade: A

Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential films of the 1990’s and single-handedly kicked the film industry in the ass. It led an entire generation of filmmakers, who were starved and determined to make more creative work after the largely dull decade of the 1980’s. The success of the film, both creatively and critically, helped ensure that edgier and more meaningful artistic expression would continue to occur. The leader of the charge, of course, was director Quentin Tarantino. With Pulp Fiction, a black comedy crime film, Tarantino mixes violence, witty dialogue, and a 1970’s cartoonish feel to achieve a filmmaking masterpiece.

The plot is non-linear and the story contains three main focuses that intersect- a new style of filmmaking that has become commonplace in commonplace in modern cinema, but at the time was a novel adventure. Set in Los Angeles, Samuel Jackson and John Travolta portray hit men named Jules and Vincent, who work for a powerful gangster, Marsellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames. We get to know them as they interrogate four college aged youths who double-crossed Marsellus, all the while discussing fast-food hamburgers and adventures in Europe. On another front, Butch (Bruce Willis) is hired by Marsellus to lose a fight to another boxer. Later, Marcellus instructs Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurmon), a former unsuccessful television actress, out for dinner and a night on the town. Finally, we meet Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plumber), two small town robbers plotting a heist at a local diner. As the film develops these plots relate to each other in unique ways.

The film is quite stylistic, resembling a 1970’s film production in the way it looks, and use of 1970’s style sets- the diner in particular looks very of that time, and an automobile where a death occurs, is a 1970’s Chevy Nova. The film, however, is set in present times.

The dialogue throughout Pulp Fiction is immensely impressive to me. Long dialogues occur between characters, usually sitting over a meal, discuss the meaning of life, religion, fast-food burgers, and other wonderfully real conversations. I love the many food references- from Butch’s girlfriend salivating over an impending meal of blueberry pancakes to the French version of the Big Mac being discussed, to the price of a shake, these make the conversations between the characters rich and unique and oh so creative.

My favorite sequence is the one between Vincent and Mia, mostly taking place at a trendy 1950’s themed diner named Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where the staff dresses up in costume impersonating their favorite stars of the day, such as Marilyn Monroe. After winning a dance contest (and a possible homage to Saturday Night Fever) the two go back to Mia’s place where she accidentally overdoses on heroin thought to be cocaine. The song “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” by Neil Diamond, is both integral and haunting to the scene.

An intense and shocking scene of male gay rape is extremely violent and the hillbillies involved could be straight out of Deliverance from 1972 despite being in Los Angeles. This scene is disturbing yet mesmerizing at the same time, and might I say even comedic in a dark way?

Pulp Fiction is not a mainstream affair and certainly has its share of detractors and plain old non-fans, but for filmgoers seeking a fun, entertaining, cleverly delicious work of art, influential to Hollywood and Independent filmmakers alike, Pulp Fiction is a film to watch over and over again and admire its style and creativity.

Into the Woods-2014

Into the Woods-2014

Director-Rob Marshall

Starring-Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep

Scott’s Review #241

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Reviewed May 8, 2015

Grade: B

Based on the stage production of the same name, Into the Woods is a feature length Disney film that incorporates several different fairy tales into the main story. The film is a fantasy musical with numerous songs performed by the cast, featuring a large ensemble of seasoned actors within its ranks. The classic fairy tales are modern versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella.

The action mainly revolves around a baker and his wife (James Cordon and Emily Blunt) who are sad and lonely because they are unable to conceive a child due to a long-ago curse put upon the baker’s family by a witch- played by Meryl Streep. Circumstances surrounding the baker’s father caused the once beautiful witch to be turned ugly. The witch offers a bargain to the baker and his wife- if they bring her four items (a white cow, a red cape, yellow hair, and a gold slipper) for a special potion, she will lift the curse, enabling them to conceive a child and live happily ever after. This prompts the couple to venture into the dark forest to obtain the requested items. From this point in the film the couple intersects with other characters from the fairy tales as all question various aspects of their lives.

Certainly there are subsequent stories- the witch is Rapunzel’s adoptive mother and keeps her locked in a tower to prevent her from being hurt by the world. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) escapes her taunting stepsisters and attends a ball only to flee when noticed by the handsome prince (Chris Pine)- Jack attempts to sell beans in order to provide food for his mother- and Little Red Riding Hood attempts to bring sweets to her Grandmother, but is confronted by the Big, Bad, Wolf (Johnny Depp), and there is a strange Woman Giant stomping through the forest searching for Jack, but all of these stories revolve around the baker and his wife’s efforts to retrieve the witches requests.

The production and art direction in the film are great. I love the dark, gloomy forest, which translates so well on the screen and gives the magical effect of a mysterious, secret forest to the viewer. I enjoyed the songs quite a bit- especially the catchy finale “Into the Woods”. However, some of the songs are quite one dimensional and bland and not discernible from each other, let alone memorable. The duet of the Prince’s, “Agony” is silly with, useless to the plot, gyrations and silly dance moves.

Meryl Streep- dynamic in anything she appears in- again steals the show as the vile witch turned beautiful in the latter stages of the film. She has a fantastic solo number mid-story, entitled “Stay with me”.

One drawback I found with the film is, at times it drags a bit and I was not sold on the casting of Anna Kendrick as Cinderella- something about her performance was lacking- perhaps she was not as sympathetic or convincing as another actress might have been. Also, I would have enjoyed seeing Johnny Depp as the Wolf been more prominently featured as well as a larger role for the Woman Giant. As integral as she is to the plot, it was tough to even get a clear glimpse of her face let alone anything more substantial.

An entertaining feast of fairy tales immersed in one film, Into the Woods has some compelling moments, but has a dull note to it and some lost opportunities that bring it far from the reaches of a masterpiece level. A good film, but not a great film.

Carrie-1952

Carrie-1952

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Jennifer Jones, Laurence Olivier

Scott’s Review #240

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Reviewed May 3, 2015

Grade: B

Carrie, not to be confused with the Brian DePalma horror classic from 1976, is a drama from 1952 starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones- two big Hollywood stars of the time. Shot in black and white, the film tells the story of the self-titled ingénue (Jones) of mid-western upbringing, who travels to Chicago to make her fortune. Attempting to launch her own career, Carrie becomes immersed in a love triangle with Olivier- who is unhappily married and runs a restaurant, and salesman, Charles Drouet, played by Eddie Albert. Directed by William Wyler, the film has a melancholy tone to it as one of the characters sinks into a world of despair.

The highlight of this film is the performance of Laurence Olivier. He is excellent, as his character of George Hurstwood goes from successful restaurant manager with an affluent existence, to poverty stricken, lonely, broken old man. Olivier is so effortless and believable in his performance as his always was. I felt, however, that Jennifer Jones was miscast. Attractive, yes, I did not feel that every man would lust after her on sight alone, as was needed for the character of Carrie. Her acting, while okay, is not on the level of either Albert or especially Olivier, who she shares much screen time. Perhaps Vivian Leigh, Teresa Wright, or Kim Novak might have been wiser choices?

The story itself is compelling and interesting. Here we have a woman- at the turn of the twentieth century- forging ahead at an attempt to make it on her own- almost unthinkable for a woman at that time, taking menial jobs as a sewing worker in a factory to scrape by. Carrie resists the urge to become a rich husband seeking gal and believes in marriage and true love. That is why she is devastated when she learns that George is indeed married. Will true love win out for them? This seems to be the main aspect of the film.

Behind the scenes issues may have contributed to the problems that appear onscreen- Wyler reportedly did not want to cast Jones, Olivier did not like Jones, Olivier was injured during much of the filming, and the ending of the film was changed to provide a “happier” ending. Originally, George was to commit suicide, which might have successfully made the film more shocking and heartbreaking.

Containing beautiful costumes and interesting cinematography, Carrie has positives, but might have been much better than the final product ended up being, but for poor casting and real-life dramas that hurt the film.

A Most Violent Year-2014

A Most Violent Year-2014

Director-J.C. Chandor

Starring-Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #239

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Reviewed May 1, 2015

Grade: B

Taking place in New York City, throughout the notoriously violent year of 1981 and clearly influenced, at least in part, by The Godfather and, in my opinion, similar in texture to the elite HBO series The Sopranos, A Most Violent Year is an attempt at weaving a tale of a “good guy” mixed up with the mafia and attempting to remain upstanding throughout the adversity and corruption that he encounters.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain portray Abel and Anna Morales, who own Standard Oil, an upstart business that they are attempting to successfully launch. Due to the violent nature of the times, several trucks are hijacked, resulting in robberies and severe beatings. In desperate need of funds to expand their business and stay ahead of competitors, Abel and Anna are forced to take out loans, leading them into a world where crime and violence run rampant. In the midst of all of this, they are under investigation for apparent price fixing and tax evasion activity by the Assistant District Attorney.

The main theme to this film is the conflict and guilt that Abel feels towards violence and the constant temptation to join the ranks of the crime world to protect his business ventures. Abel faces pressure from Anna, who herself has mob ties (her father is an influential mafia boss known around town) and is all for fighting fire with fire. Abel refuses and is determined to lead a straight and narrow life. When circumstances spin out of control, his morals are questioned.

A Most Violent Year is an interesting film yet I think I was expecting a bit more than I was given. For starters, it certainly is not in the same league as the aforementioned works of art that I compared it to. It is tough to put my finger what exactly is the issue, but there is a certain quality that is missing from the film making it lack a compelling edge. The plot moves slowly, for sure, but the film is successful as the character study that it is, however, I was left wanting more depth to the characters and a broader vision to the film itself. I did not find myself truly vested in either characters of Abel or Anna.

Chastain received heaps of praise for her performance, which I found to be adequate, but hardly a marvel. Nominated for several awards, but deemed “snubbed” for not receiving an Oscar nomination, I find this to be untrue. Her performance is not brilliant and, in fact, Oscar Isaac’s is superior.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the film overall. It takes some risks, has a rich character complexity, and is shot very well, and looks great. It has a smooth look and I completely bought the 1981 time period, rather than it appearing to be dressed up for the era. There is certainly an authenticity to it.

A mob film not on the level of The Godfather or Goodfellas, A Most Violent Year is a decent contribution to the crime-thriller era. It just does not live up to the critical acclaim heaped upon it.