Get Out-2017

Get Out-2017

Director-Jordan Peele

Starring-Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams

Scott’s Review #629

Reviewed March 28, 2017

Grade: A

Get Out, a modern day horror film, is a unique film, mixing classic horror elements (especially great camera angles to elicit jumps) with bits of slapstick humor, not done very often in horror. In the case of Get Out, all of these tidbits come together in a marvelous experience, and the subject matter is rather risqué (see below), a plus for me as I like films that push the envelope a bit.

Certainly, as with most horror films, liberties must be taken in the way of plot points and continuity issues, but this film is an impressive work. Kudos, given the film is director Jordan Peele’s directorial film debut.

Chris Washington is a young photographer, handsome, educated, and enjoying life. He is black, and his girlfriend, Rose, is a pretty white girl from an affluent upbringing- it is implied that they are opposites on the social scale. One weekend, they traverse out of the city (presumably New York City) to visit Rose’s parents in the country. Her parents, Dean and Missy, own a sprawling estate with acres of land. Nervous to meet Rose’s parents and make a good first impression, Chris notices that Dean and Missy’s servants are all black and act in quite a peculiar fashion. Soon, it is revealed that Chris’s mother died when he was a little boy and when Chris is hypnotized by Missy, things begin to go from strange to downright scary.

I adore how the film immediately feels ominous- there is simply something not “right” with the situation-even before Chris and Rose arrive at her parent’s estate, something seems off. They hit and kill a deer with their car, the policeman who aids them seems racist, and despite Rose seeming fresh-faced, she also seems not to be trusted. There are so many ominous warnings not to approach her parents house, that when they finally  do arrive the audience is compelled to nervously watch for more, perhaps while biting fingernails.

Jordan Peele’s decision to have everything cheery and bright during most of the film only makes the audience wonder what secrets are lurking about in the grand estate- the setting where most of the action takes place. When the pair finally arrive at her parent’s house everything is out of whack. The film undoubtedly borrows from The Stepford Wives in the pleasant, almost robotic cheerfulness of some of the characters.

The big reveal and the rather objectification of all of the black characters- specifically black males- can certainly be cause for debate. The racial motives of the characters are also only skimmed over and never discussed or rationalized in detail. The physical strength and resilience of the black male is mentioned a few times and Rose’s parents being a psychologist and a neurosurgeon are major points in the story, but the intentions are somewhat wishy- washy and hardly plausible.

In a wise move, Peele mixes a hilarious scene amid the doom and gloom. Clearly the comic relief of the film, Rod, Chris’s best friend and proud TSA agent, calls the police and describes in detail his fears of a sex slave operation, which results in the police having a good guffaw- at Rod’s expense. Rod serving as an instrumental part of the film’s conclusion is a fantastic decision- mixing dark humor with more grotesque horror moments. This succeeds in setting Get Out well above the traditional genre.

The acting by all parties is believable and deserving of acclaim, but newcomer (to me) Daniel Kaluuya carries the film very well, even offering more than one heartfelt dramatic scene, mostly when remembering his mother. Allison Williams (a dead ringer for a young Jennifer Connelly) is also a marvel, especially as the character changes direction mid-stream and essentially becomes a different character.

Fantastic is the throwback elements of The Stepford Wives, complete with a similar setting. The film does not reveal whether “in the country” is Connecticut or upstate New York-Stepford Wives was Connecticut.

Get Out is a fresh, novel approach to the standard elements of horror, mixing comedy and aspects of race into a story brimming with suspense, good frights, and especially, interesting camera angles. This film, a great success at the box office, does not seem like the sequel type, but if so, I am intrigued by what more can be done with it.

Bonnie and Clyde-1967

Bonnie and Clyde-1967

Director-Arthur Penn

Starring-Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway

Scott’s Review #628

Reviewed March 25, 2017

Grade: A

Bonnie and Clyde is an excellent 1967 crime drama that is not only a great film, but successfully, and surprisingly wound up influencing an entire generation, becoming somewhat of a rallying cry for the youth generation of the time. Released in a tumultuous period in history (the Vietnam war, the Sexual Revolution, and Civil Rights), the film fits the times and also was groundbreaking in its use of violence, blood, and sex. The film holds up tremendously well to this day and is beloved by intelligent film lovers everywhere.

The film begins with snapshots of the real Bonnie and Clyde- a duo of bank robbers who rampaged the southwest during the Great Depression.  Set in steamy Texas, circa 1930’s, the film tells their story. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) when he tries to steal her mother’s car one hot day. Instantly infatuated with each other, the steamy duo team up and become partners in crime. Over time they enlist the help of others and become more successful bank robbers with the stakes rising with each heist. Rounding out the crew of criminals are gas-station attendant, C.W. Moss, and Clyde’s older brother Buck, played by Gene Hackman, along with his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), an innocent-minded, and sometimes hysterical, preacher’s wife.

Bonnie and Clyde is a unique film in many different ways- the quick-cut editing style influenced Sam Peckinpah in his films to come, and the film uses a fast paced rat-a- tat-tat style that symbolizes gunfire-a major element of the film. Blood spurts from victims bodies in a style never before seen on the big screen and led to many film makers comfort with using increased violence. You could say that Bonnie and Clyde took away the innocence of Hollywood films and shook all of the traditional elements inside out.

The conclusion of the film is one of the greatest in cinematic history. Far from an idyllic, happy ending, traditional with films in those days, the law finally catches up with Bonnie and Clyde with grim results for the pair, and their demise is gruesome, but true to form. We have fallen in love with the characters so their hasty exit from this world is tough to stomach and as they writhe and twitch with each gunshot wound, the bullets pummeling the bodies, the scene is a difficult one to watch.

The love story between Bonnie and Clyde is intense, yet sweet, and the casting of Beatty and Dunaway is spot on. Smoldering with sexuality- as Bonnie fondles Clyde’s gun who does not see this as a phallic symbol- their personal relationship is fraught with stamina and emotional energy. The two actors feed off of each other and fill the scenes with gusto. Their chemistry is part of what makes the film so great.

One of the best scenes is the shoot ’em up showdown at a ranch where the group of robbers is hiding out- the scene laden with intensity and violence. As Buck is mortally wounded, Blanche is blinded and captured, soon to make a grave mistake in revealing one of the others identities. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. barely escape with their lives and their antics from this point become bloodier and bloodier. The cat and mouse play during this scene make it the most suspenseful of them all.

Amid all of the violence, a wonderful scene exists when Bonnie and Clyde meet up at a secret location with Bonnie’s mother. A local townswoman and non-actress was cast in the pivotal role of Bonnie’s mother and the scene is an emotional experience. The woman’s kindness and sensibility and the sheer “regular person” she encompasses humanizes Bonnie and Clyde, and in ominous fashion, their downfall is soon to occur.

A heavily influential film, Bonnie and Clyde is a film that is still quite relevant, especially for those who appreciate good film, and rich, intelligently written characters, who are flawed, yet humanistic, layered with complexities. This is what director, Penn, carves out, and the film is an all time Hollywood classic.

Chained-2012

Chained-2012

Director-Jennifer Lynch

Starring-Vincent D’Onofrio

Scott’s Review #627

Reviewed March 24, 2017

Grade: B-

Chained is a 2012 independent horror film directed by Jennifer Lynch, who just happens to be the daughter of the brilliant film and television director, David Lynch, and his influence is readily felt throughout. The film is an exercise in cerebral, psychological horror, and is quite mesmerizing for most of the experience. The ending, however, is the pits, and takes away from the enjoyment of the rest of the film in its asinine, quickly wrapped-up, conclusion.

The film is set in an unknown area- all the audience really knows is a  decrepit, isolated, cabin in the middle of nowhere and that the shack exists in somewhat close proximity to a college town. Since the film is shot in Canada that is a good enough locale for me to accept. One day a seemingly happy husband drops off his wife and nine year old son at the movies, but implores them to take a taxi home as the bus is too dangerous. When they heed his advice, they are accosted by a deranged serial killer, Bob (D’Onofrio), who drives a cab and whisks them away to his remote home. After he kills the mother, he makes the son, whom he re-names Rabbit, his slave, reducing him to household chores and a somewhat accomplice to the subsequent victims he brings home. As the years pass and Bob continues to kill, he is determined to have, a now mature,  Rabbit follow in his footsteps.

A large chunk of Chained (and the film is aptly named because Bob commonly keeps Rabbit chained) takes place in Bob’s lonely home and Bob and Rabbit are all each other really have for support. Bob presumably earns a living by stealing the cash his victims carry. Many scenes of a bonding nature, albeit perverse, are featured as the two dole away the time between Bob’s kills, almost like a father and son. Jennifer Lynch wisely moves the film at a slow pace for appropriate build up.

Bob’s psychologically troubled childhood is told through flashbacks as he is victimized by his abusive father and forced to have sex with his own mother, who blames him rather than her husband. As a result, Bob hates women, and lures victim after victim into his cab and then slices and dices them back at his home. In a way, Bob is sympathetic, like a wounded bird, and whether he rapes the victims before killing them is unclear, as much happens off screen.

The cabin is purposely suffocating and when Bob teaches Rabbit intellectual facts and encourages him to read and study to become smart, it is a bonding experience. Slowly, Bob trusts Rabbit more and more. When Bob makes Rabbit pick out a young girl in a school yearbook to kill, the film kicks into high gear. Suddenly, it becomes vague whether Rabbit is loyal to Bob or still determined to escape. Will he help his intended victim instead of killing her?

David Lynch’s imprint is blatant in both the pacing of the film and more specifically in the low hum musical score, common in his own films. Daughter Jennifer clearly knows her father’s techniques as they continually come into play. A nice homage to Mulholland Dr. appears when a sweet older couple rides in the back of Bob’s cab, reminiscent of the older couple featured in Mulholland Dr. The gloomy ambiance is highly effective in Chained and the relationship between Bob and Rabbit, not sexual or overly violent, becomes actually rather sweet in some moments-almost like a typical father and son.

The rushed conclusion of the film is disastrous and Lynch’s attempt at a twist goes haywire in the “makes sense” department. After a compelling fight scene with Bob, Rabbit finally kills him, escapes his clutches, and returns to his fathers open arms (now newly re-married with another son) only to reveal to his father that he knows he orchestrated Rabbit and his mom’s abduction years ago and that Bob is really Rabbit’s uncle! To matters even more confusing, after a dramatic event, Rabbit is sent away yet again and returns to the cabin as his only safe place. This final act is a real dog, makes little sense, and is tough to digest.

I will give some liberties to 2012’s Chained since the director is spawned from the great David Lynch and the mood and several characteristics mirror his own work, but still with her own unique vision an obvious characteristic. Most of the film is a solid effort, but due to the ending of the film being such a let down, the body of work seems incomplete.

BearCity-2010

BearCity-2010

Director-Douglas Langway

Starring-Joe Conti, Stephen Guarino

Scott’s Review #626

Reviewed March 19, 2017

Grade: B

BearCity is a small, independent, LGBT, coming of age film that tells of a young man living in New York City, and his exploration of a sub-culture within the LGBT community and a subsequent romance that follows. The film is a comedy and has a “Sex in the City” or “Queer as Folk” approach to its storytelling- a group of close knit friends and  raunchy and gratuitous to be sure. The budget is very small and some aspects rather amateurish, but the film is enjoyable, especially for those exposed to the LGBT lifestyle. The film is not a heavy nor are any of the characters dealing with “coming out” issues, but rather it is a fun sex comedy romp.

Our central character, Tyler (Joe Conti), is a young man in his twenties, an aspiring actor, who moves to New York City to pursue his career, with a mind for casual dating. His roommates encourage him to date Abercrombie and Fitch types, but Tyler comes to realize he prefers “bear” types- mature, hairy men. On the sly he begins to pursue this sub-culture and makes many friends. The apple of his eye, handsome Roger (Gerald McCullough) is a popular mature man, distinguished in the bear circle, and risks his reputation with “the bears” by falling in love with Tyler. The two men spend the greater part of the film conquering their respective fears and finding their way into each others arms in a predictable ending.

BearCity is a fun farce and nothing very heavy and the featuring of a strong circle of friends is a nice, positive portrayal- all of the friends connect well and stick by each other through thick and thin. Comical sub-plots abound such as one couples (Brent and Fred) awkward parlay into the world of threesomes with unsuccessful results. Another bear who is unemployed, and grossly obese, decides to undergo weight loss surgery much to the chagrin of his hunky boyfriend.

The main story though, belongs to Tyler and Roger and their inevitable reunion can be seen miles away. The film throws various hurdles in their way, such as a third person briefly dating Roger, or Roger’s commitment issues, but the climax of the film will be no surprise to anyone. Tyler and Roger make a nice couple as a whole, but perplexing is how the film makes Roger the undisputed leader of the bear group, when he is actually a lean, muscular man- not a “bear” at all! This is odd to me, but BearCity is so light hearted that I suppose I can let this detail slide in favor of a good romance.

Critically, the film is nice, but quite amateurish, and super low-budget. The acting, especially by some of the supporting characters (the pre-surgery guys boyfriend is the most glaring example), is not great. I half-expected him to accidentally look at the camera. Additionally, the film has a low-budget look and feel, which on one level is fine, but combined with the not so stellar acting, enhances the inexperience of the cast and crew. The film is tough to take too seriously- if this is even the intention of the filmmakers.

The film is a logistical treat for anyone privy to popular gay hangouts in New York City- specifically The Eagle and The Ramrod, both locales are featured prominently, and the use of many real-life people who hang out at those establishments are used throughout the production.

BearCity is not a bad experience and certainly a film that is light and comical within the LGBT community seems rather fresh compared to the myriad of dramatic and heavy films that exist. At the same time the film teeters towards goofy too much with more than one bafoonish, sex-crazed, stereotypical gay man, that it almost gives a bad impression, so the film has mixed results for me.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-1937

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-1937

Director-David Hand

Starring-Various Voices

Scott’s Review #625

Reviewed March 18, 2017

Grade: A-

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the debut feature length production by storied producer, Walt Disney, and has the grand honor of being the first animated feature ever to be made. Until the time of its release, animated stories were not features at all, but rather, shorts that were shown as gag-filled entertainment not to be taken very seriously. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made animated films something to be appreciated and respected- the film, released in 1937, was re-released in theaters many times until the 1990’s and is a blueprint for what animated features would become. The film is based on the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale and is a cherished treasure.

Beautiful inside and out, Snow White is a lonely princess who lives with her devious wicked stepmother, the Queen. Making the most out of her troubled life, Snow White hums and sings with her bird friends who gather to keep her company as she is forced by her stepmother to work as a scullery maid . The Queen is a vain woman, jealous of Snow White’s natural beauty, constantly consulting her mirror to ask “who is the fairest one of all?”. One day the Queen decides to put an end to Snow White and orders a henchman to kill her in the forest and return her bloody heart to her in a box. When the henchman is unable to do the deed, he pleads with Snow White to flee. She winds up in a little cottage housing seven dwarf men whom she befriends as the Queen is determined to take drastic measures to find her.

Circa 1937, and for years to come, animated features were not created as they are today. Rather, they were simplistic- and wonderful- in the use of storyboards and drawings in their creation. This daunting task, and the creativity involved, makes them just lovely to look at. Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the debut animated feature, the drawings are fantastic to view- like pictures- and to appreciate the craftsmanship involved. The characters are richly created, with bright, vivid colors that distinguish them from one another- the bright red lips of Snow White and the blue and gold colors of her dress contrast with the regal purples used on the Queen, to say nothing of the deep red color of the poison apple. The color makes the apple appear delicious, but also dangerously blood red. These nuances make the characters deep with texture.

The friendships Snow White makes with the dwarfs and the animal life in the forest are whimsical and filled with love and the animal element later would become a staple of Disney’s works- Dumbo and Bambi. The animals are naturally fond of Snow White because she is joyous and kind- they in turn warn her of impending danger as the Queen turns herself into an old woman and lumbers towards Snow White, snug in the cottage.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs features an old style romance- the handsome Prince takes a shine to Snow White, noticing her natural beauty as she sings and later determined to save her- which of course he does when he magically kisses her in the films finale. The songs featured only enhance the love story- “Some Day My Prince Will Come” is a lovely ode to romance and is tenderly sung by Snow White as she longs for the Prince’s touch, frustrated with her life.

The creation of the seven dwarfs is done in magical fashion and seven little men living together seems quite natural in those innocent times. Each distinctive from each other- Dopey being my personal favorite in his innocence and playfulness- Happy, Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy, and Bashful are all written with great zest as we fall in love with each of them from the first moment we meet them as they belt out “Heigh-Ho” in unison.

Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs deserves merit for being Disney’s first, overlooked can be the omission of any family members of Snow White’s besides the evil Queen. Where is Snow White’s father and mother? Any siblings? Certainly they are presumed dead, but they are never mentioned. Also, why does the Queen have a Magic Mirror and why does she have special powers that nobody else has?

At one hour and twenty three minutes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a quick film, but does not feel underdeveloped. The story and the characters are rich with appeal and intrigue making the film a classic that should be shared with all youngsters. It is a classic tale of good versus evil, a great love story, and sets the tone for other Disney masterpieces to follow.

King Kong-1933

King Kong-1933

Director-Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring-Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong

Scott’s Review #624

Reviewed March 11, 2017

Grade: A

The original, black and white, 1933 version of King Kong (a few other remakes or reboots followed) is a masterful achievement in special effects never before done in film and is also a great horror/adventure film that is timeless in its look and feel, capturing 1930’s New York City, especially, in majestic fashion. Some of the dialogue and scenes now dated or slightly racist, it still holds up well as an overall lesson in film exploration and is a treasure to watch time and time again. The film is a take on the classic tale, Beauty and the Beast, sans the happy ending.

In the watery harbors of New York City, film maker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) prepares to embark, via ship, on a journey to film his latest picture. Known for films about exotic wildlife, he has a film to end all films in mind, and reluctantly, is talked into casting a female lead in the part. He scours the streets of New York City, finding broke and hungry Ann (Fay Wray)- a struggling actress unable to find work. She agrees to the role and off they go headed towards destination unknown. Weeks later, he reveals to the crew that they are headed for Skull Island, a secret island known for pre-historic creatures and a beast only known as “Kong”.

Amid the voyage to the island, Ann and First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) fall madly in love with each other giving the film a nice romantic slant along with the male driven adventure story. The adventure really begins when the crew arrive at Skull Island to find a weird, ancient ritual marriage occurring by the tribal people and all hell breaks loose when the dangerous “King Kong” escapes from captivity and falls in love with Ann. Mixed in with the story are enormous dinosaurs who destroy everything in their paths including many of the men from the island and the film crew.

As I watched the film in 2017, not too far out from 100 years past the films incarnation, I oftentimes sat in wonderment, amazed at how the film makers were able to achieve the luminous special effects throughout the second half of the film. Given the film is in black and white, the contrast of the dark, enormous ape (Kong) and the bright New York City, and the majestic Empire State Building, prominently featured in the final, climactic, act.

Scenes of a struggling Ann in the hand of King Kong seem flawless and believable and I marvel at how these scenes were shot and the enormous amount of effort to make them dramatic and not hokey looking. Since the film was made “pre code”, several shocking scenes exist- when Kong rips off Ann’s clothes as she struggles in his palm and Kong’s stepping on and squashing men are featured sparing no graphic details.

In addition to the great adventure story that is King Kong, also lies a tender love story and a bit of melancholy too. King Kong is not so much a dangerous creature, rather, has fallen in love with Ann and serves as her protector. He is a scared animal, chained and confined and subsequently shown to a stuffy Broadway crowd as entertainment- he becomes angry. I find Kong to be a sympathetic, misunderstood character, and because the human beings in the story are frightened, he becomes their enemy. He adores Ann and would not harm her in any way, but he is perceived as vicious, which he is not.

It can be argued who the real villain of the story is. Would it not be film maker Carl, intent on exploiting King Kong and gaining profit from it? Is it the tribe people who keep Kong locked up or is it for their own protection?

My favorite scene is the climax of the film. After taking Ann from a hotel room, he scales the Empire State building and is pursued by four military airplanes. When he sets Ann down on the rooftop ledge, he battles the planes, only to sadly topple down to the ground- dead. As he swipes at the planes and succumbs to gunshot wounds, it is a sad and powerful scene.

King Kong is a legendary film.  A film where audiences will empathize with the “villain” of the story and be impressed by the nuances on the technical side as well as enjoy the conventional and the unconventional love stories presented. One thing is for sure, King Kong is one of the most influential films ever made.

Sully-2016

Sully-2016

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart

Scott’s Review #623

Reviewed March 10, 2017

Grade: B

I think most film critics would agree that each modern film directed by Clint Eastwood would accurately be described as compelling films yet safe films and the 2016 Eastwood offering, Sully, fits into both of these categories in snug fashion- just as Sully feels like a snug film. Everything seems to fit into a nice package by the time the credits roll and while the film is sympathetic and has leanings of a character study, it is also shrouded in a wholesomeness that is incredibly safe and “Hollywood”. This is not a knock or a demerit towards the film as it is very good and well made with a high budget, but edgy is not its thing in the least and it might have gone for a bit more grit.

The quite recent perilous United Airways flight 1549 that now famous Captain Sully successfully landed into New York’s frigid  Hudson river one January morning, is recounted in the film. Tom Hanks plays the role of the subdued and unassuming hero to perfection as his calm demeanor and grounded persona makes him quite a likable chap to say nothing of the fact of saving 155 lives aboard the would be doomed flight that day.

Instead of going in a purely linear direction, building up the events (gravitating passengers, takeoff) in sequential order, until the inevitable crash, Eastwood wisely decides to begin directly after the crash has already happened.  Captain Sully, clearly jarred by the events, is startled awake by nightmares as he dreams of crashing into midtown Manhattan instead of safely landing the jet. The hero is clearly beginning to suffer from symptoms of PTSD. He is kept in New York City for days on both a press tour, interview after interview, as well as being questioned by The National Transportation Safety Board, who wonder why Captain Sully did not return to a nearby airport for an emergency landing as simulated computer recreations show that he could have. This leads to both Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) put under a microscope and questioned.

I was a bit caught off guard, and getting slightly bored, as the film takes about thirty minutes to even focus on the actual crash or show and airplane scene, rather building up the events by focusing on Sully and Skiles mental health, but in retrospect this is actually a wise decision by Eastwood. The entire film in itself is barely over ninety minutes total so the action does come fast and furious mid-stream.

Still, the film is not quite all that it could have been. Despite the potential horrific consequences faced with an airplane blowing both engines due to the flocks of birds, I never got many extremely perilous moments during the film. In fact, the danger scenes as Sully navigates the plane into the river, while technically well done, lack much in the way of punch. Sure, there are a few quick shots of passengers praying or appearing frightened, but we never get to know any of the passengers very well. A “don’t blink or you might miss it” scene of an elderly mother and her daughter shopping for a snow globe at the airport or three men rushing to catch the plane in order to catch a golf game in Charlotte are not enough for the audience to become to enveloped in their characters. In fact, they almost seem thrown in last minute as a way of personalizing the passengers.

To my mention above, the point of the film certainly surrounds Sully (and arguably it should; nothing wrong with that) and to a lesser degree Skiles, the supporting characters contain no character development and even Skiles’s personal life is not explored well. Scully’s wife is only seen by way of phone conversations (played by Laura Linney) that he is happily married with two daughters. There is brief talk of some money trouble, but the wife is underdeveloped. Additionally, the NTSB agents are portrayed as quite antagonistic towards Sully and Skiles (rumors abound that this was embellished for movie making), which makes sense.

I enjoyed the ending of the film- in tandem with the credits rolling- of seeing not only the real-life Sully, but his wife, and the passengers and crew of the real United Airlines flight 1549, through interviews and photographs. This offering in true life biography films is now a standard feature to look forward to as it brings a humanistic conclusion to the story just watched.

The focus of the film centering on Captain Sully is fine by me- the man is a hero- but as a film, and more than a biography, it might have added depth to have richer supporting characters and a stronger background of the man that is Sully. A few rushed childhood aviator and battle plane scenes seemed rather out of place. Still, as a whole the film is nice and quite watchable, just nothing that will set the world on fire or be remembered as much more than a decent film based on a true story.

American Honey-2016

American Honey-2016

Director-Andrea Arnold

Starring-Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf

Scott’s Review #622

Reviewed March 6, 2017

Grade: A-

American Honey is an unconventional coming of age drama that deserves kudos for not only being shot on a shoe-string budget, but also of having something of substance to tell. The film is mostly shot outdoors throughout the scouring summer months in heat drenched Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas, as the film follows a group of rebellious, lonely teenagers as they attempt to sell magazines as part of a shady con organization. Their female leader uses cult-like rallying techniques to achieve loyalty. The film is shot mainly by hand-held cameras and only uses natural light, which are admirable feats in film.

The film’s central character is an eighteen-year old girl named Star, played by novice actress, Sasha Lane. Saddled with a deadbeat boyfriend with two young kids that she is forced to care for, she takes food from dumpsters in order to survive. One day, she is approached by a charismatic, handsome bad boy, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake, along with a group of teenagers, offers her a job in Kansas. Hesitant, but realizing her dead-end existence, she accepts the mysterious job and travels with other unsavory characters across the bible-states, where they prey on wealthy, religious types willing to lend a hand, under the guise of selling them magazines.

The main story envelopes Star, her romantic feelings for Jake, and her quandaries that she faces on the road. She drinks, smokes, curses, and is sexually active, yet also savvy and wise beyond her years. The audience wonders if she will continue this lifestyle and worries when she comes into contact with older men- all rather well mannered and some affluent. Will they pay her for her magazines or some other forms of entertainment? How will Star handle propositions and scrapes in and out of precarious situations. Star grows up throughout the film. Star is also a kind and confident character.

At two hours and forty three minutes long, American Honey is extremely lengthy, especially given the fact that the film is an independent feature and also seems not to contain many concrete plot points nor much of a conclusion. It seems to just go on and on and on. Despite, the film never bored me and I was quite enraptured with the antics of the stories characters, finding myself quite fond of the surprising love story shrouded amongst the hip hop and rap soundtrack. Star and Jake (thanks in large part to the talents of Lane and LaBeouf) have true chemistry and likability as a couple.

The mystery surrounding Star is we know nothing about her parents or family or how she came to this existence at such a young age. At one point, she does mention her mother dying of a meth overdose, but it is unclear whether she makes this story up for the benefit of a magazine sale or if it is the truth. Star is rebellious, but very intelligent and capable, all the while exhibiting a kindness to strange children and her “colleagues”.

Interesting to note about American Honey are two key aspects: the film uses almost all non-actors- most of the kids were scouted and offered roles at local malls or various hangouts by director Andrea Arnold, so the film has a rawness and energy that is powerful given that the film is largely improvised. Also, the film is almost entirely shot using a basic hand-held camera or cellphone eliciting a shaky, documentary style feel. Instead of these characteristics giving American Honey an amateurish feel, it gave the film an authentic quality.

The left of center approach of featuring male frontal nudity and same sex relations gives the film much credo as an alternative film- the teens also swear and use drugs quite a bit, which could turn some off.

Receiving a heap of 2016 Independent Film award nominations (but winning none), my reason for watching the film, American Honey breathes some fresh air into the world of independent cinema, where sometimes too many big name stars appear in the indies to garner some credibility. Watching a film of novices or individuals with no acting aspirations simply create a good story is worth something in itself. And kudos to Arnold for spinning such a fresh tale.

Happy Birthday to Me-1981

Happy Birthday to Me-1981

Director-J. Lee Thompson

Starring-Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford

Scott’s Review #621

Reviewed March 4, 2017

Grade: A-

Happy Birthday to Me is a 1981 slasher film that I fondly remember scaring the living daylights out of me as a little kid-clearly too young to be watching a film of this nature, but sneaking into my parents bedroom with my brother to catch this film. Certain that the film helped shape my passion for the horror film genre, I hold a fondness for it- critics be damned. My opinion is that the film is a small treasure in the land of 1980’s slasher films, containing a neat whodunit and a grotesque ending.

Melissa Sue Anderson, clearly desiring to break out of her nice television persona thanks to the wholesome Little House on the Prairie, is cast in the lead role. Happy Birthday to Me also achieves some merit since the film is directed by acclaimed British director, J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear). Anderson carries the film quite well in a challenging part. Glenn Ford co-stars as a Doctor.

Virginia Wainwright is a pretty and popular senior at exclusive Crawford Academy- a school for elite, rich kids. In fact, she is part of the “Top Ten”, the most popular and richest kids in the school. The ten friends meet nightly at the local pub. One night, Bernadette, one of the top ten, is murdered by an assailant on her way to meet her friends. This murder sets the tone as, one by one, the others are subsequently killed off, sending the school and local townspeople into a frenzy of panic. To thicken the plot, Virginia was involved in a horrible car accident four years earlier, which killed her mother, and caused Virginia to only have sparse memories of the accident. This piece is key to the film’s mystery.

There are many comparisons I can make to slasher classics that heavily influenced Happy Birthday to Me, but the most prominent must be 1978’s Halloween. The character of Virginia is very similar to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), in their somewhat virginal, good girl characters, and both have an almost identical hairstyle! Also, Happy Birthday to Me successfully uses the killers point of view as the camera frequently serves as the perspective of either the killer or somebody lurking around spying on someone else. The film also just “looks” similar to Halloween.

The whodunit aspect is the most effective of all the qualities of the film. There are a multitude of likely suspects and the film does not shy away from this, purposely casting doubt on several characters- could it be the creepy Alfred, who carries around a pet mouse and creates a fake head of the murdered Bernadette? Or the suave French student, Etienne, who snoops in Virginia’s bedroom and steals a pair of her panties? Finally, could it be Head Mistress, Mrs. Patterson, a harsh, no-nonsense woman harboring resentment for the snobbish, elitism that exists at her school?

When the killer is finally revealed a measure of pure shock and confusion will undoubtedly transpire- how can this be? But by the time the ultimate finale is played out all will make sense. The conclusion does disappoint slightly in the implausibility factor, and the original ending is much more logical and compelling than what was actually in the final cut- rumors have run rampant that the screenplay of the film was rewritten numerous times well into the production- never a good thing. So, the motivations of the actual killer are quite weak, but the buildup is amazing.

Not to be outdone by the whodunit, the kills themselves are superlative: a shish kabob to the throat, falling gym weights, a scarf caught in the spokes of a bike, and the traditional fireplace poker are done in macabre and fantastic fashion. We always see the killers gloved hands and we are aware that the victim is friendly with the killer, so we continually try and deduce who it could possibly be.

The gruesome “Birthday party” finale is gruesome and gleeful at the same time. Each murder victim is propped up around a dining room table, each with a party hat on and all in various forms of dismemberment or blood soaked from their murder wounds. It is a grim and hilarious reveal. The murderer parades out of the kitchen wielding an enormous birthday cake, cheerily singing “Happy Birthday to Me”. This is one great finale.

Happy Birthday to Me is a wonderful trip down memory lane and the film still holds up as a key, perhaps overlooked part of the slasher genre that should be rediscovered by fans and followers everywhere.

The Children’s Hour-1961

The Children’s Hour-1961

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner

Scott’s Review #620

Reviewed March 3, 2017

Grade: B+

The Children’s Hour is one of the earliest films to center around an LGBT theme and the subsequent scandals that the subject matter would provoke in the innocent year of 1961-pre Civil Rights and pre Sexual Revolution. However, since the film was made in the year that it was, homosexuality was presented as something that was dark and bad rather than something to be accepted or even embraced. Still, the film, and director William Wyler are brave enough to recognize the topic- with limitations to spin a compelling film rich with well written characters and some soap opera style drama. The Children’s Hour is based on a play from 1934 and written by Lillian Hellman.

The setting of the film appears to be somewhere in New England, perhaps Connecticut or Massachusetts, though the film never really says the exact area. College friends Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine) open a private all girls boarding school, catering to the affluent community they reside in. They run the school along with Martha’s Aunt Lilly, a faded Broadway actress, who oftentimes hen-pecks the women. Karen has been dating handsome obstetrician, Joe (James Garner) for two years when he proposes marriage and she hesitantly accepts, which saddens Martha.

All the while, spoiled brat child, Mary, furious over being punished by her teachers, plots revenge against Martha and Karen and embellishes a heated discussion between the ladies into a scandalous lie that she whispers to her grandmother (Fay Bainter). The grandmother promptly tells the parents of the other students, who remove their children from the school en masse. The lie, of course, is that Karen and Martha are lovers and that Mary has witnessed the two women kissing. Meanwhile, Mary is blackmailing fellow student, Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright) over a stolen bracelet. Martha and Karen are then ostracized by the small town.

The Children’s Hour becomes even more compelling when one of the women begins to realize that she does indeed have homosexual feelings towards the other woman and has always harbored anger and resentment as well as feeling “different” from other women.

As well written as the film is, the fact that the audience does not get to hear what Mary whispers to her grandmother is rather telling and prevents the film from being even more powerful than it is. Also, the downbeat conclusion to the film sends a clear message that in 1961 audiences were not ready to accept lesbianism as anything to be normalized or to be proud about. In fact, the decision was made to make it abundantly clear that one of the central characters is clearly not a lesbian. Any uncertainty may have risked freaking out mainstream audiences at the time.

Since the traditional opposite sex romance between Karen and Joe is at the forefront of the film, I did not witness much chemistry between actors Hepburn and Garner, but might have this been the point in achieving a subliminal sexual complexity?

The Children’s Hour and William Wyler deserve heaps of praise for going as far as censorship in film in 1961 would allow them to and successfully offering nuggets of progressivism mixed into a brave film. Incidentally, Wyler had made another version of this film in 1936 named These Three. Because of the Hays Code any hint of lesbianism was forbidden causing Wyler to create a standard story of a love triangle between the three with both Martha and Karen pining after Joe. What a difference a couple of decades make!

MacLaine and Hepburn must be credited with carrying the film and eliciting nice chemistry between the women, though it is too subtle to be realized if the chemistry is really of a friendship level or of a sexual nature. And, I adored how Wyler decided to make both characters rather glamourous and avoid any stereotypical characteristics.