Tag Archives: Thriller films

Seven-1995

Seven-1995

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman

Scott’s Review #780

Reviewed June 29, 2018

Grade: A-

Many films containing a similar theme as Seven (1995) does have come along over the years- some good, most mediocre. The mixture of homicidal detectives tracking crazed killers has been done ad nauseam and more often than not, done with either poor writing or a predictable outcome- or both. Instead of being a run of the mill film, Seven serves as a representative blueprint of the tautness and unpredictability that can be achieved by using a familiar yet compelling concept, provided there is good writing and good direction. The film is incredibly brutal and riveting.

Respected director David Fincher gathers an all-star cast of Hollywood heavies including Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and Gwyneth Paltrow, all of whom add to the well-crafted script. It also brings the talent level to respectability and, as great as the story is, with lesser actors the stakes would not have been as high and the film may have even been ruined.

A serial killer is on the loose in Los Angeles- detective duo William Somerset (a very good Freeman) is set to retire and is tasked with finding the killer. He is partnered with David Mills (Pitt), a young, hot-tempered man who has just moved to the city with his wife Tracy (Paltrow). Unbeknownst to David, Tracy is pregnant and unsure whether to keep the child- this point factors in heavily as events unfold. The killer is using the seven deadly sins: greed, gluttony, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath, as his motivation for the creative slayings.

In retrospect Seven is very similar to the still to come Fincher work, 2007’s Zodiac, so much so that both films could be watched in sequence- one being a true story, the other pure fiction. Both focus on the serial killer element with a message, they each have marvelous psychological intrigue and purpose. There are cat and mouse scenes aplenty for fans to enjoy.

At the risk of this point being a total stretch, I’d also argue that 1971’s Dirty Harry influenced Zodiac, Seven, and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). A heinous killer shrouded in intelligence, danger, and motivation is a commonality of all of the aforementioned films, and numerous studies of each of the killers could be dissected if time permitted. Each killer is calculating and manipulative.

On that note, Kevin Spacey gives a tremendous performance as the cold and villainous John Doe. Clever and inventive, his victims are intended to suffer and suffer greatly. Some of the kills could be included in the best of the torture-horror franchise, Saw, as they are very twisted and carved in brutality.

A supermodel is disfigured after being given a choice to call for help or overdose on pills, representing pride. A man is forced to consume food until his stomach ruptures, representing gluttony. Spacey portrays his role with calm, cool, and collective, eliciting a terrifying response from audiences, especially as he toys with the detectives.

Still coming into his own as an actor in 1995, Pitt proves he can almost measure up (though not quite) with big-boy acting talents Spacey and Freeman. Playing an ambitious man eager to prove himself in “the big city” with his pretty wife in tow, Pitt’s David is wholesome and family-oriented, yet has an edge. All around the likable hero, Pitt is perfectly cast in the role and a large part of its success.

The frightening final sequence still resonates with me after all of these years since Seven was released. In a classic standoff between Doe and the detectives, as is typically the case in these types of films, the ultimate climax is twisted, psychological, and gruesome. I did not see this shocker coming as it culminates in lives being forever changed. The expressions and actions by Freeman, Pitt, and Spacey are superlative.

Seven (1995) is a film basking with riches. On par with the best of the best in serial killer films, it is powerfully directed by Fincher. The film is fraught with grisly symbolism and its share of suspenseful sequences. With powerful acting, it is a film relevant and watchable decades after the original release. Perhaps not quite on the level as Dirty Harry or The Silence of the Lambs, but pretty darn close and that is impressive in itself.

 

Taxi Driver-1976

Taxi Driver-1976

Director-Martin Scorsese 

Starring-Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd

Scott’s Review #776 

Reviewed June 20, 2018

Grade: A

It is incredibly tough to choose a favorite of all Martin Scorsese films since nearly all of them are incredibly well made. Certainly Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980) and Taxi Driver (1976) immediately come to mind. In fact, Taxi Driver may be Scorsese’s darkest film of all. The thriller is intense, dangerous, and ferocious led by a riveting performance by Robert De Niro- a regular in the director’s earlier films. The film is nail biting and compelling and a great, character driven watch.

Set in the bustling and (at that time) decrepit New York City shortly following the Vietnam War, Travis is a veteran clearly suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. Lonely and angry, he works as an overnight taxi driver who falls for a snooty presidential campaign worker, Betsy, (Cybill Shepherd). He also forges a relationship of a protective nature with an underage prostitute, Iris, (Jodie Foster). As he gradually spirals out of control due to the unhappiness surrounding him, he plots to kill Betsy’s boss while protecting Iris from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).

One great aspect of Taxi Driver is the insanely good performance by De Niro. Along with the later role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, that and his role of Travis Bickle are my two favorite roles of his. With Bickle, he is unpredictable, on edge, and angry, as De Niro infuses the character with those qualities in seamless fashion. As he teeters on the brink of insanity and ready to snap at any given moment, the character is impossible not to watch with both fear and marvel. De Niro is that brilliant. 

While not to be outdone by the aforementioned negative and dangerous qualities, Travis also possesses a few benevolent traits making the character complex. In large part this comes into play with the protective nature he develops towards Iris.  Almost like a big brother/kid sister dynamic, the deranged man treats her with kindness rather than taking advantage of her as he easily could have. The diner scene the two actors (De Niro and Foster) share is so rich with interesting dialogue and bonds the characters together.

Travis also harbors love and hate emotions towards Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). As she is a political volunteer for a potential presidential candidate, Travis first encounters her by way of spying on her through large glass windows where she works. Coaxing her to accept a date, they have coffee and eventually attend a film together. Betsy is offended since the film is pornographic and their date goes south fast. After a vicious showdown between the pair at the campaign office, Travis goes off the deep end and plots revenge.

The gritty atmospheric approach that Scorsese provides when filming Taxi Driver is an enormous highlight of the film. Dingy, dark, and dangerous, the director creates ample scenes showing just how seedy New York City was in the 1970’s. Working the night shift, surely to bring out the rancid and most decaying elements of the city, Travis experiences many cretins and undesirables in his work- and arguably is one of them! Many scenes feature the notorious 42nd street and its accompanying porn theaters that made New York City famous (or infamous!) at the time.

In one of the film’s most frightening (and best) scenes, Travis is able to get his hands on a gun. He practices drawing his weapon in the mirror repeatedly uttering the famous line “you talkin’ to me?” as we wonder if he will pull the trigger. The scene is fraught with cerebral tension and quite frightening. Later, when Travis shaves his head and brandishes a mohawk, his new look is downright terrifying.

Scorsese creates a dark world that is enriched by his incredible cinematography and astounding representation of interesting characters in dangerous and unstable times. Taxi Driver (1976) is a treasure to watch closely and appreciate as a timeless piece of art. Instead of decaying in the vaults of cinema. Taxi Driver is a film that gets better and better with age.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #774

Reviewed June 15, 2018

Grade: A

For fans of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, creator of such disturbing and bizarre films as 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be a treasure. As with those films, the odd story and the peculiar acting styles are prevalent making the film quite the experience. I relish the film and its unusual nature, offering a cinematic experience that is insightful, mesmerizing, extreme, and quite frankly, brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is an esteemed cardiac surgeon who “befriends” a troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keogen) whose father had died years earlier as a result of Steven’s negligence. When Martin slowly insinuates himself into Steven’s family life, they begin to fall ill. Martin threatens to kill the entire family unless Steven kills either his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children- the victim can be of his choosing.

The creepy premise is enormously intriguing as the conclusion cannot be foreseen.  A basic yet deep story line is wonderfully spun with many possible directions for the plot to go in. After forty-five minutes or so of the audience wondering why Steven and Martin meet secretly in diners, hospital corridors, or other remote areas, the teen boy’s true motivations come to the surface as he rapidly and calmly puts his cards on the table for Steven.

Surprisingly, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. One would assume that the Murphy family- wholesome, affluent, and astute, would garner audience support, but we slowly peel back the onion on each character. With a gorgeous house in a quiet Cincinnati neighborhood, Steven and Anna (a doctor herself) are sometimes harsh and physical with their kids, while the kids (Bob and Kim) develop a strange fascination toward Martin. In this way each character is peculiar and has his or her own dire motivations as the plot unfolds.

Lanthimos is quietly becoming one of my favorite new directors as he slowly churns out one disturbing film after the next. Particularly in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his clear Stanley Kubrick influences bubble to the surface. With plodding then sudden bombastic classical music pieces, the score is crisp with uniqueness, eliciting emotions like surprise and terror from the audience.

From a visual perspective, fans of Kubrick will no doubt notice the long camera shots and slowly panning camera angles. The hospital’s long and foreboding hallways are prominently featured as we follow a character walking along the corridors. This is highly reminiscent of the Overlook hotel sequences in the 1980 Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining.

One particularly jarring nuance to the film is the speech patterns of most of the actors- clearly dictated by Lanthimos and also occurring in 2015’s The Lobster. The character of Steven talks very quickly, but with monotone delivery and in a matter-of-fact style; Kim and Martin also speak this way. I didn’t notice the quality as much with Kidman’s Anna, but Farrell really went to town. I’m not sure this totally works throughout the entire film since the mannerisms give off almost a comical element. To be sure, this uniqueness makes the film more quirky and decidedly non-mainstream, which is to be celebrated.

The climax of the film is brutal. As Steven brandishes a loaded shotgun, the family gathers in their family room, Anna fussing over her new black dress. As the group dons pillow cases, Steven goes Russian roulette style on the family, randomly firing a shot until one member is killed. When the remaining family members see Martin at the diner the next day, they provide him with icy, hateful looks. The entire scene is done without dialog and is tremendously macabre.

Rest assured, I am eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’s next project (reportedly already in the works) and hope against hope he continues to use the superb Colin Farrell, the brilliant Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Barry Keoghan again. Thanks to tremendous acting, a riveting score, and enough thrills and creeps to last a lifetime, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is at the top of its game.

Malice-1993

Malice-1993

Director-Harold Becker

Starring-Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman

Scott’s Review #765

Reviewed May 29, 2018

Grade: B+

Malice (1993) is only one of a slew of husband and wife themed thrillers to emerge from the early 1990’s- Unlawful Entry (1992), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and Deceived (1991) are other similar films that made lots of money during this time period. This genre of slick film making was popular as the new decade emerged and more complex story-telling graced the screens.

The myriad of twists and turns are both a positive and a negative to this film.  Certainly keeping the audience guessing and on pins and needles is a key success, eliciting a fun sort of tone, as well as the tremendous star power of the casting (George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft are big time heavies).  Then again a few of the plot points become red herrings and thereby meaningless and the overall plots, and endless subplots, become way too complex than they need to be.

In a plot that is dizzying to explain, Associate Dean Andy Safian (Bill Pullman) and wife Tracy (Nicole Kidman) are embarking on a life together in Massachusetts as they purchase a grand Victorian house and plan to begin a family. As a serial killer stalks the campus where Andy works and implausibly resulting in him being the prime suspect, Tracy experiences health turmoil and is operated on by cocky yet brilliant Dr. Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin). When dire events occur the plot escalates and the motivations of the main characters are questioned as truths and deceptions unravel.

When I first saw Malice in 1993 (in fact I saw it twice the same year), I adored the multitude of plot points and devices. The film had the same effect as a speeding roller coaster ride- with endless twists and story revelations.  And to be fair the film holds up pretty well, never seeming dated or of its time like many mainstream films. The two startling reveals- Tracy and Jed being in cahoots and the mysterious eye witness living next door really being blind, are clever bits of writing that immerse the audience on many levels.

The acting is top notch- Kidman plays good and evil oh so well and Bancroft’s cameo as Tracy’s mother is Oscar worthy. The chemistry between Pullman, Kidman, and Baldwin, and Pullman’s “nice guy” to Baldwin’s “jerk” work quite well as the overlapping relationships play out. Small yet meaningful roles by Bebe Nuewirth, Peter Gallagher, and Gwyneth Paltrow add layers to the wonderful casting.

And who can forget the often parodied scene where arrogant Dr. Jed launches into a monologue where he claims to be infallible and that he literally is god. This scene received tons of publicity and is arguably the defining moment of the film.

However, Malice’s strengths also sometimes become its weaknesses. As events go along the plot becomes too confusing. The school serial killer plot soon becomes a red herring as we realize it has little to do with the central plot- the Tracy/Jed alliance- except only to raise parenting questions. Therefore the big reveal of who the killer is becomes for naught. It’s the creepy janitor named Earl (Tobin Bell) hardly a surprise. Furthermore, after the film ends and the viewer plays events back to make them add up, he or she will likely give up in frustration.

All in all Malice (1993) is an above average entry in a popular genre- who doesn’t like a good, solid thriller? With a talented cast and enough good medical thrills to balance with a college campus whodunit, there is plenty to please everyone who views this film.  Yes, some of the writing is preposterous and tough to believe, but Malice is a movie meant to escape with, sit back and enjoy.

Witness-1985

Witness-1985

Director-Peter Weir

Starring-Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis

Scott’s Review #754

Reviewed May 7, 2018

Grade: A-

Witness (1985) is a slick crime thriller that may at first glance seem like just another by the numbers genre film, but instead is well above average. As the plot unfolds there are key nail biting and edge of your seat scenes that build the tension in such a way that suspense master himself, Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. Decades later it is tough to watch the film and not notice a slightly dated quality, but at the time it was well regarded and terrifically paced. Charismatic Harrison Ford and novice child actor Lukas Haas make the film more than it could have been.

The setting of the film is twofold and presents two different cultures- rural Pennsylvania’s Amish country and the bustling metropolitan Philadelphia. The death of her husband leads Amish woman Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her son Samuel (Haas) to the big city to see her sister. While transferring trains Samuel witnesses a brutal murder in the men’s room- unbeknownst to the killers. This riveting scene (explained more below) triggers the rest of the story.

When Detective John Book (Ford) is assigned to the case and questions Samuel, he is unable to determine who the assailants are. After Samuel fingers an unthinkable suspect, events escalate and John uncovers a mighty corruption circuit within the police force. John, now targeted, must assimilate into the Amish culture as he strives to protect both Samuel and Rachel (as well as keep himself alive), while embarking on a relationship with Rachel. The story wisely focuses on the differing lifestyles of the principle characters.

What I enjoy most of all about Witness is the nice mix between both types of people and different cultures and how they can learn from one another. John is so used to and desensitized by being in the midst of the rat race that he often forgets the nicer things in life- peace and quiet or even love. Rachel and Samuel, of course, are highly sheltered, living in a bubble, and are fish out of water amid the bustling streets of Philadelphia. The counter-cultures offer a nice balance in this masculine film with female sensibilities.

Not to be usurped by purely romance, Witness is at its core, a fleshy, male driven crime thriller. Adding some softer edges, Weir pleases both male and female audience members and appeals to the masses. John’s precinct, filled with detectives, police officers, and criminals, gives the film appropriate “guy elements”.  So director Peter Weir offers a good balance here.

I like how Weirs chooses to portray the Amish- not caricatures, stereotypes, or to be made fun of, they are sweet, stoic, and intelligent, accepting of John into their lives. As John learns more of the Amish culture and becomes one of them, this is even more prevalent as an immersing of different cultures- a good lesson to even apply to other differences between peoples.

The acting is a strong component to Witness. Charismatic and handsome, Ford is believable as a fast paced, busy detective. To add further substance, Ford transforms his character (written as one note in typical films of this nature) into a sympathetic and inspiring man as he slowly becomes father figure to wide-eyed youngster Samuel and falls in love with Rachel. Ford is the standout, but the film would not work with lesser supporting actors. Both innocent and gentle characters, McGillis and Haas add layers to their roles with pronounced toughness  and resilience- saving John as much as he saves them.

Two scenes are pure standouts and successfully elicit tension and dramatic effect. As Samuel witnesses the murder in the bathroom, he is seen in a stall peeking through a crack with only one eye exposed. When he makes a slight noise the assailant violently goes through each stall intent on shooting whatever he finds. Samuel must think quickly to avoid being caught. The camera goes back and forth between Samuel’s looks of panic and the assailant getting closer and closer to catching him. Viewer’s hearts will pound during this scene.

Later, as Samuel sees a newspaper clipping framed among a case of awards, he recognizes one man as the assailant. In this scene Weir shoots it in slow motion so that the reactions of John and Samuel characters are palpable and effective. The scene is tremendously done and cements the bond and trust between these characters.

Thanks to a wonderful performance by Ford and the cast surrounding him, Witness (1985) successfully widens the traditionally one-dimensional masculine crime thriller into something deeper. Providing slick entertainment with a great story and substance, the film crosses genres and offers a substantial cinematic experience woefully needed in the mid 1980’s.

The Seduction-1982

The Seduction-1982

Director-David Schmoeller

Starring-Morgan Fairchild, Andrew Stevens

Scott’s Review #749

Reviewed April 27, 2018

Grade: C

The Seduction (1982) is a slick, by the numbers voyeuristic thriller that could really be a made for television Lifetime channel or Hallmark channel production- or something of that ilk.  A woman being stalked by a dangerous admirer is quite formulaic and episodic even. Alas, at the time of release it was a major motion film and a perfect starring vehicle for upstart young actress of the time, Morgan Fairchild.  Admittedly, she is well cast and the film has a smoldering,  glossy, sexy appeal, but is quite predictable in the story department, leaving little of substance behind after the droll conclusion.

Gorgeous and sexy television news anchorwoman Jaime Douglas (Fairchild) has it all- with a handsome beau on her arm (Michael Sarrazin) they swim, bathe, and make love many a steamy night as they reside in the lavish Los Angeles hills. Jaime is approached by a photographer, Derek,  (Andrew Stevens) eager to take her pictures, he slowly develops an obsession with her as events become  more dangerous and sinister for the young woman until she is finally forced to defend herself from the now crazed stalker.

The role of Jamie is Morgan Fairchild’s big screen debut and, being unaware if any other actresses were in the mix for the part, she is perfectly cast in a role that just “is her”. In the glitzy and steamy world of Los Angeles media, how adept were the film makers at landing the blonde and leggy actress, who screams plastic and glamour. Posing on posters on the walls of millions of teenage boys everywhere in the 1980’s, director David Schmoeller wisely incorporates multiple scenes of Jamie swimming naked,  soaping in the bathtub, or other situations where the actress is semi-nude. He certainly capitalizes on her looks and popularity with the sensual The Seduction.

A perplexity of the film though is clearly on the story front.  The chemistry between Fairchild and Stevens is readily apparent and while chemistry is crucial between acting leads, it also makes the story far-fetched. Call me crazy, but I did not get the fear Jaime would experience at the hands of Derek. Dashing and handsome, with much more appeal than her boyfriend Brandon, I felt that Jamie and Derek should have really been dating!

Arguably, the only reason Derek becomes obsessed with Jamie is because of her refusal to give him the time of day.  I get that the film wanted a really good looking  male lead, but a homely or even average looking actor playing Derek would have made more sense from a story perspective. Stevens is way too handsome to elicit real terror- especially since his only crime is wanting a nice romantic date with Jamie.

The film gives a decent glimpse inside the bustling corporate Los Angeles newsroom studios as the offices exude 1980’s glitz and glamour- in fact the entire film drizzles with sunny, California excesses and the film makes a perfect decision to be set on the west coast.  The Seduction does well with combining the dark voyeurism of lurking figures in the shadows and the hairspray, lipstick,  and shoulder pads shown under the hot lights of competitive L.A. television cameras.

Otherwise, The Seduction falls victim to being a predictable, poorly acted film with the inevitable cliches and final scenes. As the police are of no help to her and her boyfriend brands a rifle, the audience  just knows there will be some sort of final stand off between Jamie and Derek. The film pulls out all of the possible female in peril stops- the night time scenes, Jamie being home alone, scantily dressed and ready to be victimized, Derek continually lurks around (as he does through most of the film) secretly taking photos, sweating and breathing lustfully. The climactic conclusion was far from satisfying or surprising.

A wise cinema friend once coined the term “craptastic” to describe an otherwise atrocious film that somehow contains some sort of morbid appeal- perhaps being so bad it is good? I think the 1982 film The Seduction falls perfectly into this category- predictable and trivial, the film is an intended watch for only those seeking something shamelessly awful, that holds little appeal yet for the gorgeous stars Fairchild and Stevens, who hold the film together while looking great.

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.

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.

Straw Dogs-1971

Straw Dogs-1971

Director-Sam Peckinpah

Starring-Dustin Hoffman, Susan George

Scott’s Review #733

Reviewed March 19, 2018

Grade: A

Straw Dogs (1971) is famed director, Sam Peckinpah’s, most startling and most controversial film.  Hardly an easy watch, it will conjure up both disturbing and uneasy reactions, but is a work of art- teetering on an all-out art film. Viewers will cringe during intense scenes, but will also marvel at the film mastery of this classic, brought on a whirlwind roster coaster ride as story elements spiral out of control to a frenetic and powerful climax.

Intellectual American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), moves with his sexy British wife, Amy (Susan George), to a Cornish countryside- the town in which she grew up in- where they proceed to encounter problems, both within their marriage, and external factors, as an angry mob of blue-collar workmen threaten their home life.  When non-violent David is pushed to the limit, questions of morality are brought to light, as Amy faces her own demons and bouts with brutality and victimization.

The film, made in 1971, pushes the envelope greatly in its display of violence. Several years earlier, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, and Peckinpah’s own The Wild Bunch (1969), really were the films that got the ball rolling, but Straw  Dogs continues the trend of the brutal violence that overtook American cinema in those days. While watching the film for the second time I was struck hard by the feeling that I was watching something important.

Amy’s rape scene is the toughest scene of all to watch for the sheer way in which it can be interpreted. Later, when Amy replays the scene in her mind, the audience is forced to endure the experience over again. Not content to only include the rape scene, Peckinpah wants the viewer to dissect the scene- the fact that Amy is assaulted by not one, but two men, and reacts differently to each of them, is the key here. The scene is complex in that, Venner, the first assailant is hunky and presumed to be a former beau, and she eventually relents to his advances, but does she enjoy the act? When Scutt enters the picture however, things turn from tender and ambiguous to violent and dirty.

Undoubtedly an influence to director Quentin Tarantino, is the final sequence of the film- a scene fraught with tension, violence, and grit. Now trapped in their house amid a mob of angry, drunk men, hell-bent on revenge, David and Amy must both bond with each other and match antics with the men. I experienced visions of 2015’s The Hateful Eight through the claustrophobic, cabin-like setting, and the quick edits that Peckinpah successfully uses throughout the entire film.

A sad scene, and at least a portion of the reason for the town folks rage, is a scene reminiscent of Frankenstein, when a hulking and  mentally challenged man accidentally harms a young girl. Not knowing his own strength and meaning to protect the girl instead of kill her, the men folk of the town respond in a nightmarish and witch hunt manner. Suddenly, David becomes defender and protector of this man.

David’s change in character is interesting and the great Hoffman adds layers and layers of complexities to the role. At first a peaceful man, due to circumstances, he soon becomes the assailant, creating traps and weapons intent on maiming his prey. Hardly a violent man, this change of character is evidenced as we earlier see David nurse a wounded bird.

In addition to Hoffman’s traditionally great acting performance, Susan George succeeds in providing the perfect mixture of bitchiness, spoiled brat tantrums, and later, guilt-ridden angst, and fear. The villains are perfectly cast and believable as bored, simple-minded, and horny, small town boys just itching for trouble.

Lush is the gorgeous United Kingdom countryside featured in Straw Dogs, as frequent exterior scenes are shot, revealing lavish and plush mountainous areas- the sweeping beauty of the landscape counterbalancing the brutality revealed in other sections of the film.

Mixing super quick editing with a dark, compelling screenplay, with underlying themes of questioning ones manhood, Straw Dogs is a provocative and edgy tale of violence and revenge in a small town, that gives new meaning to the fear of “home invasion” and feeling vulnerable. Thanks to a great cast and lots of other facets, Straw Dogs is a timeless (and brutal) treasure.

Death On The Nile-1978

Death On The Nile-1978

Director-John Guillermen

Starring-Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis

Scott’s Review #714

Reviewed January 14, 2018

Grade: B+

Death On The Nile is a 1978 British thriller that follows up the successful 1974 offering, Murder On The Orient Express- both films based on the fabulous Agatha Christie novels of the 1930’s. This time around, Belgian detective Hercules Poirot (Peter Ustinov) investigates a string of deaths aboard a luxurious steamer carrying the lavishly wealthy and their servants. The film is a good, old-fashioned whodunit, perhaps not on the level of storytelling as its predecessor-the murder mystery contains not the oomph expected-but features exquisite Egyptian historical locales-worth its weight in gold.

Featuring a who’s who of famous stars and tremendous actors of the day, Death On The Nile carves a neat story right off the bat in such a way that the murder victim is fairly obvious right away- most of the characters have reason to celebrate her demise. Rich and reviled heiress, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), has stolen best friend Jacqueline’s (Mia Farrow) beau, Simon, sparking a bitter feud between the women. While honeymooning in Egypt, the newlyweds are continually taunted by angry Jacqueline. Once the cruise ship departs with all on board, Jackie is the prime suspect when Linnet is murdered. Poirot must find the killer as numerous other suspects all with grudges against Linnet, begin to emerge.

Death On The Nile serves up a stellar cast including legendary Bette Davis in the role of Marie Van Shuyler- eccentric American socialite with an eye for Linnet’s necklace. The casting of Davis is reason enough to watch the film, though the character is not center stage and rather a supporting role. The lead female honor is held for Farrow, who has the meatiest and most complex role in the film. Jackie’s unstable actions makes her the most likely to commit the deed, but the fun is to figure out the “whys” and the “hows” of the murder. Is there more than one killer? Are they working in cahoots or independently? As the body count increases these questions begin to resonate more and more.

The costumes and sets are gorgeous and it is no wonder the film won the Oscar for Best Costume Design. At a ball the women are dripping with jewels and gorgeous gowns. Along with Davis, boozy author Salome Otterbourne, hilariously played by Angela Lansbury, is granted the prize of wearing the most luxurious and interesting of all the costumes. She drips with jewels and, with a cocktail always in hand, is the films comic relief.

Director John Guillermin makes the film an overall light and fun experience and, despite the murderous drama, does not take matters too seriously. Offering humorous moments, this balances nicely with the inevitable murders. The fun for the audience is deducing whodunit- most of the characters have motive and the cast of characters is hefty. I had memories of the famous board game Clue- Was it Jackie in the ballroom with the revolver? You get the idea. In this way the film makes for a good, solid game of mystery.

Comparisons to 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express cannot help but be drawn, especially in the lead casting of Hercules Poirot. Truth be told, Albert Finney’s portrayal in “Murder” is superior to Peter Ustinov’s Poirot in “Death” and I am not sure what purpose Colonel Race (David Niven) as Poirot’s friend offers other than to be a loyal sidekick and present a character that Poirot can explain events to- think what Watson was to Sherlock Holmes. Regardless, Finney is the superior Poirot as he musters more strength and charisma than Ustinov does.

How lovely and historic to witness the wonderful Egyptian locales- the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids are featured amid an attempt on the life of the romantic pair by way of falling rocks- this sets the tone for the perilous cruise about to be embarked upon.

Perhaps a perfect film for a Saturday stay at home evening with friends, complete with a serving of a quality wine and cheese, Death On The Nile is a sophisticated, yet fun, British mystery film, fantastic to watch in a party setting where the audience can be kept guessing until the nice conclusion and the big reveal of who killed whom and why.

Murder on the Orient Express-2017

Murder On The Orient Express-2017

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring-Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #698

Reviewed November 25, 2017

Grade: B+

Kenneth Branagh leads an all-star cast as well as directs them in a 2017 remake of the 1974 thriller, Murder On The Orient Express. The film was, of course, based on the famous 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name. With a ritzy cast including Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Willem Defoe, top-notch acting is assured. The cinematography is tremendous as the film looks gorgeous from start to finish and the story is an effective, good, old-fashioned whodunit that will satisfy audiences.

We meet our hero, Hercule Poirot (Branagh), in Jerusalem as he has recently solved a murder mystery and is anticipating a good rest. Poirot is invited by a friend to travel back to his homeland of London via the lavish Orient Express. Amid a group of thirteen strangers, all inhabiting the luxurious first-class accommodations, one of them is savagely murdered in the middle of the night, as a blustery blizzard and subsequent avalanche, derails the train atop mountainous terrain. The strangers are trapped together with a murderer on the loose. Poirot must deduce who has committed the crime and why.

Murder On The Orient Express has all the trimmings for a good, solid murder mystery, and director Branagh sets all of these elements in motion with a good flow. Paced quite nicely, each of the principle characters is introduced in intriguing fashion, so much so that each contains a measure of juicy intrigue. The film gives a brief background of each character as he or she boards the grandiose train. Judi Dench broods as rich and powerful Princess Dragomiroff oozing with jewels and a chip on her shoulder. Corrupt American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is suave and shady as he seems destined to cause trouble. Finally, Penelope Cruz gives her character of repressed Pilar Estravados enough shame and guilt that we cannot think something may be off with her motivations. The details to the characters are rich and compelling.

With actors such as Dench and Depp the acting playing field is set very high, and all of the actors play their parts with gusto. Wonderful to experience with Murder On The Orient Express is the true nature of an ensemble casteach character is relevant in his or her own way, regardless of screen time, and the casting works well. Evident is how the cast must have enjoyed working together on this nice project. Each character is written in a way that the individual actor can sink his or her teeth into the role and the wonderful reveal at the end of the film allows for each a chance to shine so that equal weight is given to each part.

After the actual murder is committed the story really takes off as each character is interviewed by Poirot and given a glance of suspicion. The first half of the film is really just the buildup and, at times, the story slightly lags, but this is fixed when the film kicks into high gear mid-way through. Sometimes a climactic conclusion makes up for any slight lag time suffered in the first portion of the film and Murder On The Orient Express is a great example of this.

The standouts for me are Branagh himself as Poirot and Pfeiffer as the sexy Caroline Hubbard, an American man-crazed older woman.  How wonderful to see Pfeiffer back in the game in 2017- with wonderful roles in both Murder On The Orient Express and Mother! She has the acting chops to pull off sex-appeal, vulnerability, and toughness.  In the case of Branagh, the actor never disappoints in any film he appears in, but seeing him in a leading role is fantastic and he has the ability to carry a film with such a dynamic cast. Branagh’s Poirot is classy, intelligent, and charismatic.

I adored the conclusion of the film and found the explanation and the reasoning of the murderer or murderers quite effective and believable. Through use of black and white flashback scenes, the action aboard the grandiose, yet slightly claustrophobic train scenes, are a perfect balance. Furthermore, the explanation and the motivations of the killer or killers makes perfect sense and much sympathy is evoked. In this way, the story is moralistic and certainly not a black and white subject matter.

Murder On The Orient Express succeeds as a wonderfully shot and star-studded affair. The filming is grandiose and the production values high as a caper film with a mystique and class. The film may not be a true masterpiece or necessarily remembered ten years from now, but what it does it does well. The original film from 1974 is a tad bit better, but as remakes go, the 2017 offering is quite good. A rumored sequel, Death on the Nile, is planned.

Mother!-2017

Mother!-2017

Director-Darren Aronofsky

Starring-Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #687

Reviewed October 4, 2017

Grade: A

Mother! is an intense, disturbing, and brilliant 2017 work by acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, having crafted left of center works such as 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and 2010’s Black Swan- I shudder to think this film rivals the other in the insanity department. Stocked with four principal characters portrayed by mainstays in the Hollywood world, much buzz circled around this film upon release. The film is thought provoking, analytical, and surely will be discussed following the conclusion. I appreciate complex, difficult watches and Mother! succeeds in spades.

The film is set entirely within the confines of one enormous house in the middle of a vast field of land. Aronofsky never reveals the location adding mystery to the already intriguing premise. A young couple known only as Him (Javier Bardem) and mother (Jennifer Lawrence) cheerfully enjoy married life together and seem very much in love. Him is a renowned author suffering from writer’s block and mother having fixed up the house after it had burned long ago. One day Man (Ed Harris) arrives looking for a place to stay- while Him is delighted by the visitor and encourages Man to stay, mother is not as pleased. When Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, the house guests turn Him and mother’s lives upside down. This is merely the beginning of a complex puzzle.

As the plot unfolds, Mother! is oozing with one bizarre event after the other. mother witnesses unsettling images such as a beating heart within the walls and a bloodstain within the floor that will not go away. When relatives of Man and Woman’s overtake the house and a violent event occurs, events go from dark to downright chaotic.

By giving too much more of the plot points away would ruin the element of surprise, making Mother! a difficult film to review- the film is polarizing and mesmerizing and each of the principle characters can be analyzed and their motivations questioned. Why do Him and mother react differently to the visitors? What manifests the resentment each has towards mother?

Each actor gives a compelling turn and Aronofsky has admitted the character of mother is the one he related to most of all- logically one might assume that Bardem’s Him might receive that honor since the character is famous and a writer. How strange and this revelation by the director will only result in more character analysis.

How wonderful to see Michelle Pfeifer back in the forefront of a Hollywood film- it seems eons ago since we have seen her grace the silver screen, and she is back with a vengeance. Her bitchy portrayal is purely delicious and she encompasses Woman with the perfect amount of venom, toughness, and mystery. As she icily quizzes mother about her intentions of starting a family, she slowly immerses herself in mothers life without missing a beat.

The film is clearly unconventional and layered with symbolism and differing interpretations. Is Aronofsky’s message biblical? Is it political? Or could it be a reference to the obsessions everyday folk have with celebrity? After much pondering, and all three possibilities went through my mind, the biblical message seems the most solid and plausible explanation, but with Aronofsky films, the pleasure is in the analysis.

The final act of the film is particularly macabre as, until this time, the action exclusively centers on the four principal characters and the setting is largely bright.  A slow burn if you will, suddenly, all hell breaks loose as mobs, blood, fire, death and darkness takes over. The brutality and cannibalism involved will churn anyone’s stomach.

Quick to note are the lurid closeups of Jennifer Lawrence’s face during most of her scenes. Certainly, the camera loves her, but there is more going on here. Is the intention to make the viewer focus more on her character or to sympathize more with her character?

Mother! is a film that has stirred controversy among film-goers with some ravishing its elements and themes, while others have reviled and been revolted by the film. Time will tell if Mother! holds up well, but my hope and guess would be that it will become a film studied in film schools everywhere.

Escape from Alcatraz-1979

Escape from Alcatraz-1979

Director-Don Siegel

Starring-Clint Eastwood

Scott’s Review #656

Reviewed July 2, 2017

Grade: B+

Made during the heyday (the 1970’s and the early 1980’s) of a slew of action and thriller type films to star popular actor, Clint Eastwood, Escape from Alcatraz is a gritty, guy-focused film with not one single female character in sight. The film is directed by Don Siegel, who also directed Eastwood in several previous films, most notably, Dirty Harry in 1971, and contains a grittiness frequently used in this genre of film during the time period.

Reminiscent in style to 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in its authority repressing and taking advantage of  the victimized common man, the film itself is also a good historical account of one of the most famous prison escapes ever achieved, in 1962. Having recently visited the long since shut down Alcatraz prison near San Francisco, California, the film was wonderful to watch at this time as much of it was shot inside and around the actual prison grounds.

We immediately meet Frank Morris (Eastwood) as he is unceremoniously led to the infamous Alcatraz prison on a stormy, chilly night in foggy San Francisco. The dark, harsh weather perfectly sets the tone for the dreary prison experience he will face. Morris is stripped, searched, intimidated by the warden and the guards, and paraded around naked, finally taken to his tiny cell, where he will presumably spend the rest of his life. Interestingly, the film does not reveal what crimes Morris has committed to warrant his tenure in Alcatraz-in this way the character is more sympathetic.

Slowly, Morris befriends other inmates and formulates an idea to escape the impossible prison by digging through the cement walls with spoons and escaping through pipes. The other inmates featured in the film are the Anglin brothers, in for robbery, a kindly older man named Doc, who fervently paints the time away, nervous Charlie Butts, and English, an intelligent black man in for two life sentences for killing two white men in self defense. All of these men in some way aid Morris in his escape from the torturous Alcatraz.

A side story involves a bully named Wolf, who has designs on Morris from day one. Whether Wolf is actually gay or merely a menace is unknown and not explored. Throughout the film, Wolf and Morris fight and spend time in solitary confinement and their rivalry is an interesting sub-plot.

The film clearly wants the viewer to be on the side of the prisoners and I am not sure if in real life the prisoners would be as sympathetic as portrayed in the film. Most of them seem to be confined to Alcatraz for robberies or for crimes they did not do or circumstances deeming the crimes inevitable in some way. Furthering a liberal slant to the film is the friendship between Morris and English. An interracial friendship between the men reveal that our hero Morris is progressive thinking and a “good guy”.

Conversely, most of the guards and certainly the Warden (Patrick McGoohan) are written as terrible, unsympathetic people. When an inmate drops dead of a heart attack, the warden coldly remarks “some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz-alive”.  In this way, and other examples, the Warden is the clear foil of the film and in the final scene the warden gets a bit of comeuppance when a mocking souvenir is left for him . To further compare Escape from Alcatraz to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the Warden is a similar character to the infamous Nurse Ratched in their mutual, diabolical sadism.

I am unsure if in “real life” the distinctions between the prisoners and the authority figures were so black and white, but it sure makes for good film drama. In a sense, it is “the heroes versus the villains” but in reverse.

The inevitable escape sequence is predictable, but highly compelling as Morris and company enact their escape plot during an overnight. The usage of papier-mache dolls to fool the guards is heavily dramatic and compelling.

Escape from Alcatraz is not high art, but works as a historical account of a real-life incident in one of the most discussed prisons in United States history. The film is also a perfect starring vehicle for Eastwood as he is well cast in the gritty, yet likable role of prisoner Morris. The film is a good, solid, late 1970’s thriller.

10 Cloverfield Lane-2016

10 Cloverfield Lane-2016

Director-Dan Trachtenberg

Starring-Mary Elizabeth Winstead,  John Goodman

Scott’s Review #643

Reviewed May 11, 2017

Grade: B+

10 Cloverfield Lane is a 2016 psychological thriller that is billed as somewhat of a successor to the 2008 hit, Cloverfield, though I fail to see the apparent correlation  between the films. Furthermore, the two stories seemingly have little or nothing to do with one another. Despite these pesky details, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very good, edge of your seat type film that is unpredictable as well as thought provoking. It is a film worthy of discussion by the time the credits roll- a very good quality for a film to have.

Without any dialogue during the opening sequence (a clever move), we meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a twenty-something woman presumably on the outs with her boyfriend, who we never see. Alone, she flees their residence and drives into the night to parts unknown. The couple is metropolitan, living in central New Orleans. Now in the middle of Louisiana, and hearing radio reports of strange blackouts, Michelle is soon involved in a terrible car accident. When she awakens, she finds herself chained to a bed inside a small bunker inhabited by two men, Howard (John Goodman), and Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.). They insist that the outside world is no longer and all human beings are dead as a result of a catastrophic attack. Michelle, initially skeptical, slowly uncovers various clues that leave her baffled as to what the truth really is.

10 Cloverfield Lane may very well be John Goodman’s best film performance. He plays Howard with gusto and mystery and the audience is largely left baffled whether or not to trust this man. Is he a vicious abductor, creating a make believe world to keep Michelle hostage-or is he telling the truth? He plays the character as both creepy and surly, but with a tinge of vulnerability and sadness. I certainly was both fascinated and confused by Howard and could not determine his true motivations.

Winstead  also deserves credit for portraying a female character that is strong yet sympathetic and she is never reduced to playing a victim, a testament to the actresses ability. Over the years Winstead has appeared in several duds (Black Christmas and The Thing) so it is nice to see her in a film worthy of her talents. Michelle is smart and determined to deduce her true surroundings and formulate a clever escape- though in a nice twist by film makers, does she really want to leave the safety of her bunker after all?

In this way producer J.J. Abrams weaves a story layered with twists and turns, which does wonders to keep the tension and the interest at a high level throughout the course of the film. The major question that reoccurs is “what on earth lies outside of the bunker?”

I enjoy how this film is not the typical, cookie-cutter type fare where we root for the female victim to escape the clutches of a male maniac- the film is much deeper and complex than that. Most enjoyable is how events slowly unfold and we, the audience, begin to question thoughts we have harbored throughout the run of the film. A perfect example of this comes in the final chapter when events take off in an entirely different direction than the rest of the film. Feeling a bit suffocated inside the bunker, what a relief to finally have some action occur outside of this location and into fresh air. But what lurks in this new setting?

One small oddity is how the film chooses to include famous actor Bradley Cooper’s voice as Michelle’s boyfriend Ben, heard via telephone only. This went unnoticed by me until the credits rolled and seems like a silly and unnecessary inclusion. Also, we never know what the turmoil is between Michelle and Ben- is their domestic trouble simply a plot driven antic or is there further meaning?

In a nutshell, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film best watched when knowing not the first thing about the plot or circumstances surrounding events. The film was so enjoyable to me because I did not know the twist, the conclusion, or even who starred in the film. In this way, the film kept all of the elements of surprise away from me and I found the film all the more enjoyable because of this.

Nocturnal Animals-2016

Nocturnal Animals-2016

Director-Tom Ford

Starring-Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal

Scott’s Review #640

Reviewed April 30, 2017

Grade: A-

Nocturnal Animals blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in a revenge themed thriller directed by Tom Ford, in only his second directorial effort- 2009’s A Single Man was his first. While not always hitting the mark and at times very difficult to follow, the film is both unusual and mesmerizing, as well as lovely to look at from a visual perspective. Some scenes literally blur together in a splendid way so that the scenes seem interposed-a brilliant touch. The film is clearly influenced by David Lynch in tone and style.

Events are divided between “The Real World” and “The Novel”. The film begins in a strange manner as a bevy of nude, obese women prance and dance on video screens during an art exhibit opening. The gallery is owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful woman living a glossy life in Los Angeles. We quickly learn that Susan is involved in a loveless marriage with hunky Hutton (Armie Hammer), a businessman who is inattentive towards Susan. Before Hutton, Susan was briefly married to Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novelist, who dedicates his latest manuscript to Susan received via mail. As Susan reads the manuscript, she is transported down a dark path of memories and fantasies concerning Edward and their past.

The locales of the film are split largely between Los Angles (the real world), and western Texas (where the novel takes place). This, in itself, is a compelling aspect to the film and really separates the two different worlds. Los Angeles is featured mainly at nighttime as Susan, presumed to be suffering from insomnia, is compelled by her reading. She also rubs shoulders with sophisticated artist types and colleagues at her studio.

Conversely, the setting of western Texas is worlds apart from the Los Angeles setting- like night and day. In Texas, we are introduced to the protagonist of the story that Susan reads. Tony, traveling through Texas with his wife, Laura, and their daughter, India, are accosted and terrorized by passing local motorists. Clearly from out of town, the family is stranded in the middle of nowhere and kept at bay by the rednecks- the story has a tragic ending. The stories intersect in an interesting way as we see the differing worlds.

I found the scenes in western Texas to be frightening and fraught with tense moments- so much so that my heart was beating very fast. I pictured myself as Tony in a situation faced with peril and danger. As the family attempts to reason with the thugs, they get deeper and deeper into trouble. The feeling of being vulnerable and unsafe with no help around is tremendously in the film.

The acting in Nocturnal Animals is excellent all around, no surprise with the tremendous cast. Adams and Gyllenhaal are especially worthy of mention. Their scenes playing via flashbacks, we find them both sympathetic and vulnerable (at first)- he a sensitive writer, she a college girl with aspirations of love and a family life. As the plot thickens both characters become more nuanced and complex- the subject of betrayal and revenge certainly comes into play, and both characters, now older and more pessimistic, intersect again as mature adults.

Michael Shannon, though believable as Detective Bobby Andes, assigned to Tony’s case, and suffering from stage four lung cancer, is not the standout for me, and I disagree with his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Certainly a fine performance, I would have much rather Gyllenhaal or Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as one of the rednecks) be awarded the nomination.

I was reminded of David Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, largely during the Los Angeles scenes. The slick, night air and the trials and tribulations of the wealthy mirrored each other quite readily. There is a gothic, haunting, moody vibe that the sequences contain.

The central theme of revenge comes into play in both worlds- Tony and Bobby seek revenge on the criminals in western Texas, while revenge also is a focus on Los Angeles, though much more subtle. A hint is given a couple of times in Susan’s art gallery as a large exhibit entitled “Revenge” is a focal point. What the Los Angeles revenge is, however, is not revealed until the very last scene.

One thing is certain about Nocturnal Animals- the film is dreamy, complex, and worthy of a good conversation. Tom Ford is an up and coming director with visual sensibilities and a dream-like vision. I hope we see more from this fascinating director.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte-1964

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte-1964

Director-Robert Aldrich

Starring-Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland

Scott’s Review #632

Reviewed April 8, 2017

Grade: B+

The follow up film, but not a direct sequel, to the surprise hit of 1962, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a psychological thriller again directed by Robert Aldrich. The film was intended to reunite Aldrich with stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and Crawford did in fact film several scenes, but the tension between the stars proved too much and Crawford dropped out. Olivia de Havilland took her place and reportedly the film makers had to scramble to re-shoot the film nearly from scratch.

Shot in black and white, just like What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, the film is very similar in style and tone and, rather than Los Angeles as the setting, the setting is now the sprawling southern landscape of the deep south- Louisiana to be exact, and a vast estate with a lavish mansion is the featured ominous setting.

The action begins in 1927 at a grand party taking place at the well-to-do Hollis family mansion. The night is fraught with tension and secrets are harbored- most notably southern belle Charlotte (Davis) and her married beau, John (Bruce Dern), plan to elope and steal away into the night together. When John is threatened by Charlotte’s father, Sam (Victor Buono), he regrettably breaks up with Charlotte, destroying her. Later, John is decapitated and his hand severed leaving all of the guests only to assume that Charlotte committed the murder after she appears wearing a blood soaked dress. Due to lack of evidence, Charlotte is set free.

The remainder of the film takes place during present times (1964) and in the same mansion- now rather decrepit and slated to be demolished by the town in favor of a highway. Charlotte, now old and haggard, has lived a life of seclusion, her father long since dead, and her only company her dedicated and faithful housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead). Frantic at the thought of leaving the safety of her estate, Charlotte asks her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) to visit. Events then become stranger and stranger as past secrets and jealousies are revealed.

Taking nothing away from the talents of Olivia de Havilland, I cannot help but imagine how much better Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte would have been if Joan Crawford had settled into the role as cousin Miriam. The real-life rivalry between Crawford and Davis is in large part what made What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? such a  compelling work, and the angry emotions were so fresh and real. Interestingly, the characters are reversed in this film- Davis playing the victimized Charlotte, Crawford would have played the villainous Miriam and the results would have been delicious.

The plot of the film is decent, but yet nothing spectacular, and not nearly as splendid all around as What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? was, although certain similarities abound between the two films: a giant mansion, black and white cinematography, a mentally unstable (or assumed to be) character, a character being either drugged or victimized, and two female characters who are related. To compare the two films, which is impossible not to, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? wins out in spades. It is the more compelling of the two films.

What does set Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte well above mediocrity (with lesser actors it may have been) is the casting of one of the greatest actress ever to grace the big screen.  Bette Davis’s portrayal of the victimized Charlotte is fantastic. She encompasses vulnerability, anger, fear, and energy. Her facial expressions and those passionate eyes give so much to the character of Charlotte.

The clever resolution to the film and the plot twist at the conclusion of the film is quite well-written and surprising given that the characters assumed to be involved in the murder are not as guilty as one might think, or at least not in the way one might think, and by the time the credits role, the story has a satisfying, hopeful ending.

Another success of the film is the use of two gruesome scenes- surprising since the film pre-dates the lifting of the film censorship rules. When a severed head comes tumbling down the grand staircase of the mansion, it is frightening and not in the least campy or over-the-top. As John is hacked to death in the opening sequence, his hand is severed from his arm and it tumbles to the floor in dramatic fashion. The scenes resonate because they were rarely done in mainstream film as early as 1964.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a fantastic companion piece to the superior What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, but watched back to back, will make for a fantastic late night experience. Successful to the film are top notch talents such as de Havilland, Victor Buono, Bruce Dern, Agnes Moorehead, and the superior film queen herself, Bette Davis, which makes any film worth watching.

The Fourth Kind-2009

The Fourth Kind-2009

Director-Olatunde Osunsanmi

Starring-Milla Jovovich, Will Patton

Scott’s Review #583

Reviewed January 4, 2017

Grade: B-

I went into the theater to see The Fourth Kind certainly not expecting a classic, but rather, a few frights, chills, and something compelling. I ended up completely entertained and I believed it was a pretty good movie. However, after the credits rolled, I was left with an unsatisfying and misrepresented feeling.

The premise of the film is admittedly a bit trite. An Alaskan female psychiatrist, Dr. Abigail Tyler videotapes her therapy sessions with patients, she discovers they have possibly been abducted by some sort of alien. Yes, this sounds crazy, but the film is actually well made and rather believable all along.

The look of the film is similar to the Paranormal Activity films, a craze that was happening when the film was released in 2009. The documentary look and the interviews with the actors will be looked back on as “of it’s time”, to be sure.

The style and interspersing of “real” events with fictitious events was interesting. However, I was disappointed when I read that the supposed “real” events were entirely made up, a fact the movie never admits, and, in fact, time and time again reminds the audience are real events. I enjoyed the movie, but felt duped afterwards, rendering the film trivial.

Blow Out-1981

Blow Out-1981

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-John Travolta, Nancy Allen

Scott’s Review #574

Reviewed December 31, 2016

Grade: A-

The follow-up to the 1980 masterpiece that was Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma carves a web of intrigue and mystery with Blow Out, a film starring some of the same cast members from Dressed to Kill and from 1976’s Carrie. Certainly comparisons can be drawn to the trio as they are all in the psychological thriller/horror vein- notwithstanding, the predecessors are the superior films. Blow Out is not quite on the level with those masterpieces, but is still a worthy effort and a must-see for fans of De Palma’s work.

John Travolta and Nancy Allen are the stars of the film-recreating their chemistry from Carrie. In that film, the pair are the clear villains, but in Blow Out they are the heroes and have a rooting value. Dennis Franz appears as a shady thug and John Lithgow is superb as the dastardly  Burke, hired to commit a crime, and enjoying it all too much.

Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound effects technician, working and living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He works on low-budget horror films, and is highly respected for his craft. Alone in a remote park, recording sound and video, he records a car careening off a bridge into a creek. He saves Sally (Allen) from the sinking car and this is the point in the film where the intrigue takes off. The driver of the car is a governor and he has died- Sally was having an affair with the governor and his aides are intent on covering this up. To make matters more complicated, Jack has detected a gunshot on his recording-just before the crash, leading to obvious foul play.

I adore the beginning sequence of the film- my favorite. The film begins as a slasher film, unbeknownst to the audience. A collection of dizzy college girls dance, drink, and shower, as the cameras are placed outside of the dorms. We see all of the action through the glass windows, then the steady cam is used from the killers point of view. This is a highly effective scene and rather humorous too. Inevitably, a creepy killer appears in the shower to butcher one of the college girls until the real beginning of the film actually starts. This aspect is clever on the part of  De Palma. Why not trick the audience early and keep them guessing?

Also compelling is the villain of the film- Lithgow. Typically playing  sweet-nature characters, it was interesting to see him as a maniacal killer- and reminiscent of the crazed killer from Dirty Harry, in his harried, grotesque facial features. One particularly chilling scene involves the murder of a prostitute at the train station. I like this scene because the audience gets to know her a bit before she meets her fate- adding a level of empathy for the victim.

Enjoyable are the location sequences of Philadelphia, which give authenticity to the film. Specifically, the train station. Grizzled, dirty, and bustling, the locales set the tone of the film.

The chemistry between Travolta and Allen is decent, though I found more chemistry between them in Carrie. I did not care for Allen’s use of an accent- intended to be a Philadelphia accent, it seemed a New Jersey one to me and simply does not work at all in the film. This distraction is the only weak point of the film.

All in all, Blow Out is a very good film. It combines mystery, political intrigue, and the famed De Palma stamp- which in itself is worthwhile enough to watch. Blow Out contains a dream-like element- as Carrie and Dressed to Kill before it did, which only enhances the mystique. The not so happily ever after ending is superb.

Shutter Island-2010

Shutter Island-2010

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio

Scott’s Review #567

Reviewed December 27, 2016

Grade: A-

Shutter Island is a great, psychological thriller, that being a Scorsese film, I had high expectations for. Lo and behold, I was not disappointed in the slightest. Scorsese has a knack for making taut films, violent certainly, and with an edge. This film does not have the gore nor the blood that some of his other films have- especially since the subject matter is not mafia related.

After Teddy Daniels, a World War II veteran, turned U.S. Marshall investigates the disappearance of a female patient at a local psychiatric hospital, the case develops layers that are unforeseen. The time period is the 1950’s.

Shutter Island is not your typical, run of the mill thriller- it is much more than that and the complexities build and build. Not to be secondary to the interesting web of plot, but the art and set designs and visual effects are quite impressive- particularly during the storm scenes.

Leonardo DiCaprio is quite the gem, carrying the film in a demanding role, and working so well with Scorsese, as proven by his being a repeat player in his films. In fact, all the performances (even tiny roles) were played with perfection- with flawless nuances- I mainly mean the hospital staff and patients.

The unpleasant violent images may upset some as well as the ending, but I found it to be an edge of your seat, extremely well made film. I hope that it is remembered for some time. Kudos.

The Secret in Their Eyes-2009

The Secret in Their Eyes-2009

Director-Juan Jose Campanella

Starring-Soledad Villamil, Ricardo Darin

Scott’s Review #565

Reviewed December 26, 2016

Grade: A

The Secret in Their Eyes is a wonderful film and one of the best of the year 2009- deservedly it won the Best Foreign Language Film of that year. Argentinian, it is a multi-faceted story with twists and turns, leaving the audience guessing.

The remarkable characteristic of the film is that it crosses genres. It lies somewhere between a thriller and romantic film, and with much depth. The story concerns a criminal investigator who decides to write a memoir of a case that happened twenty-five years ago as he reflects on the present as well as the past. This story angle in itself is highly appealing.

The film contains many flashbacks- a young newlywed was raped and murdered years ago in an unsolved case, and the film is clearly influenced heavily by both Alfred Hitchcock and Dirty Harry. It has a few surprises and twists to the tale, especially as the plot moves along. I adored the use of mirrors, reflections, shadows, and eyeglasses. Hitchcock lovers will know all about that.

I was fortunate to see this film at my local art theater and at close to three hours, it can be slow moving at times, but well worth the pay off. The Secret in Their Eyes is a very, very well made film.

Splice-2009

Splice-2009

Director-Vincenzo Natali

Starring-Adrien Brody

Scott’s Review #564

Reviewed December 26, 2016

Grade: B-

If you are looking for a realistic, character driven movie, this film is not for you. Rather, Splice is a science-fiction, thriller, that must be viewed while suspending all disbelief. Certainly not a work of art, and lots of plot holes, but it provides decent entertainment, bordering on fluff.

The two main characters, Elsa and Clive, while admittedly neurological-scientists, are not the brightest people in the world and their motivations change with the weather. The basic plot involves a married couple (above said scientists) who conduct an experiment to splice human and animal DNA into a new creation, a female hybrid named Dren. Predictably, things go awry, once Dren is let loose on the world.

The plot is thin and there are questionable actions, motivations, and subplots, but somehow I still found it entertaining once I simply went with it. There are cliches such as the scientists ignoring instructions, the one-dimensional supporting characters, and so on and so forth.

As a comical aside, I overheard the guy sitting behind me in the theater mutter as the closing credits rolled,  “This was the worst movie ever”. I understand where he is coming from, but did not think the film was that bad. For fans of horror or thrillers I recommend it, anyone else might want to skip this one.

Inception-2010

Inception-2010

Director-Christopher Nolan

Starring-Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page

Scott’s Review #558

Reviewed December 22, 2016

Grade: A-

Inception is the type of film that will leave you astounded, baffled, confused, bewildered, and many other adjectives. To put it more simply, this film needs to be pondered after the fact. This is a high compliment as it is tough to remember such a complex (in a good way!), savory film. Inception is visionary and meant to be processed.

A highly intelligent film, of sorts,  that will leave you thinking afterwards. The story is immeasurably complex and will leave many completely confused, but just go with it.

In a nutshell, it tells the story of a man who intercepts people’s subconscious minds through dreams. Different layers of their minds are revealed as the film goes along. There are also virtual levels to each person’s mind- complex, yes.

The film reminds me quite a bit of The Matrix- but better. The film has many twists and turns throughout and will keep the viewer both perplexed and fascinated. My only slight criticism is the dream sequences do not feel like dreams at all, but highly stylized action sequences. Many props given for being so inventive, though.

The Bridesmaid-2004

The Bridesmaid-2004

Director-Claude Chabrol

Starring-Benoit Magimel, Laura Smet

Scott’s Review #548

Reviewed December 14, 2016

Grade: B+

A more modern offering by Claude Chabrol, (many of his films were made in the 1960’s and 1970’s), his 2004 film entitled, The Bridesmaid, continues the tradition of compelling, macabre, story-telling immersing the viewer in strange behavior by the central characters, as they obsess over each other in one way or another. The film is in the French language.

The Bridesmaid actually contains two plots- one explored fully, the other not explored as much as might have been hoped- the latter being the more interesting of the two. Philippe is the only son of his mother, Christine, and the only male in the household- his two other sisters live there as well. Christine is divorced and works as a hairdresser. The family is a rather typical one save for a creepy incestuous bond between Philippe and Christine-very romantic in their conversations with each other, and Philippe’s penchant for carrying around a head statue carved to resemble his mother. He regularly sleeps with the statue and kisses it on the lips.

As the youngest daughter is to be married, Philippe meets and bonds with one of the bridesmaids- Senta. The two embark on a torrid love affair and become inseparable. As their love flourishes, Senta become obsessive in her undying love for Philippe and asks him to kill a stranger as a way of proving his love for her. This leads to confusion as Senta kills another character, thinking this is what Philippe wants. Philippe becomes both afraid and titillated by the young girl.

The main plot is very reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic, Strangers on a Train, as one party is bloodthirsty and the other a more innocent victim of the plot, yet in Chabrol’s film, the other party suffers from issues of their own in the emotional sense. Senta is unbalanced, and a mysterious figure from her past- Rita- described as her stepmother, appears a few times, as she dances with her much younger partner.

A local girl mysteriously disappears early on in the film, which may be a red herring to the stories, or perhaps related to all the events of the film.

Personally, I was more intrigued by the mommy/son angle, but perhaps that is Chabrol’s way of confusing the audience. Oddly, the duo has simmering chemistry, yet each character never fesses up to being obsessed with the other- it is merely implied. Philippe dislikes Christine’s beau, who figures prominently in the main story of Senta’s machinations, but I wanted more of Christine and Philippe.

Stylistically, The Bridesmaid is dreamy and builds at a slow momentum, similar to Chabrol’s earlier films- we are aware that the story will play out in strange, interesting fashion, but we do not always know just what road Chabrol might take, nor what plot points may or may not be revealed.

Perhaps less developed as some of his fantastic earlier efforts, but certainly a recommended watch for someone in the mood for a morbid, left of center, story to sink one’s teeth into.  Claude Chabrol is a director I admire greatly for his use of fascinating elements that keep the audience guessing as to what is coming next, and this is a joy in itself.

The Believers-1987

The Believers-1987

Director-John Schlesinger

Starring-Martin Sheen

Scott’s Review #547

Reviewed December 12, 2016

Grade: B

The Believers is a very obscure film that I had never heard of before viewing it. Combined with the fact that it was made in 1987 (not a great time for movies) I was skeptical about this one, but was pleasantly surprised. it has some edge to it, is mysterious, and is set in New York City- always a plus for me.

Martin Sheen- merely a youngster when this was made-plays a police psychologist, Cal Jamison, involved in a voodoo serial killer cult. He moves from Minnesota  to New York City following the death of his wife by electrocution, when her coffeemaker malfunctions. Is this key to the case or a red-herring?

The plot is a bit convoluted as when Cal’s son is targeted by the serial killer and  when frazzled police officer, Tom Lopez (Jimmy Smits),  takes center stage. I did not find Smits all too believable in this role, and the film has a striking 1980’s feel to it.

The locales, since it was actually shot in New York, are fantastic, and the plot contain some scares, surprises, and spooky effects along the way. I also was very impressed by the satisfying ending. The Believers isvery good thriller/horror film.

The Girl on the Train-2016

The Girl on the Train-2016

Director-Tate Taylor

Starring-Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux

Scott’s Review #493

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Reviewed October 12, 2016

Grade: B+

The apparent must see film of fall of 2016, with seemingly everyone flocking to see the blockbuster, I happily was able to see it shortly upon release. While containing some flaws, The Girl on a Train is a very good thriller- and a great companion piece to Gone Girl- similar in style, tone, and in a way, story. A whodunit with psychological, almost Hitchcockian elements, it navigates twists and turns to an unfortunate disappointing finale. Still, a more than adequate offering that does not bore. Based on the hit novel of the same name, which I understand is superior to the film.

First and foremost, how gorgeous was the scenic eye candy of suburban New York City, where the train chugs along the Hudson river in breathtaking beauty. Affluent houses are nestled along the river banks hidden with secrets- which is really the point of the film. Beautiful neighborhoods are often riddled with affairs, drama, and back-stabbing. The setting was perfect as was the element of the train- peering through windows to witness smoldering events.

Clearly, the standout of the film is Emily Blunt, who gives a compelling, sometimes heartbreaking turn as a boozy, jobless, young woman fraught with heartbreak after heartbreak. She finds solace on the Metro North train as she peers into a particular well-to-do house, making up stories about a young woman she re-names on a daily basis, usually while inebriated to the state of blackouts. In fact, though The Girl on the Train is not the typical “Oscar type film”, I’d argue that a potential nomination is warranted for Blunt, who is brilliant on her emotional roller coaster. Rachel fantasizes about being the strangers friend, revealing her own desperation. We quickly learn her life circumstances and feel empathy.

I anticipated an experience like Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window- Rachel Watson noticing a crime occur and somehow becomes involved in the situation. This is partly true, but different altogether. I was, however, treated to a film that never lags or waivers and the action is plenty- not in a bombs or car-chase way, but instead a circulating array of plot twists and emotions.

How wonderful to see Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, and Justin Theroux in a big-budget, mainstream film, rather than independent small films (certainly not a knock, but good to see some wide recognition). All three knock the material they are given out of the park, and kudos to the writers for making Kudrow- in little more than a cameo- a major part of the great reveal. Arguably, Janney’s character of Detective Riley is the weakest written and seems to change motivations depending on the story shift. This is perplexing and too plot driven. In a way, the same might be said for Theroux’s character of Tom Watson, but, alas it is a thriller and this sometimes does happen in this genre.

Without giving much away, the conclusion to the film is unsatisfactory. We are given an ending that is wrapped up in a neat, tidy bow, which contradicts the rest of the film. The film is confusing, dream-like, and muddled- in a good way. We are disturbed by Rachel’s thoughts and wonder what the reality is. The climax is too clear and instead of leaving much to the imagination, we are fed a linear, straightforward, story ending, almost geared for a Hallmark television movie (gag). Wise would have been to write Rachel as still vague about her surroundings, but this does not occur.

The Girl on the Train will not re-define cinema or go down in history as fine art, but it is not intended to- it is the type of film designed to keep you on the edge of your seat, and does so. The story is above average and slick, but Blunt is worth heaps of praise and is head and shoulders above the rest of the film- and the cast- no small feat considering the talent involved. Great acting job, but the writing could have been slightly better.