A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night-2014

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night-2014

Director-Ana Lily Amirpour

Starring-Sheila Vand

Scott’s Review #271

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Reviewed August 24, 2015

Grade: A-

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a highly creative, unique, independent horror film from 2014. One of the many reasons I am a fan of independent cinema is to discover and promote little seen gems. The dialogue is in Farsi (Iranian) and the cinematography is in black and white, which in itself is very unique in modern film. I notice similarities between this film and Let the Right One In (both the English and the Swedish versions) in the frigid mood and love story enveloped within. This film is the debut of director Ana Lily Amirpour and what a marvel she could become. Despite obvious influences by other films and directors, A Girl Walks Home At Night has a brilliant freshness to it and seems completely original and unpredictable to watch.

The title of the film accurately depicts the main story. A teenage girl (Sheila Vand) walks around the desolate, dark streets of a city aptly named Bad City in the Iranian underworld. The film is actually shot in southern California and looks like it could double for Detroit. The girl, who has no name, has strange encounters with a myriad of peculiar individuals, including what appears to be a transgender prostitute, a vicious drug dealer, a nice yet mysterious young man named Arash, Arash’s father, who is hooked on drugs, a mysterious cat. She then embarks on a tender flirtation with Arash. The overall plot, which I found secondary to the look of the film, centers around The Girl’s encounters with these individuals as well as their encounters and relationships with each other. The Girl is a lonely vampire and feels isolated from society, but it is unclear what she is looking for- she is both destructive and sweet depending on the circumstance. She takes her aggression out on the bad.

The most striking and impressive aspect of the film is its dark moody atmosphere. Brooding and cold looking, the city reeks of death and loneliness. The Girl speaks very little so that her expressions are what the viewer will notice. Her eyes delve into her soul. She is the most interesting of the characters, but the others, specifically Arash and the transgender prostitute have potential and we are curious to explore more about them. Arash and his father have more depth than any of the supporting characters- Arash painfully lets his drug riddled father stay with him and attempts to assist him with his issues. One assumes that since the father’s wife (Arash’s mother) has died suddenly, he has taken a downward spiral, but this is only suggested to the audience. We do know for sure where she is- in one scene we see the father angrily look at a photo of a middle-aged woman and is destroyed by her absence. He believes that the woman has taken on the body of the mysterious cat. Arash caring for his father is a fascinating role reversal. Wouldn’t we expect the young man to have the drug problem and the father the care-giver? This is interesting in itself.

The aforementioned influences are plentiful, but most notable from a director standpoint is David Lynch. The black and white filming along with the viewer’s point of view in one scene involving a car driving down a dark highway resembles the Lynch film Lost Highway. The moody background music and the slow but methodical pacing also gives A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night a Lynch feel. One curious element of the film is The Girl’s interest in 1980′ pop music- her bedroom wall riddled with Madonna and similar pop stars from the 1980’s posters. The Girl even admits to listening to a sappy Lionel Richie tune. It is unknown if it even could BE the 1980’s as time seems unimportant. The film strangely combines edgy, alternative film-making with commercial pop references. I half expected The Girl to break into a rendition of “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. My thought is that perhaps Amir’s intention is to portray the Girl’s desire to fit into a mainstream society knowing that a vampire never can. This theory is proven when The Girl is melancholy when Arash buys her a hamburger, knowing she cannot enjoy it as he does.

Creative, a dreary atmosphere, and intelligently thought out, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a strange, murky experience in film experimentation. Amirpour is a fresh, new director worth watching for in the years to come.

Venus in Fur-2013

Venus in Fur-2013

Director-Roman Polanski

Starring-Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric 

Scott’s Review #270

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Reviewed August 23, 2015

Grade: C

Venus in Fur is a French language film from 2013, directed by the enormously talented Roman Polanski, and based on the American play by David Ives. Interesting to note is that Ives’s play is itself based on a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch entitled Venus in Furs. Polanski’s film adaptation is really a filmed play and takes place entirely within the walls of a theater, except for the opening shot, as the camera pans inside the doorway of the theater as if the audience are the eyes of an approaching theater-goer. The subject matter is quite adult- sadomasochism and dominance, though there is little nudity and is not perverse in any way.

The story surrounds Thomas, a stressed out writer-director of a new play set to open soon in Paris. Finishing touches must be handled as well as casting the lead actress! His play is an adaptation of Venus in Furs and a frustrated Thomas is on the phone complaining about an unsuccessful day attempting to cast the lead role of Wanda. A disheveled actress named Vanda wanders into the theater and attempts to convince Thomas to let her read for the part, which she desperately wants. Initially Thomas is turned off by Vanda as she is dressed slutty and is on the middle-aged side and, in his mind, wrong for the part. When she finally does convince him to let her read for the part, she becomes Wanda and a strong, bizarre, sadomasochistic, attraction develops between the pair as they run lines together.

Roman Polanski might very well rank within my Top 10 favorite directors of all time list (Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite films), but this work disappointed me. Containing a cast of only two characters, I found the story to be limiting and became tedious as the story developed. It was tough to distinguish when Thomas and Vanda were in character and when they were expressing their true selves and I did not find either particularly likable. This may have been intentional, but confusing and dull nonetheless.

The sexual-fetish subject matter is prevalent, but not in a tasteless way. The initial roles reverse as Vanda goes from whimpering, pleading actress needing some work to dominatrix, who obtains control over Thomas, who in essence becomes her slave. Thomas begins as powerful director with an ego and ends up catering to Vanda’s every whim. They develop a deep emotional connection that they simultaneously realize. The main issue was not feeling much connection towards either character. I detected no chemistry between them. Clearly the dominant soon becomes the submissive, but who cares when you are invested in neither character?

On the plus side, I loved the basic theater set. This instantly reminded me fondly of my college days and rehearsing/performing in a theater similar to the one in Venus in Fur, complete with the rustic red audience seats and the moody ambiance of the theater.

Venus in Fur has an interesting premise as people immerse themselves in the roles they play, but a disappointing film, especially coming from one of the greats. Whatever the exact reasons, the film did not work for me. Interesting premise, but ultimately failed for me.

A Little Chaos-2014

A Little Chaos-2014

Director-Alan Rickman

Starring-Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts

Scott’s Review #269

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Reviewed August 22, 2015

Grade: B-

A Little Chaos is a difficult film for me to review. The film does not kick into high gear, or much of a gear at all, until the final thirty minutes or so as the drama hits a crescendo and past events are suddenly explained. At this point it becomes a very entertaining film. Until then, it is largely a bore and slow paced. Starring Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman, who also directs the film, A Little Chaos is a good film with beautiful period piece costumes to marvel over, and looks and feels great, but misses the mark with a lack of balancing the momentum throughout the length of the film. It is also largely fictionalized, which makes viewing it a bit less enjoyable.

A period drama set at the gorgeous Versailles in France, the time period is the late 1600’s when King Louis XIV of France is in power and lives on the illustrious estate. Landscaper, Andre Le Notre, hires unconventional gardener Sabine (Winslet) to create one of the gardens. Sabine is progressive and does not live in the past. Rather, she has ideas of creating a unique pattern. Sabine is instructed to incorporate a wonderful fountain within the garden. She faces hostility from staff members for simply being a woman and they refuse to work for her. Others admire her creativity. As the plot unfolds, Sabine has romantic feelings for Andre, a man trapped in a loveless marriage with Francoise, and they begin a tender courtship. Sabine is haunted by past events and frequently hears a little girl’s cries in her dreams. The audience does not know what her past life was, only that she is widowed. The final act of the film brings everything together nicely. We learn Sabine’s past and her suggested dalliance with Andre comes to fruition. At the conclusion of the film I was left thinking how exceptional the film was, but then remembered the majority of it had dragged.

The theme of A Little Chaos are class systems, feminism, and societal views. At first snubbed by some for being a commoner, Sabine slowly is accepted by the royal figures, including the King himself, who Sabrine humorously mistakes for the gardener at one point. Ideally, it would have been lovely if a woman had actually been hired at the time to create the garden. Sadly, events did not happen this way, but rather, it is someone’s fantasy.

A Little Chaos has great potential and looks beautiful- my main complaint is for most of the film nothing much really happens. Also disappointing is that the film was not filmed at the historical Versailles, nor was it even shot in France. Every exterior scene was filmed in England. This is not a deal breaker, but some genuineness would have been nice. Another major detraction is that Sabine De Barra is not even a real life figure, but rather is fictionalized- sort of how the past should have been, but wasn’t really. Having been a real person would have made the film more interesting. What is the investment?

From an acting standpoint the film succeeds. Winslet, clearly a highly talented actress, is well cast and the chemistry between she and Matthias Schoenaerts is palpable. Both actors are believable in their roles. Stanley Tucci, typically great in whatever he appears in, plays Phillippe, a silly, slightly effeminate Duke that does more to annoy than to amuse and is a trivial character.

Throughout my viewing of the film I kept thinking of it as the type of film that ought be liked because it looks great, but something was definitely missing. The royal drama, sexual dalliances, and antics were fun, but I felt like the film could have been much more than it ended up being.

Two Days, One Night-2014

Two Days, One Night- 2014

Director-Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Starring-Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

Scott’s Review #268

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Reviewed August 21, 2015

Grade: B

Two Days, One Night is a French language drama starring the wonderful and highly talented Marion Cotillard, who received an Academy award nomination in 2015 for this role, and is the main draw of the film. I never tire of viewing any of her film performances, however, I felt the film itself was lacking something special. An adequate film, yes, but below the standards in which I was expecting given the award recognition. Quite frankly, the film is good, with an interesting tale of morality, but becomes redundant as it goes along.

Sandra, played by Cotillard, is a working class woman living in an industrial town in Belgium. She works in a factory and struggles to make ends meet with her supportive husband, Manu. They have two young children. It is revealed early on that Sandra has a history of suffering from depression and has recently been forced to take a leave of absence from her job due to her struggles. Now recovered, she is ready to resume normalcy, but her boss forces a vote among her sixteen colleagues in which they decide to either save her job or eliminate her position entirely, thereupon each will receive a hefty bonus. Sandra, along with a co-worker she feels close with, convince the boss to allow an anonymous vote the following Monday, leaving Sandra with one weekend in which to convince the others to save her job. The conflict is that during Sandra’s absence, the department was able to run successfully so why is she needed?

The plot has an interesting moral concept. Will people sacrifice personal gain in order to assist someone else? The fact that Sandra is a kind woman makes the decision seem easy. However, many of her colleagues are struggling to put food on the table for their families and could use any extra wages manageable. The audience absolutely is on the side of Sandra and her equally kind husband, who continually talks her out of giving up and instead encourages her to spend the weekend convincing the others to vote for her come Monday morning.

The weak point to the film is that it contains one basic formulaic story and does not branch out into anything more. The plot is simple- this is not a bad thing, but I was expecting a bit more from this film. The action takes place over the course of one weekend and the entire plot is that of Sandra traversing the town looking for colleagues in order to persuade them to vote for her. Most of the people she encounters are sympathetic and, if they cannot help her, they empathize with her. By the fifth or sixth person, we get that she needs their votes. It becomes the same scene over and over. The character of Manu is undeveloped. We learn nothing about him except he is a devoted husband and father, but what about his feelings? How did he deal with Sandra’s depression? Strangely, many of the co-workers Sandra looks for are not home at the time, which requires her to go to the park or the laundromat or the pub to track them down.

I question the authenticity of the story. Sandra’s boss (the foreman of the factory) has the power to pit colleagues against each other (supposedly approved by management) and to control the destiny of one employee? There is no Human Resources department mentioned throughout the story until almost the final scene, when a manager appears, and it is never explained why the boss is able to get away with this. There is also no mention of a union, which in factory work is common. Furthermore, Sandra and Manu never mention consulting an attorney- yes, they are poor, but surely a conversation might have occurred. The title also does not make sense- Two Days, One Night- the film begins on a Friday and ends on a Monday morning. What does the title mean?

Two Days, One Night is a film featuring an honest performance from a talented actress (Cotillard), but a tad bit slow and tedious at times, all but repeating similar scenes over again. The film is a nice, simple, quiet story, but nothing spectacular.

Lake Placid vs. Anaconda- 2015

Lake Placid vs. Anaconda- 2015

Director-Griff Furst

Starring-Robert Englund

Scott’s Review #267

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Reviewed August 16, 2015

Grade: D

To say that Lake Placid vs. Anaconda is a bad film is being generous. It is poorly made, written, and acted. Containing every horror and comedy cliché in the book, it is clearly not a film to take seriously, and is best watched late at night amongst adult spirits.

The premise is ludicrous, the acting way overdone, and all characters are “types” and one-dimensional. Having seen the original Lake Placid and Anaconda films (and they were not so great themselves), I was unaware that this is actually the fifth film for both franchises and is a crossover.

Premiering on the Syfy network in mid 2015, it is a made for television feature, and the lack of any real gore is apparent for this reason. Robert Englund and Yancy Butler, stars of other installments of the franchise, make return appearances. Sadly, no Betty White or Jennifer Lopez (stars of the original Lake Placid and Anaconda respectively) in this one.

Lake Placid vs. Anaconda is not trying to be great art or necessarily art at all, but rather an idiotic late night experience. I did not rate the film a solid F since it knew what it was and did not try to take itself too seriously, which I respect at least.

The story begins in the middle of the woods near Clear Lake, Maine, as an illegal experiment is occurring inside a truck. Serum is being illegally extracted from a sedated crocodile to sell to a giant corporation for profit. Jim Bickerman (played by horror legend Englund) has been paid handsomely to provide information in order for the plot to happen.

A villainous corporate schemer is on hand to oversee the events. Inevitably, something goes wrong and the crocodile wakes up and gets loose, encountering large anacondas, who are also on the loose. From this point, we are introduced to other inane characters that round out the film, including a group of bitchy sorority sisters on their way to Clear Lake presumably to pledge and party, and Sheriff Reba (Yancy Butler) and her bumbling team of police officers. Also integral to the story is one of the sorority sister’s (Bethany) father, Will, who attempts to help Sheriff Reba rescue everyone from the killer reptiles.

Side stories include the laugh out loud pledge attempts by some of the sorority wannabees (one is forced to dig a hole in the sand large enough for her to hide in within 20 minutes), a friendship between the only two sensible girls, Bethany and Margot, a high leveled female executive intent on capturing the serum for riches, and a burgeoning romance between Reba and Will.

Silly personified, the film is meant to be goofy and the actors play their roles as they are foolishly written. There is not a shred of realism to the film and none of the characters have any depth. The worst offender from a character standpoint, is humorously my favorite. Tiffani is the comically vicious sorority queen. With her constant berating of the new pledges, she regularly demands that they get in the water and swim for her entertainment. Ultimately, the girls are attacked by the crocodile in the water, allowing for multiple camera shots of the girls swimming underwater while scantily clad. Is this a 1980’s low budget horror throwback? When the crocodile emerges to land the remaining girls flee for safety.

In a hilarious scene, Tiffani and one of her minion’s are cornered by the vicious crocodile. The minion asks what they should do and Tiffani replies with, “I have an idea”, and promptly pushes the minion towards the crocodile where she is chewed to bits allowing Tiffani to escape. Later, predictably, Tiffani receives her comeuppance.

I find myself perplexed as to why this film was even made. Clearly, made on a shoe-string budget, with dated CGI effects, little blood, and a preposterous plot. One is to assume that the franchise’s predecessors were similar ventures.

Laced with one dumb scene after another and tough to take at all seriously, Lake Placid vs. Anaconda is as poor filmmaking as they come, but certainly to be taken with a grain of salt and enjoyed for its campy badness. Art, hardly, but rather a fluff horror-comedy for a boozy Saturday night.

Maps to the Stars-2014

Maps to the Stars- 2014

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska

Scott’s Review #266

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Reviewed August 14, 2015

Grade: A-

Maps to the Stars is a bizarre, unpleasant, film that is as dark and perverse as it is provocative and fascinating to observe and ponder. More like an independent art film than a blockbuster Hollywood project and made by an arguably mainstream director, David Cronenberg (Crash, The Fly), I am surprised it was able to be made on a large scale budget due to the negative portrayal of actors and celebrity types, specifically, troublesome starlet and child star. One must be wary of biting the hand that feeds. Maps to the Stars is a film where almost all of the central characters are unlikable in nature- difficult, unstable, self absorbed, or all of the above. The subject matter is ugly, but fascinating to me. The wealthy and glamorous are interesting and, at times the film is like a Greek tragedy as well as containing Shakespearean elements- think Romeo and Juliet in an incestuous way times two- one must watch this film to see what I mean. Hint- it contains the ick factor.

The plot centers on a Hollywood family, where the son is a famous child star and the primary bread-winner. They are the Weiss family- all struggling to either find success, or hang on to it, all the while each of them is neurotic. The father, Dr. Samuel Weiss, played by John Cusack, is a TV psychologist, who is hired by Havannah Segrand (Julianne Moore), a highly self-centered, aging actress, struggling to land a coveted role playing her mother. Her mother was a young actress in her day, who tragically died in a fire. Havannah despises her due to claimed childhood abuse. Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams) is Samuel’s wife, a very controlling, ambitious woman, who strives to get the most money out of her son Benjie, a Justin Bieber type character with a troubled streak. Rounding out the family is Agatha Weiss, a troubled teenager, sent away for years after giving her brother pills and setting her parents house on fire. Though not directly related to the Weiss’s, Havannah, and limo driver, Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson) become heavily involved with the family as events transpire.

As I watched the film it reminded me of a myriad of other influencial films and/or directors in peculiar ways. I noticed elements of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, for instance, in dark clever mood and the obvious setting of Los Angeles- even the score is similar during parts of the film, as the moody momotone sounds played in the background. The Ice Storm (1997), American Beauty (1999) and Magnolia (1997) also sprang to mind in their dark and strange worlds (Magnolia) and the inclusion of the dysfunctional family element (The Ice Storm and American Beauty). Furthermore, to a lesser extent I saw some Robert Altman ingrained in Maps to the Stars. These aspects are an enormous reason why I loved the film so much.

A prevelant theme throughout Maps to the Stars is one of burning- a victim of burning, a fire set, a character setting oneself on fire. Some characters see dead people. Havannah regularly sees her dead mother. Benjie sees a young girl who he visited in the hospital before she died, her last wish of meeting the big star. She suffered from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, who he foolishly thought had AIDS. He sees her in visions and tries to strangle her, instead strangling an innocent living person. The film is a weird trip for sure.

There are times when the viewer will be filled with dread at an oncoming dark moment. When Benjie carelessly plays with a gun that he assumes is unloaded we know trouble will occur. He is showing off at an actor friend’s party along with equally obnoxious starlets, while talking about poop, all selfish and wanting to party.
When Havannah belittles Agatha, her assistant, we see Agatha’s past anger come back into play as she slowly unravels with rage- Havannah, unaware of Agatha’s knowledge of her betrayal.

One small gripe is the continued use of gross toilet talk in multiple scenes including a raunchy discussion of a fan buying a well known actors waste for thousands of dollars. What was Cronenberg’s motivation for this? This was a silly, tasteless, unnecessary element of any otherwise great film.

Maps of the Stars is dirty and ugly, but is also a quirky treasure about bad people in Hollywood. Unpleasant characters whom I could not take my eyes off of. A brilliant film that delves into the Hollywood shallowness and madness and does it in such a daring, twisted, wonderful, sort of way.

Notorious-1946

Notorious-1946

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman

Scott’s Review #265

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Reviewed August 11, 2015

Grade: A-

Notorious is a classic Alfred Hitchcock film from 1946, a time period that preceded his golden age of 1950’s and 1960’s brilliant works, but is a marvel all the same. Perhaps not as wonderful as future works, but that is like comparing prime rib to filet mignon, if you will. Shot in black and white, the subject matter is a familiar one for Hitchcock fans- political espionage. The film contains elements common with Hitchcock’s films- a romance mixed together with a suspenseful plot.

Starring two greats of the time (and Hitchcock stalwarts), Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman, one is immediately enthralled by the chemistry between the characters they play- T.R. Devlin and Alicia Huberman. Devlin, a government agent, recruits Alicia, per his bosses, to spy on a Nazi sympathizer, Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines), who is affiliated with her father. Her father, having been convicted and sentenced to prison, has committed suicide. Alicia’s allegiance is clearly questioned as she goes to drastic measures to prove her loyalty and complete the hated assignment. The film gloriously is set between Miami and the gorgeous Rio De Janiero, where much of the action takes place at Alex’s mansion.

Clearly a blueprint for his later works, Hitchcock experiments with creative camera shots and angles- specifically the wide and high shot overlooking an enormous ballroom. I also love the airplane scene- subtle, Hitchcock treats the audience to background views of Rio, from the window of the airplane, as Devlin and Alicia carry on conversation. The plane is slowly descending for landing, which allows for a slow, gorgeous glimpse of the countryside and landscape in the background. Subtleties like these that may go unnoticed that make Hitchcock such a brilliant director.

The character of Alicia is worth a study. Well known for his lady issues, did Hitchcock hint at her being an oversexed, boozy, nymphomaniac? Personally, I did not think the character was written in a sympathetic fashion, though to be fair she is headstrong and loyal in the face of adversity. She parties hard, drives at 65 miles per hour while intoxicated, and falls into bed with more than one man. It is also implied that she has a history of being promiscuous. Made in 1946, this must have been controversial during that time period. The sexual revolution was still decades away.

Notorious also features one of the most sinister female characters in Hitchcock history in the likes of Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin). The woman is evil personified and her actions are reprehensible. She is arguably the mastermind behind all of the dirty deeds as well as a fan of slow, painful death by poisoning.

My favorite scene is without a doubt the wine cellar scene. To me, it epitomizes good, old fashioned suspense and edge of your seat entertainment. A cat and mouse game involving a secret rendezvous, a smashed bottle, a key, champagne, and the great reveal enrapture this scene, which goes on for quite some time and is the climax of the film.

Perhaps Notorious is not quite as great a film as Vertigo, Psycho, or The Birds, but is a top-notch adventure/thriller in its own right, that ought to be watched and given its due respect.

The Gift-2015

The Gift-2015

Director-Joel Edgerton

Starring-Jason Bateman, Joel Edgerton

Scott’s Review #264

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Reviewed August 9, 2015

Grade: A-

The Gift is a throwback to the type of psychological thriller made famous by Fatal Attraction in 1987 and similar films throughout their heyday into the 1990’s. An unstable psycho threatens a happy couple. Interestingly, The Gift is similar in genre to a film released earlier in 2015- The Boy Next Door- though The Gift is worlds superior to that film and contains surprises, frights, and twists and turns that I pleasantly did not see coming. The film is not predictable which is refreshing in this particular genre.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall star as Simon and Robyn, a successful young couple who have relocated from Chicago to sunny California, near Simon’s childhood hometown, to begin a new life with the intent of starting a family. They soon run into a man named Gordo, played by actor/director Joel Edgerton, a high school chum of Simon’s from twenty years ago whom Simon barely remembers. Simon and Gordo plan to re-connect over dinner, but the audience can sense that something is not right with Gordo. As Simon, Gordo and Robyn get to know each other again, Gordo begins leaving pleasant little gifts on Simon and Robyn’s doorstep as well as showing up at their house unannounced, which is particularly unnerving to Robyn as she is home alone all day long with Simon consumed with his new career and possible promotion. To make matters more interesting, their home is located in a remote area with lots of seclusion.

The film soon reveals that in high school Gordo was nicknamed “Gordo the Weirdo” and that an incident involving Gordo occurred, though nobody seems to remember the exact circumstances or perhaps they choose not to remember? The vagueness of this situation is appealing because the audience is sure that these circumstances will be revealed later on in the story and play a large part in the climax of the film, which it certainly does. We also learn that another incident took place with Robyn in Chicago and that she suffered a miscarriage. She does not drink and avoids pills. Could she be unstable or imagining things or just overly cautious? It is revealed that she does not handle stress well.

A wonderful aspect of The Gift is its surprise factor. As the plot twists and turns I found myself changing allegiances and wondering who the villain really is? Gordo? Simon? Robyn? Edgerton (along with a great acting performance) directs the film in a compelling fashion and was undoubtedly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock in his style of moviemaking. he camera angles and score are particularly excellent in establishing the correct level of tension at just the right moment. In more than a few scenes the audience knows something will jump out at the screen, so there is anticipation, but when and how it will happen is a surprise.Many scenes take place when Robyn is alone- during the day thank goodness- and she hears a noise, or notices the water running. These scenes are traditional fare in horror or the thriller genre, but are so well done in The Gift. A perfect thrill-ride.

Simon is an interesting character. Sophisticated, educated, and with a high level executive job, he has a strange fear of monkey’s stemming from childhood. In fact, the past is a common theme of the film- past events encase the three lead characters leading to conflict and ultimately these events come back to haunt them. Most of Simon’s friends are unlikable and appear to be interested in style over substance. They seem to be drawn to Simon more for his success than because they actually care about him. This contradicts his wife’s character- Robyn is down to earth, kind, and does not place as much stock in wealth and achievements as she does with personality and being a kind individual. She and Simon bicker and disagree about Gordo and as events unfold this conflict only increases.

It is not often in films anymore that one is truly frightened and “jumps out of your seat”, but two intense scenes in the film- one involving a dog, and the other a shower, made me jump, and the hairs on my arm stand on end. Everyone in the audience gasped together. Now that is fun! The only negatives I perceived in The Gift are some continuity issues as well as the suspension of disbelief in some scenes. Without giving anything away, how is Gordo able to perfectly do some things he is able to do?

A good old fashioned thriller with excellent acting, compelling characters, and a wonderful debut for Edgerton in the director’s chair. The film will leave the viewer pondering moral questions, and relating to each of the three main characters in different ways.

Point Blank-1967

Point Blank-1967

Director-John Boorman

Starring-Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson

Scott’s Review #263

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Reviewed August 8, 2015

Grade: B+

Directed by John Boorman, (later made famous for the masterpiece Deliverance in 1974), and based on the novel The Hunter, by Donald E. Westlake, Point Blank is a tense crime drama starring Lee Marvin as a man seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. A criminal himself, and involved in the mob world of deals and drugs, he is double-crossed by his partner, who takes off with his wife. A rather obscure film, Point Blank, made in 1967, features obvious influences to classics it preceded (The Getaway, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Dirty Harry immediately spring to mind) and contains some dynamic camera work and art direction. In its day it must have been quite a groundbreaking film.

The film begins in a muddled, confusing way and catches the viewer off guard. We know nothing about any of the characters, who are suddenly introduced via flashbacks, interlaced with present and future scenes, so that immediately chaos and tension fills the story. We know that someone has stabbed someone in the back, but we do not know why or who the players are. The film is set partially at the deserted Alcatraz island (the meeting point for a money drop we later learn) and then moves to Los Angeles. Early on we realize that Marvin’s character (Walker) has been tricked, shot, and left for dead by his partner Mal (John Vernon), who takes off with Walker’s share of cash…and his troubled wife Lynne.

Hell-bent on seeking revenge (and his money) on Mal and his wife (Lynne), he attempts to track the duo down using any means necessary, leading to the introduction of pivotal and mysterious characters such as Lynne’s sister Chris (played by Angie Dickinson), and Crime Organization leaders Carter and Brewster (played by Lloyd Bochner and Carroll O’Connor, respectively).

With little blood or covert violence, the film instead uses tense action scenes, a great style, and is told in a non-linear way. One favorite scene involves Walker taking a new car for a test drive as a way of interrogating the salesman for information. As he terrorizes the salesman he repeatedly slams the car into a pole using the cars reverse and drive gears, increasing in intensity with each attempt by the salesman to avoid answering Walker’s questions.

Two other scenes that stand out to me and deserve mention are as follows- when a naked villain is non-chalantly tossed from a penthouse apartment to his death on the street and subsequently becomes wedges under a passing car the scene is as much startling as is well shot especially considering the year was only 1967. In another scene, Lynne is at the beauty salon having her makeup and hair done by a stylist. Her face is captured in the mirror and the camera allows the viewer to see a dozen or so images of the mirror layered on top of one another. This looks great, inventive, and is a good example of some superlative camera shots that occur throughout the film.

A few interesting tidbits that I pondered following the film. Was the elevator scene containing Angie Dickinson (almost meaningless to Point Blank) the inspiration for the very famous elevator scene from 1980’s Dressed to Kill? Only Dressed to Kill’s director, Brian De Palma, would know the answer to that question. How interesting to see Carroll O’Connor (later universally famous for portraying TV’s “Archie Bunker”) as a crime lord. Even though Point Blank was made before All in the Family premiered, it was tough to find him believable in this role. Finally, I loved the scenes set high atop Los Angeles, in a gorgeous high-rise apartment- the sophisticated living room furniture arrangement and colors are great visual treats.

Taut, intense, and interesting, though admittedly a plot not always made crystal clear nor easy to follow, the film came along at a time in film when edgier, more experimental films were beginning to be released, which makes Point Blank a groundbreaking and influential film that undoubtedly helped bring about other crime dramas to follow.

Fifty Shades of Grey-2015

Fifty Shades of Grey-2015

Director-Sam Taylor-Johnson

Starring-Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #262

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Reviewed August 5, 2015

Grade: B-

To quote a humorous phrase that I once coined years ago, when I decided to give in and see Fifty Shades of Grey, despite negative reviews, “I was not expecting Citizen Kane” fits perfectly with this film as I pondered my own review of it after the conclusion. Based on the titillating book series by author E.L. James, the film is sudsy, steamy, and pretty poorly acted. However, there was something charming and sexy about the badness of it. To be fair, it is actually not a terrible film, but the negatives outweigh the positives.

Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and granddaughter of Hollywood royalty Tippi Heddren, plays a shy literature student named Anastasia Steele, pretty and grounded, who meets and becomes enamored with a 27 year old billionaire named Christian Grey after driving to Seattle to substitute interview him for a sick friend. Throughout the interview the chemistry between the two is palpable and an instant romance ensues. Christian courts Anastasia mercilessly, becoming somewhat controlling, and she is willing to be his “victim” as she adores his attentions. As the two get to know each other, it is revealed that Christian is a dominant and desires Anastasia to sign a contract, thus becoming his submissive and belonging to him. Anastasia is conflicted by this notion. She loves Christian, but wants a traditional romance with flowers and chocolates, something Christian has admitted he does not do.

I confess to have gotten caught up in the kinky romanticism of it. The film has a smoldering, dreamlike style to it. The scenes in the “playroom” are hot and the film does its best to make the entire film erotic, but not going too far as to make it pure smut- boy meets girl, girl falls head over heels, boy conquers girl. The film makes sure to portray Anastasia and Grey as complete opposites- he wealthy and sophisticated, calm, cool, and collected- she a struggling, naive girl ripe for the picking. Perhaps this was part of her appeal to Grey.

Certainly the acting is not great- especially on the part of Johnson. I did not find Jamie Dornan (Grey) to be so bad, however and he seemed likable enough to me. For the most part the character of Anastasia irritated me and I found her quite unlikable. Here is how it seemed to me- Anastasia becomes enamored with Christian, allows herself to be pursued, not to mention showered with gifts, considers and then more or less accepts his offer to be his submissive, and then gets furious and dumps him. Huh?

Fifty Shades of Grey is told clearly from a female point of view as evidences from the marketing and the strategic opening on Valentine’s day weekend. I get the sense that the character of Anastasia is made to be the sympathetic one and Grey was drawn to be the cad and the bad character. A brief backstory was mentioned as to what turned him into a dominant male who likes to have females submit to his desires coupled with his lack of desire for any affection, but this was not too deeply explored and the film did not want the audience to really “get him” or delve too deeply into the psychological reasons, instead going for the kinkiness and the female side of the story.

A poorly structured film that made a ton of money and will undoubtedly spawn at least another sequel, the film is a guilty pleasure to be sure, and one I shamefully confess to have somewhat enjoyed.

The Judge-2014

The Judge-2014

Director-David Dobkin

Starring-Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall

Scott’s Review #261

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Reviewed August 2, 2015

Grade: B+

The Judge is a by the numbers, formulaic, courtroom drama that we have all seen many times before, but regardless, I found the film actually rather enjoyable. The main reason for this is the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in the pivotal central roles. The two actors play estranged father and son. The clichés are numerous, but with excellent acting the story feels fresh, fun, and compelling, if not terribly innovative. Seen by few, The Judge was on my radar only because of Duvall’s Oscar nomination for his role.

Hank Palmer is a big shot attorney from Chicago. Highly successful, he is selfish, driven, and a downright prick. Going through a messy divorce with his gorgeous, athletic wife, he has a close bond with his daughter, despite not being home very often. Suddenly, Hank’s mother dies tragically and he must return to small town Carlinville, Indiana, a place he despises, not simply because the town is in the sticks, but he has bad memories of the town. When he arrives he reconnects with his two brothers and his father (Duvall), who is the local judge. While staying at the family house, Hank once again butts heads with his father and runs into an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), who now owns the local diner. On his way out of town for good, Hank is asked to defend his father when he is arrested and charged with murder. The Judge is a family drama that contains suspense and a few twists.

The film reminds me of a slew of 1990’s era courtroom drama’s based on John Grisham novels (A Time to Kill, The Client, The Firm) so I was fearful of a bland, dated film. I loved the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Duvall, which I think is the most successful aspect of the film and also enjoyed the family style drama with numerous trials and tribulations thrown in. Hank is smarmy and ruthless, but also has a humorous side and tells it like it is. I smiled at his wry wit. Judge Parker is equally stubborn and the battles they have are wonderful to watch. Conversely, the film also has tender bonding moments between the two men, which are sentimental and warm. As one man takes care of the other during sickness it is a tender and heartbreaking scene.

An interesting aspect of the film is the small town sense of community in the little town of Indiana, which I found charming. Everyone gravitates towards the cute diner in the center of town owned by Hank’s high school sweetheart. There is a nice wholesome, small town appeal to the entire film. I half expected a county fair or apple pie baking scene to be added. The film feels wholesome and comfortable- a slick, mainstream drama. Movie comfort food if you will.

The relationships among the three brothers- Hank, Glen- a middle aged man regretting never having moved from Carlinville, and Dale, a sweet natured autistic man, determined to one day become a filmmaker, are interesting. They are each so different from each other and yet they stick together, bicker, and bond with each other. Similar to real life families.

The negatives to The Judge are that the courtroom scenes sometimes go on too long and the film brings nothing rather new or exciting to cinema and plays it safe throughout. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to be treated to a film above mediocrity as this genre of film oftentimes is, but neither expect a reinvention of the wheel.

To be seen for simmering acting by the entire cast and especially film stalwarts, Duvall and Downey Jr, who bring life and wit to an otherwise traditional film..

Unbroken-2014

Unbroken-2014

Director-Angelina Jolie

Starring-Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson

Scott’s Review #260

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Reviewed August 1, 2015

Grade: B

Unbroken tells the true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, a runner during the World War II period, who was also serving in the military during this tumultuous time in history. His story is one of bravery, courage, and endurance, as he survives a hellish experience in Japanese prisoner of war camps after having crashed in the Pacific Ocean, stranded for 47 days, as if that were not enough to break a man.

Mainstream Hollywood fare to the hilt, this film is surprisingly directed by Angelina Jolie (a woman) and written by the Coen brothers, the latter usually emitting less traditional and more quirky fare than this film. Jolie directs what is arguably a “guys movie” that contains very few women in the cast, and the ones who do appear are either a loving mother or giggling schoolgirl types, so the big names associated with Unbroken surprise me. I would have taken this work as a Clint Eastwood film. Unbroken, which was expected to receive several Oscar nominations, was shut out of the major categories.

Visually, Unbroken is slick, glossy, and shot very well- it looks perfect. The cinematography, sound effects, and costumes look great. The cast of good-looking young men look handsome even while battered and bruised and half starved. While in a way this is a compliment, it is also not one. Unbroken lacks any grittiness and plays it quite safe. Even the scenes of abuse and beatings lack an edge to them.

This is not to say that the film is not good. It is good. I found myself inspired by the lead character of Louis, played by Jack O’Connell, for his resilence during his ordeals. O’Connell gives a very good performance as his motto, “If I can take it, I can make it” is repeated throughout and who will not cheer at his accomplishments? Zamperini, who has traditional Italian parents having relocated to the United States, are strict but fair. Louis’s older brother, Peter, is his best friend and is the person who has the most faith in him. At first Louis is on the verge of becoming a punk, in trouble with the law, if not for the interference of his brother, who gets him interested in the sport of running.

As the years go by and war erupts, Louis embarks on a tour of duty in the military and his plane crashes in the water providing yet another test of courage and stamina. Louis is strong and in many ways always the leader of the group he is intertwined with. The scenes of the three survivors stranded on the raft for days become slightly tedious, but perhaps this is the films intention, as they eat raw fish and raw bird to survive. Much of the remaining action is set in two Japanese war camps as Louis (and others) struggle to survive until the massive war has ended- they do not know if they will live or die.

The central antagonist- a vicious Japanese sergeant named “Bird”, perplexed me. Blatantly targeting Louis and administering cruel beatings and heaping tests of strength upon Louis, presumably out of jealousy because Louis was an Olympic athlete, why did Bird not simply kill him? His motivations were also odd- In one scene, Bird tearfully tells Louis that he knew they would be friends from the beginning and seems to admire him. Bird’s father, going by a photo, seems a hard, mean man. Is this why Bird is so vicious? Bird’s character is not well thought out. Also, every single Japanese character is portrayed in a very negative light, which sadly is common in war movies. Surely, despite being a war, there had to have been a few Japanese people who were not cruel. Character development and depth is not a strong suit of this film.

At the end of the day, Unbroken is a good, solid, war drama with an inspiring message of triumph, faith, and determination. Indeed, a positive message to viewers of all ages. The abuse/torture scenes are tough to watch, but the end result is a feel-good story. The snippets of the real Louis Zamperini at the end of the film are wonderful to watch.