Black Swan-2010

Black Swan-2010

Director- Darren Aronofsky

Starring-Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey

Scott’s Review #735

Reviewed March 22, 2018

Grade: A

Darren Aronofsky, the director famous for the psychological and bizarre, most notably 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 20008’s The Wrestler, and 2017’s mother!, can easily add 2010’s Black Swan to this category as he weaves an unsettling tale involving the world of ballet centered around the Tchaikovsky work Swan Lake. The film is dark, eerie, perverse, and utterly mind-blowing in its creativity- in short, Black Swan is a masterpiece. The film reaped several Academy Award nominations including a win for Natalie Portman as Best Actress.

In the competitive New York City ballet company, art director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is preparing to open the season with the compelling and difficult, Swan Lake. Deemed “too old”, star ballerina Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) is forced into retirement, much to her chagrin, allowing others to audition for the coveted lead role. Aspiring talent, Nina Sayers (Portman) gives a flawless audition as the White Swan, but lacks the depth to succeed as the Black Swan. Despite this point, Nina wins the role and slowly becomes psychotic as she begins to embody the Black Swan in her quest for perfection.

Certainly center stage, Portman embodies her character with mystique as we never know if she is living her dual role or if someone is messing with her. As strange events begin to occur, Nina is insecure and on edge throughout- as she desperately wants to give testament to White Swan/Black Swan she does not feel confident in the skin of Black Swan and she eventually teeters toward the edge of insanity. Deserving the Oscar statuette she won, Portman delivers the best role of her career.

Black Swan would not have been the success that it was without the talents of the three most prominent supporting characters- Cassel, Mila Kunis (at the time unknown), as Lily/Black Swan, and legendary talent Barbara Hershey as Nina’s supportive yet haggard mother, Erica. Just as Nina grows both suspicious of and distrustful of each of these characters motivations, so does the audience. Is Lily a trusted friend? What does Nina really know of her? Is Cassel’s Thomas manipulating Nina for a great performance or does he have sexual designs on her? Is Erica a loyal confidante or a jealous bitch, vengeful about her stalled career?

The final scene of the film is a masterpiece in itself and perfectly wraps up the film in perplexing, grotesque style. As the big night finally arrives and doubt is cast on whether or not Nina will perform successfully, the entire scene is a riveting, climactic experience. One will never forget the final shot of Nina, gushing with blood, and a grimace caked in stage makeup, as she professes a perfect performance to her musical director and cast mates. With this scene we are left wondering whether she will ever recover from this performance.

The fabulous musical score is haunting and effective and each piece is perfectly placed within the appropriate scene. The heavy use of violins gives the soundtrack a frightening, almost horrific screeching quality, and the Chemical Brothers electronic songs, importantly used during Nina and Lily’s wild night out clubbing, is tremendously effective.

The 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, directed by the controversial Michael Powell, simply must have been an influence to Aronofsky. Both containing similar subject matters of ballet and dancing on the edge of sanity, I can hardly think of two better films to serve as companion pieces, watched in tandem, then these two timeless greats.

Darren Aronofsky, along with a perfectly cast company with stellar, bombastic actors, and a classical music score by the great Tchaikovsky, with electronic elements mixed in delivers a piece that works in spades. 2010’s chilling Black Swan is a modern day classic that will be discussed as much as it is remembered as an incredibly important film.

A Separation-2011

A Separation-2011

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi

Scott’s Review #734

Reviewed March 21, 2018

Grade: A

A Separation is a 2011 Iranian film that was awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award statuette, the first Iranian film to achieve the honor. The film is a family drama that is wonderfully complex, and weaves typical family issues (divorce and school issues) with more complicated and cultural leanings, and keeps going and going with story nuances. A Separation is directed by the acclaimed Asghar Farhadi, who is also responsible for the brilliant screenplay- this is a top notch film.

Presumably set in Tehran, or a more progressive (by Iranian standards) city in Iran, husband and wife Nader and Simin  reside with their teenage daughter, Termeh, and Nader’s elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Frustrated by her husbands refusal to leave the country for a better life, Simin files for divorce, but her wish is rejected by male judges. When she leaves her family anyway, Nader is forced to hire a pregnant caregiver, Razieh, to tend to his ailing father. After a controversial tragedy ensues, causing Razieh to suffer a miscarriage, the film shifts directions and adds an entirely new layer to the  already fascinating story.

Farhadi is very keen with his delivery of a good story- he traditionally mixes themes of culture and social class together in an interesting way as his future, 2017, work, The Salesman, would also do. Thanks to Farhadi’s innovative storytelling, more notice is taken to Iran and Iranian culture, thereby humanizing its citizen more within the craft of film. We see Iranian people just like ourselves and not the radical or dangerous individuals we are programmed to see.

With A Separation, there are no clear cut protagonists or antagonists, and viewers allegiances may shift throughout the run of the film. Do we champion Simin for desiring a better life for herself and for Termeh or scold her for refusing to live with her family? A progressive woman for sure, she is a layered character in her ambitions and her autonomy.

Nader is also a complex character- heroic for desiring the best of care for his father, he is also fraught with anger and bad temperament, which is the main reason for the second half of the film, and leads to Razieh’s predicament. Viewers will not be certain whether Nader is a good man or a villain, or perhaps a hybrid of the two. Subsequently, this is the meat of the entire story, and makes for an enthralling experience in character development.

As if the brilliant screenplay was not enough to demand a good watch, the acting across the board is wonderful. A cast including seasoned Iranian actors, Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as Simin and Nader, these are my favorites, and are quite adept at carrying along the nail-biting tension in masterful form.

Shades of Alfred Hitchcock are evident throughout the film as the tension unfolds to a crescendo and the action builds and builds and builds in layers upon layers of good stuff. The quick editing and unique camera angles mirror some classic works of the famous director.

The success of A Separation is the films fast-paced, nicely edited construction, in a way that, at over two hours in length, the film speeds along rather quickly, and causes those who experience it to ponder, wonder, think, and ascertain. Asghar Farhadi has quickly become a prominent director, met with obstacles from his native country, and yet surpassing these hurdles to construct great film. I look forward to many more of his works.

Straw Dogs-1971

Straw Dogs-1971

Director-Sam Peckinpah

Starring-Dustin Hoffman, Susan George

Scott’s Review #733

Reviewed March 19, 2018

Grade: A

Straw Dogs (1971) is famed director, Sam Peckinpah’s, most startling and most controversial film.  Hardly an easy watch, it will conjure up both disturbing and uneasy reactions, but is a work of art- teetering on an all-out art film. Viewers will cringe during intense scenes, but will also marvel at the film mastery of this classic, brought on a whirlwind roster coaster ride as story elements spiral out of control to a frenetic and powerful climax.

Intellectual American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), moves with his sexy British wife, Amy (Susan George), to a Cornish countryside- the town in which she grew up in- where they proceed to encounter problems, both within their marriage, and external factors, as an angry mob of blue-collar workmen threaten their home life.  When non-violent David is pushed to the limit, questions of morality are brought to light, as Amy faces her own demons and bouts with brutality and victimization.

The film, made in 1971, pushes the envelope greatly in its display of violence. Several years earlier, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, and Peckinpah’s own The Wild Bunch (1969), really were the films that got the ball rolling, but Straw  Dogs continues the trend of the brutal violence that overtook American cinema in those days. While watching the film for the second time I was struck hard by the feeling that I was watching something important.

Amy’s rape scene is the toughest scene of all to watch for the sheer way in which it can be interpreted. Later, when Amy replays the scene in her mind, the audience is forced to endure the experience over again. Not content to only include the rape scene, Peckinpah wants the viewer to dissect the scene- the fact that Amy is assaulted by not one, but two men, and reacts differently to each of them, is the key here. The scene is complex in that, Venner, the first assailant is hunky and presumed to be a former beau, and she eventually relents to his advances, but does she enjoy the act? When Scutt enters the picture however, things turn from tender and ambiguous to violent and dirty.

Undoubtedly an influence to director Quentin Tarantino, is the final sequence of the film- a scene fraught with tension, violence, and grit. Now trapped in their house amid a mob of angry, drunk men, hell-bent on revenge, David and Amy must both bond with each other and match antics with the men. I experienced visions of 2015’s The Hateful Eight through the claustrophobic, cabin-like setting, and the quick edits that Peckinpah successfully uses throughout the entire film.

A sad scene, and at least a portion of the reason for the town folks rage, is a scene reminiscent of Frankenstein, when a hulking and  mentally challenged man accidentally harms a young girl. Not knowing his own strength and meaning to protect the girl instead of kill her, the men folk of the town respond in a nightmarish and witch hunt manner. Suddenly, David becomes defender and protector of this man.

David’s change in character is interesting and the great Hoffman adds layers and layers of complexities to the role. At first a peaceful man, due to circumstances, he soon becomes the assailant, creating traps and weapons intent on maiming his prey. Hardly a violent man, this change of character is evidenced as we earlier see David nurse a wounded bird.

In addition to Hoffman’s traditionally great acting performance, Susan George succeeds in providing the perfect mixture of bitchiness, spoiled brat tantrums, and later, guilt-ridden angst, and fear. The villains are perfectly cast and believable as bored, simple-minded, and horny, small town boys just itching for trouble.

Lush is the gorgeous United Kingdom countryside featured in Straw Dogs, as frequent exterior scenes are shot, revealing lavish and plush mountainous areas- the sweeping beauty of the landscape counterbalancing the brutality revealed in other sections of the film.

Mixing super quick editing with a dark, compelling screenplay, with underlying themes of questioning ones manhood, Straw Dogs is a provocative and edgy tale of violence and revenge in a small town, that gives new meaning to the fear of “home invasion” and feeling vulnerable. Thanks to a great cast and lots of other facets, Straw Dogs is a timeless (and brutal) treasure.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter-2017

The Blackcoat’s Daughter-2017

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka

Scott’s Review #732

Reviewed March 12, 2018

Grade: B+

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is an eerie 2017 independent horror film offering that combines various chilling elements to achieve its goal. Largely a fusion of the supernatural, the occult, and the psychological, the film, while slow at times, does offer a unique experience and is unpredictable in nature. Parts of the film are downright scary and spooky as religion meets satanism, always a safe bet for an unsettling experience. Writer/Director Oz Perkins, should be well on his way to a successful career in the industry with this, almost full-on artsy, film.

The action begins in a prestigious Catholic boarding school in a quiet, wintry area of upstate New York. As students (largely unseen) leave the school for a February break, Kat (Kiernan Shupka), and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are left behind when their parents do not arrive to pick them up. While the girls hunker down for the night, hoping their parents show up the next day, a third girl, Joan (Emma Roberts), who may be a psychopath, is en route towards the school, enlisting the help of a strange married couple (Bill and Linda), whose daughter had died years ago and was the same age as Joan. Also in the mix are two school nuns who are rumored to be satanists.

Little is known about the town, but the fact that nobody is around makes the setting a major plus. This may very well be due to budgetary restrictions associated with the film, but regardless, the use of very few characters or extras is a score, with the number of principle characters below ten. The cold and bleak nature of the town and the stark journey that Joan is on make the ambiance very successful. Many scenes throughout The Blackcoat’s Daughter are set during night time in relative seclusion and given the icy texture of upstate New York in the middle of winter the setting chosen by Perkins is spot on and quite atmospheric.

The overall story to The Blackcoat’s Daughter is both peculiar and mysterious and does not make complete sense a good deal of the time.  In fact, by the time the film concludes and the credits role, not a lot of the film adds up from a story perspective, which left me rather unsatisfied. Since Bill and Linda’s daughter looks identical to Rose, are we to assume that the events at the school occurred a decade before the events involving Joan? What ends up happening to Kat is perplexing- haunted by spirits and forced to kill, is she healed at the end of the film? Or is Kat really Joan? Too many loose ends are left.

The film is very heavy on the violence and the gore, and dares not hold back in showcasing the victims pain and suffering before they cease to exist. More than one character lies bleeding and immobile as the killer calmly approaches to finish the deed. Three characters are decapitated in horrific form as we later see their severed heads lined up in a boiler room. The demonic chanting of “Hail, Satan!” may turn some viewers off as would the overall story line- those who feel 1973’s The Exorcist is disturbing need not see this film as similar elements abound.

Also worthy of a quick mention is the cool, unique musical soundtrack that singer/songwriter, and brother of the director, Elvis Perkins, creates. With goth/techno elements, the score is noticed (in a good way) at various points throughout the running time, and adds to the overall feel of the film.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter succeeds as a disturbing and experimental piece of independent horror-making sure to at least pique the interests of horror aficionados. With plenty of blood-letting and squeamish parts, Oz Perkins knows what works. The story, though, would have been made better by a clear, definitive beginning, middle, and end, to avoid a confusing outcome. Still, I look forward to more works from this up and coming director.

Cinderella-1950

Cinderella-1950

Director-Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilifred Jackson

Voices-Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley

Scott’s Review #731

Reviewed March 7, 2018

Grade: A-

Cinderella is a lovely 1950 Walt Disney production and a film that rejuvenated the animated film genre after a sluggish 1940’s period, thanks in large part to the ravages of World War II. The film glistens with goodness and bright colors, offering a charming fairy tale based story based on hope and “happily ever after”. Cinderella is enchanting on all levels.

Told largely in narration form especially to explain the history of the story, we learn that Cinderella’s parents have both died, leaving her an orphan and living with her wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine. Her stepsisters Drizella and Anastasia are jealous of Cinderella’s natural beauty and she is abused and berated regularly, forced to work as a servant in a rundown chateau- tending to the trios needs and demands. Despite her unhappy life, Cinderella makes the most of it and befriends mice, birds, and many other animals she meets, singing and dancing in a cheery way.

Life chugs along for our heroine, until one day the King of the royal palace decides to throw a lavish Ball in order for his son, the Prince, to finally find his soulmate and marry her. The King requests that all eligible unmarried women attend. As Cinderella excitedly requests to go, Lady Tremaine cruelly grants her request, provided all of her work is done, having no intention of making things easy on her. In true fairy tale form, the Prince falls madly in love with Cinderella while many hurdles face the pair on their way to happiness.

Given the time period when Cinderella was made (1950), the timing was excellent for a lavish production, to say nothing of the fantasy that many young girls undoubtedly experienced of a handsome prince rescuing them, whisking them away from a life of doldrums to undying love. Female empowerment had not yet taken hold during the 1950’s, so the male rescuing female message was palpable and appealing to many. Dated not in the least, a story of true love overcoming hardship can always find an audience.

The colors and animations of the production are lush and powerful, oozing with perfection and drizzling with fantastic elements of romance and spectacular wealth. An example of this is the lavish ball at the palace- as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother  transforms the young girl and her transportation into a magical fantasy of horses, gowns, and carriages, it is quite extravagant in its beauty.

Engaging, with a bit of humor mixed in, are the supporting characters of the three evil ladies and the bumbling Grand Duke- interestingly voiced by the same person as does the King. As Drizella and Anastasia attempt to impress Prince Charming, their awkward and haphazard mannerisms and scowls perfectly counterbalance the charm and grace of Cinderella in sometimes comical fashion.

Comparisons must be made to 1937’s masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and both films could easily be companion films to each other, being watched in sequence for better study and marveling about similarities. Both Snow White and Cinderella are purely “good” characters, singing lovely tunes, embracing animal friends and various forms of wildlife- they are both more or less also “saved” by men. In present day, instead of this being offensive or “old fashioned” , it still remains enchanting and a celebration of true love.

Cinderella is a treasure to be enjoyed after all of these years, never aging nor becoming dated or irrelevant, which is a true testament to the power of film. Carving a story of values and honesty, of hard work and of good payoff, generations of fans can appreciate this everlasting treasure.