East of Eden-1955

East of Eden-1955

Director-Elia Kazan 

Starring-James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet

Scott’s Review #1,092

Reviewed December 17, 2020

Grade: A

James Dean wasn’t with us for very long, tragically dying at the tender age of twenty-four, but he made three films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and East of Eden (1955), all-powerful showcases and unique. In each, Dean gives a brilliant, humanistic, and sometimes tragic performance. East of Eden, his first film, is the only one he got to preview. I hope he liked it because it will live on forever as a gem.

Based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, the story is also a biblical retelling of Cain and Abel, brothers who clash and spar. Director, Elia Kazan, famous for supporting and using Method actors in his films, was able to get a tremendous performance out of Dean, which was key to the empathetic nature of the film. The key to East of Eden is that it reflects on several characters, who are both good and bad, possessing qualities of each, detailing their struggles.

Nobody is completely good or completely bad. The story is an analysis of good versus evil and the multitude of layers that exist between both extremes. It’s complicated, which makes the experience juicy, truthful, and brilliant.

Set during World War I, around 1917, two sunny coastal California towns are the backdrop for the action, Cal Trask (Dean) perceives his father, farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) as favoring Cal’s brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), which leads to much resentment, jealousy, and conflict. Aron is the apple in Adam’s eye, and we wonder why?

Furthering the drama is that Cal is in love with Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris) who doesn’t rebuff any advances. Cal and Aron’s mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), who they think is dead, is alive and well and running a brothel in a nearby town. Assuming a different name, she harbors secrets.

Before you get the impression this is some cheesy form of soap opera, East of Eden, like the novel, is heavily character-driven and nuanced with development. It completely draws the audience in and envelopes one around the simmering qualities of everyone.

East of Eden is packed with powerful scene after powerful scene and in more than one the allegiances and rooting values shift from character to character. Some of the best are when Cal self-destructs following his father’s refusal of his birthday gift, or when Cal cruelly exhibits the true nature of their mother’s vocation to the innocent and unsuspecting Aron. Finally, Cal and Abra’s kiss atop a Ferris wheel is filled with both smoldering desire and deadly consequences.

The acting tremendous across the board, much of the thanks must go to Kazan for being able to pull the fabulous performances out of the players- a talent only a Method acting director can achieve. While the entire cast is exceptional, the film belongs to Dean, who provides enough emotion and vulnerability to sustain his character’s topsy-turvy and tortured existence. Knowing that the actor died soon after filming gives an eerie and sentimental feeling. This is comparable to a more modern-day example when Heath Ledger died after giving a brilliant performance in The Dark Knight (2008).

This is hardly a war film or a guy’s film, as the ladies get to shine with rich characters too. Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet portray flawed characters in juicy roles rife with meaty scenes filled with conflict.

As with most of Steinbeck’s works, specifically The Grapes of Wrath, the landscape is a character, and East of Eden is no exception. With dusty roads and mountainous backgrounds, events ooze with atmosphere and beauty. The lush northern, coastal, California landscape portrays a grandiose magnificence that counterbalances the conflict its human beings are dealing with.

The major note to take away from East of Eden (1955) is that we are complex creatures with a mixture of good and bad. We sometimes want to do the right thing but end up hurting those we love. The main characters suffer from pain, regret, good intentions, poor decisions, and loss. The rich dialogue, adaptation, acting, and cinematography make the film near perfection.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-Elia Kazan, Best Actor-James Dean, Best Supporting Actress-Jo Van Fleet (won), Best Screenplay

Dances with Wolves-1990

Dances with Wolves-1990

Director-Kevin Costner

Starring-Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Scott’s Review #1,091

Reviewed December 14, 2020

Grade: A

A western epic of grand proportions, Dances with Wolves (1990) is a quiet, yet bombastic story of one man’s yearning to understand and appreciate a different culture. The liberal leaning story is of dire importance in American history, which is my main love of it. This project matters and it has sincerity and truth. The content and the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography make this a must-see on the big screen for full appreciation. Sort of like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), western style.

The lovely musical score is well-paced and simply gorgeous, only enhancing the experience and appreciation of the film.

The directorial debut of a then inexperienced and up-and-coming star, Kevin Costner, the success catapulted him into the big leagues, garnering tremendous respect among the Hollywood community. He also produced the film and used his own money when budget ran over. The accolades were justified, leading him to become an A-list star. He never achieved anything comparable to Dances with Wolves again.

The time is 1863, the United States embroiled in the Civil War. Union soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), depressed and suicidal, is injured in battle and receives a hero’s praise. He requests to be transferred to the western frontier, where he lives in solitude. He slowly befriends the local Sioux tribe and eventually becomes an honorary member, falling in love with a white woman, Stands with a Fist, (Mary McDonnell), who was raised by the tribe. They name him Dances with Wolves. Chaos erupts when the Union Army arrives to snatch the land at any cost.

Never the greatest actor in the world, but certainly competent, this is the role of a lifetime for Costner. That Dances with Wolves is Costner’s project is crucial. He had a vision and saw that vision to fulfillment. To my knowledge, the studio didn’t interfere and strive for control, but gave Costner the freedom to do whatever he wanted. It shows in the final product.

The romance between Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist is tender, alive, and without standard obstacles. No silly misunderstandings or drama. Theirs doesn’t need any trimmings. The chemistry between Costner and McDonnell is strong. At over three hours in length, the film has time to carefully pace these brilliant moments.

The film is clearly a political vehicle to teach the audience of the ravages and unfairness that Native Americans suffered at the hands of the White Man, and that is huge. Too often the issue is skimmed over or diminished in school textbooks so it’s nice to see the truth given its due. Dances with Wolves serves as an educational tool and no happy ending is provided. How great would it be if the film were shown in high schools and colleges around the United States?

I love how the film, a western, avoids the stereotypes always included in that genre. There are no good guys wearing white or bad guys wearing black, no shoot ’em ups at local saloons, and no cowboys to save the day. Dances with Wolves provides a character study with pivotal thoughts and motivations from the three central characters. Graham Greene must be mentioned as an integral part of the supporting cast. His authenticity is illuminating.

Over the years Dances with Wolves (1990) doesn’t hold up as well as other films- Silence of the Lambs (1990) and Goodfellas (1991) are legendary contemporaries that everyone remembers better. Dances may suffer from an “of its time” label, justifiably so, but the film is a masterpiece. Recommended is to dust this one off and give it a whirl, if even for old time’s sake.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Kevin Costner (won), Best Actor-Kevin Costner, Best Supporting Actor-Graham Greene, Best Supporting Actress-Mary McDonnell, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

Calendar Girls-2003

Calendar Girls-2003

Director-Nigel Cole

Starring-Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton

Scott’s Review #1,090

Reviewed December 11, 2020

Grade: B+

A clever female version of The Full Monty (1997), the middle-aged bordering on senior citizen characters, nudity comparisons notwithstanding, Calendar Girls (2003) has standard similarities. The film is a light-hearted affair, charming and fun with positive and inspiring messages about friendship and helping with cancer research. How can a film like this not bring a smile to the viewers face? It did to mine.

That said, it’s hardly high drama or material that requires much thought or dissection. I’d wager to say you only need to see it once. There lies a situational or clichéd theme as the women face the standard and guessable awkward moments, but the film entertains in style.

Calendar Girls is based on a true story adding merit, appreciation, and an endearing quality. It’s a feel-good film if there ever was one which is just fine in this case. The film was a box-office smash, and why not? It’s a comically robust experience.

A likable group of “women of a certain age” conspire to launch a calendar, baring their best assets for all to see. Before this sounds too scandalous or corny, the ladies do it for a good cause and not for any titillating pleasure. The women are British and, while attractive, are average looking gals with womanly figures. These tidbits lead to humorous and embarrassing situations as some of the women are more modest than others especially laid parallel to the conservative and crusty town that they live in. This leads to shocks among the prudish townspeople.

Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are best friends. When Annie’s husband dies of leukemia, they conjure up an idea of creating a nude calendar, where women pose while doing traditional duties like baking and knitting. The proceeds will go to research for the deadly disease. Unexpectedly, Chris and Annie, along with others from the Women’s Institute in which they are members of, achieve worldwide success even invited to Los Angeles to appear on television’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The women clash due to their success and differing lifestyle directions, before reconciling and deciding that their ordinary lives aren’t so bad. They happily resume their nice lives away from the spotlight.

The comparisons to The Full Monty must be mentioned because they are so obvious. Whereas the men in The Full Monty strip on stage, the women prefer more modesty, nestled behind calendars for safety, but both groups hail from the English countryside and are regular folk. Since nudity is the word of the day, both groups possess average bodies and are championing worthy causes. Like it or not, this setup produces giggles.

The “calendar girls” are a relatable group which is marketing genius and allows the film to achieve much merit. Who would care if a bunch of supermodels posed nude while baking cookies? No, the everywoman factor is sky-high, allowing the film to be appreciated and savored.

Because Mirren and Walters, two respected British actresses appear in Calendar Girls, there is an added respectability. After all, would either choose a project less than credible? The obvious answer is they make the film better than it might have been. Penelope Wilton does too. There is a classiness the ladies bring, so that we can sink into our theater seats and revel in the good-natured comedy, assuring ourselves we are seeing something of quality too.

Calendar Girls (2003) is so like The Full Monty that they ought to be watched back to back. Perhaps a naughty night in, with a bottle of wine and some cheese, ready to embark on delights and jolly laughs.

Back to School-1986

Back to School-1986

Director-Alan Metter

Starring-Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, Sally Kellerman

Scott’s Review #1,089

Reviewed December 7, 2020

Grade: B

Back to School (1986) is a formulaic, mid-1980’s comedy featuring obnoxiously loud funnyman, Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian you may love-to-hate. On paper, this film might have been a train wreck, but some proper pacing and good casting save it from being classified as drivel. Let’s be clear- it’s not great film making, but it serves a purpose- to amuse and delight.

Clearly, a vehicle for Dangerfield with a character mirroring his real personality, the film works. With a brisk one hour and thirty-six minutes, the film sticks to the script, not wasting time getting its point across, nor pretending to be some serious film with a clever message. No, there is little special or inventive about the film, but it’s light, entertaining fun.

The premise, a middle-aged man who returns to college and tries to persevere, is a setup rife with standard situations and comedic moments. Director, Alan Metter, known for gag films, this one his most notable, and big studio, Orion, take full advantage of the task at hand. They provide a mainstream, summer popcorn flick approach. Presumably, the story was conjured up by a group tasked with crafting an appropriate story for Dangerfield, and they succeed. The film delivers what it sets out to.

This might be a nice, nostalgic watch for parents and soon to be college-bound kids to watch together.

Thornton Melon (Dangerfield) is a wealthy corporate tycoon who wants his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) to get the college education that Thornton was unable to receive. While Jason is enrolled in college, he is unhappy and ready to quit. Thornton decides to enroll in the same college, determined to achieve his respect. Jason tries to fit in with his peers while Thornton falls in love with his literature professor, the sophisticated Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), while feuding with the college dean, David Martin (Ned Beatty).

Predictably, Thornton is hardly the college type, so he pays others to write his papers for him, which is all the fuel that the dean needs to ruin him. He also attends parties and raucous events, preferring these to study groups. Thornton is eventually found out and forced to pass an exam to prove himself.

A more straight-ahead approach would have been to make Thornton an unsuccessful man, making his need to return to school more important, and the desire for his son to obtain a college education more powerful, but this might have made Back to School too serious a film.

We can ponder why Thornton joining Jason in college will do anything but alienate the kid, and we can ask ourselves why Jason is bullied by the swim team. He is a nice, likeable kid and students aren’t typically bullied in college- this is more a junior high or high school torture. There’s also little reason Diane would have romantic interest in Thornton, and clichéd characters like the dean and Thornton’s bitchy ex-wife, Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) surface along the way. But, Back to School isn’t a film to be overanalyzed either.

On the positive side, the chemistry between Dangerfield and Kellerman is a nice addition, not feeling forced like it might have. They flow through their scenes with a light-hearted innocence. The father and son relationship is a success. Gordon’s brooding counterbalances Dangerfield’s over-the-top nature, so they possess differing personalities.

I’m not sure Back to School (1986) has the legs to be remembered very well. Too similar to other successful comedies of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s like Porky’s (1981) or Animal House (1978) to stand out, the film is for fans of Dangerfield only. Perhaps served up as an opening act to the better and much funnier Caddyshack (1980), one of the best genre films of the decade.

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Sammy Leakey

Scott’s Review #1,088

Reviewed December 5, 2020

Grade: B+

Gretel & Hansel (2020) is not a film with a plot that makes complete sense, but in this instance that’s okay, making the experience creepier by the wonderful trimmings provided. A horror film released in the month of January has the cards stacked against it- most studios use quarter one as a dumping ground for films with little box-office hope or much fanfare. Predictably, the film flopped, but it’s a diamond in the rough.

For fans of horror post 2010, this film immediately reminded me of The Witch, the 2015 independent film, and the directorial debut by director and screenwriter Robert Eggers. The slow pacing and assumed seventeenth century remote village setting is an instant comparison. The dark sets and candle lit scenes grabbed me in their startlingly good ambience.

With exceptional cinematography, eerie lighting and the obvious Brothers Grimm fairy tale theme, always a plus in horror, who cares if the t’s are all crossed. The elements supersede the story, though with a witch and two children at play I was immediately hooked. The follow through is crooked and confusing, not the wrapped up in a bow variety. Expect to be perplexed by the ending.

We are provided a quick story of a little girl wearing a pink dress who frightens the village with her special powers. Because she nearly died as a baby and was taken to an enchantress who saved her life, she is odd. She makes her father commit suicide and causes other deaths, so she is taken to the middle of the forest to fend for herself or starve. She manages to find her own way and makes other children die. Pay close attention because this story will tie into the end of the film.

In present times we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sam Leakey). Gretel is sixteen years old while Hansel is eight. Their mother goes mad and they are forced to provide for themselves as they hit the road. Gretel is both drawn to and fascinated by the story of the girl in the pink dress. They eventually stumble upon a cabin with tons of lovely food, which they hungrily devour. A mysterious woman named Holda/The Witch (Alice Krige) takes them in, but is there a price the children must pay for the riches they enjoy?

Unclear is where the film is set. Is it Germany, where the folklore is derived? Is it supposed to be in the United States? The actors have American accents. It was shot in Ireland, but this hardly matters. It’s a village and a forest in an anywhere land though I fantasized the setting was a northern country like Norway or Finland. Maybe the ambiguity is a good thing.

I like how Gretel & Hansel has a feminist vibe and the perspective is from her point of view. That is why her character is older, hence the title. She is a coming-of-age teenager, so there is a more measured approach. Gretel even has a short pixie, almost boyish herself, giving the character a more modern look. This serves the film well adding an interesting take on the classic fairy tale.

There’s also a weird mommy theme played out in two different stories that end up connecting. Gretel and Hansel’s mother are psychotic while Holda is revealed to be a mother herself and harbors a deep secret about what she does with children who wonder into her house. Spoiler alert- it isn’t good.

The acting is very good especially on the part of Sophia Lillis as Gretel and Alice Krige as Holda. Lillis, an up and coming star after appearing in It (2017) and It: Chapter II (2019) is a talented commodity, while Krige gives Holda a ghastly and convincing persona. She is ambivalent and we mostly don’t know what to make of her, or what her intentions are. Lillis and Krige have delightful chemistry.

The cretins that the children meet along their journey to anywhere are worthy of any devilish story. A creepy gentleman who Gretel intends to cook and clean for to make money eyes her greedily and asks about her virginity. A bald wailing monster chases Gretel & Hansel but is shot by a stranger.

Anyone with a hankering for a good, old-fashioned, ghostly, gothic horror film, Gretel & Hansel (2020) is a recommended watch. The film has a hearty recipe of horror elements like eeriness, dark sets with illuminating lighting, and forbidding sequences in the forest featuring nice production design. It may leave you scratching your head but enjoy the ride.

Airplane!-1980

Airplane!-1980

Director-Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker

Starring-Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty

Scott’s Review #1,087

Reviewed December 2, 2020

Grade: A-

Airplane! (1980) is a landmark film in the spoof genre, leading the pack in the decade of silly (the 1980’s) where films of this ilk and dumb comedies in general became a dime a dozen oversaturating the market. While the film is unabashedly brainless with gags for miles, the jokes work, and the tasteless brand of humor provide plenty of belly laughs.

Better yet, Airplane! never ages, holding up incredibly well long after its initial release. It’s just perfect for a Saturday late-night watch, or when one needs cheering. It’s in my Top 10 of comedies.

When it was originally released, the timing was perfect to spoof the by then aging world of disaster films. I refuse to believe that Jim Abraham and the Zucker brothers had malcontent on their minds since they created a friendly and benevolent yarn that’s just perfectly timed. Good comedy is tough to find, but this film gets it right. The monotone dialogue said with straight faces is what makes the hysterics genuine and palpable.

Not unfairly, is to say that Airplane! is to disaster films what Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was to daytime soap operas. A celebration and a clever wink to each, infusing much needed light-hearted appreciations. It’s fun to re-watch Airport (1970) and Airport ’75 with fresh eyes and a new perspective in parallel to this film.

Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is an ex-fighter pilot traumatized by the war, now working as a taxi driver. He is now terrified of flying despite his previous occupation, His girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Haggerty), conveniently a flight attendant, dumps him just prior to her flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Naturally, Ted throws caution to the wind and boards the flight in hopes of reconciling.

When several of the passengers and flight crew succumb to food poisoning, an inflatable named Otto must steer the plane towards Chicago. The crew convinces Ted to muster up the courage to safely land the plane because Otto cannot do it and subsequently conquer his fear of flying. A perilous yet comical landing ensues, and Ted and Elaine happily reunite.

The plot is a direct steal from Airport ’75 when poor Karen Black’s flight attendant character famously is instructed how to land the aircraft. Until, in sexist fashion, the men arrive to take control, sending her back to serve coffee. This is intentional and spot-on to show the ridiculous nature of that plot point.

The gags are legendary, the “Surely you can’t be serious”, “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” exchange the most famous one, always providing a laugh. The effortless dialogue as inane as it is somehow works exceptionally well and combines brilliantly with the pacing and delivery. It’s like a long and wonderful episode of television’s Saturday Night Live.

The chemistry between Ted and Elaine is very strong, making the audience root for their eventual reconciliation though it’s obvious they will ride off into the proverbial sunset together. Actors, Hays and Hagerty deserve tremendous praise for aligning the characters so well. Also of note, are the efforts of Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves as Doctor Rumack and Captain Oveur, respectively. Nielsen would subsequently become famous for spoof films, none of them as good as Airplane!

I’ll never profess to be a slapstick person, but Airplane! (1980) is one that I embrace, undoubtedly because of my love for disaster films and fondness for airplanes. Advisable is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the zany ride that this satirical and very funny film offers.

Cats-2019

Cats-2019

Director-Tom Hooper

Starring-Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson

Scott’s Review #1,086

Reviewed November 27, 2020

Grade: C

Branded with the pesky “one of the worst film’s of all time” title, the 2019 rendition of Cats, made famous by the 1981 Broadway show, has also been met with “it’s so bad it’s bad” jokes and snickers at its mere mention. While it’s not quite abysmal as a total package, the derision is justified mostly because the cat characters look beyond strange. The studio scrambled the film into theaters just in the nick of time so it would receive Oscar consideration. It backfired and the film received no nominations.

Unsurprisingly, Cats was a box-office disaster.

I’m going to defend Cats…..slightly. Sometimes a film with so much promise and possibility become like the poor kid on the school playground; bullied because somebody must be the outcast. It’s not fair, but there it is.

Having never seen the Broadway musical despite living just outside of New York City my entire life and the show running for forever, the premise seems silly enough. A band of singing felines spend one memorable night in a London junkyard belting out musical numbers as they look forward to an upcoming ball, and take a young, abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) under their wing.

Many characters (all cats) are introduced at various periods of time through song. Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) and Asparagus (Ian McKellen) are the senior members, providing wisdom and stoicism. Idris Elba plays the mischievous Macavity, while Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, the outcast cat once a legend at the theater, but now in tatters. Finally, Rebel Wilson and James Corden provide comic relief as Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, respectively.

The unwieldly cast featuring more than a handful of respected Hollywood legends and A-list stars leads me to believe that the studio and film makers had high hopes for the project. At a budget of 100 million, expectations were high, but things quickly went south. Respected director, Tom Hooper, well-known for churning out the powerful The King’s Speech (2010) and Les Misérables (2012) was awarded the embarrassing Golden Raspberry awards for Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. Yikes!

Okay, the art direction and the set design are fantastic and the high point of the film. Once I was quickly over the plot, garish costumes, and weird choreography, I immersed myself in the look and the production values, thankful that someone did their job correctly.

The colors are glossy and bright, giving a shimmering, lush tone that dazzled me. The London backdrop is magnificent, and many scenes provide glimpses of Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and other lovely landmarks. The rundown theater set is a highlight and adds murky and dusty atmosphere, creatively done.

The songs start out shaky, but quickly escalate into respectability and even grandiose pizazz. Teetering too long in the first act with a seemingly never ending “Overture” and “The Naming of Cats”, the film finally evens out with the best numbers in the production. The gorgeous and powerful “Memory” introduces the wonderful “Beautiful Ghosts” and fortunately are reprised later. Hudson nearly deserves a second Oscar for her haunting rendition of “Memory” while Hayward does well with “Beautiful Ghosts”.

That’s where the positives end.

Stalwarts, Dench, McKellen, Hudson, and newcomer Hayward perform their parts with dignity and refined professionalism, but it’s hard not to giggle anytime they are onscreen. Not that this is their fault and hopefully they were spared watching dailies or attending the film premiere. At least they can console themselves with a hefty paycheck. Each looks beyond ridiculous in their costumes, looking like a cross between a human being in bad attire and a strange creature from another planet.

This is what happens when things are half done. Any attempts to re-release the film with “improved effects” seem desperate and unprofessional.

The problem is not only that the actors look funny, but that it distracts from any other real enjoyment because a viewer will need to talk about the costumes above and beyond any other aspects. Each character looks awkward and uncomfortable with misused CGI and weird creeping, crawling, and prancing around the stage…..or in this case film set.

Besides the two awesome musical numbers, Cats feels watered down and not about anything specific, lacking any deeper meaning I picked up on. At the end of the day, it’s merely about a bunch of cats singing songs, occasionally hissing or swatting at each other for effect.

Andrew Lloyd Weber’s beloved stage musical will take time to recover from the film version of Cats (2019). Advisable is to watch the film once to experience and elicit a reaction, then put the film away in a secure box forever and pretend it never happened.

Air Force One-1997

Air Force One-1997

Director-Wolfgang Petersen

Starring-Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close

Scott’s Review #1,085

Reviewed November 21, 2020

Grade: B+

If ever a straight-ahead, summer blockbuster, popcorn flick ever existed, Air Force One (1997) is it. Surprisingly, this is not a bad thing. It’s not cerebral, but it’s never dull. The film has hooks and muscle, and assembles a thrill ride, edge-of-your-seat action fest. Some would say this is just what the doctor ordered, and they’d be right, provided the mood is for a mind escaping, meat and potatoes affair.

Air Force One is pure Americana. With a patriotic musical score and a clear hero and villain, it’s easy to know who to root for. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory since some scenes are as implausible as Santa Claus really shimmying down a chimney on Christmas Eve, but the film is entertaining and fun. The action is non-stop.

At the tail end of his prime action star years (the 1980’s and 1990’s), Harrison Ford stars as the president of the United States of America, James Marshall. After making a bombastic speech in Moscow vowing never to negotiate with terrorists, a group of them led by the dastardly Ivan (Gary Oldman) hijack Air Force One with the president and his family on board. Marshall, a former soldier, hides in the cabin of the plane and races against time to save his family and those aboard the flight from the terrorists.

The plot is implausible and hokey and reeks of plot points to carry the story along, but surprisingly, the film works. There is no way a president would ever race around performing stunts aboard an airplane, conquering the villains like clockwork. But Ford has the charisma to make us believe it could happen, and his character is a family man, a Vietnam veteran, and a Medal of Honor recipient. Can this guy be any more perfect?

Oldman, always reliable as a villain, is perfectly cast. His character’s motivations are simplistic and nationalistic. Ivan believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union has ruined his country and somehow it’s the fault of the United States. The reasoning is silly, but it’s in keeping with the patriotic nature of Air Force One- the us versus them mentality. United States is good; Russia is bad. It’s what middle America wants, and the target audience of this film is clear. Back to the Cold War.

Wolfgang Petersen, who directs the picture, knows his way around the action genre. After all, he crafted the memorable Das Boot (1981) and Outbreak (1995). The film has a Tom Clancy-Patriot Games meets Die Hard (1988) style. Petersen meshes the score with the quick editing style to layer the film with more action than slowed down conversational scenes. We know how it’s going to end but enjoy the ride.

Looking closely, the film is not just for the guys. Glenn Close is cast as a female Vice President and a strong gender twisting presence. Kathryn Bennett is a bold, careful woman and the implication is that she is more than capable of taking over should anything happen to the president. Her scenes mostly take place in the White House Situation Room and provide a nice calm as she is pressured by Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) to declare the president incapable. The scenes between Stockwell and Close are very strong.

Air Force One (1997) is cliché-riddled and mainstream Hollywood creation to the max. Both the pacing and the pulsating style make the film a guilty pleasure and is quite enjoyable. When the mood strikes to kick back and relax with a fun, action-packed affair, this one is your choice. Just don’t dissect the details too much or expect real-life to mimic art.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound, Best Film Editing

Psychomania-1973

Psychomania-1973

Director-Don Sharp

Starring-Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, George Sanders

Scott’s Review #1,084

Reviewed November 19, 2020

Grade: B-

Psychomania (1973) is a film that has an intriguing premise turned messy and confusing by aspects not coming together. A motorcycle gang wreaking havoc on their English small town decides to kill themselves and come back from the dead to live forever. They intend to do so with the aid of witchcraft and a sinister cult. Unfortunately, neither the gang come back to everlasting life nor does the premise provide an adequate payoff. The film meanders along without much intrigue or interest except for an above-average finale. But even that is too little, too late.

Renowned film and television actor, George Sanders, famous for powerful roles in classics like Rebecca (1940) and All About Eve (1950), in which he won an Academy Award, and numerous other roles, co-stars as a butler.

His role in Psychomania is barely more than a throwaway part since he has little interest to do. Hardly the crowning achievement of his long career, he committed suicide soon after the shooting wrapped. Star, Nicky Henson joked that Sanders saw the finished film and overdosed on pills, realizing how far his career had descended. Hopefully, that’s an urban legend.

Beryl Reid, wonderfully bitchy in The Killing of Sister George (1968) as a lesbian soap opera star is similarly downgraded, playing a glamorous matron who gets her kicks by holding seances for her neighbors. She is the mother of the psychopathic leader of a violent teen gang.

Tom Latham (Henson) is the handsome leader of “The Living Dead”, said motorcycle gang, who enjoy driving around town intimidating folks. He is joined by his pretty girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin), who is good-natured and not as rebellious as the others. Tom has time to flirt with other girls and uses his good looks to his advantage. He is in cahoots with his mother (Reid), and they have a penchant for frogs and black magic.

The gang decides, through Tom’s encouragement, to each commit suicide and if they really believe in it, they will return as one of the “undead”. Each follows suit, except for Abby, and engages in ritualistic activities at their hangout, “The Seven Witches”, which is a poor man’s Stonehenge. They decide to kill Abby because of her defiance.

The DVD quality (mine anyway) was atrocious and did the film no favors. My enjoyment would have increased if the luscious English landscape and its vibrant colors could have been capitalized on. Mrs. Latham’s home, filled with creative antiques and oddities, would have been enhanced with better quality.

The story never comes together. I like the main character of Tom and find his sneering and posturing appealing in a light-hearted way. Henson is way too good-looking to be believable as a foreboding and crazy guy, but he sure is easy on the eyes. No chemistry is to be found between him and Larkin, but they are cast well for this type of film- looks over acting talent. Neither is terrible in the acting department nor great either.

The supporting characters look very British and of the 1970s, which is to be expected. This isn’t an annoyance as much as an astute observance. From the doctors who perform the autopsies to the constables, to the chief inspector, everyone looks their part. Psychomania has a 1970’s look and feels, so it ultimately feels like a dated film because there is not much else to distinguish it from others. It’s adequate, but little more.

On the positive, some of the music is chirpy and hip, which adds a bit of an upbeat, contemporary vibe. The numerous motorcycle scenes make me wonder if a motorcycle company has stock in the film but surprisingly works.

The film, targeted as a horror film, is a strange one to categorize. The cult and witchcraft elements give off that vibe. The title of Psychomania (1973) creates a motorcycle/horror effect. I’m not sure what to make of this film other than a sleazy, greasy, devil-worshipping mess. Poor Don Sharp, well-known for directing many Hammer horror films, seems not to know what to do with the silly script he is handed. It’s a goofy comedy or straight-ahead horror?

Horror of Dracula-1958

Horror of Dracula-1958

Director-Terence Fisher

Starring-Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee

Scott’s Review #1,083

Reviewed November 17, 2020

Grade: B+

The first colorized retelling of the classic vampire film starring Bela Lugosi from 1931, Horror of Dracula (1958) infuses style and a modern feel into the production making it a formidable entry as compared to the original. The film launched the popular and delightful British Hammer Horror film series, which included eight Dracula sequels.

British horror films nearly always add macabre elements and a British sophistication that merge class with gothic, and the film is a perfect late-night watch during the Halloween season for maximum effect. The atmospheric tone is key and will leave horror fans in bliss. The addition of horror stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee only increase the pleasures.

On a gloomy night in 1885, a librarian named Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at Count Dracula’s castle in Romania to begin his new assignment. Secretly a vampire hunter, he is bitten by a desperate woman, really a vampire, begging for help. Jonathan manages to kill the woman but is then killed by Dracula (Lee). Doctor Van Helsing (Cushing) arrives at the castle to investigate, but Dracula already has designs on Jonathan’s fiancée, Lucy (Carol Marsh). A battle of good versus evil ensues.

Lee brings sexuality to Dracula that Lugosi lacks, though Lugosi is the creepier of the two. I love the close-up scenes where Dracula bears his enormous fangs and his eyes turn red in good close-up style. The casting of Lee is perfect as he becomes identifiable even in the first installment. I also love how Lee is a tall man, giving the character a menacing, foreboding, distinguished look. Many might secretly welcome him nibbling on their necks!

Cushing, later to be cast as villains, is wonderful as the empathetic Van Helsing. Lee and Cushing play well against each other. Van Helsing is stoic and confident as he smoothly leads the charge against Dracula and guides Jonathan’s loved ones into unchartered and unimaginable territory. It’s almost as if he has been through this before. A great scene occurs when Van Helsing arrives in town for a brandy and a drink at the local pub, its inhabitants suspicious and frightened, draping garlic over the entryway and hoping he will leave soon.

The best part of House of Dracula is the atmosphere that we are treated to and the color really razzles dazzles. The story is very good, but the texture powerfully shines through. Careful not to be too showy, director Terence Fisher, soon to be a Hammer horror main fixture, uses his limited budget to his advantage in clever form.

Fisher realized his project was a colorized version and created a polished looking, colorful, stained glass window, prevalent in several scenes. Dracula’s castle, and especially the bedroom where Jonathan stayed, is part cozy and homespun, part gothic and chilling. The cellar crypt is equally vast yet confining, as the open coffins provide wonders of who lies in them. The plethora of books elicits a cerebral feeling.

The finale is well done, but not as spectacular as expected. Other parts are better. Van Helsing chases Dracula in a race against the sunrise, ripping curtains down to provide harsh light, and turning Dracula to dust. I was expecting a little more gusto and more blood or a good stake through the heart. Fortunately, that entertainment was provided earlier in the film.

Shamefully, having never read the 1897 Gothic horror novel written by Bram Stroker (it’s on my list!), my understanding is that the film is pretty on target. The film bestows creepy elements and sexuality with great color, lighting, and set design. The lesson learned is that a hefty budget and CGI can’t replicate the creative design and good effects.

Corpus Christi-2019

Corpus Christi-2019

Director-Jan Komasa

Starring-Bartosz Bielenia

Scott’s Review #1,082

Reviewed November 14, 2020

Grade: A-

Questions of faith and redemption enshroud the powerful film, Corpus Christi (2019), directed by Jan Komasa, a Polish filmmaker. Many viewers will not possess the patience to get through the slow pace of the film, but I’ve seen enough of these quiet films to know that the payoff is usually worth the time invested. I was right and there is a prize to be awarded at the end of the film while gradually sucking the viewer in along the way.

Komasa creates some beautiful camera work and shows what life is like in a small Polish village, but the culminating story and its afterthought is the main attraction. I imagined myself living in this sleepy village where church and religion are the main highlights, while scandal and gossip seep below the surface. The church where some of the action takes place is stunningly beautiful.

Juvenile delinquent, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) resides in a Warsaw detention center, serving time for second-degree murder. He has bonded with the resident priest, Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat), and spiritually awakened, determined to become a priest himself. He is disappointed to learn this is an impossibility because of his conviction. Released and sent to work doing manual labor in a sawmill, Daniel stops in the village church to pray and pretends to be a priest. Assuming he is a real priest, the local priest asks him to temporarily fill in for him, which he eagerly does.

The main ingredient of the story is the plight of Daniel and his yearning for redemption, and this is wise on the part of the screenwriter (Mateusz Pacewicz). In a more conventional story, Daniel might pretend to be a priest to avoid capture or a redundant existence at the sawmill. Instead, Daniel desires to be a priest and he wants to do right by the parishioners who warm to his overt and unconventional style. He is seen as a leader and a moral compass, and Daniel adores and needs that.

Others side stories emerge to compliment the main story and flesh out the happenings even more. This gives supporting characters more to do than merely support Daniel’s story. This is a refreshing choice and makes it more of an ensemble piece.

A recent car wreck has devastated the village, angering the inhabitants. The driver, reportedly a drunk, killed several teenagers and himself in the crash. His widow bears the rage of the villagers, receiving hate letters and nasty notes written on her house. Marta (Eliza Rycembel), whose brother died in the accident, sympathizes with the widow and wants the driver to be buried alongside the other victims, but everyone else refuses.

Marta’s mother, a religious woman, is conflicted and devastated. The mayor supports the villagers in their anger, even going so far as threatening Daniel. A fellow inmate spots Daniel and blackmails him. Marta and Daniel begin an affair. There is so much going on with the different characters that the film could be turned into a miniseries. Despite the slow pace, I became fully enveloped in the lives of the villagers and began to care about other character’s conflict, not only Daniel’s.

Inevitably, questions will need to be answered. When will Daniel be found out? Who will rat him out or who will harbor his secret? What will happen to him if he is discovered? How will Marta react to the news? These questions constantly went through my mind as the plot unfolded which kept me wonderfully engaged.

Bielenia is fantastic in the lead role. The complexities of Daniel are seen during intense sequences when he abuses drugs, has tawdry sex, and bludgeons a fellow inmate during a bloody fight. He is not always the peaceful young man befitting of a priest. But that makes the character nuanced and complicated.

Corpus Christi is about conflict and character’s wrestling with their demons. It’s a character study. Marta, her mother, the widow, the priest at the youth detention center, and Daniel’s prison buddy, are all multi-dimensional. Each of the central character’s face a demon: regret, sorrow, conflict. This is what makes the film so intriguing.

The events unfold at a slow, but steady pace sure to enrapture the thinking man’s viewer. A similar American film would be Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring Ethan Hawke. Corpus Christi (2019) needs no explosions, CGI effects, bombs, or car chases to grip the viewer and provide a truthful story based on honest emotion.

Oscar Nominations: Best International Film

House of Wax-1953

House of Wax-1953

Director-Andre De Toth

Starring-Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk

Scott’s Review #1,081

Reviewed November 13, 2020

Grade: B+

House of Wax (1953) is a classic horror film that should be watched by anyone with a fondness for the genre as the macabre elements make it a must-see. Be sure to watch the 1953 version and not the mediocre 2005 remake that starred Paris Hilton with a severely changed storyline. Interestingly, the 1950’s version is a remake of a 1933 film named Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I was not aware of until recently. Pre-code 1930’s horror is brilliant, so I cannot wait to watch this offering soon.

The production has the honor of being the first color 3-D film released by a major film studio and the result is stylish and impressive for that early in cinema. If this isn’t enough, the incomparable Vincent Price also has the starring role. With these riches, one could anticipate a masterpiece like Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933). It’s not quite on that level with a B-movie vibe but rises immensely in respectability with exquisite human art, a chilling premise, and a lesson in historical figures of long ago. The film is a very short eighty-eight minutes.

The haunting and atmospheric opening titles, to immediately showcase the 3-D, appear in the first shot, alongside a rainy and dreary New York City set. The time is the early 1900’s. Director, Andre De Toth makes clear to his audience that it’s a 3-D film with the bold title leaping out of the screen within seconds. This sets the tone perfectly as the illustrious wax museum set is up next. Wax creations like Marie Antoinette, John Wilkes Booth, and Joan of Arc pose in the vast gallery.

Henry Jarrod (Price) is a Professor who views his creations as his children, each unique and human-like to him. Marie is his ultimate masterpiece and one wonders if she is his fantasy wife. His business partner, Burke (Roy Roberts) wants out of their partnership and goes to drastic measures to gain insurance money. He sets fire to the museum which burns to the ground, horribly disfiguring Henry. The Professor goes off the deep end and rebuilds the museum using real human beings that he steals from the morgue! Frankenstein’s influence is obvious.

Other than Price, the star of the film is the wax museum, almost a character, but never upstages Price. Henry is both sympathetic and menacing, and I felt sorry for the guy. Not only is his house of wax destroyed, but he has a disfigured face for life. His insurance policy benefit is of little comfort, nor is killing the man responsible for his misfortune.

I guess we are supposed to root for Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) and Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni), who are the main couple, and attempt to solve the mystery of why the wax figures look like dead people they know. They are not the strongest element of the film, though. Like other famous horror villains Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, Henry is appealing, and we like him.

I would have liked to learn more about Henry before his ruination. Besides a brief tour of his museum, where he cleverly describes each work, we don’t know much about his life. He is creepy, but what else? Has he ever married? What are his parents like?

Charles Bronson and Carolyn Jones have small roles as Henry’s mute assistant Igor and Burke’s gold-digging girlfriend, Cathy, respectively. This is fun since both went on to legendary careers in film and television.

A must-see for anyone studying cinematic technique or good horror trimmings, House of Wax (1953) contains state-of-the-art effects for the time, illuminating gas-lit streets of New York City, and a finale that includes a boiling hot vat of molten wax (what else!) that clearly inspired a James Bond film. These facets are nice, but any horror film starring Vincent Price is worth the price of admission.

The Nightcomers-1972

The Nightcomers-1972

Director-Michael Winner

Starring-Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham

Scott’s Review #1,080

Reviewed November 11, 2020

Grade: B-

The Nightcomers (1972) is a disappointing prequel to Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which had already been adapted into the 1961 film The Innocents. The dreadful title is neither catchy nor means anything specific to the film. The lackluster and unmemorable result is jarring given the masterpiece that is The Innocents. Unclear is whether the intention was to build on the film or directly base it on the novella forgetting The Innocents. Not worth the effort is to ruminate over the answer.

The most interesting comparison is that the film was released the same year as The Godfather (1972), in which the iconic role of Vito Corleone, the mafia head of household, and arguably the best role of Marlon Brando’s career, was created. Mirrored against his role as a bizarre gardener named Peter Quint, with a broken Irish accent, one can guess why one role is memorable and why the other isn’t.

Flora (Verna Harvey) and Miles (Christopher Ellis) are recently orphaned children living in a vast English estate. Their absent guardian pays for the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird), and governess, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) to keep things running smoothly. Jessel and Peter embark on a torrid and sometimes abusive relationship that the children witness and emulate through play-acting. Flora and Miles suffer from isolation and must use their imaginations to make the best of their idle days.

Watching in sequence with The Innocents is not encouraged. The Nightcomers is best served as a stand-alone product. The events and continuity are muddy and will confuse the most astute viewer. Flora is much older than she is in The Innocents even though the action takes place before those events. The characters being played by different actors doesn’t help. Finally, The Nightcomers contains none of the ghostly mystique and spookiness that The Innocents do. So, it is advisable is to watch putting The Innocents out of mind.

Admittedly, events do come together in the final act and the best part of the film. When two simultaneous deaths occur, they are quite shocking and powerfully filmed. I felt more emotionally invested during the final ten-minute sequence than I had for the rest of the film.

Brando has one emotional scene worthy of his talents. Given the actor’s powerful chops, he can make any scene believable, but this is cream of the crop material. Stephanie Beacham is an okay casting choice, but I never felt the chemistry or connection between Jessel and Quint. Their relationship didn’t work for me. Suspension of disbelief is required to power through a scene where a character drowns in what looks like two feet of water, making the scene lose some power.

Harvey and Ellis as the children are okay but nothing spectacular. I am jaded to compare again to The Innocents, but those actors are just better and more haunting, especially the character of Miles. The subject of mental illness and the questioning of reality versus imagination is not as explored in The Nightcomers.

The production is not a total dud, containing enough exterior elements of the plush and English landscape to please and make viewers feel they are on the country manor themselves. The interior scenes are just as good. The children gallop through the enormous house to their heart’s delight making the viewer feel like a kid along with them.

The sadomasochistic scenes between Peter and Miss Jessel are quite titillating and border on the X-rated. During the bedroom scenes, I nearly blushed from embarrassment. But, as erotic as they are they also don’t do much to further the plot or add to the story. They have a kinky sex life- so what? There is also a weird suggestion of incest since Flora and Miles imitate what Quint and Jessel do, how far would they take it? The plot has the good possibilities, but the film and the direction are not executed well, and things don’t come together.

If you’ve never heard of The Innocents (1961) then The Nightcomers (1972) is recommended. If viewing a cinematic masterpiece is desired, however, stick with the former and never look back.

House of Dark Shadows-1970

House of Dark Shadows-1970

Director-Dan Curtis

Starring-Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall

Scott’s Review #1,079

Reviewed November 9, 2020

Grade: B

House of Dark Shadows (1970) is undoubtedly meant mostly as a treat for fans of the popular gothic soap-opera, Dark Shadows, which aired on ABC television from 1966-1971. The soap was groundbreaking for its gloominess and its focus on the world of vampires, eliminating the tried and true apple pie wholesomeness of serials like As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. The film was an enormous hit with followers at the time of release and while it can be enjoyed by all, it screams of having a specific target audience in mind.

Released during the height of the television show’s popularity in 1970, it must have been enthralling to be the first feature film based on a daytime soap opera. And how exciting for fans to see their favorites on the silver screen. I tried to keep this in mind as I was watching, and it helped me enjoy it more. In later years I watched bits of season one, so some knowledge exists.

If memory serves, some of the action happens in the series and in the film (like Barnabas rising from his coffin), but that doesn’t seem important and served as more of a recap to me. The film is entertaining enough on its own merits in a spooky, atmospheric way, although besides more blood and chills, it follows the same formula that the series did.

Our star, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerges from his coffin in the family mausoleum much to the chagrin of the family handyman and introduces himself to the Collins family as a distant cousin from England.

He has an uncanny resemblance to a figure on a portrait displayed in the estate that is over a hundred years old. A fancy ball is thrown to celebrate the family where Barnabas bites Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) turning her into a vampire. He quickly becomes obsessed with governess Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) while awakening suspicions in psychologist, Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall).

The whole package is stylish and haunting with lots of necessary goth attire like coffins, capes, fangs, and blood-red lips. The production style is appealing and not the least bit cheesy or amateurish.

The famous Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York was used during the shoot and with good results. The interior lavish, the exterior is just as grand with lush grounds and a hidden driveway being useful to the plot. The eerie attic with macabre and stifling trimmings is vital in one scene. This works much better than a studio set, and the overall production is superior to the series.

The final thirty minutes or so is the best part with a cool Hammer horror likeness. When Julia gives Barnabas, a powerful injection meant to cause him to age rapidly, all hell breaks loose. You see, while Barnabas is obsessed with Maggie, Julia is secretly in love with Barnabas, so the dramatic soap opera necessities are intact. The makeup during this sequence is highly effective and downright creepy.

Other characters are likable and respectable to the film, but the acting isn’t so great, which reduces the believability factor just a bit. Stalwarts like Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Roger Davis as Jeff Clark, and David Henesy as little David Collins have prominent roles. It’s an ensemble effort as each character has something to do to support the main story. This is a nice add-on and gives everyone time to shine.

Regardless of knowledge of the daytime drama series, one can enjoy the film on its own merits, though how exciting it must have been for fans to see their favorites on the silver screen in 1970. I am not sure how many viewers will need to invest in the film because it feels like a reward for viewers of the series and in the present-day a retro nostalgic experience. The series was again celebrated in a film with the mediocre 2012 effort entitled Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp.

House of Dark Shadows (1970) is a compelling watch around Halloween time since it has nice autumnal, gothic elements fitting for the season of the witch. The ghastly (in a good way) makeup and bloody bites and pretty people turned vampires, suffering from stakes through the heart is worth the watch.

The Concorde…Airport ’79-1979

The Concorde…Airport ’79-1979

Director-David Lowell Rich

Starring-Alain Delon, Susan Blakely, George Kennedy

Scott’s Review #1,078

Reviewed November 7, 2020

Grade: B

The fourth and final installment of the popular Airport film franchise, The Concorde…Airport ’79 (1979) has an appealing and sophisticated international flavor, mainly French culture, that may turn off some viewers seeking a more traditional and domestic offering. The three previous installments contained a wholesome Americana quality that is lacking in this one. The rich culture is the high point for me in a film that by all accounts is not very good. By the late 1970’s the disaster genre had all but crashed and burned so the film was commercially unsuccessful, and the franchise thus abandoned.

The plot is utterly ridiculous even by disaster standards and my hunch is that ideas of what could possibly go wrong on an airplane were hard to find. After all, it’s not easy to top an airliner crashing and sinking into the ocean, leaving most passengers unscathed. This time we experience an airplane flying upside down (more than once!), nose-diving (more than once!), and nearly doing backflips and summersaults (more than once!). Disappointing is the limited amount of deaths that occur despite these treacheries unless you count a shooting inside an apartment and a suicide that have little to do with the plane ride.

Back to my original point, the cultured and vibrant foreign presence, specifically Paris and its lustrous and historic offerings, is the high point of The Concorde…Airport ’79. The City of Lights is heavily featured as a team of American Olympic athletes is traveling from Washington D.C. to Moscow by way of a layover at Charles De Galle airport. The heavenly site of the Eifel Tower is an immediate identifier as French pilot, Captain Paul Metrand (Alain Delon), flies the state-of-the-art Concorde to the United States to transport its passengers to the games.

There is a strong French flavor to this film. During the Paris layover, George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni, now a pilot, befriends a gorgeous woman named Francine, who he bonds with over dinner. They, and others, embark on a fabulous French bistro and have the time of their lives. Who cares that she is later revealed to be a prostitute? The setting oozes with French goodness, food, and sexy accents.

One peculiarity is why the trip goes from Paris to Washington D.C. back to Paris and then on to Moscow. It’s a bit confusing and unnecessary. Unintentionally funny is how the Concorde is attacked by a drone in route to Paris, then a bomb is planted on the plane before takeoff to Moscow. Trouble occurs in the same plane with the same passengers. You would think anyone with half a brain would sit the second leg out, perhaps hopping on the nearest boat or train out of town.

The main story is secondary and quite superfluous. Robert Wagner plays Kevin Harrison, a corrupt arms dealer who plots the destruction of the Concorde because news reporter and girlfriend, Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) has evidence of his weapons sales to communists. He plans to blow up the plane, killing all the passengers, instead of hiring an assassin to kill only Maggie when she lands and before she can tell authorities. The plot is completely story driven.

Several celebrity cameos are added mostly for comic relief and largely go nowhere. Jimmie Walker as the pot smoking, saxophone playing Boise, and Martha Raye’s bathroom crazed Loretta are ridiculous by any standards. Charo’s one scene as Margarita, a woman who sneaks her dog on board and is subsequently kicked off the flight is a time waste. I would have rather witnessed another scene of Loretta needing to use the restroom or Boise getting high. And Susan Blakely overacts throughout the film.

Despite all these hard knocks, The Concorde…Airport ’79 (1979) is good entertaining fun, not to be taken seriously, and encouraged for fans of the genre. There is much fun to be had with the guest stars, once A-list, now B or C list, and the crash-landing finale over the snowy Alps is pretty cool. Just know what you are getting yourself into.

Land of the Dead-2005

Land of the Dead-2005

Director-George A. Romero

Starring-Simon Baker, John Leguizamo

Scott’s Review #1,077

Reviewed November 6, 2020

Grade: C+

Land of the Dead (2005) is a post-apocalyptic horror film written and directed by George A. Romero, the fourth of Romero’s six Living Dead movies, preceded by Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). The result is a mediocre effort, plagued by poor acting and too much silliness. The goofy nature of the film negates any sense of foreboding or dread despite there being plenty of zombies.

The result is camp over horror instead of a blended mix of both which would have worked better.  To compare Land of the Dead to Night or Dawn is a tough ask since the formers are so much better and have political points to make. There is nothing like that in Land of the Dead besides a weak side story about class distinction that goes nowhere, and some jokes about the Bush regime. That’s a shame because it would have made the film more relevant.

What we are served is a healthy dose of shoot ’em up or slice ’em up scenes where zombie heads or some other appendage are blown or sliced off. This is fun for a while, but I wanted something more. Wisely, and staying true to the other films, the events are set around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which helps with continuity. The geographical reference to the famous “three rivers” immediately identifying the city is used.

As events kick off we learn that the zombie population has outnumbered the human population forcing the humans to barricade themselves within a structured community for safety. There exist the haves who live in a luxury high-rise and the have-nots who survive in squalor. Dennis Hopper plays the rigid government figure, Paul Kaufman, and our good guy is the handsome Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) who provides aid to those in need.

Conflict erupts when it’s discovered that the zombies exhibit superior intelligence. They storm the gates of the city in droves and wreak havoc on the people of the community. Other characters along for the ride are Cholo (John Leguizamo), Slack (Asia Argento- yes, daughter of famous horror director Dario Argento), and Charlie (Robert Joy). The rest of the film is a battle between good and evil (the zombies and greedy Paul) and not much else. Why do the zombies exhibit advanced intelligence? Are they cloning or are more humans becoming zombies? These questions are not answered.

Creatively, Land of the Dead looks good. It is stylistic, dark, and mysterious. Scenes where zombies parade around in misty and gloomy conditions are cool. The slicker and more commercial style gives a modern and fresh look and feel. Reminiscent of 28 Days Later, the 2002 offering by Danny Boyle, that’s not a bad thing though it’s tepid for Romero. 28 Days Later rejuvenated the zombie genre so patterning after it doesn’t hurt Land of the Dead.

Another positive is the homoerotic nature of the relationship between Cholo and Mike (Shawn Roberts), a rookie. Both masculine and aggressive, there exists a hint of tenderness and a closeness that feels romantic. When Mike is bitten and commits suicide to avoid turning, Cholo is devastated, implying that they might have shared a close background. Unfortunately, this is never explored after Mike’s death.

On that note, the characters are not particularly interesting nor crafted well. Paul is merely bad, while Riley is heroic. Cholo is angry and rebellious, while Slack is a prostitute. Charlie is the sidekick. Everyone has their place, but little of substance is given about their past lives, their hopes for the future, or anything more than escaping the zombies. I get that’s the goal, but more personal stuff would have been better.

The rest is what you would expect from a zombie film and nothing more, which feels lazy of Romero especially since he wrote the screenplay. He tends to deliver better product with some meaning or interpretation. In Dawn of the Dead, for example, the zombies sought the mall because it was familiar to them. One could argue that a city and its lights offer more of the same, but this feels weak and has already been explored. I guess I was expecting more of something that would grab me into the world of the film and nothing ever did.

A forgettable affair, Land of the Dead (2005) does not require repeated viewings as its predecessors do. This film was one and done for me. Some trimmings and entertainment exist, but I yearned for more substance than a standard, Saturday late-night zombie-fest. There are enough of those already.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders-1970

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders-1970

Director-Jaromil Jires

Starring-Jaroslava Schallerova

Scott’s Review #1,076

Reviewed October 30, 2020

Grade: B+

One of the oddest films I’ve ever laid eyes on, the best way to view a film like Valerie and Her Week of Wonder (1970) is to absorb it and let it either pull you in or turn you off. The cadence is to feel the film and then search for any semblance of meaning or interpretation later, or perhaps never.

The genre or genres best to categorize the film art cinema meets fantasy meets horror meets fairy tale. Is it ever a bizarre experience. If one is to take hallucinogens first, this film is a recommended watch. The production is Czech and is translated to Valerie a týden divů in its native language. 

The story involves a week in the life of Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and the weird and sexual thoughts and desires she encounters while blossoming. She encounters witchcraft, vampires, and a bizarre Constable, who wears a mask. Valerie is raised by the strangest grandmother (Helena Anýžová) imaginable, who morphs into other characters named Mother and Redhead. Valerie does not live a boring life. One poster for the film is of a blooming flower with splotches of blood that can be interpreted as a girl losing her virginity.

To delve much further into the plot than a quick summary is wasteful because it doesn’t really make very much sense. Such activities such as Valerie’s grandmother making a pact with vampires to keep her young forever, Valerie lying in a coffin surrounded by rotten apples, and being burned at the stake, and finally being followed and menaced by her priest, are a few of the shenanigans the film presents. This is shrouded by some of the loveliest photography and scenery you’ve ever seen.

The creativity and the experimental nature of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are what will allure an open-eyed viewer seeking something left-of-center….very left-of-center. The story is secondary. The medieval landscape is gothic and haunting, perfect for evil-doings and strangeness. Not to harp on this point, but the look of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is the money shot. All else can be left by the sidelines.

The perspective is all Valerie’s, which is nice in an early 1970’s feminist way. It feels like Valerie is changing from girl to woman and a strong one at that. She is coming into her own after facing and challenging demons. In the mix is a handsome man who titillates Valerie. I felt like I was emerging into the girl’s subconscious and experiencing her fears and desires alongside her.

Critically speaking, I would have preferred a little more logic and wrap-up, but that’s just me. Surely, not a realistic interpretation, was the girl dreaming while asleep or merely delving into fantasy one day? The more I tried to follow the story and put together the pieces like working on a puzzle, the less this did me any favors. I then decided to space out and indulge in the other lovelies included. I should have done this from the beginning.

I am unsure how many Czech films I have seen if any, but Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a clear example of what Czech filmmakers can do and it’s crazy what they can come up with. The mystique is likely multiplied on American audiences and a viewer used to more formulaic approaches to film. With a desire for more put-together stories and logic, I nonetheless admired this film for the magic and style offered.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd

Scott’s Review #1,075

Reviewed October 27, 2020

Grade: A-

Deserving of the Best Actress statuette she won for her role, Ellen Burstyn carries the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) from start to finish with drama and comedy. I can’t watch any performance of Burstyn’s without smarting at how she lost the same award years later after her frighteningly good performance in Requiem for a Dream released in 2000. She was defeated by Julia Roberts, who gave an adequate though unexceptional performance in Erin Brockovich (2000). But, I digress.

A character study Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells the powerful story of a woman (Burstyn) forced to begin a new life and forge her own path after her husband is killed in a car accident. She is thirty-five years old and wary of middle age approaching as she pursues a singing career. She is joined by her young son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) and faces fear and loneliness as the pair embarks on a journey throughout the south western United States. She dates, fights, and soul-searches, finally landing a job as a waitress at a roadside diner.

On paper this film could have been reduced to television movie status as the premise sounds kind of corny and sentimental. Shocking to me is that Martin Scorsese directed it. Best known for male driven mobster pictures like Goodfellas (1993), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Irishman (2019), an introspective female journey film doesn’t seem like his thing. A fun fact is that he agreed to direct at Burstyn’s urging as she wouldn’t have starred in it otherwise. The actress surmised that the script needed more darkness and grit, which it contains without losing its heart.

A strange yet lovely photographed scene kicks off the picture and seems to be an homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939). With a dusty, golden backdrop, a young Alice looks like Dorothy with an idyllic life. Suddenly, Alice’s mother bellows her to come home for dinner. She responds with salty language. The scene feels out of place based on the rest of the film but looks good.

Burstyn made me care about Alice from the first scene containing adult Alice. Alice is a good person. She is hard-working and strives to please her husband, hoping he will enjoy the delicious dinner she has prepared for him. He barely grunts at the meal and has a tumultuous relationship with Tommy, who Alice spoils. This plot point returns later in the film. Alice is not a doormat, however, as she provides humor and comic relief during tense moments. She also shares a warm friendship with her neighbor. We do not know what the husband’s demons are (depression?). He and Alice share an emotional moment in bed one night before he dies the next day.

With her marriage behind her and limited financial means, Alice and Tommy take to the road. I adore the relationship between the two. Tommy is not always easy to parent, exhausting his mother with typical young adult nonsense. It’s easy to forget that he has lost his father and has no direction. Their relationship is complicated but there is much love.

The juiciness comes when Alice finally lands a signing gig at a seedy lounge bar and meets the maniacal Ben, played flawlessly by Harvey Keitel. At first he is charming and attentive, wooing her like she’s never been wooed before. When she learns he is married he turns psycho and she is forced to leave town. The meat of the film comes when Alice begins working at the diner and meets new friend, Flo (Diane Ladd) and new love David (Kris Kristofferson). After some trials and tribulations Alice realizes her life is not so bad.

As much as there are dramatic elements Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not soap opera or overwrought. The scenes and situations bristle with energy and authenticity and this is thanks to the great acting and fluid direction. My favorite scenes occur at the diner. With greasy, blue plate specials and dishes piled with ham, eggs, and hashed browns, the working-class extras are perfectly positioned around the diner. In the background, they lend a feeling of rush, chaos, and family traditions. The diner scenes are where Alice bonds the most with Flo and David and are delicious.

Turned into a popular television sitcom in the late 1970’s named Alice, a lighter, wholesome production, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is a progressive story about a woman on her own and getting it done, mustering courage no matter what life throws at her. It’s an inspiring story for both women and men.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Ellen Burstyn (won), Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd, Best Original Screenplay

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives-1986

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives-1986

Director-Tom McLoughlin

Starring-Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke

Scott’s Review #1,074

Reviewed October 26, 2020

Grade: B-

Due to the fan outrage that surrounded Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), a film I thought was decent, the powers that be decided that a return to form was in order, quickly resurrecting Jason in the corniest of ways. Re-discovering the “real Jason” is not the worst idea in the world but the execution is not there and I’m not crazy about the introduction of “superhuman” Jason. How is anyone supposed to ever kill him?

Adding comedy and children is okay with me but both ideas largely fall flat when paired with inadequate acting and gimmicky sitcom situations with no character development. There is no time invested in getting to know any of the characters. The heavy metal soundtrack, featuring the music of Alice Cooper, is the best part. The film isn’t helped by a slicker 1980’s visual look though this does come with better production values. Not the greatest of all the Fridays.

The chapter gets off to a compelling start when Tommy (Thom Mathews) and his friend Allen Hawes (Ron Palillo- yes, Horshack from the Welcome Back Kotter television series) trudge through the rain and mud back to Camp Crystal Lake to finally bury Tommy’s demons. Fans of the series will recall that Tommy did a stint in Pinehurst Halfway House where a pretend Jason went on a killing spree to avenge his son’s death. The friends dig up the grave of Jason. The murderer is struck by lightning and magically comes back to life, killing Allen. Tommy spends the rest of the film trying to warn the town that Jason is alive and well and back on a deadly rampage.

The camp has been renamed to the more pleasant-sounding Forest Green to make people forget that numerous killings have ever taken place. This seems to have worked as a bus load of kid’s flock to the camp for a summer of fun along with the usual batch of camp counselors in tow. To the film’s credit, like with its predecessor, there is a black character, this time a counselor named Sissy Baker (Renee Jones) and some of the child characters offer different ethnicities. The diversity and inclusiveness are to be admired, but unfortunately for Sissy, she is dragged through a window and savagely beheaded. Jason kindly spares the kids.

I like how there is consistency in keeping the main character Tommy Jarvis, albeit with a different actor. We’ll probably never know why it was decided to recast John Shepherd with Thom Mathews, but the actors look enough alike to avoid too much confusion. Like Shepherd, Mathews possesses a wounded look which makes the casting adequate. There is a rooting quality to Tommy especially as he faces adversity with the police department. Sheriff Garris and Deputy Rick are played purely as foils and are a roadblock to capturing Jason.

Any attempt at romantic chemistry between Tommy and Megan (Jennifer Cooke) falls flat because there simply isn’t any between the actors, try as they might. Neither are the best actors in the world (not a requirement for the horror genre) but have the right, fresh-faced look warranted to be cast. Megan is the only person who believes Tommy as they race to the camp to stop and kill Jason.

The rest of the film is more of the same and offers no surprises except for more humor. A coked-up pair having sex in a motorhome and a group of corporate types on a paintball outing are examples of this. The four “suits” beheaded by a machete is the best part of the otherwise campy and obnoxious sequence. The rest of the characters are killed off systematically with nothing especially interesting to add to the film.

Writer and director Tom McLoughlin attempts to revitalize the aging series and genre with more special effects and techniques and does little else to freshen his characters. It would have been nice to get to know some of them better. By 1986 the slasher film needed a rest and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is a dull entry in the series catalog. There is nothing terrible about the film, nor is there anything memorable either.

The Boys in the Band-2020

The Boys in the Band-2020

Director-Joe Mantello

Starring-Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer

Scott’s Review #1,073

Reviewed October 21, 2020

Grade: A-

One may ask themselves why bother checking out the 2020 version of the legendary (and dark!) 1970 stage turned cinematic rendition of the sniping and vicious gay drama The Boys in the Band? Mostly because of the wonderful cast- a cast featuring the troupe who starred in the recent 2018 stage revival. But more than that the film feels surprisingly modern and relevant and provides a message of hope that the original did not contain.

Crucial and historical to point out is that every principle actor is openly gay and their characters are gay, or bisexual. My, how much progress has been made for actors when not too long ago an “out” actor risked both reputation and career for the price of his truth. This is monumental.

The remake wisely keeps to the crucial time-period of 1968, and really, how could a modern setting work at all? Being gay in 1968 is nothing like being gay in 2020, I don’t care if it is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To bring this film to any other time would diminish its power and importance. If anything, it makes one proud how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, though there are further advancements left to make.

Alas, the Vietnam era is safely intact, during a time when a strip of gay bars and a group of gay friends were the only thing to keep a gay man from going crazy regardless of how abusive they were. This will hopefully teach young gay viewers, or anyone else, what being a gay male was like over 50 years ago. When the rest of the world was deemed “normal” and you were cast aside as either a sexual deviant or a head case this is powerful. Self-hatred, denial, or the closet were commonalities.

The Boys in the Band has no females save for a blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a snooty neighbor. Important to realize is that the film is pre A.I.D.S epidemic in a time of carefree love and endless hookups, where booze and drugs were a necessary escape and usual was to feel out of sorts on a regular basis.

A few characters are effeminate. One is presumably bisexual and closeted, and one is masculine and recently divorced from a woman, now cohabiting with a male lover, one is black, and one is an escort. Each character comes from a different walk of life but are bonded. The running of the gamut of unique types and personalities is part of why I love this story.

The events commence one evening when Michael (Jim Parsons) throws a birthday party for friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) at his apartment. They are joined by other friends Donald (Matt Bomer), Hank (Tuc Watkins), Larry (Andrew Rannalls), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Emory (Robin de Jesus).  Guests include Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a “birthday present” for Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), a college friend of Michael’s. As the booze flows talk gets vicious and the claws come out.

The men, prompted by a drunken Michael, play a daring game of “telephone”. Each guest is dared to call the one person he truly believes he has loved. With each call, past scars and present anxieties are revealed in tortuous fashion. This is when the film really gets interesting. Bernard and Emory bear the brunt the hardest as their phone calls take a tremendous toll on each.

Parsons and Quinto are the standouts. As the lead, the character of Michael seems stable at first. He is stylish, well-dressed, and lives in a reputable apartment. Though unemployed, he once traveled the world. Parsons slowly unleashes the vicious fury contained within Michael the more he drinks. He enjoys hurting others just as he has been hurt. The catalyst to his character is Alan. Are they in love? Is Michael in love with Alan? Alan takes a fancy to masculine Hank.

Quinto, as Harold the self-professed “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy”, is becoming increasingly morose about losing his youthful looks and his ability to attract cute young men. The catalyst to his character is Cowboy, who has those qualities that Harold lacks. Strangely, Harold and Michael are best friends, both loving and hating each other. After brutalizing each other with words, Harold exits the apartment announcing he will call Michael tomorrow. They’ve been through this before and probably will again.

No, The Boys in the Band circa 2020 is not quite on par with The Boys in the Band circa 1970, but this is merely because brilliance is a tough act to replicate. The modern telling is an absolute joy and will hopefully recruit fresh audiences to the perils and brutality is was to be gay in another time.

Thanks to Ryan Murphy for adapting this project to Netflix as part of his United States $300 million deal with the streaming platform.

Airport ’77-1977

Airport ’77-1977

Director-Jerry Jameson

Starring-Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland

Scott’s Review #1,072

Reviewed October 20, 2020

Grade: B+

The word that springs to mind following a viewing of the disaster flick Airport ’77 (1977) is entertaining. Whether this is positive or negative depends on the viewer and what that viewer wants out of a film. As a huge fan of the disaster genre I was one satisfied customer though there is little to distinguish the film from other efforts. It is a more cohesive and professional feeling effort than its predecessor, Airport ’75. The fun is watching the cast, the grandiose list of who’s who of Hollywood heavyweights gracing the opening credits. We wonder who will survive and who will not.

The star is the airplane. Showcased by way of both interiors and exteriors, the luxurious privately-owned Boeing 747-100 is a great highlight of the picture. Owned by wealthy philanthropist Philip Stevens (James Stewart), the plane is packed with VIPs and priceless art traveling to his Florida estate for a party. The wealthy travelers are drugged, and the aircraft is subsequently hijacked before crashing into the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle and sinking 100 feet, prompting the survivors to undertake a desperate struggle to live.

The airplane set is a feast for the eyes. A double-deck plane (naturally!) the plush green carpets and the spiral staircase complete with a robust bar stocked with every type of liquor imaginable is wonderful trimming. It allows the viewer to forget all about the typical in-flight treats like their seat being kicked, a screaming baby, or a fat man snoring, and escape to the pleasures of champagne, caviar and slippers. Seriously, the sets are tremendous and worthy of their accolades.

Jerry Jameson, primarily a television director, sticks to a formulaic approach which makes the film look like a long television series. Think Murder, She Wrote, Dallas or Dynasty at 30,000 feet. I say this because the melodrama is sky high (no pun intended) and situations arise between flight crew and passengers to create more tension than the crash itself. The juiciest drama exists between husband and wife Martin (Christopher Lee) and Karen Wallace (Lee Grant). He flirts with women at the bar, she drinks too much, and gets jealous. They squabble. You get the idea.

What a joy it is to see some of the stars on-screen together, specifically Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, and Joseph Cotten. As Nicholas, Cotten is a romantic match for de Havilland’s Emily Livingston, and they appear to be old friends. Fans of classic cinema will undoubtedly associate he with Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and she with Gone with the Wind (1939) and to see the legendary stars side by side is darling, nearly worth the price of admission. Stewart is perfectly cast as the rich and distinguished man eager to see the impending arrival of his estranged daughter and her son, hopeful of a happy reunion. These delights are why I love this genre.

The actors teeter back and forth between phoning in their lines and enthusiastically having a ball with their respective roles. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. I’ll bet the set was tension free as everyone was earning a bundle of cash. And why not? The budget is plentiful and filled with overabundance.

The plot is generally ludicrous as is to be expected. The thought that anyone, let alone nearly everyone, could survive a crash into the ocean and remain unscathed as it sinks to the depths of the water is beyond silly. Suddenly, when all passengers conveniently emerge from their drug-induced stupor simultaneously, hysterics erupt which is quite humorous. As water slowly begins to seep into the plane a frenzied effort to find a way out commences. The last portion of the film involving a rescue crew coming to save the passengers is a disappointment, lacking much captivation.

Airport ’77 (1977) has all the elements its target viewer expects it to have. If the well-known cast were instead unknowns and the crash peril and its following adventure were not danger personified, and the dramatic and romantic tensions left out, the film would be a disappointment. The film is like sinking your teeth into a fattening, highly caloric Whopper from your favorite Burger King. It’s a guilty pleasure that you wouldn’t necessarily tell your health-conscious friends you get so much enjoyment from. But, it’s fun, so why not indulge from time to time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design

Thieves Like Us-1974

Thieves Like Us-1974

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall

Scott’s Review #1,071

Reviewed October 16, 2020

Grade: A

The first time I saw Thieves Like Us (1974) I was not blown away. I have forgotten what my original gripe was, but my lackluster star rating on Netflix years ago is confirmation of such. All is now forgiven and like a fine wine this film gets better and better with each viewing. It’s basically a gangster film, but a heart-wrenching story containing one of the sweetest romances in cinema history.

Based on the novel of the same name by Edward Anderson, director Robert Altman, famous for allowing his actors to ad-lib their lines to their hearts content and peppering his films with overlapping, “real-life” dialogue, limits this technique this time around. His stars, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, regular fixtures in his films, are the main attraction, but supporting players like Louise Fletcher, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck give tremendous performances.

Set in 1930’s United States, Deep South Mississippi, the time-period and location are key elements to the success of the film. Having never have set foot in this geographical area, I nonetheless found myself escaping there and ruminating what it would have been like to live there in the Great Depression era. The many outdoor sequences with trees, forests, country roads, and home-cooked meals provide luminous atmosphere and texture. Small town living never felt so good and cozy.

Wisely, Altman steers clear of any racial overtones or dialogue within the film. The film is not about that. There appear many black characters mostly in background, townspeople scenes or as prisoners which add flavor. But they are represented as living among other folks without any aggression or stereotypes. They simply are and it feels like the South. Altman crafts an experience of understated, good storytelling, proving a quality film can be quiet and proud, not needing explosive bells and whistles to prove showy. The dialogue crackles on its own and is smart.

The plot is compelling. Bowie (Carradine) is an escaped convict who embarks on a crime spree with fellow former prisoners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen). While in hiding between bank robberies, Bowie meets a young woman named Keechie (Duvall), and the two quickly fall in love. A life of crime doesn’t sit well with Keechie, however, so she and Bowie try to settle down, but the law is determined to bring him to justice.

The fun is in watching romance blossom between Bowie and Keechie. Despite Bowie being a criminal, his character contains a sweetness and purity that matches like a glove with the whimsical truth and simplicity of Keechie. Throughout the length of the film I compared the characters to the legendary icons Bonnie and Clyde from the self-titled cinema masterpiece. They are similar but different. The pair sit quietly on the front porch talking about life and the future, optimistically planning their lives together unaware of what fate has in store for them. Their innocence and their goofy humor made me fall in love with them.

The relationship between the three men is apt. They have each other’s backs and are loyal to a fault. The men are convicts and cause death and injury, but there is a humanity that Altman gives to each character. We do not think of them as derelicts. When Bowie poses as a sheriff to break Chickamaw from prison, we root for the escape and not for the warden. Bowie kills the warden, shocking Chickamaw. Even with dispute comes caring between the men.

It does take patience to get into this film, probably I did not give the film its due on my first watch. Once the film ends I was left with a feeling of having experienced something of value and an artistic cinematic visionary story. The homespun characters eating a feast of meat and southern biscuits and discussing the days event are rich and atmospheric.

Carradine and Duvall would reunite a year later in another Altman masterpiece, Nashville (1975) playing vastly different characters, both unlikable, so a recommendation is to watch both films back to back to appreciate the dizzying morphed characterization. Thieves Like Us (1974) is no mere opening act for Nashville, but of a different ilk.

The film is a treasure.

Mad Max-1979

Mad Max-1979

Director-George Miller

Starring-Mel Gibson

Scott’s Review #1,070

Reviewed October 15, 2020

Grade: A-

Mad Max (1979) is a gritty and dirty film that is nothing like any other film coming before it. There’s an edginess and an “off the beaten track” quality that sucks you in and pummels you into submission with its energy and ferocity. The film is raw and not slick and hats off for that. This is all done with fun intentions and it’s meant to be enjoyed, but the film has a brutality and power that must be experienced to be believed. The plot is not the most important quality, nor is it the most believable, but it’s the trimmings that make Mad Max unforgettable.

I haven’t seen the two follow-up sequels, Mad Max 2 (1981) or Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but my understanding is they are more family friendly films, disappointing to hear after viewing the raw power of the original. The undesirable Fury Road (2015), an enormous critical and commercial success, but the appeal lost on me, is to be skipped in favor of the first. I disliked that film. But alas, a treasure such as the original can never be duplicated. The revenge themed, fast car driving, lewd masterpiece, is a must-see cult classic. It stands the test of time.

In a post-apocalyptic future, an angry cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is looking forward to retiring, having had enough of the derelicts who populate his region. One day, his world is shattered when a malicious gang murders his family as an act of retaliation, forcing a devastated Max to hit the open road seeking vengeance. As he travels the Australian outback’s empty stretches of highway, he tours the bloodstained battlegrounds ruled by low-life bikers who feed on violence.

Mad Max made Mel Gibson a star. His breakthrough role, it led to future work in the action and buddy genres, specifically the Lethal Weapon franchise (1987-1998) with tepid success from any artistic standpoint until he bravely took on more creative and challenging roles. Max is his finest action character and most authentic feeling. He mixes a blend of rage, sentimentality, and humanity, perfectly, never missing a beat. And his youthful looks are enchanting to see.

The multitude of scenes featuring super fast-cars, motor bike gangs, and leather clad creatures with colorful tattoos and missing teeth are just the icing on the cake of the fun lying ahead. Names like Toecutter and Bubba give you an idea here. These are all great add-ons, but the revenge seeking Max is the one to watch. The scene is immediately set when the grizzled Nightrider is killed by Max in a chaotic police chase. His gang goes rampant and loots and destroys shops and businesses, raping both women and men. All hell breaks loose.

The best sequence is also the most horrific. Taking place on the open road, naturally, a sweet vacation by Max, wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel), and son Sprog begins with a pleasant drive, only to result in a chase scene climaxing with Sprog’s death and Jessie languishing in intensive care. The image of Sprog and Jessie lying on the open road, tattered and torn, is memorable and sticks with you.

The film is intelligent, if studied thoroughly enough, and a study in film school is recommended. Credit must be given to director George Miller who knows his way around a camera. The cinematography lends much to the film and a feeling of being there is the desirous result. The editors deserve a special prize for their brilliant efforts.

Undoubtedly influencing countless action genre selections of the 1980’s and 1990’s, most running the gamut between only marginally fun (the Terminator franchise-1984-present) or downright atrocious (The Running Man-1987), Mad Max (1979) breathes life into the genre. Action films are categorically known to be one-dimensional but by adding a cool Australian locale, characters who are filled with cartoon bombast and punky zest, and a futuristic mystique, Miller crafts well.

It’s a low-budget flick, destined for underground viewership and appreciation, that is somehow nearly flawless.

After Hours-1985

After Hours-1985

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette

Scott’s Review #1,069

Reviewed October 9, 2020

Grade: A-

After Hours (1985) is a gem of a film. When thoughts of director Martin Scorsese are conjured, usually Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), or Goodfellas (1993) are his films that immediately spring to mind. Scorsese’s decision to create a pared down independent film was met with enormous success and accolades for the very first Best Feature indie film victory and Best Director honors. The experience is a black comedy set within the gritty and unpredictable underbelly of Soho-New York City in the 1980’s.

Mixing comedy with satire, Scorsese leapfrogs from similar content in The King of Comedy (1983) to this film made only two years later. Any fan of New York City will cheer with joy at the authenticity achieved since the film was shot on location there. The Big Apple in the 1980’s was a notoriously violent cesspool so the genuine setting and the use of dark streets and alleys is an immeasurable treat and adds much zest to this unusual film.

Yuppie nice guy, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), works hard as a computer data entry worker by day and shares an encounter with a quirky young woman named Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) in a Manhattan coffee shop. After she gives him her number and leaves, he is unable to stop thinking about her and embarks on a late-night adventure to go and see her at her apartment. The night does not end how he thinks it will. Not by a long shot, as he spends the rest of the long night meeting various women and other strange characters as he traverses around the city attempting to get back home. He has lost his money and is broke.

The great aspects to After Hours are its bizarre characters and the cinematography that offers a tantalizing view of downtown Manhattan. The film is atmospheric and zany in its gloomy and steamy side streets and odd locales sprinkled with color. A dingy bar, a sophisticated artist’s apartment and a man sculpture that follows Paul everywhere are usurped by the film’s strangest and most interesting set, Club Berlin, an “after hours” club inhabited by punks who want to shave Paul’s head into a mohawk.

I enjoyed this film as a sort of “a day in the life of Paul” adventure story, albeit a gothic one. The film concludes wonderfully as the sun begins to rise just as the film ends and thus Paul’s wild night finally ends. I was chomping at the bit with the thought of what a new morning would bring and the possibilities of reuniting with any of the women he encountered the night before, either dead or alive.

Particularly charming to me while watching After Hours, the decade of decadence well into the past, are the relics once commonplace in everyday life. A phone booth, the traditional yellow cabs, and desktop personal computers are heavily featured. These items, relevant when the film was made, now seem like throwback niceties that make the film endearing and like a glimpse into someone’s time capsule.

I did not pick up on much authentic romance between Paul or any of the female characters- Marcy, June, Gail (Catherine O’Hara), or Julie (Teri Garr), but maybe that’s the point. While one winds up dead, not one, but two of them pursuit him, and not in a good way. The film is mystical, weird, and energetic. The inclusion of Cheech & Chong only adds to the revelry.

Sadly, underappreciated and too often forgotten, After Hours (1985) is a Scorsese treat worth dusting off now and then. The birth of the Independent Spirit Awards has a lot to owe to this film for grabbing top honors and the admiration works both ways. For a glimpse at the creative genius that is Martin Scorsese, this film gets an enormous recommendation.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Martin Scorsese (won), Best Female Lead-Rosanna Arquette, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography

Clemency-2019

Clemency-2019

Director-Chinonye Chukwu

Starring-Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff

Scott’s Review #1,068

Reviewed October 7, 2020

Grade: A-

I will be candid. Clemency (2019) is not a film that will be everybody’s cup of tea. The topics of prison, execution, and psychological conflict among its characters are quite the heavies. After a long day of work and the desire to snuggle on a comfy couch with a tall glass of wine, this film may not be recommended. But, for those seeking a thought-provoking experience about timely and serious social issues, with racial overtones, Clemency is a riveting and powerful story. This film is written well, and it matters.

Haggard, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) trudges along day after day managing the multitude of tasks that her job requires of her. She is committed to overseeing the prison executions and experiences her twelfth at the start of the film. The procedure is botched causing the prisoner excess pain and an investigation is launched. Bernadine is conflicted and consumed by her job causing her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) to deteriorate and her visits to a local watering hole to increase.

When Bernadine takes interest in Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a prisoner slated for execution in a case receiving national media attention and prison protests, her conflict escalates. Anthony’s ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks) and attorney (Richard Schiff) play vital roles, especially when the convicted cop killer’s innocence is called into question. Will he or won’t he receive a last-minute pardon from the governor sparing his life?

Chinonye Chukwu, a rookie director, is a black, Nigerian, female with lots of interesting things to say and a bright future ahead of her. She also penned the screenplay and tackles a weighty issue of great controversy in the United States. The age-old debate of whether capital punishment is inhumane or even thwarts crime in the film’s subconscious, but neither is the film about that per se. The fact that Chukwu and her characters of Bernadine and Anthony are both black introduces an additional racial element. In the time of “Black Lives Matter”, this is a powerful statement.

To say that Clemency is a downer is an understatement, though it leaves the viewer with some sense of hope amid an ambiguous ending. I won’t spoil the film, but we wonder what will become of Bernadine. Has she had enough of the prison lifestyle and decide to fly off in a new direction or is she so consumed by her work that she is trapped for life, too forgone for any growth?

The final sequence is brilliant. An impending execution, emotional goodbyes are said, and a full minute or so of a closeup scene focused on Woodard’s face taps a range of emotions that includes compassion, disgust, and unbridled sadness. The gloomy and stark atmosphere that Chukwu presents fills the film with a bleakness that is eclipsed ever slightly by the possibility of change.

A common theme, and not only with Bernadine, is the need to be heard and the frightening perception of being invisible. Jonathan, in a strong supporting role by Pierce, is the perfect husband. A teacher, he is responsible, loyal, and even prepares a surprise dinner on their anniversary. He feels diminished by Bernadine and resides in a motel after he has had too much. Anthony’s attorney and a priest, both plan to soon retire, feeling their jobs are pointless, they are not heard, and their work neither appreciated nor noticed.

Interesting that Chukwu does not reveal which state within the United States the twelve or thirteen executions take place in, though we can only guess it’s somewhere in the south, Clemency (2019) is a bold offering fraught with debate, questions, and character conflict. A slow build, there is much to savor and mull over, and the story feels personal. Woodard gives a soaring performance with exceptional work by all the supporting players.

I cannot wait to see what Chukwu comes up with next.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Alfre Woodard, Best Screenplay

Welcome to my blog! Over 1,100 reviews to share! My name is Scott Segrell. I reside in Stamford, CT. This is a diverse site featuring hundreds of film reviews I have created ranging in genre from horror to documentaries to Oscar winners to weird movies to mainstream fare and everything in between. Please take a look at my Top 100 Films section! This list is updated annually- during the month of September. Simply scroll down to the Top 100 Films category on the left or right hand side of the page. Enjoy and keep the comments coming!