Cabaret-1972

Cabaret-1972

Director-Bob Fosse

Starring-Liza Minnelli, Michael York

Scott’s Review #975

Reviewed December 31, 2019

Grade: A

If not for the mighty and powerful The Godfather (1972) blocking its path (but who’s complaining?), Cabaret (1972), with eight academy award nominations, surely would have won Best Picture in its year of release. The film thus has the dubious honor of receiving the most nominations of all time without whisking away the ultimate trophy, but no matter, Oscars are not everything. The production, acting, and story are inventive and envelope pushing, both serious and fun, and proof that 1972 was one of the greatest years in cinema.

The story envelopes a circle of friends enjoying the decadence and jovial nature of the decade, although they have their struggles. Energetic Kit Kat Klub performer, Sally Bowles (Minnelli) takes a shine to British scribe, Brian (Michael York) when he moves in to her boarding house. Despite having night and day personalities, they become deeply bonded and best friends. Rich playboy baron, Maximilian (Helmut Griem) woos the pair with money and travel and beds each of them separately, eventually dumping them both.

In a supporting yet important subplot, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper) is a German Jew passing himself off as a Protestant. He falls madly in love with Natalia (Marisa Berenson), a gorgeous and authentic German Jewish heiress. Their love story is comic relief, but a dangerous aspect of the film given the foreboding political events. The safety of the cabaret serves as a haven while the outlandish Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) appears throughout the film performing risque numbers.

Adapted from the popular Broadway stage show, the musical drama is set in 1930’s Berlin, and the story begins in 1931. Historians will realize that the decade of the 1930’s Germany was frightening, giving rise to the deadly and hated Nazi Party. While the film never goes full-fledged dark, there are snippets of beatings and ridicule at the hands of the Nazis, powerful stuff and tough to take, especially given the Jewish religion of some of the principals.

Liza Minnelli has never had a better role as she simply becomes Sally. The character is vivacious, zesty, and emotional and Minnelli dives in head first and wins viewers hearts. Beneath her bubbly exterior Sally is wounded, yearning for love and peace of mind. She pretends that she is close with her wealthy father, but this is far from the truth. The most powerful scene is when a pregnant Sally comes to terms with the heart-wrenching decision to abort the baby.

For both the time-period setting, the 1930’s, and the year the film was made, 1972, the sexuality dynamic is powerful and worth a nod. Brian, openly bi-sexual, and in a different time certainly gay, is a great character. He beds Sally more out of friendship than anything else, while delving into an admiration (or a lusting) for suave and dashing Maximilian. The fact that his sexuality is embraced and explored is to be celebrated and respected. It’s also a damned interesting part of the film.

Of course, Cabaret being a musical, the performance numbers are superlative. With gorgeous choreography by director, Bob Fosse, (and who would expect anything less from the seasoned artist), the sets and costumes are stylish. The conclusion, featuring “Cabaret”, is done in a grand way as Sally performs on stage with precision and bombast. “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time” are also dynamic favorites.

Cabaret (1972) is a spirited, intelligent experience, never glossing over the historical period, nor assuming viewers are too dumb to have a handle on those events. The film plays best to smart audiences able to appreciate artistic merit and enjoy the robust musical numbers. In a careful way, the film is designed to never shy away from the crucial Nazi power that was creeping up and leading to a generation of despair and repercussions.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Bob Fosse (won), Best Actress-Liza Minnelli (won), Best Supporting Actor-Joel Grey (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Scoring: Adaptation and Original Song Score (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

Silent Night, Deadly Night-1984

Silent Night, Deadly Night-1984

Director-Charles E. Sellier Jr.

Starring-Robert Brian Wilson, Gilmer McCormick

Scott’s Review #974

Reviewed December 30, 2019

Grade: B

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) is a fun, holiday-themed horror/slasher flick that is cheery mayhem in the spirit of the season, and a worthy addition to any horror fans collection. The film is best watched late at night for appropriate effect, and obvious to view around the holiday that it celebrates. It would make a great companion piece to Black Christmas (1974), clearly a superior film, but both containing eerily similar musical scores, the former updated with electronic beats for the 1980’s.

The horror film was met with ridicule and protest upon release for the promotion of a killer Santa Claus, despite the story being slightly overreacted to and not interpreted correctly. The “real Santa Claus does not perform the slayings, but rather a mentally unstable young man dressed in the red suit does the dirty deeds. Nonetheless, the film was unceremoniously yanked from theaters after parents expressed fear that their kids might be traumatized by the film. Silent Night, Deadly Night has graduated to cult-classic status and is entertaining, perhaps embracing its derision instead of running from it.

The action begins in rural Utah in 1971, as the Chapman family drives to a retirement home to see their catatonic grandfather. When left alone, the elder warns five-year-old Billy to fear Santa Claus, which his parents disbelieve. On their way home, they stop along the roadside to help a man dressed as Santa Claus, whose car appears to have broken down. The man robs and kills the parents, sparing Billy and his brother from death. Three years later Billy and Ricky reside in an orphanage led by the sadistic Mother Superior, and a kindly nun, Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick).

Ten years later (present times), the now grown Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is benevolent and friendly, obtaining a job as a stock boy at a toy store with the help of Sister Margaret. As Christmas Eve approaches, Billy has flashbacks of his parents murders and later is forced to play Santa Claus for the Christmas party when a co-worker falls ill. As the staff become inebriated, a female co-worker is nearly raped causing Billy to go berserk and kill both the assailant and the victim who blames Billy. He then spends the night prowling the area for victims he can stab or behead.

Fun is the name of the game with Silent Night, Deadly Night. The film is to be enjoyed and is a macabre treat for slasher fans. The kills are respectable with the traditional methods used- an ax to the head and a bow and arrow death, along with more elaborate deaths like strangling with a chain of Christmas lights, and a bare-chested female victim being impaled on a moose head. The highlight is the beheading of a mean teenage bully as he gleefully sleighs down a hill on a stolen sled.

Plenty of gratuitous bare chests (female) common in these types of films are in store for the lusty male viewer, but a nude male is glimpsed as well to make for some R-rated diversity. Par for the course with slasher films made decades ago are the omission of cultural diversity. Not one Black, Latin, or Asian character is ever seen. The pure as snow Utah setting might be one justification.

If one were to attempt to analyze Silent Night, Deadly Night (not recommended) one can deduce a specific religious message or at least a questioning of Catholicism, specifically the harshness of Mother Superior and her interpretation of punishment being good and implemented in the name of god. Or maybe she is just a sadistic character? In perfect contrast, Sister Margaret is loving, protective, and nurturing to the orphans. Whatever the intention of the film makers, humor is the recipe as the strictness and rigidity are played for laughs.

Proper for any horror film, the final scene leaves room for a sequel. Indeed, there were four follow-up films made with the younger Ricky taking over as the serial killer. In satisfying form, Ricky glares at Mother Superior and exclaims “naughty!” before the credits roll. The unrated version of Silent Night, Deadly Night is the preferred version to watch.

Pull up the covers, light the fire, and kick back with a six-pack of Bud lite, roast some marshmallows, and enjoy Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) for what it is. Bad acting, sins of the flesh, and a delightful holiday slaughter with unintentional (or intentional) humor and cliched characters make for robust enjoyment on a light-weight scale.

8 1/2-1963

8 1/2-1963

Director-Federico Fellini

Starring-Marcelo Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale

Scott’s Review #973

Reviewed December 27, 2019

Grade: A-

For fans of acclaimed and experimental Italian film director, Federico Fellini, a clear plot is rarely the recipe of the day with his projects. With 8 1/2 (1963) he creates a personal and autobiographical story of a movie director pressured into another project but lacking creative ideas and inspiration to fulfill the task. We can all relate to this in one way or another.

The film is confusing, beautiful, elegant, and dreamlike, exactly what one would expect of a Fellini production. His film also hints at a deeper message and complexities. The recommendation is to experience the film rather than analyze or worse yet, over-analyze it, simply letting it marinate over time and relish in the offerings.

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a famous Italian film director suffering from director’s block after he is tasked with, and attempts to direct, an epic science fiction film. Experiencing marital difficulties, he decides to spend time at a luxurious spa where he has strange reoccurring visions of a beautiful woman (Claudia Cardinale), is visited by his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), and is berated by a temperamental film critic.

When Guido’s film crew arrives at his hotel in the hopes of starting production, he becomes overwhelmed by the mounting pressures and escapes into a world of memories. He visits his grandmother, dances with a prostitute, and relives his time at a strict Catholic school. Attempts to add these memories to his new film are dismissed by the film critic. The rest of the film is a mish mash of odd occurrences as Guido attempts to make his film.

Fans of Fellini’s other works will undoubtedly fall in love with 8 1/2, and since the film is about film this scores points in my book. His other famous works like Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973) are similarly semi-auto biographical but differ in that they are more straightforward stories- as much as can be said about a Fellini film. Usually lacking much plot 8 1/2 resembles Juliet and the Spirits (1965) more than the others for comparisons sake. Fantasy and reality are interspersed, making the film tough to follow.

It appears to be about a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown and is a complex and personal study. As Guido spirals out of control and teetering towards insanity, he also muses about his situation. These highs and lows told in a comical fashion make 8 1/2 even more difficult to figure out and react to.

My previous suggestion to simply experience 8 1/2 achieves credibility as the film rolls along. Viewers may be unsure of what is happening, if not downright perplexed by the whole thing, but there is an energy that pulls one into its clutches with masterful sequences and potent embraces of life, loves, and culture. This must be attributed to the look and style of the film.

8 1/2 won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design (black-and-white) and is considered a highly respected and influential work of art by most film critics. Appreciated mostly for its beautiful cinematography, it also delves into the meaning of life with a live and let live approach.

Lovers of avant-garde works of interpretation and expressionism will be giddy with delight while experiencing ruminating thoughts following 8 1/2 (1963). Having only seen the film once and embraced it wholly as a work of art, but frustrated by the lack of tangible meaning, my own advice is to see the film a second, a third, or even a fourth time for a deeper appreciation and understanding. I plan to heed my own suggestion.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-Federico Fellini, Best Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Foreign Language Film (won), Best Art Direction, Black-and-White, Best Costume Design, Black-and-White

Bombshell-2019

Bombshell-2019

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #972

Reviewed December 26, 2019

Grade: B+

Bombshell (2019) is the type of the film that depending on your political affiliation, you will either refuse to see, or see and have a love/hate reaction to. As a non-lover of “news” network Fox News I am firmly ensconced in the latter camp, so my opinion of the film is mixed. The importance of releasing the film in the time of political turmoil during 2019 is crucial and intentional, which is why I commend the film but the subject matter of sexual harassment against women is difficult to watch and a sobering reminder that this behavior continues to occur.

The performances of the principle players- Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Kate McKinnon, and John Lithgow are wonderful and key to the film’s power. Theron and Lithgow receive the lion’s share of makeup and prosthetic work, making them look identical to their real-life counterparts. Beneficial are a myriad of Fox News political figure portrayals (Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Bill O’Reilly) with frighteningly good accuracy creating a surreal effect.

The film centers on female Fox News personnel in Manhattan and their sexual harassment allegations against founder Roger Ailes (Lithgow). The central figure- Megyn Kelly (Theron) is conflicted over the risks to both her career and her financial stability if she comes forward and admits her own harassment by Ailes years ago after Gretchen Carlson sues the network. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a young Fox employee, who is also harassed by Ailes.  McKinnon plays closeted lesbian and confidante to Kayla, who works for the network despite being liberal and a huge admirer of Hillary Clinton.

The plot is fast-paced and plays out like a quick page-turner, with some of it narrated by Kelly. Bombshell feels timely and has a distinct “ripped from the headlines” makeup. The fact that the real-life events occurred as recent as 2016 is an unmistakable aspect that will grip the viewer, especially those who follow United States politics or current events. The story is fresh and vibrant with familiarity, not a story from an event decades ago that many viewers have forgotten or were too young to remember.

I had difficulty feeling much sympathy for most of the characters which knocks the film down a notch. The standard definition that the term “Fox News” usually conjures is one of male chauvinism and the good old boys club with old fashioned machismo ruling the roost. Why would any woman choose to work for them or align themselves with the Conservative party which is not a fan of women or women’s rights? With this fact in mind, it was difficult for me to watch the film.

To build on this, CEO Roger Ailes is written as the clear villain with no redeeming value. During one scene, he salivates over Kayla when she visits him in his office and instructs her to lift her skirt higher and twirl for him. The scene is sickening, and we feel Kayla’s embarrassment and humiliation. In a cheer out loud moment at the end of the film, she ups and quits, unable to remain in such a corrupt corporation.

One of the only likable characters is Jess Carr (McKinnon), probably fictitious. Hardly fitting the mold of the female staff, not perky or showing leg, she goes out for drinks with Kayla and admits to being gay, the two ending up having a one-night stand. The character is unique, and McKinnon makes wise acting choices. Worth mentioning is Ailes’s long-time secretary Faye (Holland Taylor). Surely, she has knowledge of the antics that go on in her boss’s office, but she almost serves as an accomplice. Why?

Sad to realize is that as recent as 2016, women were still having to face discrimination in the workplace. Industries with powerful men still can be toxic and poisonous to women attempting to climb the ranks. If the women harassed at Fox News were not top anchors there is no way the accusations would have even been heard. What about the receptionists, the cleaning staff, or the admins who are harassed? Would anyone listen to them? This message crossed my mind while watching Bombshell.

With fantastic acting and incredible makeup, time will tell if Bombshell (2019) remains a relevant film. Leaving the viewer with an unsatisfying ending rather than a hopeful one, it is tough to sympathize with most of the characters even when supposed to. Bombshell would make a perfect companion piece to Vice (2018), a similar political, yet superior film.

A Passage to India-1984

A Passage to India-1984

Director-David Lean

Starring-Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft

Scott’s Review #971

Reviewed December 24, 2019

Grade: A-

David Lean, famous for his sweeping, masterpiece epics including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), returns with his swan song, a grandiose and lavish film, A Passage to India (1984). Though not quite on the same level as the two other mentions, the brilliant cinematography alone makes this one a winner. The story is compelling with a mystery and a he said/she said rape story that deepens, exploring racism and religion, assuredly switching viewer allegiances between characters.

A Passage to India is based on the famous E.M. Forster novel from 1924. Along with A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), the three makes up a series that examines class differences and hypocrisy among the British. All three are set at least partially in England and were all adapted to film with immeasurable success. While the film is potent and meaningful, it is the least brilliant of the three, but only by a hair.

Set in the 1920’s, the British had control over India causing some tensions in the air. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) sails from England to India with Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), the mother of her intended bridegroom, who they plan to see when they arrive at their destination. The women have a wonderful relationship and excitedly anticipate their adventure.

After Mrs. Moore meets the kindly Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), becoming enamored and enraptured, the women accompany him to an exploration of ancient caves, along with a guide. When Adela and Ahmed are left alone, she suddenly appears frantic, accusing the Indian Doctor of attempted rape, setting off a blistering scandal that causes public debate and divides the townspeople, culminating in a trial.

The story is naturally the focal point of the film, but not the strongest part. At first left aghast at the accusations hurled at Aziz, by all appearances a wonderful man, the intention is for the viewer to be unclear of what transpires when Aziz and Adela are alone. The events, if any exist, take place off-screen, so we only see a disheveled Adela flee the caves in panic.  The rest is left to the viewers imagination and to wonder what happened. As the truth is eventually revealed, we wonder about the intended motivations and the ramifications the accusations will have on the central characters.

The film is successful at discussing racism and assumptions in an interesting way, leading major characters to disagree. Adela and Mrs. Moore wind up at odds after the events, with Moore refusing to believe Aziz did anything wrong. This is a bold stance to take as the women are good friends and we would assume one would support the other. While Moore is liberal and open-minded, Adela is conservative and buttoned up, making the ideological differences clearer. Did Adela imagine the attack? Did somebody else attack her?

The cinematography is brilliant and the pure excellence of the film. The plentiful exterior scenes are delectable and simmer with beauty within each frame. Since many of them take place in the grandiose mountains or caves the results are exquisite. One can easily sit back and revel in the majestic sequences and many scenes are still and quiet which enhances the effects. As with other Lean epics, advisable is to see this film on the biggest screen known to mankind.

At one-hundred and sixty-four minutes the film is hardly non-stop action, but rather slightly laborious and lumbering. Some parts are a tad too slow, but the payoff is mighty and there is a measure of intrigue throughout, especially once the cave incident occurs. I hate to say the film drags, but perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes could have been shaved off. When Lean is at the helm, a hefty running time is a guarantee.

A Passage to India (1984) is a film by a respected director that culminates a lengthy and inspired career in bold fashion. While not his best film, this should not detract from the excellent experience the film provides. Grandiose sequences and sophisticated style make the film able to be viewed more than once, a marvel for a film released in the lackluster 1980’s.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-David Lean, Best Actress-Judy Davis, Best Supporting Actress-Peggy Ashcroft (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Original Score (won), Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

A League of Their Own-1992

A League of Their Own-1992

Director-Penny Marshall

Starring-Geena Davis, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #970

Reviewed December 18, 2019

Grade: B

Sports films are too often predictable affairs with fairy tale endings. They are also typically male driven. A League of Their Own (1992) is warm and sentimental, and while director Penny Marshall plays it way too sweet and safe for my tastes, there is a measure of feminism that is admirable and a bit different. The cast is well-known and provides professionalism and energy, but the film is little more than mediocre and strikes out towards the end with a far too pretty ending, doing exactly what these genre films normally do. It’s as if Marshall has a great idea, but then decides not to teeter too far left of center.

Beginning in 1988 (present times), elderly Dottie Hinson attends an opening of the new All-American Girls Professional Baseball League exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. She reunites with several of her former teammates and friends, prompting a flashback to 1943, when the main story takes place. With many young men off fighting World War II, the Major League Baseball franchise is at risk. A women’s league is bankrolled which prompts the recruitment of several players, forming the Peaches and the Belles. They face off in the World Series to dramatic effect.

To be fair, the film is nice and welcoming, providing a haven for film goers seeking a solid story and a heartwarming sensibility. The lead actors, Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, respectively the team manager and star player, provide strength and do the best they can with the roles given. During the early 1990’s both were big stars, and while their characters are not romantically linked, their chemistry is zesty. Hanks as Jimmy is a bit predictable and gruff, at first being little more than a male chauvinist, but eventually coming around to respect the women.

For fans of the sport of baseball, the film will be delightful. With enough action scenes on the outdoor diamond to please those fans, one might forget that the teams are made up of women. The demographic sought after is clearly female, but the sunny settings and standard hot dogs, peanuts, and popcorn, result in the film drawing a wholesomeness that should also please men.

The supporting characters are too one-dimensional and cliched. The biggest offenders are the characters of “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell). The pop star, a horrid actress in my opinion, is written way too corny, cracking gum and talking tough, while O’Donnell is intended to be her sidekick. The duo is street smart and grizzled New Yorker’s, but the casting never really works, and the act feels very formulaic, losing its luster very early on.

While Marshall incorporates brief moments of tragedy, one minor character’s husband is killed in action during the war, all the action is safely in the United States, the war serving as more of a backdrop than a major player. More common are syrupy scenes between characters who at first have a miscommunication or misunderstanding, but then forge their way to a close bond. And do we ever really believe Jimmy will not become the women’s biggest fan?

A League of Their Own (1992) is a decent watch and marginally enjoyable in a fluff way. It provides little edginess and could have provided darker story points than it does. Instead it shows a slice of Americana and Apple Pie approach that while not all bad, is not all good either, feeling limited by its own sentimentality. The film could be much worse and possesses characters that the viewer can root for and cheer along with a home run or a safe slide into third base. This is mainly a result of the stellar cast that Marshall presents.

Knives Out-2019

Knives Out-2019

Director-Rian Johnson

Starring-Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig

Scott’s Review #969

Reviewed December 17, 2019

Grade: B+

Knives Out (2019) is a cleverly constructed whodunit, created in a style not too dissimilar from the famous board game, Clue. In fact, this facet is mentioned by one character during a scene in the film. With a hefty cast of film stars both young and old (mostly old), the result is a good time with intelligent writing and surprises and a crowd-pleasing tone. The project is presented by a cast who undoubtedly had a ball during filming. The point of the film is to try and figure out whodunit and why, in perfect murder mystery form.

It is explained through narration that wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has invited his family to flock to his mansion for his eighty-fifth birthday party. The next morning, Harlan’s housekeeper Fran finds him dead, apparently having slit his own throat. An anonymous figure hires private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the situation. When Blanc arrives at the grand estate to interrogate family and friends, tidbits of scandal and intrigue slowly brim to the surface as layers are revealed.

The sizable cast features Hollywood stalwarts like Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda, Harlan’s daughter), Don Johnson (Richard, Harlan’s son-in-law, and Linda’s husband), Chris Evans (Ransom, Harlan’s grandson), Michael Shannon (Walt, Harlan’s youngest son), and Toni Collette (Joni, widow of Harlan’s deceased son Neil). Helpful is how the film spends time introducing and explaining each prominent character so that the viewer has a good sense of who’s who and how one character relates to the others before the tangled web unravels.

The delicious aspect of Knives Out are the many twists and turns offered throughout the course of the run time. Surprising me was a key revelation exposed quite early on, so that the pacing is more left of center than classic whodunits of days past. Once the new story arc is revealed the plot thickens further and we know more events will ultimately abound as the story just cannot be this simple. This successfully kept me as a viewer engaged during the entire experience.

Having witnessed the previews at length and the way the trailer presents a Hercule Poirot/Agatha Christie/Jessica Fletcher type sleuth to solve, it was delightful to see one-character snuggling on the couch absorbed in an episode of the 1980’s television series “Murder, She Wrote”. Director, Rian Johnson offers several sly homages to influential tidbits of pop culture that helped create his film and retain the amusements.

Another momentous positive is the incorporation of a political discussion among the family as they brood and fret over how much money they stand to inherit from their dead patriarch. Donald J. Trump, a man who catapulted the United States into controversy post 2016, is never mentioned by name, but immigration, children in cages, and expletives are carefully hurled about in his honor so there is no question the connotations. Harlan’s caregiver is Marta (Ana de Armas), the heroine of the film and the standout, and whose mother is an undocumented immigrant. So political overtones abound.

Knives Out mixes dark humor with traditional mystery and is never dull. The big reveal at the end is not brilliant nor is it disappointing. It simply satisfies after numerous red-herrings and lies bubble to the surface. The final sequence is palpable and smart viewers will wonder what one character will possibly do next to either please or anger the rest of the characters. Might a sequel be at hand?

A film not meant to be high art or anything more than an entertaining good time, Knives Out (2019) achieves its intent by offering an experience reminiscent of an Agatha Christie tale that is fun for the audience. The benefits are reaped as an enormous box office return was awarded the film. Thanks in large part to a talented cast, a gloomy mansion, and wealthy people faced with peril and comeuppance, these elements are a wonderful recipe for a good solid mystery.

A Christmas Story-1983

A Christmas Story-1983

Director-Bob Clark

Starring-Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon

Scott’s Review #968

Reviewed December 16, 2019

Grade: B+

A festive holiday film sure to be watched during late December, A Christmas Story (1983) is a wholesome family treat with heart and a good slice of Americana. A clever gimmick of an adult narrating the story of his childhood holiday experience feels both fresh and nostalgic. Some hairstyles, looks, and camera styles feel more like the 1980’s than the 1940’s and the subject matter of a gun becomes questionable with the passing years, but the film enchants and warms the soul with famous cult classic moments mixed in making the film memorable.

The central character is Ralphie Parker (played as a child by Peter Billingsley and voiced as an adult by Jean Shepard). Nine-years-old and clad in distinguished eye-glasses, he anticipates the approaching Christmas holiday with both excitement and trepidation. He longs for his dream gift, a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, which every adult he meets hazards “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Determined, he schemes to find a way to make his dreams come true and his parents to buy that gun, while avoiding the neighborhood bully.

The film has mass appeal in the casting department with each principal actor adding value, and the story just feels warm. With lesser talent the results may have been over-the-top, forced or too melodramatic. Accolades are especially deserved by Billingsley, who carries the film with his sincerity and giant blue eyes. He is a natural and fantastic actor especially during the more emotional scenes. Ralphie’s mother, father, and teacher are wonderful in their respective parts adding the right level of earnestness and pizzazz in support roles.

A Christmas Story gets props for avoiding any silly romantic story-line commonplace in “feel good” films of similar ilk. The plot is clearly defined and the antics of Ralphie make the film fun, but not too sentimental or corny. Cringe-worthy is the thought of a little neighborhood girl that Ralphie might want to impress. The little boy’s somewhat infatuation with his teacher is innocent and whimsical and not to be taken too seriously.

The incorporation of now legendary props and story points add texture and comfort to the viewing experience, especially the lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg and high-heeled shoe. The garish prize Ralphie’s father wins after entering a contest becomes his pride and joy making his wife and the neighbors cringe. Assuming the piece is lavish art mistaking the word “fragile” for a fancy Italian word, the scene is humorous.

The final scene of the family being reduced to eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant after their turkey is ruined still provides a smile. As the years pass the scene teeters on racist and has been changed during stage productions to avoid controversy. The Asian characters possess too many cliched stereotypes for my taste, but the intent is innocent and wraps the film nicely.

Peculiar and noticeable with each viewing experience, is the glaring locale of Hammond, Indiana when the film is clearly shot in and around Cleveland, Ohio. The famous Higbee’s Department Store in downtown Cleveland is pivotal to the story and world-renowned, so the Indiana locale is perplexing and out of place. Many may not realize the Cleveland surroundings, but eagle-eyed viewers will take notice. The exteriors look nothing like Indiana.

Known for having aired since 1997 on television stations TNT or TBS in a marathon titled “24 Hours of A Christmas Story”, the event has consisted of twelve consecutive airings of the film on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day each year. This has resulted in its being deemed one of the best Christmas movies ever made and exposed new generations to the work. I’m not convinced it is “the best”, but nothing feels cozier on a cold holiday night snuggled by the fire than this cult classic. 

127 Hours-2010

127 Hours-2010

Director-Danny Boyle

Starring-James Franco

Scott’s Review #967

Reviewed December 13, 2019

Grade: A

A biography of epic proportions, 127 Hours (2010) provides a stunning account of one man’s journey and near tragic fate. If not for his resolve and determination this would surely have been the result. Director, Danny Boyle casts the charismatic James Franco in the role of the hiker who was forced to amputate his own arm after becoming pinned by a rock. The effective title gives a non-stop active feel, a five-days in the life production if you will, and a pulsating ninety minutes of crafty film making.

The film starts off a cheery story of an excited mountaineer, Aron Ralston, (Franco) who prepares to embark on a long-awaited adventure. The time is April 2003. His goal is to enjoy a few days of hiking, reveling in the freedom the fresh Utah air offers him. Somewhat of a daredevil, he happily anticipates adventure as he begins his journey. He meets two attractive young women, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) and the trio swims in an underground pool before going their separate ways.

Had 127 Hours been a horror film there would be a sense of suspicion or dread surrounding the female hikers, but the scene is enchanting and pure innocence. Once again on his own, Aron suddenly slips and falls, knocking over a boulder which crushes his right hand and wrist against the wall. He calls for help but realizes that he is alone. Aron begins recording a video diary and reflects on his past, for example forgetting to leave a note to his whereabouts, while becoming more and more desperate to escape.

Most of 127 Hours is set within a state of claustrophobic peril in the tiny walls of the rocks that Ralston is trapped between. The film quickly becomes an emotional and personal experience as the camera is focused on Franco, mostly in close-up form. At times the shots are too close for comfort, but this is a necessary way for the viewer to experience events the way that Aron did, the style tremendously effective.

At the risk of diminishing the amazing direction, editing, and cinematography offered, the film belongs to Franco. As Aron faces peril, growing frantic with each passing hour, but trying to remain calm and focused, Franco does a tremendous job of balancing and revealing the proper emotions. He whimsically recounts memories while forbidding himself to lose sight of escape, rationing what little food and water he has. The gruesome amputation scene is gory and powerful and may necessitate closing one’s eyes.

The remainder of the elements come together perfectly. The editing, cinematography and pacing of the story are all spot on. The musical soundtrack is key to the pacing of the film. At first energetic and excitable, the music slowly becomes darker and more subdued, while at the end it is low-key. Aron is thankful to simply be alive as he walks a lonely walk to help as the film concludes.

Since the real-life figure is still very much alive, the historical accuracy of the experience is preserved, as confirmed by the hero. He only showed Kristi and Megan basic climbing moves and they never swam together, but the remainder is a brilliant documentary style film experience. The real Ralston himself, along with his wife and son make cameo appearances at the end of the film, providing good authenticity.

127 Hours (2010) scores big, creating an experience that is breathtaking, disturbing, and real. Inspiration will be given to each viewer and a lesson in endurance and perseverance will resonate in their own life. The film deservedly received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Film Editing, but sadly coming up empty handed.

Toy Story 4-2019

Toy Story 4-2019

Director-Josh Cooley

Voices-Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts

Scott’s Review #966

Reviewed December 10, 2019

Grade: B

Toy Story 4 (2019) is the fourth installment in the Pixar/Disney produced Toy Story series, now nearly twenty-five years old! The glitter is beginning to fade on a once endearing franchise and hopefully this is the last one- additional segments are not needed unless desperation develops.

After a slow start and too many retread moments, the film shows bombast and familiar heart and tenderness in the finale, presumably wrapping up the lengthy story with a neat bow. The animation is vivid and colorful, almost astounding, making up for an unnecessary story.

In a flashback sequence, nine-years after Toy Story 2, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is donated to a new owner and Woody (Tom Hanks) begrudgingly decides to maintain his loyalty to owner, Andy. Years later and now a teenager, Andy donates a forgotten Woody to a young child named Bonnie, who lacks the affection for the toy that Andy had. When Bonnie makes and bonds with Forky, a toy made of plastic, Woody struggles to convince Forky that each is more than garbage.

When Bonnie and her parents embark on a summer road trip to an amusement park, Woody and other familiar faces are along for the ride. The group meets other forgotten toys, some benevolent and some sinister, at the park and a nearby antique store. Woody’s dear friend and comic relief, Buzz (Tim Allen), is in the mix and helps all the toys realize that they are not forgotten, and that they can still bring joy to children.

The film provides an unwieldy list of celebrities in major and minor roles. The incorporation of characters like Chairol Burnett, Bitey White, and Carl Reineroceros (voiced naturally by Carol Burnett, Betty White, and Carl Reiner) may not be necessary, but it’s fun to watch the credits roll and see who’s who from the cast. The minor characters are little more than window dressing, but the creativity is admirable.

The main story of abandonment, loyalty, and discarding of one’s toys is ample and nice, but has occurred in every segment thus far in the series. Do we need to see this again? Yes, it is an important message for both children and adults, but why not simply watch the first three installments of Toy Story, each brilliant in their own right? Ty Story 4 plays by the numbers with little surprises.

One glaring notice is how almost every single adult is either incompetent or played for laughs. I get that the main draw is the toys and outsmarting the adults is half the fun, but when Bonnie’s father assumes his navigation system is on the fritz, rather than catching on to the fact that one of the toys is voicing the system, one must shake his or her head. Suspension of disbelief is required more and more in these types of films.

Toy Story 4 picks up steam in the final twenty minutes with a thrilling adventure through the amusement park and a cute romance between Woody and Bo Peep. When long forgotten toy Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) emotionally rescues a lost child, she is rejuvenated and breathes new life into both the child’s life and her own. In a darling moment, Forky meets another creation named Knifey. Knifey suffers from the same existential crisis as Forky once did, and Forky immediately becomes smitten with her, both realizing that even though they are odd looking, they still matter.

The nice lesson learned is that even toys from the 1960’s and 1970’s can provide warmth and comfort to a young child and are more than “of their time”. This is a clear and bold message that correlates with human beings and how advanced age does not come with an expiration date. Everyone matters and brings importance. The overlying theme is heartwarming and central to the film, bringing it above mediocrity.

What should certainly be the final chapter in a tired franchise that continues to trudge along, the bright message and strong animations remain, but the film feels like a retread. Given that Toy Story 3 was made in 2010, Toy Story 4 (2019) needs to bring the series to a conclusion before installment 5, 6, 7 or 8 results in dead on arrival.

Mary Poppins-1964

Mary Poppins-1964

Director-Robert Stevenson

Starring-Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke

Scott’s Review #965

Reviewed December 9, 2019

Grade: A-

Mary Poppins (1964) is a lovely Walt Disney production that shines with zest and an ample supply of good, cheery tunes. A family affair, it will hardly disappoint, with sing-along’s and enchanting story for miles. It’s tough to knock a film that has it all, but it does border on sickeningly sweet wholesomeness at times with too much schmaltz mixed in. This can easily be forgiven because of the robust music, dazzling visual effects, and perfect casting, making the film enjoyable entertainment for all to enjoy.

The Banks family reside in London, England, the foursome consisting of George and Winifred Banks, along with children Jane and Michael. They live a comfortable and happy upper-middle class existence. When their nanny quits after the children run away to chase a kite, the panicked George requests a stern, no nonsense nanny, while the children (now returned home) desire a kind, sweet one. Through the marvel of magic, a young nanny (Julie Andrews) descends from the sky using her umbrella. Mary Poppins teaches the children to enjoy chores through tunes with the help of a kindly chimney sweep, Bert (Dick Van Dyke).

Mary Poppins cheerily take the children on several adventures teaching them valuable lessons along the way. The drama created involves light situations such as the irritable George threatening to fire the nanny because she is too cheerful, or a mini-scandal at the bank where George works. These side stories are trivial and nonthreatening since the film is really about the antics of the magically odd nanny and her relationship with the children.

The film is unique in that it combines live-action with animation so that the result feels magical and inventive. This is most evident during sequences that feature animals, especially the superb scene where Mary Poppins transports Bert, Jane, and Michael into a picture where they ride a carousel and leisurely stroll the day away. The appearance of horses and a fox makes the scene both beautifully crafted and filled with joy.

The casting could be no different and is flawless across the board. Standouts are Andrews and Van Dyke, the former appearing in her very first film role. Not to be usurped by her most iconic role as Maria in the following year’s brilliant The Sound of Music (1965), Andrews possesses a benevolent and delightful spirit which works perfectly in the role, to say nothing of her powerful voice. Van Dyke as the romantic interest, is equally well-cast, and together the chemistry is easy and apparent.

Mary Poppins was met with critical acclaim when it was released, during a time when Disney ruled the roost and musicals were a dime a dozen. It received a total of 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture – a record for any film released by Walt Disney Studios – and won five: Best Actress for Andrews, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Original Song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”. This was quite a feat as the film was up against My Fair Lady (1964), a similar film, which won the biggest prize of the year.

Rated G and a box-office success, Mary Poppins (1964) is a legendary Walt Disney film that uses creative techniques and musical numbers to develop a fine finished product. The song standouts are “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, as each offers candy for the ears and immeasurable fun. The classic songs and the cohesive sentimentality make this one easy to enjoy with repeated viewings.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Robert Stevenson, Best Actress-Julie Andrews (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Song-“Chim Chim Cher-ee” (won), Best Music Score-Substantially Original (won), Best Scoring of Music-Adaptation or Treatment, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Color, Best Cinematography, Color, Best Costume Design, Color, Best Film Editing (won), Best Special Visual Effects (won)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood-2019

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks

Scott’s Review #964

Reviewed December 6, 2019

Grade: A

Any viewer seeking a weepy affair should look no further than A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). The film is sentimental, without ever feeling sappy or overwrought, instead abounding with freshness and authenticity. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the iconic children’s television personality and Matthew Rhys holds his own as he gives a fantastic performance as an angry journalist tasked with doing a magazine article on the legend. The film is heartwarming and teary with a poignant and inspirational message, and in 2019 we could all use a little Mister Rogers in our lives.

The time-period of the film is 1998, and on the outs with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), Lloyd Vogel (Rhys) works for Esquire magazine as a writer. Both attend Lloyd’s sister’s wedding where the two men come to blows over past disputes, ruining the wedding reception and reigniting their feud. Lloyd’s wife, Andrea, serves as mediator when their newborn son becomes an interesting link between father and son. When Lloyd meets with Mister Rogers (Hanks), he at first is skeptical of the man’s benevolence, but the two men slowly develop a strong bond, forging a deep friendship.

Director, Marielle Heller drew acclaim for her recent film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), a project about a grizzled New York writer. Once again, her lead character is a dark and troubled writer, but with enough humanity bubbling under the surface to make the character likable. The contrast between the two main characters (Lloyd and Mister Rogers) is palpable and central to the story, making it intriguing and successful. Her message is a strong lesson in humanity.

The setup is tremendous for anyone possessing a clue to the unconditional kindness that Mister Rogers has. He not only adores children but all mankind and, as referenced, he is attracted to wounded or broken people. The legend sees the goodness in all human beings and focuses on everyone he speaks with rather than on himself. What a wonderful message of patient, goodness, and empathy Heller carves from start to finish.

No surprise is how Rogers teaches Lloyd to accept and forgive Jerry. During a thrilling scene Lloyd lashes out at his father, reminding him that when he was bedding other women, his wife (Lloyd’s mother) lie riddled with cancer, not dying in peace, but screaming with agony. The irony is that Jerry is now at death’s door, attempting to make amends with Lloyd before he dies. Both men are wounded and damaged, but because of Mister Roger’s kindness, come to an understanding. The message is lovely and kind.

I was surprised at how emotionally fulfilling the film turns out to be. Mister Rogers simply cares, and one can easily slip into a fantasy that as he sits and holds a conversation with Lloyd, gazing whimsically and thoughtfully into his eyes, that he is gazing into our very own eyes. I sure did and what a powerful emotion that conjures. When Mister Rogers asks to take a moment of silence to think about the people who have shaped our lives, there is no doubt that each member of the movie theater audience did just that.

Hanks is a godsend and simply perfect in the role. Known to be a kindly humanitarian himself, he easily slips into the role of Mister Rogers, and imitates the mannerisms perfectly. Especially impressive is when Danny, a puppet bear, appears on screen. Smart viewers will realize that Rogers channels his own childhood through this character, and the pain he felt as an overweight child. Hanks is a tremendous actor, winning Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), so we have every confidence in his ability to craft a new character so well.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) wins the years award for the most emotion it will elicit from viewers. The familiar Mister Rogers Neighborhood tune will bring up memories and add a level of sentiment to a heartwarming film. Instead of crafting a sterile or preachy film, Heller delivers a simple message of kindness and understanding and a lesson in accepting people as they are.