The Bridge on the River Kwai- 1957

The Bridge on the River Kwai- 1957

Director-David Lean

Starring-William Holden, Alec Guinness 

Scott’s Review #908

Reviewed June 11, 2019

Grade: A

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a war film that serves as an example of character driven story-telling from the perspective of each person. Films of this genre frequently do not steer too far from the straight and narrow showcasing the war event perspective so that this often becomes larger than the humanity piece. A key is the American, British, and Japanese points of view hurling the grand epic experience into a more personal one. The film was awarded numerous Oscar nominations culminating with a Best Picture of the year victory.

The time is early 1943 amid the powerful and destructive World War II when a group of British prisoners of war (POW) arrive at a Japanese camp. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) commands all prisoners regardless of rank to begin work on a railway bridge that will connect Bangkok with Rangoon. The British commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses manual labor and a battle of wills erupts between the two men. Meanwhile, an American, Commander Shears (William Holden), also being held at the same camp, vows to destroy the bridge to avoid court martial.

The complexities of the relationships between the men are the main draw of the film and an aspect that can be discussed at length. Each possesses a firm motivation, but the emotions teeter back and forth as they face various conflicts. Each of the three principals are analytical juggernauts in the human spirit, ranging from courageous, cowardly, and even evil. We are supposed to root for Shears and supposed to not root for Saito but why is that not so cut and dry? Is Shears too revenge minded? We cheer Nicholson’s resilience but is he too stubborn for his own good?

The film’s whistling work theme nearly became famous when the film was originally released in 1957. Ominous and peppered with a macabre depression, the prisoners go about their work in a near ode to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cheerier “Whistle While You Work” anthem. As they dutifully continue to build the bridge the audience feels a sense of dread and a foreboding atmosphere. What will ultimately happen? When two prisoners are shot dead while attempting to escape the film takes a different turn.

Given that David Lean, responsible for such epic masterpieces as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and A Passage to India (1984), directs The Bridge on the River Kwai, should be telling as far as the sweeping exterior landscape treats in store for the viewer. The lavish Asian landscape, so picturesque and beautiful, is peaceful amid the chaos and vile way the prisoners are treated. This imbalance is wonderfully rich and poignant against the robust story telling.

The climax of the film is bombastic (literally!) and a nail-biting experience resulting in a stabbing, an explosion, and a heap of tension. A train carrying important dignitaries and soldiers is racing towards the newly constructed bridge as one man is intent on detonating a bomb and cause destruction as another races against time to prevent the bloodbath. The suspense, action, and cinematic skill is placed front and center during the final act.

Deserving of each one of the accolades reaped on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the film is the thinking man’s war film. Layered with an underlying humanistic approach and little violence given the subject matter at hand, one can sink into empathy for each point of view presented instead of being force fed a one-dimensional message film. Fine acting and gorgeous cinematography make this film one to be forever remembered.

Pillow Talk-1959

Pillow Talk-1959

Director-Michael Gordon

Starring-Rock Hudson, Doris Day

Scott’s Review #907

Reviewed June 6, 2019

Grade: B+

Pillow Talk (1959) is the ultimate in romantic comedies from the age of innocence in cinema. In 1959 pictures were still largely wholesome and safe, providing happy stories and charming characters. The film is a lovely and enchanting experience with intelligent characters and wonderful chemistry among its leads. Combined with good romance and comic elements it makes for a fun watch that still feels fresh and bright decades later.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson smolder with sensuality as singles living in Manhattan, New York City. Day plays Jan Morrow, a perky, independent interior decorator who dates frequently but has not yet found love. Hudson plays Brad Allen, a talented, creative Broadway composer and playboy who lives in a nearby apartment building. Jan is frustrated by a party line that allows her to hear Brad’s endless phone conversations with the women in his life. He is equally annoyed by her prim and proper, holier than thou attitude. They bicker on the phone but have not met.

Through their mutual, yet unknown to them, acquaintance Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), Brad realizes who Jan really is, which leads to hilarity as he fakes a Texan accent and invents a new persona: Rex Stetson, a wealthy Texas rancher. He succeeds in wooing Jan who falls madly in love with him while unaware who he really is. Events culminate in the inevitable big reveal when the couple vacations at Jonathan’s cabin in nearby Connecticut.

Rock Hudson oozes masculinity and charisma in this film with nearly every woman he meets falling madly in love with him. With Hudson’s sexuality preferences hidden from the public but well known within the film industry, one wonders if a few comical situations were added as an inside joke. One can speculate if these additions were done with or without the stars knowledge; rumors abound that Hudson reportedly carried on an affair with actor Nick Adams (Tony) during filming.

A recurring theme involves Brad mistakenly walking into an obstetrician’s office (twice!) and the doctor and nurse assuming he may be the first man to ever become pregnant as they attempt to locate Brad when he continues to disappear. Later, Brad attempts to trick Jan into believing Rex might be a homosexual because of his love for effeminate things.

The supporting players bring wit to Pillow Talk and is a key piece to the enjoyment of the film. Randall as Jonathan is not quite the nice guy but not entirely the foil either. As he has designs on Jan he warns Brad to keep away from her. His intention, which fails, is to woo her with money, but Jan seeks true love. Thelma Ritter as Alma, Jan’s boozy housekeeper, is delicious, adding necessary comic timing and a sardonic humor. When she ultimately finds love with the elevator operator we crackle with delight.

The lavish set design is flawless and brightens the film while adding luxurious style and sophistication that only New York City apartment living can bring. The combined sets of both Brad’s and Jan’s apartments are gorgeous to witness. With bright colors and 1950’s style furniture one can easily fantasize how beautiful it would be to reside in an apartment of this brilliance- I know this viewer did!

A Doris Day film would not be complete without the addition of several songs that the singer/actress performs. “Pillow Talk” during the opening credits, “Roly Poly” in the piano bar with Blackwell and Hudson, and “Possess Me” on the drive up to Jonathan’s cabin.

Pillow Talk (1959) is an example of a rich romantic comedy with great elements. A bit fantasy, a bit silly, but containing style, sophistication, and humor. The film was an enormous success, understandably so, being deemed “the feel-good film of the year” in many circles. Hudson’s career was re-launched following the film after having hit a snag year’s earlier.

Rocketman-2019

Rocketman-2019

Director-Dexter Fletcher

Starring-Taron Egerton

Scott’s Review #906

Reviewed June 5, 2019

Grade: A

Following in the footsteps of the unexpected success of 2018’s rock biography Bohemian Rhapsody, comes the similar themed Rocketman (2019). This time the subject at hand is Elton John rather than Freddie Mercury, but both storied figures contain unquestionable comparisons as their successes, failures, and struggles are well documented. Both films take their name from popular title songs and both have the same director in the mix, Dexter Fletcher.

Freddie Mercury and Elton John are both larger than life onstage personas while both reportedly suffered from shyness, creating characters to portray to ease difficulties. Rocketman gets the slight edge over Bohemian Rhapsody when comparing the two, with experimental and psychedelic sequences making the experience more left of center than the latter and lacking a hefty feel-good component. I would venture to assess that Rocketman has darker overtones.

The film opens in an impressive way as a now adult, successful Elton John (Taron Egerton) is in rehab, begrudgingly attending a support group therapy session- this scene will reoccur throughout the film as John slowly reveals more to the group about his childhood, rise to fame, and struggles with numerous demons. This is key to the enjoyment of the film as it backtracks in time frequently and we see John’s development as both a musician and on a personal level.

Many scenes play out like a Broadway play which is an ingenious approach, not only a treat for fans of John’s huge catalog of songs, but immensely creative from a cinematic perspective. The high point of the film, the scenes are not only showy, but catapult the direction of the film instead of slowing down the events. Fantastic are offerings of hit songs like “Tiny Dancer”, as shown during John’s first trip to Los Angeles, as he is forced to witness his then crush Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) take up with a supermodel at an LSD infused Hollywood party.

The musical numbers offer glimpses into the mind and heart of Elton, and other characters, through song. A teary number occurs early on when a pained, boyish Elton is learning piano, facing struggles at home. When the song begins it is Elton’s tune to carry but then his father sings a few lines, then his mother, then his grandmother. Each person offers his or her own perspective based on the lyric they are singing. The beauty of this scene is powerful and sets the tone of the scenes to follow.

Rocketman is an emotional film, triggering laughter and tears throughout its duration. Thanks to Egerton who carries the film, the audience cares for him as a human being instead of a larger than life rock star. We feel his pain, cry his tears, and smile during rare moments when he is content. He faces insecurity, sex addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, and an eating disorder. Through Egerton, we face the battles alongside of him.

Elton John serves as Executive Producer of the film providing a measure of truth and honesty in storytelling, something Bohemian Rhapsody was accused of not containing. John’s parents are portrayed accurately and decidedly, and both mother and father are dastardly, nearly ruining Elton’s self-esteem for life. Dallas Bryce-Howard as his mother is happy to capitalize financially on his fame but sticks a dagger in his heart when she professes he will never be loved since he is a gay man.

His father is nearly as bad. Abandoning his loveless marriage to Elton’s mother, he eventually finds happiness with another woman and produces two boys. He can never love his eldest son despite Elton’s efforts to reconnect. To add insult to injury, his father asks him to cross out the words “to Dad” on an album autograph, instead requesting it go to a colleague. Elton is devastated.

Events are not all dire and dreary as with his parents and a major suicide attempt. Happier times are shown and his grandmother (wonderfully played by Gemma Jones) remains an ardent supporter. His relationship with Taupin is one of the most benevolent and a life-long cause of trust and respect, and once his act is cleaned up Elton can appreciate the finer things in life more completely.

Egerton performs beautifully in acting as well as singing capabilities but lacks the singing chops that Elton Jon has. The decision was made not to have Egerton lip-sync which deserves its own measure of praise. Interesting to wonder what the opposite choice would have resulted in, like with Bohemian Rhapsody, we are left with a brilliant portrayal of John by Egerton.

Watched in tandem with Bohemian Rhapsody, a great idea given the back to back releases, is one recommendation for comparison sake. Offering a more creative experience- again the musical numbers are superb, and both switching through back and forth timelines, Rocketman (2019) squeaks out the victory for me and doesn’t the victor go the spoils? If Rami Malek won the coveted Best Actor Oscar statuette what will that mean for the tremendous turn that Egerton gives?

Tully-2018

Tully-2018

Director-Jason Reitman

Starring-Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis

Scott’s Review #905

Reviewed June 2, 2019

Grade: B

Tully, a 2018 film release, was awarded wide recognition largely because of a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress- Comedy achieved by its star, Charlize Theron. The actress does carry the film and delivers a wonderful performance in an example of great casting. The film is clearly targeted for a specific audience, that of females with newborn babies, a mother of a child with behavioral issues, or women who have experienced something similar during their lifetime.

As such, the perspective is clearly from the female point of view and men may not find much, if anything, to relate to. Nonetheless, the film is a worthy watch though not sure I’d classify it firmly in the comedy category, but this may have more to do with who directed it. Jason Reitman, famous for his creations Juno (2007) and Young Adult (2011) is known for coming-of-age films with dark edges. Nonetheless, I’d carefully teeter the film more into the drama genre than straight comedy.

We meet a very pregnant Marlo (Theron) as she is about to give birth to her third child, the implication being that it is an unplanned pregnancy. She is already frazzled from her other two children, one of whom is Jonah, who has a developmental disorder causing stress. Her world consists of battles with Jonah’s school, her absent-minded husband Drew (Ron Livingston), and her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), who has married an affluent woman and tries to help Marlo. Chris offers to pay for a night nanny which would allow Marlo peace and quiet, and she finally accepts, meeting the bizarre Tully (Mackenzie Davis) who slowly changes her life.

Theron reportedly gained over fifty pounds in preparation for the role and completely immerses herself in the part. Ordinarily a gorgeous woman as well as an astounding actor, she is convincing as the tired and unfulfilled suburban mother. Haggard, going through her day to day routines, it is revealed that she yearns to be young again, and finally revisits her old stomping grounds in Brooklyn where her passion is awakened, New York. Theron not only transforms her appearance but portrays an enormous amount of emotion teetering between responsible mother and flighty middle-aged woman.

To say that Tully is a “woman’s film”, a phrase I dislike, is not entirely fair, but women will relate to the film most of all. Men are not written especially well; we witness Drew meandering around the house mostly holing up in the bedroom, oblivious to his surroundings. He is somewhat aware that a night nanny exists but is more concerned with playing video games or traveling for work than with who is raising his child. He loves his family yet is somewhat only half there and his motivations and feelings are never explored very well. The writing of this character perplexed me, or rather I wondered why the character was written this way to begin with.

As events progress Tully serves up a brilliant twist ending, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a daring way. The character of Tully becomes a godsend for Marlo. Suddenly, she is inspired by the younger woman who has her whole life ahead of her. Could Marlo be a bit jealous of the young and thin nanny? Tully inspires Marlo, but could she not be all that she seems? The final reveal leaves questions dangling over the viewer. Is Tully all in Marlo’s head? Is it merely a coincidence that Marlo’s maiden name is Tully or the reason for the nanny in the first place?

Tully (2018) plays like a female centered coming-of-age story perfectly suited for women over the age of thirty. It can be enjoyed by others as the story has layers and borders on a character study, but the target audience is clear. The surprise ending is tremendous and rises the film way above mediocrity, otherwise being a traditional genre film. The performance by Theron also adds an immeasurable amount to the film.

Witchfinder General-1968

Witchfinder General-1968

Director-Michael Reeves

Starring-Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer

Scott’s Review #904

Reviewed May 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Witchfinder General (1968) is a macabre horror film that provides enormous atmosphere amid a gruesome story centering around the theme of witch hunting. By the late 1960’s violence and bloodletting in cinema had become more lenient and acceptable so the film takes full advantage of the timing with an unusual amount of torture, cruelty and brutality. The mid-seventeenth century English period is highly effective as is the ghastly religious angle, making for effective film making.

Vincent Price is delicious in any film he appears in, having amassed over one-hundred cinematic credits alone, to say nothing of his television appearances. Practically trademarking his over-the-top comic wittiness and campy performances, his role in Witchfinder General may be his best yet as he plays the character straight and deadly serious. This succeeds in making his character chilling and may be the best role of his career despite numerous disputes with director, Michael Reeves, over motivation.

During the English Civil War, Mathew Hopkins (Price) takes advantage of the unrest in the land, profiting from witch hunting. He travels from town to town accusing the unfortunate of witchcraft until they are mercilessly executed after which he is paid handsomely. Matthew is assisted in the accusations and torments by John Stearne (Robert Russell) a man his equal in brutality. The knowledge that these two men were real-life historic figures makes the action even more difficult to watch.

When he arrests and tortures Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), Lowes’s niece’s fiancé (Ian Ogilvy) decides to put an end to Hopkins’s sleazy practices and goes on a quest to seek vengeance. The mixture of a romantic love story as Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and Sara (Hilary Dwyer) marry and a revenge tale as Marshall vows to destroy Hopkins is a nice combination as are the numerous outdoor scenes. Witchfinder General has much going on and the pieces all come together.

The most horrific moments of the film come during the death scenes as the victims, who logical viewers can ascertain are innocent. The characters are merely perceived as peculiar, therefore deemed to be up to witchcraft, and do not stand much of a chance despite their endless pleas and cries. Before they are murdered they are typically tortured until they ultimately confess to crimes out of desperation and perceived relief. The common mode of death is either hanging or burning to death.

In one sickening scene, victims are assumed to be witches if they can swim and then are subsequently burned at the stake; if they drown they are innocent, but of course die anyway. One unfortunate victim has her hands and legs bound and obviously drowns, followed by one of the witch hunters profess how her death was unfortunate because she was innocent all along.

In horror films, the most frightening situations are the ones that can conceivably occur in real-life whether it be a home-invasion, a psycho with a knife, or burning at the stake in the 1600’s. The fact that witch hunting did happen is shocking and resoundingly makes Witchfinder General creepier especially given most scenes take place in the daytime. Anyone can create a studio monster, but the realism of the events is the key to the film’s power.

As an aside, while watching the film I was keen to keep in mind how many countries still treat certain classes and groups of people differently, or even oppress them in the name of God. Food for thought and an additional component that makes Witchfinder General relevant.

The story and the screenplay are not brilliant, nor do they necessarily need to be given the treasures existing among the elements. The writing is your basic villain’s getting their comeuppance with a love story thrown in- standard fare and adequate. While pointing out some negatives is “Witchfinder General” the best title that Reeves could come up with, or anyone else for that matter? The title does not exactly roll off the tongue nor does the renamed United States release, The Conqueror Worm sound much better.

Witchfinder General (1968) is not an easy watch and the faint of heart may want to avoid this one, but the realism and the rich atmosphere make it a success. From the lit candles, an old castle, potent red and blue costumes, and one of the greatest horror legends of all time, make this a must watch among horror fans.

South Pacific-1958

South Pacific-1958

Director-Joshua Logan

Starring-Rossano Brazzi, Mitzi Gaynor

Scott’s Review #903

Reviewed May 29, 2019

Grade: A-

South Pacific (1958) contains a magical and romantic aura that will entrance the dreamy viewer seeking exotic paradise and cinematic escapism. Marveling at the use of distinctive and experimental color hues to shift from sequence to sequence, usually from romantic to ordinary scenes, the film has other worldly appeal and lavish locale sequences, some real, others studio manipulations.

The surrounding war story is relevant, the interracial relationship more progressive than the times were, and the two leads share tremendous chemistry. All these qualities combine with catchy songs to make the film a darling watch, providing tremendous enjoyment and an impassioned payoff. The film may not be the very best of all musicals but there is very little to criticize.

Attractive Navy nurse Nellie (Mitzy Gaynor) falls head over heels for suave French plantation officer Emile (Rosanno Brazzi) as the pair enjoy a wonderful date amidst the gorgeous beach landscape. The feeling, of course, is mutual and Nellie and Emile seem destined for happiness. He confides to her that he once killed a man in his native France causing him to flee his country, never to return. The Navy requests Nellie spy on Emile in hopes of utilizing him against their hated Japanese enemy.

In a separate story, but just as romantic, Tokinese trader Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall) is determined to marry her beautiful dark-skinned daughter Liat (France Nuyen) to handsome Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr). He throws away a chance at lasting happiness by refusing to marry her due to prejudicial feelings. Despite best efforts he cannot get her out of his mind and the couple reunite briefly before tragedy strikes.

The World War II backdrop plays heavily into the story and the atmospheric elements make the film ooze with sensuality and sunny desire so that the result is good, escapist fun with brazen musical numbers added to set the perfect tone. Contrasting the beauty of the island where most of the events take place, foreboding military airplanes fly overhead, some manned by the main characters, in dangerous fashion with just a hint of foreshadowing.

South Pacific has much to be treasured for especially with its songs. For one thing, all of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s immortal songs from the stage production, “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali H’ai,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime” are retained, and, as a bonus, a song cut from the original stage production, “My Girl Back Home,” is revived herein. The songs are integral to the plot also holding up well on their own, especially the robust “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” possessing a naughtiness as Nellie sings it from the shower.

After a successful release of the film version of Oklahoma! (1955) Rodgers & Hammerstein decided to tackle South Pacific as their next big project. The stakes were high due to the success achieved by the former but critically the latter did not measure up. Some thought Gaynor was miscast though I personally like her just fine.

Nonetheless, the production is gorgeous and quite on par with Oklahoma! With the knowledge of the same producers and proximity in release, many similarities can be ascertained from each film. The south pacific may be a far cry from mid-western USA but both films have an outdoorsy feel. Numerous scenes take advantage of luscious natural landscapes to add beauty to the big screen.

A key point to keep in mind is that South Pacific is far from fluff despite the tendency for comic scenes or light sounding numbers. The film distinguishes itself quite well with a strong anti-war slant as Emile decries killing and promotes harmony in more than one scene almost as though the film encourages us to learn from a French man rather than an American.  To this end the important subject of racism is brought up not only in the Liat/Cable story but also when Nellie struggles with the notion of raising two children of a different race.

Perhaps not revisited as often as such unforgettable genre contemporaries as West Side Story (1960) or The Sound of Music (1965) and perhaps justifiably not as dynamic, South Pacific (1958) is a lovely film with impressive key production values, a worthy story and enough sing along tunes to keep one humming for days. The picture never feels dated and exists as a timeless member of the stage productions magically brought to the big screen club.

The Wrong Man-1956

The Wrong Man-1956

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Henry Fonda, Vera Miles

Scott’s Review #902

Reviewed May 24, 2019

Grade: A-

The Wrong Man (1956) is not an Alfred Hitchcock film typically mentioned when lists of the greatest of all the director’s works are in conversation. Flying completely under the radar, and a conspicuous emission from most “Best of” collections, the film is a nice gem ready to be dusted off and appreciated for its worth. It features the legendary Henry Fonda, perfectly cast in a story point frequently used in Hitchcock films; that of the wrongly accused man.

Set in New York City, Manny Balestrero (Fonda) is a struggling musician who requires three-hundred dollars for dental work that his wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs. Determined not to let his wife suffer he decides to obtain the money by borrowing against her insurance policy. The life insurance employees mistake Manny for another man who has recently twice held them up. He is arrested and forced to perform a test for the police, which he fails, leading them to assume he is their man.

Attorney Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle) sets out to prove that Manny could not possibly be guilty since he has perfect alibis for the nights of both holdups. Complications erupt during his trial as proper witnesses either cannot be found or have died, leaving Manny in dire straits. Meanwhile, Rose teeters towards the brink of insanity as she suffers from severe depression.

The Wrong Man differs from many Hitchcock films in that the story is based upon a real-life quandary one man faced. As such, any viewer can immensely relate to the story and put themselves in Manny’s shoes. I often found myself wondering, “what would I do if this were me?” and as certainly as one could find the story implausible one could just as easily find it plausible. Mistaken identity can happen and proving one’s innocence is not as easy as it may seem.

Set largely on location is another tidbit unique to many Hitchcock productions as the man cringed at the thought of any scene that could not be manipulated by studio luxuries. The New York City locales are splendid and provide an artistic and genuine element. Many scenes were filmed in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood where Manny lived when he was accused. Most of the prison scenes were filmed among the convicts in a New York City prison in Queens. The courthouse was located at the corner of Catalpa Avenue and 64th Street in Ridgewood.

Careful not to be too dissimilar to standard Hitchcock fare, the use of the every man being falsely accused, common in some of his films, is the main story line. Other films like North by Northwest (1958) and The 39 Steps (1935) delivered the same elements with a man being mistakenly accused of murder. While the others were more of “chase stories” involving flight, The Wrong Man stays firmly planted in one city.

The film is composed with some jazz elements, here primarily to represent Fonda’s appearance as a musician in the nightclub scenes. This gives sophistication to the overall tone of the film especially as we see Manny as worldly yet kind. He is a performer but comes home to his wife and adores her, doing anything he needs to for her comfort. The music and the black and white cinematography exude harshness and coldness but also good style.

Fans of either the police force or the justice system may be in for a tough ride watching The Wrong Man as neither group is written very sympathetically. The police are the worst offenders as they go to unethical methods to accuse a man of a crime seeming not to care who is convicted only that someone is.

The one detraction to The Wrong Man is the chemistry between Fonda and Miles. The passion is underwhelming, but not terrible either. Rather, the main point of the film is the false accusations instead of the romance. A bit more of the latter might have made the film more special.

Containing suspenseful and dramatic elements and a charismatic leading man, The Wrong Man (1956) perhaps lacks the flair of other more well-known Hitchcock films but is a solid achievement and one that deserves more acclaim than traditionally given. Sullen yes, but also poignant and frightening and a terrific effort. Henry Fonda carries the film and provides compassion and realism.

Taste of Fear-1961

Taste of Fear-1961

Director-Seth Holt

Starring-Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis

Scott’s Review #901

Reviewed May 21, 2019

Grade: A-

Though Taste of Fear (1961) is a Hammer Production, a British film company primarily known hefty offerings in the horror genre, the film plays more like an intense and chilling thriller with a Gothic, ghostly feel rather than a full throttled horror display. The title was changed for US marketing purposes to Scream of Fear and neither the US nor the UK title quite works, both lacking the appropriate pizzazz that the film warrants. The result is a razor edge spellbinder with marvelous cinematography and more than a few surprise twists.

The action gets off to an exciting start as a female body is suddenly discovered in the waters of coastal Italy; a young woman has taken her own life by drowning. Soon after a wheelchair-bound heiress, Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) arrives at her father’s estate in the lavish French Riviera to bond with her new stepmother, Jane (Ann Todd), and await her father’s return from vacation. It is explained that the deceased woman was a close friend of Penny’s.

Penny distrusts her stepmother immensely but is not sure why since the woman is more than accommodating during her stay. Immediately, strange events begin to occur at a rapid rate, most notably seeing her father’s corpse in odd places around the house and the grounds. The body disappears when Penny calls for help leaving the members of the household questioning her sanity and Penny starting to agree. She befriends the handsome family chauffeur, Robert (Ronald Lewis) and the pair become determined to figure out what is going on.

In clever fashion, the audience knows that something is amiss but not what the entire puzzle will add up to, which is a great part of the viewing pleasure. Director Seth Holt enjoys toying with his viewers, keeping them guessing at every dark turn. The biggest questions are these: If Penny’s father is dead where is the body being hidden? Who is responsible and why? Why does Jane leave the house for drives every night? What does the family doctor (Christopher Lee) have to do with the story?

The best visual aspect of Taste of Fear is the black and white cinematography.  This quality adds foreboding and brooding elements during the entire short running time of eighty minutes. The grand estate with its creepy nooks and crannies provides plenty of prop potential. A grand piano that seems to play by itself is pivotal to the story as is a murky pool, shockingly deep and unkempt for such a residence. Finally, the mansion boat house that may or may not contain lit candles takes center stage during the film.

The story telling is quick-paced and robust, never dragging. Layers unfold as the story progresses, but instead of overkill the developments are necessary as the conclusion comes into view. Assumptions as to which character’s motivations are devious begin to unravel. The illustrious dialogue crackles with spunk so that by the time we figure out what is going on we scratch our heads in disbelief finally surrendering to the film’s manipulations.

Where Taste of Fear falters slightly is only when an attempt to make the story completely add up is pondered. Liberties must be taken, happily so, as what could be deemed silly or superfluous instead results in thrilling fun. Only once or twice I thought the setup was too contrived, but just as quickly tabled the inquisition instead choosing to revel in the story.

The more than adequate cast performs their roles with professionalism and energy, always careful to make the unbelievable believable. Any film starring the legendary Christopher Lee is worthy of praise despite the actor only having a supporting role. Justice is eventually served though as his character becomes central to the plot. A fun fact is that Lee was quoted as saying: “Taste of Fear was the best film that I was in that Hammer ever made. It had the best director, the best cast and the best story.” This is not to be easily dismissed given the actor’s catalog of treasures.

A forgotten delight, Taste of Fear (1961) is a prime example of a film that does everything correctly. An excellent story, Gothic gloominess, and a foray for Hammer Production company into the then new genre of the psychological thriller. The piece is never over-the-top and is a production sure to make Hitchcock himself quite impressed.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger-1960

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger-1960

Director-Cyril Frankel

Starring-Patrick Allen, Gwen Watford

Scott’s Review #900

Reviewed May 17, 2019

Grade: A

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (modified to Never Take Candy from a Stranger in the US for marketing purposes) is a 1960 British film, directed by Cyril Frankel and released by Hammer Film Productions. The film contains brilliant cinematography, a cerebral quality, and is quite daring for the time made. It combines a story of pedophilia with manipulations of the legal system allowing those to get away with this most heinous crime because of their status. Despite the production company name and marketed as horror the film is more left of center than the traditional genre film.

The locale is a small, sleepy lakefront Canadian town, seemingly like an everyday US town. The Carter family (Peter, Sally and 9-year-old daughter Jean) have just moved to allow Peter a fantastic job opportunity as school principal. Jean confides to her parents that while playing in the woods, she and her friend, Lucille, went into the house of an elderly man who asked them to remove their clothes and dance naked for him in return for some candy, which they did.  Peter and Sally are appalled and decide to file a complaint. The elderly man is one of the wealthiest and most influential in the town, the respected Clarence Olderberry, Sr.

Surprisingly, Jean’s experience is downplayed, and the Carter family largely shunned by the town. As a trial against Olderberry commences, Jean is ridiculed on the stand and her story ripped to shreds by attorneys. After Olderberry is acquitted he pursues Jean and Lucille in the woods eventually catching the girls during a harrowing lake front chase and murders Lucille. Jean escapes and the truth is revealed to the shocked and devastated town.

The cast of Never Take Sweets from a Stranger are not household names, but each gives a fine performance. Patrick Allen and Gwen Watford as the parents are well-cast and believable. They are upstanding people but strangers in the town, wanting to protect their daughter without smothering. Felix Aylmer as old-man Olderberry plays the role not as dastardly or menacing but providing glimpses of pain and sympathy. The audience is unclear whether the man suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps not even knowing what he has done.

The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, surreal and tremendously effective. With ghostly tones the film gets off to a mysterious and prominent start as we see Jean and Lucille casually playing in the woods, startled to glance up at a menacing mansion (perfect for a Hammer production) to see elderly Olderberry leering at them with binoculars. The lakefront sequences and the chase through the woods are among the best at providing superior camera angles.

As it’s Lucille who talks Jean into entering Oldberry’s house we presume she has done this type of thing before. She knows Oldberry will provide the girls with candy, but does she understand this comes at a price? Immediately there is a shred of doubt placed on the children’s innocence- ever so quickly. This decision by the film along with the representation of Oldberry is pivotal to casting even the slightest doubt on the main characters motivations or decisions.

Comparisons to the brilliant The Night of the Hunter (1955) must be made. Themes of child abuse, young children in front and center roles, a creepy lake with a prominent boat, and macabre adults are prevalent, at least to some degree, in both films. Additionally, both films were shunned at the time of release, misunderstood, and later rediscovered, subsequently seen as treasures of brilliant film making.  Measuring both films as tragedies is also obvious; each result in pain and sadness for the children involved.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960) is a film released decades ahead of its time that has taken years for its brilliance to be recognized and appreciated, adding nuances that are admirable and thought-provoking to the viewer. The subtle qualities make this film in a world of its own.

Sadly, the very best of films are often overlooked, marinating the flavorful juices rather than a sudden bombastic reaction. In 1960 the world was not ready for this film but is now poised to be remembered as a brave, disturbing, and relevant film offering.

Scream and Scream Again-1969

Scream and Scream Again-1969

Director-Gordon Hessler

Starring-Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing

Scott’s Review #899

Reviewed May 16, 2019

Grade: B+

Any film that features horror heavyweights and great actors like Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing is well worth the price of admission for the name status alone. Each is a mainstay attraction in his own right and combined, results in an orgy of riches. Scream and Scream Again (1969) sputters by limiting the on-screen interaction between the actors but after a reflective pause I realize the picture is to be revered for its creativity and use of intersecting plot lines into a thrashing crescendo of a surprise ending.

The audience is offered three segments of story, each periodically revisited as stand-alone segments that culminate into overlapping components. An athletic runner trots along the streets of London suddenly suffering from an attack only to awaken in the hospital with no legs. Elsewhere, a deadly intelligence operative reports back to his repressed Eastern European country only to murder his commanding officer with a deadly paralyzing hold. Finally, a London detective investigates the brutal deaths of several young women in metropolitan nightclubs.

Cushing, reduced to merely a cameo sized role as the ill-fated officer, is barely worth mentioning and adds little to the film besides appearing in it. Lee, as Fremont, the head of Britain’s intelligence agency, plays a straight role with not much zest. Price, with the meatiest role as a mysterious doctor specializing in limb replacement, can give anyone the creeps with his scowling and eerie mannerisms, but the film strikes out by wasting the talents of the other legendary actors.

The film is not at all what a fan of Hammer horror will expect especially based on the horror familiar cast and the gory sounding title. Heaping buckets of blood or ghoulish vampires are what was on the anticipated menu but that does not mean the film fails to deliver. It may not please a fan of traditional horror films since the genres of political espionage and science-fiction come heavily into play. The fantastic and peculiar nightclub serial killer story line will satisfy fans eager for a good kill or two.

My initial reaction to Scream and Scream Again was that of over-complicated writing and too much going on simultaneously especially for a film of said horror genre. After the film concludes and the surprise ending is revealed I realized that the numerous tidbits are necessary to achieve the desired result and events will make the viewer ponder when the film ends.  Not to ruin the big reveal but the film makers borrow a healthy dose of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) in a more macabre way, naturally.

Fans of the 1960’s British television series The Avengers will be pleased with Scream and Scream Again as a similar tone exists with both. The distinctive musical soundtrack, trendy for the 1960’s time-period works well, and the nightclub sequences and some of the detectives feel reminiscent of the show. The feel of the film is not limited to an episodic television story but contains a similar style. High British 1960’s fashion is also prevalent and pleasing to the eye.

A couple of supporting characters strike a fascination in small and almost entirely non-verbal performances. A sexy red-headed hospital nurse with superhuman powers and a penchant for removing limbs, combined with a brooding and mysterious serial killer provide dubious intrigue as to who the true characters are. What is their motivation? Do they work for someone or something sinister? Questions like these will keep the viewer occupied and thirsty for an explanation.

In bizarre fashion, British film and television director Gordon Hessler crafts an implausible yet fascinating story that keeps the viewer guessing. Featuring horror superstars Price, Cushing, and Lee would seem like an assured horror masterpiece but due to the stars limited time on-screen brings the overall project down a notch. Scream and Scream Again (1969) still achieves a good measure of worthy entertainment.

Giant-1956

Giant-1956

Director-George Stevens

Starring-Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean

Scott’s Review #898

Reviewed May 14, 2019

Grade: A

Giant (1956) is a sweeping epic firmly ensconced in both the western genre and the dramatic field of play. The film is a flawless Hollywood production featuring three of the most recognizable stars of the time, as well as a slew of powerful supporting actors offering rich performances and good characterizations. The thunderous melodrama plays out over the span of decades with the dry and dusty locale and the superb cinematography one of the finest aspects of the grandiose film experience.

Dashing and wealthy Texas rancher Jordan Bick Benedict Jr. (Rock Hudson), falls in love with and marries socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) after a whirlwind romance in Maryland. The pair begin their married life on Bick’s immaculate Texas ranch but not before two central figures thwart their happiness. Jett Rink (James Dean) falls obsessively in love with Leslie while Bick’s sister, Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge) despises Leslie, taking out her vengeance on Leslie’s horse. The trials and tribulations continue as the characters age through the years.

The trifecta of talents Taylor, Hudson, and Dean make Giant the ultimate in treats as one fawns over the good looks of each (or all!) of them over the lengthy three hour and eleven minutes of illustrious screen-time. Making for more powerful poignancy is that the film is Dean’s final appearance on-screen before his tragic death by car accident, his death occurring before the film was even released to the public.

Dean plays Jett to the hilt as a surly ranch hand jealous of the riches that Bick possesses and wanting to take Bick’s woman for himself. Jett is an unsympathetic character and the one I find the most interesting. Rivals for decades, Jett and Bick’s lives overlap continuously as Jett finally becomes rich and dates Bick and Leslie’s daughter much to their chagrin. The character of Jett is a racist- common in the early to mid-1900’s, especially in southwestern Texas. Sadly, the character never finds happiness, which is a main part of his depth.

The screenplay is peppered with important and relevant social issues that provide a sophistication and humanistic approach. The film inches towards a liberal slant as the plot progresses, the most famous example occurring in the final act as the Benedict’s stop at a roadside diner with a racist sign, implying the restaurant will not serve Mexican’s. Bick takes a dramatic stance and shows heart as his family, now multi-racial, needs his help. Culminating in a fight, the scene reveals the enduring love that Bick and Leslie share for one another.

Criticisms of the films enormous length and scope are wrong as these aspects deepen the film and components I find the most appealing. Director, George Stevens never rushes through a scene or makes superfluous edits to limit running-time. Rather, he allows each scene to marinate and graze, just like real-life would. Lengthy scenes play out with real conversations and slow build-ups allowing character’s opinions and motivations to take shape slowly.

On the surface a drama and western, the film can be peeled back like an onion to reveal deeper nuances. The racism, love story, and class structure ideals are mesmerizing especially given the true to life humanitarian that Taylor was. One can sit back and revel in the knowledge that she must have been enjoying the rich character.

Along with great epics like Gone with the Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1963), and The Godfather (1972) sits a film that is rarely mentioned with the other stalwart films and that is a shame. With magnificent shot after shot of the vast Texas land and with enough gorgeous stars to rival the landscape, Giant (1956) is a must-see. A western soap-opera with terrific writing, rife with racism, prosperity and fortitude, the film deserves more praise than it’s given.

The Sandpiper-1965

The Sandpiper-1965

Director-Vincente Minnelli

Starring-Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor

Scott’s Review #897

Reviewed May 12, 2019

Grade: B+

The Sandpiper (1965) is a film that stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, released at the very height of their fame.  It capitalized on their notoriety as one of the world’s most famous couples and their well-known romantic tribulations. Although they portrayed adulterous lovers, they were married shortly before filming began. The film’s theme of adultery closely mirrored their own personal lives at the time, as each very publicly conducted an affair with each other while married to other spouses.

The film is a lavish and sweeping production, one of the very few major studio pictures ever filmed in Big Sur, and the story is specifically set there. Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of California between where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently praised for its dramatic scenery and is the perfect location for a film with romance.

The Sandpiper is a romantic drama perfectly showcasing the two stars chemistry in a pure case of art mimicking real life, at least in some way. Fascinating is to watch the actors work off one another and think in wonderment what life would have been like on the set amidst the dreamlike and steamy locale and the fresh romance. The story is not a dynamic piece and quite sudsy and melodramatic and a case of the actors being the main reason to watch.

Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, a bohemian, free-spirited single mother who lives in Big Sur, California with her young son, Danny. Laura makes a living as an artist while home schooling her son, who has gotten into trouble with the law. When Danny is sent to an Episcopal boarding school, Laura meets the headmaster, Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) and the duo falls madly in love despite Edward being married to teacher Claire (Eva Marie Saint). The melodrama only escalates as those close to the pair catch on to their infidelity.

The gorgeous locale of Big Sur is second to none and exudes romance and sexual tension with the crashing waves against the mountainous terrain symbolic to the passionate love affair. As the characters capitulate to each other the lavish weather only infuses the titillating experience. Taylor is lovely to look at throughout the film and an erotic nude chest of the character plays a major role. I did have to wonder if the inclusion had the desired effect or resulted in unintended humor as the endowed sculpture is quite busty.

The film belongs to Taylor and Burton, but the supporting cast is deserving of mention creating robust characters that add flavor. Eva Marie Saint plays the amicable wife, at first distraught by her husband’s infidelity but later coming to an understanding. Charles Bronson plays Cos Erickson, the protective friend of Laura’s who despises Edward’s hypocrisy. Finally, Robert Webber is effective as Ward Hendricks, former beau of Laura, eager for another chance with the violet-eyed bombshell.

The title of the film represents a sandpiper with a broken wing that Laura nurses, as Edward looks on. The bird lives in her home until it is healed and then flies free, though it comes back occasionally. This sandpiper is used as a central symbol in the movie, illustrating the themes of growth and freedom. The element is sweet and true to the love story between Laura and Edward.

The Sandpiper is an entertaining film, not a great film. It suffers from mediocre writing and cliched storytelling, but a starring vehicle for Taylor and Burton. The fascination is watching the actors not for a great cinematic experience and the film is not remembered very well but for fans of the super-couple.

Amazing that the film was made only one year prior to the dreary yet brilliant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) starring the same husband and wife duo as does The Sandpiper (1965). The roles of Laura and Edward are worlds apart from George and Martha and watched in close sequence to each other one can marvel at the acting chops of each star in comparison. The film won the coveted Academy Award for Best Original Song for the sentimental “The Shadow of Your Smile”.

The Sword in the Stone-1963

The Sword in the Stone-1963

Director-Wolfgang Reitherman

Voices-Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson

Scott’s Review #896

Reviewed May 10, 2019

Grade: B

The 1960’s, while not known as the very best of decades for Walt Disney productions, offers a small gem of a film in The Sword in the Stone (1963). The film, flying marginally under the radar, is not typically well-remembered but is a solid offering, mixing elements of magic and royalty within a cute story. The production holds the dubious honor of being the final Disney animated film to be released before Walt Disney’s death.

While the film is not great, neither is it bad. Engaging and innocent it does not offer the ravaging tragedy of Bambi (1942), the emotion of Dumbo (1941) nor the beauty of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). What the Sword in the Stone does offer is an adventure with an appealing lead character, mildly entertaining supporting characters and a whole host of fun antics enshrouded around education.

Set during ancient times, the King of England has died, leaving no heir to the throne. This elicits peril and worry since with no successor in place, the country is doomed for war. One day a miracle occurs and an odd “Sword in the Stone” appears inside a sturdy anvil in London, with an inscription proclaiming that whoever removes it will be the new king.

Despite a myriad of attempts none of the strong townsmen succeed and England is reduced to the Dark Ages, leaving the sword and the stone forgotten. When one day a twelve-year-old lad named Arthur appears, he teams up with his tutor, Merlin the wizard, and the adventures commence. Inevitably Arthur can remove the sword from the stone and will go on to lead the Knights of the Round Table, accomplishing many amazing feats and becoming one of the most famous figures in history- King Arthur.

The Sword in the Stone entertains and pleases the eyes in many regards with vibrant colors and an array of bells and whistles creatively interspersed throughout a myriad of scenes. The main villain of the story, Madam Mim, is Merlin’s main nemesis. Haggard and dripping with black magic powers, she can turn from a pink elephant into a queen with the flick of her wrist as she giggles and prances about. Despite being dastardly she is also fun and zany and delights in her brief screen time.

The whimsical antics of Merlin are the best aspects of The Sword in the Stone as the senior gentleman bursts and bumbles from one oddity to another in earnest attempts to aid Arthur. Thanks to clever writing an educational angle is a robust incorporation to the story. Merlin can see into the future, at least in glimpses, such as knowing that the world is round not flat. What a great learning tool the film provides for young kids to discover.

The story risks playing too amateurish in some parts where I can see children under the age of twelve enthralled but adults finding the film too childish to take seriously. Despite my best efforts to stay tuned I noticed tidbits of the film that seem too cute for me. When Merlin and Arthur are turned into squirrels and strike the fancy of adorable but clueless female squirrels, the scene seems best catered to very young audiences.

What would give the film some bombast would be a good solid theme song or a powerful love story. Both aspects, able to solidify a hit for Disney, are glaringly missing. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs contains the lovely “Someday My Price Will Come” while Snow White and the Prince offer a rich love story. While good, The Sword in the Stone can reach only second tier of Disney classics, missing the upper echelon with only so-so musical offerings.

A slight miss is the way Arthur’s voice changes back and forth from child to teenager going through puberty and this is drastically noticeable. The reason, rather perplexing when analyzed, is that three different actors were used to play Arthur resulting in some consistency issues. Why not just use one actor or age the character slowly and gradually deepen his voice? The back and forth feels sloppy.

At the end of the day the criticisms targeted at The Sword in the Stone (1963) are minor and forgivable as the film plays above average graded on its own terms. The film has a nice message for children about the importance of education and is a wonderful delight best served to the whole family.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers-1956

Invasion of the Body Snatchers-1956

Director-Don Siegel

Starring-Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter

Scott’s Review #895

Reviewed May 8, 2019

Grade: B+

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), released during the mid-1950’s, a time of post War World II unity and prosperity in America where neighborhoods snuggled cheerily by the fireplaces with nary a care in the world, sought to make the public paranoid and it worked. Thanks to a foreboding premise audiences got to ponder the possibilities of pod people cloning human beings and invading the planet, scaring the daylights out of the masses and resonating with critics.

Playing like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone, and to the film’s credit it preceded the television series, at a brief one hour and twenty-minute running time the film is successful at achieving thought-provoking post film dialogue and has been crowned with cult-classic status along with similar creepy themed genre films that blossomed during the 1950’s.

Set in the fictional sunny California town of Santa Mira, the film gets off to an exciting start as we witness a screaming man in an emergency room attempting to be calmed by staff. The harried man claims to be a doctor and recounts, via flashbacks, the events leading up to present day. Our main character, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and his ex-girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) team up after several of his patients report relatives acting robotic and downright strange.

When half created bodies in pods are soon discovered, Miles and Becky know there is something amiss in their town and race to figure out the mystery of the “pod people” while most of the town turns into emotionless human-like beings. The big revelation is that the epidemic is caused by an extraterrestrial life form. Their intention they explain, is for humanity to lose all emotions and sense of individuality, creating a simplistic, stress-free world.

An interesting facet of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is how time has changed the reaction to the film. In 1956 the thought of aliens taking over the world seemed plausible and frightening since man had not yet walked on the moon and astronomy was a just new venture. The peaceful tranquility of the United States of America was in danger of being overtaken, the film exclaimed, and viewers fell for the scare tactics. Clearly the film was created to be a political allegory and boy did this sure work.

Decades later, the vibe of the United States is more integrated and flourished with more diversity and acceptance for other cultures and beings. The country is also more chaotic, so the invasion of the “pod people” is less scary and perhaps even more embraced to those living in malcontent. Invasion of the Body Snatchers therefore suffers from some poor aging and a message rethink and teeters on feeling dated.

The acting is marginally good if not spectacular, but it does not need to be Oscar-worthy to have the desired effect. The actors deliver their lines with a dramatic gusto successful in providing the troubled paranoia of the suburban American to audiences sure to be on the edge of their seats as the drama unfolds. The characters never think outside the box; only in straightforward terms so the motivations are earnest.

The black and white cinematography is palpable yet subdued, the lack of colors providing mystique that was ample for the times. The 1950’s while a wonderful time for film was also a less edgy time for cinema. The 1960’s brought less restrictions and therefore more shocking elements but Invasion of the Body Snatchers is compartmentalized, feeling more like a long episodic television thriller.

Double-billed with the equally frightening The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) would make for delicious 1950’s science-fiction viewing. I remain partial to the stunning vibrantly colored 1978 remake, superior film-making and more layered production values, but the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers holds its own and is a recommended watch.

Lady and the Tramp-1955

Lady and the Tramp-1955

Director-Clyde Geronimi

Voices-Peggy Lee, Barbara Luddy, Larry Roberts

Scott’s Review #894

Reviewed May 5, 2019

Grade: A-

Released mid-way through a decade of prosperity, Lady and the Tramp (1955) is a lovely production representing an innocent time that still holds up well decades later. A Walt Disney film, the story, animations, and characters are charming with a wholesome yet sophisticated vibrancy. A year in the life of its main character (Lady) never was more richly created providing adventure, romance, and fun for the entire family.

During the turn of the twentieth century, presumed to be somewhere in the mid-western part of the United States, John Dear gives his wife Darling a Cocker Spaniel puppy that she names Lady. The couple are immediately smitten with Lady providing her with all the comforts of warm and lavish country living. As months go by the Dear’s become pregnant causing Lady to feel left out. When the baby arrives and the Dear’s go on a trip, their dog hating, and incompetent Aunt Sarah arrives, leaving poor Lady at risk for her life.

Meanwhile, a stray mixed breed named Tramp prowls the streets protecting his friends and avoiding the dog catcher. He dines on Italian leftovers at Tony’s and lives his own idyllic life, proud not to be owned, able to live on his own terms. He befriends Lady through mutual acquaintances Jock and Trusty who reside nearby. When Lady faces peril the duo embark on an exciting escapade that leads them to a dog shelter and a farm as they begin to fall in love with each other, eventually resulting in a candlelit dinner for two at Tony’s, the highlight of the film.

Each of the animal characters is a treasure and voiced appropriately providing Lady and the Tramp with life and good zest. Tramp is gruff yet lovable with a “footloose and collar-free” outlook, charming and bold in his determinations. The voice of Lady is the polar opposite- demure, feminine and proper. Her voice is cultured without being too snobbish. In supporting roles, Tramp’s fellow strays Peg (a Pekingese) and Bull (a bulldog) possess a New York street-savvy that is perfect for their characters.

Besides Aunt Sarah, the dog catcher, and a hungry rat, Lady and the Tramp contains no villains and each of these characters are somewhat justified in their motivations. The rat just wants to eat, the dog catcher is doing his job, and Aunt Sarah, a cat lover with two Siamese pets, is foolhardier and more clueless rather than dastardly. She can be forgiven for wanting Lady to have a muzzle because she misunderstands Lady’s intentions towards the newborn baby. These characters are more comical than deadly and Si and Am add mischievous shenanigans to further the plot along.

The heart of the film belongs to the sweet romance between Lady and Tramp. The two dogs immediately appeal to the audience with instant chemistry. The “Footloose and Collar-Free / A Night at the Restaurant / Bella Notte” medley is the best of the song arrangements as the duo share a delicious plate of spaghetti and meatballs. In the film’s most iconic and recognizable scene the pair lovingly munch from the same spaghetti noodle- if that is not love then what is?

Lady and the Tramp (1955) is a charmer containing innocence, vivid colors and a rich, welcoming story. Beginning on Christmas and ending exactly a year later, Lady and Tramp’s wonderful journey is topsy-turvy, but culminates in the birth of a litter of puppies cheerily celebrating life. The happy ending is a perfect bow on a Disney film that is enchanting, harmless, and inspiring. The quintessential American love story between the pampered heiress and the spontaneous, fun-loving pup from the wrong side of the tracks — has rarely been more elegantly and entertainingly told.

Song of the South-1946

Song of the South-1946

Director-Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson

Starring-James Baskett, Billy Driscoll

Scott’s Review #893

Reviewed May 4, 2019

Grade: B+

Song of the South (1946) is a Walt Disney film buried in the chambers of cinema history, reportedly an embarrassment never too soon forgotten by the legendary producer and his company. The reason for the ruckus is numerous overtones of racism that emerge throughout an otherwise darling film. Admittedly the film contains a racial cheeriness that cannot be interpreted as anything other than condescension to black folk and numerous stereotypes abound.

The mysterious appeal of the film during modern times is undoubtedly because of the surrounding controversies that hopefully can be put aside in favor of a resounding positive message and glimmering childlike innocence that resonates throughout the course of the film. The hybrid choice of live action and animation is superlative, eliciting a progressive never before seen, experience that would be shameful to be spoiled amid the surrounding controversies.

Taking place during the Reformation Era in Georgia, United States of America, a period of American history shortly after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the film has quite the southern flavor and feel. Seven-year-old Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is excited to visit his grandmother’s (Lucile Watson) lavish plantation outside of Atlanta along with his mother, Sally (Ruth Warrick), and father (Erik Rolf). He is soon devastated to learn that his father is to return to Atlanta for business, leaving Johnny behind.

Johnny plots to run away from the plantation and return to Atlanta but develops a special friendship with kindly Uncle Remus (James Baskett) who enchants the young boy with sentimental lesson stories about Br’er Rabbit and his foils Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Drama ensues when Johnny feuds with two poor neighbor boys and develops a friendship with their sister, Ginny. He also forms a close bond with Toby, a young black boy who lives on the plantation.

Thunderous applause must go to the creative minds who thought of the idea of mixing the animations with the live action drama which results in positive and compelling effect. As Uncle Remus repeatedly embarks on a new story for Johnny to listen to the audience knows they will be transported into a magical land of make-believe as a clear lesson results from these stories.

Uncle Remus is an inspiring character- extremely rare to find a black character written this way in 1946. Often black characters were reduced to maids, butlers, farm-hands, or other servant roles. While the film does not stray the course with casting these roles aplenty, including Uncle Remus himself, his character is different because he is beloved by little Johnny and respected by the grandmother, treated as part of the family. His opinion counts for something and not merely dismissed as rubbish.

The musical soundtrack to Song of the South is particularly cheery and easy to hum along to. The most recognizable song is “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” which reoccurs several times throughout the feature. The best rendition is at the end of the film when the mix of live action and animation culminates with the sing-along. My favorite appearance is when the “blue bird” referenced in the lyric comes into play resting on one character’s shoulder, true to the lyrical content.

The accusations of racism are justified as keen viewers will understand the condescension towards blacks in several scenes. More than once a parade of black people is seen traipsing through the plantation, singing songs, not exactly cheerfully but not despondent either. The scenes have eerie slavery overtones- despite the black character’s all presumably being free to come and go, the reality is they all work for white folk. The black plight and struggle are completely sugar-coated and feels dismissed.

The animated characters are voiced by strong ethnic voices and are presumed to be ridiculous. The usage of a Tar-Baby character, completely enshrined in black tar seems offensive almost teetering on the implication of promoting a blackface, minstrel show moment as the character, once white, is then turned black because of the tar. Song of the South is not the only film of its time to face racist accusations- the enormous Gone with the Wind (1939) and Jezebel (1938) faced similar heat.

Song of the South (1946) is recommended for those who can recognize the racism that exists throughout the film but also can appreciate the films artistic merits. Wise and resounding friendships between white and black characters are evident as is a lovely story about determination, fairness, and respect. The film should be both treasured for its nice moments and scolded for its racist overtones.

Welcome to Marwen-2018

Welcome to Marwen-2018

Director-Robert Zemeckis

Starring-Steve Carell, Leslie Mann

Scott’s Review #892

Reviewed May 1, 2019

Grade: B

Welcome to Marwen (2018) is a feature film that flew under the radar at the time of release suffering from mostly poor if not scathing reviews. Having debuted in the last quarter of the year the anticipation was assuredly for Oscar love, but this was not to be as the film was a box-office and critical disappointment. Despite a marvelous and sympathetic portrayal by Steve Carell and bold creativity in the animation, the film lags and misfires in the story-telling, never completely coming together despite a heartfelt effort.

Based on a powerful true story chronicled much better in documentary form, the film follows Mark Hogancamp (Carell), a man struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome after being physically assaulted. He creates a fictional village to deal with his violent trauma as a form of escapism. Mark teeters between fantasy and reality as his various action figures mirror both himself and other people in his life from the benevolent- his pretty new next-door neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), to the malicious- his attackers.

Director Zemeckis, is no stranger to cool and innovative visual effects. Having created such unique film treats as Back to the Future (1985), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Forrest Gump (1994) his track record is proven. Though far from a masterpiece, Welcome to Marwen’s greatest achievement is that of its look, with stunning and realistic figurines coming to life with splendid effect. The modified fashion dolls are morphed into action heroes livening the film and making it a spectacle versus the morose everyday life that Mark lives in.

As Mark frequently escapes into his soothing and self-created fantasy world named Marwen, the mostly female characters are strong, resilient, and protective of Mark. He even embarks on a fantasy romance with Nicol and faces both sweet moments with her as well as peril from Nazis. The negative to the fantasy sequences is in the climax as Zemeckis teeters too broadly towards a full-fledged action film with over the top segments and an overly lengthy battle scene.

The real-life scenes do not work so well as Mark’s small-town residence is glum and depressed providing little interest. Presumed to be two hours outside of New York City the reason Nicol moves to the town is never explained and her true intentions remain mysterious. The presence of her aggressive ex-boyfriend seems forced and the romantic interest that Mark harbors for her becomes awkward. The main detraction is a lack of romantic chemistry between Carell and Mann thus resulting in little reason to root for the pair to be together.

The film contains an admirable progressive slant as Mark, while straight in his sexuality, is enamored with women’s shoes and collects hundreds of sensible and erotic pairs. The key to his attack as briefly shown via flashback is his boasting to redneck types while inebriated, his love of the shoes. This plot point is important to the film yet not fleshed out well. What do we know about his attackers? Did they assume Mark was gay prompting the attack? Since the attack is deemed a hate crime we can only assume the answer is yes, but I had hoped for a bit more depth and more about Mark’s backstory.

Based on the superior 2010 documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen (2018) is a production that asks the viewer to revel in a wonderful fantasy world and marvel at the resulting creativity, escaping into a life-like, adventure zone. The story remains uneven with a bandied about romance that never comes together, uneven storytelling and a mediocre conclusion. While I admire Welcome to Marwen’s intentions the film ultimately fails to deliver.

The Great Lie-1941

The Great Lie-1941

Director-Edmund Goulding

Starring-Bette Davis, Mary Astor

Scott’s Review #891

Reviewed April 28, 2019

Grade: B+

Clearly breezing into her heyday of films at this point, Hollywood starlet Bette Davis had become an expert at portraying tarts and bitches in most of her films. Desiring to turn left of center and play a more sympathetic character the actress jumped at the chance to play an ingenue. The Great Lie (1941) is the perfect showcase for her talents in a gripping, dramatic film that is pure predictable soap-opera, but lovely escapism done well.

Maggie Patterson (Davis) is a demure and sensitive southern socialite vying for the affections of former beau, aviator Peter Van Allen (George Brent). Peter has impulsively married sophisticated concert pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) and both are startled to learn their marriage is invalid. Confused, Peter decides to marry Maggie and is quickly sent off to Brazil on business when his airplane crashes into the jungle leaving him presumed dead.

When Sandra realizes she is pregnant, Maggie proposes she be allowed to raise the child as her own in exchange for taking care of Sandra financially. The two women go to Arizona to await the birth, and Sandra delivers a boy who is named after his father. The women face a quandary when Peter shows up alive and well and Sandra bitterly announces to Maggie that she intends to ride off into the sunset with both Peter and her son. The women scratch and claw at each other, metaphorically speaking, for the remainder of the picture.

The story line, despite being perfectly melodramatic and stellar for an afternoon daytime drama, is rather engaging throughout, never suffering from too much contrivance. The reason for this is that both Maggie and Sandra have appeal and both women are likable- or at least the film does its best not to make one woman the clear villain. Sandra, dripping with gorgeous fashion and a sturdy poise is confident, pairing well with Maggie’s southern charm and sensibilities- to say nothing of her wealth. Peter would do well with either woman and I found my allegiances shifting throughout the film.

Nearly upstaging Davis is Mary Astor giving a terrific performance as Sandra. Combined, the women are the reason for The Great Lie’s grit and gusto. They play the hell out of their roles and according to legend, both hated the script and vowed together to turn the project into gold. They nearly succeed as the best sequence is when the women travel to deserted Arizona to spend the remainder of Sandra’s pregnancy. Cooped up together, how delicious to see Davis’s Maggie play caretaker to a whiny and spoiled Sandra- typically Davis would play the Sandra character, so the scenes are a treat to watch.

Suspension of disbelief must be achieved as the major plot point of the film is jarring in incomprehension. Maggie offers to provide Sandra with a large sum of money to ensure her security. I did not buy this point as Sandra appears to be well-off, touring the world with incredible success and living a lavish lifestyle including a staff of servants and gorgeous apartment in New York City. The character hardly appears to need a handout despite the incorporated dialogue of Sandra’s success predicted to wane as she ages.

Another oddity is the location of Maggie’s estate. Set in Maryland, hardly a southern mecca, the location has all the trimmings of the deep south, perhaps Mississippi. With an all-black staff, magnolia trees, and southern style cuisine, the Maryland backdrop is quite perplexing and a misfire. More relevant would have been if the location were Mississippi, Louisiana, or Alabama. Finally, remiss would it be not to mention appearances by Hattie McDaniel and brother Sam as Violet and Jefferson, employed by Maggie, always a treat.

With high drama and terrific acting The Great Lie (1941) offers tremendous chemistry between the female leads resulting in a deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Astor. The dialogue may be silly and superfluous with plot gimmicks and obvious set ups, but the film does work. Viewers can let loose and enjoy a sudsy drama with enjoyable trimmings.

LBJ-2017

LBJ-2017

Director-Rob Reiner

Starring-Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Scott’s Review #890

Reviewed April 27, 2019

Grade: B-

LBJ (2017) provides small glimpses of historical interest with a biography about a United States President perhaps underrepresented in cinema history as compared to other presidents but the production never catches fire and falls flat with an overproduced film lacking bombast. The film can easily be viewed once, never to be thought of again, nor providing need for analysis or discussion. Director Rob Reiner creates a glossy, mainstream Hollywood production with questionable casting choices and a muddled feel.

To its credit the film gets off to a good start introducing the fateful day of November 22, 1963 into the story. As then Vice President Johnson (LBJ), played by Woody Harrelson and wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) deplane and embark on a motorcade procession through downtown Dallas, Texas, dire events will follow. As the violent assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) soon arrives the film portrays the initial foreshadowing well then backtracks to 1960 when the Democratic nominee was up for grabs with both JFK and Johnson in contention.

The film traverses back and forth from pre to post JFK assassination as LBJ took over the presidency amid the controversial Civil Rights Bill and a still shocked United States public. A character study develops as the gruff and grizzled man takes center stage to lead the country into the future. The attempt is to show LBJ, the man, at his best and worst personally and professionally facing pressure from his cabinet. Reiner portrays LBJ as complex, brooding, and vulgar, but also as a person whose heart is ultimately in the right place. A man we love to hate? Or hate to love?

From a historical drama perspective, and a genre that has many in the cinematic chambers, the film fails. A powerful political drama is supposed to be compelling but LBJ just feels dull, run-of-the-mill, and extremely forgettable. Some examples of exceptional political film projects are Lincoln (2012), JFK (1991), and Vice (2018). Each has flare, flavor, and a twist or otherwise unusual story construction that LBJ glaringly lacks. Simply put, the experience feels plain and unimpressive.

Having regrettably not seen the HBO film version entitled All the Way starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, I cannot compare the two other than from word of mouth that Cranston gives the superior portrayal. Based on trailers I would agree with the overall assessment. Harrelson’s version of LBJ is adequate if not sensational. His mannerisms of the President may be effective, but he does not resemble the man too well. With a waxy, heavily made up face, Harrelson the actor is unrecognizable and feels staged rather than authentic.

Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers the same fate as Harrelson in the important role of First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. The actress is successful at emulating the appropriate characteristics specifically facially but also appears too made up- like a wax figure in a museum sprung to life. As Harrelson and Jason Leigh daftly teeter from scene to scene the result is marginally comical but LBJ the film not a comedy nor a satire, played instead for the heavy drama.

LBJ (2017) is of mild interest but limited as a successful film adaptation of an important figure in United States history. Glimpses of political education for those not alive to experience the tumultuous 1960’s are good but much more was expected from this film than was provided. Better studies exist and hopefully will be created in the future than what adds up too little more than a snore-fest.

Dumbo-2019

Dumbo-2019

Director-Tim Burton

Starring-Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green

Scott’s Review #889

Reviewed April 24, 2019

Grade: C+

Dumbo (2019), the live action remake of the charming and emotionally charged animated original from 1941 contains some positives but ultimately underwhelms coming up with less than a stacked deck. The problematic and gnawing element that persisted throughout the Disney film was too much of a cute or child leaning quality for my taste. Assuredly though for an afternoon at the theater with young children under the age of twelve the film is a recommended fun activity and utterly appropriate.

My expectation, knowing that Tim Burton was at the director’s helm, was for a darker, perhaps murkier interpretation given some in his catalog of films. After all, Beetlejuice (1988) and Dark Shadows (2012) though flawed contain some wicked charm and naughty humor but Dumbo is considerably soft as the director chooses a safe, more accessible path. To be fair, creating magic from nearly eighty years ago is a tough task for anyone to achieve.

World War I veteran and amputee, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war to rejoin the financially problematic traveling circus owned by Max  Medici (Danny DeVito). A widower, reunited with his two children Holt is assigned to oversee the pregnant elephant, Mrs. Jumbo as she gives birth to an unusual looking elephant with giant ears who comes to be known as Dumbo. The children discover that Dumbo can fly when aided by a feather as the evil V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) attempts to profit from Dumbo’s talents at any costs as he adds to his fabulous creation, Dreamland.

The art direction and the look of the film are where Burton succeeds. With dark looking creations and windy, spider-like sets, especially in Dreamland, the film has the directors signature stamp.  The costumes and styles are to be complimented given the year was 1919 and the wardrobe and hairstyles are in match with the times. The circus stars and characters from the fat lady to the exotic jugglers are well-cast adding good texture and multi-cultural flavor to the production.

The standout musical number is the poignant and sentimental “Baby Mine” wisely featured twice during the film. Since the song is so lovely this proves a bold move and my favorite part of an otherwise mediocre experience. Sharon Rooney sings the version featured during a touching and painful scene between separated elephants Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo, and the rock band Arcade Fire performs a different rendition over the end-credits. Anyone needing a good cry would be advised to check out the emotionally charged song.

While the acting among Farrell, DeVito, and Eva Green as Colette, the French trapeze artist who falls for the sexy Holt, all play their roles admirably, two performances left me with critical fire. Keaton, typically a standout performer goes full-throttle with an over-the-top and one-note performance as the villainous Vandevere. Cartoon-like with herky-jerky head snaps and tic-like movements, the actor appears silly and ineffectual at creating any sort of robust character. Young actress, Nico Parker as Milly, Holt’s daughter, gives a dreadfully wooden performance in what could have been the film’s most likable character.

Besides one or two tender scenes the film largely goes for a cutesy vibe, not feeling fresh nor especially genuine. A Disney production, the film feels quite mainstream, lacking edginess, like the producers had dollar signs and major success on their minds over artistic merit or staying true to the original. Other than a quick shot of the number “41” on the front of a train, a clear tribute to the animated original’s year of release, the remake strays very far from the first Dumbo with a few new characters and sadly no gossipy female elephants anywhere in site.

A disappointing offering, the live-action Dumbo (2019), the year’s first in a series of five expected Disney releases (Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Lady and the Tramp being the others) lacks much more than a couple of sweet scenes, an adorable elephant, and admirable sets, feeling utterly ordinary in flavor. This is a misfire compared to the legendary, teary 1941 version of Dumbo.

Colette-2018

Colette-2018

Director-Wash Westmoreland

Starring-Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Scott’s Review #888

Reviewed April 20, 2019

Grade: B+

Colette (2018) is a French period piece and biography based on the life and times of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The film is directed by Wash Westmoreland who also directed Still Alice (2014), so the man is successful at creating a film from a strong female point of view. With a prominent and cultured French style and sophistication the film pairs well with and ultimately belongs to star Keira Knightley. The glaring British accents rather than French and the formulaic approach bring the experience down a notch from grandeur in a film likely to be forgotten.

Knightley plays the title character whose upbringing in a rural area of France is pleasant but hardly sophisticated and utterly country. When Colette meets a handsome literary genius named Willy (Dominic West), successful but employing ghostwriters to fill his creative void, the pair marry and combine forces to create popular novels based on Colette’s naughty schoolgirl experiences. The duo embarks on frequent dalliances with feminine and masculine women (Colette is bisexual) and face the trials and tribulations of seesawing finances and competitiveness until their ultimate divorce. Along the way Willy and Colette enjoy the excesses of late nineteenth century Paris.

Besides a few quick exterior shots of the Seine River and fabulous Parisian landmarks such as Notre Dame, the filming likely did not take place in France at all though you’d never know it. Both cozy and flamboyant scenes of Parisian eateries and lavish nightclubs like the Moulin Rouge and one rich socialite’s love nest are featured giving the film an authentic French flair. The costumes are decadent, and stage shows with Colette and her partner crackle with daring artistic merit.

Knightley, a household name but still teetering on the brink of one definitive great role comes close with her portrayal of Colette. Westmoreland is wise to climax the film with photos and summary of the real-life writer and her husband. If only the film exceeded marginally good reviews and achieved great reviews, then perhaps the actress may have secured an Oscar nomination but alas the proverbial boat was missed. Nonetheless, Knightley plays the role with delicious and naughty delight sinking her teeth into a character who wants to live and have fun.

Despite the rich French flavor Colette is plagued by a jarring fault as the actors all possess English accents rather than French. All in favor of occasional suspensions of disbelief to elicit the desired effect or manipulation, assumptions are that Westmoreland decided since most of the actors are British to let the detail slide in favor of comfort in tongues. Perhaps this misfire is why the sets and locations are overcompensated and decorated in such lovely French style.

The story is formulaic and silly if truth be told while Knightley and West share grand chemistry. As Willy and Colette paint the town they also have repeated misunderstandings or outbursts of rage and jealousy (mostly on her part) before deciding to accept and enjoy each other as they are. Unfortunate is how through the affairs and celebratory nights Colette accepts her role as ghostwriter to his name recognition only to divorce and never see Willy again based on his sale of the treasured Claudine series. Hopeful was I for a happily ever after result.

A crisp and polished offering of the life and times of a complex and peculiar French figure Colette (2018) has its share of ups and downs. Unknown how true to real life the story is, the acting compels and accomplishes a high point while the cultured flavor is zestful and spicy. The film may not be well remembered but is ultimately a success for a few above par qualities that supersede the negatives.

Guys and Dolls-1955

Guys and Dolls-1955

Director-John Mankiewicz

Starring-Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra

Scott’s Review #887

Reviewed April 19, 2019

Grade: B+

The interesting pairing of Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in the playful musical Guys and Dolls (1955) provides enough bombast and playboy inclinations to make the musical lively and entertaining. Though not one of my all-time favorites in the genre the film keeps up the pace with a nice flow and hearty musical numbers that successfully transfer the Broadway show to the big screen with an endearing production.

Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) is a full-fledged gambler, living and breathing the sport although commonly taken to task for his deeds. As the police clamp down on the shenanigans around town he is desperate to obtain a deposit for use of a secret venue allowing gambling. Spotting acquaintance and fellow gambler Sky Masterson (Brando) the duo embark on a ridiculous and hilarious bet involving Sky’s invitation to dinner in Havana, Cuba with Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) a devout religious figure and non-gambler. Predictably, events spiral out of control with romance, misunderstandings, and charming musical numbers.

The setup is plot driven but forgivable given the fun involved. We are certain that Masterson will fall head-over-heels for missionary and seemingly unobtainable Sarah. Will he get the girl? Will she be able to forgive him when she realizes the scheme that Masterson and Nathan have hatched at her expense? Of course, the fun is in the revelations as the film goes along. Naturally Nathan has his own set of antics; he must marry his years-long intended Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) because of losing a different bet.

The premise, the plot and the conclusion all feel rather frivolous and a bit chauvinistic in the modern world as many 1950’s productions do. The film is a clear case of naughty guy meets good girl, guy pursues girl, guy gets the girl, guy and girl ride off into the sunset, so the overall production is not cutting edge nor particularly progressive but that is okay because of the fun and good chemistry among the characters. Brando and Sinatra possess as much chemistry together as Brando and Simmons do.

The conclusion of the film is satisfying and wrapped neatly like a tidy Christmas bow. To no one’s surprise both couples tie the knot in beautiful style as all the misfires and misunderstandings end with a double wedding in the middle of Times Square, with Sky marrying Sarah, and Nathan marrying Adelaide. A perfect climax and a way to show the bright and bustling New York City amid a romantic backdrop can forgive any other weaknesses the film may contain.

What makes the film rise above standard fare or mediocrity as an overall piece are the wonderfully adorable tunes and Sinatra and Brando as a duo. The actor turned singer Brando and the singer turned actor Sinatra crackle with harmony as they play off each other in style. The clap-along “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” never fails to get any audience on its feet and the clever “Luck Be a Lady”, a classic Sinatra standard, still resonates today.

The art direction, cinematography, costumes, and music all wrap the film together nicely allowing the film a tight and well-muscled extravagant feel with a maturity and richness perfect for the decade the film was released in. Guys and Dolls sits beside a plethora of other musicals with a style all its own. A handful of Oscar nominations followed though none for the top honors of Picture of any acting nominations.

The 1960’s brought a decidedly darker texture to cinema which left many 1950’s film’s feeling dated or superfluous compared to more important story directions. While this is the case with Guys and Dolls (1955) there also exists an innocence in watching the pure and charming character relationships and the resulting fun and frolicking. A lively musical score, the bright lights of New York City and the unusual locale of Cuba makes the film lovely entertainment.

Once Upon a Time in the West-1968

Once Upon a Time in the West-1968

Director-Sergio Leone

Starring-Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale

Scott’s Review #886

Reviewed April 17, 2019

Grade: A

At one time dismissed as either frivolous or cartoon-like, the derogatory genre classification “spaghetti western” originally played for goofs or contained a comical slant associated with bad lip syncing. Many of these films have aged tremendously well though and now have come to be appreciated more and ensconced in cinematic study.  Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is a lesson in camp art that marinates like a fine steak drizzling with texture and good atmosphere across a sprawling two hour and forty-six-minute landscape.

In a great sequence, the film begins with a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman (Charles Bronson), dubbed “Harmonica” for reasons eventually revealed shooting three men sent to kill him. Meanwhile, to get his hands-on prized railroad land in Sweetwater, crippled railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) hires killers, led by blue-eyed baddie Frank (Henry Fonda), who murder property owner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family. Immediately, the film exudes intensity with a severe revenge theme.

The story develops further with romance mixed in western style as McBain’s newly arrived bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), inherits the land instead. Jill is a former prostitute who catches the eye of most of the men she encounters. Both outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica take it upon themselves to look after Jill and thwart Frank’s plans to seize her land. With standard western flare they are both attracted to Jill and yearn for her affections while also feeling protective over her.

Not professing to be enamored with the western genre- the stereotypical Cowboys and Indians and token damsel in distress have their limitations- Once Upon a Time in the West is a feast for the eyes and the ears with cinematography on par with Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and a killer musical score.  While the story may have a traditional backbone, the nuances are astounding. The sweeping mountains of the western United States feature heavily, and the tension infused music sets up every thrilling scene with gusto and foreboding tendencies.

Hot on the heels of another similarly themed masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) Leone delivers the goods at every turn most notably setting up each scene with sizzling elements that emit a clear sense of danger. The audience knows trouble is about to transpire but not exactly when the shit will hit the fan. The family death scene is paced astoundingly well as the family merrily goes about preparing a delicious summer meal unaware that destruction is around the corner.

Sure, the cast is a mix of American and Italian actors with varying degrees of accents not exactly mirroring the Wild West. Yes, Jill wears heavy mascara and a hairstyle straight out of the 1960’s and one character has brightly dyed red hair, but these intricacies give the film character rather than turn the production into a disheveled mess.

Forever known for heroic or every man roles Fonda plays against type instead cast as the central and sadistic villain, and the result is superlative. Leone’s ability to cast a legendary star in a production with little expectations is quite a feat and Fonda seems to revel in the role playing him dangerous and straight. With his piercing blue eyes and a gaze sure to make children run away in terror his brutal villainy is only wholly realized at the film’s conclusion.

Dozens of iconic comparisons to modern directing genius Quentin Tarantino’s style can be drawn upon. The director undoubtedly watched and studied this film repeatedly as numerous qualities mirror his own films. Viewers will delight at drawing these comparisons including a harmonica reference, the revenge story, and the climactic reveal at the end of the film via flashback pulling all the pieces together.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is a quality film that has finally gotten its due. Tremendous and compelling story-telling are combined with flavorful qualities and a dusty atmosphere. The film is the sum of all its parts and while at first underappreciated has finally risen to the ranks of high-quality masterpiece. Influencing many great directors like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas and Tarantino is quite a testament to its staying power.

Rebel Without a Cause-1955

Rebel Without a Cause-1955

Director-Nicholas Ray

Starring-James Dean, Natalie Wood

Scott’s Review #885

Reviewed April 14, 2019

Grade: A

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is usually most associated with being the best remembered film of star James Dean’s short-lived career. East of Eden (1955) and Giant (1956) are his other notable films in a much too brief time-period. With Rebel Without a Cause Dean and underappreciated director Nicholas Ray crafted a story about teenage angst and rebellion that has brilliant authenticity and was the first of its kind influencing countless other films.

In Los Angeles, three teenagers meet and commiserate at the juvenile section of the police station, revealing their respective crimes. Jim Stark (Dean) has been brought in for drunkenness and meets John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo), who was brought in for killing a litter of puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who was brought in for curfew violation. All three of them suffer from problems at home and confide in one another with their deepest revelations becoming connected and bonded for life.

To complicate matters Jim is a new student and must endure challenges associated with this in addition to his troubled home life. His main rival is Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) who challenges Jim to a knife fight and finally a deadly game of “Chickie Run”. This leads to Buzz’s death which infuriates his gang who mistakenly assume that Jim ratted them to the cops. This puts a target on Jim’s back as he slowly falls in love with Judy and develops a deep friendship with Sal who idolizes him.

One key to the success of Rebel Without a Cause is in the casting. Dean, rebellious in real life as well as in roles he portrayed chews up each scene he appears in. The famous scene in which Jim quarrels with his father (Jim Backus) results in a bombastic emotional unraveling and an exclamation of “You’re tearing me apart!” as his blind-sided parents bicker with one another over how best to handle the situation.  Dean is a pivotal reason for the film’s success and landmark status.

Wood infuses her character of Judy with poignancy and a calm demeanor. Judy is basically a good kid but behaves wildly out of frustration over her inability to communicate with her deliberately distant father (William Hopper). Finally, Plato (Mineo), who is so sensitive that he threatens to break apart at the seams, has taken to killing puppies as a desperate cry for attention from his wealthy, always absent parents. Wood and Mineo support the film in brilliant form.

Jim and Judy are quite likable as a pair from opposite sides of the tracks, another influential aspect to the film that became commonplace in oodles of entertainment genres over the years. Good girl meets bad boy is quite dangerous but also quite tender and filled with story possibilities. It is implied that Plato is in love with Jim but in 1955 films were extremely careful about pushing the envelope much further than an implication when it came to homosexuality. Rumors ran rampant that Dean and director Ray had a torrid love affair off-screen.

Another positive is the entire film is told within a twenty-four-hour period which provides excellent pacing and an action-packed emotional punch. The best scenes take place at night especially the deadly car race and the fantastic conclusion at the old deserted mansion the trio of friends claim as their sanctuary. The tragic final ending is sure to result in the shedding of a tear or two by anyone who watches and is entranced by the powerful finality of the event.

Watching the film in present day one must appreciate the enormous influence that Rebel Without a Cause achieved. Some classics that succeeded Rebel and stand out on their own include American Graffiti (1973) The Breakfast Club (1985) and even West Side Story (1961) which also starred Natalie Wood. Each is riddled with teenage angst, hormones, and elevating emotions and all contain a seriousness and a depth all their own.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is a film that should be viewed and viewed again for more than the obvious and impressive story it tells. The film is directed well, spoke to a generation of ornery and angry teenagers, giving them a much-needed voice, and is fraught with emotion and balance for current and future generations of teenagers to learn from.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)- 2017

BPM (Beats Per Minute)- 2017

Director-Robin Campillo

Starring-Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois

Scott’s Review #884

Reviewed April 11, 2019

Grade: A-

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017) is a film that is both exhilarating and heartbreaking to watch. Churning out emotional reactions such as empathy and empowerment the film channels a potential life-saving cause. Of French language and shot documentary style the film is not an easy watch as the viewer is transplanted back to the early 1990’s when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the world in general and the gay community specifically. A mixture of a community- oriented movement amidst a love story makes this project worthwhile viewing.

The immediate focal point of the story is an impassioned and aggressive Paris based chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a unified gay and lesbian organization intent on speeding up the French government’s response to the unwieldy AIDS epidemic. The group resorts to extreme public protests consisting of fake blood throwing and invading prominent pharmaceutical company meetings. Their intent is to get them to release trial results immediately instead of waiting until the next year. The various debates and infighting among the chapter are heavily featured.

As the film progresses BPM (Beats Per Minute) slowly shifts its focus from the protests to the personal lives of the ACT UP members as a romance brews between nineteen-year-old HIV positive Sean (Perez Biscayart), who already exhibits visible infections from the disease, and HIV negative Nathan (Valois), a newcomer to the group. The pair quickly become inseparable as Sean’s body becomes ravaged by the disease resulting in a poignant and dire conclusion sure to elicit tears.

Director, Campillo and co-screenwriter Philippe Mangeot drew on their personal experiences with ACT UP in developing the story enriching the authenticity of the experience. Despite being shot in present day the film feels genuine with a 1990’s feel and flavor. The gray Parisian locales though gorgeous and picturesque also portray a sadness and bleakness. As Sean gazes outside we sense his fear and anguish. Through this character Campillo and Mangeot provide personal stories representing the plight of many during that time.

A particularly racy scene erupts approximately halfway through the film as Sean and Nathan’s love story takes center stage. Foreign language films are not known for shying away from nudity or sexuality the way many American films do. As the impassioned pair make love for the first time, little is left to the imagination. Despite the gratuitous nudity and the overt sexual tones, the duo’s relationship is not solely physical, and the audience will undoubtedly come to care for both men the way that I did.

The two-fold story is a wise choice and the overall message that BPM (Beats Per Minute) presents is both inspiring and a good telling of the LGBT community’s struggles at notice and inclusion during the 1980’s and 1990’s. This point is both a positive and a negative as the story beckons back to a day in the community’s history dripping with pain and loneliness and this comes across on film. The film is hardly a happy experience and quite rather the downer.

The main drawback to the film is its length. At nearly two and a half hours the story and principle points begin to become redundant which causes the overall message to lose a bit of thunder. The constant bickering and debate among the ACT UP group becomes tedious to watch as fight and clash after fight and clash resurface repeatedly.

Though painful to experience and not very uplifting, BPM (Beats Per Minute) is an important film to view given how far the treatments of HIV have progressed over several decades. Not taking things for granted, a trip down memory lane for those alive during the epidemic is recommended. For those fortunate enough to have missed the 1980’s and the 1990’s the film is a necessary reminder of how life once was for the unfortunate victim of a devastating epidemic.

Welcome to my blog! 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!