A Christmas Carol-1951

A Christmas Carol-1951

Director-Brian Desmond Hurst

Starring-Alastair Sim

Scott’s Review #871

Reviewed February 26, 2019

Grade: A

A Christmas Carol (1951), released as the American title, or Scrooge in Great Britain, is yet another film incarnation of the world famous 1843 novel by Charles Dickens. This version seems to be the winning popular favorite, historically shown on television around the holidays. Alastair Sim is perfectly cast as the curmudgeonly Scrooge with the eventual endearing qualities in this earnest and wonderful seasonal effort.

Set in bustling London, a fabulous setting for any Christmas film, the story gets off to a resounding start with Dickens’ words being narrated subsequently presenting a faithful tribute to the book. The brooding Ebenezer Scrooge (Sim) angrily leaves the London Exchange on Christmas Eve eager for a quiet night at home. He begrudgingly gives his clerk Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns) the day off to spend with his poor family and bemoans the holidays as humbug to fellow wealthy businessmen that he encounters.

Scrooge embarks on a strange journey during the night as he is visited by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), shackled in chains and doomed to walk the earth clad in chains to represent his greed during his living years. He warns Scrooge to repent or suffer the same fate as he is visited by three ghosts representing chapters of his life: The Spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of Christmas Present, and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to come. The first two ghosts more benevolent, the third ghost is mysterious and frightening and takes Scrooge down a dim journey of what will be after he dies.

The centerpiece that makes A Christmas Carol work so well is its star, Alastair Sims. Hardly handsome, the actor is perfect in the role offering relish with his irritated facial expressions and untamed white locks. As he dismisses a waiter at the realization that he will be charged extra for more bread the penny-pinching Scrooge is in fine form as only Sims can be. Later, his cleaning lady assumes Scrooge has lost his marbles as he frolics about gleefully in his bed clothes raising her salary beyond comprehension, clearly a changed and jolly man. Sims plays this range of emotions with relish and truthfulness.

The cinematographers work wonders creating a magical London set drizzling with celebratory facets. With eons of pure white falling snow and streets filled with young Christmas carolers and city people, the film offers a great feel. With the Cratchit household modest yet filled with holiday cheer, the film doses the audience with the right blend of sentimentality and spirit never turning into schmaltz. The result is a richly produced film with a small budget proving that a robust budget does not equal greatness.

Rated G, the film has a few dark moments but is largely tailor made for an all ages audience. This undoubtedly is testament to its success and staying power. Neither a musical nor too heavy in the drama field, the pacing is perfect, and the story builds throughout the running time. After many decades most viewers will be familiar with the conclusion, an enchanting character turn that is always wonderful to witness with joyful glee.

A Christmas Carol (1951) is a legendary film with crackle and spark and an effective atmosphere leaving adoring fans to look forward to more each season. For an interesting contrast, a suggested companion piece is the aptly titled Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney, a musical version of the same story. Watched in tandem or even traded off, these two similar yet different creations offer interesting perspectives both enchanting and celebrating the human spirit.

First Reformed-2018

First Reformed-2018

Director-Paul Schrader

Starring-Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried

Scott’s Review #870

Reviewed February 22, 2019

Grade: B+

First Reformed (2018) is a dark independent film that has received a great deal of buzz for the raw and daring risks it takes and the brave performance by the film’s star, Ethan Hawke. Directed by the same man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader, the film is a character study of one man’s efforts for benevolence and normalcy after experiencing insurmountable tragedy as he wrestles with his demons and questions his faith in the church. The film is heavy, raw drama and not for those in the mood for a feel-good experience.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is an alcoholic, residing in bleak and barren upstate New York, presumably near Buffalo. He serves as a Protestant minister at a historically significant yet sparsely populated church. The establishment is usurped by another more modern congregation with a robust following. Ernst has recently been dealt a major blow with the death of his son in the Iraq War after encouraging him to enlist. When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks Ernst to provide guidance to her radical and troubled husband, Ernst’s life spirals out of control.

Ernst is determined to keep a journal for exactly one year and then subsequently burn it. He chronicles his feelings, thoughts, and doubts as narrated by Hawke. Schrader, who directed and wrote First Reformed succeeds at making the film feel personal and conflicted. He creates a quiet experience masked with underlying turmoil and even suffocating existences. Ernst’s angry protege is an environmentalist determined to change the minister’s views and succeeds in pointing out life’s hypocrisy.

The season is winter, and the elements are cold and depressing in First Reformed. From the crisp air and clutching small town grasps, Schrader makes the audience feel stifled, so we relate to Ernst even though we may not share his views or his beliefs. He is a kind man, helpful, and even keeled but wrestles with constant demons.  Despite his role as a minister what the film does well is resist carving a traditional tale of religious conflict or even questioning Ernst’s sexuality. The film is much darker contextually and does not focus on one theme.

Where Schrader loses me is with Ernst’s questionable actions which sometimes come out of left field. The conclusion is both perplexing and unsatisfying. As the character prepares for a desperate act of brutality, certainly a shock for the audience who has him figured out, he suddenly changes course due to the appearance of Mary. They embrace, and the film ends, but what are his intentions towards Mary? He is fond of her, but are feelings pure friendship or something more emotional? Sadly, we never find out nor do we know where he channels all of his feelings from.

Besides Ernst, and Hawke’s dynamic portrayal of him is never better, the supporting character’s lack much appeal or interest. Mary is nice enough but is a tad clingy and her numerous requests to talk or have Ernst come by to visit get tedious- Seyfried does what she can with the role but is second banana. Cedric the Entertainer as Pastor Joel Jeffers lacks appeal and the dowdy character of Esther meant to be a potential love interest for Ernst is instead bothersome and portrayed as a pest.

First Reformed (2018) has shades of appeal and a main character with substance and depth but ultimately the film does not come together as well as it might have. The finale underwhelms and after the great buildup to the character’s changing thoughts and motivations too much was left unclear. Schrader deserves props for attempting to create an edgy experience with a unique and daring character but could have wrapped the film up in a tidier way. This would have served the film better.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2018

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films-2018

Directors-Alison Snowden, David Fine, Domee Shi, Becky Neiman, Louise Bagnall, Nuria Gonzalez Blanco, Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Pontillas, Trevor Jiminez

Scott’s Review #869

Animal BehaviourBaoLate AfternoonOne Small StepWeekends

Reviewed February 18, 2019

Grade: A

Having the honor of being able to view the five short films nominated for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at my local art theater was pretty amazing. Far too often dismissed as either irrelevant or completely flying under the radar of animated offerings, it is time to champion these fine little pieces of artistic achievement. On par with or even superseding the full-length animated features, each of the five offers a vastly different experience, but each offers either inspired or hopeful messages or dark, devious, and edgy stories. The commonality this year is that four of them feature parent-child relationships. Below is a review of each of the shorts.

Animal Behaviour-2018 (Canada)

The strangest in the group, Animal Behaviour is also the most humorous and the best in the bunch, but only by a narrow margin. We witness a therapy session led by a prim and proper dog, who clearly has his own issues. In attendance are a blood-sucking leech, a praying mantis, a cat, a pig, and the newest attendee, a gorilla. All are happy to participate except the gorilla who sees the session as a waste of time. As eating jokes, butt jokes, and other adult humor encases the camaraderie each character develops a clear identity and the gorilla learns, in comedic fashion, that he really does require therapy. This short plays out like an intelligent television sitcom. Grade: A

Bao-2018 (USA)

The most mainstream of the contenders, Pixar creation Bao is cute and heartwarming and an ode to motherhood. A perfect Mother’s Day offering, the story tells the tale of a Chinese mother who imagines one of her delicious dumplings to be her son. She takes him to soccer practice, rides the bus together and are inseparable. As the dumpling matures, he wants to be alone, see friends, and eventually meets a young woman and proposes marriage. The mother is aghast and in a state of panic swallows the dumpling! Depressed, she is awakened by her real son and the two form a sweet bond made from of respect and love. The story is blooming with colors and nuanced with kindness so is easily the crowd favorite. Grade: A-

Late Afternoon-2018 (Ireland)

Some will undoubtedly find Late Afternoon a bit of a downer, but I found its honesty uplifting and fraught with creativity. An elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease is visited by a caring nurse each afternoon. The nurse is kind and her actions, serving a hot cup of tea or giving the woman a book to read, trigger memories of her youth with so much promise lying ahead of her. Eventually, she can recognize that the nurse is really her own daughter. The short is filled with compassion and while melancholy it is also inspiring, not to mention the creativity immersed in the colors and design. Grade: A

One Small Step-2018 (USA/China)

The most conventional in the lot, One Small Step will be perceived as empowering to women and a story of both loss and courage. A Chinese-American girl is raised by her patient and caring single father in California. She is taught to reach for the stars and he kindly repairs a shoe of hers and secretly stores it away. Over the years she is determined to become an astronaut and while she loves her father, she oftentimes takes him for granted. She is denied admission into a prestigious school and, depressed, gives up her dream. When her father dies suddenly the girl redoubles her efforts and finally becomes a successful astronaut in dedication to her father. The short champions energy and a never give up attitude. Grade: A-

Weekends-2018 (USA)

Weekends is my second favorite of all the shorts, barely runner-up to Animal Behaviour. The most complex and confusing, the short also features the most interesting hand drawings and art-work with a surreal and beautiful touch. A child of divorce spends his weekdays with his mother and his weekends with his father. His mother is depressed and lets the house languish while his father lives a metropolitan bachelor style life. When the mother begins dating an abusive man the boy is terrified imagining birthday candles that turn into the frightful man. The mother wears a neck brace which implies physical abuse. The short is moving and hits home on a personal level. Grade: A

Lost Highway-1997

Lost Highway-1997

Director-David Lynch

Starring-Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette

Scott’s Review #868

Reviewed February 17, 2019

Grade: A-

David Lynch, forever known for his odd and mind-boggling productions, releases what might be his most bizarre offering Lost Highway (1997). Dreamlike and downright hallucinogenic the film is impossible to dissect and is open to endless interpretation. Characters morph into younger or different versions of themselves or even into different characters entirely making the film best served as an experience not to be over-analyzed. The most enjoyment comes from the fabulous atmospheric elements.

Lost Highway is set in Los Angeles as we meet saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a nightclub employee who resides with his glamorous wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) somewhere in the Hollywood hills. The couple begins receiving envelopes containing VHS tapes of footage of their house followed by more invasive tapes of them being filmed while sleeping in their bedroom. Spooked, they enlist the help of a pair of detectives who are incompetent.

The events begin to grow more complex with the introduction of a menacing mystery man (Robert Blake) and sequences involving a dismembered Renee and Fred’s subsequent incarceration for her murder. Fred suddenly morphs into a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who is released into his parents care while being followed by the two detectives. Pete embarks on an affair with Alice Wakefield, a mirror image of Renee, who is the mistress of powerful Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Pete and Alice plan to escape together leaving their troubled lives behind.

Any attempt to make more sense of the story than outlined above is fruitless as a torrent of questions could be raised. The obvious ones are why does Fred turn into Pete (looking completely different) and why does Renee turn into Alice (looking similar)? What do random scenes of a burning desert cabin mean? What does the bizarre and hazy lesbian sequence with Marilyn Manson have to do with anything? Discerning the logic and attempting to unravel the mystery will lead to frustration.

The best advice is to escape into the film and allow it to manifest into the viewers mind. The terms “dreamlike” and “hallucinating” are often used to describe films but are perfect adjectives to fit Lost Highway. The stories do run parallel, so the challenge is not being able to follow each of them, but rather how they connect to each other. The stories also merge in a circular fashion with a rhythmic effect and a satisfying ambiance that lured me immeasurably.

My favorite characters are Alice and Pete and this is in large part because of the actors who portray them. Not appearing until the second half Getty and Arquette infuse passion and energy into the roles. I immediately rooted for them as a couple as their tender and smoldering chemistry is immediately felt. Arquette blazes as a sexy temptress and Getty as the handsome and earnest man submitting to her prowess.

Eagle-eyed viewers may notice comparisons to Russ Meyer’s devilish sexploitation film Supervixens (1975). The most notable are the dual character representations, the auto mechanic occupation, the locales (more than a few Los Angeles roads seem identical), and various sequences featuring a weightlifter, a gas station drive-up, or other eerily similar scenes. Whether or not there is direct correlation between the films is unknown but fun to observe.

The musical score and soundtrack are high points adding both mystique and aggression with the hard rock songs featured. Marilyn Manson’s “I Put a Spell on You”, Rammstein’s “Heirate Mich”, and The Smashing Pumpkins “Eye” are used in important scenes. The soundtrack release was a huge success on modern rock radio achieving Gold record sales status.

At the time of Lost Highway’s (1997) release the film was not well regarded by critics and dismissed as not making much sense. In the decades following the film has garnered more acclaim and as with a fine wine has aged well. The beautiful cinematic tone and creative design and images have become more revered over time. For a perplexing and cerebral experience look no further than Lost Highway, a delicious companion piece to the Lynch masterpiece, Mulholland Drive (2001).

The Bicycle Thief-1948

The Bicycle Thief-1948

Director-Vittorio De Sica

Starring-Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola

Scott’s Review #867

Reviewed February 16, 2019

Grade: A

The Bicycle Thief (1948), modified to the English title from the original Italian Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) is an important and cherished film containing a powerful message enshrined in a compelling story. The film is fraught with emotion and focuses on a powerful relationship between a father and his son and a determination to retrieve what is rightfully theirs. Made post World War II the film has a socialist theme and is made with a hallmark neorealist style centering around working class people. The film is an example of cinema being art and not merely entertainment.

The film deservedly was awarded a special Academy Award for “most outstanding foreign language film” before the historic Best Foreign Language Film award existed. This is a testament to the power and humanism the film envelopes as the sad and occasionally wonderful story unfolds. The inclusion of professional actors and non-actors make the film a strong and authentic watch in a quick one hour and twenty-nine minute running time.

In late 1940’s Rome Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to find decent work to support himself and his family. When an opportunity presents itself but requires the use of a bicycle, Antonio’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell) selflessly sells family heirlooms to acquire his pawned bicycle. Things are looking great for the family as Antonio begins his new job only to have his bicycle stolen by a thief on his first day as he sits atop a ladder helplessly witnessing the theft. Determined to track the thief down and retrieve his stolen bike he and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) traverse the city in growing desperation.

The Bicycle Thief is a simple story but one which enraptures the viewer with many different emotions. Anger at the thief, empathy for Antonio and Bruno, inspiration by the humanity of some characters, and rage at the actions of others. Antonio strives to be a good role model for his son and a provider for Maria. By the end of the film he has become a more complicated character, resorting to dire means to solve his problems. Antonio is desperate, guilt-ridden, and ashamed, but is also a highly inspirational character.

Fans of the gorgeous and historic European city of Rome are in for a treat. The Bicycle Thief is peppered with enchanting shots of the famous city and focuses on the events of normal everyday people as they go to work and spend their days on a mission. The lighting used by director Vittorio de Sica is bright and sunny and portrays Rome as a hot and bustling epicenter. The atmosphere is foreboding as we known something dire will soon occur amid the warm and cheery metropolis.

The acting is at the center of The Bicycle Thief’s success with inspired performances by Maggiorani and Staiola as father and son. Staiola is masterful as a young boy who needs a father figure and hangs on his father’s every move with passion. His soulful and expressive eyes contain sadness and hope in many scenes as he yearns and prays for his father to be happy again and for himself to feel safe. In comparison, Maggiorani possesses an ability to portray strength and angst interchangeably. His finest scene is pivotal as he realizes he has become no better than the thief he despises early in the film and is buried in shame.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) is a film made powerful and memorable by its simplicity and humanistic sensibilities. The plot is basic and explores one man’s quest at justice and the right to live his life and care for his family. His journey is complex and fraught with tense moments only making the film palpable and heart racing as his adventure unfolds before us. Thanks to gorgeous cinematography and an ample dose of pathos those who watch this film will be in store for a treasure in powerful cinematic story telling.

The Little Foxes-1941

The Little Foxes-1941

Director-William Wyler

Starring-Bette Davis, Teresa Wright

Scott’s Review #866

Reviewed February 14, 2019

Grade: A-

Candidly speaking any film starring the ravishing and dynamic Bette Davis is worthy of a watch but The Little Foxes (1941) was released during the Hollywood legends heyday and the actress elicits a strong character portrayal. The film is a complex story of southern scheming and contains enough intrigue to keep the viewer compelled after a slow start. Shot in black and white and due to its age the film quality not the best the story nonetheless  builds in suspense especially during the final thirty minutes. This culminates in a frenetic conclusion with Davis deservedly taking center stage.

Southern matriarch Regina Hubbard Giddens (Davis) is sophisticated and angry. The sole female member of an affluent family she lives in a time when men rule the roost and her brothers control the family money which leaves her with little power. Living nearby, Benjamin (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) flaunt their wealth while Regina struggles for every crumb she can get her hands on. When the family embarks on a deal to profit from a cotton mill merger Regina schemes to score riches by any means necessary.

The southern setting with luxurious estates and more than its share of cultural and cuisine flavors serves The Little Foxes well with a palpable atmospheric style. With an antebellum, white dresses, grits, and brandy featured, the goodness and girth of a proper way of living is featured. Prominent black characters exist, primarily serving as the household help or various service roles to white folks, but for 1941 this was considered progressive for studios to feature minorities so heavily and must be praised for the inclusiveness.

Throughout the run of the film I felt a push/pull whether I sympathized with Regina or despised the character. Comparisons to Gone With the Wind (1939) entered my mind many having to do with Regina herself. Flirtatious when she wants to be and coquettish to fit her needs, in many scenes she serves as a cross between Scarlett and Melanie. I even began to champion the character at one point and the plight of a female in the early 1900’s with the impossibility of being taken seriously as a business woman in those days.

The Little Foxes is brazen in that it champions a strong and determined female character. Regina will not merely stand behind any man but chooses to stand on her own two feet. Cinema in the 1940’s is known for branching out female characters as independent and self-sufficient and this film certainly serves as a prime example of this movement.

In the film’s final act there can be no denying the true colors of Regina and any sympathy or comparisons to the above mentioned characters are ultimately dismissed in diabolical fashion. The character is faced with the choice to either do the right thing and save a life or cross the line and let a beloved character die. When she chooses the latter the scene is pivotal and filled with emotion. She has made an important decision that which she can never turn back from.

Director William Wyler shoots the astounding Davis in a myriad of ways all central to the character’s particular motivations. Appearing determined and driven in some scenes and downright devious in others Davis is masterful at doing so much with her enormous and expressionistic eyes. The Little Foxes portrays her as a complex and unrelenting character that is tailor made for Davis’s talents.

To say that Regina gets away with murder is an unfair statement. Wyler makes it clear that despite benefiting financially the character is forever after shrouded in suspicion by her brother and her own daughter (Teresa Wright) who decidedly embarks on a new life to Chicago never to see her mother again. This leaves Regina fearful and lonely in her grand house.

The Little Foxes (1941) succeeds as a showcase for the emerging talents of stalwart Bette Davis as well as a good, solid drama. Schemes, conspiracy, and backstabbing are all prevalent themes, but the film also contains a melancholy subtext of loneliness and fear. Appropriately Ms. Davis is awarded the final shot, a closeup that reveals the star power she had begun to muster as her career was in full swing.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein-1948

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein-1948

Director-Charles Barton

Starring-Bud Abbott, Lou Costello

Scott’s Review #865

Reviewed February 9, 2019

Grade: B+

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was the first film of several to capitalize on the comedy duo’s popularity and merge them with several horror characters in a hybrid of the horror and comedy genres. The zany film was enormously popular with fans leading to other subsequent pairings, but this is the best of the bunch. The ingenious idea works well, and the bumbling pair presents an entertaining film fresh with good ideas and a harmless comedy romp. The inclusion of the villainous Dracula and the Wolf Man along with the title horror character only make the riches even loftier.

Working as baggage clerks at a Florida train station Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) border on incompetent and are tasked with delivering two crates to a local wax museum after damaging them at the station. Little do the pair realize that the crates house Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange). Once Chick and Wilbur arrive at the wax museum a comedy of errors occurs as the monsters reanimate and escape while the pair are arrested for supposed theft. Ultimately the film culminates with an exciting finale at a nearby island castle as a devious doctor (Lenore Aubert) is intent on removing Wilbur’s brain.

The film is wonderfully campy and over-the-top and a strong part of its appeal. The setup is delicious as the audience knows Chick and Wilbur will ultimately face the various creatures but know not how this will come about. The quick-witted comedy duo hardly needs coaching, but their banter and timing seem particularly palpable in this screen offering. This is impressive given the historical account of neither actor wanting to make the film and both being convinced the end result would be a bomb teetering on career suicide. Any accusations that their hearts were not in it can be dismissed.

A large part of the appeal is the inclusion of three individual monsters each with different motivations and offerings. Dracula is clearly the villain and in cahoots with the mad scientist while Frankenstein’s monster is the victim and the Wolf Man the suffering hero. Returning to roles that made them famous was crucial to the success of the film and Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi (Wolf Man and Count Dracula, respectively) deliver their lines with gusto, careful not to make themselves too menacing nor too foolish and both blur the horror and comedy lines with perfection.

The film-makers must be given credit for the progressive slant of casting the mad scientist as a female rather than the traditional male. Actress Aubert as Dr. Sandra Mornay is delicious in the role as she lustfully seduces Wilbur in comic form. She needs not his body but the brain of a simpleton to insert into the head of the monster. The pudgy young man and the gorgeous woman make an odd pairing made comedic by their physical differences. The blend is just right for physical and lightweight comedy.

The final scene is clever in that it leads into a potential follow-up for the film. As Chick and Wilbur sail away from the looming castle in relief of their adventure coming to a satisfying conclusion, Chick ensures Wilbur that all the monsters are gone. An uncredited voice appearance by Vincent Price and a dangling cigarette coming from no mouth introduces the next chapter that of the Invisible Man.

Hardly a masterpiece or cinematic genius Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) does serve an important purpose and that is to entertain. Each player is well-cast and the result is a culmination of good comedy infused with atmospheric horror elements done with the perfect light touch. The comic timing of all members ensures that all the pieces come together in just the right mix of fun and frights with a tongue-in-cheek approach. What could be a better choice for escapist fare on a lazy Saturday afternoon?

Suspiria-2018

Suspiria-2018

Director- Luca Guadagnino

Starring-Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton

Scott’s Review #864

Reviewed February 7, 2019

Grade: B-

Dario Argento’s 1977 creative masterpiece is the original Suspiria, an orgy of style and visual spectacles carefully immersed within a standard slasher film appropriate for the times. To attempt at a remake might be deemed foolhardy by some. Argento’s film contains comprehensive and defined story elements whilst the new Suspiria (2018) changes course with a brazen attempt at achieving the same mystique as the original but falling short instead offering a plodding and mundane story that is almost nonsense and does not work. Thankfully, a bloody and macabre finale brings the film above mediocrity.

Director Luca Guadagnino fresh off the Italian and LGBT themed Call Me by Your Name (2017), a bright film peppered with melancholy romance and lifestyle conflict could not be more of a departure from Suspiria. The respected director parlays into the horror genre with two of Hollywood’s top talents in tow, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson, and a nice nod to the original film with a small appearance by leading lady Jessica Harper.

The premise of Suspiria remains intact as the time-period once again is 1977 and the location stays as Berlin, Germany. Susie Bannion (Johnson) is a gifted American dancer who joins the prestigious Tanz dance academy run by a coven of witches where she unearths demonic tendencies. Coinciding with her arrival is the disappearance of another student, Patricia Hingle, and the revelation that her psychotherapist Josef Klemperer (Swinton) is in possession of Patricia’s journals chronicling details of the dastardly coven.

From an acting perspective Swinton impresses the most as she tackles three distinctive roles: an elderly and troubled psychotherapist, artistic director Madame Blanc, and Mother Marko, an aging witch. Each character is vastly different from the rest and allows the talented actress to immerse herself into the different characters. So convincing is she that I did not realize while watching the film that she played the psychotherapist or that the character was played by a female.

Admittedly not a fan of Dakota Johnson for perceptively using her Hollywood royalty to rise the ranks to film stardom or her lackluster film roles thus far- think Fifty Shades of Grey or the innumerable sequels- she does not do much for me in the central role of Susie. The miscast is more palpable in comparison to Harper’s rendition of the role decades earlier. Johnson is predictably wooden and quite painful to watch especially matched against a stalwart like Swinton in many scenes. Lithe and statuesque the young actress does contain the physical qualities of a dancer, so there is that.

As a stand-alone film my evaluation of Suspiria might be less harsh, but the original Suspiria is held at such lofty heights that this is impossible. The problem is with the screenplay as compelling writing is sparse. Much of the plot makes little sense and does nothing to engage the viewer in the moment. Slow moving and meandering and lacking a spark or an abrupt plot break through, I quickly lost interest in what was going on. The interminable running time of over two and a half hours is unnecessary and unsuccessful.

Before I completely rake Suspiria across the coals my cumulative rating increases with the astounding and garish final sequence which features a plethora of blood and dismemberment in a sickening witches’ sabbath. As Klemperer lies incapacitated after being ambushed by the witches one girl is disemboweled followed by a decapitation as the bold use of red is blended into the lengthy sequence. As the withered and bloated Mother Markos relinquishes her title an incarnation of Death is summoned, and heads explode. The finale plays out like a horrible dance sequence.

To add to the above point the visuals and the cinematography are its highlights. By using mirrors and possessing a dream-like quality the film looks great and harbors an eerie and stylistic deathly crimson hue. The resulting project is one of spectacle and intrigue rather than a sum of its parts. Rather than approaching the film with an introspective or cerebral motif simply going with the flow and letting it fester is recommended.

Guadagnino deserves credit for bravely attempting to undertake the creation of such a masterpiece and bringing it to audiences in 2018. Suspiria (2018) suffers from a lack of plot or pacing and is clearly second runner up to the original.  The story is not worth attempting to make heads or tails of since it is not interesting enough to warrant the effort. Ultimately skip this version and stick to the brilliance of the Argento effort or better yet do not compare the two films at all.

It’s a Wonderful Life-1946

It’s a Wonderful Life-1946

Director-Frank Capra

Starring-James Stewart, Donna Reed

Scott’s Review #863

Reviewed February 5, 2019

Grade: A-

A popular holiday tradition in many households eager to cozy up in front of the fire with an enduring and entertaining classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) serves an important purpose and is the ultimate annual festivity passed from generation to generation. While not one of my personal standards I do recognize the influence and the endearment the film offers and cannot fault its power to bring people together with its humanistic and sweet message.

James Stewart is perfectly cast as the wholesome and likable George Bailey, a man who strives to help all those needing help in his small community while neglecting himself in the process. Depressed and despondent by the failure of his bank one Christmas Eve in the 1945 snowy locale of Bedford Falls, New York, George is visited by a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) who teaches him what life will be like if he chooses the dire path of ending his own life.

Along with Stewart, Donna Reed as wife Mary Hatch Bailey is cast exceptionally well and is the perfect counterpart to George. Together the actors immerse themselves in their roles and hold their heads high as the leaders of the sleepy little town they reside in and set an example for the other townspeople with their kindness and thoughtfulness. A sound “king and queen of the prom” the duo radiate and illicit tears from audience members living their lives vicariously through the couple.

A perfect companion piece to A Christmas Carol, perhaps the version from 1951 for similar time-periods, both spirited and teaching life lessons, is recommended. Both thematically similar in the visitation by a heavenly spirit and offering glimpses into the past, present, and future, the comparisons are endless to say nothing of the Christmastime elements both possess.

Arguably, It’s a Wonderful Life is the more uplifting of the two, which is both good and bad. The lesson constantly voiced is to be good to other people and one will then be rewarded or at least have peace of mind. This is not a bad lesson at all, which is the main reason for the films lasting appeal. Bad luck and financial hardship will inevitably make its mark on everyone, but kindness is forever enduring.

The timing of the creation and release of It’s a Wonderful Life is also worth mentioning. As the United States, to say nothing of many European nations, struggled to pick up the pieces after the devastation of World War II, what an opportune time for the picture to immerse itself into the lives of many people in need of a strong and uplifting message. No wonder the film was popular when first released as the feel-good film of 1946.

The black and white cinematography does wonders to portray the films magical atmosphere as the cold and snowy bridge scenes are the high point. Controversial years later was the colorization, and some would say the ruination, of the films appeal, a decision that was met with anger by star Stewart who went as far as testifying in court to voice his displeasure.

At the risk of being raked across the coals and deemed a “scrooge”, portions of It’s a Wonderful Life are saccharin and manufactured in the utmost in goodness-sometimes too good. Admittedly coming across a bit trite at times, the characters of George, Mary, and their children seem to glimmer and radiate with only benevolent characteristics never having an improper or impure action. A fantasy film for sure the overly humanistic approach can sometimes be a tad silly. The same can be said for the angel, Clarence.

Nonetheless films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) serve their purpose in the annals of cinema history. With a powerful and heart-warming message, the positive vibes simply cannot be denied and the warmth and emotion the film possesses radiates even the coldest hearts and the harshest of critics willing to accept and be enraptured by the films staying power.

Roma-2018

Roma-2018

Director-Alfonso Cuaron

Starring-Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira

Scott’s Review #862

Reviewed February 2, 2019

Grade: A

Roma (2018) is a film to be experienced rather than merely viewed. A cinematic, black and white feast for the eyes and direction to be amazed with is utterly impressive and a triumph in masterful film-making. On par with geographically picturesque epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the piece is at first not an easy watch, but the audience will become both enraptured and rewarded with each passing moment as the characters emerge to flawless perfection reaching a crescendo of magnificent art.

Set during a politically tumultuous time in Mexico City during 1970 and 1971, the film follows a young maid working for a middle-class Mexican family and her perspective on her surroundings. She serves as housekeeper going about her numerous duties of mopping, cooking, even cleaning up the family dog excrement that runs rampant and as emotional support for the members of the family.

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her best friend, fellow maid Adela (Nancy Garcia) tend to four children of varying ages and their troubled parents, he a doctor and she the family matriarch. Antonio and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) have a troubled marriage as he supposedly goes to Quebec for business as tensions mount among the family. Through it all, Teresa, Antonio’s mother resides with the family as Cleo learns she is pregnant, and her boyfriend Fermin flees after hearing the news.

Director Alfonso Cuaron, responsible for the writing, direction, cinematography, editing, and nearly every other aspect of the picture, draws from his own personal experience growing up in Mexico City. Cuaron reportedly created the film as an artful love letter to his beloved family housekeeper whom he adored. In this way there is rich personality and intimacy throughout and a definite family angle. As the film centers mainly around Cleo’s trials and tribulations, the entire family appear in numerous scenes and thus feels like an ensemble feature.

Cleo is a quiet and modest girl happily going about her chores and serving the needs of everyone around her. She is treated well by the family and adored by the children only occasionally enduring the wrath of Sofia’s temper and troubles, but she is loved and appreciated. In love with Fermin and her only sexual experience she winds up pregnant which scares the aggressive and battle-minded young man. The story-line takes place over the course of a year, so we see Cleo’s entire pregnancy progress and experience her devastation as she gives birth to a still-born girl.

My favorite aspects of Roma are the simplicity and the monumental touches that Cuaron includes. The film begins with a lengthy shot of water being thrown on a cement garage and the puddles and circulation of the water. Seen from above is a slow-moving airplane and numerous background shots of a slowly landing airplane subsequently appear throughout the film. Is this to represent the slowness of life? Life, death, and near-death experiences are featured in Roma. Cleo’s pregnancy, the death of a baby, and the near drowning of one of the children rescued by Cleo despite the girl not being able to swim.

Gorgeous scenes of Cleo traversing through the streets of downtown Mexico City exude beauty. Undoubtedly the scenes represent her journey through life and the pain and rewards that she experiences, but they also feature dozens of interesting characters if one pays close attention. A man lighting a cigarette, a woman gazing, and other ordinary people doing things that look illuminating and like glimpses of the past. The automobiles are representative of the 1970’s as a Ford Galaxy, the family car, is extensively featured.

The films cover art (pictured above) is a creation that perfectly captures the theme of Roma and is highly symbolic. Huddled on sand at the beach the family encircles Cleo with expressions of panic, fear, and gratitude. The black and white adds depth as it could easily be a piece immersed in an art museum. The group of people appear unified and cling to Cleo for dear life also in a show of support and appreciation. The photo is endearing and beautiful to look at.

Roma (2018) received an impressive ten Academy Award nominations as well as numerous year-end accolades an impressive achievement for a foreign language film. For those with enough patience to let the film and its components marinate will be rewarded with a fine appreciation for cinematic artistry. The dreamlike quality with meticulous attention to detail makes this personal work a fascinating masterpiece.