Serial Mom-1994

Serial Mom-1994

Director John Waters

Starring Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake

Scott’s Review #1,432

Reviewed July 8, 2024

Grade: A-

Serial Mom (1994) is led by an uproarious performance by Kathleen Turner, in the 1990s still in her cinematic heyday, the latter-day John Waters comedy fires on all cylinders. She wickedly goes full steam ahead in a pulsating performance deliciously deserving of an Oscar nomination.

The film is directed by Waters, known for perverse and gross-out fare like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1975) so any chance for an Academy Award is laughable.

Though, Serial Mom is much safer than those films choosing slick 1990s mainstream camerawork over raw shots of dogshit on the sidewalk.

Still, Turner hits it out of the park playing a ‘June Cleaver’ character with a murderous dark side.

Beverly Sutphin (Turner) appears to be an unassuming upper-middle-class housewife living with her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston) and their teenage children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard), in suburban Maryland.

She is secretly a serial killer who kills people over trivial slights or offenses like insulting her son or blowing off her daughter. The dastardly mom uses creative weapons like her station wagon and a fire poker to kill her prey.

Serial Mom is strictly for ravenous fans of Waters and I’m not sure it will win any new fans over. But I’ll stress how much of a mainstream affair it is compared to his more dangerous 1970s films.

It pairs well in look and feel with Hairspray from 1988 and both films star Ricki Lake.

Some have referred to it as a slasher film but that would steer it in the horror vein or knife-wielding maniac territory. Beverly isn’t Freddie, Jason, or Michael Meyers. She is fun and does as much damage with a sneer or a smirk as with a weapon.

Beverly is also the type of woman you’d like to be friends with but are terrified of crossing. After all, she kills in the defense of her kids so she’s a good mother with a wicked sense of humor.

When she delights in crank-calling her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (deliciously played by Waters’s regular Mink Stole) to get a rise out of her, we cheer her on.

Later, when charged and sent to trial for her dirty deeds, she fires her attorney and takes over her case amid rabid fan response. Beverly becomes a local hero.

She’s a cinema villain to remember.

Waters is great because he finds the perfect balance of camp and wit to make a smart film not merely a slapstick one. Many cinema comedies don’t work because the laughs feel canned instead of fresh.

The writing and the cast make Serial Mom a winner.

The ridiculous antics and situations Beverly gets involved in make the audience want to know what she does next. Who doesn’t love a well-to-do character who turns sinister? It’s fun to watch a rich suburban town turn into a shit show of high entertainment.

Besides Stole, my favorite supporting actors are Mary Jo Catlett and Matthew Lillard. Catlett has brilliant comic timing as a neighbor, Rosemary, while Lillard was on the cusp of becoming a horror/comedy star with 1996’s Scream.

Regarding cameos, I could have done without the Suzanne Somers cameo playing herself which didn’t land all that funny but Patty Hearst as juror #8 is a winner.

The ‘white shoes after Labor Day’ sequence is hysterical.

Serial Mom (1994) is a cult classic for the ages and on par with most of John Waters earlier, classic raunchy comedies.

The Bikeriders-2024

The Bikeriders-2024

Director Jeff Nichols

Starring Austin Butler, Jodie Comer, Tom Hardy

Scott’s Review #1,431

Reviewed July 1, 2024

Grade: A-

The Bikeriders (2024) immediately informs the audience of the time and place the film will be told. A dry and dusty midwestern, USA between 1965-1973 is the window explored and the defiance of the characters drawn.

This period is the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, assassinations, Woodstock, and many other historical moments. Dangerous, the culture and people were changing and very rebellious.

Director Jeff Nichols, who also wrote the screenplay based on ‘The Bikeriders’ by Danny Lyon wonderfully presents a time capsule of a group of bikers who forged their subculture away from the uncertainty of the rest of the world.

After a chance encounter at a local biker bar, strong-willed Kathy (Jodie Comer) is drawn to handsome and mysterious Benny (Austin Butler), the newest member of the Midwestern motorcycle club, the Vandals led by the enigmatic Johnny (Tom Hardy).

Much like the country around it, the club changes with time, transforming from a basic gathering place for local outsiders into an underworld of violence, forcing Benny to choose between Kathy and his loyalty to the club.

The strongest parts of The Bikeriders are the beginning and end with portions in the middle section making it drag and lowering a potential ‘A’ rating to an ‘A-‘.

But the other sections are so rich with characterization and events that they usurp the dull parts.

Nichols, who has also directed Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Loving (2016) likes to focus on the decade of the 1960s in America with conflicted characters. He likes to work with Michael Shannon who has a small yet pivotal role as a man who ponders life.

We meet Benny in a bar where he sips a drink. He is hastily told by two local thugs to remove his biker jacket. After a bloody fight in the parking lot, we realize how much the biker club means to him and what it symbolizes.

It’s a club where the vermin, weirdos, undesirables, and those cast aside by society find a place and are cared for by one another. That is until the years pass and things change by meaner and less loyal bikers.

The symbolism resonates with all because time never stands still and good things always come to an end.

The Bikeriders is told from the perspective of Kathy through a series of interviews with her friend, Danny (Mike Faist). He is the real-life author of the book the film is based on.

Comer is outstanding in the lead female role. She is strong and resilient, attracted to the dangerous lifestyle and the bikers, but only has eyes for Benny and will not be taken advantage of.

She chronicles specific events like fights, death, and rape, in painful yet thoughtful detail inviting the audience into her dark world.

Butler and Hardy are also terrific. Arguably co-leads, Butler’s Benny is childless, freer than Hardy’s Johnny, a family man. Johnny sees Benny as the next leader of the Vipers but Benny wants none of that.

Both men are tortured by comparisons to the club and life outside the club. During a long homoerotic scene, Johnny and Benny are dangerously close to kissing as Johnny discloses the reasons why Benny should lead the club.

The scene is smoldering as the unspoken connection can be felt in raw form. Nichols doesn’t dare to make the film into anything LGBTQ+ related but the nuances and subtleties exist.

Besides the acting, the gritty environment oozes with richness. The soiled biker bars, sticky floors laden with blood, beer, and vomit, emit from the silver screen.

You can almost smell the environment.

The bad teeth, foul language, and tacky midwestern accents, all portray the loneliness of these characters and how they cling to the club for dear life.

Nichols and the author Lyon depict a fresh look into the world of motorcyclists and the culture they lived and died in for a brief time. The Bikeriders (2024) presents violence mixed with brotherhood and loyalty which is fascinating to watch.

Rebecca-2020

Rebecca-2020

Director Ben Wheatley

Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas

Scott’s Review #1,430

Reviewed June 30, 2024

Grade: A-

Impossible to compare to the legendary 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film, I tried very hard to take the 2020 retelling of Rebecca based on its merits. After all, it’s been eighty years and other attempts have been made mostly forgotten or irrelevant.

Aware of lukewarm reviews by other critics I desperately washed those aside and settled in for a macabre, dark ghostly British thriller.

The film is quite good! Feeling fresh and with a polished cinematic look, I’d describe it as a modern British offering despite being set long ago.

For comparisons, it reminds me of the British television series Downton Abbey (2010-2015) in look and feel. A grandiose estate, dutiful servants, and rank and file of other wealthy and not-so-wealthy characters.

A young newlywed (character nameless) arrives at her husband’s imposing family estate on a windswept English coast and finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives in the house long after her death.

The lead actress, Lily James, who at first I couldn’t recall who she was, is most known for Downton Abbey and the 2023 film The Iron Claw.

The character she plays, the insecure second Mrs. de Winter is confused, and haunted requiring terrific acting. James hits it out of the park on that front.

Emotionally abused by her employer, wickedly played by Ann Dowd, she is instantly heroic and likable so we are happy when she graduates from servant to queen bee.

I cringed at first when I realized that the gorgeous and lovely Kristin Scott Thomas was playing the pivotal role of the villainous Mrs. Danvers. Known for the film The English Patient (1996) where she played the romantic Katharine Clifton, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to go so dark.

Boy, was I wrong? It took me a bit to channel out the dastardly performance by Judith Anderson from the original and accept Scott Thomas. She gets better with each scene and even forces the audience to sympathize with her.

Finally, Armie Hammer is good in the lead role of Maxim de Winter. Handsome, sophisticated, and wealthy, he peculiarly fancies a lady’s maid who inexplicably becomes his wife.

We wonder what he sees in her when his deceased wife ‘Rebecca’ was gorgeous, affluent, and a perfectionist. Rebecca was presumed to have drowned in a terrible boating accident but as events unfold we wonder if there’s more to the story.

If only the characters communicated with each other it would have eliminated confusion. Maxim refuses to talk about Rebecca. If his true feelings were revealed he’d have a different kind of second marriage.

Besides the story and the acting, other trimmings make Rebecca circa 2020 worthy of watching.

The cinematography captures crashing waves and high cliffs that provide a haunting mood. The dining room and kitchen sequences brim with goodness and wonderful meals.

The art direction and set design are overall flawless in the presentation.

The costume party that Mrs. de Winter eagerly plans and hopes will admonish the house of any thoughts of Rebecca go wrong which for viewers is a delight because the scene is already rich.  With help from Danvers a regal red costume is designed and prepared to showcase Mrs. de Winter.

When she confidently descends the staircase the startled crowd gasps with fright at the similarities between her and Rebecca. Maxim angrily dismisses her to change outfits while Danvers smirks in the background.

She’s won round one.

The Danvers/Mrs. de Winter feud is my favorite aspect of Rebecca (both original and 2020 versions) so it’s delightful to see it work so well with Scott Thomas and James.

There is nothing quite so satisfying as watching a film with little expectations but finishing feeling fulfilled and still thinking about it the next morning.

I’ll always watch 1940s Rebecca as a treasured friend but Rebecca (2020) quite capably offers a modern spin with good acting and lavish production values.

Nyad-2023

Nyad-2023

Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Starring Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans

Scott’s Review #1,429

Reviewed June 28, 2024

Grade: B+

Nyad (2023) is a perfect example of a film made much better by the performances of its lead actors.

Heavyweights, Annette Bening, and Jodie Foster bring heart to their characters, making the viewer empathize and fall in love with them even when not likable.

Despite receiving Oscar nominations for both actors I semi-resisted watching the film and had it on my list for quite some time before biting the bullet and pressing play.

The previews enshroud the film in safety offering a feel-good, Cinderella-type story, pleasant but perhaps little more. A sports biography at that any nitwit searching Google could tell how the film would go.

The conclusion while inspiring is unsurprising and, spoiler alert, Bening as famous swimmer Diana Nyad, dramatically lumbers onto the sand of the Florida Keys amid cheers and chants of ‘Diana, Diana, Diana!’.

She is breathless and haggard but acknowledges her fans and friends.

Filmmakers, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin only needed to add slow-motion filmmaking to make this thunderous ovation more sappy. 

But they didn’t, and the husband and wife directors do an admiral job of incorporating various colors and cool editing tricks to make Nyad a bit more cutting-edge than it might have been.

The true story of tenacity, courage, friendship, and the human spirit’s triumph, is explored by telling of the life of world-class athlete Diana Nyad.

Three decades after giving up marathon swimming in exchange for a prominent career as a sports journalist, at the age of sixty, Diana has an epiphany.

She completes an epic swim of one hundred-and-ten-mile trek from Cuba to Florida, a feat she failed decades earlier. It takes her four years along with her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (Foster) and a dedicated sailing team.

Bening and Foster have tremendous chemistry and every scene together sizzles with authenticity and humanism. Both are gay, it’s assumed they are longtime partners or a married couple. But it’s explained early on that they dated ‘for a minute’ and became best friends.

It turns into a film about female friendship and determination rather than romance. Other than Diana’s one feeble attempt at dating an uptight Los Angeles blonde neither woman date at all.

The flashier role goes to Bening who does not mind looking hideous in her film roles. Determined and aggressive, she slowly transforms into bloated, puffy, and unrecognizable, especially after her long swims.

A wonderful actor, Bening powerfully relays Nyad’s absolute need to attempt this historic feat. She sees her life passing her by and even though she is hardly a failure she doesn’t see herself as anything more.

Foster on the other hand is calm cool and collected, quite familiar with Nyad’s trials and tribulations and bouts of neediness. She’s spent years cow-towing to these needs.

But, Foster’s Bonnie is hardly a patsy or merely a supportive friend. She’s way more. In a brilliant scene, Bonnie confronts Diana and the pair have a blow-up scene. Bonnie needs more from her life and deserves it.

The women grow even closer after this emotional scene.

The film’s mid-section got a bit boring and I found myself tuning out until the big finale I knew was coming.

Since I knew Diana would eventually achieve her goal the three or four attempts feel dull. Bad weather, a jellyfish, fatigue, or other issues force the team to cancel the attempt.

Going in I would have guessed I’d rate Nyad (2023) a ‘B’ but thanks to Bening and Foster a ‘B+’ is a must.

There is so much to be said for brilliant acting and these two ladies know how to deliver the goods.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Annette Bening, Best Supporting Actress-Jodie Foster

There’s Something About Mary-1998

There’s Something About Mary-1998

Director Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly

Starring Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon

Scott’s Review #1,428

Reviewed June 16, 2024

Grade: B+

Since many films are released within the romantic comedy genre most are disposable and forgettable. Very few stand out initially let alone stand the test of time.

Decades later, There’s Something About Mary (1998) holds up well mostly because of its chemistry and laugh-out-loud memorable moments. It also has a heart and is not mean-spirited showcasing a brewing romance people can relate to.

Watching in 2024 particularly interesting is the appeal of Cameron Diaz since retired from acting, and a young Ben Stiller who was then in his heyday and a box-office gem. Brett Favre, who then was a superstar NFL quarterback makes a cameo appearance.

Pleasing is to watch a hit film from decades ago that still offers appeal.

Ted’s (Ben Stiller) unexpected dream prom date with Mary (Cameron Diaz) in 1985 is disastrous due to an embarrassing injury at her home causing them never to get to the prom. Mary leaves town shortly after.

Thirteen years later, pre-social media in 1998, Ted hires shady investigator Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to track down Mary so he can reconnect with her. Pat becomes obsessed with her and lies to Ted about Mary, finding out everything he can about her to trick her into dating him.

Ted realizes the truth and travels to meet Mary in Miami, Florida where she is a successful orthopedic surgeon to reconnect with her.

Instantaneous hilarity comes to mind from two legendary scenes involving Ben Stiller’s Ted that most people have heard of.

While using the bathroom at Mary’s house before leaving for the prom Ted gets his private parts or ‘frank and beans’, caught in his zipper. Every male viewer will squirm in imagined discomfort but the hijinks with Mary’s parents and neighborhood firefighters who get involved make the sequence legendary.

This pairs well with a later scene when Ted masturbates just before his date with Mary to relax. Mary mistakes some ‘residue’ on Ted’s ear for hair gel and hilariously applies it to her hair causing it to stick straight up in the air during dinner.

Both scenes still feel fresh and natural years later and are now historical.

The introduction of Tucker (Lee Evans) a third admirer of Mary doesn’t work so well in hindsight. The revelation that he is not a British architect but merely a pizza deliverer who injured his back to get close to Mary feels forced and unnecessary.

The triangle between Ted/Mary/Pat is just enough.

The inclusion factors are impressive. In 1985, Mary had a black stepfather and a mentally disabled brother both of whom she adores. When Ted drives from Rhode Island to Florida he stops at a rest area and is assumed to be gay. This is preceded by a session with a psychiatrist who suspects Ted may be gay.

These additions go a long way to showcase normalcy in these individual areas.

It’s also impressive that the Farrelly brothers (Peter and Bobby), who direct the film, make Mary a surgeon paving the way for female viewers to aspire to the same.

There’s Something About Mary gets a slight knock for exploiting female breasts, Mary is seen at least twice through a window putting on a bra while a male spies on her from the distance.

The characters are benevolent especially Ted and Mary making it easy for the audience to root for them. Thanks to the tremendous chemistry between Diaz, Stiller, and Dillon, There’s Something About Mary (1998) feels fresh and romantic without a forced feeling.

Eismayer-2023

Eismayer-2023

Director David Wagner

Starring Gerhard Liebmann, Luka Dimic

Scott’s Review #1,427

Reviewed May 31, 2024

Grade: A-

Eismayer (2023) may be the first Austrian-language film I’ve ever and is the first Austrian LGBTQ+ film. Similar to German cinema there is a cold and stark naturalistic veneer to the filmmaking making it feel moody and foreboding.

I’ve said this many times before but the statement still has merit. The LGBTQ+ cinema genre has been saturated with offerings since the late 1990s, especially into the 2000s and it can be difficult not to tell the same story continuously.

As proof of the above, our Prime subscription contains numerous LGBTQ+ films to showcase so we decided on Eismayer which sounded interesting.

It focuses on the military, is Austrian, and focuses on a love story between two soldiers. The fact that it is based on a true story held special intrigue.

Sergeant Major Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann) is known and feared as the toughest training officer in the Austrian Armed Forces. He is ruthless and unfeeling with recruits and a staunch disciplinarian, with order and macho toughness.

Unsurprisingly, the new batch of recruits despises him.

Surprisingly, in his personal life, he is a loving father to his son whom he adores and treats his wife respectfully.

But when he starts to fall in love with Falak (Luka Dimic), a recruit who is unashamedly out and proud as a gay man Eismayer must decide if his closeted existence is worth it.

The director, David Wagner, paints a lovely canvas of the love between two men that slowly takes shape. He wisely makes the running time less than an hour and a half so the film doesn’t drag.

It’s not a shock what develops between Eismayer and Falak because their embrace appears on the cover art but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.

I like the direction Wagner takes with this story. Eismayer being the title character the focus is on his character not the couple as a whole. The plot centers on his plight to come to terms with his sexuality and also make it publicly known.

He doesn’t have to come out naturally but if he wants to have an open and honest romance with Falak he must do this genuinely.

It’s unexplained why Eismayer is the way he is but one can easily guess why. His father was probably stoic and military-like he is and the expectation was to be macho and tough at all costs, showing no vulnerability.

To satisfy his urges he is reduced to having hot sex with willing recruits in the back seat of a car but it’s hardly candlelit dinners and romance nor satisfying.

In addition to being in love with Falak, he admires his courage to be out and proud in a traditionally masculine environment.

We know virtually nothing about Falak’s backstory. What made him come out? What was his father like?

While there has been a clear shift in acceptance of gays in the military a story like this hasn’t been told in film to my knowledge.

Gone hopefully are the days when LGBTQ+ filmmakers told stories of mere resistance to a gay character’s happiness as an obstacle to their joy and acceptance.

There is a raised eyebrow or two when Falak makes his homosexuality evident in the shower and one grizzled senior officer complains that ‘fags don’t belong in the military’ but the younger officers have little issue.

They even applaud at the end when Eismayer and Falak kiss and embrace, cementing their open and blossoming romance.

A fantasy? Possibly, but Wagner gives the likely predominately gay male audience something to admire and cheer for.

Understated, but packs an emotional punch and an uplifting and inspiring message, Eismayer (2023) is an Austrian film I hope will inspire more American filmmakers.

Being the Ricardos-2021

Being the Ricardos-2021

Director Aaron Sorkin

Starring Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem

Scott’s Review #1,426

Reviewed May 7, 2024

Grade: B+

Aaron Sorkin who has written or directed such efforts as A Few Good Men (1992), Moneyball (2011), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) is typically associated with mainstream films.

While quality projects, he will never be accused of being a dangerous or auteur director. Since he is in the director’s chair for Being the Ricardos (2021) I knew going in that the film would be more or less a safe venture.

Ironically, the film that tells the story of famous comedian Lucille Ball played by Nicole Kidman, and her husband Desi played by Javier Bardem is not a comedy. It’s a drama mixed with a biography for those audiences unfamiliar with the duo explaining who they are.

For those of us at least mildly familiar with the iconic black and white show ‘I Love Lucy’ that pivoted television shows into the spotlight in the 1950s, Being the Ricardos serves as a slice of nostalgia.

The film depicts many aspects of the relationship of the pair and the challenges that went into producing the hit television show every week. But it also delves heavily into their rocky marriage, political smears, and cultural taboos that the show helped break.

Whoever thought that a pregnant character or a Cuban leading man would have stirred so much controversy?

But in the 1950s things were different and anyone even open to the idea of Communism faced career ruination.

Sorkin successfully treats the viewers to lengthy debates in the writers’ room, contentious star feuds, and the creative process in general.

More subtly, we see how a powerful woman in show business was the exception, not the rule, and how norms were very different for women.

The events of the film mostly surround one critical production week of their groundbreaking sitcom “I Love Lucy.”

J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play loveable Fred and Ethel, Lucy and Desi’s comical next-door neighbors in the sitcom. In real life, the actors despised each other frequently hurling insults at each other.

Comedy legend Linda Lavin makes a surprising appearance as Madelyn Pugh. The then-older television writer provides interviews along with other writers and producers to explain the earlier events.

Kidman is center stage as the icon. A brilliant actor in any role she is cast she does effectively depict the breathy voice and the mannerisms of Lucille Ball but she doesn’t look like her. Originally, Cate Blanchett was attached to the role and I’m very curious how she would have played her.

The obvious choice might have been television’s Debra Messing, brilliant on Will & Grace even portraying Lucy in one fantasy episode. My hunch is that Messing was too great a risk of lowering the film to sitcom standards and she isn’t a ‘movie star’ either.

And again, Being the Ricardos isn’t a comedy.

So, Kidman delivers the goods with some reservations mostly revealing what a strong woman Ball was and how she created many of the hilarious skits she is known for while not making the character seem like an idiot.

Bardem is also good in the role of Desi. He mixes conservative machismo with a thirst to be daring and challenge the mold. His womanizing would ruin their marriage but he was a savvy businessman and the film shows this.

An entertaining biopic that probably will be forgotten over time Being the Ricardos (2021) nonetheless shines a spotlight on the early days of television as a new medium and the hurdles its stars had to face in the woeful days of early apple pie and white picket fences that defined America.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Javier Bardem, Best Actress-Nicole Kidman, Best Supporting Actor-J.K. Simmons

Strange Way of Life-2023

Strange Way of Life-2023

Director Pedro Almodóvar

Starring Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal

Scott’s Review #1,425

Reviewed April 22, 2024

Grade: A-

Pedro Almodóvar is a unique film director. Spanish, his films are flavorful, saucy, and unpredictable. He tends to mix melodrama, wacky humor, and a colorful landscape frequently sprinkling LGBTQ+ elements even if they are not classified with that specific genre.

I adore his films though they frequently blur together for me.

Though a Spanish film, Strange Way of Life (2023) is only Almodóvar’s second English language film and to my knowledge his first short feature film.

Watching the brief thirty-one-minute offering I fantasized about a full-length feature or even a television series based on the story and characters.

Since it’s short we get right down to business quickly.

One day Silva (Pedro Pascal) rides a horse across the desert to Bitter Creek to visit Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke). It is quickly revealed that twenty-five years earlier, the sheriff and Silva, worked together as hired gunmen.

They fell in love during a passionate encounter with three whores and barrels of wine who ditched the men when they realized they were not valued.

Silva provides Jake with the excuse that the reason for his trip is not to go down the memory lane of their old friendship but rather to rescue his son Joe (George Steane) from persecution for being suspected of killing Jake’s late brother’s wife, also a whore.

After Jake and Silva sip wine and enjoy a lovely meal they quickly engage in animalistic sex and reignite their long-dormant passion.

While Silva is gung-ho about reuniting Jake has reservations.

Pascal, who is everywhere due to the success of his television series The Last of Us is fabulous to watch. His sexy machismo pairs well with his passion for his soulmate. Because his character of Silva intends for him and Jake to live out their days running a ranch he is a more inspiring character than Jake.

This point is a nod to the groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain (2006) whose characters also flirted with running a ranch together during a time when any gay relations were forbidden territory.

Hawke is quite good too though I’m partial to Pascal. Buttoned up and law-abiding he rebuffs Silva’s advances, at first.

It’s nice to see Hawke in a gay role. Both characters are masculine thereby dismissing silly LGBTQ+ stereotypes that too often appear in cinema.

It also doesn’t hurt to get a glimpse of Pascal’s bare butt or Hawke’s buff physique as they while away time in the bedroom.

I love the sweaty and muscular Western genre being the backdrop of an LGBTQ+ film and tipped upside down. Not to reduce it to a tepid John Wayne film cliche there exists a gorgeous and melodic fado singer throughout the film.

It is performed by Manu Ríos.

This counterbalances the Quentin Tarantino-ish blood and violence with lovely music.

The film is titled after a 1960s Portuguese fado song by Amália Rodrigues

Since Strange Way of Life is a brief experience many facets could have been explored. Why did Silva leave Jake in the first place? What made him suddenly have a realization after twenty-five years? Were there other men at that time?

Being critical that the film is short and deserves full-length feature status it nonetheless deserves to be towards the top of Almodóvar’s catalog a testament to its power.

Strange Way of Life (2023) successfully takes a macho genre like the Western and lights it on fire proving that two men can be tough and tenderly love each other.

10 Rillington Place-1971

10 Rillington Place-1971

Director Richard Fleischer

Starring Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, John Hurt

Scott’s Review #1,424

Reviewed March 22, 2024

Grade: A

Richard Fleischer has directed films such as Dr. Doolittle (1967) and Soylent Green (1973) that are remembered better than 10 Rillington Place (1971).

That’s a shame because the film is one that I hadn’t seen nor heard of but is chilling, macabre, and masterful in its bleakness and atmosphere.

It’s also wonderfully acted.

One can’t help but notice the stark similarities to Frenzy, an equally disturbing and great 1972 film by Alfred Hitchcock.  Did this film influence the master of suspense to create that one? Only he knows the answer to that question.

Mostly set in one dreary apartment building in London named 10 Rillington Place it tells the true story of the British serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough), who committed many of his crimes in the tall terraced house, and the miscarriage of justice involving his neighbor, the simple-minded Timothy Evans (John Hurt).

Timothy was used by John as a scapegoat for the murders.

John is a seemingly model citizen but a killer, as the audience witnesses in the first scene. He poses as a kindly doctor who convinces naive women that he can cure whatever might ail them whether it be aches and pains or making a pesky pregnancy go away.

He usually strangles them to death and buries them in a makeshift graveyard in the pretty garden in front of his residence.

The main story in 10 Rillington Place follows John as he cons a pregnant bride (Judy Geeson) struggling financially to utilize his help and medical methods. John’s dutiful and clueless wife, Ethel (Pat Heywood) slowly discovers her husband’s shenanigans but will she fall prey as his next victim?

Of course, Richard Attenborough steals the show as the demented killer with a calm, cool, and collected exterior. As an average-looking Joe type, he can use his trusting appearance to his advantage.

I’d trust him.

Attenborough became an Academy Award-winning director for 1982’s Gandhi so he knows his craft well. He also directed Cry Freedom in 1987 and Chaplin in 1992.

In actor mode, he is phenomenal in the crazed killer role. His greatest skill is his demeanor. Thoughtful and pondering he never plays psycho or nuts. He is careful but that’s part of his creepiness. With every noise, he peers out the window drawing the living room curtain ever so slightly revealing his face.

Hurt and Geeson are terrific as the young couple with the cards stacked against them. They are simply looking for tranquility and the means to raise their child.

Simplicity is a winning formula and most of the film is subdued thanks to Fleischer’s laid-back direction techniques.

The look of 10 Rillington Place is perfection. The colors are muted and faded giving a dank and depressing look. Even a bright red velvet sofa appears dark and dreary.

As Timothy and Beryl agree to lease the top floor flat this will not bode well for them and somehow we can just sense this.

Towards the end of the film, it is almost too much to bear with the knowledge that John strangles a toddler to death and unceremoniously stuffs the child, wrapped in a blanket in a washroom.

Brilliantly, the murders rarely happen onscreen and with none of the principal characters. That’s what’s so haunting about the film and reminds me of Hitchcock’s Frenzy.

Remember the scene where the necktie killer lures a female victim upstairs to her death? There is silence and a shot of the staircase for seemingly an eternity until the killer descends the stairs.

We know what’s happened.

What we don’t see is sometimes much more frightening than what we do see.

The ghastly reveal at the end of 10 Rillington Place that the story is based on real-life events packed a punch since I didn’t have this knowledge going into the film.

Thankfully, 10 Rillington Place (1971) has received its just desserts in terms of praise and achievement in recent years. This proves that great films are like cream and rise to the top…..eventually.

The Color Purple-2023

The Color Purple-2023

Director Blitz Bazawule

Starring Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson

Scott’s Review #1,423

Reviewed March 16, 2024

Grade: B+

In 2023, director Blitz Bazawule recreated the famous 1985 cinematic version of The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg with mostly good results though it won’t be remembered like Spielberg’s is.

Bazawule is also a visual artist, rapper, singer-songwriter, and record producer so his version differs greatly from Spielberg’s in style and production design.

The ‘new’ version feels closer to what a feel-good Broadway stage version might feel like with incorporated musical numbers breaking up the drama and sometimes the comedy.

The Color Purple was a stage version and before that a much bleaker novel by Alice Walker so I’m not averse to comparing the 2023 version to all that preceded it.

Since we are talking cinema, although I’m more partial to the 1985 version mostly because that one packed a much greater emotional punch I think the numbers are a wise move and are choreographed well.

My favorite by far is ‘Hell No!’ an aggressive and anthemic stomp performed by a defiant Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and later reprised when mousy Celie (Fantasia Barrino) finds a set of balls.

We all probably know the story but here is a brief synopsis for those unfamiliar with the plot.

Set in the Deep South (Georgia) from the early 1900s until the 1940s, the main story follows the shy and put-upon Celie. She is raped and forced to bear the children of her father who then sells the babies. She is sent to marry and live with ‘Mister’ (Colman Domingo) who beats her and sets his sights on Celie’s sister Nettie (Halle Bailey).

Nettie and Celie are the best of friends but through circumstance lose touch for years.

The decades march on as Celie finds her voice and independence thanks to Sofia, jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), and other kind folks.

The Color Purple is a lovely look at perseverance, extraordinary strength, and hope in the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood during a difficult time in history.

Black women especially were not always treated well.

The casting is uneven. I wasn’t completely won over by Barrino as Celie. The one-time ‘American Idol winner can sing and was Celie on Broadway in 2007 but I kept musing how exceptional Whoopi Goldberg was in the part in 1985.

Speaking of Goldberg, she appears in a cameo role early on as a midwife.

Henson, as Shug, has a tremendous voice and confidence providing the glamour and outrageousness needed for the role. However, she is supposed to be a drop-dead gorgeous woman who Celie is madly in love with and Henson doesn’t have the looks.

As my apt husband announced, Beyonce Knowles would have been a brilliant casting choice.

The standout is Brooks as Sofia, justifiably receiving the sole Academy Award nomination. The instant she appears on screen bullying her meek husband Harpo she has the audience wrapped around her finger giving as good a performance as Oprah Winfrey did in 1985.

While the musical numbers incorporate more of the Broadway-style they also contain a musical rock video vibe that takes away a bit of the cinematic production.  The dance moves are so perfect that they make the film feel ‘fun’ when it should feel ‘tragic’.

Even though Spielberg’s version was accused of excessive sappiness, it’s downright raw compared to the 2023 version. The finale is overly sentimental and the reunion of Celie and Mister, Mister now suddenly converted to a saint, is unrealistic.

Everything ends up so perfect for Celie and that’s all well and good but the fairy tale ending offsets some of the anguish she goes through early in the film.

Finally, Sofia’s big scene when she punches the mayor and other white townsmen lack the emotional heartbreak that the 1985 version did.

Held on its own merits, the film is a success. The Color Purple (2023) never drags and entertains from the first scene to the last. It’s a crowd-pleaser so those looking for a gooey experience will enjoy this version.

It’s safe waters without languishing towards dull or ineffectual.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Danielle Brooks

Anatomy of a Fall-2023

Anatomy of a Fall 2023

Director Justine Triet

Starring Sandra Hüller, Milo Machado-Graner

Scott’s Review #1,422

Reviewed March 4, 2024

Grade: B+

The taut legal thriller, Anatomy of a Fall (2023) is rich with mystery and almost immediately offers the viewer a character’s surprising death. The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out how the death occurred as a trial surfaces.

The mountainous puzzle made me as the viewer anticipate a shocking conclusion or at least a cemented ending leaving nothing to the imagination.

In plain terms, I wanted to know why the character died, at whose hand, and how the act was done.

As good as the film is the ending underwhelmed me. I was left wanting more than I was offered. This is undoubtedly a result of the enormous buildup.

However, the effort is spectacular, and some of the year’s best acting is showcased by Sandra Hüller and Milo Machado-Graner, who give rich and dramatic performances. They stay believable and nuanced in challenging, teary scenes. 

Sandra (Sandra Hüller), her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis), and their eleven-year-old son Daniel ( Milo Machado-Graner) live a secluded life in a remote town in the French Alps.

Tension develops when Sandra, who is a writer, is interviewed by a reporter at home as they sip and enjoy wine. Samuel ruins the moment by blasting an obnoxious song loop causing the interview to be aborted.

Suddenly, Samuel is found dead in the snow by Daniel! The police question whether he was murdered or possibly committed suicide. Samuel’s suspicious death is ultimately presumed murder, and Sandra becomes the prime suspect.

As the trial begins, the events of Samuel’s death are uncovered while the complexities increase. A disturbing journey into Sandra and Samuel’s troubled relationship is explored with Daniel being at the center of the drama.

Anatomy of a Fall is a slow-moving vehicle but that’s a large part of its appeal for me. After Samuel’s death, the film features quiet scene after quiet scene of Sandra and Daniel being interviewed by either their lawyers or others involved in the case.

While not action scenes, the dialogue reveals an incredible amount of backstory. An incident that occurred years earlier is key and the remnants of that unfortunate activity are vital to the entire reveal.

With tremendous acting the film is also significant in scoring Justine Triet an Oscar nomination for Best Director when shamefully few female directors have ever been given this distinct honor.

Unfortunately, Triet’s nomination comes at the expense of Greta Gerwig NOT being nominated for the ginormous blockbuster hit Barbie. I’d give the nomination to Gerwig but why couldn’t they both be nominated?

Triet also wrote the screenplay and wisely crafted an unpredictable vehicle. Since Sandra is on trial the writing could have felt forced or generic but it doesn’t. There are also no silly television drama moments of unnecessary legal jargon or canned shocking tense moments.

What Triet serves up is genuine and humanistic.

The cold and snowy atmosphere reminds me of a Swedish film from 2014 called Force Majeure with a similar story of uncovered secrets and backstory. They are both set in the French Alps ironically enough.

I expected more from the ending but Anatomy of a Fall (2023) mesmerizes and keeps one guessing never feeling boring like some legal dramas can.

While Triet’s Oscar nomination may be questionable, Hüller’s is not and I’d even argue she deserves to win.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Director-Justine Triet, Best Actress-Sandra Hüller, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 1 win-Best International Film (won)

American Fiction-2023

American Fiction-2023

Director Cord Jefferson

Starring Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

Scott’s Review #1,421

Reviewed February 11, 2024

Grade: A

American Fiction (2023) is an intelligently written expose of black culture and a poignant family drama mixed as one. Cord Jefferson makes his feature directorial debut with the satirical comedy-drama which he also wrote.

The film explores how perceptions of black people, mostly by white people but even amongst themselves, are categorized into neat little boxes.

Usually, the negative stereotypes are assumptions of bad grammar, poverty, and hardships in ghetto situations.

While some may be sympathetic these beliefs are either conscious or subconscious and they are propelled by the media. In the case of the film, through literary works.

Are white people intimidated by intelligent black people, the film questions. How do the intelligent black people feel about themselves?

American Fiction is a witty, smart, funny, and poignant film that will make you laugh as often as it makes you think about the perspectives offered.

Jefferson brilliantly offers up both an education and powerfully drawn black characters. In the middle is a sentimental family storyline that had me enraptured by almost all the characters.

The writer/director bases his film on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a highly intelligent African-American upper-class writer and professor living in Los Angeles.

He is a frustrated novelist-professor who doesn’t make much money or sales from his serious works.

Needing money after moving back to Massachusets on a leave of absence, he decides to write an outlandish satire of stereotypical “black” books, only for it to succeed by mistakenly thought of as serious literature and published to both high sales and critical praise.

He struggles with keeping his alter ego a secret while questioning the lack of intelligence with people assumed to be the liberal elite and the general public.

Wright is great and leads the charge of a dynamic cast. He makes his characters believable and their motivations clear while still showing Monk’s conflict. Monk has lived a privileged life with education, social status, and success.

His experience as a black man is different than other black men and he is smart enough to know this while still wrestling with his feelings.

Wright is dynamic at showing many emotions.

To make the film even better, the supporting characters are delightful with their own stories, making me fall in love with them. Special call-outs are for Sterling K. Brown and Erika Alexander who plays Monk’s brother and girlfriend, respectively.

Brown as Cliff is a successful surgeon but lives a conflicted life as a newly ‘out’ middle-aged gay man. He dabbles in drugs and promiscuous behavior but all he wants is approval by his family.

Alexander is a successful public defender and neighbor of the Ellison’s going through a divorce. She relates to Monk while challenging him on his bullshit and is a richly carved character.

Also, Leslie Uggams Monk’s mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Ellison’s housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and Issa Rae as Sintara Golden are weaved into the canvas seamlessly and with purpose.

The film’s ending left me scratching my head and caught me off guard. While clever, it made me wonder if what I had just seen was reality or fantasy. Providing three different endings as adapted film options it’s tough to know which if any actually happened but maybe that’s the point.

I left the movie theater having laughed out loud, thought, and been entertained.

American Fiction (2023) made me feel like I had seen something relevant that would help me understand people better and give me insight into what other people feel.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Actor-Jeffrey Wright, Best Supporting Actor-Sterling K. Brown, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 2 wins-Best Film, Best Lead Performance-Jeffrey Wright (won), Best Supporting Performance-Erika Alexander Sterling K. Brown, Best Screenplay (won)

The Seduction of Mimi-1972

The Seduction of Mimi-1972

Director Lina Wertmüller

Starring Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato, Agostina Belli

Scott’s Review #1,420

Reviewed February 4, 2024

Grade: B+

Lina Wertmüller, a visionary female director around a time when there were few female directors with notoriety, created The Seduction of Mimi (1972), a flavorful Italian adventure/drama/comedy.

Any fans of Federico Fellini will immediately draw comparisons to his films with saucy banter, odd characters, and lively music. But amid the fun exists importance.

Wertmüller produces a film with more of a defined plot focus than Fellini usually does.

The key to the enjoyment of The Seduction of Mimi is twofold. Actors, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato starred in three of Wertmüller’s films together, usually as love-torn yet bickering couples with lots of drama and misunderstandings.

The other films are Love and Anarchy (1973) which I have not seen and Swept Away (1974) which I have seen.

The actors work so well together that anyone familiar with them will instantly be delighted especially during high-energy scenes when they spar or passionately solidify their romantic intentions.

Giannini was Wertmüller’s muse in a time when rarely if ever a male actor was a muse of a female director.

The other nicety is the title of the film. One might assume (I did) that the character of Mimi is female and is seduced by a male but in Wertmüller’s film, it is the reverse. This causes traditional gender stereotypes to be turned on their heads with more awareness of assumptions.

Mimi (Giannini) is a Sicilian dockworker who inadvertently becomes involved in an increasingly complicated series of personal conflicts.

After he loses his job after voting against a Mafia kingpin in a ‘secret’ election, Mimi leaves his frazzled wife Rosalia (Agostina Belli) to find work. He moves to Turin, where he engages in an affair with a Communist organizer, Fiorella Meneghini (Melato).

Soon Mimi finds himself juggling not two but three relationships and three children while plotting to take revenge against the corrupt forces that ruined his life.

The Seduction of Mimi is quite good but I’m more partial to her other films like Swept Away and the hysterically brash Seven Beauties (1975), her best work in my opinion.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy about ‘Seduction’.

Taking nothing away from Melato’s performance, Mimi is the focal point and Giannini is a pure delight. For viewers unfamiliar with his work, his dazzling green eyes and almost manic style fills the character with pizazz and passion.

The actor is also great at making his wacky shenanigans seem realistic.

Beyond the hijinks, Wertmüller offers serious messages about sexual hypocrisies, political dilemmas, and corruption. She mixes jokes with purpose so that the audience learns a thing or two while being richly entertained.

Like her obvious mentor, Fellini, she appreciates good satire and incorporates that into her films.

Visually, there’s some cool and wacky camera-angle stuff going on. Mimi repeatedly notices moles, beauty marks, or otherwise odd eccentric facial features which come into focus as shaky closeup camera shots.

Since the film is so Italian it’s joyful to watch it for this aspect alone. There are frequent sequences shot on location in Sicily, and around Italy, a treat for those partial to European films.

The Seduction of Mimi (1972) is a film I’d like to see again for more appreciation and further examination. It’s a film that has more going on than meets the eye and leaves its viewer pondering more specifically regarding the Union storyline.

The Zone of Interest-2023

The Zone of Interest-2023

Director Jonathan Glazer

Starring Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller

Scott’s Review #1,419

Reviewed February 2, 2024

Grade: A

The Zone of Interest (2023) offers a unique experience for its audience. It’s one of a distant observer to unthinkable horrors and events that took place during the 1940s occupied Poland.

A lovely estate rife with flourishing flowers and plush gardens surrounds the haunting setting of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Exterminations and unspeakable acts of human suffering occur daily whilst a German family enjoys their dream home hardly unnerved by what’s going on steps away.

The father is the mastermind behind the suffering.

The macabre film is extraordinary, and powerful, and will haunt you long after it ends.

The subject matter of the Holocaust in cinema is usually told with a visual examination of the victims. In The Zone of Interest, though, what you don’t see is worse than what you do.

The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) live a seemingly idyllic life with their five children. They fish, swim, and frolic among the confines of their house and garden next to the camp.

Höss is a high-ranking and respected member of the Third Reich. Servants handle chores around the house, while the prisoners’ belongings are given to the family.

As a viewer, I first thought to myself what a happy family they seem to be. I was quickly sickened when I realized what was going on over the top of their high walls and their role in it.

Director, Jonathan Glazer, brought us disturbing films such as Birth (2004) and Under the Skin (2015) and revolts even more with The Zone of Interest. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film quite like it.

Usually, what happens in a film happens on screen. Seeing the Jews gassed or shot or tortured is horrific enough. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) was a masterpiece by visually featuring the nature of the Holocaust in an inventive black-and-white way.

We see the victims.

In The Zone of Interest, it’s the sound that is effective. Beyond the garden wall, gunshots, shouting, and sounds of trains and furnaces are constantly heard.

The nights are even worse.

A quick glimpse of flames and smoke roaring to the sky are the visuals key to the events taking place next door.

We only very quickly see a parade of prisoners march through the grass……once.

Höss approves the design of a new crematorium, which soon becomes operational. With horror, it is confirmed that thousands of Jews are gassed and burned.

Glazer keeps the viewer at a distance with more than just experiencing the unseen. The cameras are set far back from events so the audience observes the family instead of being alongside.

There are no closeups.

The lighting is superior. Muted tones portray the starkness of the period. Effective is how everything appears grey except the flowers in the garden.

Some peculiarities exist that are hard to figure out. In two sequences, a Polish girl who lives nearby sneaks out every night, hiding food at the prisoners’ work sites for them to find and eat.

The film is a clay animation style similar to what Glazer used in parts of Under the Skin. It’s weird, stylistic, and fascinating.

Late in the film, Höss descends a staircase and retches. He does so again. I’m not sure why he does. Is he subconsciously sickened by the death he causes? He has been tasked with a new initiative to transport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz to be killed.

The mission has been named after him.

Is it too much for him to deal with?

The film ends with a modern scene of a group of janitors cleaning the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum before it opens.

I was dying to know what happened to Höss and Hedwig.

It’s a searing film, unforgettable and uncomfortable. It plods and sickens but is pure art. It’s troublesome and a unique entry for Holocaust films. Glazer finds a new way to examine material told in cinema for decades.

The Zone of Interest (2023) is a painful masterpiece and a thinking man’s film.

Oscar Nominations: 2 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Jonathan Glazer, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature Film (won), Best Sound (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase-1989

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase-1989

Director Stuart Olme

Starring Stephanie Beacham, Emily Hudson, Aleks Darowska

Scott’s Review #1,418

Reviewed January 20, 2024

Grade: B+

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1989) is a British dark fantasy film directed by Stuart Orme in his theatrical directorial debut. Most notably a rock video director, I am unsure if Orme ever directed another film.

The film is based on the 1962 novel of the same name, written by Joan Aiken which was quite popular with children during the 1960s and beyond.

Similar to the book, the film is set in an alternate history version of nineteenth-century England where wolves roam the countryside. The animals prance around the wintery landscapes causing fear for those humans who spot them.

The experience is playful and escapist with similarities to both Oliver! (1968) and The Witches (1990). Especially in regards to the former some of the action takes place in a bleak workhouse where children are mistreated by adults.

Predictably and satisfying, the evil adults get their comeuppance while the nice children and warm adults live happily ever after. This is a main part of the fun of watching the perilous situations.

The plot centers around two young girls. Bonnie (Emily Hudson) is the daughter of Lord and Lady Willoughby, who live at the grand yet cozy country estate named Willoughby Chase. Lady Willoughby (Eleanor David) is ill, and the couple plan to recuperate basking in the warm sun along the Mediterranean.

In urban London, Bonnie’s cousin, Sylvia (Aleks Darowska), is leaving her impoverished Aunt Jane (Lord Willoughby’s cousin) to keep Bonnie company while her parents are away.

While on the train, she meets a mysterious man, Mr. Grimshaw (Mel Smith) whom they decide to bring back to Willoughby Chase after falling unconscious when wolves attack the train.

Meanwhile, Bonnie and Sylvia’s cousin, Letitia (Stephanie Beacham) is their new governess. She is evil and determined to get rid of the children so that she inherits money and the estate.

Billed as a children’s film, as Oliver! was, some of the sequences may be too much for younger kids. The ferocious wolves may cause fright while a scene involving one of the girls being locked in a chest might cause nightmares.

There is a presumed drowning and another character catches on fire.

For adults, particularly those who enjoyed the book as youngsters the dangerous situations are light fare and merely make Bonnie and Sylvia more heroic and justified in escaping the adult’s clutches.

The art direction and set designs are also a big part of the fun. Numerous scenes of winter and snow-covered roads and pathways are what make The Wolves of Willoughby Chase a perfect watch for a frigid January evening.

I’m not sure if the film would feel as atmospheric in July or August.

The estate where much of the action takes place has a warm and cozy feel. It made me want to curl up by a raging fire with a good book.

There’s an undertone of class distinction when the servants are all dismissed to save money and I questioned why Sylvia and her aunt didn’t simply live on the estate. The poor living amongst the rich is a perfect setup for more meaningful storylines but the intent is more for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to be fun.

Beacham is delightful while slightly over-the-top playing a fiendish character. Most known for appearing on television’s ‘Dynasty’ the actress has also made British horror films.

I assumed she planned to kill the parents and the girls but what about the aunt?

It doesn’t matter much because her plan is foiled and the girls are reunited with their loved ones.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1989) contains a nice musical score that enhances the adventures. The film is a bit too scary for kids but perfect for young adults and older.

Saltburn-2023

Saltburn-2023

Director Emerald Fennell

Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike

Scott’s Review #1,417

Reviewed January 19, 2024

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, as a director (she also acts) is someone to keep a close eye on.  With only her second film, Saltburn (2023), she has quickly drawn comparisons to Darren Aronofsky and Yorgos Lanthimos by creating wickedly daring comedies rife with sharp dialogue and peculiar tastes.

Okay, I’m drawing those comparisons on my own.

The point is that she creates films that are not necessarily for mainstream audiences but will satisfy the peculiar cravings of those seeking left-of-center and hard-to-predict films.

She also wrote the screenplay.

Those wary of hard-to-digest scenes involving blood, sex, nudity, and other depravities, be forewarned.

Her first film was the revenge-themed and Academy Award-winning Promising Young Woman (2020) starring Carey Mulligan who makes a return appearance in Saltburn.

This time out Fennell offers us a beautifully daring story centering around privilege, jealousy, and desire. The film offers unlikable characters with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off guard and confused as to who to root for or against.

Will the characters we hate stay hated? If this sounds vague it’s because the film is filled with mystery.

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is an awkward young man struggling to find his place at Oxford University the recipient of a scholarship for those with financial hardships. His mother is a recovering drug addict and his father is dead.

Unpopular, he finds himself drawn to the charming and handsome Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who also happens to be filthy rich. Felix is the envy of almost everyone as they strive to be his friend or bedfellow.

After Oliver does Felix a favor, they become buddies, and Felix unexpectedly invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer vacation.

The lavish Oxford University is grandiose and scholarly with lots of preppy and wealthy intellectuals. As the snobs partake in parties and wild games Oliver is looked down on by everyone but Felix. The spoiled students are not meant for the audience to like.

I love how Fennell incorporates legions of insecurities suffered by the have-nots struggling to fit in which is a common theme of hers. The only kid willing to give Oliver the time of day is a creepy Jeffrey Dahmer type.

Anyone familiar with cliques on college campuses will be firmly in Oliver’s corner. He’s a good kid after all, who has been dealt a struggling hand at life, what with his parent’s issues and all.

The shit hits the fan when Oliver arrives at Saltburn which makes Oxford seem minimal in comparison. Manicured and sprawling lawns complete with a center maze are overwhelming to Oliver to say nothing of the group of oddballs that make up the family and staff.

Suddenly though, everything becomes weird, and the tone of the film shifts.

The final forty-five minutes are riveting with unexpected events transpiring after a wild party to celebrate Oliver’s birthday. Felix, his sister, and their parents are involved in shenanigans that make the viewers question everything they’ve seen thus far.

Mulligan doesn’t have much to do in Saltburn. Her role amounts to little more than a cameo which would be more irritating if the other characters weren’t so richly written.

Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant sizzle as aristocratic types oblivious to everyone else and their wealthy surroundings. It’s almost as if they assume everyone lives this well.

The sexual scenes of desire are breathtaking and startlingly explicit. In one scene, two characters make out with bloody mouths and in another, one character masturbates in a bathtub while another character spies on him and lustfully licks the faucet a few minutes later.

The best acting performance belongs to Keoghan who delivers a complex and spirited character who we’re not sure what will do next or sometimes why. He possesses an innocent yet creepy veneer which is tough to figure out.

His naked dance sequence is one of the wildest in cinema history.

Fennell hits another grand slam with the eerie yet fascinating Saltburn (2023), a delicious examination of the class system. The mixture of the groveling poor with the callous rich makes for a brilliant story.

I can’t wait to see what she does next.

The Iron Claw-2023

The Iron Claw-2023

Director Sean Durkin

Starring Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson

Scott’s Review #1,416

Reviewed January 15, 2024

Grade: A

I was pleasantly surprised by how compelling and character-driven The Iron Claw (2023) is. Being a sports drama there is always a risk of cliches and little in the way of surprises but director Sean Durkin who also wrote the screenplay, delivers the goods.

Powerfully acted by all of the actors involved The Iron Claw is also profoundly sad and very hard-hitting emotionally which caught me off guard.

The trials and tribulations of the Von Erich family are explored in a fact-based story that honors the family ties with compassion and heart making the audience fall in love with and understand the feelings of the family.

There are triumphs but also much heartbreak with some outstanding acting in support of a very sad real-life story.

Efron who plays Kevin Von Erich gives the best performance of his career as a reasonable, stable young man living in a world of chaos.

It is perplexing, especially given the December release why the film received no awards mention especially for Efron.

One miss, most notable with Kevin, is the inclusion of a ridiculous wig and jacked-up body making him look more like a cartoonish Incredible Hulk than the clean-cut all-American young man that the real Kevin looked like.

Being a huge fan of professional wrestling as a youngster in junior high school the Von Erich family was somewhat familiar to me. However, I had to search my memory for long-forgotten specifics.

The family, led by former wrestler Fritz (Holt McCallany) was well-known throughout the 1970s-1990s in local Texas circles and then nationally as professional wrestling gained popularity. His sons Kevin (Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons) are the focal points.

The true story of the inseparable brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling is recounted. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, the brothers seek larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.

The family, similar perhaps to the Kennedys, were known for a widespread myth about a family curse, called the ‘Von Erich curse’.

The film has some narration from Kevin who immediately informs the audience of this curse which sets the tone for the chain of events the film explores.

Durkin is careful to present the film so masterfully as a cautionary tale about parental influence, sibling rivalry, and the various dangers of the professional wrestling business.

The Iron Claw begins with a black-and-white sequence from probably the 1950s when Fritz was a struggling local wrestler. His famous ‘finishing maneuver’ was called the ‘iron claw’ meant to make his opponent submit to the wrestling match.

From there the story is largely told from the point of view of Kevin wonderfully played by Efron. Kevin, now the oldest sibling following the tragic death of his older brother at age five, serves as the brother’s leader.

While he yearns for a title belt largely to satisfy the demands of his father, he is usurped by brothers Kerry and David in different ways. He meets a local girl, Pam (Lily James), who is an intellectual and supports him emotionally.

They make a fabulous couple because they are equals. Conversely, the Von Erich mother is a traditional housewife and the entire family is taught to show no emotion.

In a wonderful scene late in the film, Kevin’s son teaches him that it’s okay to cry and show love through emotion. Kevin sobs with relief and it’s a beautiful and pivotal lesson the film teaches.

The other actors are outstanding, especially kudos to Jeremy Allen White (Kerry), and the parents (Maura Tierney and McCallany) but there is not a weak performance to be found.

It is unnecessary to be a professional wrestling fan though it is a treat to see long-ago stars like Ric Flair, Harley Race, and Bruiser Brody represented.

The Iron Claw (2023) like Boogie Nights (1997) did for the porn industry shows the flaws, the hopes and dreams, and the pain of a category of people (professional wrestlers) too often dismissed and discarded.

As Durkin examines wonderfully, these people also have a story to tell.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance-2023

Magic Mike’s Last Dance-2023

Director Steven Soderbergh

Starring Channing Tatum, Salma Hayek

Scott’s Review #1,415

Reviewed January 14, 2024

Grade: C-

Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023) is the third and final installment in the Magic Mike trilogy, following the successful Magic Mike (2012) and the dismal Magic Mike XXL (2015).

Billed as ‘The Final Tease’ the sub-title of the last release is rather appropriate since there is nary a bare bum to be found much less any other nudity. Since the film is about the male stripper industry there is laughingly more female flesh than male.

While there are a couple of titillating sequences containing thrusting and gyrating the tone is watered down and extremely safe. Nothing warrants the R-rating that Magic Mike’s Last Dance received.

After my horrific review of Magic Mike XXL in which I awarded it a solid ‘F’ I will keep my manners in check and be mindful that Magic Mike’s Last Dance is intended to entertain on a late night.

I have rated it a generous ‘C-‘.

The film is pretty bad with no character development whatsoever, poorly written dialogue, and little chemistry between stars Channing Tatum and Salma Hayek. Mike is the only likable principal character in the bunch.

I’m very surprised that respected director Steven Soderbergh who received an Oscar nomination in 2000 for the terrific Traffic would have anything to do with this film.

His style is unnoticeable except for a setting of wealth and a brief and mediocre mention of capitalism and the rich manipulating the poor which the director sometimes includes in his films.

“Magic” Mike Lane (Tatum) has suffered a bad business deal that has left him bartending at parties in Florida. He meets a rich businesswoman, Max, played by Salma Hayek, who pays him for one of his legendary dances.

Smitten, Max immediately offers him a job directing a show at a famous theatre in London.  The show will include a smoldering feast of hot new dancers that Mike will choreograph.

The storyline, admittedly secondary in this type of film, has so many holes I wouldn’t know where to start, but the weakest point is expecting the audience to buy Mike and Max as having fallen in love after one dance.

Romance is a hard-swallow made worse by Max’s demanding personality and insecurities over her ex-husband. She’s a bit of a tyrant made more noticeable by Mike’s even-keeled nature.

While not worldly, Mike is kind and I desired to see him paired with nearly any other character other than Max.

Tatum is a much better actor than most assume based on his pinup beefcake good looks. Has anyone seen him in Foxcatcher (2015)? Sadly, the actor is given weak material to work with that does nothing to challenge him.

Furthermore, we are cheated and only see him twice in his underwear. Some stripper.

Supporting characters like Max’s brooding daughter, Zadie, and opinionated manservant, Victor, are stock and given uneven dialogue to work with. They are presumably added for comic moments that never come.

To be fair, the film is set in London in addition to Miami, and a few decent exterior shots of both locales are added which helps the film.

A ridiculous Zoom call cameo sequence meant to include Mike’s ‘bros’ from the other films (Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Joe Manganiello) is a treat but has an ill-effect since that’s all we get from the handsome fellas.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance would have been saved if a scantily clad reunion dance had commenced with the ‘bros’ but sadly none was to be found.

The first film, Magic Mike (2012) is the only one of the three worth spending any time on. Pure juicy entertainment mixed with polished machismo is what was offered and Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023) loses the ‘magic’ and instead offers a shriveled pickle of what used to be a commanding phallic symbol.

Wonka-2023

Wonka-2023

Director Paul King

Starring Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Olivia Colman

Scott’s Review #1,414 

Reviewed January 3, 2024

Grade: B+

Wonka (2023) is only the third live-action film based on Roald Dahl’s iconic 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, following Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

The latter was an inadequate and unnecessarily dark film starring Johnny Depp that threatened to ruin the trademark fantasy of the original.

Fortunately, director Paul King mostly known for directing the Paddington films opts for a warm and even gooey experience that does perfect justice to the original starring Gene Wilder with many connections to that film, especially costumes, characters, and locale.

It’s saccharine sweet but not sickeningly sweet instead feeling both fresh and genuine.

The wonderful and familiar featured song ‘Pure Imagination’ appears instantly as the film begins which does wonders to capture and captivate the nostalgic audience—mixed with other new gems like ‘A World of Your Own’ hooks newer and younger viewers.

The effort works well as a kindly old friend dusted off the shelf for a new waltz across the dance floor and a dizzying chocolate delight crowd-pleaser is the result of Wonka.

Wonka is released in December amid the sugary Christmas holiday season. A marketing win what parents could refuse a delicious trip to the cinema?

The wondrous story of how the world’s greatest inventor, magician, and chocolate maker became the beloved Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) we know today begins with the young actor brazenly wearing a similar garb as Wilder did in the 1971 effort.

I adore this feat and pointed display because it makes crystal clear the attempt to leverage history instead of upheaval.

Chalamet is perfectly cast as Willy in large part because he resembles Wilder with his wiry build and waifish face. There exists a kindness and trustworthiness that transfers well from the big screen to the audience member.

Throughout the film, there is light peril that Wonka faces like a crooked debt owed to the even more crooked Mrs. Scrubitt’s (Olivia Colman) boardinghouse or the vengeful competitor Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) but it’s nothing he can’t handle with a grin and shrug of the shoulders.

His feathers are not ruffled easily because he believes in the magic of chocolate. In a dear flashback scene featuring his mother, played by Sally Hawkins, she inspires him to always believe in himself and be a good person.

This is at the heart of the film.

Along for the ride are new friends orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), and others trapped within Scrubbit’s and henchman Bleacher, played by Tom Davis.

There’s even a connection with the fan favorite Oompa-Loompa’s led by Lofty (Hugh Grant) who becomes a close ally in the end. As historical viewers will know the pair reunites in business.

Despite all these terrific additions the main attraction is the chocolate naturally. Highlights are a lavish chocolate attempted drowning, a chocolate store, and more than enough chocolate colorful flowers to whet one’s appetite.

The film is weird and zany without being too far out there and retains its touchy-feely approach.

Wonka (2023) successfully builds a multi-generational bridge between audiences with a powerful human connection. Grandparents, parents, and children alike can all see the film together with a common love of chocolate and magic.

The dangers are light-hearted and the filmmakers keep age-appropriate sensibilities and the result is family-friendly material with a kindhearted approach.

We all need this sometimes.

Poor Things-2023

Poor Things-2023

Director Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe

Scott’s Review #1,413

Reviewed December 27, 2023

Grade: A

Yorgos Lanthimos is a peculiar director and the suggestion is for potential viewers to be familiar with his work before seeing his latest film release, Poor Things (2023).

I’ve said recently that other directors like Alexander Payne, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorcese can easily be added to this list with a style not for everyone but that Cinemaphiles will salivate for style and texture alone.

Anyone who has seen Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009) or The Lobster (2016) will know exactly what I mean.

With Poor Things, he hits a grand slam home run that might garner him some Academy Awards in what can be arguably classified as his most progressive film.

Mentions like the art direction, cinematography, set design, and fantastic performance by Emma Stone must be immediately celebrated and called out as highlights.

The film is hardly mainstream or conventional and way out there channeling a parallel to Frankenstein with frightening and gothic sets and sequences galore.

All with a twisted and refreshing feminist quality.

Ultimately, I was satisfied with the knowledge that I had witnessed a cinematic marvel that encourages repeated viewings.

During the nineteenth century in London, England, Bella Baxter (Stone), is a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) who is referred to as ‘god’.

He inserts the tender brain of the baby she was carrying when she leaped from a bridge to her death suicide style.

Under Baxter’s protection and supervision, Bella is eager to learn but acts like a toddler with limited speech and motor skills. She teeters around smashing plates with gleeful joy as she discovers her surroundings.

With superior intelligence and a hunger for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and horny lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents from Lisbon, Portugal to Paris, France, and back to London.

Free from the knowledge and the prejudices women of her time were forced to endure, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation. She challenges societal norms with her vision and determination.

I can’t think of anyone else to play the role of Bella other than Stone. With wide eyes filled with wonder, she infuses her character with comedy and wit as she asks questions many women have but never dare to utter aloud.

Especially in Victorian London.

Ruffalo is outrageous and Dafoe is hideously stoic. Both actors bring star quality and wacky performances in different ways.

The look of the film is to die for as Lanthimos offers a looming fairy tale set design led by cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

The European cities of Lisbon, Paris, and London are given their chapters in the film and their focus. The waterfront in Lisbon in particular resembles the real city in a gothic and foreboding way.

The hotel in Paris where Bella becomes a prostitute is regal and polished. Bella wonders aloud why the male customers get to decide which woman they want to spend time with instead of the reverse.

It’s a fair question.

Her friend and fellow prostitute introduces her to socialism while Madame Swiney (Kathryn Hunter) explains capitalism.

Finally, the musical score by Jerskin Fendrix offers shrieking classical strings mixed with haunting pizazz and perfectly timed arrangements. They promote tension and drama at just the right moments.

2023 was a fabulous year for women in cinematic terms but not so much by the United States Supreme Court but that’s another story. The bombast and box office enormity of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is followed by Lanthimos’s celebration of the thought-provoking Poor Things.

Both elicit insightfully quirkiness that successfully bulldozes over traditional gender norms with messages that women can do whatever they set out to do which is a vital quality for young minds to be exposed to.

Oscar Nominations: 4 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Yorgos Lanthimos, Best Actress-Emma Stone (won), Best Supporting Actor-Mark Ruffalo, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design (won), Best Production Design (won), Best Original Score, Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

May December-2023

May December-2023

Director Todd Haynes

Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Scott’s Review #1,412

Reviewed December 13, 2023

Grade: A-

Throughout May-December (2023) there exists a quiet gloominess and a sense of foreboding dread during nearly every scene that as a viewer I could not shake. The unsettling nature is what makes the film so fascinating to watch.

Making it even more peculiar is the feeling seeps through a mirage of cheeriness, small-town humility, and the Southern politeness of Savannah, Georgia, United States amongst a lofty helping of cakes, parties, and sunshine.

All is not as it seems.

As a fan of director Todd Haynes and his brilliant films Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), I had an idea of his style and tone from the get-go.

As excellent as May-December is I was left wanting perhaps one more potato chip than I was offered.  I was slightly unsatisfied only because I had Haynes’s other films as a comparison and May-December is not quite on par with those masterpieces despite being exceptionally well made.

But we can’t always expect a classic like Led Zeppelin IV.

Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, Gracie Atherton-Yu (Julianne Moore) and her husband Joe (Charles Melton) who is twenty-three years her junior are happily preparing for their twins to graduate from high school.

When Hollywood actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives in town to study the family to better understand Gracie and prepare for the role the family dynamics crack under the pressure of the spotlight.

Joe, in particular, who never got a chance to deal with his feelings and emotions as a teenager, begins to face the reality of having grown-up children. At the age of thirty-six, he confronts the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Gracie study each other, and the similarities and differences between the two women begin to surface causing friction.

Drama develops between Elizabeth, Gracie, Joe, and various family members as long-buried emotions and new scandals erupt in the small town.

I felt snippets of Persona, a 1966 avante-garde psychological thriller by Ingmar Bergman, and even the theatrical posters of the two women looking into the camera and facing side by side are identical in both films.

There’s also a teasing Single White Female (1992) similarity to a lesser degree.

The point is that May-December produces a haunting merging of two female characters in a creepy way.

Identity and obsession are also explored.

Portman and Moore play against and with each other deliciously. It’s not so much a rivalry but an obsession. Portman’s Elizabeth refers while speaking to a class of aspiring actors about becoming a character and we know she means Gracie.

When Gracie helps put Elizabeth’s makeup on just the right way resembling her more and more they look at the camera and see themselves in a mirror. It’s a haunting realization that both women are neurotic and have issues.

Does Gracie want to become Elizabeth as much as Elizabeth wants to become Gracie? Is it real or pretend because of the film?

At different points, I felt sympathy for both characters but at other times I didn’t. Elizabeth seems kind, then not so kind, then dismissive, then demanding.

Gracie seems kind, then neurotic, then sympathetic, then catty. Did she give her daughter’s scales as a graduation present? Did she intentionally point out her daughter’s unflattering arms?

Portman and Moore are successful at portraying these emotions in the subtlest of ways making the characters complex and tough to figure out.

The standout is Melton though. As Joe, the actor made me wonder how astonishingly quick the teenager had to grow up. He never had a childhood and is subsequently childlike, unable to make himself be heard until he broils over with rage.

Melton is on the map as an up-and-coming actor.

At the end of the film, when Elizabeth heads off to the airport I was left disappointed. I wanted more and felt there was more to uncover. What’s to become of Joe and Gracie? Could the three be friends if Elizabeth lived in the town?

What Haynes does so well is create tension even when there is none on the surface. The guttural feelings I was left with made May-December (2023) a quiet and powerful experience.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 1 win-Best Film, Best Director-Todd Haynes, Best Lead Performance-Natalie Portman, Best Supporting Performance-Charles Melton, Best First Screenplay (won)

Maestro-2023

Maestro-2023

Director Bradley Cooper

Starring Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan

Scott’s Review #1,411

Reviewed December 3, 2023

Grade: A

Brilliance personified defines Maestro (2023), a film directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. As if that isn’t enough Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer and co-produced the project with Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg.

With riches such as these players involved equates to adequate muscle to make the film a necessary watch brimming with creativity and good storytelling.

There is no disappointment whatsoever in the buildup. Maestro expresses powerful acting, creative direction, and a musical score encompassing the works of the man being examined, Bernstein.

At the conclusion, I found myself feeling like I’d been hit by a Mack truck. The epic portrayal of one family’s love for one another was overwhelming.

Combined with the art appreciation left me astounded with culture and further knowledge of the composer.

The story is not as much of a straightforward biography as one might imagine though when the film begins in the 1940s the famous composer is just on the cusp of his first big break. By sheer luck, he is asked to fill in for an ailing conductor, Bruno Walter, one evening.

But at its core Maestro is a torrential and fearless love story chronicling the lifelong relationship between Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (Carey Mulligan) who was a well-known theater actress.

They meet at a party and fall madly in love spending most of their time together. The intrigue is that Leonard is gay and quite openly so before he meets Felicia and becomes famous.

His boyfriend is David Oppenheim, played by Matt Bomer.

This sat well with me and I was impressed by their openness well before the LGBT movement. Unfortunately, we see little of David or Bomer after the early days and Leonard becomes enamored with several young aspiring composers. He then took to doing lines of cocaine into the 1970s and 1980s.

What the film does well is reveal that Felicia is aware of Leonard’s sexuality and loves him despite his appetite for men. This is not always easy for her. They share a love that is stoic and unadulterated and they become one in their bond making it unbreakable.

Maestro gets very dark in the later stages when Felicia is diagnosed with terminal cancer but this gives Cooper and Mulligan a chance to shine, and dazzle the audience with mesmerizing acting performances.

It’s tough to showcase one because both are so good.

Cooper has given the best performance of his career.

Enveloping himself into the role so much that it’s staggering how he gets the mannerisms of Bernstein.  The composer’s energetic style of expressive body movements and gestures which he was noted for as a conductor are done to perfection by Cooper.

Mulligan doesn’t play the wife role. She has her own story and makes the audience empathize with Felicia’s struggles to deal with her husband’s sexuality especially when rumors come to light affecting her children.

Mulligan gives a genuineness and heart to Felicia’s battle with cancer.

Cooper’s direction is excellent. The first part is shot in black and white giving an artistic, old Hollywood-style feel making the cigarette smoking look glamorous and sophisticated. The lush art direction merges into blurry shadows and angular lighting that fits the mood.

The color enhances the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s time as the characters age. The hairstyles and outfits gleam with sophisticated New York style and the Bernstein’s Long Island home is palatial.

Ironically, the darkest parts of the film are the most vivid and colorful.

Finally, the musical score features legendary Bernstein pieces that give truth to the production not only reminding viewers how talented he was but the choices made enhance each scene where a number appears.

I smiled when a number from West Side Story, perhaps his best-known work was featured.

A knock-out scene of Leonard conducting at a cathedral is lengthy and dramatic culminating with Felecia looking on from the side of the church. At this moment, I knew that the couple were true soulmates.

Maestro (2023) is an exceptional piece of filmmaking that easily secures Bradley Cooper his place in cinema history both in front of and behind the camera.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Bradley Cooper, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The Holdovers-2023

The Holdovers-2023

Director Alexander Payne

Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Scott’s Review #1,410

Reviewed November 22, 2023

Grade: A

The snowy New England setting is just one of many aspects of The Holdovers (2023), director Alexander Payne’s latest release gets right. There’s a stuffy prep school, the tumultuous 1970-1971 in world politics, and teenage angst in the mix.

The early 1970s-era set pieces and Americana comfort food are brilliantly and prominently placed to offer security in a world with tragedy and loneliness The jazzy soundtrack also features hits of the time, embracing the viewer in beautiful nostalgia.

Finally, the three lead characters are well-defined and their complexities are displayed in raw form making them rich relatable flawed thanks to strong acting performances.

Paul Giamatti leads the charge as a sarcastic teacher with his great acting and meshes well with newcomers Dominic Sessa as a rival student and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a kind but wounded cook.

Anyone who has seen Payne’s films like Election (1999), Sideways (2004), The Descendents (2011), or others knows that he sprinkles satirical depictions of contemporary American society in his works.

There is frequently sadness and morosity to the content saved from depression by warmhearted and caring characters.

I savored the quiet moments of human connection that were crafted in The Holdovers.

Events occur over about two weeks beginning at Christmas break and culminating in early January so holiday cheer and sadness are themes.

Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is a classics instructor at Barton University, a prep school outside of Boston. He is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go.

At first, despising each other he eventually forms an unlikely bond with one of them, a damaged, but witty troublemaker named Angus Tully (Sessa).

He also connects with the school’s head cook, Mary (Randolph), who has just lost her son in the Vietnam War (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and shows romantic interest in Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), a Barton faculty member.

Giamatti is terrific and my favorite character. As a grumpy teacher, the character could have been a one-note standard or stock.  But as events go on we learn more about his past and despite being an authority figure he has demons and insecurities of his own.

During emotional moments he calmly offers a voice of reason which is a comfort. He’s stoic and rough around the edges but he genuinely cares about people making him likable.

Sessa and Randolph, despite being supporting characters each have their own stories.

There wasn’t much awareness about mental illness in 1970 compared to current times and Angus, who takes medication is fearful of spiraling down the same rabbit hole that cost his father his sanity.

Will he follow in his Dad’s footsteps?

A teary scene occurs when Angus visits his father in a facility. Hopeful of progress, Angus is quietly shattered when his father reveals paranoia about his food being poisoned by the staff.

Sessa provides a low-key performance that envelopes the character.

Randolph as Mary is kind yet depressed. She tries to find the good in people while realizing she’s been left out of the game in many instances. Her breakdown scene at a Christmas party allows Randolph to flex her mighty acting muscles.

I relished in the retro Christmas lights, the suburban houses with 1960s and 1970s living room and kitchen set pieces, the sweaters, the hairstyles, and the coffee mugs and plates.

The set designers flawlessly depict a time long ago.

I wanted to sit down and dine on Mary’s scrambled eggs and bacon or Lydia’s Christmas cookies. I yearned to sip a Miller Lite with Paul and Angus.

Finally, I smiled pleasantly at the movie theater scene featuring Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, an obscure American Western film from 1970.

With precision, Alexander Payne creates another outstanding film featuring the trials and tribulations of good characters dealt losing hands.

The Holdovers (2023) proves that a quality film with terrific writing, a moderate pace, and dramatic and comic moments, draws cinema fans to theaters as much as a cliched superhero film.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Actor-Paul Giamatti, Best Supporting Actress-Da’Vine Joy Randolph (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 3 wins-Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Performance-Da’Vine Joy Randolph (won), Best Breakthrough Performance-Dominic Sessa (won), Best Cinematography (won)

The Rainbow-1989

The Rainbow-1989

Director Ken Russell

Starring Sammi Davis, Paul McGann, Amanda Donohoe

Scott’s Review #1,409

Reviewed November 5, 2023

Grade: A-

Continuing my exploration of more obscure films by the British director comes The Rainbow, a 1989 picture adapted from a 1915 D.H. Lawrence novel.

Russell fans will know that he also adapted 1970s Women in Love from Lawrence so there is a tie-in between films.

Even though The Rainbow was made nearly two decades after Women in Love, it’s a prequel. The antics of the Brangwen sisters are explored as they grow up in rural England specifically one sister’s burgeoning sexuality and desires.

One could take The Rainbow as a feminist film that centers mainly on the eldest sister.

Born to a rich landowner, played by Christopher Gable, in the final days of the Victorian era (the late 1800s), Ursula (Sammi Davis) blossoms into a beautiful young woman full of imagination and promise.

She is quite free-spirited and begins to feel trapped by her surroundings. Still, her life changes when she has an erotic experience with Winifred (Amanda Donohoe), an adventurous and bisexual teacher.

From that point on, Ursula puts all of her passion and creativity into the pursuit of sexual fulfillment. She prefers men and develops a relationship with the dashing Anton (Paul McGann).

But she is constantly frustrated and continues to suffer from anguish and under-fulfillment as her development years go by.

Davis is delightful and mesmerizing as the lead character. Her flowing blonde locks which she eventually cuts give her a wholesome schoolteacher persona. But she is peppered with sassiness and experimentation which Davis flawlessly executes.

Donohoe, who starred in another Russell film, the bizarre The Lair of the White Worm (1988) smolders with sophistication and sensuality. Winifred easily takes Ursula under her wing and teaches her the pleasures of sex.

Eventually marrying Ursula’s wealthy Uncle Henry she doesn’t decline into dull matrimony but remains a mentor and source of temptation to Ursula.

McGann, as Anton brings a boyish yet masculine flavor to the film and succeeds as the main love interest for Ursula. Becoming a soldier, he smolders most during his plentiful nude scenes running around forests and up mountains with Ursula in tow.

These scenes are the zestiest as Russell plugs his all-too-familiar bizarre sequences of lust and bare flesh into the film.

There are many nude scenes to salivate over turning the prim and proper Victorian upper-crust characters into horny animalistic creatures.

The dynamics between Ursula, Anton, and Winifred are my favorite because it’s not played as a traditional love triangle with one pair to root for. It’s more sexual and interesting than that.

Not everything in The Rainbow works, however.

Even though I’m very familiar with Women in Love the connection to that film is tough to capture. Gudrun (the other sister) is the main focus in Women in Love but only has a small role in The Rainbow. To make matters more confusing, Ursula (in The Rainbow) is more similar to the character of Gudrun (in Women in Love).

Also, Glenda Jackson (who plays Gudrun in Women in Love) is cast as the mother in The Rainbow. The role is unspectacular especially compared to the brilliant portrayal Jackson did in Women in Love.

She doesn’t have much to play except being their mother.

I finally decided to stop thinking about Women in Love and enjoy The Rainbow on its own merits.

Admittedly, the final sequence does satisfy as Ursula forges ahead to a new life which brings us back to the start of Women in Love.

Reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s adaptations like A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), or Howards End (1992), the quaint English cottages, landscapes, and villages are wonderful and capture a specific time capsule.

The Rainbow (1989) transported me to another time and offered a character study meshed in sexuality, coming of age, and feminist power.

The House That Dripped Blood-1971

The House That Dripped Blood-1971

Director Peter Duffell

Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing

Scott’s Review #1,408

Reviewed October 31, 2023

Grade: B+

Any horror project including Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is worth a watch and The House That Dripped Blood (1971) features both actors though sadly not in any scenes together.

The British horror anthology is spooky and perfect for the Halloween season. The action surrounds a hulking house where bad events occur regardless of who inhabits it.

The film is divided into four short stories explaining the circumstances surrounding the individual inhabitants.

The production is low budget which is perfect for a film like this but the title makes it seem bloodier and gorier than it is.

All of the stories were originally written, and subsequently scripted, by Robert Bloch.

Below is a summary, review, and rating of each vignette.

Framework: B+

Shortly after renting an old country house, a well-known film star Paul Henderson mysteriously disappears and Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) from Scotland Yard is called by a local Sergeant to investigate.

Inquiring at the local police station, he is told some of the house’s history.

He soon learns how four tenants met macabre fates.

The ‘Framework’ sequence goes between the vignettes and provides good context but is more or less just the interplay between Inspector and Sergeant.

This serves as an introduction to each chapter and ties the events together.

Method for Murder: A-

Charles Hillyer (Denholm Elliott) is a struggling writer who specializes in horror stories. He and his wife Alice (Joanna Dunham), move into the house thinking it will serve as inspiration. Charles creates a devious character named ‘Dominic’ after he ‘imagines’ seeing him outside a window.

Charles soon starts to see Dominic, who begins stalking and tormenting him.

My second favorite of the four chapters, I all but guessed the ‘twist’ from the get-go but was surprised at the ‘twist on top of a twist’ which pleased me.

It’s great when a villain thinks they’ve gotten away with murder only to be murdered themselves.

Waxworks: B+

Retired stockbroker Philip Grayson (Cushing) moves into the house with plans to read, garden, and relax. Though initially he occupies himself with his hobbies, he quickly becomes lonely. One day, while wandering around town, he happens upon a wax museum.

Grayson explores the museum and finds a sculpture of a dead woman he had been in love with. The museum’s proprietor explains that he based the likeness of the sculpture on his late wife, who had been executed after murdering his best friend.

Despite featuring Cushing, it’s a moderately good story but lacks the compelling nature of a couple of the other vignettes.

It’s less about the house itself and more about the wax museum and obsession is the subject matter.

While decent, Waxworks didn’t blow me away either.

Sweets to the Sweet: A

Widower John Reid (Lee) moves into the house next along with his odd young daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). John hires former teacher Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) to tutor Jane. Ann bonds with Jane, she helps Jane get over a fear of fire.

Ann suspects John of abusing Jane but is there more to the story? Why doesn’t he let Jane play with other children or toys and do his best to keep her isolated?

Is there something wrong with Jane?

This is the best installment and has a resemblance to The Innocents (1961) featuring a governess and a spooky child. Viewers will find themselves switching alliances with the characters as the story rapidly moves along.

The Cloak: B+

Finally, horror film actor Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) moves into the house while starring in a vampire film being shot nearby.

Irritated by the lack of maturity or talent from the cast and crew he decides to purchase a realistic cloak worn by his character (who happens to be a vampire). The shop he makes his purchase from is run by the enigmatic Theo von Hartmann (Geoffrey Bayldon) who eerily offers him a black cloak.

This one plays like a Hammer Horror Dracula installment and is good but not great. Less happens within the confines of the house than I’d like and Paul is an unlikable character.

The action on the movie set and in the shop are the best parts.

Welcome to my blog! 1,425 + reviews posted so far! My name is Scott Segrell and I reside in Stamford, CT. My blog is a diverse site featuring tons of film reviews I have written since I launched my site in 2014. I hope you enjoy perusing the site for latest or greatest films or to search for your own favorites to see how we compare. Please take a look at my featured sections at the top of the page which change often! Utilize the tags and category links.