The Passenger-1975

The Passenger-1975

Director-Michelangelo Antonioni

Starring-Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider

Scott’s Review #259

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Reviewed July 19, 2015

Grade: A

A true art film in every sense of the word, The Passenger is a thinking man’s film, not for those content to munch on popcorn and escape the day’s stressors, but rather, custom made for a film fan willing to ponder the meaning of the film, revel in the slow pace, and appreciate the film as an art form. The Passenger is tough to “get” throughout most of its over 2 hour running time, but its complexities are also its most beautiful characteristics. To say that the film will leave the viewer with questions is quite the understatement, but is pleasing to analyze and come up with conclusions of meaning. Michelangelo Antonioni directed this film and is well-known for directing Blowup and Zabriskie Point, neither of which I have seen as of this writing.

Jack Nicholson stars as a journalist named David Locke, who is on location in Africa (specifically the Sahara desert in Chad). David’s assignment is to produce a documentary film. While there he mysteriously assumes the identity of a businessman named Robertson, who he finds dead in his hotel room. This task is easy due to the fact that David and Robertson look very much alike. As events unfold, it becomes clear that Robertson is involved in arms dealings and smuggling matters related to the ongoing civil unrest within the country. Flashbacks reveal David’s former life, including his friendship with the businessman, and his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and these scenes are mixed in with the current action until they become more linear with each other.

The film is complex to say the least. The initial scene when David spontaneously decides to switch identities is excellent. We wonder, what are David’s motivations and what is the appeal of him taking over another man’s life? Who is the man? Why is David so unhappy in his own life? In this way the film succeeds immeasurably as the plot is not simply told to the audience like so many other mainstream films. Events seem genuine and not forced for plot purposes.

In current time, whereabouts in London, Rachel sadly mourns the assumed “death” of her husband David, though we learn that Rachel has secrets of her own she has been hiding and suffers from tremendous guilt. To further complicate matters for everyone, she is attempting to find the businessman, since she has learned that he was the last person to see her husband alive. Also mixed into the story is a mysterious young woman whom David meets when the story moves to Barcelona, Spain.

What makes The Passenger so compelling to me is its intricacies- story as well as camera styles. The seven minute long shot towards the end is brilliant filmmaking and the climax is quietly intense. The cameras focus is in a hotel room, switches to the parking lot, and returns to the hotel room. I was transfixed by the character of David enormously, struggling to empathize with him, while all the while enjoying an intelligent character study mixed in with a story of political intrigue.

I do not confess to understand everything about The Passenger and will surely need more viewings to make more sense of it all, but the film fascinates me. In a time of mediocre films, how refreshing to stumble upon a forgotten relic from 1975 and have renewed appreciation for film as an art form.

Love and Mercy-2015

Love and Mercy-2015

Director-Bill Pohlad

Starring-John Cusack, Paul Dano

Scott’s Review #258

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Reviewed July 17, 2015

Grade: B+

The life and times of the Beach Boys famous and troubled lead singer, Brian Wilson, is finally played out on the big screen (apparently many attempts were made to make a film) as Love and Mercy chronicles his difficult upbringing, unrivaled success, and his interesting life in later years, as he suffered from schizophrenia, traveled down a paranoid, nervous path, and was manipulated by a family friend who served as his doctor and main caregiver. Thankfully, he weathered the storm in large part to his future wife, and remarkably, still performs and entertains in 2015. His musical career began in the 1960’s.

The biopic features many of the well-known Beach Boys tunes to hum along to and to be entertained by, but is not a happy film, nor is it quite a downer either. It is somewhere in the middle of the two. It is a telling of the life story of a rock star. There is risk in this- If the film is too sentimental it will fail. Love and Mercy does it correctly. To be clear, the film is not a schmaltzy, sing along, trip down memory lane type of film for lighthearted film fans. Rather, it is dark, murky, troubling at times (the psychedelic scene when a young Brian is imagining different voices and noises in his head is rather frightening).

Wilson is played by two different actors, first in the 1960’s and later the 1980’s. Paul Dano stars as a young Wilson in the early stages of his career, filled with passion for life, art, and music, talented beyond belief, but clearly in the onset stages of paranoia, thanks in large part to his critical father, a demanding, angry man, quite possibly envious of Brian’s talents as a songwriter, who always wanted more from Brian. In fact, Wilson’s father managed Brian and his brothers to success, but at a huge cost and was ready to bail when the “next big thing” came along. Miraculously, through conflict with his father and other members of the band, Wilson was able to complete the Beach Boys masterpiece, Pet Sounds, a groundbreaking album from the late 1960’s. The film shows the struggles faced to achieve this success.

In later years John Cusack takes over the role of Brian. By this point in his life he is damaged and he is a full blown neurotic, insecure, and dependent on his psychotherapist, Dr. Landy, brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti. Landy has control of Wilson’s assets and will destroy anyone who interferes in this. The scenes in which he screams at and berates a drugged out Brian Wilson to create music are tough to stomach. When Wilson romances future wife Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, she ultimately saves his life as she is determined to rescue Brian from the wicked abuse and adjust the toxic levels of medications he was kept on.

I left the movie theater unsure of the factual accuracy of the film and pondering the following questions. Did, in fact, Brian’s wife swoop into his life and “save” him as neatly as the film explains? How instrumental was the maid in this process? Was the Wilson brothers’ father as much as a monster as the movie portrayed him? Was Giamatti’s vicious psychotherapist role true to life or were the aforementioned aspects of Love and Mercy embellished ever so slightly for moviemaking magic? One wonders, but from a film perspective, Love and Mercy really works well as a work that takes risks, does not go for softness or niceness, and gives a character study that is quite admirable.

Cake-2014

Cake-2014

Director-Daniel Barnz

Starring-Jennifer Aniston

Scott’s Review #257

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Reviewed July 14, 2015

Grade: B+

Cake is a film about a woman suffering from chronic physical pain and the depression that she constantly battles after a terrible accident that she was involved with in the recent past. Jennifer Aniston gives a wonderful performance as Claire Simmons, a grumpy, sarcastic, bitter victim of unimaginable loss. In fact, Aniston’s performance is the best part of the film by far. It is interesting to note that Aniston Executive produced this film. Similarly and somewhat sadly, Reese Witherspoon had to produce her own 2014 film centered on a female role in order for both women to showcase their powerful acting chops. Too few films about women are made these days unless female star power is used and that is too bad.

Claire has been through hell and back. As the story opens, Claire is sitting angrily in a support group filled with other women with problems. One of the women, Nina, (played by Anna Kendrick) has just jumped off of a freeway overpass to her death. A giant photo of her glares jarringly at the other women. When Claire prods about details of the death and uses sarcastic tones, she is politely asked not to return to the group by the lead counselor, Annette, (played by Felicity Huffman). Claire returns to her well maintained Los Angeles home and the audience is introduced to her well-meaning housekeeper and confidant, Silvana, played by Adriana Barraza. Barraza herself gives a powerful performance. Nina appears throughout the remainder of the film in visions as Clare debates suicide.

Let me discuss Jennifer Aniston’s performance in particular. I thought it just amazing and she was shamefully overlooked for an Oscar nomination. She was superior to at least a couple of the other Best Actress nominees from 2014 (Felicity Jones immediately comes to mind as one). Her character of Claire starts as a bit of a shrew, but gradually becomes quite sympathetic as the story becomes layered and the audience gets to know what makes her tick. Initially we do not know how she came to be in her predicament. We know she was in a terrible accident, but it slowly takes time for all of the details to emerge. We only know she is in pain and angry. Claire’s relationship with Silvana is an interesting one. They spar, Claire takes Silvana for granted at times, but throughout the film a close friendship emerges between the women. In a touching scene they hold hands as they sleep.

Two scenes in particular are heartbreaking and honest. A man played by William H. Macy emerges on the doorsteps of Claire’s house and she is engulfed in rage at his appearance. The power that Aniston emits in this scene is unrivaled. In another scene she sees a portrait hanging on her living room fireplace mantle given by a friend- she bursts into tears and sobs emotionally. At this point the plot makes more sense to me and we feel Claire’s raw pain.

The subject matter of depression and suicide is not a cheery one, and Cake delves deeply into this territory. To be fair, the film is a bit of a downer, slow, and, at moments, drags a bit, and teeters on the verge of a lifetime television movie (yikes!), but is MUCH better than that thanks to Aniston’s compelling portrayal. I only mean with a lesser actress and performance the film might have felt watered down and safe. Some light moments in the film fail. For instance, when Claire “blackmails” Annette and bribes her with vodka for the address of Nina, this seems very trivial and silly- formulaic almost.

Thanks in large part to a gripping performance by one of Hollywood’s underrated talents, Cake takes a film on the border of being one-dimensional to a grander level of dynamic acting by it’s leading lady. A supporting cast of similar talents helps the film rise above mediocrity that it may have been if served by lesser casting choices.

The Nanny-1965

The Nanny-1965

Director-Seth Holt

Starring-Bette Davis

Scott’s Review #256

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Reviewed July 11, 2015

Grade: B

The Nanny is a 1965 Hammer productions thriller starring legendary film icon Bette Davis as a mysterious nanny caring for a 10 year old boy named Joey. Joey has recently been released from a mental institution and returned home to resume normal life, but has he been “cured”? There is obvious tension between Joey and Nanny, but the audience at first does not know what that tension is exactly. Why do they dislike each other? Why is Joey afraid of her? As the plot unfolds the suspense and tension thickens as various events occur and Joey’s parents and Aunt Pen are further fleshed out to the plot. Past events are revisited and the story becomes thrilling.

At one point, long before Joey’s return home, his younger sister has drowned and the circumstances are vague. It has devastated the family, including Nanny. Clearly Joey has been blamed for her death though he insists that Nanny is the culprit. Nobody except the neighbor girl believes Joey and the audience is left to wonder who to believe and who to root for- Joey or Nanny? Davis, as Nanny, brings a warmness to her character, but is she sincere? Is it an act? Is Joey a sweet boy or maniacal? These questions race through the audiences mind as the film progresses. When the mother, Virginia eats tainted food, the obvious conclusion is that Nanny poisoned the food since she prepared it. But why? Did she actually do this? As the plot is slowly explained, there are a few chills, though the ending is not all too surprising.

Any film starring Bette Davis is a treasure in my mind, though admittedly it is not her finest. Still, her finest is awfully tough to match. The Nanny is a good film, though not a great film. It is shot in black and white which is a nice touch for a thriller. The main reason to watch is certainly for Davis’s performance, which is always mesmerizing. Traditionally playing gruff, mean, or bitchy parts (especially in her later years), The Nanny allows Davis to play a traditionally sympathetic role. She is seemingly sweet, proper, and well organized. A perfect nanny on paper.

The role of Virginia, played by Wendy Craig, is a bit too neurotic and slightly over-acted. She is rather one-note as the fretting mother worried about her son. The character of the father is also a bit one-dimensional.

The Nanny is more of a classic thriller from the 1960’s that is often lumped together with some of Bette Davis’s other films around the same time period (Dead Ringer, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), and the aforementioned films are in large part superior to The Nanny, but as a stand-alone it is a decent film.

Inherent Vice-2014

Inherent Vice-2014

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin

Scott’s Review #255

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Reviewed July 7, 2015

Grade: A-

Inherent Vice is a bizarre detective film noir type of experience, set in 1970 Los Angeles. Directed by the superb Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), the film has a weirdness and incoherence that is a marvel to experience. Fans of a straightforward plot will not be thrilled with this film, but for fans of Anderson, this will not disappoint. It has a complex plot, but the payoff is grand and it is certainly a thinking man’s film.

The protagonist is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a stoner private detective, grizzled and jaded, who is contacted by his mysterious ex-girlfriend Shasta. She is worried about attempts by her boyfriend’s ex-wife and new lover’s attempts to kidnap him and have him committed. Mickey, Shasta’s boyfriend, is a wealthy real-estate developer. Doc is also hired by two other people- one a former heroin addict looking for her missing husband, and the other a former convict looking for a prison mate who owes him money and is a former henchman of Mickey’s. All of the stories clearly intersect and such oddities as a peculiar massage parlor and a ship named the Golden Fang come into play throughout the telling of the film. The intersecting stories lead to the revelation of a drug ring.

For much of the film I found myself with little idea what exactly was going on, but was still enthralled by it all the same. There is an unpredictability surrounding Inherent Vice that is so pleasing and captivating. Joaquin Phoenix is compelling as Doc, a damaged character whose past is unclear. When Doc is, by all accounts, framed for the murder of a convict and interrogated by the police, we wonder what history he has with them and what led him to branch out on his own as a private investigator. Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, wonderfully played by Josh Brolin, is a rival of Doc’s, though it is unclear why. “Bigfoot” is frequently seen with chocolate covered phallic objects in his mouth and is married to a severe, overbearing woman. In fact, most of the characters are peculiar and have strange nuances, yet are never fully fleshed out, instead remaining curious and thought provoking. Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Torro, and Owen Wilson appear in small yet pivotal roles.

Quite reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, in both the California setting and the plodding, slow-paced, magnificent storytelling, Inherent Vice is a confusing gem, but by all means a gem worth seeing and reveling among the intrigue. Just don’t try to make too much sense of it all.

The Boy Next Door-2015

The Boy Next Door-2015

Director-Rob Cohen

Starring-Jennifer Lopez

Scott’s Review #254

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Reviewed July 5, 2015

Grade: C-

A steamy direct rip off of the 1987 classic film Fatal Attraction, The Boy Next Door is a by the numbers, mainstream thriller starring Jennifer Lopez as a separated suburban Mom raising her son alone. One day a handsome young man moves in next door and befriends her son and also develops an unhealthy obsession with her. The film is your basic thrill ride with some jumps mixed in, but is as predictable as they come and is safe mainstream fare.

Claire Peterson (Lopez) lives a cozy suburban existence with her socially awkward teenaged son Kevin and works as a literature teacher at the local high school. She lives a modest yet successful life. Her estranged husband Garrett (John Corbett from My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Sex and the City fame) has cheated on her with his secretary. One day a hunky twenty year old neighbor, Noah, moves in, takes a shine to Kevin and an attraction develops between Noah and Claire, despite him being half her age. The audience knows that there is something off about all of this, but the inevitable happens- a lonely Claire winds up in bed with Noah after a disastrous blind double date with her friend and confidant Vicky (the talented stage actress Kristin Chenoweth), who is also the vice principal of Claire’s school. The sex scenes are titillating and sensual with lots of skin.

I went into my viewing of this film not expecting an invigorating or thought provoking film and was not disappointed in that regard. The film is lightweight, predictable, and has a lifetime television movie feel to it. The acting is not great and the setups are seen a mile away. When Claire and Noah meet there is instant chemistry between them (duh! They are both great looking!), but there is also a sinister quality to Noah that the audience is aware of. There is no doubt he will be trouble in Claire’s life. As we progress we become aware that Noah has a temper- another set up for things to come. If he feels wronged he strikes back. Once Claire realizes their passionate night was a mistake, Noah becomes obsessed with and then vengeful of Claire and everyone around her.

Certainly, the plot is filled with one implausibility after another and I could list silly nuances for hours, but here are a few that immediately come to mind- I do not for one second buy Jennifer Lopez as an intelligent, sophisticated, literature genius (despite the film hysterically having her wear nerdy glasses) nor do I buy the very good-looking Ryan Guzman (Noah) as a scholarly expert in literature either. This is done to construct the plot with no believability whatsoever. Throughout the film, Noah is magically able to do whatever he wants- somehow hacking into Claire’s computer, arranging for printouts of his liaison with her to fly endlessly from the ceilings, tamper with brakes, and seamlessly splice Claire’s voice into conversations. The entire film is ridiculous and unbelievable, but, again, it is what I expected it to be.

The ending surprised me in that it ended abruptly with no cliffhanger or hint at a sequel as is common with thrillers of this sort. Perhaps the filmmakers had low expectations for audience turnout?

One jarring point to notice is that Jennifer Lopez, clearly Latina, is playing a character living in a suburban neighborhood, named Claire Peterson. Absolutely nowhere is her Latina heritage mentioned. The character is about as white as you can get.

A dumb, entertaining 90 minutes of escapism, The Boy Next Door is not a good film, but has some fun, thrilling moments, and is fun to kick back relax and take it for what it is. It is comparable to a McDonald’s hamburger- you know what you will get and expect nothing more.

An American Werewolf in London-1981

An American Werewolf in London-1981

Director-John Landis

Starring-David Naughton, Griffin Dunne

Scott’s Review #253

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Reviewed July 2, 2015

Grade: B-

A melding together of British-American horror and comedy, An American Werewolf in London provides entertainment while being campy and silly comedy. While two American buddies, Jack and David, traverse the countryside of England with backpacks in tow, a spring break jaunt of sorts, one is viciously attacked and killed by a strange werewolf setting off a series of strange occurrences that play out over the remainder of the film. From this point the film is told from the perspective of one of the males as the other appears to him in visions warning of his inevitable demise into a werewolf.

An American Werewolf in London does not intend to mock the genre of horror, but is certainly campy and over-the top. Despite cult classic accolades being thrust upon the film, it is not among my favorites. I would have preferred it tilt more towards the horror classification rather than the comedy because it comes across as some sort of a spoof as the main characters overact. The film has a silly quality to it. It is light fare instead of dark or morbid and even the kills are meant to be fun, not horrific. In a way it is almost cheesy and that is not a compliment.

This is not to say that the film is completely subpar. It is decent, but not very believable and I think that is a distraction and a missed opportunity. However, my favorite characteristics of this film are the makeup/special effects and the musical score which features such fitting treats as “Moondance”, “Bad Moon Rising”, and “Blue Moon”. Sense an intelligent theme? The makeup, especially during the reanimation sequences are creative and still impressive today considering the film was made in 1981.

In addition, the best scene of the film is undoubtedly the “Slaughtered Lamb” scene when Jack and David stumble upon the aptly named pub filled with interesting, blue-collar looking locales. When one of the tourists inquires about a mysterious five-pointed star on the wall the pub dwellers become angry and cold leading the young men to be confused and intrigued. This scene is filled with interest and I only wish the pub characters had more of a chance to shine as they seem benevolent and filled with potential backstory. I would have enjoyed learning more history about these folks. Sadly, the focus is by and large on Jack and David and a poorly constructed love interest- Nurse Alex Price, who is not to be taken at all seriously and played for one-dimensional laughs.

A lighthearted, sort of fun late night flick, An American Werewolf in London is a cult film, though I would not agree with the cult classic distinction.