Johnny Guitar-1954

Johnny Guitar-1954

Director-Nicholas Ray

Starring-Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden

Scott’s Review #655

Reviewed June 15, 2017

Grade: B-

Johnny Guitar is an interesting film to review for a few reasons, but most distinct is for its challenging of the traditional mold of the classic western- front and center is an aggressive and strong willed woman, and a saloon owner no less, who is engaged in an antagonistic feud with another woman-with a similar disposition. Of course, since the film stars legendary screen actress Joan Crawford, she ought to be a strong character. The writing of the film is not brilliant and other western stereotypes abound, but Johnny Guitar is a decent watch-mostly for Crawford.

In the middle of an Arizona cattle town, circa the Wild West days, Vienna (Crawford) is a gorgeous and brazen woman, who owns the local watering hole, frequented by less than savory men. Vienna welcomes the men mostly because one of them is a former boyfriend. The rest of the town, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), despises Vienna and her support of the incoming railroad, sure to make Vienna rich.

After a bank robbery, Vienna is pursued by Emma and the town into a standoff, in which lynchings, shootings, and fires encompass the rest of the film. Mixed in with the drama is a romance between Vienna and handsome guitarist, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), and some musical numbers, but mostly the film is a shoot ’em up led by women.

Let’s take the good with the bad surrounding the film- any picture starring Joan Crawford gets some credit in my book and the role of Vienna is certainly unchartered territory for the glamorous star. Tough talking, gun slinging, and with a short hairdo, rumors abounded that the character of Vienna was gay and in love with her arch enemy Emma. Perhaps, decades later, this might have transpired, but this was 1950’s Hollywood, after all. No, Crawford still dazzles with heavy makeup and bright red lips and is ever so feminine despite the masculine outfit.

Clever, especially for 1954 westerns, is having a tough female character in the central role and this bolsters Johnny Guitar above middling. Typically a genre that sticks to the tried and true, the main female rivalry between Vienna and Emma is the best part of the film, but sadly the back story is never fully explored. Why do they hate each other? Were they in love with the same man? Is their hatred simply because they are the only women in the town?

A chase scene, and the climax of the film is also quite good. How delightful to see Crawford prancing around in peril, riding a horse, and swimming in a creek. The film turns into a good, old fashioned adventure, and the cinematography and exterior sets are not bad.

Two aspects of Johnny Guitar stood out to me as negatives. The romance between Vienna and Johnny Guitar does not work. For starters, Crawford seems much too old for Hayden as Johnny and I never felt any chemistry between the characters- the back story scene with the reveal that they were once an “item” is weak. Besides Emma there are no other female characters at all (a coincidence?), which is a strange aspect to the film. One wonders if this was Crawford’s demand? (but I digress). The romance between the duo is lackluster, though admittedly, I did feel rooting factor for them as the final chapter commenced and the pair was in danger.

The storytelling is only mediocre as I never felt invested in the writing and the entire script feels silly and cheap. The story is laid out in a basic way- Vienna is told by (arguably) the leader of the town, Ward Bond, to close up shop and leave town within twenty-four hours or else there will be hell to pay. When some of the men rob a bank and plan to depart for California, Vienna is blamed in a sloppy contrived plot device, and is set to be hanged. The script is not the high point of the film.

For a gender bending experience and the fabulous addition of Ms. Crawford, Johnny Guitar is worth a watch, but do not expect a masterpiece in storytelling or to be dazzled by character development. Fans of the classic western may be disappointed.

I Smile Back-2015

I Smile Back-2015

Director-Adam Salky

Starring-Sarah Silverman

Scott’s Review #654

Reviewed June 13, 2017

Grade: B+

As a fan of Sarah Silverman, the comedienne, I was anxious to see the 2015 film, I Smile Back, which garnered her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. Silverman tackles a heavily dramatic role in a film which teeters on being a pure “downer”. In fact, many fans expecting the actresses comic wit to be featured need not see the film. Rather, I embraced the performance and found the film to be an independent film treat, in large part thanks to Silverman’s powerful performance. She nails the part and carries the film to success. I Smile Back is a very small film that I wished had garnered more viewers.

Laney Brooks (Silverman) appears to have it all. She lives an affluent existence in Westchester County, NY with handsome husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), and their two young children. With a gorgeous house, dinner parties, and friends, who could ask for anything more?  Bored and troubled by a tough childhood and “daddy issues”, Laney has a tendency to drink too much, abuse drugs and prescription pills, carry on an affair with her best friends husband, all while managing to successfully run a household. As she gradually begins to spiral down a darker path, Laney sees her perfect world slowly begin to crumble around her.

My question throughout the entire film was, “Are we supposed to root for Laney or dislike her?” Certainly director Adam Salky does not make it easy to like her. In addition to her substance abuse use (or over-use), Laney is rather selfish. From the small scenes when Laney drops off her kids from school and is annoyed when the crossing guard and a teacher refuse to give her special treatment, she mutters insults under her breathe as she grabs a cigarette and heads for her scandalous rendezvous.  But when she is put in great peril later in the film, following one of her benders, I could not help but feel deep sympathy for her. In this way, the film is a bit unclear of what the audience should feel.

This leads me to conclude without a doubt that the film belongs to Silverman. In fact, what impressed me most is how believable she is in most scenes. She packs creative lunches for her kids and plays fun birthday cake decorating games with them, but in the next breathe snorts cocaine and rails at a neighbor lady for not celebrating Thanksgiving. Thanks to Silverman, she plays these scenes with gusto.

Some critics have complained about the script, but I find no real fault in it. Clearly not the strongest element, it is fine, nonetheless. I Smile Back is a low-budget indie drama that serves its purpose- it does not delve too deeply into the how’s and why’s of her addiction, and a nice scene with Laney’s father (Chris Sarandon) offers no concrete evidence of why this man drove her to drugs by his abandonment, but the film seems to be more about proving a good performance by Silverman than anything else.

Sarah Silverman commands great respect with her dark portrayal in I Smile Back. This role, combined with her recent turn in Showtime’s Masters of Sex television series, portraying a pregnant lesbian in the 1960’s, proves that she has what it takes to compete with the great dramatic actresses of today. She is certainly much more than a stand-up comic. Here’s to hoping for more drama from this talented lady in the years ahead.

A Man Called Ove-2016

A Man Called Ove-2016

Director-Hannes Holm

Starring-Rolf Lassgard

Scott’s Review #653

Reviewed June 12, 2017

Grade: A

A Man Called Ove is a wonderful 2016 Swedish film, honored with a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, that is just a darling watch-in fact, the film is wonderful. Equal parts whimsical, humorous, and heartbreaking, the film churns up emotions in me brought to the surface, and that is quite telling about the experience. The film is magical in a sense. Lovely scenery of Sweden also abounds, making A Man Called Ove an unexpected marvel and certainly worth checking out for good film lovers.

Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a fifty-nine year old curmudgeon living in suburban Sweden. He is the keeper of law and order in his quaint, little community of bungalows, regularly ridiculing rule breakers and the oblivious with torrents of shouts and insults. He despises several of his neighbors including a beautiful cat that saunters around the complex as if she owns the place.  When an interracial family moves in next door to Ove, his life forever changes as he becomes acquainted with the husband, the wife, and their two young girls. In the midst of his new found entertainment, Ove regularly visits his deceased wife’s gravestone, bringing her flowers, and plotting his own suicide. Through flashbacks, we are taken on a journey through the past as we learn all there is to know about Ove.

The film as a whole is a beautiful experience and , admittedly, I worried at first that A Man Called Ove would be too lighthearted and sentimental- just the type of foreign language film the Academy far too often recognizes in lieu of darker, more complex (and in my mind, deserving) films. A Man Called Ove is not exactly dark, but certainly not trivial or fluff either. I found the film rich with great writing and character development.

Romance is also a major theme of the film, but not in a corny way. For a good portion of the running time, Ove’s deceased wife Sonja, is a complete mystery. We only know that Ove misses her terribly and cannot wait to be with her in the afterlife. In fact, we only get brief glimpses of her photo on the table. When finally introduced to the story, we see them both in younger years, filled with hope and promise. I beamed with delight during these wonderful moments. The scenes of their innocent first dates and the connection they develop are heartwarming and innocent.

Later, when Sonja’s story is wholly explored, we come to a new appreciation for Ove and why he is the way he is in present times- we understand him better and the character develops. Some of the paths that life takes Ove and Sonja are tear inducing and emotional, largely due to the character and personality that Sonja possesses. On the heels of the Ove and Sonja back-story, we are treated to scenes of Ove and his father, in the past. His mother dying way too young, the pair develop an unrelenting bond that is severed only by tragic circumstances.

Ove’s constant bungled attempts at suicide (he buys poor quality rope to hang himself, a visitor interrupts his attempt to breathe in toxic garage fumes, and he ends up saving a life when he intends to be hit by a train) are the comic turns that the film mixes perfectly with the heavy drama.

A perfect balance of drama, comedy, churning emotions, and heartbreaking honesty, A Man Called Ove is a pure treat in modern cinema and is highly recommended for those seeking a treasure with a full array of characteristics.

Fences-2016

Fences-2016

Director-Denzel Washington

Starring-Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

Scott’s Review #652

Reviewed June 11, 2017

Grade: B+

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both give dynamic performances in Fences, a film directed by Washington himself, and based on a stage play, written by August Wilson. The film reunites several actors from the stage version and, while compelling, Fences does not translate as well onto the screen as hoped. Throughout the film, I kept surmising how much better Fences would be on the live stage. Still, a tremendous acting tour de force transpires, which is well worth the price of admission.

Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington) is a struggling fifty-three year old black man, working as a trash collector alongside his best friend, Jim Bono. Married to Rose (Davis), they share a teenage son, Cory, an aspiring high school football player. In the mix are Troy’s younger brother, a mentally impaired World War II veteran, and Troy’s older son, Lyons, a fledging musician. Everyone lives in a close-knit community and there is a sense of comradery, though the principal characters are frequently at odds with each other as dramatic situations slowly arise.

Troy is a very angry man, frequently going on rants about his time playing in the Negro baseball league and complaining about the unfairness of the world, specifically the racial injustice of the time. The friction between Troy and Cory is thick as Cory wants to dedicate his life to football, while Troy feels his son will ultimately be disappointed. When Troy drops a startling bomb on Rose, their lives are forever changed as they work to mend the damage inflicted between them.

Fences is at its core a family drama and the story offers tons of conflict. Almost all of the action takes place in the Maxson family home- a two story brick house- and scenes frequently play out in the backyard. In this way, the film stays very true to its roots as a stage production, which is good and bad. The film feels like a play, so therefore I found myself fantasizing about how good the production would be on the stage rather than on the screen, especially since some of the actors (namely Washington and Davis) starred in that version. What a blessing and a curse.

The film feels a bit too limiting at times and contains a glossy “Hollywood look” to it. This is all well and good, but the stage version would undoubtedly be more bare bones, giving the production more of a raw feel- especially important in several key dramatic scenes between Troy and Rose.

Despite other opinions, I did not find Troy to be a likable character at all. Certainly, Washington infuses power and good acting grit into the character, but I found few redeeming qualities. To say nothing of the situation with Rose, he does not treat son Cory with much respect. I found Troy’s repeated verbal rampages and stories irritating after awhile, and began to wonder, “why should we root for this man?”

Viola Davis deserved the Best Supporting Actress award she received for her turn as Rose. Dutiful, loving, and woefully under appreciated, her character rises well above a traditional housewife, as during one pivotal scene, she explodes with rage. Davis, a fantastic “crier”, saves her best tears for this part, as it is a weepy portrayal. But more than that, she exudes a strong woman, in a time when black women had it particularly tough.

I would have preferred an edgier film than the final result of Fences brings to the big screen, but the wonderful performances more than compensated for what the film otherwise lacks in darkness. At times too safe and slightly watered down, the stage version may be the one to see.

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Director-Mel Gibson

Starring-Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #651

Reviewed June 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Hacksaw Ridge is considered somewhat of a comeback film for troubled director Mel Gibson, having not directed a film in over ten years. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Andrew Garfield). While the film has a few minor flaws, and despite being yet another exhausting war film, Hacksaw Ridge is quite powerful, mostly because of the warmth and convictions that Garfield breathes into the central character, and real life hero, Desmond Doss. The film also leans anti-war and pacifistic, needed components in these troubled times.

During World War II, Desmond is a young man living in Virginia. With a brother around the same age, they deal with an abusive, alcoholic father and a passive mother. Desmond realizes he has a talent for medical care and, after falling in love with a small town nurse, he decides to enlist in the Army as a non combat medic. After refusing to use weapons and train on Saturdays, he is met with contempt by his commanding officers and fellow recruits. When, inevitably, Doss and his troops are deployed to the Pacific theater during the Battle of Okinawa, Doss becomes a hero when he saves numerous lives on the frightening  “Hacksaw Ridge” in courageous form.

For the first half or so of the film (save for a peculiar opening battle sequence that comes into play during the second half of the film), the action largely either takes place in Desmond’s hometown  of Virginia or at a basic training facility.  We get to know a bit about Desmond’s childhood experiences, his love life, and his love of country and duty. His father, a retired military man himself is damaged- he drinks, beats on his wife, and hits the boys, though Gibson tones down the abuse by not showing much of it. He saves the real gore for later in the film.

The film during the earlier portions has a very mainstream, safe feel to it and I found more than a couple of aspects to nitpick. Desmond’s fellow training recruits are laced with too often used stereotypical, stock characters- the brooding one, the cocky one nicknamed “Hollywood” for his good looks and tendency to walk around naked, the funny one, the strange one, the list goes on and on. Predictably, drill Sergeant Howell (played by Vince Vaughn, now parlaying from comedy roles to drama) is tough as nails. This is a character we have seen in dozens of war films before it and it feels stale as do all of the characters. Some of the jokes used are cheap one-liners like, “we are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” to describe new surroundings- Duh, really?. Additionally, there is glaring machismo in the first half that is a negative to the film and it makes the film feel like nothing more than standard fare.

However, the second half of Hacksaw Ridge really drew me in- much more than the first half did. Now in Okinawa, the film grips a much darker tone with the inclusion of battle scenes, some very gruesome with the loss of limbs and life. Technically speaking, the cinematography and camera work are shaky and move very quickly, causing an effective shift from the sun and peace of the United States to the dark and fog of unfamiliar territory.  A sweet scene between Desmond and brooding former rival, Smitty Ryker, inside a foxhole, is wonderful as we get to know each character much better within that one scene. Both men discuss their pasts and grow a new affection for one another. It is humanistic and character driven and thereby makes the film much more powerful.

Andrew Garfield is a marvel in the film and deserves the attention received for the role. Coming into his own as an actor after suffering hiccups with Spider Man, he has thankfully returned to character driven and empathetic roles. The role of Desmond is a truly heroic role for him and he is wonderfully cast.

A war film with a distinct anti-war message, Hacksaw Ridge  is overall a “guy’s film” with the female characters taking a backseat to the men, and suffers from some tried and true aspects, and some of the hairstyles seem awfully 2016, but in the end the film depicts a wonderful human being and tells his heroic story, so that makes the film a good watch.

Strait-Jacket-1964

Strait-Jacket-1964

Director-William Castle

Starring-Joan Crawford, Diane Baker

Scott’s Review #650

Reviewed June 7, 2017

Grade: B

Strait-Jacket (1964) stars legendary Hollywood film star, Joan Crawford, on the heels of her successful “comeback” role in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, circa 1962. Following this film, older actresses achieved some semblance of success in camp-leaning B- horror films and Crawford led the pack. Strait-Jacket is a perfect example of this sub-genre and glamorous Crawford sinks her teeth into this film with gusto, playing an axe wielding former mental patient, now released to the outside world after a lengthy stay in an insane asylum.

William Castle, a popular director of the time, had the ability to churn out films quickly and for very little money, a talent marveled at by studios. Certainly in the cult vein, Castle created Strait-Jacket on a dime and with one of the biggest stars in the world- now slowly in decline. Clearly, in “real life”, Crawford felt the role was beneath her, yet one would never know it by the brilliant performance she gives, a performance that makes Strait-Jacket better than it ordinarily would be.

We first meet Crawford’s Lucy Harbin (twenty years prior to present times) as she returns home very late one night, to a remote area, , having spent the weekend out of town. Her husband is a philanderer and has picked up a cheap girl at a bar, making love to her while his young daughter, Carol, pretends to sleep. In a fit of rage, Lucy decapitates them both while a horrified Carol watches. Years later, Carol (Diane Baker), now a grown woman,  prepares to introduce a recently released Lucy to her intended, Michael, and his affluent parents.

Living on a remote farm with Lucy’s brother and his wife, strange occurrences begin to happen to both Lucy and Carol- a dastardly child’s song, cut out faces from a photo album, and “imagined” decapitated heads. Castle wisely gives Lucy a makeover, from her graying, matronly appearance, to a sexy, youthful appearance reminiscent of her days when the murders occurred. Soon, the film, short at one hour and thirty two minutes, reaches a climax when Lucy appears to begin chopping new victims to bits. But is all as it seems?

The appeal of Strait-Jacket, as a viewer, is watching Joan Crawford tackle the role. Talented beyond belief, and with expressive eyes and facial features, she owns the role and subsequently the entire film, though Diane Baker is no slouch either. Crawford, never one to phone in a performance, at this time in career was happy with any role she received. She gives Lucy both grit and vulnerability, so that the audience roots for her. As the film goes along, we slowly begin to wonder if Lucy is hallucinating, still unstable, or perhaps being set-up by someone else.

Strait-Jacket is laced with several good scares- as both a grizzled farm hand and a vacationing doctor meet their fates in grisly fashion, the build-up to the kills is quite well done. A slamming door, a figure in the shadows, these elements are all used to wonderful effect to elicit suspense. To Castle’s credit, he uses elements of fright to make the film better than the writing is.

The plot itself is fine, but certainly not high art, nor anything rather inventive. The “big reveal” at the end of the film is rather hokey and seemingly a play on the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho, but lacking the high intensity- the ending of the film is also a tad abrupt.

Strait-Jacket is a cool little horror film featuring one of the legendary actresses of Hollywood film history- and that is more than enough for me to recommend this film to both Crawford fans or horror film fans, or ideally both.

Fellini’s Roma-1972

Fellini’s Roma-1972

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Britta Barnes, Peter Gonzales

Scott’s Review #649

Reviewed June 5, 2017

Grade: A-

Fellini’s Roma is a trippy experience through Rome during two differing time periods. As with all Fellini films, the film is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed. One must nestle into the life that Fellini offers on screen- in this instance the fabulous city of Rome, Italy in both positives and negatives. The experience was very good for me, as both a world of odd characters and of ancient Rome oozed from the screen in appealing and absurd fashion.

From a plot narrative- there is really not one. In fact, arguably the only character portrayed is, in fact, Rome herself. The film takes place in both the 1930’s as well as the 1970’s, and is said to be an autobiographical tale of director Fellini’s experiences growing up in Rome.  We see little Fellini as a youngster, experiencing the vast city for the first time and as a teenager now living in the city. Interestingly, the film traverses from both sets of time periods back and forth with really no rhyme nor reason.

Throughout the film, we see both the beauty and the ugliness of Rome- the majestic Colosseum and the dirty entrails of the gloomy city. Scenes of seedy brothels, mainly in the 1930’s, and a myriad of strange and scantily clad females prance before the cameras looking for a lucky score amid the droves of men lusting after them. Another depicts a fashion show, of sorts, taking place at the Vatican, involving nuns and priests in bizarre costumes.

The 1930’s setting is my personal favorite. Gritty, cold, and harsh, the bleakness of Rome is depicted. Unsurprisingly, this has much to do with the historical time period. Since Mussolini was in power, and on the eve of World War II, the darkness is apparent. In a frightening scene, bomb sirens wail as a women shrieks in panic. The brothel scenes are downright creepy and the subsequent theatre scenes involving drunken, rowdy, young men leering and cursing at the entertainment, is a peculiar slice of life sequence.

In contrast, the 1970’s sequences are layered with more beautiful depictions of the city. Brighter colors are depicted, and there appear to be either scientists or explorers digging into ancient ruins and finding gorgeous art that is subsequently ruined by the blowing air. We also see hippy types basking in the sunlight. Again, much of this film is largely open to interpretation.

I adore Fellini’s Roma in terms of an expression of the city of Rome as an art form, but the film is highly unconventional- another plus for me. Sure, I may have desired to learn more about the bevy of creepy and potentially interesting characters, but I finished the film with an appreciation of Rome, unlike none I have ever known.

A startling final scene, in which legendary Italian film star, Anna Magnani, appears scantily clad, implied to be a prostitute, was filmed shortly before her untimely death at the age of sixty-five.

As a film, Fellini’s Roma is a wonderful history lesson, but also a lesson in interpretation and film appreciation. Most film goers are accustomed to a begin, middle, and an end, as well as some semblance of plot. Roma contains none of that, but rather, is mind opening and still fresh many years after its release, which is a true testament.

The Faculty-1998

The Faculty-1998

Director-Robert Rodriguez

Starring-Josh Hartnett, Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek

Scott’s Review #648

Reviewed June 4, 2017

Grade: B

Having watched The Faculty, a  teenage horror/science fiction flick,  at the time of release in 1998 (now almost twenty years ago!), I fondly remember sitting in the movie theater watching this soon to be cult classic take hold of its audience. Despite some now dated (in 2017) special effects, the story holds up well, and what a treat to see some “stars of tomorrow” mixed in with some venerable veterans, take center stage. The Faculty stirs up a strange hybrid of classic films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and The Breakfast Club) to create a fun, and gory, horror film.

The action takes place in a small town said to be somewhere in Ohio, though the film is actually shot in Texas. A football town, and home of the Hornets, sports are central to Herrington High school- both to students and faculty. It becomes immediately evident that some of the staff is not “right” after two of the teachers stab Principal Valerie Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) with a pencil and scissors and flee with no emotions late one night after a faculty meeting.

Later, student Casey Connors (Elijah Wood) confesses to his group of friends that he believes the teachers are being controlled by aliens. Naturally, they are skeptical until strange events among the staff begin to take shape once the students watch the staff’s activities closely. The film then turns into a clever whodunit as one student after another is revealed to be infected and therefore an alien.

A highlight of The Faculty is its stellar casting- there is the younger set of actors, who share great chemistry together- Josh Hartnett (Zeke), Wood (Casey), Jordana Brewster (Delilah), Clea Duvall (Stokes), Laura Harris (Marybeth), and Shawn Hatosy (Stan) all make up the troupe of characters thrown together due to unlikely circumstances to figure out the big mystery- who amongst the staff is an alien and where they come from? All of the students are from different social classes, which make their antics unique- Zeke, the rebel, Stan, the jock, Stokes, the “weirdo”, and Casey, the nerd. In this way the film reminds me of The Breakfast Club, a mid-1980’s “coming of age” high school film.

Additionally, the staff comprise some of the best in the business- stalwart Piper Laurie appears as the drama teacher, luscious Salma Hayek as the sexy school nurse, comic Jon Stewart as the science teacher, and rugged Robert Patrick as Coach Willis. What a treat for film fans to watch a film such as The Faculty to see a bevy of popular film and television stars amongst the cast.

Director, Robert Rodriguez, most notably known for creative left of center works such as Machete and Sin City and for being a frequent collaborator of Quentin Tarantino in his edgy collection of films, helms a rather mainstream piece of work in The Faculty. Clearly, the film is targeted for your typical, mainstream audience, but with the right blend of clever quirks added in.

Delicious is the ode to the classic science-fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only set in a suburban high school. Clever still is the revelation of the teachers as the robotic “pod people” or aliens from outer space. This cute reference, in 1998, and still today, is an innocent knock on authority figures as the high school kids slowly get their comeuppance against some of the staff.

There comes a point in the film where nearly everyone is an alien and the film runs out of gas. However, the final scene is wonderfully constructed as the film ends as just another day in the life of a small town high school- life goes on and all is well. The Faculty is a treat to watch in present times as a “trip down memory” lane experience.