Tag Archives: Thriller films

Nancy-2018

Nancy-2018

Director-Christina Coe

Starring-Andrea Riseborough

Scott’s Review #941

Reviewed October 1, 2019

Grade: B+

Part of why I love independent cinema so much is the freedom given the director to simply tell a good story of his or her choosing, usually with little studio interference or opinions. Nancy (2018) is a good example of this as Christina Choe writes and directs a film that is simply hers to share. A quiet film about loneliness, the need to belong, and connect with others are main elements in a compelling and unpredictable story.

Existing in a barren small town in upstate New York, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) bears weather that is cold, damp and bleak. Working a temporary office job where the staff barely remembers her from her previous stint, Nancy spends her down time caring for her ill mother (Ann Dowd) and playing with her cat, Pete. When an occurrence leaves her vulnerable, she sees a news report featuring a couple whose daughter disappeared thirty years ago, and looks exactly like Nancy, given the sometimes-dishonest woman an idea.

Riseborough carries the film with a strong performance, but not exactly a character the audience easily roots for. Nancy is not unkind, dutifully tending to her mother’s needs when she is not being pleasant. She pretends to be pregnant to meet an internet support group man who lost a child and seeks comfort in Nancy. Hoping for a romance or at least a human connection, the two runs into each other, and when the man realizes her scheme, he calls her psycho. We witness a range of subtle facial expressions revealing the complicated character which Riseborough provides brilliantly.

Choe tells a very humanistic story that is peppered with deep feelings and emotions easy for the audience to relate to. Conflicted views will resound between the three principle characters; Nancy, Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi), and wife Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron). The Lynch’s, especially Ellen, are vulnerable, yearning for a glimmer of hope that their long-lost daughter, surely dead, is alive. So, the complexities that the director provides work exceptionally well with keeping the emotional level very high.

All three principle actors do a fine job, Smith-Cameron being rewarded with a Film Independent award nomination. She is the most conflicted of the three and the character audiences will ultimately fall in love with and feel much empathy for. Has Buscemi ever played a nicer man? I think not as the actor so often plays villainous or grizzled so well. With Leo, he is rationale, thoughtful and skeptical of the story Nancy spins. He adores Ellen and does not want to see her disappointed yet again, the pain apparent on both their faces. Many quiet and palpable subtleties are possessed by the cast.

The locale in the film is also a high point. Presumably January or February, the cold and angry air fills the screen, adding a measure of hopelessness that each character suffers from in a different way. Numerous scenes of the outdoors are featured, and compelling moments provided. When a pretty snowfall coats the land, this is a tease, as one character’s hopes are ultimately dashed. A cheery landscape such as California or Florida would not have worked as well in this film.

Nancy (2018) is a film that risks turning some viewers off with its unhappy nature and slow pace, but isn’t this much better than a fast-paced Hollywood popcorn film? To me the answer is obvious, and Nancy is a prime example of why little films should be celebrated and revered by the film industry and its enthusiasts. Lies and truths cross a fine line and the potent psychological thriller will leave viewers mesmerized as event progress.

You Were Never Really Here-2018

You Were Never Really Here-2018

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #932

Reviewed August 19, 2019

Grade: A-

You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an independent psychological thriller most reminiscent in tone and texture to the legendary Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976). The main characters are worlds apart, but the plot and the trimmings are clearly influenced by the classic, just amid a different time-period (the present).

A terrific and brooding performance by star Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge, as does fantastic direction by Lynne Ramsay, and the editing team, as the dark film is an unusual and impressive choice for a female director. Snippets of cinematic genius exist during a film that, with a more complete package, might have been a masterpiece.

We first meet Joe (Phoenix) somewhere in Ohio as, we learn, he is a hired gun sent to rescue underage girls from sex trafficking rings. He is brutal in his methods of rescue, resorting to gruesome murders to complete his assignments, and is paid handsomely. Back in New York City, he cares for his elderly mother whom he adores, and is contacted to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto for an enormous sum of money. When Joe rescues Nina and waits for Votto, events quickly spin out of control and a sinister web of deception is revealed.

When you look at the story that You Were Never Really There tells, it is one that has been told many times before, typically in slick Hollywood conventional standards. Angry ex-military unleashes brutality on devious criminals, rescues girl, and returns her safely to the open arms of her awaiting parents. Fortunately, the film is more thoughtful than that, adding complexity with the Joe and Nina relationship, and a stylistic, poetic quality featuring Joe’s relationship with his mother.

The plot is paced very well so that the events occur only over the course of a day or two, and the film is highly unconventional and dark. Frequent flashbacks give the film mystique as we see both Joe and his mother abused by Joe’s father, as a young Joe hides in a closet and hyperventilates. Now an adult, Joe is suicidal, frequently fantasizing or practicing his own death until he is interrupted.

As grisly as the film can be, beautiful and tender moments are laden throughout as Ramsay provides gorgeous style and humanity. A homoerotic moment occurs when Joe lies next to the man who has killed his mother. As the man is close to death at the hands of Joe, they hold hands as Joe provides comfort to the man in death. Joe then buries his mother in a pond in upstate New York, providing her with a peaceful final resting place. These are unique scenes that feel almost like an art film.

The conclusion is open-ended leaving lots of questions; Joe and Nina appear to ride off into the sunset together, but what will they do? What is to become of them? Surely, not a romantic element can be found, but where will they go from here? Both characters appear to have nothing left to hang on to other than each other, but is this sustainable? The film is not the type that is poised for a sequel, but I would be very curious what Ramsay has planned for her characters.

Joe is not portrayed as wicked, he is too complex for that. Phoenix, a tremendous actor, perfectly infuses the character with brutality and anger, but also a tenderness and a warmth. The aspects between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver: the grizzled New York portrayals, the political backdrop, and the main characters saving a woeful young girl from the depths of despair, make the two film’s comparable. However, Joe and Travis Bickle are opposites, the latter having a frenetic humor that the former lacks.

Ramsay has been around for a while with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) her most prominent film. She is successful at telling stories about deeply troubled individuals who are good people handed awful circumstances. With a tremendous actor like Phoenix on board, she crafts a solid work that has provided You Were Never Really Here (2018) with accolades, at least among the indie critics. Ramsay seems poised to break out in a big way and shake up the film industry with future works.

Murder on the Orient Express-1974

Murder on the Orient Express-1974

Director-Sidney Lumet

Starring-Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman

Scott’s Review #928

Reviewed August 7, 2019

Grade: A-

Based on the 1934 novel of the same name written by famous author Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) brings the story to the big screen with a robust and eccentric cast of characters all drizzling with suspicion. The classic whodunit of all whodunits, the film adds a Hollywood flair with rich costumes and an authentic feel to a budget-blasting extravaganza that keeps the audience guessing as to whom the killer or killers may be. The film was recognized with a slew of Oscar nominations that year.

The hero of the film is Hercules Poirot (Albert Finney), a well- respected yet bumbling Belgian detective, who is solicited to solve the mysterious death of a business tycoon aboard the famous and luxurious Orient Express train. On his way to the train’s destination, he encounters such delicious characters as the glamorous Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), the nervous Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), and his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), director of the company who owns the enormous vessel. Many other characters are introduced to the layered story.

As the complicated plot is unraveled, most of the characters have something to hide or a connection to another character or characters. The fun for the viewer is to live vicariously through Poirot and await the big final reveal at the conclusion of the film that, unless already having viewed the film or read the novel, one will not see coming. With a film of this type, a detective thriller, the audience can be assured of a resolution, like a big murder mystery dinner theater production brought to the big screen. Certainly formulaic, the film never drags nor feels dull.

Amid the first few minutes of Murder on the Orient Express, the intrigue is unleashed at full-throttle speed leaving one bedazzled and hooked. The sequence is brilliantly done and thrusts the audience into a compelling back story of plot and the wonderment of what these events have to do with a train pulling out of the Orient. Quick edited film clippings of a news story explain the mysterious Long Island, New York abduction and murder of the infant daughter of a famed pilot.

It is suggested that the Orient Express trip embarks from Istanbul, Turkey and is destined for London. This means that several countries will be included in the trek, creating possibilities for both geographical accompaniments and new cultural experiences which director Sidney Lumet offer generous amounts of. Moments following the murder, the train has the unfortunate fate of colliding with an avalanche, leaving the passengers in double peril, with a killer on the loose and cabin fever to contend with.

To the compelled viewer this is snug comfort as the atmospheric locales are gorgeous and the thought of a dozen strangers trapped together with so much to hide brings the story to a frenzy. Who did what to the murder victim are slowly revealed as several red herrings (or are they?) are revealed. Who is the mysterious woman strutting down the corridor shortly before the murder, spotted by Poirot? Is she a staged pawn or merely an innocent victim? Could she be the murderer? The wonderful part of Murder on the Orient Express is the amount of entangled possibilities.

The conclusion of the film turns the thriller into a sort of moralistic story, to its credit. The fact that the murder victim was hateful and diabolical is a key part of the story and makes the viewer wonder if the killer or killers are justified in their actions. Does the fact that Ratchett was stabbed a dozen times with varying degrees of severity play into the motivation? A very compelling, and unrecognizable Finney does a fantastic job of carrying the film among such a troupe of good actors.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) sets out to entertain and succeeds on every level, bringing the book to the silver screen with a fresh interpretation that still honors the intent that Christie had. Stylistic and thought-provoking, the film has gorgeous costumes, a good story, and fine acting. The knowledge of who the killer is does little to take away any enjoyment that a repeated viewing will provide.

Lizzie-2018

Lizzie-2018

Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Lizzie (2018) is an odd and macabre interpretation of the life and times of the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to bits with a deadly axe. This offering is shrouded in a bit of controversy for inaccuracies and interpretations of the events, specifically Borden’s sexuality called into question. The film is quiet and a tad too slow but thunders to a grand climax more than making up for any negatives. The casting of its leads is perfect and key to success.

Thirty-two-year old Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives with her domineering and affluent father Andrew, (Jamey Sheridan), and rigid stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Despising both, she lives out a lonely and depressed existence with her only outlet being occasional evenings out at the theater. When an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence to work as a servant the women form a strong bond especially after she is abused by Andrew.

Sevigny, one of my favorite modern actresses, possesses a range that is astounding in the myriad of characters she has played in her long career. Debuting to the masses in the critically acclaimed and depressing Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she has churned out a numerous array of independent features portraying one oddball character after another and deserves the strong influence she has achieved over the years.

Director, Craig Macneill makes interesting choices with his film which may or may not please audiences expecting a by the number’s horror offering. He dives into psychological thriller territory with more of a character study approach that provides layers to the finished product. Sevigny is center stage and plenty of camera close-up shots offer an introspective analysis of what her feelings are rather than from her parents’ perspective. Instead of a crazed killer spontaneously committing the crime she is careful and calculating in her plan. Macneill presents Lizzie as the victim and Andrew and Abby the villains.

This is to assume that Borden really committed the crimes, which the film never doubts. Historically, people assume that this is the truth, but Lizzie was set free by a jury refusing to believe a woman of such means would commit such a heinous crime. I wonder if Macneill directed the film with a bit of a smirk at this ridiculous decision of the times when the woman clearly enjoyed the murders. At the end of the film it is explained what happened to Lizzie and Bridget which is a good decision and wraps the film into a nice tidy bow.

Powerful is the quiet subtext which gives a moody and foreboding quality. I adore slow moving films provided the reward is worth the wait and Lizzie sucker punches once the events begin rolling along. Another positive is the gnawing feeling of terrible things about to happen but unsure of when or how the attacks will occur. Most viewers choosing to watch this film will be aware of the context and the reported murders committed.

The atmospheric additions succeed as the late eighteenth century costumes and daily living are believable. The lavish Borden house is well-kept and brightly lit offering a nice New England feel. Finally, the creaks and noises throughout the house perfectly encompass the danger lurking behind corners and the fun is in wondering when Lizzie will strike. Since the film moves back and forth through its time-period we know that strike she will.

Where the film offers its best work is through the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Sevigny and Stewart dazzle together with unleashed chemistry nearly rivaling a similar dynamic seen in 2003’s Monster. As with Aline Wuornos and Selby Wall Lizzie is the dominant one and Bridget is submissive following her lead. Both sets of women share a lesbian relationship and neither pair achieves any happiness at the conclusion of the film.

A film sure to fly under the radar and likely to be forgotten before long, Lizzie (2018) is worth the effort. A spooky and controversial interpretation of the events leading up to, during, and after one of the most notorious crimes in United States history is dissected and analyzed from a human perspective. Macneill makes Borden less maniacal and more sympathetic than some may prefer. I think he does a fine job and deserves praise for a rich telling.

Bad Times at the El Royale-2018

Bad Times at the El Royale-2018

Director-Drew Goddard

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #919

Reviewed July 10, 2019

Grade: A-

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), directed by Drew Goddard, known for crafting the horror film The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a gem crossing multiple genres with sound results. With Bad Times, he assumes writing and production duties for the thriller and steals a page from the Quentin Tarantino playbook, most notably from The Hateful Eight (2015). The resulting feature is clever, perverse and mysterious, with a fantastic, edge-of-your-seat experience, and a must-see for Tarantino fans.

Set in 1969, the film focuses on seven strangers of differing backgrounds who make their way to a seedy and remote hotel on the California/Nevada border. Each harbors his or her share of dark secrets, which culminates during a deadly and macabre showdown one dark and stormy night. In many ways each character is seeking redemption or forgiveness for a past indiscretion or is otherwise protecting someone or something else. A large sum of money is also in play for the greedier characters to tussle over.

The seven players are as follows: Jeff Bridges plays catholic priest Donald “Dock” O’Kelly, Cynthia Erivo plays struggling soul singer Darlene Sweet, and Dakota Johnson portrays Emily Summerspring, a hippie trying to save her younger sister, Rose, who is devoted to and mesmerized by sadistic cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth). Finally, Jon Hamm plays Dwight Broadbeck, a vacuum salesman who may have a secret identity, and hotel clerk Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who runs the hotel alone.

As events roll along the complexities of the characters grow and grow, which is my favorite aspect of the film. There are so many twists and turns involving the characters back stories and motivations that surprises are in store. Some characters have strange connections to each other, others meet for the first time resulting in their lives intersecting in interesting ways.

The dynamic between all the actors work tremendously well with the standouts being Bridges and Erivo, who share tremendous chemistry and are the most interesting characters, to mention get the most screen time. During their lengthy scenes together, their characters forge a bond while never completely trusting each other. Erivo, as Darlene, gets to showcase her wonderful singing voice, the grand hotel room sequence as she belts out “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You”) is the highlight. Old and maligned with memory loss Bridges is successful at granting more sympathy to his character than he deserves.

The film loses momentum towards the end with the introduction of the miscast Hemsworth, pretty but not the greatest acting talent. The actor over acts, playing Billy Lee as sinister and one-dimensional rather than infusing any complexities into the character, which doesn’t work. A better casting choice (and Tarantino mainstays) would have been Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt, either actor assuredly bringing more depth to the role.

Comparisons to both The Hateful Eight and the comedy Clue (1985) must be made. Like the former, Goddard divides the film into chapters, mostly entitled as the hotel room numbers. With each subsequent room the events going on in that room and its inhabitants are explored. As in both films he brings several mysterious characters with connections, together. Like in Clue, secret passageways which lead to various parts of a building are featured, offering layers of possibilities.

The hotel itself is styled and dressed brilliantly, nearly a character with glossy decal, shiny trimmings but with a solemn and melancholy gloominess.  The establishment has seen its share of heartbreak, schemes, and even death. Clever is the division of the hotel in either the “California” section, sunny and cheerful, or the less posh “Nevada” section, purple and costing one dollar less. The viewer is sucked into its web within the first sequence when a man is shown hiding money under the floorboards and then subsequently shot to death.

Despite justifiably being labeled as a Tarantino rip-off, this does not bother me as I was enthralled with the characters, the details, and the vast nuances offered to me. Unfortunately, the film was a box-office disappointment, suffering from lack of awards buzz and a lofty running-time. Bad Times at El Royale (2018) will entertain, intrigue, and keep one guessing up until the credits roll. Be prepared for a bloody good time!

Touch of Evil-1958

Touch of Evil-1958

Director-Orson Welles

Starring-Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh

Scott’s Review #914

Reviewed July 2, 2019

Grade: A

Touch of Evil (1958) is a film noir directed by the legendary influential Hollywood director, Orson Welles. The film contains suspense, drama and mystery, but is to be praised largely for its use of visual treats to enhance the cinematic experience. The dark and foreboding thriller was revolutionary for the time of release and influenced many films of similar ilk in the years to come. Robust and fraught with tension, the experience is marvelous and worthy of study for its many nuances.

Welles not only directs the work but also stars in and writes the screenplay, so his entire being is invested in the production and execution. Known mostly for the legendary Citizen Kane (1940), a film that arguably changed the course of cinema with its direction and cinematography, Touch of Evil explores a different genre entirely but keeps the superlative aspects of Welles’s loftier film, including black and white, intact, resulting in a grand and dangerous crime infused classic. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson.

The tension is ample from the onset as the humidity-drenched Mexico-United States border is the focal point. A car driven by a young couple is laced with a bomb and detonates as soon as they cross the into U.S. territory. In a hint of irony, Newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot prior to the explosion. An investigation ensues with the introduction of other characters, including Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon), District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) and police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), with a prime suspect being Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim’s daughter.

Typical in the film noir genre, events are not what they seem as layers of plot slowly unravel. The heavyset and disheveled Captain nostalgically visits a brothel run by Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who barely recognizes him because he’s gained so much weight since their last meeting.  Vargas forsakes his bride to spearhead the investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Quinlan and the duo begin to feud. Could Quinlan or Vargas have something to do with the car bombing, or could other supporting characters be either behind or involved in the shenanigans. This is a great part of Touch of Evil as the film leaves the viewer guessing.

Heston and Leigh smolder as the lead couple and their chemistry is apparent from the first scene in which they appear together. Sexy and mysterious, she hunkers down in a dump fraught with peril, while he attempts to solve the crime and keep his girl safe. Outside factors play heavy roles in keeping the lovers apart and although Heston playing a Mexican man is quite the stretch, the audience will nestle comfortably into the events as they reveal deeper layers.

Wells, once a handsome man, is not afraid to let it all hang out as the fat and racist Quinlan becoming one of the great and most complicated screen villains as his true colors emerge. As the film’s title boldly suggests does his character contain complexities that make him evil and keep some sympathies or does he wreak havoc on all he touches with his devious nature only the tip of the iceberg? Viewers will need to await the final act to have several questions answered as motivations are finally revealed.

Touch of Evil (1958) gave delicious and pulsating material to film makers clever enough to study its intricacies, most notably Roman Polanski for Chinatown (1974). Nuggets were also thrown the way of Alfred Hitchcock who got the idea for Leigh to appear in Psycho (1960) two years later, catapulting her character’s alone in a hotel peril, mixing in a weird hotel clerk. The power the film had to hatch other great films from its ingenuity are the most fun parts of watching it again and again.

Midnight Lace-1960

Midnight Lace-1960

Director-David Miller

Starring-Doris Day, Rex Harrison

Scott’s Review #909

Reviewed June 13, 2019

Grade: B+

Midnight Lace (1960) is a straight forward psychological thriller made during a period in cinematic history when the genre was beginning to garner more popularity. The film was clearly influenced by the Alfred Hitchcock craze which was front and center at this time, and a robust departure for its lead, Doris Day, who until this time was mostly nestled securely in the romantic comedy domain. The film is a good watch and a challenging role for Day, who proves she has the acting chops to carry the film.

Day portrays Kit, an American heiress, newly married to British financier Tony (Rex Harrison), residing together in London. When she is terrorized by an odd voice in a London park one misty night, her panic is dismissed as rubbish and pranksters having their way with her. When the threats return and escalate by way of telephone calls, Tony alerts the authorities who question whether Kit may be imagining things or creating a panic to gain the attention of her husband. Tony, in turn, begins to ask the same questions.

Day, an American sweetheart and forever good girl, was brave to tackle a role that was left of center for her. Despite her fine acting and impressive range during scenes of peril though, Doris Day is still Doris Day, and it is tough to shake the image of her playing herself. Attractive, Day is not the sexpot type, so a few scenes of her being flirty by attempting to seduce Tony with sexy nighties do not work so well. To be fair, Day has never looked lovelier than she does in this picture.

The plot rolls along at a quick pace with wonderful glossy production values and I never found myself tuning out or wondering when the film would end. The drama heightens minute by minute turning into a whodunit while the film wisely never disqualifies the question of whether Kit could be staging the shenanigans herself.

Did she fall into a bus or was she pushed? Why did she hire someone to call her? Is the menacing voice disguised? The questions become more frequent as the film progresses which is what good thrillers should do. I was able to figure out only half of the big reveal, but the other half caught me off guard so that the finale was climactic and satisfying.

The film belongs to Day, but the additions of Harrison and the legendary Myrna Loy add class and flavor to a film that could have been dismissed as only cliched in lesser hands. Harrison is effective as the concerned but stoic husband and the audience is made to wonder if Tony has something to do with Kit’s stalking or if he is a caring man. Does the sub plot of a discovered embezzler in Tony’s company have anything to do with it? If so, how are the stories connected?

Handsome John Gavin, a Rock Hudson type who was made famous for Psycho (1960) is a handsome addition as contractor Brian, the man showing up at the right time to save Kit making him a prime suspect. Loy plays Kit’s Aunt Bea, who comes to town for a visit; the part is nothing special but it’s lovely to see the actress in whatever role she tackles. Finally, Malcolm Stanley (Roddy McDowell) adds drama as a money hungry man, and son of Kit’s maid. Characters are added to the story as potential suspects.

The viewer is treated to their share of exterior shots of London which provides the film with enough British flavor to almost forget that Day is American. With the additions of Scotland Yard and an Inspector, the British culture is firmly placed, adding a wonderful British element. Tony and Kit are rich, so their lavish home and exclusive neighborhood are placed on display in a fine way.

The title of the film, represented during a cute scene when Kit seductively holds up a sexy outfit she has purchased for Tony, seems straight out of the 1980’s slick television movie thriller genre, and primed for the lifetime television network. This is not a criticism because the title works well and holds a tantalizing darkness.

Midnight Lace (1960) is a nearly forgotten piece of film that is a fine watch and a nice tribute to the talents of Doris Day, who makes the film her own and is the main reason to watch. Though she does not sing or play the girl next door, she does turn in an above average performance, showing her range as an actress. The rest of the film’s trimmings, especially the locale and the supporting actors are additions beneficial to the viewing pleasure the film possesses.

Taste of Fear-1961

Taste of Fear-1961

Director-Seth Holt

Starring-Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis

Scott’s Review #901

Reviewed May 21, 2019

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American Dream-1966

An American Dream-1966

Director-Robert Gist

Starring-Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Eleanor Parker

Scott’s Review #879

Reviewed March 19, 2019

Grade: C-

An American Dream (1966) is a film version of the Norman Mailer novel of the same name. Directed by Robert Gist its cast includes Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, and Eleanor Parker, who do what they can with a mediocre writing, uneven pacing, and an unsatisfying ending. Roles suffer from miscasts and misfires and the film plays out as more of an episodic television detective show or a darker version of a television movie than a compelling feature. Except for one terrific high-rise scene the film is largely a waste of time.

Stephen Rojack (Whitman) is a decorated war hero who returns to Los Angeles to embark on a career as a journalist. He publicly criticizes the police for failing to accost a known crime lord named Ganucci (Joe De Santis), which angers the mobster. Simultaneously, Rojack’s alcoholic wife, Deborah (Parker), flies into a drunken rage when he asks her for a divorce resulting in her toppling from a swanky high-rise to her death. Riddled with guilt, Rojack resumes a relationship with former girlfriend and Ganucci’s ex, Cherry (Leigh).

The best scene of the film is the intense confrontation between Rojack and Deborah. The sweeping, expansive balcony and the open- air locale overlooking dazzling Los Angeles should be a major clue that something dire will transpire, especially as Deborah is drunk beyond belief and filled with fury. Her lavish apartment is decorated adequately in the latest 1960’s style giving the scene a plush sophistication. The vicious death scene is wonderfully done as the women not only falls to her death but is subsequently run over by a car adding insult to injury. The scene is also the crux to the entire film.

Harboring the thrill of the climactic scene however is Parker’s jarring overacting performance making Deborah appear crazed and animal-like. The display is understood at making the character unlikable and unbalanced- the hunky gigolo in her bed also makes her unsympathetic-but the cartoon acting seems amateurish and beneath the fabulous actress. Remember, this is the same woman who made the character of “the Baroness” in The Sound of Music (1965) sophisticated and memorable.

The premise of the film is illogical and unbalanced as, to my eyes anyway, it appears Deborah falls to her death accidentally, but the reasoning of the film portrays Rojack as riddled with guilt at causing her death. He even admits his guilt to her father in one scene. His claim to the police that Deborah committed suicide is of course untrue, but the unnecessary guilt seems implausible and too much a stretch at creating a main plot point.

The biggest negative to An American Dream is the casting of Janet Leigh in the role of Cherry. Wearing an unappealing and silly wig the Hollywood star seems unbelievable and just wrong as a mob girlfriend. Her soft features and petite frame do not fit the part and her lip syncing of the Oscar nominated theme song “A Time for Love” does nothing to elicit credibility from either the character or the actress.

When An American Dream bombed at the box office, the desperate distributors re-titled the film See You in Hell, Darling, but to little avail. Reduced to weekday airings on television did nothing to change the image of a low budget made-for-television style look or the episodic detective tint. The intended perception of a horror film is a strike out as the film plays more like a tepid thriller.

For fans of Janet Leigh An American Dream (1966) is not recommended. The preferred suggestion is to skip this one and delve into other gems like the legendary Psycho (1960) or Touch of Evil (1958).  An American Dream caters not to the legendary actresses’ talents but rather delivers a forgettable film best left situated in the bargain bin.

Diabolique-1955

Diabolique-1955

Director-Henri-Georges Clouzot

Starring-Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot, Paul Meuisse

Scott’s Review #878

Reviewed March 16, 2019

Grade: A

Diabolique (1955) is a masterful French thriller that is as compelling as it is frightening and offers insurmountable influence in years to come. Shamefully remade and Americanized in 1996 starring Sharon Stone, a waste of time if you ask me, the original is the one to discover and salivate over. With a perfect blend of psychological intrigue, never ending suspense, even a good mix of horror that Hitchcock would find impressive (more about him later), the film is brilliant in its pacing and frequent twists and turns.

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Les Diaboliques is set in a crumbling boarding school in the metropolis of Paris. Sadistic headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meuisse) runs a tight ship but works for his Venezuelan wife, Christina (Vera Clouzot), who owns the school. Michel is immersed in a torrid affair with schoolteacher, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and regularly abuses both women as well as his students. The two women embark on a plot to kill Michel, but when they succeed in their plan, Michel’s body goes missing.

In a bit of fun trivia, director Clouzot, right after finishing making Wages of Fear (1953), optioned the screenplay rights, preventing Hitchcock from making the film. This movie helped inspire Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch himself, the author of the novel version of Psycho, has stated in an interview that his all-time favorite horror film is Diabolique. If the film displays nuances incorporated in Psycho, this is undoubtedly the reason. Clouzot also directs his wife Vera in the prominent role of Christina.

The brilliance of the film is that it could have been made by Hitchcock as the entire experience has his stamp and influence written all over even though his best works lay ahead of him in 1955. Still, from the Gothic mood to the “can’t believe your eyes” twisted, blood curdling ending, the director immediately comes to mind every time I watch the film. The “shock” ending only exceeds expectations with fantastic delivery.

The film takes an unusual stance in the dynamic between the two women, Christina and Nicole. Rather than take a traditional route and make the women rivals for the man’s affections, Clouzot chooses to make the pair co-conspirators. This only deepens their relationship as events unfold and takes a darker and more dire turn. They rely on each other as teammates rather than despise each other over their love for another man. Intelligently, they spend their energy on making sure the insipid man gets his just comeuppance for his dirty deeds. Nicole clearly leads Christina in the direction she needs to go.

The black and white cinematography is highly influential to the mood of the film. With each unexpected twist or scene of peril the lighting is perfect in radiating the suspense. The camera juxtapositions the frequent glowing of the white against the dark black that exudes a frightening, ghost-like presentation. The entire setting of the school is laden with dark corners that provide good elements of foreboding and sinister moments to come.

As the women become more and more unnerved by the limitless possibilities that the missing body presents, many questions are asked but are impossible to answer. “Where is the body?”, “Could Michel be alive?”, “If he is alive is he hell bent on revenge?” The viewer will also be asking these questions throughout most of the final half of the film. When an unknown person begins to call the women and other clues take form the questions begin to multiply.

Clouzet uses frequent shots of objects to enhance the tension even further. Closeups of a dripping bathtub, a typewriter with a man’s hat and gloves, a woman’s feet as she removes her shoes, and a woman running in terror through the corridors of the school. These facets only enhance the overall experience as the suspense and the terror begin to mount.

Diabolique (1955) is considered one of the greatest thrillers of all time and I concur mightily with this assessment. A French version of Psycho (1960), that combines an acclaimed director’s ingenious subtle ideas into a giant web of delicious film making. The viewer will never see the surprise ending coming even if they think they have the plot figured out. This point alone is reason enough to see the film and salivate in the greatness of it.

Bunny Lake Is Missing-1965

Bunny Lake Is Missing-1965

Director-Otto Preminger

Starring-Keir Dullea, Carol Lynley

Scott’s Review #877

Reviewed March 13, 2019

Grade: B+

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is a taut psychological thriller that feels fresh and unpredictable, containing a mysterious, almost haunting quality throughout its running time. The film focuses on one big question- whether the main character’s interpretation of events is real or imagined. The uncertainty makes the film intriguing to watch. Glimpses of London locales also make for fun viewing as is the chaotic and creepy children’s school that is the film’s main location. Though not remembered well the film is still worthy of a watch.

Ann (Carol Lynley) is a single mother, recently transplanted to London with her well-kept brother Stephen (Keir Dullea). When she hurriedly drops off her unseen daughter, Bunny, to her new preschool, and instructs the school cook to watch her, the girl soon disappears without a trace. When the police are called to investigate it is discovered that nobody on staff has lain eyes on the young girl. The plot thickens when it is revealed that all of Bunny’s belongings have been removed from Ann’s residence, and that Ann had an imaginary childhood friend named Bunny.  Has Ann concocted the entire scheme herself for attention or could she be harmful or psychotic?

The film offers several subtle nuances that either work or do not work. The opening credits are a lesson in cinematic creativity as the words present themselves as slivers of paper being torn down the middle. Though the musical score during this sequence is not necessarily eerie the complexity and the ferocity of the scene nonetheless presents an ominous and certainly an intriguing element. This point is a wise move because it sets the tone for such a thriller as the film presents itself as.

The black and white style that director Otto Preminger uses is also a positive to the overall look of the picture. The muted tones illicit an effective ghost-story style with an ambivalent chilling technique. As the mystery is ultimately resolved, the introduction of new and peculiar characters offset the tangled plot as the look of the film remains a constant. Noel Coward as Horatio Wilson, Ann’s landlord, and Martita Hunt as the retired school headmistress who now resides in the attic of the school, do wonders for the addition of creepy characters, but are they meant to be red herrings or key to the big reveal?

A few gripes are with the incorporation of English rock band The Zombies that serves little purpose and the addition is perplexing.  It’s not that I am opposed to the band’s music, but the songs themselves have nothing to do with the plot. Seen on the television during a pub scene and later heard on a janitor’s radio during an escape scene, the odd placing seems little more than a marketing tool product placement.

Another miss is with the casting of Sir Laurence Olivier as Superintendent Newhouse. His talents are largely wasted with little more than a throwaway role despite arguably being considered the lead. As the straight man handling the investigation, his performance is adequate but limiting, especially given the talents that the Shakespearean stage actor possesses. His performance is both phoned in and beneath the historic actor.

The other roles are well cast with highlights being actors Lindley and Dullea in key parts. For the first portion of the film I assumed the pair were husband and wife until it was revealed otherwise which is a nice unexpected nuance. Their chemistry is sweet and easy, and both perform their respective roles with poise and charisma. In 1965 both were relatively novice young actors on the brink of stardom, though sadly short-lived. Their acting chops are firmly in place with this film which is fun to witness.

For fans of psychological thrillers with an implied ghost story enveloped within its clutches Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is worthy and mysterious entertainment with a surprise ending. The film is not stellar all the way around with some weaknesses and lesser than a pure classic, more reminiscent of a good, solid Twilight Zone television episode.

Sudden Fear-1952

Sudden Fear-1952

Director-David Miller

Starring-Joan Crawford, Jack Palance

Scott’s Review #873

Reviewed March 3, 2019

Grade: B+

Sudden Fear (1952) is a gripping film noir thriller, a genre that became common place for a time during the early 1950’s. The film is raised to lofty acclaim due in large part to the casting of legendary Hollywood star Joan Crawford in the lead role. Her performance led to an Oscar nomination and is the main draw of the film. Sudden Fear suffers from some cliches but is otherwise a solid watch although largely forgotten at present time.

Crawford stars as Myra Hudson, a successful Broadway playwright who rejects the suave and handsome Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) after he auditions for the lead role of her play. Later, they coincidentally meet on a train headed for San Francisco as Lester manages to sweep the mature woman off her feet. When Myra impulsively marries Lester his true intentions to manipulate and then kill her to inherit her money are revealed. The suave Myra uncovers the plot and instead plans to kill Lester and place the blame on his scheming former girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame).

As a rabid fan of Ms. Crawford and her talents my opinion leans towards the film belonging exclusively to the star. With her expressive eyes and mannerisms, the role is tailor made for her talents and not too far from a role she would later play in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1966). As the strong yet beleaguered character Myra has been unsuccessful in the romance department and after a glimmer of hope is devastated when she realizes she is being played for a fool. Thanks to Crawford her pain and humiliation are palpable and her subsequent paranoia believable without overacting too much for effect.

Palance and Grahame are okay in their respective supporting roles but are either outshined by Crawford or written in a banal way- or both. Regardless, the roles are one note and not the best of either actor’s careers. The characters have little rooting value and we clearly know their motivations and shenanigans nearly from the start. The conclusion of the film produces a satisfying demise to each one as their comeuppance is in perfect form.

From a plot and pacing perspective the film is never boring and contains many twists and turns and surprises galore which will undoubtedly keep audiences engaged. The action moves along in stellar form and never tires as the viewer will undoubtedly anticipate a cool ending. The final chapter is fraught with chase scenes throughout the streets of San Francisco as a terrified Myra runs through the streets clad in a black coat and a white head shawl, wearing high-heels naturally, while being chased by a crazed Lester.

Sudden Fear adds some clever camera angles and cinematography mentions making it slightly left of center and creative looking with cool shadows throughout. Elements of Hitchcock emerge as a shaky hallway scene featuring a lumbering Lester approaches the camera. Closeups of the actors and the illuminating black and white lighting provide a glowing look to the film. Shots of a gun, a pendulum swinging representing a clock, or a bottle labeled “poison” add elements of tension.

For fans of the illustrious Joan Crawford, Sudden Fear (1952) is a recommended watch and will please those seeking a good helping of the star. She does not disappoint and is the main draw in an otherwise by-the-numbers genre film. The film’s conclusion is the high point and I wished for more layers and character development from Palance and Grahame, but Crawford shines in an otherwise forgotten offering.

Lost Highway-1997

Lost Highway-1997

Director-David Lynch

Starring-Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette

Scott’s Review #868

Reviewed February 17, 2019

Grade: A-

David Lynch, forever known for his odd and mind-boggling productions, releases what might be his most bizarre offering Lost Highway (1997). Dreamlike and downright hallucinogenic the film is impossible to dissect and is open to endless interpretation. Characters morph into younger or different versions of themselves or even into different characters entirely making the film best served as an experience not to be over-analyzed. The most enjoyment comes from the fabulous atmospheric elements.

Lost Highway is set in Los Angeles as we meet saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), a nightclub employee who resides with his glamorous wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) somewhere in the Hollywood hills. The couple begins receiving envelopes containing VHS tapes of footage of their house followed by more invasive tapes of them being filmed while sleeping in their bedroom. Spooked, they enlist the help of a pair of detectives who are incompetent.

The events begin to grow more complex with the introduction of a menacing mystery man (Robert Blake) and sequences involving a dismembered Renee and Fred’s subsequent incarceration for her murder. Fred suddenly morphs into a young auto mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who is released into his parents care while being followed by the two detectives. Pete embarks on an affair with Alice Wakefield, a mirror image of Renee, who is the mistress of powerful Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). Pete and Alice plan to escape together leaving their troubled lives behind.

Any attempt to make more sense of the story than outlined above is fruitless as a torrent of questions could be raised. The obvious ones are why does Fred turn into Pete (looking completely different) and why does Renee turn into Alice (looking similar)? What do random scenes of a burning desert cabin mean? What does the bizarre and hazy lesbian sequence with Marilyn Manson have to do with anything? Discerning the logic and attempting to unravel the mystery will lead to frustration.

The best advice is to escape into the film and allow it to manifest into the viewers mind. The terms “dreamlike” and “hallucinating” are often used to describe films but are perfect adjectives to fit Lost Highway. The stories do run parallel, so the challenge is not being able to follow each of them, but rather how they connect to each other. The stories also merge in a circular fashion with a rhythmic effect and a satisfying ambiance that lured me immeasurably.

My favorite characters are Alice and Pete and this is in large part because of the actors who portray them. Not appearing until the second half Getty and Arquette infuse passion and energy into the roles. I immediately rooted for them as a couple as their tender and smoldering chemistry is immediately felt. Arquette blazes as a sexy temptress and Getty as the handsome and earnest man submitting to her prowess.

Eagle-eyed viewers may notice comparisons to Russ Meyer’s devilish sexploitation film Supervixens (1975). The most notable are the dual character representations, the auto mechanic occupation, the locales (more than a few Los Angeles roads seem identical), and various sequences featuring a weightlifter, a gas station drive-up, or other eerily similar scenes. Whether or not there is direct correlation between the films is unknown but fun to observe.

The musical score and soundtrack are high points adding both mystique and aggression with the hard rock songs featured. Marilyn Manson’s “I Put a Spell on You”, Rammstein’s “Heirate Mich”, and The Smashing Pumpkins “Eye” are used in important scenes. The soundtrack release was a huge success on modern rock radio achieving Gold record sales status.

At the time of Lost Highway’s (1997) release the film was not well regarded by critics and dismissed as not making much sense. In the decades following the film has garnered more acclaim and as with a fine wine has aged well. The beautiful cinematic tone and creative design and images have become more revered over time. For a perplexing and cerebral experience look no further than Lost Highway, a delicious companion piece to the Lynch masterpiece, Mulholland Drive (2001).

Night Train to Munich-1940

Night Train to Munich-1940

Director-Carol Reed

Starring-Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison

Scott’s Review #855

Reviewed January 9, 2019

Grade: B

Night Train to Munich (1940) is a taut war thriller unique in the subject matter of World War II made before the war became full-blown and all the horrors not known. The film has a measure of tie-in with The Lady Vanishes (1938), an Alfred Hitchcock project with familiar crossover characters. The final thirty minutes of the film are spectacular in excitement and chase scenes, but the overly complex plot takes way too long to take-off, leaving me underwhelmed and bored through most of the experience.

In March 1939 a Czechoslovakian scientist, Axel (James Harcourt) is wanted for questioning by the German Gestapo. Residing in Britain, they accost his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) and throw her in a concentration camp. She meets fellow prisoner and assumed ally Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid) who escapes with her to the safety of London. He is revealed to be a Gestapo agent assigned to gain her trust and question her father. Finally, Anna meets undercover British intelligence officer Dickie Randall (Rex Harrison) who poses as a Nazi officer to take Anna and her father to safety.

The first forty-five minutes to an hour of Night Train to Munich is slow moving with a complicated and rather uninteresting plot. I am all for slow moving films provided the setup is there and the elements align properly. I felt shammed since the cover art and title of the film suggest a more robust experience and I found myself continuing to ask, “Where is the train?” and “Where is the mountainous terrain and ski lift?” as pictured.  These elements finally do arrive, but the wait is longer than necessary.

The fact that Karl and Dickie are similar in physical appearance and are both undercover make the average viewer a bit confused. Plus, it takes a while to realize who is playing for whose team and since the film is related to The Lady Vanishes I expected a bit more of the suspense and intrigue commonplace with a Hitchcock telling. The core of the film is mediocre.

Yet the above criticisms can be almost forgiven when events kick into high gear and Night Train to Munich becomes an entirely different film. A riveting train ride bring enormous treats and intrigue as Dickie, Anna, and Axel attempt to outwit Karl and escape before their train arrives in Munich. The fun becomes the cat and mouse game between the group when a secret note is hidden under a doughnut as they sip tea together and feign pleasantries in one of the film’s best scenes.

The ravishing mountaintop finale is breathtaking when Dickie attempts to transport everyone via a ski lift from Germany to the safety of Switzerland over perilously high mountains.  The suspense reaches a boiling point when Karl and the Gestapo are hot on his heels. As a wild shootout commences we know not whether those on the lift will be saved. A pot boiler reaches a shocking crescendo as the seconds tick by. For 1940 the sets and effects are remarkably impressive and believable rather than silly or staged.

Introduced in the final segment are humorous characters from another film, The Lady Vanishes. A late entry into the story, nonetheless they breathe life into the script making it as suspenseful as much as a yarn. British gentlemen Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) add humor and sophisticated wit as they aid the group’s successful escape. I wondered if the pair were gay since the men appeared in The Lady Vanishes, and the esteemed director known for slyly adding discreet LGBT characters into his pictures.

Slightly above a middling affair Night Train to Munich (1940) has impressive moments and a startlingly good ending worth the price of admission. The main portion of the film feels tired and overlong with not enough gravy to keep viewers caring for very long. An interesting double feature would be to watch thus film side by side with The Lady Vanishes for similar concepts and theme.

The Manchurian Candidate-1962

The Manchurian Candidate-1962

Director-John Frankenheimer

Starring-Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey

Scott’s Review #852

Reviewed January 3, 2019

Grade: A

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is an enthralling film that perfectly captures the political landscape of the time and continues to be relevant in present day politics. Taut, mysterious, and filled with great twists and turns, the film flows at a nice pace and climaxes with a shocking crescendo. With compelling performances by all and a brilliant musical score the film fires on all cylinders and can be watched and enjoyed repeatedly.

Events begin in 1952 during the bloody Korean war. A United States platoon consisting of several men are accosted by the Soviets and sent to communist China for experimentation. Three days later the men return as if nothing happened and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is proclaimed a hero and awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the men’s lives. When the war ends the men return to the United States to resume normal lives.

Years later Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) suffers from recurring nightmares in which Shaw murders two missing soldiers in front of a panel in a bizarre brainwashing demonstration. When another soldier in the platoon has the same nightmares Army Intelligence begins an investigation. Further complicating the plot is Raymond’s ambitious mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and her attempt to guide her husband Senator Iselin (James Gregory) to further power using any means necessary.

The Manchurian Candidate is a film that requires the utmost in attention to fully appreciate and understand the events. The plot is highly complex, but that is a testament to the composition of the film and hardly a complaint. The viewer must stay on course to appreciate the intricate details. Director John Frankenheimer is fantastic at adding unique dramatic effects and imaginative film-making. A prime example is the brainwashing sequence as dialogue is interspersed between what the soldiers think is happening (a peaceful grandmotherly horticulture demonstration) and reality (a dastardly experiment involving murder and programming).

Despite Sinatra being billed as the lead in the film the most treasured props go to Lansbury as Eleanor and Harvey as Shaw. Raymond is the character most developed and we see several sides to him. Primarily a morose loner who appears cold and harsh, this is primarily due to his being programmed to assassinate. A sequence involving the love of his life, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), and a romantic summer they share together is beautiful and innocent as it contrasts with the dismal and manufactured “new Raymond”.

Lansbury has never been cast in a more challenging role. Eleanor is determined to stop at nothing to ensure her husband will reach the presidency and connives and cheats her way to the top. Still, the part is written as such to avoid making her a complete one-note character despite her villainous ways. In an eerie scene close to the finale she vows payback for what has been done to Raymond and then plants an incestuous kiss on his lips. An odd and disturbing moment, the scene also justifies in her mind the lengths she has gone to get what she wants.

The musical score is lovely and contradicts the dour backstabbing and espionage that takes place throughout. Romantic and sweet melodies abound and classic hymns like The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Star-Spangled Banner are included in the film. As a result, The Manchurian Candidate’s score feels multi-faceted, patriotic as well as artistic with enchanting results.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is a stellar film with a perfect blend of thrills, deceit, politics, and creative film-making to make it a bold classic. The final sequence is jaw-dropping in its finality and brutality. Remade in 2004 with a great cast yet a poor script, avoid that one at all costs and enjoy the power and lasting effects of the original.

The Long Goodbye-1973

The Long Goodbye-1973

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Elliott Gould

Scott’s Review #830

Reviewed November 14, 2018

Grade: A

Nearly a full-fledged character study of one man’s moral fiber, The Long Goodbye (1973) is an edgy piece of direction by famous mastermind Robert Altman. The setting of the Los Angeles underbelly is fabulous and effective as is dim lighting and excellent camera work prevalent throughout. The film is not cheery and rather bleak which suits me just fine given the smart locale. Perhaps a more obscure Altman offering, but the film sizzles with zest and authenticity.

The film is based on a story written by Raymond Chandler in 1953. Altman, however, opts to change the setting from 1950 to present times- 1970’s Los Angeles and present a film noir experience involving deceit and shenanigans where all is not as it seems. I think this is a wise move and I could not help but draw many comparisons (mainly the overall story) to Chinatown (1974), released the year after The Long Goodbye, but a film much better remembered.

Elliott Gould is wonderful as Phillip Marlowe, a struggling private investigator and insomniac. He is asked by a friend, Terry Lennox, for a ride to the Mexico border one night and agrees to do the favor. This leads to a mystery involving police, gangsters, and Eileen and Roger Wade, after Phillip is questioned regarding his connection to Terry, who is accused of murdering his wife Sylvia. The seedy side and complexities to several characters are revealed as the story unfolds and the plot gradually thickens.

My favorite aspects of The Long Goodbye are not necessarily the primary storytelling, though the writing is filled with tension. As the film opens an extended sequence featuring a “conversation” between Phillip and his cat is both odd and humorous. The finicky feline refuses to eat anything other than one brand of cat food. As Phillip tries reasoning with the cat through talking and meows, he is forced to venture out in the middle of the night to an all-night grocery store. Altman, known to allow his actor’s free-reign for improvised dialogue, appears to allow Gould to experiment during this scene.

Phillip’s neighbors, a bundle of gorgeous twenty-something females, seems to do nothing except exercise on their balcony, get high and request he buy them brownie mix for a “special occasion”. As they stretch topless, usually in the background and almost out of camera range, they are a prime example of an interesting nuance of the film. The girls are mysterious but have nothing to do with the actual plot adding even more intrigue to the film.

In one of the most frightening scenes in cinematic history and one that could be straight from The Godfather (1972), crazed gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), slices the beautiful face of his girlfriend to prove a point to Marlowe. In a famous line he utters, “That’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.” The violent act is quick, unexpected and fraught with insanity.

Finally, the film’s conclusion contains a good old-fashioned twist worthy of any good film noir. In the end, the big reveal makes sense and begs to raise the question “why did we trust this character?” In addition to the viewer being satisfied, Marlowe also gets a deserved finale and proves that he cannot be messed with nor taken for a fool.

The Long Goodbye is undoubtedly the best film of Gould’s career. With a charismatic, wise-cracking persona, the chain-smoking cynic is deemed by most as a loser. He is an unhappy man and down on humanity, but still wants to do what is right. He lives a depressed life with few friends and the company of only his cat. While he is marginally entertained by his neighbors, he goes about his days only barely getting by emotionally. Gould is brilliant at relaying all these qualities within his performance.

The addition of the title theme song in numerous renditions is a major win for the film and something noticed more and more with each repeated viewing. The ill-fated gangster’s girlfriend hums along to the song playing on the radio at one point, and a jazz pianist plays a rendition in a smoky bar. This is an ingenious approach by Altman and gives the film a greater sense of mystery and style.

There is no question among cinema lovers that Robert Altman is one of the best directors of all time. In his lengthy catalog filled with rich and experimental films, The Long Goodbye (1973) is not the best remembered nor the most recognizable. I implore film fans, especially fans of plodding mystery and intrigue to check this great steak dinner of a film out.

Split-2016

Split-2016

Director-M. Night Shyamalan

Starring-James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy

Scott’s Review #821

Reviewed October 18, 2018

Grade: B-

Split (2016) is the second part of a planned trilogy, the first being Unbreakable (2000), and the third to debut in 2019. This point was confusing to me since I did not notice any correlation between the films until the final scene and even that was not very clear. Split has its ups and downs, mainly that the performance of James McAvoy is spectacular and the highlight, but the film is sadly riddled with many plot holes and some nonsense. I do not predict the film will be remembered all too well.

Casey (Joy) is a withdrawn teenage girl with an abusive past at the hands of her uncle, who raised her after her father died. She, along with two other girls are accosted by a man (McAvoy) who chloroforms them and takes them to a hidden basement. The girls quickly learn that their abductor is Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). His personalities range from a nine-year-old child, to an effeminate artist, to a well-dressed woman, and Kevin.

The audience (but not the girls) learns that Kevin is in therapy and in the care of Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) an established Philadelphia psychiatrist. Fletcher is aware of Kevin’s other personalities, and of an additional personality deemed “The Beast”, who she assumes is a fantasy super-hero figure. Karen slowly pieces together the frightening depth of Kevin’s disorder and must race against time to save the girls.

McAvoy, mostly known for his great performances in The Last King of Scotland (2006) and Atonement (2007), but also a central figure in the X-Men film franchise (2011-2019), knocks it out of the park. What a challenging role (or roles!) for the handsome, Scottish actor.  He is convincing as the stoic and confident Kevin and provides the perfect swagger as “Patricia” and “Dennis”. Finally, he plays nine-year-old “Hedwig” to perfection with childhood innocence and insecurities. The casting of McAvoy is a treat and a success.

How lovely to see film and television stalwart Betty Buckley back in the game with a central film role. To say nothing of the actress’s achievements on stage in play after play, the woman is a legend in the other genres. Eagle-eyed horror fans will undoubtedly remember Buckley’s role as the sympathetic gym teacher in Carrie (1976). In Split, she portrays another benevolent character as she is concerned for her patient’s well-being, not realizing the sinister sides he keeps hidden. The role is perfect for the warm Buckley.

Written, co-produced, and directed by the acclaimed M. Night Shyamalan, Split is no masterpiece like The Sixth Sense (1999) or even on par with The Village (2004).  Instead, the result is a peculiar and uneven effort- the fascination is with McAvoy’s twenty-three different personalities, granted we only see four or five of them.

The film misses with the numerous backstory scenes of Casey and her uncle, hunting in the woods. These scenes slow down the action and seem overly lengthy. She was abused and can now handle herself- we get it. This point could have been achieved with in one scene.

The relationships between the three girls is okay, but the story point of Casey being an outcast and different from the other two girls seems unnecessary and thrown in. The final scene of Bruce Willis (as Dennis Dunn from Unbreakable) is somewhat of a nice nod to the previous film but lost on anyone who either has not seen the film or has not seen it since it premiered well over a decade ago. More of a connection between the two stories should have been featured.

In addition to McAvoy’s impressive performance a positive is how there are no male characters designed to “save the day” as is still typical with mainstream films. In fact, the heroes of the film are Casey (a teenage girl) and Karen (a woman in her sixties). Credit must be given to attempts at making Split a more progressive minded film, despite all the story pieces not aligning.

The result of the film is fair to middling- Split (2016) is not a great effort, but a decent watch. The highlights are McAvoy, a worthy role for veteran Buckley, and some good tension and moments of good peril. The story is not the high point to the film and Shyamalan has certainly made much better films.

Notes on a Scandal-2006

Notes on a Scandal-2006

Director-Richard Eyre

Starring-Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett

Scott’s Review #793

Reviewed July 23, 2018

Grade: A

A British drama centering on the world of teachers, illicit affairs, and sexuality, Notes on a Scandal (2006) is a superlative effort with thrills and drama galore. Featuring heavyweights like Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett there is no way this film could be a dud based on the acting alone. The chemistry between the women and the carefully crafted thrills created by director, Richard Eyre, make the film a compelling joy to view- perhaps multiple times for additional entertainment.

The story is told mainly from the perspective of Barbara Covett (Dench), a rigid and bored schoolteacher nearing retirement at a comprehensive school in London, where she teaches. Barbara is a spinster and a closeted lesbian, constantly writing in her journal for comfort- this is the main narrative of the story and tremendously effective. When young and attractive art teacher, Sheba Hart (Blanchett), arrives on the scene, Barbara fancies her and is determined to get closer. After Sheba begins an illicit affair with a male student, Barbara discovers the shenanigans and uses the situation to her advantage. The scandal results in both women’s careers being at risk as well as Sheba’s troubled home life coming to fruition.

Notes on a Scandal is a good, solid, psychological thriller/drama with enough twists and turns to compel the viewer. The film is not very long- at one hour and thirty two minutes there is hardly time for lagging. The best achievements, however, are with the superior acting by the two leads. With other lesser talents, this film might have suffered from too much melodrama and not enough meat. With great acting chops, Dench and Blanchett do not let this happen and instead treat the audience to a riveting affair.

As fantastic as Blanchett is, Dench’s Barbara is the standout and takes center stage throughout the film. Interestingly, despite both actresses being leads, Dench received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, while Blanchett went supporting. But there is no question that both actresses deserved the praises they reaped- and then some.

Dench turns in such a delicious performance that she makes the film arguably the reason to watch it. Wearing no makeup and dressed as conservatively as imaginable, an icy stare or thoughtful gaze will run shivers up and down the viewer’s spine. As conflict and drama unfold, Barbara proves she is nobody to be messed with. Still, the character has an underlying vulnerable quality, simply yearning for affection and love from another woman. One wonders if she has ever really had the love she deserves. Dench is brilliant at revealing all of Barbara’s underlying nuances.

The film poses an interesting moral question which will leave some viewers undoubtedly not a fan of Sheba’s. The fact that she lusts after an underage male, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), and has relations with him, while having a husband and handicapped child at home may be too much for some. Surely, the character will not be championed by many, but I found Sheba complex and difficult to grasp. This complexity is to the film maker’s credit and allows for a more layered character study of both Sheba and Barbara- neither is cut and dry.

An interesting aside of the film is what if the genders of the roles were reversed? Would the film have the same effect if Sheba were a male character and Steven was a teenage girl? What if Barbara were a straight woman? What if Barbara was a gay male character? These other possibilities left me wondering as I watched the film. Wisely, I think director Eyre got things just right.

Notes on a Scandal (2006) is a film that reminds me of a British version of Fatal Attraction (1987) meets Single White Female (1992). The story holds elements of each and was adapted from a 2003 novel of the same name. With frightfully good performances by both Dench and Blanchett, this film is a memorable thriller not to be missed.

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.