Exodus-1960

Exodus-1960

Director-Otto Preminger

Starring-Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint

Scott’s Review #1,005

Reviewed March 30, 2020

Grade: A-

Creating a monumental epic about the modern state of Israel, director Otto Preminger’s vast project Exodus (1960) is a bold adaptation of the Leon Uris novel from 1958. Starring stars of the day for added Hollywood spice and a romantic element, the result is a sprawling war drama with robust proportions and a hefty running time. At times the film lags or even drags, but the enormous importance of the message and the influence of stimulating Zionism should never be forgotten.

With the treacherous World War II barely in the rear-view mirror, Israeli resistance fighter, Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), attempts to bring six-hundred European Jewish Holocaust survivors from British-blockaded Cyprus into newly developed Palestine. He meets Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), an American volunteer nurse, at the camp. The pair team-up, along with others, to attempt to liberate the survivors.

The action eventually switches to Palestine where other characters and motives come into play in a complex story. During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states is heating up, leading to tension, bombs, and death among similar types of people. Central to the main plot is a young love-story involving spirited Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a radical Zionist resistance group member, and Karen Hansen Clement (Jill Haworth), a young Danish-Jewish girl searching for the father from whom she was separated during the war.

Exodus has so much story going on and multiple plots to follow. The main draw, besides the tense story, are the two love stories told amid the political turmoil. Newman and Saint have marginal chemistry, he is eye-candy who electrifies the screen, she seems too old for him and does not photograph well. Kitty, a widow, hedges on her romantic feelings for Ari, but they do ultimately unite. A gorgeous sequence occurs when the two share a delicious meal of fish and martinis amid a rooftop restaurant overlooking the dazzling landscape. She later dines with his parents, his mother a classic Jewish mother who in stereotypical fashion, cooks and fusses.

The fresh-faced pairing of Dov and Karen is reminiscent of Tony and Maria from West Side Story. Doomed from the start, the youngsters are opposites in many ways, he hot-headed, she sensible and resilient. He is bronze and swarthy, she is blonde and blue-eyed. I fell in love with the couple, more than Ari and Kitty, and rooted for their happily-ever-after moment, which sadly never occurred.

At nearly four hours in length, the film is best watched in segments, perhaps even four, to let the action marinate overnight. The complex drama is aided by the sweeping cinematic photography and the lush exterior sequences. A drawback was not getting to see the film on the big-screen, almost a must in hindsight, and limited by the DVD quality over Blu-Ray. Nonetheless, the film is delicious in nearly every way. Just when tedium is about to occur, an event happens that snaps the viewer back to immediate attention.

A notable fun fact is that Preminger boldly hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, on the dreaded Hollywood blacklist for over a decade for communist leanings, to write the script Together with Spartacus (1960), made the same year, Exodus is credited with ending the practice of Blacklisting in the motion picture industry. The importance of what is written on the blank page is arguably surpassed by the man who wrote those pages.

Exodus (1960) nearly rivals the epic of all epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in its cinematography of exotic and sacred landscapes in daring and forbidding lands. Perhaps twenty minutes or so could be carved out when the action loses momentum, but with great direction, a top tier cast, and a historical lesson in the harshness of war and generations of conflict, makes the film resonate with the realism of the subject matter.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Sal Mineo, Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Cinematography, Color

A Better Life-2011

A Better Life-2011

Director-Chris Weitz

Starring-Demian Bichir, Jose Julian

Scott’s Review #1,004

Reviewed March 26, 2020

Grade: B+

A Better Life (2011) is a heartwarming and timely project that focuses and showcases the Hispanic culture, both positively and negatively. The subject matter of illegal immigration is studied amid a powerful family drama. Lead actor, Demian Bichir, deservedly received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive portrayal of a man wanting only the best for his son while having life odds stacked against him. The film is an atypical Hollywood production, told simply and with heart.

Carlos Galindo (Bichir), is a struggling Los Angeles gardener who manicures the lawns of the rich and famous in sunny California with his partner and close friend Blasco. Carlos lives a content life but is always on guard because he is an illegal immigrant and worries about his son Luis (Jose Julian) falling in with the wrong crowd. When one day Carlos’s sister loans him $12,000 to purchase a truck, he needs for his job, the man hits his stride, only to have the truck stolen. Desperate, Carlos and Luis are determined to get back the truck while avoiding trouble with the law.

The title of the film, while basic and not sexy, is powerful in its simplicity.  Bold and thought-provoking, this is merely what Carlos wants for Luis and what every father wants for his son. His trials and tribulations a constant, he strives to teach Luis to steer a positive path and avoid mistakes that Carlos has made. Regardless of the political discussion the film could have, what lies beneath is a heartwarming story of cherished love between a man and his son. In clever fashion, the film provides a hopeful final message for both major characters.

I adore the rich Mexican culture represented in the film. A battle of traditional appreciation of one’s roots versus immersing oneself in the American culture are examined. Nearly the entire cast is of Hispanic descent and the numerous scenes of ethnic flavor, from restaurants and cafes, to nightclubs and street life, the film feels authentic and fresh. Thankfully, the film makers do not try to pull off the insulting ploy of casting white actors clad in Mexican garb or a big-name actor in the role of Carlos. Many of the characters even seem like non-actors.

The setting of Los Angeles is highly successful, especially since the low-budget independent film uses eons of exterior shots. The camerawork is not exceptional but feels fresh, letting the warm climate marinate with viewers so that he or she feels implanted in the southern Californian neighborhoods. The contrast of the East Los Angeles area where Carlos lives versus where he works are a harsh reality for most landscapers.

Bichir more than deserves the accolades reaped upon him for this mesmerizing and intelligent role. He quietly portrays an empathetic man who is an unsung hero and a representative of many fathers never getting their due respect, especially if they are undocumented immigrants. When Luis denounces Mexican music, the pain is evident on the face of Carlos as he must endure what surely breaks his heart. The realism and the truth of the characters is led by Bichir.

A Better Life (2011) is a story rich with poignancy and relevance as the plight of a good man is showcased. Now almost ten years ago, the film is arguably more important than ever since immigration has become a hot ticket item in the turbulent political climate. Do hardworking, undocumented people deserve a break for being in the United States? The answer seems obvious and the film skews steadily to the left, but is there really any other strong viewpoint?

A Beautiful Mind-2001

A Beautiful Mind-2001

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

Scott’s Review #1,003

Reviewed March 25, 2020

Grade: A-

A Beautiful Mind (2001) is a superior made film based on the life and times of American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and Abel Prize winner. The biography explores Nash’s battles with schizophrenia and the delusions he suffered, causing tremendous stress on friends and family. The film is well-written and brilliantly acted, but deserves a demerit for factual inaccuracies, especially related to Nash’s complex sexuality and family life. This leaves a gnawing paint-by-the-numbers approach for mass appeal only.

The film was an enormous success, winning four Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. It was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Best Original Score. Arguably one of the best films of 2001, it cemented director Ron Howard’s reputation as a mainstream force to be reckoned with in the Hollywood world. The project was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book of the same name.

Starting off in 1947, we meet Nash (Russell Crowe) as a virginal and socially awkward college scholar, studying at Princeton University. He is a whiz at science and mathematics, coming up with unique and dynamic ideas to problem-solve. Rising the ranks in respectability, he is given an important job with the United States Department of Defense, tasked with thwarting Soviet plots. He becomes increasingly obsessive about searching for hidden patterns and believes he is being followed, sinking further into depression and secrecy.

A Beautiful Mind is an important film because it brings to light the overwhelming issue of mental health and the struggles one suffering from it is forced to endure. Nash largely lives in a fantasy world and has imaginary friends who have followed him for decades by the time the film ends. Nash conquers his demons with little aid of medication causing a controversial viewpoint. Amazing that the man was able to rise above, but is this a realistic message for those suffering from hallucinations?

Russell Crowe carries the film, fresh off his Oscar win the year before for his stunning turn in Gladiator (2000). Certainly, he would have won for portraying Nash had he not recently received the coveted prize. Crowe, hunky at this point in his life, convincingly brings the brainy and nerdy character, rather than the stud, to life, adding layers of empathy and warmth to the role. We root for the man because he is as much sensitive as he is a genius.

Jennifer Connelly, in what is disparagingly usually described as the wife or the girlfriend role, does her best with the material given. My hunch is her Oscar nomination and surprising win has more to do with piggybacking off the slew of other nominations the film received. She is competent as the supportive yet strong Alicia, wife of Nash. In her best scene, she flees the house after a confused Nash leaves their infant daughter near a full bath tub, putting her life in danger.

The most heartfelt scene of the film occurs during the conclusion. After many years of struggle, Nash eventually triumphs over this tragedy, and finally, late in life, receives the Nobel Prize. This is a grand culmination of the man’s achievements and a sentimental send-off for the film. The aging makeup of all principle characters, specifically Nash and Alicia are brilliantly done.

Despite the heaps of accolades reaped on A Beautiful Mind, several factual points are reduced to non-existence. Questionable is why Howard chose not to explore Nash’s rumored bisexuality, instead passing him off as straight. Admittedly, the film is not about sexuality, but isn’t this a misrepresentation of truth? Nash had a second family, which is also never mentioned. These tidbits eliminated from the film leave a glossy feel, like Howard picked and chose what to tell and not to tell for the sake of the mainstream audience.

Bringing needed attention to a problem of epic proportions, A Beautiful Mind (2001) recognizes the issue of mental health in the United States. The methods may be questionable, and the film has an overall safe “Hollywood” vibe but must be credited for a job well-done in a film that is not only important but displays a good biography for viewers eager to learn about a genius who faced unrelenting issues.

(500) Days of Summer-2009

(500) Days of Summer-2009

Director-Marc Webb

Starring-Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scott’s Review #1,002

Reviewed March 20, 2020

Grade: B

(500) Days of Summer (2009) is an unconventional love story that deserves props for being different, but never completely catches fire as a film effort. What it tries to do left-of-center from most conventional romantic comedies is to be admired, but I did not feel much connection to the characters and the result seemed pointless.

The independent film garnered some praise for being unique and clever, but this is out-shined by a gnawing, forced feeling, like the filmmakers are trying to be edgy for the sake of being edgy, adding in story elements that are contrived. The lead characters conveniently both like an obscure band and an obscure artist, throwing them immediately together. The film is a modest effort but will only be remembered as an indie project with a bit of unfulfilled potential.

When his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), unceremoniously dumps him, greeting-card copywriter and hopeless romantic Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spins into a depression and begins reflecting on the year-long relationship the pair spent together, looking for clues as to what went wrong. As he rummages through the good times and the bad times, his heart reawakens to find what is most important. The Los Angeles backdrop sets the tone for the five-hundred days of Tom and Summer.

Director, Marc Webb, a first-time director at this point, now known more for The Amazing Spider-Man reboot franchise (2012-2014) steers in an experimental direction. Shown somewhat as a “year in the life” in the young lovebirds blossoming relationship, the film is presented in a nonlinear narrative, jumping between various days within the five-hundred days of Tom and Summer’s relationship. There is an on-screen timer showing the day, which is a nice addition.

Props are given for the creativity Webb infuses. The romantic comedy genre, not my favorite, is constantly saturated with formulaic films, predictable from the start. Frequently told from the female perspective, (500) Days of Summer tells the story from the male perspective, even reversing the traditional gender stereotypes. Tom is the lovesick romantic, and Summer the rough and tumble, one-night stand type. This is nuanced and throws the entire genre upside down.

The characters are questionable and the most able to relate to is Tom. There is some confusion and mystery with some motivations. The audience can understand how Tom falls head over heels for Summer, immediately smitten. His depression is deep and to be taken seriously, but he is depressed because of Summer, and any history or previous causes of depression are not mentioned. It feels like his depression is a convenient way of adding a story element.

Summer is even more perplexing and not deeply explored. Is she merely playing the field? After a song and dance scene where she explains she is not looking for anything serious and wants a casual romance, she suddenly marries another man. She hurriedly tells Tom that she discovered her husband was her true love and that she now believes in love, whereas Tom doesn’t anymore. Again, this feels more like story-line dictated writing versus anything character-rich.

Despite receiving a Best Screenplay Independent Spirit Award nomination, two Golden Globe Award nominations, and oodles of praise, (500) Days of Summer (2009) is a non-conformist piece with some nice moments but feels irrelevant. The lead actors are talented and do a decent job with the material given, but meander through the experience since it is more about the film than the acting. The result is not a pure dud, but neither is it a pedigree winner.

50/50-2011

50/50-2011

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #1,001

Reviewed March 17, 2020

Grade: B+

The subject matter of cancer is an incredibly tricky one to portray in film. Especially tough when any comedic bits are incorporated- the risk lies in jokes not going over well or being misinterpreted. With 50/50, director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser craft and intelligent and genuine story, based on a true one, led by upstart actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, shining in the lead role. Comic actor Seth Rogan is on board cementing the comedy elements.

Otherwise healthy twenty-something Seattle resident, Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) experiences severe back pain and is shocked to learn he has a malignant tumor in his spine. Devastated, his world is turned upside down. He is usually accompanied by best friend Kyle (Rogan). While Kyle is brash and outspoken, Adam is reserved and mild-mannered. They are opposites, but inseparable friends. Adam is dating artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), whom Kyle despises adding conflict to the story.

The screenplay and Gordon-Levitt’s performance are the superior aspects of 50/50. The title of the film is poignant because Adam is given the dubious news that he has only a 50/50 chance of surviving his cancer. The young actor provides heart and soul to his challenging role and his acting is such that scenes do not feel cliched or manufactured. This, naturally, is due to the excellent writing by Will Reiser. He crafts a sincere script that is straightforward, avoiding razzle-dazzle, but one that is also heartfelt.

My only criticism with 50/50 is that I would have liked a bit more darkness. As we all know, real-life cancer patients must endure the ravages that the brutal disease inflict. The film never really goes there and shows how devious the disease is and what happens to the human body. I get that the film tows the line carefully, but despite shaving his head, Adam does not lose much weight or suffer other visible indignities. The toned-down approach feels PG- rated rather than R-rated as it might have been.

This can largely be forgiven because the main message of the film supersedes this point. The film shows that love and friendship can be the best healers and the root of good, kind, humanity. This is something every viewer can take and learn from and it makes the film lovely and worthy to witness. The romantic comedy elements do not work, and I am not even sure they are necessary. The main draw is the undying friendship between Adam and Kyle and Adam’s experiences with other cancer patients along his journey.

Combining comedy and cancer are not easy tasks, but thanks to exceptional writing and a talented cast, 50/50 (2011) succeeds in its achievements. The film and Gordon-Levitt were rewarded with Golden Globe nominations but missed out on any Oscar nominations. If the intended result of the film, to ease cancer patient’s minds about their situations, and provide some meaningful entertainment, the film is a major win.

Giant Little Ones-2019

Giant Little Ones-2019

Director-Keith Behrman

Starring-Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann

Scott’s Review #1,000

Reviewed March 13, 2020

Grade: B+

Giant Little Ones (2019) is an independent LGBTQ film about both coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and accepting and embracing other people for whom they love, and how they wish to spend their life. It’s an honest and resilient coming-of-age story, most reminiscent (but rawer) of the recent Love, Simon (2018), told from a teenager’s perspective and the pressures and emotions of youth. The subject matter has been done to death at this point in cinema but there is still something fresh and meaningful that is offered.

High school chums Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas Kohl (Darren Mann) have been best friends since diapers. They joke around, go bike-riding, and knock back a six-pack together. They are handsome, integral parts of the swim team, and popular with girls. Each has a steady girlfriend who they anticipate soon going all the way with. Any teenage miscast would love to trade their lives with the boys.

On the night of Franky’s seventeenth birthday party, Franky and Ballas get drunk together and spend the night crashing in the same bed. An unclear incident, sexual in nature, occurs, changing and damaging their friendship. Each boy has one sister and a set of parents, but Franky’s are more prominent, with a story of their own. His father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan) divorced Franky’s mother, Carly (Mario Bello) after coming to terms with being gay.

While the focal point is on the teen set, and on Franky more than Ballas, it is nice to see parents in these types of films with more to do than pour coffee or dole out unheeded advice. MacLachlan and Bello are fascinating to watch, carefully distant from each other, but also having a mutual respect. Both character’s struggles are pointed out- Carly angrily lashing out that Ray was certainly not gay when she married him; Ray experiencing guilt at wounding Franky emotionally.

The film is careful, admiringly so, to include two high school students who are already outwardly gay. The characters are not ridiculed or repressed, and one, Franky’s best friend Mouse (Niamh Wilson) is assumed to be slowly coming to terms with being transgender. The other is a popular boy on the swim team. These representations are strong, though both characters face some level of opposition, so their plights are not easy.

The best and most heartfelt scene is when Franky and Ray reconnect as father and son in treasured dialogue where Ray explains how he met his partner. The beautiful moment blossoms because it’s Franky who asks Ray how he and his partner met. Any LGBTQ person can attest to the powerful and heartwarming moment when they are asked about their significant other. The proud look in Ray’s eyes and the quiet cadence in which he carefully warns Franky not to label himself, but rather stick with those he connects to, is lovely and sentimental.

I like how Giant Little Ones is not a love story between the two boys and ambiguous is not only whether their friendship can be fixed, but whether one or both is gay, bi-sexual, curious, or merely experimenting with their individual sexuality. The film avoids labels or boasting a clear-cut angle avoiding anything too preachy or defined. This supports its overall point.

A small criticism is that, despite the boys being best friend’s and on equal footing, Franky becomes the central character and Ballas is not explored very well. Ballas borders on sociopathic behavior and has a ton of anger, but why? Is it only his sexuality? The character remains mostly a mystery and I was dying to know more about him and what makes him tick.

Giant Little Ones (2019) is a heartfelt and intimate coming-of-age story about friendship, self-discovery, and the power of love without labels. The young actors are both natural, believable, and earnest, and the seasoned supporting cast lends credibility to a very small, low-budget picture. The LGBTQ community will embrace this film while anyone else will be touched by its honesty and poignancy.

Countdown-2019

Countdown-2019

Director-Justin Dec

Starring-Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Calloway

Scott’s Review #999

Reviewed March 12, 2020

Grade: B

Countdown (2019) is a modern horror film that accomplishes what it intends to do- it entertains the audience. With jumps, frights, and some comedic elements, it borrows heavily from the Final Destination (2000-2011) and Happy Death Day (2017-2019) franchises. The film does not reinvent the wheel, steering the course in a conventional way. The superstitious elements become hokey and unbelievable, but the film has enough momentum to offer a solid product, especially pleasing to genre fans.

When a young nurse (Elizabeth Lail) downloads an app that claims to predict exactly when a person is going to die, it tells her she only has three days to live. With time ticking away and death closing in, she must find a way to save her life before time runs out. She struggles to figure out how to delete the app while putting together the pieces of the puzzle to figure out how to break a curse and ruin a threatening demonic spirit. Her sister is also threatened.

Director, Justin Dec, a newcomer to cinema, does not waste any time beginning the action, as events debut at a college keg party. A group of revelers decide to play a drinking game after downloading the new Countdown app which is supposed to determine how long you have left to live. Thinking the app is a joke, unlucky Courtney (Anne Winters) is startled to see that she has only three hours to live. After refusing to drive home with her drunken boyfriend, Ethan, she is murdered at home by an evil spirit, while Ethan crashes his car, a tree spearing through the seat that Courtney would have been sitting in.

With this sequence the audience is hooked as the pacing is well maintained. With the app clock ticking down dangerously towards zero, a theme heavily promoted throughout the film, we can’t wait to see how or if Courtney is killed. Red herrings, like a man following her or a shower curtain that moves, are presented for good suspense. Assumed to be the “main girl”, Courtney’s death is surprising, and the main title then appears, fooling the audience. There is more to come.

Carrying a horror film is not easy, but actor Lail rises to the occasion. Resembling a young Christina Applegate, Quinn is strong and independent. Many of the scenes take place at the hospital she works at, though she also makes time to see her father and sister. Quinn’s mother has recently died, and Quinn blames herself. She connects with Matt (Jordan Calloway), who lost his brother after stealing his toy. Quinn is a character that viewers can admire and emulate.

Countdown deserves credit for adding a plethora of diversity. Matt is black, making his romance with Quinn interracial. Several Asian, Latino, or Black characters can be seen in many scenes, showcasing a hefty dose of multi-culturalism. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, no LGBTQ characters are featured. Comic relief store owner, Derek (Tom Segura) would have been the perfect character to make gay, but this was not to be.

To build on this, a timely and progressive Me-Too side-story is added, when a well-respected doctor at the hospital comes on to Quinn. He reports the incident to Human Resources when she rebuffs his advances. She is suspended, without an investigation, until other women come forward throughout the film. While this would be an important message in another type of film, the relevance does not work, or fit the rest of the story.

The ninety minutes running time is a splendid approach, so the film never drags or dulls. The final twenty minutes or so is a letdown as Quinn and a priest realize that to break the curse one must trick it by someone else dying out of sequence. This is all too like Final Destination, but not as good, as Quinn ends up fighting with the spirit, killing herself with an overdose of morphine, while drawing a circle on her arm where she can subsequently be revived by a syringe with Naloxone.

For a new director eager to break into the horror genre, Justin Dec borrows heavily from previous films and presents a copycat story that is paced perfectly. It provides enough interest and good casting to warrant a follow-up. Due to low box-office returns I doubt Countdown (2019) will become a mainstay franchise, but Dec may have a good future ahead of himself.

5 Against the House-1955

5 Against the House-1955

Director-Phil Karlson

Starring-Brian Keith, Kim Novak

Scott’s Review #998

Reviewed March 11, 2020

Grade: C-

5 Against the House (1955) is a film that may have influenced heist films such as the Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 (1960) or countless other films featuring groups of young men holding up an establishment for money. The film is mediocre and lacks much that is memorable as nothing distinguishes it from other similar themed genre films. Star Brian Keith is charismatic in the lead, but chemistry with the ravishing Kim Novak goes nowhere with any of the actors. The film is mildly interesting with a few tense moments, but little more. 

Four Midwestern University college pals, Brick (Keith), Al (Guy Madison), Ronnie, and Roy, devise a grand casino heist while drunk and partying one weekend in Reno. The idea is to go through with their plan and then return the cash, just to prove they can get away with the high-stakes prank. But when one of the group betrays the others and plots to keep the money for himself, he imperils them all. Novak plays Kaye, girlfriend of Al, who recently has become a singer at a local nightclub.

The standouts from the cast are Keith and William Conrad and this might be more because the then unknown actors became television stars in later years, for Family Affair and Jake and the Fat Man, respectively. Keith is great in the lead role of Brick, the tormented and conflicted ex-veteran of the Korean War, unable to forget tragedies he saw while abroad. He is a cool every man with an edge, angry and out to prove something to the world. He also needs the money that the heist will provide him. The character is interesting and empathetic.

Conrad is gruff and memorable in the role of a cart operator, who plays an important role in the film’s finale. Sent to retrieve cash from the money room, using the prerecorded message to make him believe that there is a desperate man with a gun in the cart who will shoot him if he does not cooperate, Conrad does wonders with his eyes and facial expressions.

The luscious Novak, soon to be a household name in the stunning and cerebral Alfred Hitchcock film, Vertigo (1958), is not very compelling as Kaye. The main reason is that she has little to do but stand around and serve as window dressing. This is too bad as the actress has talent and charisma for miles, but this work is beneath her. Not her debut, but one of her early films, what’s a girl to do? To add insult to injury, her voice was dubbed by another singer. Novak clearly needed the paycheck.

Director, Phil Karlson is unsuccessful at bringing the picture full- circle but does pepper in some nice exterior night scenes of Reno. The casino sequences are also commendable with proper zesty and flashy set pieces when appropriate. But trimmings never make a film complete and 5 Against the House needs more meat on the bone than it serves up.

The heist is the main attraction as it always is in these types of films. Some tension does exist but not enough, and the finale is a letdown. After the robbery, which is unspectacular, Brick leaves the others behind and escapes with the money, and a pursuit ensues. Kaye, having alerted police, follows them, and a tepid standoff follows. Ultimately, Brick changes his mind while Al and Kaye embrace on a crowded street. The feeble final scene is meant as a romantic sendoff between Al and Kaye, who didn’t have chemistry to begin with.

5 Against the House (1955) contains an adequate cast and a few positive tidbits worth mentioning, but the story is way too predictable, the conclusion, which should be the high-point disappoints, and the actors are too old to be believable as college-aged students. Many other film noir or heist films released before or after this film are superior and better crafted.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-2019

Director-Andre Ovredal

Starring-Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza

Scott’s Review #997

Reviewed March 10, 2020

Grade: C+

Admittedly not having read the series of books that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) is based upon, nor not knowing the books even existed may have influenced me, but the film is lackluster at best, serving up some creative moments, but more silly ones. The film is too polished, uneven, and feels too alike to modern projects like It (2017) or the television series Stranger Things to have its own individuality. A few interesting moments or sequences exist, but not enough to recommend.

The creepy children’s books written by Alvin Schwartz are adapted into film form as the time-period of 1968 Halloween is brought to life. The small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania, is the backdrop for the historic Bellows family mansion that has loomed over the town for decades and holds a haunted mystery. Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, has turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time. After a group of impressionable teenagers discover Sarah’s terrifying home, they undercover her stories, and they become all too real.

The visual effects and images are the high point of the film. There exist several visceral and stylistic sequences which deserve admiration, and mention. When one of the panicked teenagers’ scrambles into a mental institution, he is met with a horrific, blood-red glowing image that surrounds him. As he attempts to escape, a ghastly, bloated figure slowly approaches him from all sides. Later, a freakish person known as The Jangly Man, able to reconstruct itself from separate body parts, pursues one of the teens. These scenes are credible and inventive. The look of the film is its only real success.

The late 1960’s time-period both works and doesn’t work. Getting off to a splendid start, the theme song performed by Donovan, “Season of the Witch”, also incorporated over the closing credits, is a positive and provides a nice mystique. Since the date is supposed to be Halloween, this is fitting, though too few other seasonal reminders ever exist so that the viewer soon forgets it is Halloween at all.  Attempts at making the characters look the part are feeble and result in modern actors clad in 1960’s wear, reducing the authenticity. Mentions of the Vietnam War, while politically left-leaning, are only added for story purposes, feeling staged.

Once and for all, a note to film makers- making a character wear glasses to appear intelligent is a gimmick done to death and does not work anymore! Actor Zoe Margaret Colletti is fine in the central role of Stella, and does her best delivering the material she is given, but the realism is not there, giving the performance an overwrought quality. The character feels more like a Nancy Drew type than anything deeper.

Viewers are supposed to believe the convoluted story that Sarah was abused and now resides, as an older woman, in a secret room and scripts a book of horror stories that come to life and wreak havoc on those that enter the haunted house. Stella manages to channel Sarah, as an adult, and convinces her to stop writing and cease the terror with a weak female empowerment message. Events are so far-fetched and story-line dictated that it eliminates any character development from the film.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) has difficulty deciding which target audience to focus on. Is it young-adults or an older audience seeking a Halloween themed scare? The story is way too complex and confusing for either audience, or anyone else. The visual effects are fantastic, especially the stylistic red and black end credits, but the overall context suffers from lack of continuity and becomes a forgettable experience.

Bread and Chocolate-1974

Bread and Chocolate-1974

Director-Franco Brusati

Starring-Nino Manfredi

Scott’s Review #996

Reviewed March 6, 2020

Grade: B

Bread and Chocolate (1974), known as Pane e cioccolata in Italian is a mixed dramatic and comedic offering by director, Franco Brusati, a well-known Italian screenwriter and director. The film is charming and tells of one man’s trials and tribulations trying to make it as a migrant worker in a foreign country- in this case neighboring Switzerland. He is conflicted by the opportunities presented and the catastrophic way his life is screwed up at every turn. The film is meaningful and poignant but sometimes has no clear path. A commonality is the representation of differing cultures.

Nino (Nino Manfredi) is a hard-working Sicilian man who heads for Switzerland in search of a better life- the time-period is the 1960’s or the 1970’s when this was a common occurrence. Despite his best efforts to fit in with his neighbors, he never quite seems to make it, haplessly going from one situation to the next.

He befriends and is supported for a time by a Greek woman named Elena, who is a refugee and harbors secrets. He forages a career as a waiter and befriends a bus boy. As his luck dwindles, he is reduced to finding shelter with a group of Neapolitans living in a chicken coop, with the same chickens they tend to in order to survive. With bizarre gusto they frequently emulate the chickens, strangely parading around their quarters like animals.

The main character of Nino reminds me of the character that Roberto Benigni played in the 1997 gem, Life is Beautiful. In that film, Guido tries to shelter his son from the horrors of war. In Bread and Chocolate Nino has a zest for life using humor to survive and get through daily situations, slowly realizing his dire straits. Both characters are scrappy and daring; Nino humorously urinating on a tree or awkwardly finding a dead body in the woods.

The theme of the film is loaded with conflict over staying in Switzerland to find a better life or returning in shame to his homeland of Italy, assumed a failure. Nino constantly wrestles with this quandary and discusses this point with his family photos in his bedroom. In two instances he nearly gets on a train headed back to Italy but changes his mind. The film does not do a great job explaining or showing what is so awful back in Italy.

Bread and Chocolate is difficult to categorize because it is neither straight ahead comedy nor pure drama. As the film progresses it loses some situation comedy moments in favor of exhibiting melancholia and sadness. I am not sure this is a great decision as we wonder many times if we should laugh with Nino or feel badly for him? Perhaps both?

The film scores big when it focuses on the comedy as evidenced by several laugh out loud restaurant scenes. Nino, clearly not knowing what he is doing, struggles to properly peel an orange to serve a guest. He emulates another waiter with hilarious results. Later he offends a snobbish, sophisticated woman after she blames him for causing her to fall to the floor.

The strangest scene occurs when the chicken people spy four gorgeous Swiss siblings bathing in a nearby river. Gorgeous and tranquil, they are the definition of stunning and lush. Charmed by the idyllic vision of the group, Nino decides to dye his hair and pass himself off as a local. The images of the cackling and dirty Italian people, with their snickering and drooling set against the peaceful family is both beautiful and odd. The scene could almost be featured in an Ingmar Bergman art film.

Bread and Chocolate (1974) is a film about a man’s journey that nearly can be classified as an adventure, drama, art film, or comedy, and sometimes crosses genres too much. The comedic antics draw rave reviews, but the film slips a bit when it goes in the dramatic territory and becomes middling and too preachy. Actor Nino Manfredi breathes all the life he can into a film that is appealing, but not quite marvelous.