Lizzie-2018

Lizzie-2018

Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Lizzie (2018) is an odd and macabre interpretation of the life and times of the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to bits with a deadly axe. This offering is shrouded in a bit of controversy for inaccuracies and interpretations of the events, specifically Borden’s sexuality called into question. The film is quiet and a tad too slow but thunders to a grand climax more than making up for any negatives. The casting of its leads is perfect and key to success.

Thirty-two-year old Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives with her domineering and affluent father Andrew, (Jamey Sheridan), and rigid stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Despising both, she lives out a lonely and depressed existence with her only outlet being occasional evenings out at the theater. When an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence to work as a servant the women form a strong bond especially after she is abused by Andrew.

Sevigny, one of my favorite modern actresses, possesses a range that is astounding in the myriad of characters she has played in her long career. Debuting to the masses in the critically acclaimed and depressing Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she has churned out a numerous array of independent features portraying one oddball character after another and deserves the strong influence she has achieved over the years.

Director, Craig Macneill makes interesting choices with his film which may or may not please audiences expecting a by the number’s horror offering. He dives into psychological thriller territory with more of a character study approach that provides layers to the finished product. Sevigny is center stage and plenty of camera close-up shots offer an introspective analysis of what her feelings are rather than from her parents’ perspective. Instead of a crazed killer spontaneously committing the crime she is careful and calculating in her plan. Macneill presents Lizzie as the victim and Andrew and Abby the villains.

This is to assume that Borden really committed the crimes, which the film never doubts. Historically, people assume that this is the truth, but Lizzie was set free by a jury refusing to believe a woman of such means would commit such a heinous crime. I wonder if Macneill directed the film with a bit of a smirk at this ridiculous decision of the times when the woman clearly enjoyed the murders. At the end of the film it is explained what happened to Lizzie and Bridget which is a good decision and wraps the film into a nice tidy bow.

Powerful is the quiet subtext which gives a moody and foreboding quality. I adore slow moving films provided the reward is worth the wait and Lizzie sucker punches once the events begin rolling along. Another positive is the gnawing feeling of terrible things about to happen but unsure of when or how the attacks will occur. Most viewers choosing to watch this film will be aware of the context and the reported murders committed.

The atmospheric additions succeed as the late eighteenth century costumes and daily living are believable. The lavish Borden house is well-kept and brightly lit offering a nice New England feel. Finally, the creaks and noises throughout the house perfectly encompass the danger lurking behind corners and the fun is in wondering when Lizzie will strike. Since the film moves back and forth through its time-period we know that strike she will.

Where the film offers its best work is through the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Sevigny and Stewart dazzle together with unleashed chemistry nearly rivaling a similar dynamic seen in 2003’s Monster. As with Aline Wuornos and Selby Wall Lizzie is the dominant one and Bridget is submissive following her lead. Both sets of women share a lesbian relationship and neither pair achieves any happiness at the conclusion of the film.

A film sure to fly under the radar and likely to be forgotten before long, Lizzie (2018) is worth the effort. A spooky and controversial interpretation of the events leading up to, during, and after one of the most notorious crimes in United States history is dissected and analyzed from a human perspective. Macneill makes Borden less maniacal and more sympathetic than some may prefer. I think he does a fine job and deserves praise for a rich telling.

Gloria Bell-2019

Gloria Bell-2019

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Julianne Moore, John Turturro

Scott’s Review #924

Reviewed July 29, 2019

Grade: B+

An English remake of the successful Chilean film from 2013 simply titled Gloria, Gloria Bell (2019) stars Julianne Moore and the setting is moved to Los Angeles. The film is directed by Sebastian Lelio, fresh off a Best Foreign Language Film win for A Fantastic Woman (2017) and both films contain similar themes of oppression and loneliness. Preferring the original by only a hair Gloria Bell is nonetheless a worthy offering with Moore perfectly cast in the title role.

Middle-aged divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore) resides in Los Angeles, working an office job of some respectability but is clearly unfulfilled. She spends frequent nights at a nightclub where she is deemed a regular. The club caters to middle-aged singles who dance and drink while looking for love. When she meets Arnold (John Turturro) one evening and they share a night of passion, the pair begin dating but Gloria realizes that he still supports his ex-wife and grown daughters limiting his time and commitment to her, which leaves her frustrated.

Moore is honest and understated with her performance and the highlight of the film. With another casting choice the character might not have worked so well. She is full of life, singing in her car, attending laughter therapy, and smoking pot in her apartment. She has a warm yet limited relationship with her millennial kids and her ex-husband and his new wife. Moore gives the character an earnestness and likability that works and gets the audience on her side during her trials and tribulations.

This is not to say that Gloria doesn’t occasionally frustrate the audience. After inviting Arnold to meet the whole crew over dinner and wine at her son’s house, what begins as a meet and greet quickly turns into a reminiscing trip down memory lane and whimsical looks at Gloria and her ex’s wedding pictures. Her disregard of Arnold’s feelings is disappointing, but the bad intention is not there. Gloria has baggage and is caught up in the moment simply reliving a happier time at the expense of the current moment.

Arnold has his own demons and is both likable and unlikable to the audience. Tending to bail on Gloria when either his family requires his assistance or he feels left out, he hardly exhibits grown man behavior or anyone Gloria would want to date. The first red flag is his confessions of enamor to Gloria over their first dinner date. From there his on again off again presence makes him the odd man out. The intent by Lelio is to make Gloria the sympathetic one. It’s her movie after all.

Watched sequentially with A Fantastic Woman is a wise idea. Numerous comparisons are apparent beginning with the feelings shared by both central characters. Both are searching for happiness but unsure of how to obtain it especially given the fact that they once had it and it was snatched away from them. Scenes of both characters driving in their cars and singing songs are included, and the look of both films is the same.

Very few comparisons or contrasts can be made between Gloria of 2013 and Gloria Bell of 2019 as both are way above average other than in the former the character is slightly more vivacious than the latter. This could be attributed to the Chilean and South American free thinking and sexual gusto as compared to a more reserved American way of thinking, but this is merely a suggestion. Interesting to note is how Lelio remade his own film only six years later rather than another director putting his or her own stamp on it.

Gloria Bell (2019) paints a vivid canvas of a modern woman dealt a bad hand who struggles to find her happiness and fulfillment any way she knows how. Thanks in large part to Moore’s embracing and filling the character with kindness and care she wins over the audience. The character is written as intelligent and interesting and not desperate in any way for a man. He needs to be the right man.

Pet Sematary-2019

Pet Sematary-2019

Director-Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Starring-Jason Clarke, John Lithgow

Scott’s Review #923

Reviewed July 26, 2019

Grade: B

In the age of the movie remake, especially within the horror genre, it was only a matter of time before Pet Sematary, first made in 1989, would resurface with its fangs bared. Paramount Pictures offers up Pet Sematary (2019), a by the numbers affair perfect for viewing on a late Saturday night. It is an improvement over the disappointing ’89 version but hardly recreates the genre, feeling more like a remake than offering much in the way of new story-telling or frightening effects. The conclusion is rather disappointing offering a hybrid of slasher meets zombie.

To compare either film to the chilling and suspenseful page-turner written by esteemed novelist Stephen King would be ridiculous. The book is a quick read that will leave its reader breathless and scared, perhaps even fearing their own pets, so the bar is set way too high for a cinematic offering to match up with. The book delves much more into the feelings and emotions of all the principle characters, something that is severely limited with the film.

The Creed family, Louis (Jason Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and children Ellie and Gage, move from bustling Boston, Massachusetts, to rural Maine to allow Louis the opportunity to practice medicine at a university hospital. Their friendly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) befriends Ellie after she stumbles across a funeral procession of children taking a deceased dog to a cemetery called Pet Sematary. He warns she and Rachel that the woods are dangerous. When tragedy strikes the family, the cemetery unleashes a supernatural force contained in an ancient burial ground that sits beside it.

The first half of the film is superior to the second as the build-up offers more perilous moments than when all hell breaks loose. Mysterious is when an accident victim in Louis’s care dies and begins to show up in his visions warning him of something sinister. The victim is mangled and bloody and quite frightening are these foreboding scenes. When a curious Ellie traipses throughout the woods with curious wonderment the audience is nervous about what (or who) she might stumble upon.

The film also gets props for the suspenseful birthday party scene that ends in a grisly death. The scene begins in a cheery way with lively party music and festive balloons amid a warm afternoon in summery Maine. In a clear example of foreshadowing, earlier in the film Louis curses the truck drivers that drive at reckless speed past his house. Excitedly running after their cat named Church, Ellie and Gage pay no attention to the looming truck with the texting driver until it is too late. The scene drips with good terror.

After one family member is struck down by the speeding tractor trailer the predictability surfaces. Jud has already warned Louis that “sometimes dead is better”, but we know Louis will surrender to temptation out of desperation and tempt the bad spirits. When the once dead character returns with a droopy eye and calm deviousness, the film becomes a standard slasher film and is not as compelling.

The final thirty minutes feels very rushed as if the careful pacing of the buildup is all for naught. As in most horror films, now deemed a cliche, the last sequence allows for a sequel if box-office profits are hefty enough. I do not recall a similar ending in the chilling novel or any reference to the family living out their days as a family of the undead. The obvious attempt at a zombie reference was unsatisfying and much different from what I expected.

From a casting point of view Jason Clarke (usually cast in supporting roles) gives a strong performance as the main character. He is a good father figure and provides charisma to the film. Well-mannered but also somewhat outdoorsy and a “regular joe” he is intelligent and humorous with the kids. The child actors are fine but hardly the main attraction and Seimetz as the mother, Rachel, is not the best casting choice. She plays the challenging role much too brooding and angry for my taste, especially given she is written as the most sympathetic of all the characters.

Pet Sematary (2019) is a satisfactory horror offering with a solid first half that teeters into difficult to believe territory rather quickly. A stalwart veteran like Lithgow helps immensely, giving the film some respectability, and a child actor cast in a pivotal role is enough and doesn’t ruin the experience. There is little reason to see the film a second time but advisable is to snuggle with the King novel for some good scares.

Eyes Without a Face-1960

Eyes Without a Face-1960

Director-Georges Franju

Starring-Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli

Scott’s Review #922

Reviewed July 23, 2019

Grade: A

Eyes Without a Face (1960) is a macabre and twisted French-Italian horror film co-written and directed by Georges Franju based on a novel of the same name by Jean Redon. The film cover art (see above) is flawless and terrifying, inducing the creeps by only giving it a glimpse causing the recipient curiosity, attempting to analyze what the meaning behind it could possibly be. The film is nestled into a short one hour and thirty-minute package but that is more than enough time to scare the audience to death with many fantastic and gruesome elements, severely limiting the gore, which only adds to the horrific nature.

The film was highly controversial when released in 1960 because of the subject matter at hand and was subsequently either loved or reviled among its audiences. What makes Eyes Without a Face, so riveting is the empathy for the characters and the measures gone to right wrongs, despite the main character being undeniably crazy. The complex emotions of guilt and obsession are commonalities making it a layered and complex horror film appearing on many Top Ten genre lists. The film is not for the faint of heart.

Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brassier) is a brilliant and successful physician who specializes in plastic surgery. After a vicious car accident that he is to blame for he attempts to repair the ruined face of his daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), a victim of the wreck. But his plan to give his daughter her looks back involves kidnapping young girls and removing their faces. He is aided in his machinations by his assistant, Louise (Alida Valli), who kidnaps the young women and helps him in the laboratory acting as a surrogate mother to Christiane. Louise aids Génessier partly because of his help in restoring her damaged face in events that happened before the film begins.

Scob is the stand-out character, containing an innocent and quietly melancholy existence as she is the clear victim of the story. Her defeated posture while resiliently hopeful and demure is complex for an actress to carry and she defines grace and poise. Brasseur and Valli, the villains of the film, each deliver the goods in different ways. Valli, haunting in her best horror effort, Suspiria (1977), is mesmerized by her doctor and savior so that the relationship is almost cult-like. Brasseur, while devious, is strangely heroic too, as he steals lives to save other lives, so his character is extraordinarily complex.

The surgery scenes are chilling featuring white, starchy uniforms worn by doctor, assistant and victim. The scenes could almost be mechanical tutorials offered to first-rate medical students with scholarly intentions if this were not a horror film, the look is so documentary style. Genessier calmly cuts an entire circular length of his victim as a hint of blood slowly oozes down the sides of her face in almost tender fashion. The film is not the 1980’s slasher film image that encompasses non-horror film-goer’s preconceptions and, made in 1960, contains a somber yet gorgeous texture.

The best scene occurs when one of Genessier’s victims, lying on a gurney, comes to and gazes at a figure leaning close to her. The camera turns to the figure revealing a blurry but nonetheless recognizable image of Christiane, sans the face-like mask she usually wears throughout the film. As the victim shrieks in horror, Christiane slowly backs away from her amid a sunken feeling of pain and heartbreak, remembering how much of a freak she must appear to others. The scene is sad and grotesque at the same time.

Horror films often get bad raps, but poetic and stylized horror films are a diamond in the rough. Eyes Without a Face (1960) achieves its place in the cinematic archives with brilliant black and white cinematography entrenched in a Gothic, chilling story with characters whose motivations can be dissected and studied long after the film ends. This is a type of film that keeps the viewer thinking and deserves repeated viewings to fully capture all the plentiful gems that it offers.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever-1970

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever-1970

Director-Vincente Minnelli

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand

Scott’s Review #921 

Reviewed July 19, 2019

Grade: B+

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) is a very obscure film that deserves better than to be relegated into the unknown. Released during a time when the Hollywood musical had lost its luster, it feels like a last gasp effort to keep the genre alive, serving as a star vehicle for Barbra Streisand. The film suffers from severe editing problems with a large portion being cut, so much so that the result is a choppy and disjointed feel, tough to follow as is but left untouched the film could have been a creative masterpiece.

In a particularly convoluted plot that spans two time-periods, chain-smoking New Yorker, Daisy Gamble (Streisand) is convinced by her uptight fiancee Warren (Larry Blyden) to attend a class taught by Marc Cabot (Yves Montand), a psychiatrist. When she is accidentally hypnotized by Cabot he realizes she speaks in the voice of an early nineteenth-century woman named Melinda, as he becomes obsessed with her while she teeters between two existences.

The screenplay was written by Alan Jay Lerner, adapted from his book for the 1965 stage production. Film director Vincente Minnelli fuses fantasy with a musical to create an experimental piece extremely left of center- this is not your standard 1950’s or 1960’s MGM experience with merry or clap-along tunes. Some of the more memorable numbers include “On a Clear Day” which is a reprise at the end of the film, “He Isn’t You” and “Love with All the Trimmings”.

Casting Streisand is a monumental choice as she carries the film on her shoulders. Belting out numbers is the singer turned actresses forte and she never disappoints. She is fascinating to watch in the neurotic role as she smokes and prances around, usually in a tizzy or in a state of peril (self-induced). The performance impresses as a different style than many of her other films and she has never portrayed a livelier character. Streisand overcomes a few challenges of the film, winning in spades.

She shares little to no chemistry with co-star Montand who is not only too old for her, but he is not the greatest actor either. If the film’s intent, which I suspect, was to make the pair the main draw then this failed. Streisand’s chemistry with John Richardson, who plays Sir Robert Tentrees to her Melinda in the other time-period, excites. The duo smolders with passion but sadly, most of the nineteenth century scenes are the ones that are sacrificed making most of it a jumbled mess. Much more interesting would have been to leave the entire film intact.

An oddity is Jack Nicholson’s almost nonexistent role of Tad Pringle, a mostly non-described brother of Daisy’s. Is he also her neighbor?  In 1970 Nicholson was only on the cusp of super-stardom and questionable is whether some of his role was left on the cutting-room floor, but the limited character is strange and unsatisfying. In another role there would have been some possibility of a romantic entanglement.

Throughout the duration of the film I wondered how On a Clear Day You Can See Forever might have worked with someone other than Streisand in the roles. I kept ruminating how good Liza Minnelli might have been in the roles with her non-classic looks (like Streisand) and bombastic voice. Her high dramatic flair and capable New York style would have made results interesting, but Streisand hits it out of the park.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) is a brave attempt at something fantastical, brimming with potential that is left feeling cluttered and messy. With a delicious leading lady whom the camera adores and enough creative sets and rigorous energy to keep one guessing, the film stumbles with many problems and leaves viewers incomplete.

Free Solo-2018

Free Solo-2018

Director-Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Starring-Alex Honnold

Scott’s Review #920

Reviewed July 17, 2019

Grade: B

Free Solo (2018) is a documentary that takes a standard approach style, offering a traditional, yet informative piece about the perils and triumphs of rock climbing. More precisely, termed “free soloing”, a dangerous feat involving the lack of ropes or any safety harnesses, one false misstep can (and has) resulted in death. The film balances a nice humanistic approach of the featured daredevil with his girlfriend and camera crew’s individual perspectives.

Having personally scolded the Oscar Academy (in my own mind anyway) for omitting the wonderful Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) from the five documentary nominees, a “WTF” moment on nomination day, Free Solo would not be my choice as the winner, with RBG getting the honor from the choices provided. RBG is the more timelier and more important of the bunch, given the current state of United States political affairs, but nonetheless Free Solo was crowned the champion.

The likable young man at the forefront of the feature is Alex Honnold, a modest athlete from the west coast, United States, in his early twenties.  He has a low-key, almost morose personality and is his own person, shunning organized holidays like Halloween because he “doesn’t want someone else telling him when to have fun”. He is thoughtful and introspective and even a bit odd having sought climbing at a young age and never looking back.

Apparent is how he is not necessarily seeking the fame and fortune but has nonetheless become respected in his chosen profession, explaining that it is more a calling than any attempt to show off or boast of his achievements. As he admits to always wanting to climb the dangerously steep and world-famous rock, the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without a rope, he is also concerned about the pressure of performing for camera crews and the responsibility that entails. The documentary stresses this point as Alex bails from the climb on his first attempt.

Throughout the documentary, the film-makers choose to focus on tidbits of story around his loved ones, specifically his girlfriend and mother, offering their perspectives of his dangerous activities. This is a nice added touch and gives heart and layers to the story making it more humanistic than simply watching an unknown person rock climb for an hour and a half. The audience gets to know Alex throughout the piece therefore making us care more about the peril he goes through as he attempts to triumph.

The production is superlative and quite engaging especially throughout the climbing sequences. Vast shots of the amazing views from the giant rock are plentiful and astounding making the viewer feel as if he or she is also climbing the treacherous monument but breathing a sigh of relief when realizing the safety of a sofa or chair is the preferred option. Seriously though, the camera work is a huge appeal of Free Solo and undoubtedly the primary reason it won the Oscar statuette.

The negatives to Free Solo are only slight and perhaps due to my own lack of appeal of rock climbing. During the documentary I kept asking myself why on earth Alex would attempt to achieve the feat and what possible purpose it would serve. From that angle, my attention tended to wander from time to time so the people with passion for adventurous experiences would be the target audience.

Secondly, there was nary a doubt in my mind that the final moments would result in Alex successfully reaching the pinnacle of his career safely despite the concerns of the crew that he could fall to his death at any moment. Sensible reasoning assured me the project would not have been released if tragedy had occurred.

Free Solo (2018) offers a solid and conventional documentary with enough outdoor sequences amid the standard interviews to satisfy all. The finale, while predictable in showing Alex’s successful climb to Mount, is photographed exceptionally well and professional in spirit. The documentary suffers from some predictability issues and a lack of any real cliffhanger (pun intended) but feels fresh and celebrates the human spirit in a big way.

Bad Times at the El Royale-2018

Bad Times at the El Royale-2018

Director-Drew Goddard

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #919

Reviewed July 10, 2019

Grade: A-

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), directed by Drew Goddard, known for crafting the horror film The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a gem crossing multiple genres with sound results. With Bad Times, he assumes writing and production duties for the thriller and steals a page from the Quentin Tarantino playbook, most notably from The Hateful Eight (2015). The resulting feature is clever, perverse and mysterious, with a fantastic, edge-of-your-seat experience, and a must-see for Tarantino fans.

Set in 1969, the film focuses on seven strangers of differing backgrounds who make their way to a seedy and remote hotel on the California/Nevada border. Each harbors his or her share of dark secrets, which culminates during a deadly and macabre showdown one dark and stormy night. In many ways each character is seeking redemption or forgiveness for a past indiscretion or is otherwise protecting someone or something else. A large sum of money is also in play for the greedier characters to tussle over.

The seven players are as follows: Jeff Bridges plays catholic priest Donald “Dock” O’Kelly, Cynthia Erivo plays struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet, and Dakota Johnson portrays Emily Summerspring, a hippie trying to save her younger sister, Rose, who is devoted to and mesmerized by sadistic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Finally, Jon Hamm plays Dwight Broadbeck, a vacuum salesman who may have a secret identity, and hotel clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who runs the hotel alone.

As events roll along the complexities of the characters grow and grow, which is my favorite aspect of the film. There are so many twists and turns involving the characters back stories and motivations that surprises are in store. Some characters have strange connections to each other, others meet for the first time resulting in their lives intersecting in interesting ways.

The dynamic between all the actors work tremendously well with the standouts being Bridges and Erivo, who share tremendous chemistry and are the most interesting characters, to mention get the most screen time. During their lengthy scenes together, their characters forge a bond while never completely trusting each other. Erivo, as Darlene, gets to showcase her wonderful singing voice, the grand hotel room sequence as she belts out “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You”) is the highlight. Old and maligned with memory loss Bridges is successful at granting more sympathy to his character than he deserves.

The film loses momentum towards the end with the introduction of the miscast Hemsworth, pretty but not the greatest acting talent. The actor over acts, playing Billy Lee as sinister and one-dimensional rather than infusing any complexities into the character, which doesn’t work. A better casting choice (and Tarantino mainstays) would have been Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt, either actor assuredly bringing more depth to the role.

Comparisons to both The Hateful Eight and the comedy Clue (1985) must be made. Like the former, Goddard divides the film into chapters, mostly entitled as the hotel room numbers. With each subsequent room the events going on in that room and its inhabitants are explored. As in both films he brings several mysterious characters with connections, together. Like in Clue, secret passageways which lead to various parts of a building are featured, offering layers of possibilities.

The hotel itself is styled and dressed brilliantly, nearly a character with glossy decal, shiny trimmings but with a solemn and melancholy gloominess.  The establishment has seen its share of heartbreak, schemes, and even death. Clever is the division of the hotel in either the “California” section, sunny and cheerful, or the less posh “Nevada” section, purple and costing one dollar less. The viewer is sucked into its web within the first sequence when a man is shown hiding money under the floorboards and then subsequently shot to death.

Despite justifiably being labeled as a Tarantino rip-off, this does not bother me as I was enthralled with the characters, the details, and the vast nuances offered to me. Unfortunately, the film was a box-office disappointment, suffering from lack of awards buzz and a lofty running-time. Bad Times at El Royale (2018) will entertain, intrigue, and keep one guessing up until the credits roll. Be prepared for a bloody good time!

Imitation of Life-1959

Imitation of Life-1959

Director-Douglas Sirk

Starring-Lana Turner, Annie Johnson

Scott’s Review #918

Reviewed July 9, 2019

Grade: A-

Based on the original film production made in 1934, which was based on a 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life (1959) is a relevant dissection of race relations, class systems, and gender roles, all of which still feel timely decades later. The film is a fresh, progressive and brazen effort that sometimes teeters too much into soap-opera land but is nonetheless an important story to be exposed to. The dynamics between the central characters in deliciously raw scenes is the greatest part of the film.

Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is a widowed, stylish New York woman with dreams of becoming a Broadway star. One day she meets a lovely black woman, Annie Johnson (Moore), on the beach, and the women become fast friends, each having a daughter around the same age. The women decide to move in together for financial reasons and to further Lora’s chances for success in the entertainment industry. Lora begins a casual romance with handsome Steve Archer (John Gavin).

Eleven years pass, and Lora is now a big star, residing in a luxurious house in New York and flocking to film locales in Italy. Annie continues to live with her, serving as housekeeper and confidante. The girls are now teenagers with issues of their own. Susie (Sandra Dee) has developed feelings for her mother’s boyfriend while Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), of mixed-race ethnicity, is ashamed of her black heritage and frequently is able to pass for white. The trials and tribulations of all are played out throughout the film.

Imitation of Life has two key distinctions and focuses on each both separately. Since the timing of the story is said to be 1947 and the picture released in 1959, before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the racial story is very poignant and truthful and the main draw of the film. Sarah Jane is embarrassed to be black and her eventual abandonment of both her life in New York and of her mother can be deemed reprehensible if not for the times. Her regrets come too little too late but Kohner nonetheless infuses much sympathy into her complex role.

The second main aspect of Imitation of Life is more mainstream and dramatic, easily more accessible to the public than the former, and a main reason why the film was misunderstood or even dismissed by some as too melodramatic. Lora is glamorous and well-dressed, always stylish and poised and soon Susie begins to grow jealous and resentful of Lora’s achievements and the attention she receives from men at every turn. This invokes a female rivalry that is pure 1950’s Hollywood glitz and seems manipulative and naughty, using bright colors, dazzling costumes and flair to promote the excess drama.

As tremendous as Kohner is, Juanita Moore knocks it out of the park and does the best acting job out of all the principal performers. Her frequent dramatic scenes are filled with emotional bombast without the actress ever going over-the-top. Rather, she keeps her composure, earning her well-earned Best Actress Oscar nomination if for no other scene than the heartbreaking mother/daughter showdown in a California hotel room.

When Moore’s Annie is mistaken for Sarah Jane’s maid instead of her own mother, the pain and worry can plainly be seen on her face as she realizes she has lost what she knew of her daughter for good. She returns to New York an old woman with a broken heart and spirit, both defeated and deflated. The last sequence is tough to watch as tragedy results and a coldness encompasses the film.

Interesting to note is the prevalence of more than one suitor for Lora, and the implication is that she could have up to three if including her agent Allen and playwright David, while Annie has none. This point is slightly irksome and a missed opportunity as a male companion for Annie, or at least the potential for one, might have changed her life forever. The film is true to the novel but how wonderful to imagine Annie being treated to a nicer life while finding true love.

Imitation of Life (1959) is a film treasure with subtle and not so subtle nuances and bold, powerful story-telling enveloping the entire experience. Suffering a bit from a sometimes too sudsy mass appeal approach, and too much focus on melodrama, the film nonetheless does not abandon its social issues theme especially given the harsh treatment of minorities during this period. No other film deals with the psychological turmoil of mixed-race like Imitation of Life does.

Do Not Disturb-1965

Do Not Disturb-1965

Director-Ralph Levy

Starring-Doris Day, Rod Taylor

Scott’s Review #917

Reviewed July 8, 2019

Grade: C+

Singer and actress Doris Day, in large part, put her stamp on the romantic comedy genre, such that it was, during the 1960’s becoming synonymous with wholesome film characters with spunk and charm but always wearing sensible shoes. Do Not Disturb (1965) is a lightweight, forgettable work that offers a silly premise and a juvenile script with meandering plot thrown in for good measure. The film is saved somewhat by the interesting locales of London and Kent England, but for those seeking better quality ought to seek out the gems The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or Pillow Talk (1959).

Day and Rod Taylor star as Janet and Mike Harper, an American couple who relocate to England as part of a transfer for the company he works for. They immediately disagree over where to live; Mike prefers the excitement of London, but Janet favors the rustic quality of Kent. After she gets them a house thirty miles outside of London, the plan backfires when the couple grow further apart due to Mike’s need to commute to London every day. Lonesome and isolated, Janet worries incessantly that Mike is having an affair with his new secretary, Claire Hackett (Maureen McGiveney).

Prompted by her busybody landlord, Vanessa Courtwright (Hermione Baddeley), Janet meets an Italian antiques dealer, Paul Bellari (Sergio Fantoni), who she hires to redecorate her house. With Mike spending more time with Claire and Janet and Paul in equally close quarters, the hi-jinks begin. Janet and Mike may be innocent, but Paul and Claire could have designs on their potential mates especially as the foursome begin to face one compromising situation after another.

The heart of an authentic romantic comedy is good, old-fashioned chemistry between the leads and Taylor and Day exhibit adequate sparkle but hardly sizzle. Mediocrity in the setup and writing can be forgiven if other elements like crackling moments exist, but those are scarcities in Do Not Disturb. Some Like it Hot (1959) embodies a great comedy with romantic wrappings featuring fantastic leads Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, but the former does not come anywhere close to finding its footing amid cliche after cliche.

To further on the above note, the film is plot driven and heavy on story-dictated situations rather than on character development, and the ending is predictable. With most of the jokes either falling completely flat or feeling distinctly canned and cheap the laughs never catch on. During a tepid sequence, Janet and Paul go to a remote town to check out antiques where she winds up drinking too much bubbly, becoming drunk and foolhardy. In what should have been the comic high point of the film instead does very little to further the plot or flesh out the characters.

Director, Ralph Levy makes little effort to steer the film anywhere other than a slick mainstream “affair” despite the release year being 1965 when more edgy works were replacing the polished and the tried and true. Rather than dare to go to a less than cheery place and perhaps decide to have Janet or Mike cheat on their significant others, Levy chooses not to go there instead attempting to satisfy those seeking a happily-ever-after wrapping.

Not to be over-saturated with negativity, Do Not Disturb features wonderful and stunning locale sequences of bustling metropolitan London and quaint English cottages and wilderness, oozing with as much culture and sophistication as down-home comforts and rich flavor. The combination of an American couple thrust into a different setting with a new set of rules and regulations to follow makes the film fun in this regard and offers a sprinkle of good scenery.

Do Not Disturb (1965) is a mid-1960’s mainstream release buried among nests of other similar themed but better written films. Even appealing and bankable stars of the time like Taylor and Day could not succeed in spicing up tired gimmicks and plot devices. The film will forever be relegated to the romantic comedy shelves teetering on the brink of obscurity.

Spider-Man: Far From Home-2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home-2019

Director-Jon Watts

Starring-Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson

Scott’s Review #916

Reviewed July 5, 2019

Grade: B

Having not seen the first two installments of the latest Spider-Man franchise nor with any prior knowledge of The Avengers franchise, or the cross-sectional connections of the characters to other films, I walked into Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) with little expectations and admittedly limited understanding of the Marvel universe altogether. The film is no better or worse than a summer popcorn flick with enough adventure and nice locales to keep a non- super-hero buff entertained for over two hours without fidgeting too much.

The film begins with a nod to a past film where apparently a mysterious “Blip” occurred erasing people for a period of five-years’ time where they then return to normalcy having not aged. Still shots of various Avengers characters including Tony Stark (Iron Man) who have died appear on the screen amid a musical tribute to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) (Tom Holland) still mourns his mentor as he embarks on a two-week European vacation with his classmates as part of a school trip. He plans to confess his love for MJ (Zendaya) atop the Eifel Tower in Paris.

Peter’s Aunt May (now reduced in age and sexy with the casting of Marisa Tomei) quickly packs his Spider-Man suit as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a former director of S.H.I.E.L.D. attempts to enlist Peter’s help on a mission and provide him with Stark’s special glasses, named E.D.I.T.H. which possess all the databases of Stark Industries. Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a master of Illusions is recruited to help Spider-Man and serve as a cool Uncle figure. These events all happen as Peter travels abroad.

The film is undeniably light and fun, with a bright and safe ambiance. The perilous scenes are not scary nor particularly dangerous despite characters being at the risk of death. The teen romance angle enhances this assessment as it is a main component of the film, even as much as the adventure and super-hero antics are. Even prior to the teen classmates traversing throughout Europe, a triangle between Peter, MJ and Peter’s hunky, high school football rival develops, as does love at thirty-five thousand feet between lovebirds Ned and Betty Brant.

Tom Holland is very well cast in the lead role and is charismatic and believable.  Charming with a youthful innocence, he is part nerd and part hero, but at always empathetic and benevolent without this feeling forced. As a viewer unfamiliar with the first two chapters, I was immediately catapulted into his world of teen angst, romance, and his responsibility of saving the world. The young actor could have a fine future ahead of him if he avoids any typecasting and chooses good roles.

The guts of the film, meaning the action sequences and the standard genre elements, are palpable and worthy of admiration on their own merits. The visual effects are tremendous and crowd-pleasing, especially whenever Mysterio is involved. With a twisting, tornado-like blue and green swirling motion he flies in and out of sequences with enough pizzazz to put the Wicked Witch of the West to shame. Similarly, the gusty unnatural storm, Earth Elemental, and the dangerous Fire, provide magical and atmospheric power that help the look of the film.

Comedy rather than dark and foreboding scenes are what the film-makers seem to be going for with this project. As class trip chaperones and the student’s teachers, the comic duo of Julius Dell and Roger Harrington trade barbs with themselves and the kids, part bumbling and part incompetent, always offering comic moments of relief. When Harold “Happy” Hogan becomes smitten with Aunt May, his awkwardness is cute and fresh rather than sappy and cliched. The supporting characters have stuff to do but I would have preferred a bit more darkness or gloominess.

The sequences that rise Spider-Man: Far from Home above mediocrity are the wonderful and plentiful European scenes, a feast of riches for this fan of world travel and culture. The canals of Venice and the magnificence of Prague are nearly rivaled by the sophistication of London and the history of Berlin. Sadly, the film does not culminate in Paris as I had hoped and was hinted at, causing a slight hiccup in my vicarious travel pleasures.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) is a film perfectly crafted for summer and fittingly was viewed on a scorching hot July day. The film is not a masterpiece, sticking to a formula tried and true, and limiting the dangerous possibilities when one threatens to destroy the world in favor of humor. The cast is likable, the villain compelling, and the romance showcases more than just the main couple, being careful not to limit the cash cow of special effects and adventure the film heavily provides.

First Man-2018

First Man-2018

Director-Damian Chazelle

Starring-Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy

Scott’s Review #915

Reviewed July 4, 2019

Grade: B+

First Man (2018) is a re-teaming of efforts by director Damian Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling, hot on the heels of the 2016 critical and commercial smash hit La La Land. The former could not be more different the latter and the direction unrecognizable for those expecting a comparison. First Man is a mainstream Hollywood production with good camerawork and an edgy quality.  The necessary full-throttle action approach is interspersed nicely with a personal family story and humanistic spin that is never too sappy nor forced.

The focus of the story is on Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and the events leading up to the historic Apollo 11 mission which resulted in the him being the first United States astronaut to walk on the moon. Buzzy Aldrin (Corey Stoll), the second man to walk on the moon is featured to a lesser degree and his character is portrayed as self-centered and difficult though screen time is limited. The overall message is of the triumphs and the costs to families, the astronauts and the country during an already tumultuous decade in history.

Events of the film begin in 1961 as we see Armstrong as a young NASA test pilot suffering mishaps due to his personal problems and culminates in 1969 after the successful mission concludes. Chazelle wisely balances human and personal scenes with the inevitable rocket take-offs and outer space problems that the astronauts face.  Both segments turn out well and keep the action moving, allowing for tender moments between the characters especially showcasing the relationship between Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Lacking (thankfully) are the scenes of machismo or “guy talk” that sometimes accompany films in this genre.

During one of the first scenes the audience quickly witnesses the couple’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Karen retching and suffering from learning disabilities only to quickly die from a brain tumor forever destroying the couple. This important aspect reoccurs as Neil imagines his daughter playing with neighborhood kids and enjoying life. In a wonderful moment he tearfully drops Karen’s tiny bracelet into a giant crater in the hopes of always keeping her memory alive. These additions give the film a character driven quality.

Worthy of analysis before and after viewing the film is the decision of the young director to tackle such a project, heartily appealing to the mainstream audience undoubtedly in mind. Legendary director Clint Eastwood was originally slated to direct and the historically rich story seems right up his alley. Interesting to wonder is if during the 1990’s Tom Hanks might have been cast in the role of Armstrong during his younger days, playing a similar role in Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13.

Well-known character actors appear in supporting roles fleshing out the production and further adding name and face recognition. Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Ciaran Hinds appear as astronauts or various NASA Chiefs. Viewers who may not be able to name the actors will certainly recognize them as actors seen in other features. This only brings First Man to the big leagues with a hearty and talented central cast.

Gosling and Foy are the main draw and both actors were mentioned as possibilities for Oscar nominations throughout awards season, but a slot in the big race did not come to fruition. While the film drew a couple of nominations for Best Editing and Best Score, a Best Picture nomination was not to be, probably due to the film not being as big a blockbuster success as expected. The film is also more brooding and less patriotic than a Howard or Eastwood production would have been.

To expand on this, First Man came under attack by Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and President Donald Trump for Chazelle’s decision to omit any mention of the famous planting of the American Flag on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. Chazelle refused to admit this was any sort of political statement, instead insisting he chose to focus more on the lesser known aspects of the moon landing rather than facts that everybody already knew.

Youngster Damian Chazelle proves a multi-faceted director by changing course and creating a historic biopic much different from a story of singing and dancing in Los Angeles. He proves to be no one-trick pony and gets the job done, creating a brave and robust effort that does not limit action at the hands of humanity, successfully weaving a good dose of both. First Man (2018) may not be a classic in the making but deserves to be seen.

Touch of Evil-1958

Touch of Evil-1958

Director-Orson Welles

Starring-Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh

Scott’s Review #914

Reviewed July 2, 2019

Grade: A

Touch of Evil (1958) is a film noir directed by the legendary influential Hollywood director, Orson Welles. The film contains suspense, drama and mystery, but is to be praised largely for its use of visual treats to enhance the cinematic experience. The dark and foreboding thriller was revolutionary for the time of release and influenced many films of similar ilk in the years to come. Robust and fraught with tension, the experience is marvelous and worthy of study for its many nuances.

Welles not only directs the work but also stars in and writes the screenplay, so his entire being is invested in the production and execution. Known mostly for the legendary Citizen Kane (1940), a film that arguably changed the course of cinema with its direction and cinematography, Touch of Evil explores a different genre entirely but keeps the superlative aspects of Welles’s loftier film, including black and white, intact, resulting in a grand and dangerous crime infused classic. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson.

The tension is ample from the onset as the humidity-drenched Mexico-United States border is the focal point. A car driven by a young couple is laced with a bomb and detonates as soon as they cross the into U.S. territory. In a hint of irony, Newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot prior to the explosion. An investigation ensues with the introduction of other characters, including Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon), District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) and police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), with a prime suspect being Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim’s daughter.

Typical in the film noir genre, events are not what they seem as layers of plot slowly unravel. The heavyset and disheveled Captain nostalgically visits a brothel run by Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who barely recognizes him because he’s gained so much weight since their last meeting.  Vargas forsakes his bride to spearhead the investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Quinlan and the duo begin to feud. Could Quinlan or Vargas have something to do with the car bombing, or could other supporting characters be either behind or involved in the shenanigans. This is a great part of Touch of Evil as the film leaves the viewer guessing.

Heston and Leigh smolder as the lead couple and their chemistry is apparent from the first scene in which they appear together. Sexy and mysterious, she hunkers down in a dump fraught with peril, while he attempts to solve the crime and keep his girl safe. Outside factors play heavy roles in keeping the lovers apart and although Heston playing a Mexican man is quite the stretch, the audience will nestle comfortably into the events as they reveal deeper layers.

Wells, once a handsome man, is not afraid to let it all hang out as the fat and racist Quinlan becoming one of the great and most complicated screen villains as his true colors emerge. As the film’s title boldly suggests does his character contain complexities that make him evil and keep some sympathies or does he wreak havoc on all he touches with his devious nature only the tip of the iceberg? Viewers will need to await the final act to have several questions answered as motivations are finally revealed.

Touch of Evil (1958) gave delicious and pulsating material to film makers clever enough to study its intricacies, most notably Roman Polanski for Chinatown (1974). Nuggets were also thrown the way of Alfred Hitchcock who got the idea for Leigh to appear in Psycho (1960) two years later, catapulting her character’s alone in a hotel peril, mixing in a weird hotel clerk. The power the film had to hatch other great films from its ingenuity are the most fun parts of watching it again and again.