Tag Archives: Drama films

Madame Bovary-1949

Madame Bovary-1949

Director-Vincente Minnelli

Starring-Jennifer Jones, James Mason

Scott’s Review #930

Reviewed August 13, 2019

Grade: A-

Madame Bovary (1949) is a film adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel of the same name. Remade a handful of times since this version, Jennifer Jones is cast in the lead role and does a fantastic job with a difficult and complicated part. The title character is central to the controversial film which will undoubtedly result in mixed opinions of her actions and motivations- she will be loved or loathed. Director Minnelli successfully mixes melodrama and glamour with pain and defeat as one woman’s attempt at happiness is told.

In clever fashion, the story is told within a story as the viewer is immediately amid a compelling and dramatic trial. Flaubert (James Mason) defends his novel depicting an adulterous woman (Jones) ruining the lives of men, deemed disgraceful to France and all womanhood. He tells the story from his perspective and, through this, Madame Bovary’s perspective. She (Emma) marries a small town, country doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) and quickly grows disappointed with his lack of status. Feeling trapped and unfulfilled, she embarks on failed romances with other men as she attempts to ascend the social ladder.

The central theme of the film, as with the novel, is either understanding or abhorring Emma’s feelings and actions, or perhaps a mixture of both emotions. Who would not forsake her for being true to her feelings and desiring her piece of the pie? Most women of her day were reduced to matronly statuses or asexual feelings, but Emma wanted satisfaction and life, at the risk of her own family.

To counter these lustful feelings, she does not treat her husband very well, resenting his passivity and disappointed at her daughter being a girl instead of her desired son. This, she feels, would have allowed her better status, so as a result her daughter is nearly shunned, preferring the affections of the housekeeper to her mother’s feeble attempts at love. Is she hellion or a sympathetic soul? Emma is one of the most complex of all female film characters.

With Madame Bovary being made in 1949 and the novel obviously earlier, the progressive slant is rich and worthy of much admiration. The female perspective and the courage to reach for the stars and grasp life is spirited and wonderful to see, especially given the time-period. A mixture of romantic drama and torrid affairs are at hand during this experience and always is the character center stage.

The film mixes in remnants of Gone with the Wind (1939) especially with the lavish dance hall sequence. The ball is the highlight of the film with gorgeous costumes, great cinematography and bombastic dances. As Emma cavorts with dashing aristocrat, Rodolphe (Louis Jourdan), Charles gets drunk and makes a fool of himself, as her true disdain for her marriage becomes clear. The smashing windows with chairs moment is ahead of its time by way of the effects used and the constant dance twirls are dizzying. So much of importance occurs in this pivotal sequence.

Jones, while more than adequate, would not have been my first choice in the role. Married to influential producer David O. Selznick, it was rumored that many of the actresses’ roles were given to her. Delicious is to fantasize at what legends such as Bette Davis or Vivian Leigh might have brought to the character. Especially Leigh, given her dazzling performance as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, a follow-up as a similar and arguably more complex character is fun to imagine.

A film that allows for post-credits discussion is always a positive, with Madame Bovary (1949) a lengthy analysis of a character begs deliberation. Minnelli pours love and energy into a work dripping with nuances, long before his famous musicals came into fruition. A strong and vital female character suffers a lonely and despairing fate at her own hand which is tragic and sad, but she did live her life with zest which should empower us all.

The Farewell-2019

The Farewell-2019

Director-Lulu Wang

Starring-Awkwafina, Tzi Ma

Scott’s Review #927

Reviewed August 6, 2019

Grade: A-

Any film with a dark premise such as The Farewell (2019) offers runs the risk of resulting in a bleak and depressing outcome, but the film is anything but a downer. Surprising to many will be that the film is classified as both a drama and a comedy with snippets of humor and sadness prevalent throughout. Met with lots of critical buzz, the film is successful at furthering the much-needed presence of quality Asian representation in modern cinema well into the twenty-first century.

Young upstart/comedienne, Awkwafina, memorable for her humorous turn in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), returns to the big screen in a more sedate role, crafting a passionate and dramatic character, strongly leading the charge in an ensemble project exploring the family dynamic. The film succeeds extraordinarily as a multi-generational glimpse into humanity, though at times suffers from being too slow moving.

A thirty-something struggling writer, Billi (Awkwafina), lives in New York City near her parents, all expats from China. Billi is particularly close with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who still resides in her birth land as they speak regularly via telephone. When Billi is informed that her grandmother suffers from terminal lung cancer and has weeks to live, the entire family reunites and decides to hold a mock wedding as an excuse to all be together. The decision is made by the family not to tell Nai Nai she is dying preferring to let her live out her days in happiness rather than fear.

Awkwafina is the main draw of the film and much of the action is told from her perspective. One wonders if perhaps director Lulu Wang drew from personal experience when she wrote the screenplay. The audience does not know Billi’s sexuality nor is that even relevant to the film, but the vagueness was noticed. She does not date nor seem very interested in men, does her laundry at her parent’s apartment, and attempts and fails at a prestigious writing scholarship.

The supporting characters add tremendous depth so that the film is not solely Billi’s, providing unique perspectives from her mother, her father, and her aunt, as they each possess their own viewpoints in relation to Nai Nai’s illness. I adore this technique in rich storytelling as it not only fleshes out secondary characters, it also provides interesting ideas.  Nai Nai is not written as a doting old lady nor a victim; she is strong, witty, and full of life. Shuzhen, unknown to me before viewing this film, adds tremendous poise in a crucial role portraying it in just the right way.

The Farewell is a quiet film with both comic and dramatic elements, sometimes within the same scene, thereby giving relief from the dour subject matter. Wang gets the balance just right and makes sure she does not make the film too heavy. A hysterical bowing marathon takes place as the entourage decides to visit grandfather’s grave, as they prepare the necessary essentials to comfort him during the afterlife.

As a direct contrast to a physical comedy nuance, not a dry eye can be found when Billi and her parents depart China by taxi to the airport. Nai Nai tearfully waves goodbye to them, not knowing that will certainly be her final goodbye. Any audience member with an elderly relative who they seldom see will be churning with emotion over this poignant scene. Questions such as “would you keep a loved one unaware of a terminal disease?” will gnaw at the viewer, the central theme of the story.

Influenced by the buzz and word of mouth encircling the film, I salivated at the thought of one big, powerful, emotional scene, but one clearly defined, bombastic moment never came. Rather, the film offers small tidbits, careful not to overpower the audience or risk making the film too sentimental or overwrought. I still think a pivotal teary scene might have been added for good measure. A scene where Billi breaks down in front of her parents was adequate, but never catapulted the film over the top.

The Farewell (2019) is a wonderful film rich with emotion and importance. Like Black Panther (2017) did with a completely different genre, bringing black characters to the forefront of mainstream film, this film provides exposure to the Asian population, typically relegated to doctors, Chinese takeout owners or other cliched roles. Wang delights with an independent film steam-rolling itself across Middle-America.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood-2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood-2019

Director-Quentin Tarantino

Starring-Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt

Scott’s Review #926

Reviewed August 1, 2019

Grade: A

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is another brilliant offering by one of the most (deservedly) respected directors of the modern film era. This film may be his most personal as it includes many cinematic references and immerses itself in the Hollywood lifestyle. Toned down considerably from the violence standard in his other films, the first half lays the groundwork to a startlingly good second half with every detail of utmost importance. A bevy of riches await any viewer enthusiastically feasting his or her eyes on this film.

The time is 1969, as actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) struggles to reinvent himself and revitalize his career in Hollywood amid a changing cinematic landscape. Famous for a popular western television series from the 1950’s, Bounty Law, a pursued film career has not taken off, and he is reduced to guest appearances as the villain, then considered throwaway roles, in other episodic series. His stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) accompanies him almost everywhere serving as both sidekick and errand boy.

Meanwhile, famous director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved into the house next door which Dalton hopes will help him revitalize his career aspirations. As Tate goes about her daily life of running errands and watching her own movies in the theater, she is visited by Charles Manson one day looking for the former resident of her house. Historical viewers know how subsequent events transpired in real-life as Tarantino offers a fictional and tantalizing version of the events.

The length of the film is two hours and thirty-nine minutes, quite robust but typical for a Tarantino production. Some may complain about the bloated running time, but the film never drags; rather the director lays out all the pieces carefully like a fine chess game. By the mid-point all hell breaks loose with one of the most suspenseful and edge-of-your-seat scenes of in film history. When Cliff drives a flirtatious young hippy hitchhiker, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) to a range populated by Manson followers, he is in for the adventure of his life…..if he survives.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains an orgy of cinematic tidbits featuring a myriad of clips from forgotten films of the late 1960’s and popular songs from the day. This is just the tip of the iceberg in marvels as Tarantino perfectly immerses the viewer into the time-period with fury and zest. Every set piece, costume, hairstyle or car is flawlessly placed. Kraft macaroni and cheese, Velveeta cheese and popular dog food from the time-period are featured. Tarantino is a fan of cinema and makes cinema lovers fall in love with cinema all over again.

The cast is humongous but each character necessary and perfectly represented in roles large and small. The haunting troupe of Manson followers, specifically Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), are all real-life figures. They are foreboding, dangerous and ever so important to the story. Al Pacino shines in the small but pivotal role of Schwarz (not Schwartz), Dalton’s agent, while Steve McQueen look-alike, Damian Lewis, on-screen for merely seconds, is memorable. The list of cameo performances goes on and on and on and the fun is wondering who may appear next.

Despite the incorporation of big-name stars in significant small roles, the best performances belong to Dicaprio and Pitt. Dicaprio’s best scene takes place alone in his trailer as the washed-up star botches his lines thanks to a hangover causing a delay in filming. He abuses himself into nailing the scene, receiving kudos all around while becoming teary-eyed after a compliment from a young actress. Pitt has never given a better performance than he does as Cliff, sharing his best scenes with his adorable dog Brandi, and with Dicaprio. Who can ever forget his chest baring rooftop scene?

Quentin Tarantino scores again with a bombastic and flawless picture, his ninth release. Rumored to retire after his tenth film, one can hardly fathom the reality of that statement. His films can be watched and watched again, continuously absorbing new and noteworthy details of rich texture. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) easily joins the ranks of great works, not just of the director’s own catalog, but of all time.

Gloria Bell-2019

Gloria Bell-2019

Director-Sebastian Lelio

Starring-Julianne Moore, John Turturro

Scott’s Review #924

Reviewed July 29, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imitation of Life-1959

Imitation of Life-1959

Director-Douglas Sirk

Starring-Lana Turner, Annie Johnson

Scott’s Review #918

Reviewed July 9, 2019

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Man-2018

First Man-2018

Director-Damian Chazelle

Starring-Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy

Scott’s Review #915

Reviewed July 4, 2019

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanghai Express-1932

Shanghai Express-1932

Director-Josef Von Sternberg

Starring-Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook

Scott’s Review #913

Reviewed June 29, 2019

Grade: A-

A film way ahead of its time and firmly affixed to the female perspective, Shanghai Express (1932) is riddled with drama, intrigue and adventure culminating in a slightly too tidy of an ending. Forgetting that slight embrace with traditional been there, done that film climax, the story has layers of interesting tidbits and will assuredly keep audiences on their toes. Marlene Dietrich sizzles in the lead role and benefits from the film being made pre-American code, which put restrictions galore on pictures, watering down many.

With flashes of a story like Murder on the Orient Express, Shanghai Express gets off to a strong start as a group of strangers of differing backgrounds begin to board the self-titled train from Istanbul, Turkey through civil war-torn China. Causing a stir is the presence of Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), a woman of questionable morals, with her sidekick Hui Fei in tow (Anna May Wong). Lily reconnects with her former flame Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) as passengers shun her and political matters reach the boiling point, leading Lily to prove her undying love for Donald.

Keeping in mind that the film was made in the year 1932, the plot and surrounding elements all resound to being female driven which is both courageous and forceful. Dietrich is glamorous and photographs beautifully with no better example of this than the scene when she trembles and shivers in fear as she clings to a cigarette, her character deep in thought and anxiety. The image and lighting were so powerful that it became the cover art for the promotional photograph. A promiscuous woman but never being ashamed of who she is Lily proudly proclaims the immortal line, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

Dietrich is nearly overshadowed by Anna May Wong, the mysterious and deadly Hui Fei. With her exotic demeanor the audience is perplexed by her, not knowing much about her, and longing for more exposure and reveals. Hui Fei comes full tilt during the final act but remains an elusive character. Throughout the run-time of the film-short at one hour and thirty-two minutes, I found myself thinking about Hui Fei continuously, wanting more explanation about her life, her background, and how she came to be associated with Shanghai Lily.

The film’s atmosphere is a championed success as the roaring engines of the fast-moving train mixed with the bells and dazzling, luxurious train cars make the background details tremendously important, keeping the fast-paced action ongoing and crackling. The supporting characters like judgmental Christian missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), who at first condemns the two as “fallen women”, and the boarding house keeper Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) with her strictness for discipline and cleanliness, add life and a good comic balance to the heavy drama.

Shanghai Express’s tremendous attributes with cagey female characters and perspective, so strong an appeal, ultimately lead to a glaring letdown at the end of the film. Understood is how Lily is madly in love with Donald and the physical tension they share throughout the film is palpable and noticeable.  She is willing to agree to go with the film’s villain, the dastardly Chang (Warner Oland) to his palace, presumably for sex or to become his kept woman, all in the name of her love for Donald. Lily and Donald find their way to a strong embrace as the film ends but this feels contrived given the immense other qualities.

Lovely is having the experience of viewing a film not too distant from celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary and noticing aspects highly influential to other films. Thanks to a fantastic performance by Dietrich and cleverly written characters the film is a high achievement and should be exposed to young film fans studying in film school as evidence of an early treasure. Shanghai Express (1932) is a cinematic success peppered with complexities and voracious theater.

12 Angry Men-1957

12 Angry Men-1957

Director-Sidney Lumet

Starring-Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb

Scott’s Review #910

Reviewed June 14, 2019

Grade: A

A fond memory of Junior High School was reading the play and then being treated to a viewing of the film version of 12 Angry Men (1957), a bristling and suffocating film that infuses progressive thought and thinking for oneself in the face of animosity. A valuable lesson for a teenager to learn, or anyone else for that matter, the film is an important one, providing life lessons and tremendous drama holding up well and still brimming with texture.

The film begins as the audience is introduced to twelve men as they deliberate the conviction or acquittal of a defendant based on reasonable doubt. The defendant is an eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican male living in a poor neighborhood, accused of fatally stabbing his father. The witnesses are the lady who lives across the street and an old man. The juror’s instructions are quite clear; if there is any reasonable doubt, they are to return a verdict of not guilty. If found guilty, the accused will receive a death sentence.

Henry Fonda plays Juror # Eight, who initially is the only juror to vote “not guilty” when the others assuredly vote “guilty”. He adamantly questions how reliable the two witnesses are and disagrees with the argument that the knife used in the death is an obscure brand as he produces an identical knife of his own. Juror # Eight can convince one juror to change his vote allowing discussions and analysis to reconvene much to the chagrin of a few of the men, especially Juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb), the main antagonist.

Director Sidney Lumet provides dynamic atmosphere in his debut film with astounding results. The black and white cinematography is brilliantly mixed with the humidity of a scorching New York summer day as the one set used is claustrophobic, bringing the audience into the action and suffocating along with the men. As tensions mount and one juror attempts to kill another juror out of rage, a thunderstorm erupts outside, breaking the heat and changing the momentum in the jury room as the tide slowly turns in a different direction.

The story is wonderfully written as each juror’s backstory is slowly revealed providing insight as to why each man may think the way he does, or perhaps has preconceived notions about the accused instead of giving him a fair shake. Juror #3 is a bully who is estranged from his own son, while Juror # 7 mistrusts “foreigners”. Some of the others “go with the flow”, intimidated by conflicts and afraid to ruffle feathers.

12 Angry Man teaches a lesson of utmost importance; the power of change against all odds. By standing by his convictions, Juror # 8 is slowly able to influence each of the other jurors into seeing what they were either unable to see or refused to see. He forces them to question their morals and values. By the time the film has concluded the audience is smacked across the face with tremendous impact perhaps questioning their own views. This is an example of the power of cinema.

Just like the stage version, the plot requires the audience to think and determine along with the characters, the power of reason and strong dialogue. The fact that all the jurors are white males is never lost on me, but neither does it detract from my enjoyment. This is how things were done decades ago. Fonda is brilliant in the lead role and as charismatic as he has ever been in film.

12 Angry Men (1957) is a timeless story told and retold wonderfully on the live stage. Lumet brings the production to the big screen in a powerful and effective way by using cinematic elements to produce the proper emotions from his audience. The film holds up very well as sadly many of the stereotypes and beliefs that the jurors possess are still held by many Americans to this day. On the more positive scale, people with strong and empathetic wills, like Juror # 8 also exist and unquestionably influence more than they lose.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

The Old Maid-1939

The Old Maid-1939

Director-Edmund Goulding

Starring-Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins

Scott’s Review #883

Reviewed April 3, 2019

Grade: B-

Not one to dare criticize the legendary Bette Davis (would there be much to criticize anyway?), her starring turn in The Old Maid (1939) is not one of her best remembered films through no fault of her own. With compelling characters and a nice flow to a short one hour and thirty-five-minute experience, the films suffers from too much melodrama and soap-opera style overacting to warrant a sturdy recommendation. The overwrought drama may have been interesting at the time of release but now feels dated and dusty.

Davis portrays Charlotte, a modestly attractive young woman living in Philadelphia during the Civil War era. When her cousin Delia (Miriam Hopkins) discards her beau Clem Spender (George Brent) in favor of marrying another well-to-do man, Charlotte and Clem begin an affair that results in the birth of baby Tina. When Clem is killed in battle Charlotte opens a home for orphans as a way of hiding Tina’s illegitimacy. As the years go by Delia’s scheming results in Tina not knowing her real mother and Charlotte suffering away as an old maid yearning to confess the truth the Tina before the young woman marries.

The highlight of the film naturally is Ms. Davis as she makes her character’s plight emotional and sympathetic. Especially for 1939 the character is written as a strong and intelligent female with a will all her own. Davis portrays all qualities with passion and gusto only adding to the perplexing wishy-washy indecisiveness of the character. Why does Charlotte go year after year living under the same roof with her daughter but under the constant guise of only being her aunt and allowing Delia the title of mother?

The reasoning of Charlotte is supposed to be to ensure Tina is given a proper upper-middle class, respectable upbringing all the while being a part of her life. The film does wonders to portray the roles of aunt and mother as opposites. As a teenager Tina lavishes Delia with praise while considering Charlotte as matronly and dull as dishwater due to her overbearing and militant respect for rigidity. Regardless, many facets of the story seem like plot setups to create drama and story points leading to vendettas and reoccurring conflict between Delia and Charlotte.

The fact that Charlotte is so strong and stoic on the surface is also a detraction as the audience is left frustrated over and over at the cousin’s decision not to tell the truth to Tina until the final scene when she is marrying a rich boy and even then, the scene is a disappointment. The decision for Delia to adopt Tina at the age of twenty to finally allow her respectability and her fiancee’s parents approval is weak and story dictated. The film makers attempts are to never allow Charlotte any happiness or satisfaction which is depressing to witness especially given Davis’s brash personality.

Regardless of the story issues, The Old Maid has some positives including a well-dressed set and gorgeous costumes as wedding after wedding occur over the film’s twenty-year period. The aging of the character’s is also successfully done specifically with Davis as she goes from impressionable youngster to graying and haggard over the years with good lighting and camera angles.

The Old Maid (1939) is a film of moderate interest as it includes some well-developed characters and a subject matter that might have been daring for the time. The film, decades later, has a conventional slant and too many story plot setups better served for daytime television. The overall result is too soapy style for much enjoyment but is saved by the graceful and powerful acting of Bette Davis, easily the best thing about the film.

On the Waterfront-1954

On the Waterfront-1954

Director-Elia Kazan

Starring-Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint

Scott’s Review #876

Reviewed March 9, 2019

Grade: A

Led by one of the best acting performances of all time, On the Waterfront (1954) was an important and relevant film when made and is still powerful in the modern era. Director Elia Kazan and newly minted Hollywood star Marlon Brando join forces for a film spectacle that is as much a character study as a tale of morality and social injustice. The musical soundtrack score composed by Leonard Bernstein only enhances an already astounding picture that is deservedly referenced as a masterpiece.

Terry Malloy (Brando) is a washed-up former local boxer who now spends his days slaving away as a dockworker on the dingy waterfronts of Hoboken, New Jersey. Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) works for a vicious mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who has complete control over the area. The police are aware of the ongoing corruption but are limited by the lack of evidence and witnesses to regular crimes. When a fellow dockworker is killed, Terry falls for the victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), leading him to rethink his priorities.

The positive aspects of On the Waterfront are enumerable. Enshrined in the rich story and flawless acting are marvelous cinematography and location sequences. The film was shot almost entirely on location in New York and New Jersey using real docks and outdoor sequences that give the film authenticity. The dingy and water-soaked locales are riddled with secrets and dark violence that reach new levels by using realism and grittiness.

Never looking more masculine or more handsome, though his portrayal of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a close second, Marlon Brando achieves riches in the world of stellar acting. He is rugged and compassionate, macho yet tender, and pours his heart into the role of Terry, and one cannot help wondering if the self- professed method actor became Terry during filming. With both vulnerability and strength Brando embodies the character so well that he becomes my favorite of all the film roles he has undertaken.

The supporting players dutifully flesh out the resounding cast with gusto. Special mentions go to both Karl Malden as Father Barry and to Steiger as Charley. As Barry, Malden brings a warm character who is patient and benevolent in a world of crime and deceit. He attempts to console and mentor the folks in his world and is eventually beaten for his honesty and earnestness. Charley is a different story, selling his soul to the devil and accepting the cards he has been handed, making a choice to join with Friendly. At a crucial moment he makes another devastating choice that changes his life forever.

Few films can proudly boast a scene or dialogue that remains timeless and imprinted on cinematic history, but On the Waterfront contains a scene of this caliber. During a tremendously important moment in the film Terry has a conversation with Charley and makes an impassioned statement-“I coulda’ been somebody. I coulda’ been a contender”, laments Terry to his brother, “Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.” This line is a historic piece of writing and true to the heart of the character.

The film reaches further in its power and truth because it is representative of Elia Kazan’s real-life plight. During the early 1950’s the director famously informed on suspected Communists before a government committee while many of his colleagues chose to go to prison rather than name names. Many Hollywood actors, directors, and screenwriters were blacklisted for decades to come. On the Waterfront is frequently deemed as an allegory to the director’s plight and therefore is a very personal story.

On the Waterfront (1954) is sometimes violent and all-times realistic, painting a portrait of one man’s struggle to overcome the lousy life that has been given to him to do the right thing. Thanks to gorgeous direction, an explosive lead performance by Brando, and all the pieces fitting perfectly in unison together, the film is one of the greats and hopefully will remain one that generations will come to discover.

From Here to Eternity-1953

From Here to Eternity-1953

Director-Fred Zinnemann

Starring-Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr

Scott’s Review #875

Reviewed March 7, 2019

Grade: A

Based on a popular novel of the same name, written by James Jones in 1952, From Here to Eternity (1953) tells a powerful story of romance and drama set against the gorgeous backdrop of Hawaii. The film is poignant and sentimental for its build-up to the World War II Pearl Harbor attacks, further enhancing the story-telling. With great acting and compelling story, the film is a bombastic Hollywood creation that conquers the test of time remaining timeless.

A trio of United States Army personnel are stationed on the sunny island of Oahu. First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), and Private Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) are the main principals and their life in the Schofield Army Barrack is chronicled. They are joined by respective love interests Alma Lorene (Donna Reed) and Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) and the triumphs and sorrows of each are explored in dramatic fashion prior to the devastating incident set to take place.

The perspective of the film is centered around the male characters which risks the film being classified as a “guy’s movie” but it really isn’t. There exists enough melodrama and romance to offset the testosterone and masculinity and as the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives a broader canvas is painted. This point is to the film’s credit as each character is rich with development, sympathy, or sometimes pure anger.

Many films have been told, and continue to be told throughout the decades, of the terrors and after-effects of World War II but From Here to Eternity remains towards the top of the heap. While not going full throttle with too much violence or grit, the film tells of the trials and tribulations of people effected by and soon to be affected by the war. The characters co-exist peacefully in their own little slice of the world though there is the occasional bullying or insubordination among the ranks, but the romance soon takes center stage followed by the dire attacks.

The smoldering beach scene featuring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the ravaging shores of Halona Cove is as iconic as a cinematic moment ever existed. Rumors of the stars torrid love affair and need to run off to make love after shooting the scene could be pure myth but have never been dis-proven either. Reportedly the camera crew shot the scene quickly and left the duo to their desires. Regardless, the scene may very well cause the iciest of hearts to turn into a torrent of heart pounding flutters.

The film suddenly takes a dark turn as if realizing that it is a film about a devastating war. A major character dies and another character goes on the hunt for revenge. Despite these deaths not being at the hands of an enemy or a battle they are nonetheless powerful and dims the mood of the film. Finally, the attack on Pearl Harbor is upon us just as the audience no doubt will sense is coming and ends in a sad way with simple dialogue between the two main female characters.

Thanks to fine direction by novice director Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity (1953) elicits a pure breadth of emotions and subject matters. At its core a cynical film, the picture is also rich with courage, integrity, and love of one’s country without suffering from any phony false patriotism. With a dash of romance and sexuality the film is utterly memorable and deserving of the hefty Academy Awards it achieved.

A Streetcar Named Desire-1951

A Streetcar Named Desire-1951

Director-Elia Kazan

Starring-Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh

Scott’s Review #872

Reviewed March 2, 2019

Grade: A

An adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s dark and dreary Broadway play, the stellar cast features three of the four original members of the stage version who bring the film to the big screen. Tremendous acting and a southern, morbid setting will leave the viewer transfixed and wondering what chaos and drama will next unfold. The story is sad and pitiful and quite the heavy as each character suffers from guilt, resentment, rage, or regret, but the elements make the film a pure classic.

Aging southern belle Blanche DuBois has lost her valuable southern plantation and flees her aristocratic livelihood to New Orleans to live with her working-class sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Unhappy, Blanche immediately begins acting snobbish which is in stark contrast to regular folks and offends many with her prim and proper ways. Stanley feels slighted by Blanche also convinced that she is keeping inheritance from Stella resulting in conflict. She meets Mitch (Karl Malden) and it appears she may have a shot at happiness after all.

The most painful and well-dissected character is Blanche. A fun fact is that Leigh is the only actor among the principle four to not appear in the original stage version, the role played by Jessica Tandy. Leigh, undoubtedly cast because of her star power at that time dives full-steam ahead into the role and gives the perfect blend of pathos and courage adding the most complexity. Reduced to a life among the poor and struggling, reality is tough for the once wealthy heiress who has lost all her money through no fault of her own, her estate taken by creditors after her husband’s tragic death assumed to be suicide.

Almost as complex is Stanley, played stunningly by Brando, an actor who with this film was just beginning to embark on Hollywood success that would surround him throughout most of the 1950’s. The most prominent film cover art features a tee-shirt clad Brando, his muscular arms and torso on display and his smoldering bad-boy pose. The sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche is undeniable as their love/hate relationship is filled with unbridled passion. Their carnal attraction is largely due to the brutish masculinity that Brando exudes on-camera.

The combined supporting performances by both Kim Hunter and Malden almost match with the leads as far as complexity and are just as important to recognize. In the former’s case, Hunter plays Stella as wounded and put-upon, but not weak. She has strength but is unsure who to trust or whether to leave her husband. Malden plays Mitch as benevolent and trusting, enamored with Blanche until her secrets are finally revealed. Heartbroken, even he, the kindest character in the group is left unhappy. Malden is great at adding an every-man and graceful quality to Mitch.

Who can ever forget the poignant and melancholy wails of “Stella! Stella! Stella!” emitted by the tragic Stanley a moment forever remembered in cinematic history? He longingly begs for Stella’s forgiveness as he looks towards the sky in desperation. The suggested rape, although not shown, is a powerful and brazen tidbit and controversial in film for 1951. The audience not seeing the act is arguably as intense as having seen it as imaginations can oftentimes be more prominent.

The black and white cinematography adds emotional treasures as the bleak New Orleans life is captured and the struggle and hardship of the characters wonderfully portrayed. The run-down tenement that most of the film takes place in is dour, suffocating, and dingy, perfectly enveloping the character’s lives. Hopelessness and depression are commonalities as director Elia Kazan creates a film that grasps his audience and never let’s go.

A Streetcar Named Desire is about conflict, pain, and the human desire for love and feeling thwarted by realism and dire circumstances. Each of the four characters is capable of being dissected and sympathized with as well as worthy of discussion. This only proves the complexities of each. I challenge a good comparison to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and A Streetcar Named Desire as both have similar qualities.

The film set an Oscar record when it became the first film to win in three acting categories (a feat only since matched by Network in 1976). The awards it won were for Actress in a Leading Role (Leigh), Actor in a Supporting Role (Malden), Actress in a Supporting Role (Hunter), and Art Direction. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is not an easy watch but assuredly is a feast in excellent acting and a bevy of heartbreaking and wounded characters.

A Christmas Carol-1951

A Christmas Carol-1951

Director-Brian Desmond Hurst

Starring-Alastair Sim

Scott’s Review #871

Reviewed February 26, 2019

Grade: A

A Christmas Carol (1951), released as the American title, or Scrooge in Great Britain, is yet another film incarnation of the world famous 1843 novel by Charles Dickens. This version seems to be the winning popular favorite, historically shown on television around the holidays. Alastair Sim is perfectly cast as the curmudgeonly Scrooge with the eventual endearing qualities in this earnest and wonderful seasonal effort.

Set in bustling London, a fabulous setting for any Christmas film, the story gets off to a resounding start with Dickens’ words being narrated subsequently presenting a faithful tribute to the book. The brooding Ebenezer Scrooge (Sim) angrily leaves the London Exchange on Christmas Eve eager for a quiet night at home. He begrudgingly gives his clerk Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns) the day off to spend with his poor family and bemoans the holidays as humbug to fellow wealthy businessmen that he encounters.

Scrooge embarks on a strange journey during the night as he is visited by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), shackled in chains and doomed to walk the earth clad in chains to represent his greed during his living years. He warns Scrooge to repent or suffer the same fate as he is visited by three ghosts representing chapters of his life: The Spirit of Christmas Past, the Spirit of Christmas Present, and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to come. The first two ghosts more benevolent, the third ghost is mysterious and frightening and takes Scrooge down a dim journey of what will be after he dies.

The centerpiece that makes A Christmas Carol work so well is its star, Alastair Sims. Hardly handsome, the actor is perfect in the role offering relish with his irritated facial expressions and untamed white locks. As he dismisses a waiter at the realization that he will be charged extra for more bread the penny-pinching Scrooge is in fine form as only Sims can be. Later, his cleaning lady assumes Scrooge has lost his marbles as he frolics about gleefully in his bed clothes raising her salary beyond comprehension, clearly a changed and jolly man. Sims plays this range of emotions with relish and truthfulness.

The cinematographers work wonders creating a magical London set drizzling with celebratory facets. With eons of pure white falling snow and streets filled with young Christmas carolers and city people, the film offers a great feel. With the Cratchit household modest yet filled with holiday cheer, the film doses the audience with the right blend of sentimentality and spirit never turning into schmaltz. The result is a richly produced film with a small budget proving that a robust budget does not equal greatness.

Rated G, the film has a few dark moments but is largely tailor made for an all ages audience. This undoubtedly is testament to its success and staying power. Neither a musical nor too heavy in the drama field, the pacing is perfect, and the story builds throughout the running time. After many decades most viewers will be familiar with the conclusion, an enchanting character turn that is always wonderful to witness with joyful glee.

A Christmas Carol (1951) is a legendary film with crackle and spark and an effective atmosphere leaving adoring fans to look forward to more each season. For an interesting contrast, a suggested companion piece is the aptly titled Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney, a musical version of the same story. Watched in tandem or even traded off, these two similar yet different creations offer interesting perspectives both enchanting and celebrating the human spirit.

First Reformed-2018

First Reformed-2018

Director-Paul Schrader

Starring-Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried

Scott’s Review #870

Reviewed February 22, 2019

Grade: B+

First Reformed (2018) is a dark independent film that has received a great deal of buzz for the raw and daring risks it takes and the brave performance by the film’s star, Ethan Hawke. Directed by the same man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader, the film is a character study of one man’s efforts for benevolence and normalcy after experiencing insurmountable tragedy as he wrestles with his demons and questions his faith in the church. The film is heavy, raw drama and not for those in the mood for a feel-good experience.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is an alcoholic, residing in bleak and barren upstate New York, presumably near Buffalo. He serves as a Protestant minister at a historically significant yet sparsely populated church. The establishment is usurped by another more modern congregation with a robust following. Ernst has recently been dealt a major blow with the death of his son in the Iraq War after encouraging him to enlist. When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks Ernst to provide guidance to her radical and troubled husband, Ernst’s life spirals out of control.

Ernst is determined to keep a journal for exactly one year and then subsequently burn it. He chronicles his feelings, thoughts, and doubts as narrated by Hawke. Schrader, who directed and wrote First Reformed succeeds at making the film feel personal and conflicted. He creates a quiet experience masked with underlying turmoil and even suffocating existences. Ernst’s angry protege is an environmentalist determined to change the minister’s views and succeeds in pointing out life’s hypocrisy.

The season is winter, and the elements are cold and depressing in First Reformed. From the crisp air and clutching small town grasps, Schrader makes the audience feel stifled, so we relate to Ernst even though we may not share his views or his beliefs. He is a kind man, helpful, and even keeled but wrestles with constant demons.  Despite his role as a minister what the film does well is resist carving a traditional tale of religious conflict or even questioning Ernst’s sexuality. The film is much darker contextually and does not focus on one theme.

Where Schrader loses me is with Ernst’s questionable actions which sometimes come out of left field. The conclusion is both perplexing and unsatisfying. As the character prepares for a desperate act of brutality, certainly a shock for the audience who has him figured out, he suddenly changes course due to the appearance of Mary. They embrace, and the film ends, but what are his intentions towards Mary? He is fond of her, but are feelings pure friendship or something more emotional? Sadly, we never find out nor do we know where he channels all of his feelings from.

Besides Ernst, and Hawke’s dynamic portrayal of him is never better, the supporting character’s lack much appeal or interest. Mary is nice enough but is a tad clingy and her numerous requests to talk or have Ernst come by to visit get tedious- Seyfried does what she can with the role but is second banana. Cedric the Entertainer as Pastor Joel Jeffers lacks appeal and the dowdy character of Esther meant to be a potential love interest for Ernst is instead bothersome and portrayed as a pest.

First Reformed (2018) has shades of appeal and a main character with substance and depth but ultimately the film does not come together as well as it might have. The finale underwhelms and after the great buildup to the character’s changing thoughts and motivations too much was left unclear. Schrader deserves props for attempting to create an edgy experience with a unique and daring character but could have wrapped the film up in a tidier way. This would have served the film better.

The Bicycle Thief-1948

The Bicycle Thief-1948

Director-Vittorio De Sica

Starring-Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola

Scott’s Review #867

Reviewed February 16, 2019

Grade: A

The Bicycle Thief (1948), modified to the English title from the original Italian Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) is an important and cherished film containing a powerful message enshrined in a compelling story. The film is fraught with emotion and focuses on a powerful relationship between a father and his son and a determination to retrieve what is rightfully theirs. Made post World War II the film has a socialist theme and is made with a hallmark neorealist style centering around working class people. The film is an example of cinema being art and not merely entertainment.

The film deservedly was awarded a special Academy Award for “most outstanding foreign language film” before the historic Best Foreign Language Film award existed. This is a testament to the power and humanism the film envelopes as the sad and occasionally wonderful story unfolds. The inclusion of professional actors and non-actors make the film a strong and authentic watch in a quick one hour and twenty-nine minute running time.

In late 1940’s Rome Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to find decent work to support himself and his family. When an opportunity presents itself but requires the use of a bicycle, Antonio’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell) selflessly sells family heirlooms to acquire his pawned bicycle. Things are looking great for the family as Antonio begins his new job only to have his bicycle stolen by a thief on his first day as he sits atop a ladder helplessly witnessing the theft. Determined to track the thief down and retrieve his stolen bike he and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) traverse the city in growing desperation.

The Bicycle Thief is a simple story but one which enraptures the viewer with many different emotions. Anger at the thief, empathy for Antonio and Bruno, inspiration by the humanity of some characters, and rage at the actions of others. Antonio strives to be a good role model for his son and a provider for Maria. By the end of the film he has become a more complicated character, resorting to dire means to solve his problems. Antonio is desperate, guilt-ridden, and ashamed, but is also a highly inspirational character.

Fans of the gorgeous and historic European city of Rome are in for a treat. The Bicycle Thief is peppered with enchanting shots of the famous city and focuses on the events of normal everyday people as they go to work and spend their days on a mission. The lighting used by director Vittorio de Sica is bright and sunny and portrays Rome as a hot and bustling epicenter. The atmosphere is foreboding as we known something dire will soon occur amid the warm and cheery metropolis.

The acting is at the center of The Bicycle Thief’s success with inspired performances by Maggiorani and Staiola as father and son. Staiola is masterful as a young boy who needs a father figure and hangs on his father’s every move with passion. His soulful and expressive eyes contain sadness and hope in many scenes as he yearns and prays for his father to be happy again and for himself to feel safe. In comparison, Maggiorani possesses an ability to portray strength and angst interchangeably. His finest scene is pivotal as he realizes he has become no better than the thief he despises early in the film and is buried in shame.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) is a film made powerful and memorable by its simplicity and humanistic sensibilities. The plot is basic and explores one man’s quest at justice and the right to live his life and care for his family. His journey is complex and fraught with tense moments only making the film palpable and heart racing as his adventure unfolds before us. Thanks to gorgeous cinematography and an ample dose of pathos those who watch this film will be in store for a treasure in powerful cinematic story telling.