Tag Archives: favorite Film of the Year

The Prom-2020

The Prom-2020

Director-Ryan Murphy 

Starring-Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #1,101

Reviewed January 17, 2021

Grade: A

Hollywood legends Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman take on singing and dancing roles in the lovely and timely film, The Prom (2020). James Corden joins them in a prominent role in a musical based on the popular and recent Broadway production of the same name. The LGBTQ+ storyline is important and powerful but doesn’t overshadow the colors and the fun. The message is perfectly incorporated in the delicious comedy romp.

The Prom reminds me of John Waters Hairspray from 1988 or even the fun remake from 2007. Instead of racism, the topic is now homophobia, with a few characters rebuffing the lifestyle. Most of the performances are over-the-top, but the film works on all levels. The one-liners are crackling and polished, especially by Streep and Corden.

As should be the case, the homophobic characters are written as fools and finally come to realize the error of their ways.

Director, Ryan Murphy, has become a favorite of mine for creating both extremely dark and light-hearted projects that usually slant towards LGBTQ+ recognition and inclusion. His treasured FX series American Horror Story (2011-present) and miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story are excellent examples of this. I drool with anticipation over what his next offering might be.

High school student, Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), wants to bring a female date to the upcoming prom. Chaos has erupted after the head of the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association), Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington) has canceled the prom. The setting is Indiana and the same gender coupling conflicts with the town’s traditional beliefs and values. Little does she know that her daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is Emma’s secret girlfriend. The school principal, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) supports Emma and has leaked the story to social media outlets.

Meanwhile, in sophisticated New York City, snooty broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) are devastated when their new musical flops. They join forces with struggling performers Angie Dickinson (Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and take a bus trip with the cast of Godspell to remote Indiana to champion Emma’s cause, and drum up sympathy from their fans and critics.

The rest of the film is as one might expect with bursts of song and dance combined with teaching the stuffy residents of small-town Indiana to accept and embrace Emma and her LGBTQ+ brethren. Amid a flurry of misunderstandings, mainly between newly dating Tom and Dee Dee, Emma and Alyssa, and Alyssa and her mother, a lavish prom is funded for the town, high school students straight and gay, to flock to and co-mingle in unity.

While The Prom is sheer fantasy and real-life doesn’t usually work out so perfectly, the sentiment is meaningful and the film takes a progressive stance.

I adore the song and dance numbers with my favorites being rapturous “It’s Time to Dance” and “Tonight Belongs to You”. They match well with the meaningful “The Acceptance Song”.

My curiosity wonders how residents of Indiana or other small towns might react to The Prom. While the film depicts a stuffy, close-minded viewpoint by many of the residents- besides the ones already mentioned, two male students, and two cheerleaders bully and ridicule Emma, other characters like Emma’s grandmother (Mary Kay Place) are kind and accepting. The bullying is a soft touch and Murphy keeps the plot light.

The contrasts of Dee Dee and Barry’s derision of Edgewater is comical and delightful, the main fun of the film. Dee Dee has never heard of the restaurant, Applebees, or knows not what it is. Barry and Dee Dee are horrified to have to stay in the local hotel because it is beneath their standards. The hotel is pretty nice.

A beautiful moment occurs towards the end of the film when Barry reunites with his mother, played by Tracey Ullman. Distant for years because of his parent’s inability to accept him as gay, the old woman comes to terms, and the two reunite with tears. A sad reality is that the dad still cannot come to terms with his son’s sexuality. This is surprising and hurtful that some parents still have a tough time with lifestyle choices in the year 2020.

The Prom has heart and the side story of the blossoming romance between Dee Dee and Tom, opposites, is charming and sweet.  Learning to curb her narcissism and doing for others as tough as that might be for her, Streep is a hoot and has tremendous chemistry with Key. The interracial match is a bonus for a film keen on promoting diversity and inclusion.

Related to this, one preposterous notice is the small Indiana town having oodles of Hispanic, black, and Asian townspeople. A real small town in Indiana would almost certainly be 99% white. But, the message is diversity so Murphy does what he sets out to do. I just don’t feel it’s accurate.

Those desiring a pulsating, riotous comedy musical with snippets of cutting humor are in for a treat with The Prom (2020). The musical numbers may fade and are not as memorable as instantly recognizable songs from classics like West Side Story (1961) or The Music Man (1962), but enough is on the table for pure enjoyment for the entire family. And the strong message is enough reason to tune in.

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.

Cleverly, 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 complexes 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 is 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 a 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 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 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 a zest that should empower us all.

Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White

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.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Quentin Tarantino, Best Actor-Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor-Brad Pitt (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design (won), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design

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, 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 housekeeper 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.

Oscar Nominations: Outstanding Production, Best Director, Best Cinematography (won)

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 a compelling story, the film is a bombastic Hollywood creation that conquers the test of time remaining timeless.

A trio of United States Army personnel is 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 dramatically before the devastating incident set to take place.

The perspective of the film is centered around the male characters which risk the film being classified as a “guy’s movie” but it really isn’t. There exist 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 affected 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, 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 a pure myth but have never been disproven 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 sadly 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.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture (won), Best Director-Fred Zinnemann (won), Best Actor-Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Best Actress-Deborah Kerr, Best Supporting Actor-Frank Sinatra (won), Best Supporting Actress-Donna Reed (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Musical Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Sound Recording (won), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (won), Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, Best Film Editing (won)

The Lost Weekend-1945

The Lost Weekend-1945

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Ray Milland, Jane Wyman

Scott’s Review #856

Reviewed January 10, 2019

Grade: A

Billy Wilder, considered one of the most influential directors to emerge from the Hollywood Golden Age of cinema (the 1940s), creates a masterpiece tackling a social issues storyline until this time never explored before. The Lost Weekend (1945) tells a tale of alcoholism and the desperation and degradation of an addict. Wilder bravely goes where no film had dared to go with astounding results. The film was awarded several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) plays a New York writer left alone for the weekend one hot summer. His brother Wick (Philip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) is aware of Don’s drinking problem but leave for the weekend anyway when Don goes on a bender. He spends each subsequent day desperate for liquor and in need of for cash to purchase it. He resorts to theft and selling personal items out of desperation and the need for booze.  The story features flashbacks of past events when he first met Helen and an embarrassing attempt to meet her parents for lunch.

The film is adapted from the novel of the same name written by Charles R. Jackson in 1944. Assuredly a dark story that can be categorized as a downer the film does not paint a glamorous picture of the pains an alcoholic will go through or the lengths he will take out of desperation. Before, The Lost Weekend was made drunkard characters in the film were largely portrayed as either bumbling or as comic relief, so this character study is a welcome departure from tradition.

Milland is perfectly cast and effectively relays the troubled and desperate Don. Handsome, well-dressed, and professional, he is not the stereotypical image of a drunk. Dressed in a suit and tie by all measures he does not fit the bill of a desperate man, but slowly begins his descent and spirals out of control. This makes Wilder’s message more powerful as he shows that alcoholism can afflict anyone even professional, intelligent men. Milland, who resembles actor Jimmy Stewart is supposed to be liked by the audience eliciting a rooting factor even when he treats Helen badly. We want him to face his problems and recover.

Many glimpses of Manhattan are shown, and exterior shots are used plentifully. Wilder shoots the scenes as largely bleak and lonely which aligns with the overall feel of the film. Third Avenue looks desolate and isolated as we watch a desperate Don wander around and attempt to sell his typewriter for booze money. He is grief-stricken when he realizes it is Yom Kippur weekend and therefore the pawnshops are closed. The camera remains firmly fixed on Milland showcasing a range of powerful emotions over the course of the film.

The Lost Weekend (1945) was a groundbreaking film at the time of release with a serious and detailed tale of the life and times of an alcoholic. With a wonderful acting performance by Milland, Wilder can portray the world of an addict darkly and frighteningly. Decades later the film is still mentioned as inspirational to other filmmakers creating works about alcohol abuse.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Director-Billy Wilder (won), Best Actor-Ray Milland (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Best Film Editing

Meet Me in St. Louis-1944

Meet Me in St. Louis-1944

Director-Vincente Minnelli 

Starring-Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien

Scott’s Review #845

Reviewed December 19, 2018

Grade: A

With talents such as Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland involved in a project, it is tough for the results not to be resounding, and this is the case with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a treasured musical with enough songs and melodrama to last a lifetime. The film is a lively and earnest achievement from both stars when each was at their prime and the film rich with flavor containing a myriad of good touches.

Meet Me in St. Louis is really an ensemble piece featuring a bevy of actors, but the film belongs to Garland for the musical numbers alone. In fact, the film is groundbreaking in that it set the tone for the slew of MGM musicals to follow during the 1950s and 1960s. The film is considered one of the greatest and memorable musicals of all time and I certainly share this sentiment.

The story revolves around the upper-middle-class Smith family and the setting is 1903, St. Louis. In the lovely form, the film is composed of seasonal vignettes taking place over the course of a year. Trials and tribulations erupt especially involving the romantic entanglements of eldest sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Garland) and the possibility of the family having to relocate to New York City. Along with the Smith parents, Rose and Esther are three other siblings, grandpa, and Katie the maid. The household is filled with glee, music, and heartbreak.

The seasonal setup the film chooses to showcase is a huge success and elicits a warm sensation. As the title card displays “Summer 1903” we are welcomed into a sunny and picturesque street amid the St. Louis backdrop, perfectly mid-western. The Smith home is showcased, and the viewer is welcomed into an idyllic world of a bonded family. In this way Meet Me in St. Louis feels homespun and like a good best friend, able to be watched and re-watched many times over and during any season of the year as it offers a summer fair, a spooky Halloween sequence, and a dazzling Christmastime segment.

Other than Esther, the most memorable and fascinating character is Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). A mere six-years-old during filming O’Brien gives a startlingly good turn and packs emotional wallop enriching a character arguably interpreted as being obsessed with death with some needed humor. She buries her dolls on a dare throws flour in a man’s face on Halloween thereby “killing” him.  Her biggest scene though occurs during a melt-down when Tootie destroys her beloved snowmen in the family lawn. The actress portrays such rage and despair during this scene that is easy to forget how young she was. She was rewarded for her efforts with an honorary Oscar.

The musical numbers by Garland are absolute treasures. Highlights include “The Trolley Song” performed as Esther rides the afternoon trolley across town hoping that the boy next door whom she is madly in love with, John (Tom Drake), will be on the same trolley. The gorgeously performed number “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is my favorite.  Following a lavish Christmas Eve ball, Esther sings the song to Tootie, and nestled within its lyrics are emotions such as hope and sadness.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is a film that has it all and can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. With memorable musical numbers, romance, drama, and a wholesome, timeless sensibility, the film is a beloved favorite to be dusted off from time to time. Like the finest of wines, this film gets better and better with age.

Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Song-“The Trolley Song”, Best Cinematography, Color

Bride of Frankenstein-1935

Bride of Frankenstein-1935

Director-James Whale

Starring-Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester

Scott’s Review #825

Reviewed October 31, 2018

Grade: A-

After four long years director, James Whale finally agreed to follow-up, and resurrect, his character of The Monster. Fortunately, Boris Karloff also returned to the role he made famous. In this installment, he meets a mate played by the gorgeous Elsa Manchester. Critics argue that the sequel is superior to the original, but I am not so sure of that, slightly preferring Frankenstein. Still, the aptly titled Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a fantastic effort and a memorable classic in and of itself.

The plot picks up where the original Frankenstein ended and includes a sub-plot from the 1818 Mary Shelley novel. Having learned his lesson about the drawbacks of creating life, Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is coerced into creating a female mate for the Monster. Much of the action follows the Monster, who is on the run from hunters as he encounters both devious and kindly individuals. In clever form, Manchester plays both the “Bride” and Mary Shelley, who is heralded for her masterful writing.

The main difference between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is that the Monster is more developed from a character perspective. Even more empathetic and now uttering some dialogue, the pained character contains deeper moments and a damaged quality. Karloff reportedly despised this aspect preferring that his character be more ambivalent, using grunts and facial expressions more than words, but to me, the development works well.

As the Monster traverses the forest looking for shelter while being pursued witch hunt style, a lovely sequence occurs between the Monster and a lonely blind man. Attracted by the gorgeous sounds of a violin playing “Ave Maria”, the blind hermit befriends the Monster and teaches him a few words like “friend”. Harboring no ill-will towards the creature, the old hermit instead feels blessed and thanks God for sending him a friend. The tender moment is then shattered when a fire burns down the cottage.

Continuing what Frankenstein did and more in line with Shelley’s novel is the constant theme of loneliness and despair. The Creature is a tortured soul, yearning for love and affection, yet suffering from a temper. He is childlike and struggles to know the difference between right and wrong.

Like Frankenstein, the sequel contains high-quality special effects and ambiance. With a storm raging (naturally), the thunder and lightning qualities add so much to a horror film such as this, filling it with suspense and a certain science fiction element. When the Bride is hoisted to the sky and struck by lightning, the scene is both campy and terrifying.

How delicious a character is Manchester as The Monster’s Bride? With her statuesque seven-foot height (the actress used stilts), white-streaked hairdo, macabre white gown, and jerky, animal-like head movements, the character is forever recognizable in pop culture. Timeless in characterization, the beautiful woman possesses a macabre yet humorous quality. When she becomes alert, sees the Monster, and shrieks, it is a memorable moment in film history.

Throughout cinematic history, few sequels ever live up to their predecessors, but Bride comes close. Easily able to be watched in tandem with Frankenstein, and perfect for a bit of Saturday afternoon nostalgia, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a wonderful trip down memory lane to a time when horror was as thrilling in simple black and white as it is with all the frills added. Thanks to Whale’s brilliant direction, both films are legendary in their inspiration and achievements.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound Recording

It Happened One Night-1934

It Happened One Night-1934

Director-Frank Capra

Starring-Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

Scott’s Review #824

Reviewed October 25, 2018

Grade: A-

Perhaps the film which best defines the early cinematic romantic comedy and certainly the one most modern genre films can take a lesson from, It Happened One Night (1934) is a lively, fun romp.  The film carted away the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress Academy Awards, a rare feat, and defined what romantic tension and smart dialogue ought to be in a quality picture. All the elements sparkle into an excellent classic film watch.

Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is a pampered socialite who has recently disobeyed her overbearing and wealthy father, eloping with a blue-collar pilot who is feared to be after her money. Determined, Ellie escapes her father’s clutches and hops on a Greyhound bus headed from Florida to New York, where her husband is. When she crosses paths with an out of work journalist, Peter Warne (Gable), they each find an opportunity to use the other to their advantage. The pair’s adventures along the east coast lead to antics and schemes as they fall madly in love with one another.

It Happened One Night successfully mixes a good romance with some screwball comedy without ever becoming silly or trite. The film also serves as a good old-fashioned adventure story as Peter and Ellie face one hurdle after another on their trek north. Pleasing is the way that the duo slowly finds romance but first begin as irritants towards each other. The chemistry between the actors is superb and never seems forced or contrived.

Frank Capra, a famous director with successes throughout the 1930s, culminating with the holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), had several Oscar-winning films during the decade. It Happened One Night, though, seems to have inspired the most of them all, and the acting, farcical situations, dialogue, and direction all successfully come together.

Shot in black and white and pre- Motion Picture Production Code, which heavily restricted details deemed too violent or sexual, It Happened One Night was able to push the envelope quite a bit. This is to the film’s credit- who can forget the adorable yet provocative scene in which Ellie shows her shapely legs to enable the duo to catch a ride. The lovable scene, non-risque in today’s modern world, was anything but in 1934.

An interesting, and at that time unique, point, is that supporting characters are more layered than is typical in romantic comedies. Danker, who Peter and Ellie hitch a ride with is seemingly a decent man but ultimately attempts to steal their luggage. Later, Ellie’s preposterous father turns out to be somewhat of a decent man, so the film contains a few character surprises too.

While not quite a pure masterpiece, It Happened One Night (1934) is nonetheless an inspired legendary film that can be viewed and enjoyed for the time-period in which it was made. The film is a standout among the similarly themed romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and a teachable moment for all filmmakers delving into the same genre territory.

Oscar Nominations: Outstanding Production (won), Best Director (won), Best Actor-Clark Gable (won), Best Actress-Claudette Colbert (won), Best Adaptation (won)

Frankenstein-1931

Frankenstein-1931

Director-James Whale

Starring-Colin Clive, Boris Karloff

Scott’s Review #822

Reviewed October 22, 2018

Grade: A

For those of us who treasure cinematic brilliance in films of the past need to look no further than Frankenstein (1931), a masterpiece in the horror genre. In fact, considered by some to be the greatest horror film ever made, the still frightening work is based on the legendary 1818 Mary Shelley novel. Highly influential to later groupings of horror film sub-genres, the importance of this film must never be forgotten.

In a small European village, a scientist named Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is determined to create human life by way of stealing fresh body parts from cemeteries and using electrical shock as part of his creation. He convinces his assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), to steal a human brain from a former professor’s laboratory. Due to a clumsy mistake, Fritz must steal the brain of a criminal rather than a “normal” human being, the result being dire when Frankenstein’s monster is created.

The creation of the monster (and no, the monster’s name is not actually Frankenstein as some might assume) is astounding, especially given the time-period of the early 1930’s. With a flattop, heavy eyelids, protruding neck terminals, and his hulking physique, he is a frightening figure, but with a yearning, childlike nature. The monster’s innocence makes him so tragic. A compelling scene occurs when the audience first sees the monster turn around and face the camera.

What separates Frankenstein from many other horror films is the underlying sadness and empathy that we feel towards the monster. Generally, the “villain” in most horror films is clearly defined, but who is the villain in Frankenstein? How can it be the monster when he, unaware of his own strength, drowns a young child? We root for the monster when he hangs the dastardly dwarf and we hate the town of peasants who seek revenge on the monster. The complexities in this film are endless.

The main character is an interesting study. Title billed; the character is a genius while also teetering on the brink of madness- he is not the hero of the film nor is he entirely sympathetic. He is the ruin of a monster who has feelings and a sadness to him. Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clark) is concerned for him, which adds a nurturing element to the dynamic. The intent is for the audience not to despise Frankenstein, but to be enthralled with his complexities.

The term “monster film” can conjure up feelings of silliness or over-the-top acting, but Frankenstein is more artistic than goofy. The famous line of “It’s alive!” was paid tribute to in later years, but an equally spectacular horror film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) when Rosemary feels her haunted baby kick. To say nothing of the tribute Mel Brook’s classic Young Frankenstein (1974) paid to the original.

Given the film was made in 1931 the effects and lighting techniques are beyond impressive. The overall tone of the film is stylistic with a prevalent fairy-tale beauty unlike any films made at the time, save for perhaps Dracula, the 1931 horror-vampire masterpiece. In fact, both Frankenstein and Dracula would make a delicious double-feature on a Saturday evening. Director James Whale creates a magical environment that astounds, holding up well generation after generation, never seeming dated.

Frankenstein (1931) was followed by numerous sequels, the best of which is Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Undoubtedly, the film influenced campy yet important monster films to follow- most notably the “Hammer Horror films” of the same tone. Despite teetering on the one-hundred-year-old mark, the brilliant film is timeless and must be introduced to young film makers everywhere (especially in the horror genre).

All Quiet on the Western Front-1930

All Quiet on the Western Front-1930

Director-Lewis Milestone

Starring-Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim

Scott’s Review #820

Reviewed October 12, 2018

Grade: A

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is one of the oldest films I have ever seen, and a masterpiece that resonates in present times just as much as the film did nearly one hundred years ago. The work of art presents an astounding Anti-war message that is a timeless lesson in humanity, idealism, and ultimately, despair. Based on the banned novel by Erich Maria Remarque, much of the action takes place on the front lines during World War I.

The cameras follow an anxious group of spirited young men as they sit in a classroom and listen to a passionate speech given by their professor. He is quite “pro war”, filling the boys with patriotism and the importance of serving the Army and their country. At his urging the group, led by Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) join the Second Company. Once enlisted, the youths are enlightened to the fact that war is not fun, and their romantic delusions are smashed to pieces.

Paul is the hero of the film and events are told through his eyes, offering his perspective. Beginning as a young recruit, he ages quickly and sees friends and allies slaughtered senselessly. One recruit, frightened to death, is blinded by shrapnel and hysterically runs into machine-gun fire resulting in his death. Other scenes involving the soldiers forced to go without food only to finally be offered second helpings simply because there are so many dead, is heart-wrenching.

Paul is portrayed as a good man- conflicted by how he is supposed to feel towards the enemy and how he sees people as human beings. At the young age of nineteen he possesses an innocence towards the world. When he returns home on leave the townspeople have no inclination of the ravages of war. When Paul recounts the brutal situations on the front line, he is derided as a coward.

In an excruciating scene, Paul is trapped overnight in a fox hole with a dying French soldier, whom Paul has stabbed in a cemetery. He desperately tries to save the man’s life, but to no avail. In this important scene Paul sees the enemy soldier as a human being rather than as someone to hate. He crumbles into tears for the dead soldier, begging him to speak. The scene is incredibly poignant and meaningful.

The final scene of All Quiet on the Western Front is lovely and memorable, too. In fact, the scene is the most remembered from the film and firmly ensconced in cinematic history. As a wounded Paul lies in hiding from German soldiers, he spots a beautiful butterfly peacefully circling around. Paul smiles enamored with the pretty creature amid all the ugliness. He desperately tries to reach for the gorgeous insect. What happens next is heartbreaking and fraught with the unfair ruining of life- the scene is of utmost importance.

The film is both sad and poignant as we are well into the twenty-first century while wars continue to wage on in present day. Have we learned nothing? Director, Lewis Milestone brazenly, and tragically, paints a portrait of the foolishness of war and the senseless loss of life that war results in. It is tough to think of an equivalent film that depicts this message in a clearer way.

Many European leaders and countries, Germany’s Adolf Hitler included, banned All Quiet on the Western Front throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s. The film has remained controversial in its blatant depiction of war since it was made.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a groundbreaking film and should be viewed by everyone as a reminder of how precious life really is. The novel and film were both made as a result of World War I- how profound to think since this film was made wars such as World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, have occurred. Is war ever really the answer? Anyone who watches this terrific film will find out.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director (won), Best Writing, Best Cinematography

BlacKkKlansman-2018

BlacKkKlansman-2018

Director-Spike Lee

Starring-John David Washington, Adam Driver

Scott’s Review #802

Reviewed August 14, 2018

Grade: A

Spike Lee’s latest offering, BlacKkKlansman (2018) is a brilliant effort and oh so timely in the tumultuous political climate in the United States circa 2018. Despite the film being set in the early 1970’s, the racial issues and tensions that Lee examines are sadly still an enormous problem in present times. Lee infuses some humor and even romance into the drama so the film is not too preachy or heavy. A grand and relevant effort that should be watched by all.

As the film commences, we are treated to a clip from the 1939 classic film Gone With the Wind and BlacKkKlansman concludes with prominent clips of racial tensions circa 2017. The timeline is extremely important and powerful as the point of the film is made abundantly clear that racism is still alive and well. Lee, a known liberal, puts a clear left spin on his work- BlacKkKlansman will likely not be seen by conservative film goers and this is sad as valuable lessons learned can be achieved by viewing this piece.

The story is based on a true story memoir written by Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department. He successfully infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with startling results. The film begins with a speech by a doctor (Alec Baldwin) offering a “scientific explanation” of white superiority in 1957. Fast-forward to the early 1970’s where the rest of the film takes place. Ron is initially hired by the police force as a progressive initiative for diversity, but quickly moves into a detective role as he manages to pose as a KKK member via telephone while another detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) goes to meetings in person.

Lee’s focus is clearly on the overall content and message of the film and therefore little character development is achieved. I admittedly did yearn to know the “how’s” and the “why’s” of many of the characters, but the film is not really about the characters individually and I am okay with this. Why did Ron desire so much to become a police officer? What was his childhood like? How did Patrice become President of the black student union? What was her childhood like? What upbringings did some of the KKK members have? Certainly enough time would not have been allowed to answer all of these questions. Small gripe.

Lead actor John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington, unknown to me before watching this film, is tremendous in his role. As is Driver in his supporting role of Zimmerman, but again these are not character driven roles. Washington has tremendous chemistry with his love interest, played by Laura Harrier. Ron and Patrice discuss politics and dance the night away, but she an activist and he a cop making their chances of happily ever after tough to imagine. Their romance is atypical of most films as it is based on intelligence and not silly, melodramatic aspects.

On the acting front, Topher Grace as the racist David Duke is tremendous. With a kindly demeanor mixed with a bubbling under hatred of blacks and Jewish people, Lee makes certain he is the foil. A delicious scene towards the end of the film when Duke gets his comeuppance of sorts is well done and received a thunderous roar from the theater audience.

Lee is careful to make sure the bad guys all get their just due, and are all portrayed as complete fools. With a false sense of nationalism, many hate minorities simply because they feel they are taking over their beloved country. Not to harp on this, but BlacKkKlansman will attract those who already agree with Lee’s beliefs and politics. If only those who disagree would give the film a chance. Unlikely.

The final five minutes of BlacKkKlansman arguably is the most pivotal experience of the entire film, but has nothing to do with the actual story portrayed in the rest of the production. Lee concludes the 1970’s portion of the film in satisfying fashion, then fast forwards to the horrific events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 when protesters clashed with a racist group resulting in an innocent woman’s death. The controversial remarks of President Trump- refusing to cast blame on the racist group are shown. Sitting in a crowded movie theater, these clips had the biggest reaction from the audience with some flipping Trump the finger, while others sobbed in anguish and disbelief that we have achieved so little as a nation.

Rarely ever a  more pertinent or meaningful film for the current political climate the United States is experiencing, BlacKkKlansman (2018) brilliantly ties racism spanning one hundred and fifty years and shows how it still exists. Amid this message, however, lies a great drama containing humor and importance.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Spike Lee, Best Supporting Actor-Adam Driver, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score, Best Film Editing

Schindler’s List-1993

Schindler’s List-1993

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

Scott’s Review #775

Reviewed June 19, 2018

Grade: A

Schindler’s List (1993) is a film that is arguably Steven Spielberg’s finest directorial work and Liam Neeson’s finest acting performance. The film is as disturbing as it is awe inspiring as many emotions will undoubtedly envelope any viewer- most of them dark and dire. Spielberg’s most personal story centers on the devastating Holocaust of World War II that will grip and tear audiences to pieces. The work deservedly secured the Oscar award for Best Picture and Best Director as well as numerous other accolades.

Oskar Schindler (Neeson) is a powerful German businessman who arrives in Krakow, Poland during the antics of World War II, presumably to make his fortune. Handsome and respected, he is charismatic and feared by the German army, who have forced most of the Polish Jews into the overcrowded ghettos where they await their fates. Schindler himself is a Nazi, but becomes more humanistic than most and ultimately against the Holocaust killings. He establishes a factory and hires a Jewish accountant (Ben Kingsley) to assist.

As he is tremendously affected by the inhumanity he sees all throughout the city, he makes arrangements to hire and thus save the lives of over a thousand Polish refugees. He does so by allowing them to safely work and be productive in his factory. The story is reportedly true and was a rare instance of humanity in a cold and ugly chapter in world history.

To be clear, Schindler does not start off as a hero and is admittedly rather an unlikely one. The man is a businessman, greedy, and undoubtedly flawed. He plans to use the Jews because they are cheap labor and can be used to his advantage. Because of the very lengthy running time of the film (over three hours) Spielberg slowly depicts Schindler’s complex character growth and eventual determination to save these poor people from the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Spielberg shoots Schindler’s List entirely in black and white with tremendous results. The camera works adds such ambiance and style to the 1990’s film- so much so that throughout the film I felt as if I were watching a documentary from the 1940’s. The film is epic and choreographed with precision and timeliness- some of the best camera work in cinema history as far as successfully creating the perfect solemn and dreary mood.

Supporting turns by Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes must be noted. In vastly different types of roles, both shine. As the understandably nervous, Jewish accountant for Schindler’s factory, Itzhak Stern is most notable for creating the famous “list”. This contains the names of those who would be transferred to the factory and thus have their lives spared. Kingsley, a brilliant actor, fills the character with empathy and heart.

Conversely, Fiennes plays a dastardly character in that of Amon Goth, a commander at the concentration camp. Evil and known for taking glee from killings, he is the man instrumental in deciding to exterminate all of the people in the ghetto. A pivotal character, Goth is important because he is the man who makes Schindler realize how sickening and inhumane the treatment is. Fiennes carves the character with so much hate that he is believable in the part.

One of the most beautiful scenes is aptly named “the girl in red” and is highly symbolic and worthy of analysis. Oskar watches as prisoners are escorted, presumably to their executions. He notices a three-year-old girl walking by herself- she is clad in a bright red coat. The coat is Spielberg’s only use of color throughout the entire film. The scene is incredibly important as the girl stands out, proving that all the Nazi commanders are accepting of her death. In tragic form, Oskar later sees her dead body draped in her red coat. The scene is sad and powerfully distressing.

Schindler’s List (1993) is an outstanding film that elicits such raw emotion from anyone who view’s the masterpiece. Certainly by no means an easy watch and most assuredly “a heavy”, the film depicts the true struggles and catastrophic events occurring not all too long ago. A film for the ages that simply must be seen by all to appreciate the terror and inhumanity that occurs throughout the world.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Steven Spielberg (won), Best Actor-Liam Neeson, Best Supporting Actor-Ralph Fiennes, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound, Best Art Direction (won), Best Makeup, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial-1982

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial-1982

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring-Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace

Scott’s Review #756

Reviewed May 10, 2018

Grade: A

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is a wonderful, magical film that will succeed in melting the hearts of anyone with even a tad of cynicism. The film is otherworldly (quite literally) and contains a message of acceptance and appreciation of other beings. Mixing many humorous moments with tender drama and tears, the film becomes part fantasy, science-fiction, and humanistic story. The film still feels fresh and relevant today with a bevy of forever remembered scenes and references- a wonderful story of friendship.

The audience is immediately introduced to a pack of alien botanists, arriving in a California forest from their far away planet to study plants one night. When government agents interrupt the peaceful moment, the “extraterrestrials” are forced to depart leaving one creature behind. When ten year old Elliott (Henry Thomas) discovers and begins to communicate with what will come to be known as “E.T.”, the duo forge a wonderful, lasting friendship as they attempt to return E.T. to his homeland.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is crowd pleasing in every way offering a bit of everything for all of its lucky viewers. Director Steven Spielberg reportedly made this film as a result of his desire to share a childhood imaginary friend with the world so the charm really shines through in this very personal story. The film contains an overall innocence that is pure benevolence- E.T. teaches Elliott as much as Elliott teaches E.T. Who can ever forget the pairs initial interaction as the use of Reese’s Pieces candy became a huge cultural phenomenon? The lovely quote of “E.T. phone home!” is still as poignant and teary eyed as it was in 1982.

Enjoyable and recognizable is E.T. himself becoming a cult figure. Odd looking, wide-eyed, and yet of a lovable nature, even cute, the film makers were careful not to make him too frightening. Using real actors and distorted voices E.T. became famous, appearing on lunch boxes, tee-shirts, notebooks, and binders throughout the early 1980’s.

The film, released in the “modern age” of 1982, provides a genuine portrayal of suburban life at that time. From the sunny sub-division style neighborhood that Elliott and his family live in, the absent father figure (so common in many 1980’s films), the single-mom/divorced parents phenomenon takes hold and makes families like this common place. If made in the 1960’s Elliott would for sure have had two happy parents and a white picket fence. Dee Wallace as Elliott’s mother Mary, received several mom roles throughout the decade, portraying them with a wholesome middle-America quality.

Henry Thomas, as Elliott, is crucial to the success of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and sadly the actor never did much beyond this great film. While tough to create chemistry with a creature from outer space, the young actor does just that as we buy the two as connected friends. The duo especially shine during the emotional “death” scene and the farewell scene finale.

The other supporting characters rounding out Elliott’s family are well cast and appropriate at relaying what a typical suburban family looks like. Michael (Robert MacNaughton) is slightly surly yet protective as the older brother and Gertie, played by a very young Drew Barrymore (soon to experience super stardom throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s) is cute, bubbly, and teeters on stealing the show as the precocious five year old.

At its core and what makes E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial so appealing is its heart- a sympathetic creatures desire to return home and be with his loved ones is the main focus. In this way, only slightly reversed is a comparison to the 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. As Dorothy yearns to return to her home amid of an exotic, unknown, and sometimes scary world, the same can this be said for E.T. and this makes both films similar and equally appealing.

Rich with elegance, intelligence, and creativity, Spielberg creates a tale that is both primed for mass consumption and rife for mainstream appeal. Rather than weave a contrived or cliched story, he spins a magical and long-lasting, good story that will appeal to the kid in all of us. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) reaped many Oscar nominations, but lost out on the big prize to the epic Ghandi that year.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Steven Spielberg, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Original Score (won), Best Sound Effects Editing (won), Best Sound (won), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects (won)

Do the Right Thing-1989

Do the Right Thing-1989

Director-Spike Lee

Starring-Danny Aiello, Spike Lee

Scott’s Review #746

Reviewed April 21, 2018

Grade: A

Do the Right Thing is one of the few great films to come out of the year 1989, not remembered as a fantastic year in cinema, when most mainstream films were as glossy as tin foil- and barren on quality substance. Here we have a small, independent gem that made people have discussions about current race relations in the United States and also became a monumental, influential film. Film maker (and star) Spike Lee carves a controversial story of racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood one hot summer day.

Beginning rather light and comedic, then turning violent and dark, the action is set in a largely black neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where twenty-five year old, Mookie (Spike Lee) works delivering pizzas at an Italian pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). With a toddler at home and a nagging girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) always in his face, Mookie is unmotivated yet still a decent guy and loyal friend.  Sal has two sons who work at the pizza place- Pino (John Turturro), who is angry and racist and nice guy Vito, who is a friend of Mookie’s. When conflicts erupt over whether Sal’s restaurant should celebrate black celebrities as well as white on a wall in the dining room, tensions reach their breaking point as the intense heat wave makes matters much worse.

What makes Do the Right Thing a marvel are both the overall tone of the film and the atmosphere relayed by Spike Lee, who does an incredible job of writing, producing, and starring in the film. The elements having little to do with the actual story immediately impress as big, bright colors, in comic book style scream at the big screen in bold fashion, eliciting both a warm, inviting feeling and an angry, contemptuous vibe. The loud rap and hip hop beats are exceptionally instrumental at portraying a certain feeling and emotion to the film. Made independently, with little budget, the film feels raw and intense from the get go.

Brooklyn, and New York City in particular, is the perfect setting as Sal and his family are white folks living in a predominantly black neighborhood, so in turn are the minorities in the story. Additionally, the viewer sees the friendly neighborhood and feels a sense of belonging regardless of race- the humorous drunk, the kindly, grandmotherly type people watching from her stoop, and the boombox music kid all form a sense of community and togetherness. This point is tremendously important to the overall plot of the film.

The relationship between Mookie and Sal and his sons is very important and the centerpiece to the entire film, which I found quite interesting as a character study. Clearly open minded, Sal is a decent man and fine with the diversity in his neighborhood- yet still true to his Italian roots. Aiello does a fantastic job of portraying this complex, conflicted character. His two sons could not be more different from each other- Vito, who is a close friend of Mookie’s, is sympathetic and sweet- with nary a racist bone in his body. Pino, on the other hand, is angry and resentful of the black community taking over what he feels is his territory. Finally, Mookie, while lazy, is also a sympathetic character as he is conflicted once tension reach their boiling point. These diverse characters make the film so dynamic.

Revered director Spike Lee carves out a story and brings it to the big screen telling of an important topic that is as vital in modern times as it was when Do the Right Thing was released in 1989. The film is intelligent and timely without being condescending to either black or white races, nor preachy- instead telling a poignant story that is angry and sometimes painful to watch, but more importantly is empathetic and real.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Danny Aiello, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

No Country for Old Men-2007

No Country for Old Men-2007

Director-Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Starring-Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Scott’s Review #745

Reviewed April 19, 2018

Grade: A

No Country for Old Men, made in 2007,  is arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s greatest work save for the amazing Fargo (1996). Achieving the Best Picture Academy Award and appearing on numerous Top Ten lists for its year of release, the film is clearly one of their most celebrated. Containing dark humor, offbeat characters, and fantastic storytelling, adding in some of the most gorgeous cinematography in film history, No Country for Old Men is one of the decades great films.

The time is 1980 and the setting western Texas as we follow dangerous hitman, Anton Chigurh, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem. He escapes jail by strangling a deputy and is subsequently hired to find Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who has accidentally stumbled onto two million dollars in a suitcase that Mexican smugglers are desperate to find. In the mix is Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is pursuing both men. Moss’s wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) in turn becomes an important character as she is instrumental in the web of deceit the chain of events creates. The film subsequently turns into an exciting cat and mouse chase with a dramatic climax.

The crux of the story and its plethora of possibilities is what make the events so exciting to watch. As characters are in constant pursuit of each other the viewer wonders who will catch up to whom and when.  One quality that makes the film unique with an identity all its own is that the three principal characters (Moss, Bell, and Chigurh) almost never appear in the same scene adding a layer of mystery and intrigue. The hero and most well liked of all the characters is, of course, Sheriff Bell- a proponent of honesty and truth while the other two characters are less than  savory types, especially the despicable Chigurh.

My personal favorite character in the story is Chigurh as he is the most interesting and Bardem plays him to the hilt with a calm malevolence- anger just bubbling under the surface. One wonders when he will strike next or if he will spare a life- as he intimidates his prey by offering to play a game of chance- the toss of a coin to determine life or death- he is one of cinema’s most vicious villains. With his bob cut hairstyle and his sunken brown eyes, he is a force to be reckoned with by looks alone.

True to many other Ethan and Joel Coen films the supporting or even the glorified extras are perfectly cast and filled with interesting quirkiness. Examples of this are the kindly gas station owner who successfully guesses a coin toss correctly and is spared his life. My favorite is the matter of fact woman at the hotel front desk, with her permed hair, she gives as good as she gets, and her monotone voice is great. It is these smaller intricacies that truly make No Country for Old Men shine and are a staple of Coen Brother films in general.

Many similarities abound between Fargo and No Country for Old Men, not the least of which is the main protagonist being an older and wiser police chief (Marge Gunderson and Tom Bell, respectively). Add to this a series of brutal murders and the protagonist being from elsewhere and stumbling upon a small, bleak town. Of course, the extreme violence depicted in both must be mentioned as a comparable.

Having shamefully only seen this epic thriller two times, No Country for Old Men is a dynamic film, reminiscent of the best of Sam Peckinpah classics such as The Getaway or The Wild Bunch. The Coen brothers cross film genres to include thriller, western, and suspense that would rival the greatest in Hitchcock films. I cannot wait to see it again.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Joel and Ethan Coen (won), Best Supporting Actor-Javier Bardem (won), Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

Milk-2008

Milk-2008

Director-Gus Van Sant

Starring-Sean Penn, Josh Brolin

Scott’s Review #744

Reviewed April 18, 2018

Grade: A

Milk is a 2008 film that successfully teaches its viewers both a valuable history lesson about the introduction of gay rights into the United States culture, as well as to the prolific leader associated with this , Harvey Milk. The film really belongs to Sean Penn, who portrays Milk, but is also a fantastic biopic and learned experience  appreciating his wonderful journey through the 1970’s- mainly in San Francisco and New York City. Moreover, Milk portrays a gay character not played for laughs as many films do, but portrayed as a hero.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person ever to be elected to any political office, winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. The film however, opens in 1978, after a stunning announcement of Harvey Milk’s assassination along with the Mayor of the city, which was met with much heartbreak. The film then returns to 1970 as we meet Penn as Milk and follow his decade long battles and prosperity of changing the gay culture.

Having seen actual footage of Harvey Milk, Penn perfects the mannerisms and the speech patterns  of Milk giving him an immediate passionate and likable persona. The political figure had such a whimsical and innocent style all his own that Penn perfectly captures. His determination for honesty and fairness is admirable and inspiring and Milk seems like he was an innately good person.

Particularly heartbreaking is Penn’s facial reactions during his assassination scene-a scene that director Gus Van Sant brilliantly shoots as a follow-up to a joyous scene when Proposition 6 is defeated.  As troubled colleague, Dan White (Brolin), (rumored to be himself closeted and struggling with self identity), fires several shots into Harvey at City Hall, the scene is filmed in slow motion for additional dramatic effect and poignancy. The look of pain and sadness on Milk’s face will undoubtedly bring tears to even the most hard-hearted viewer.

The film shows the many close relationships which Milk formed throughout the 1970’s, including his steady lover Scott Smith, played by James Franco. The two actors share a solid chemistry together as they are both fun-loving and driven in what they hope to achieve. Sadly, Milk’s drive eventually outweighs Smith’s as they ultimately drift apart, but retain a special bond. Emile Hirsch is nearly unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, a young man who Harvey inspires and mentor throughout the pivotal decade.

A minute criticism noticed while watching Milk is that, with the exception of Penn, many of the supporting characters (Hirsch, Franco, and especially Alison Pill) seem to be “dressed up” in the 1970’s costumes, giving a forced rather than authentic feel. The costume designers seem intent on making them look so realistic that it backfires and looks more like actors made up to look like they are from the 1970’s. Penn, however, looks and acts spot on and stands out from the rest of the cast by miles.

An inspired biography of a legendary political figure, Harvey Milk, led by a fine lead actor (Penn), deserving of the Best Actor Oscar he was awarded, Milk is an astounding story of both triumph and tragedy. The film successfully portrays a time when a class of people were not treated fairly and equal rights were barely a possibility, and the uprising that occurred in large part due to one man and his followers. Milk is a wonderful testament to a time gone by and the accomplishments achieved since then- a truly inspiring and tragic message.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Gus Van Sant, Best Actor-Sean Penn (won), Best Supporting Actor-Josh Brolin, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Sean Penn, Best Supporting Male-James Franco (won), Best First Screenplay (won), Best Cinematography

Black Swan-2010

Black Swan-2010

Director- Darren Aronofsky

Starring-Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey

Scott’s Review #735

Reviewed March 22, 2018

Grade: A

Darren Aronofsky, the director famous for the psychological and bizarre, most notably 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 20008’s The Wrestler, and 2017’s mother!, can easily add 2010’s Black Swan to this category as he weaves an unsettling tale involving the world of ballet centered around the Tchaikovsky work Swan Lake. The film is dark, eerie, perverse, and utterly mind-blowing in its creativity- in short, Black Swan is a masterpiece. The film reaped several Academy Award nominations including a win for Natalie Portman as Best Actress.

In the competitive New York City ballet company, art director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is preparing to open the season with the compelling and difficult, Swan Lake. Deemed “too old”, star ballerina Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) is forced into retirement, much to her chagrin, allowing others to audition for the coveted lead role. Aspiring talent, Nina Sayers (Portman) gives a flawless audition as the White Swan, but lacks the depth to succeed as the Black Swan. Despite this point, Nina wins the role and slowly becomes psychotic as she begins to embody the Black Swan in her quest for perfection.

Certainly center stage, Portman embodies her character with mystique as we never know if she is living her dual role or if someone is messing with her. As strange events begin to occur, Nina is insecure and on edge throughout- as she desperately wants to give testament to White Swan/Black Swan she does not feel confident in the skin of Black Swan and she eventually teeters toward the edge of insanity. Deserving the Oscar statuette she won, Portman delivers the best role of her career.

Black Swan would not have been the success that it was without the talents of the three most prominent supporting characters- Cassel, Mila Kunis (at the time unknown), as Lily/Black Swan, and legendary talent Barbara Hershey as Nina’s supportive yet haggard mother, Erica. Just as Nina grows both suspicious of and distrustful of each of these characters motivations, so does the audience. Is Lily a trusted friend? What does Nina really know of her? Is Cassel’s Thomas manipulating Nina for a great performance or does he have sexual designs on her? Is Erica a loyal confidante or a jealous bitch, vengeful about her stalled career?

The final scene of the film is a masterpiece in itself and perfectly wraps up the film in perplexing, grotesque style. As the big night finally arrives and doubt is cast on whether or not Nina will perform successfully, the entire scene is a riveting, climactic experience. One will never forget the final shot of Nina, gushing with blood, and a grimace caked in stage makeup, as she professes a perfect performance to her musical director and cast mates. With this scene we are left wondering whether she will ever recover from this performance.

The fabulous musical score is haunting and effective and each piece is perfectly placed within the appropriate scene. The heavy use of violins gives the soundtrack a frightening, almost horrific screeching quality, and the Chemical Brothers electronic songs, importantly used during Nina and Lily’s wild night out clubbing, is tremendously effective.

The 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, directed by the controversial Michael Powell, simply must have been an influence to Aronofsky. Both containing similar subject matters of ballet and dancing on the edge of sanity, I can hardly think of two better films to serve as companion pieces, watched in tandem, then these two timeless greats.

Darren Aronofsky, along with a perfectly cast company with stellar, bombastic actors, and a classical music score by the great Tchaikovsky, with electronic elements mixed in delivers a piece that works in spades. 2010’s chilling Black Swan is a modern day classic that will be discussed as much as it is remembered as an incredibly important film.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Darren Aronofsky, Best Actress-Natalie Portman (won), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Darren Aronofsky (won), Best Female Lead-Natalie Portman (won), Best Cinematography (won)

A Separation-2011

A Separation-2011

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi

Scott’s Review #734

Reviewed March 21, 2018

Grade: A

A Separation is a 2011 Iranian film that was awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award statuette, the first Iranian film to achieve the honor. The film is a family drama that is wonderfully complex, and weaves typical family issues (divorce and school issues) with more complicated and cultural leanings, and keeps going and going with story nuances. A Separation is directed by the acclaimed Asghar Farhadi, who is also responsible for the brilliant screenplay- this is a top notch film.

Presumably set in Tehran, or a more progressive (by Iranian standards) city in Iran, husband and wife Nader and Simin  reside with their teenage daughter, Termeh, and Nader’s elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Frustrated by her husbands refusal to leave the country for a better life, Simin files for divorce, but her wish is rejected by male judges. When she leaves her family anyway, Nader is forced to hire a pregnant caregiver, Razieh, to tend to his ailing father. After a controversial tragedy ensues, causing Razieh to suffer a miscarriage, the film shifts directions and adds an entirely new layer to the  already fascinating story.

Farhadi is very keen with his delivery of a good story- he traditionally mixes themes of culture and social class together in an interesting way as his future, 2017, work, The Salesman, would also do. Thanks to Farhadi’s innovative storytelling, more notice is taken to Iran and Iranian culture, thereby humanizing its citizen more within the craft of film. We see Iranian people just like ourselves and not the radical or dangerous individuals we are programmed to see.

With A Separation, there are no clear cut protagonists or antagonists, and viewers allegiances may shift throughout the run of the film. Do we champion Simin for desiring a better life for herself and for Termeh or scold her for refusing to live with her family? A progressive woman for sure, she is a layered character in her ambitions and her autonomy.

Nader is also a complex character- heroic for desiring the best of care for his father, he is also fraught with anger and bad temperament, which is the main reason for the second half of the film, and leads to Razieh’s predicament. Viewers will not be certain whether Nader is a good man or a villain, or perhaps a hybrid of the two. Subsequently, this is the meat of the entire story, and makes for an enthralling experience in character development.

As if the brilliant screenplay was not enough to demand a good watch, the acting across the board is wonderful. A cast including seasoned Iranian actors, Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as Simin and Nader, these are my favorites, and are quite adept at carrying along the nail-biting tension in masterful form.

Shades of Alfred Hitchcock are evident throughout the film as the tension unfolds to a crescendo and the action builds and builds and builds in layers upon layers of good stuff. The quick editing and unique camera angles mirror some classic works of the famous director.

The success of A Separation is the films fast-paced, nicely edited construction, in a way that, at over two hours in length, the film speeds along rather quickly, and causes those who experience it to ponder, wonder, think, and ascertain. Asghar Farhadi has quickly become a prominent director, met with obstacles from his native country, and yet surpassing these hurdles to construct great film. I look forward to many more of his works.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film (won)

Phantom Thread-2017

Phantom Thread-2017

Director-Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring-Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Scott’s Review #722

Reviewed January 31, 2018

Grade: A

Phantom Thread is a 2017 gem of a film that ideally will be studied in film schools and remembered for decades to come, or at the very minimum be discussed and dissected among those fortunate enough to see it currently. Set in England during the 1950’s and centering on the dress-making industry, the film mixes romance with a bizarre psychological element that leave the viewer breathless as the final act comes to a dramatic and startling conclusion.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again does brilliant work as Reynolds Woodcock, an esteemed and famous dressmaker living and working in London during the 1950’s. He creates lavish dresses for the members of high society, including the wedding gown for the famous Belgian princess. Masterful at his work, he is also controlling and demanding, requiring plenty of support and attention from his equally controlling sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he meets Alma Elson, a waitress from a countryside resort, the pair fall into a relationship, as she acts as his assistant, muse, and lover. Complexities develop between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril as the plot progresses in cerebral and nail-biting fashion.

The film itself is ravishing to look at and a feast for the eyes if only for the classic costumes alone.  Each dress that Reynolds creates is exceptional and at the height of glamour. His domineering nature only makes this realistic as perfection is his modus operandi and his dresses are evidence of this. In one particularly fantastic sequence, Reynolds begrudgingly creates a dress for the boozy Barbara Rose, a rich and mature woman, who promptly falls asleep drunk at her own wedding, soiling the garment. A livid Reynolds, along with Alma, strip Barbara of the dress, rather than see her sleep in and tarnish it.

The main draw to the film, however, is the wonderful, intricate main plot involving Reynolds, Cryil, and Alma. This weaving of personalities and their nuances must be attributed to the fabulous direction of Paul Thomas Anderson,  known for edgy, dark films such as 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia. He comes up with a masterpiece in Phantom Thread. The three principle characters are quite unlikable and viewer allegiances may change throughout the tale. Appearing to be the innocent, debutante character of the film, the character of Alma will surprise- especially in the films final act.

A successful nuance to the film is the multitude of scenes involving characters breaking bread with others as events unfold over danishes, omelettes, and crisp asparagus-in fact, sometimes the banter involves discussions and debates about the preparation of the food. This characteristic is a dream for any foodie, and the meals actually aid in the progression of the plot.  Earlier in the film, Alma is scolded by a maid for nearly picking poisonous mushrooms which later becomes a major clue and part of the films conclusion. During a  pivotal scene between Reynolds and Alma, she prepares a delicious mushroom omelette for her love as motivations, secrets, and desires come to the surface.

The grand twist that Anderson reveals at the end of the film will only leave the viewer open-mouthed and quickly reviewing the events and circumstances of the entire film.

The close-up scenes that Anderson uses are magical and each actor allowed to be very expressive- the camerawork over several breakfast scenes- Alma and Cyril gazing at each other revealing emotions that border between hatred and mutual respect, are effectively done. Manville in particular does so much with her blue eyes as she sips coffee, peering over her cup with venomous indignation at her foe. How splendid is the comparison of Cyril to the famous Hitchcock villainous Mrs. Danvers from the classic 1940 film in her cold and creepy mannerisms.

My hope is that Phantom Thread will eventually be appreciated and analyzed as a cinematic work of art. Deservedly honored with a 2017 Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Costume Academy Award nomination, the film also is a lesson in great writing, bizarre angles, and important effects. Let’s wish for this film to be recognized as the great work that it is.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Paul Thomas Anderson, Best Actor-Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Supporting Actress-Lesley Manville, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design (won)

Howards End-1992

Howards End-1992

Director-James Ivory

Starring-Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter

Scott’s Review #702

Reviewed December 1, 2017

Grade: A-

Howards End is my favorite film in the collection of E.M. Forster adapted novels turned into films during the 1980’s and 1990’s (1985’s A Room with a View and 1987’s Maurice are the other two quality works). The novels were written during the early 1900’s and set during the same period, focusing on class relations  during 20th-century England. The film is lovely, picturesque, and carves an interesting story about romance and drama between the haves and the have-nots during this time period. The film was a success and received heaps of Academy Award nominations in 1993.

Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson), an upper-middle class intellectual , part of London’s bourgeoisie, befriends wealthy and sophisticated, yet shockingly conservative Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave). The two women strike up a powerful friendship, which results in her beloved country home being left to Margaret when an ailing Mrs. Wilcox dies. To complicate matters, Margaret falls in love with businessman (and husband of Ruth), Henry (Anthony Hopkins), while Margaret’s sister Helen, briefly becomes engaged to Paul Wilcox, Henry’s son. The two families lives further intersect when they wind up as neighbors in London and the true ownership of the beloved “Howards End” is questioned. Added in the mix are several other characters of various social backgrounds, having connections to the families.

The writing in Howards End is rich and emotional as each character is perfectly fleshed out- and this includes the supporting as well as the lead characters. Thompson and Hopkins, both sensational actors, have tremendous chemistry together, and unsurprising was Thompson’s win for Best Actress during this competitive year. She carries the film seamlessly with her upper middle class ideals- not conservative rich, but far from working class- she epitomizes poise and grace and empathy for those less fortunate than she. Hopkins, on the other hand, is calculating and confident, yet charismatic and sexy as a old-school, controlling businessman. Somehow, these two characters compliment each other exceptionally well despite their varied backgrounds

The role of Helen may very well be Helena Bonham Carter’s finest. Not being an enormous fan of the actress-overrated and too brooding in my opinion-she enjoys portraying an interesting character in Helen. Lovelorn and earnest, yet somewhat oblivious, she develops a delicious romance with young clerk, Leonard Bast, my favorite character in the film. Living with Jacky, a woman of dubious origins, he is the ultimate nice guy, and sadly winds up down on his luck after heeding terrible business advice. Bast, thanks in large part to actor Samuel West, who instills an innocent, good guy quality to his character, deserves major props.

The cinematography featured in Howards End is just beautiful with extravagant outdoor scenes- the lavish gardens of Howards End- just ravishing and wonderful. Kudos too to the art direction, set design, and costume department for making the film look so enchanting. There is something so appealing about the look of this film and director, James Ivory, undoubtedly deserves praise for pulling it all together into a suave picture. Whether the scene call for sun or rain, tranquil or bustling, each and every scene looks great.

If I were to knock any points from this fine film it would be at two hours and twenty two minutes, Howards End does drag ever so slightly, and many scenes involve the characters merely having chats with each other, without much action, but this criticism is small potatoes when compared to the exceptional writing and well-nuanced character development displayed throughout the piece.

Admittedly, and perhaps shamefully, I have not read any of the Forster novels, but Howards End appears to be the film that is most successfully adapted, gleaming with textured finesse, grace, and style. With films finest actors along for the experience, and intricate, fine story-telling, Howards End is a film well worth watching.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-James Ivory, Best Actress-Emma Thompson (won), Best Supporting Actress-Vanessa Redgrave, Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (won), Best Original Score, Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

Django Unchained-2012

Django Unchained-2012

Director-Quentin Tarantino

Starring-Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz

Scott’s Review #699

Reviewed November 26, 2017

Grade: A

Quentin Tarantino, the brilliant film-maker, can do very little wrong in my opinion, and he releases yet another masterpiece with 2012’s Django Unchained, a western story centering around the delicate subject matter of slavery. As with several other of the talented director’s stories, the main focal point here is a revenge driven tale with plenty of bloody scenes and stylistic ferociousness, making Django Unchained yet another masterpiece in the Tarantino collection. Certainly not for the faint of heart, the film will please fans of film creativity and artistic achievement.

As with many Tarantino films a stellar cast is used and each actor cast to perfection- it seems almost every actor in Hollywood is dying to appear in the director’s films- this time Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson are the lucky ones, all featured in prominent roles- not surprisingly the acting is top-notch. An interesting facet to note is that whomever appears in a Tarantino film seems to be having the time of their lives- what creative freedom and interesting material to experience. A comparable director to Tarantino- as far as recruiting fine actors- is Robert Altman- also tremendously popular with talent.

The saga begins with clear western flair as Django Freeman (Foxx) is led through the scorching heat of Texas with a group of other black slaves, presumably to be sold by their abusive white captors- the time is 1858 and abolition of slavery has not yet occurred, in fact the Civil War is still two years away. Doctor King Schultz (Waltz) , a former dentist and current bounty hunter, is on a mission to find and kill the Brittle brothers and realizes that Django can help him find the men. To complicate matters, Django has been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Washington) and vows to find her and avenge her abductors. As circumstances lead Schultz and Django to a vast Tennessee estate, the duo become business partners and friends. The race to rescue Broomhilda takes the pair to sunny (and equally hot) Mississippi- the home of vicious Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) and his dreaded “Candyland”.

The crackling heat and the atmospheric nature of Django Unchained combined with the revenge theme make the film an immeasurable success. An ode to spaghetti westerns of yesteryear, the film incorporates similar music and grit so that the end result is a modernized version of those films, with lots more blood and violence. Certainly, slavery is a tough subject matter to tackle, especially when members of the Ku Klux Klan are featured, but Tarantino does so effortlessly, and as Django gains revenge on his tormentors, there is major audience satisfaction to be enjoyed. The indignities and downright abuse that several black characters suffer can be quite tough to sit through.

The climactic dinner scene in Mississippi is splendid and the best sequence of the film. Schultz and Django dine with Calvin at his spectacular mansion. Calvin’s sinister and loyal house slave (Jackson) suspects a devious plan is about to be hatched and a vicious shoot-out erupts between the parties involved. The ingenious and long sequence is a cat-and-mouse affair with all of the characters carefully tiptoeing around the others in fear of being revealed or discovered as fakes. The scene is exceptional in its craft as we watch the characters dine on delectable food and drink, all the while motivations bubble under the surface.

Django Unchained is not for film-goers seeking either a linear story or a mainstream piece of blockbuster movie-making-Tarantino is not a typical Hollywood guy. The film is exceptionally carved and constructed in a way that challenges the viewer to endure what some of the characters (specifically Django and Broomhilda) are made to go through. This discomfort and horror makes the inevitable revenge all the more sweet and satisfying.

Quentin Tarantino has created masterpiece after masterpiece throughout his filmography of work. Proudly, I can herald 2012’s  Django Unchained as one of the unique directors very finest and will be sure to be remembered decades and decades in the future as being able to challenge, provoke thought, and satisfy legions of his fans.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Christoph Waltz (won), Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography

Black Narcissus-1947

Black Narcissus-1947

Director-Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring-Deborah Kerr

Scott’s Review #688

Reviewed October 5, 2017

Grade: A

A British film made in 1947 that is way ahead of its time, Black Narcissus is a brilliant foray into the mysterious entity of nuns and the bitterness, both from humanity and from the elements, a group of nuns must face as they attempt to establish a new school atop the hills of the Himalayas. The look of the film is as fantastic as the story itself, with incredible cinematography, and a foreboding eerie quality to it. Black Narcissus is one of the great treasures of classic cinema.

Based on the 1939 novel written by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus tells the story of revolving jealousy, rage, lust, and tension, amid a convent of nuns living in isolation. Deborah Kerr, wonderful in the lead role of Clodagh, Sister Superior, and leader of the group, faces the temptations and anger of men while dealing with an unbalanced nun, Sister Ruth, played terrifically by Kathleen Byron.

The cinematography and the art direction first and foremost must be praised as the lavish sets are just that- sets. However, the average viewer will be whisked away on a magical experience where it seems the sets are real locales- high atop the Himalayan mountains. Scenes contain howling wind, mist, and fog that is believable- all of the sets are built and structured and Black Narcissus was filmed entirely on a set. This tidbit is unbelievable given the realism that is the result, especially since the film was made in 1947.

The lighting in the film is unique, specifically the vibrant colors of the pink flowers, and later, the closeups of Sister Ruth. A fantastic example of this is her descent into madness during the final act as her face, maniacal, yet lovely, is heavily featured. Her face appears bright and hypnotic.

The main event, though, belongs to the tales that the film tells, which are quite edgy for the year the film was made. The subject matter of religion is always risky, and the treatment of the nuns as real human beings with true emotions, even lustful ones, is brazen. Specifically, Clodagh (Kerr),  is an interesting study as the character teeters on a romance with the charismatic, handsome, local British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) while attempting to forget a failed romance during her youth in Ireland. Meanwhile, Sister Ruth spirals out of control leading to a dire climax involving an enormous church bell atop the restored structure.

A slight misstep the film makes is casting mostly white actors with heavy makeup in the Indian roles instead of actors with authentic ethnicity. This detail is glaring because the makeup used is not overly convincing and especially guilty is the casting of the gorgeous Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a lower-class dancing girl, who the Prince becomes infatuated with in a sub-plot. Still, this pales in comparison to the fantastic story and look of the film.

Black Narcissus is a classic film that contains a bit of everything- drama, thrills, intrigue, gorgeous sets, lavish design, even a bit of forbidden passion- and executes all aspects of the film in brilliant fashion. A film admired by critics and directors through the ages, specifically championed by Martin Scorsese, the film has the unique quality of getting better and better with each viewing.

Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Color (won), Best Cinematography, Color (won)

High Noon-1952

High Noon-1952

Director-Fred Zinneman

Starring-Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly

Scott’s Review #638

Reviewed April 28, 2017

Grade: A

Billed as a standard western, but much more complex a film as a traditional, basic western, High Noon accomplished what no other western did in 1952- adding complexities from other genres, such as suspense and drama, to a film form. Additionally, High Noon challenged typical western themes such as male-driven fights and chases, in favor of a moral and emotional approach, and oh is the film ever character-driven.

The end results are astounding and the film ought to be studied in film school to understand and appreciate all of the elements going on. High Noon breaks the mold in a hearty way, being released at a time when the mainstream western was quite popular in the film adding enormous risk-the results paid off in spades.

Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just wed his beloved bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), in a small ceremony in a tiny town in New Mexico. He plans to turn over his badge and retire to the prairie land with his new wife. Suddenly, the town receives word that a dastardly villain, Frank Miller, who was once sent away by Kane, has been released from a Texas prison, and plans to exact revenge on Kane. Miller is to arrive on the noon train as his three accomplices await his arrival, much to the chagrin of the rest of the town, who become panicked with each passing moment. The film begins at approximately ten-thirty in the morning and ends shortly afternoon.

High Noon has subtle yet prominent political themes and the messages taken from the film are clear examples of McCarthyism, though this is disputed by some. McCarthyism was a campaign launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy, which ended up blacklisting many artists suspected of communism. The main theme is how a group of people become frightened and blame and attack one another as a result of this fear. Our main protagonist (Kane) is faced with the dire feat of facing four angry gunmen, with revenge on their minds, alone, as a town full of people choose not to get involved.

Brilliant is that High Noon more or less takes place in real-time. The inclusion of clocks in the film, and specifically of pendulums swaying back and forth creates a defined level of tension as character after character nervously glances at the time, knowing full well that with each passing minute they inch closer and closer to a fantastic and deadly showdown- much blood will be shed.

Cooper, old enough to be Kelly’s grandfather, is noticeable if one chooses to be nitpicky, but the couple really does work well together and I bought the happily wedded couple as genuine.

I adore the character of Helen Ramirez, played by actress Katy Jurado. A Mexican character, Ramirez is a prominent businesswoman in the small town, owning a saloon. She is empowered, and confident, a character to admire regardless of one’s gender. A strong female character of Mexican heritage in film in 1952 was quite uncommon, also keeping in mind the film is set in the wild west.

Equally impressive and completely backward for the time, the events of Amy coming to the rescue of Kane, instead of the standard, gender-specific, “man rescues woman”, challenge the norm. Further groundbreaking is that Amy is written as a Quaker woman, not the traditional Christian woman, nor is she skittish or silly. Western stereotypes are completely turned upside down in the film which is arguably way ahead of its time.

Eerie, yet highly effective, is the use of a “theme song” either being sung or in another form (musical score or background music) throughout the film- the song is “Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling”, which became a hit forTex, Ritter. Worth mentioning is that the success of this added “theme song” encouraged subsequent westerns to add similar songs to their films.

Challenging the standard in many ways, High Noon sets the bar very high in its thoughtfulness, its message, and its personal conflict. The film is an example of persons taking the film world and turning it upside down, the results being fantastic and inspiring.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Director-Fred Zinnemann, Best Actor-Gary Cooper (won), Best Screenplay, Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Song-“The Ballad of High Noon (“Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin”)” (won), Best Film Editing (won)

Bonnie and Clyde-1967

Bonnie and Clyde-1967

Director-Arthur Penn

Starring-Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway

Scott’s Review #628

Reviewed March 25, 2017

Grade: A

Bonnie and Clyde is an excellent 1967 crime drama that is not only a great film, but successfully, and surprisingly wound up influencing an entire generation, becoming somewhat of a rallying cry for the youth generation of the time. Released in a tumultuous period in history (the Vietnam War, the Sexual Revolution, and Civil Rights), the film fits the times and also was groundbreaking in its use of violence, blood, and sex. The film holds up tremendously well to this day and is beloved by intelligent film lovers everywhere.

The film begins with snapshots of the real Bonnie and Clyde- a duo of bank robbers who rampaged the southwest during the Great Depression.  Set in steamy Texas, circa the 1930s, the film tells its story. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) when he tries to steal her mother’s car one hot day. Instantly infatuated with each other, the steamy duo team up and become partners in crime.

Over time they enlist the help of others and become more successful bank robbers with the stakes rising with each heist. Rounding out the crew of criminals are gas-station attendant, C.W. Moss, and Clyde’s older brother Buck, played by Gene Hackman, along with his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons), an innocent-minded, and sometimes hysterical, preacher’s wife.

Bonnie and Clyde is a unique film in many different ways- the quick-cut editing style influenced Sam Peckinpah in his films to come, and the film uses a fast-paced rat-a-tat-tat style that symbolizes the gunfire-a major element of the film. Blood spurts from victim’s bodies in a style never before seen on the big screen and led to many filmmaker’s comforts with using increased violence. You could say that Bonnie and Clyde took away the innocence of Hollywood films and shook all of the traditional elements inside out.

The conclusion of the film is one of the greatest in cinematic history. Far from an idyllic, happy ending, traditional with films in those days, the law finally catches up with Bonnie and Clyde with grim results for the pair, and their demise is gruesome, but true to form. We have fallen in love with the characters so their hasty exit from this world is tough to stomach and as they writhe and twitch with each gunshot wound, the bullets pummeling the bodies, the scene is a difficult one to watch.

The love story between Bonnie and Clyde is intense, yet sweet, and the casting of Beatty and Dunaway is spot on. Smoldering with sexuality- as Bonnie fondles Clyde’s gun who does not see this as a phallic symbol- their personal relationship is fraught with stamina and emotional energy. The two actors feed off of each other and fill the scenes with gusto. Their chemistry is part of what makes the film so great.

One of the best scenes is the shoot ’em up a showdown at a ranch where the group of robbers is hiding out- the scene laden with intensity and violence. As Buck is mortally wounded, Blanche is blinded and captured, soon to make a grave mistake in revealing one of the identities of the others. Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. barely escape with their lives and their antics from this point become bloodier and bloodier. The cat and mouse play during this scene make it the most suspenseful of them all.

Amid all of the violence, a wonderful scene exists when Bonnie and Clyde meet up at a secret location with Bonnie’s mother. A local townswoman and non-actress were cast in the pivotal role of Bonnie’s mother and the scene is an emotional experience. The woman’s kindness and sensibility and the sheer “regular person” she encompasses humanize Bonnie and Clyde, and in ominous fashion, their downfall is soon to occur.

A heavily influential film, Bonnie and Clyde is a film that is still quite relevant, especially for those who appreciate the good film, and rich, intelligently written characters, who are flawed, yet humanistic, layered with complexities. This is what director, Penn, carves out, and the film is an all-time Hollywood classic.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Arthur Penn, Best Actor-Warren Beatty, Best Actress-Faye Dunaway, Best Supporting Actor-Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard, Best Supporting Actress-Estelle Parsons (won), Best Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won)