The Sand Pebbles-1966

The Sand Pebbles-1966

Director-Robert Wise

Starring Steve McQueen, Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough

Scott’s Review #1,257

Reviewed May 18, 2022

Grade: A-

The 1950s and 1960s can collectively be defined as the two decades representing the grandiose film epic, which are instantly recognizable cinematic sprawling, lengthy efforts and frequently encompassing a time.

The Sand Pebbles (1966) safely falls into this category especially because it’s a war film and one minute shy of a three-hour extravaganza.

The film was a critical and commercial success at the time of release and received several Academy Award nominations (see more below) but is not remembered as well as one might expect despite being a fantastic watch.

There is something that makes the film fly somewhere under the radar and I’m not sure why that is. It might be that an anti-war message film was not as common as it would become. In 1966 there had only just begun to be a United States movement questioning the government and war in general.

It wasn’t cool nor acceptable yet.

Robert Anderson adapted the screenplay from the 1962 novel of the same name by Richard McKenna which I understand is very similar.

Robert Wise, famous for directing the very memorable The Sound of Music just one year prior in 1965 and the legendary West Side Story in 1961 is at the helm resulting in a superior direction, especially in the exterior sequences and the lush, oceanic sequences.

Star, Steve McQueen was at the height of popularity when this film was made which undoubtedly helped get butts in the seats to drool over the blue-eyed actor in his Navy attire.

The Sand Pebbles has a heavier touch and promotes an anti-war viewpoint from its main character. Therefore, it has a good solid message to go with the expected aspects of a war film. It’s not dissimilar to The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) made nearly a decade earlier.

Not lost on the viewer will be the Asian locales and the parallels with the controversial Vietnam conflict happening at the time.

We go back to 1926 when the USS San Pablo was patrolling the Yangtze River during the clashes between Chiang Kai-shek’s communists and Chinese warlords.

Eight-year veteran machinist Jake Holman (McQueen), new to the self-named “sand pebbles” crew, immediately draws deep suspicion due to his independent streak.

Ordered to protect Americans, including schoolteacher Shirley Eckhart (Candice Bergen), Jake and the gunboat crew is unwittingly drawn into a bitter nationalistic feud that holds grim consequences.

Besides his unforgettable turn in The Getaway in 1972, the role is McQueen’s finest and I’m not the biggest fan of his nor feel he is the greatest actor.

But, in The Sand Pebbles, he has tremendous material to work with and hits all cylinders throughout. The character is rootable and relatable to the audience.

The film also presents a fascinating look at Navy life with the camaraderie and depth of the supporting characters. There is comedy and drama and the additions of Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna are stellar.

Naturally, Bergen is the romantic love interest for McQueen as Shirley and Jake have fledging feelings for each other.

Though the film ends abruptly there is enough pain, death, and confusion to leave the viewer thinking afterward and that is always an aspect of the film that I champion.

The Sand Pebbles (1966) is an underrated production that simmers beneath some other classics from the same decade but is a terrific watch for many reasons. It has an old-world feel despite being extremely timely representing a forage into the dangerous early 1970s history still to come.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Steve McQueen, Best Supporting Actor-Mako, Best Art Direction-Color, Best Cinematography-Color, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score, Best Sound

Raging Bull-1980

Raging Bull-1980

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci

Scott’s Review #1,256

Reviewed May 14, 2022

Grade: A

Raging Bull (1980) might be director Martin Scorsese’s most personal film and certainly his most character-driven. His other films contain great characters, rich with life, but with the focus firmly planted on controversial real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) there is much to explore.

His descent into madness is hard to watch but also impossible to look away from.

It’s tough to top the De Niro/Scorsese pairing featured in Taxi Driver (1976) when the actor simply kicked the audience’s ass with his ferocious portrayal of maniacal Travis Bickle. LaMotta arguably surpasses that portrayal because the boxer experiences the highest of the highs with the lowest of the lows.

And the audience is whisked away with him on the journey from heaven to hell. Arguably director and actor’s finest film, Raging Bull is often painful to watch, but it’s a searing, powerful work about an unsympathetic hero who we can’t help but explore.

A double-pairing film extravaganza of watching Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is a fabulous idea though the viewer may need a Valium to combat the resulting anxiety after experiencing these films.

I love the title that is Raging Bull because it is so apt and central to the film. Fueled with machismo, testosterone, and anger, Jake LaMotta certainly is a raging bull.

Screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, frequent collaborators of Scorsese’s, adapt the story from Raging Bull: My Story, a 1970 memoir written by LaMotta.

Raging Bull tells the story of an Italian-American middleweight boxer as he struggles through the ranks to earn his first shot at the middleweight crown. He possesses a self-destructive and obsessive rage, jealousy, and animalistic appetite that destroys his relationship with his wife and family.

Wonderfully cast as his wife Vickie is Cathy Moriarity who is a gorgeous girl from the Bronx who falls head over heels in love with Jake. Joe Pesci plays his well-intentioned brother and managerJoey, who unsuccessfully tries to help Jake battle his inner demons.

Jake’s inability to express his feelings enters the ring and eventually takes over his life. He is sent into a downward spiral that costs him everything.

Comparisons to the exceptional Rocky (1976) are cute and perhaps contain some merit on paper but whereas the former is heroic and compelling, the main characters are nothing alike except that they are both struggling boxers who achieve success.

Both are sports films but Raging Bull is much, much darker and purely a character study.

The cinematography by Michael Chapman and the Film Editing by Thelma Schoonmaker are deserving of accolades and make the picture as flawless as it is.

Scorsese adds enough boxing scenes to showcase the fantastic editing that is required for these difficult scenes. The editing is lightning quick and the thunderous bombast makes the viewer feel each blow of the glove on the skin. The blood and sweat are legendary components of these scenes.

The black and white cinematography is jaw-dropping especially powerful during the kitchen fight scene between Jake and Joey. The brutal buildup is hard to stomach as Jake’s dementia becomes evident.

Despite the other qualities of the film that bring it all together, my favorite aspect is the performance that De Niro delivers, winning him a much deserved Best Actor Oscar.

He is powerful and animalistic playing both subtle rage and explosive anger. His tragic final act as a much older and fat man is shrouded in heartbreak and pain for both the character and the viewer to experience.

All the pieces of Raging Bull (1980) add up perfectly into a masterpiece. The violence and pain are enshrouded in poetic dialogue and beautiful illuminating camera work exploring one man’s battles and struggles both inside the squared circle and internally.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor-Robert De Niro (won), Best Supporting Actor-Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actress-Cathy Moriarty, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing (won), Best Sound

Antlers-2021

Antlers-2021

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons

Scott’s Review #1,255

Reviewed May 13, 2022

Grade: B+

Antlers (2021) is a film co-produced by Guillermo del Toro who is famous for dark, humanistic treasures like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017).

His name attached to the project conjures images of supernatural and otherworldly creations and some murky elements. While the film does contain his influence if looked at carefully it’s in a tepid way and I wouldn’t call it a del Toro type film.

But, it’s not as if he directed it either, he only helped fund it. Scott Cooper, known for Crazy Heart (2009) and Black Mass (2015), two very good films, does a fantastic job of adding horror elements and impressive cinematography that create a bleak and grey atmosphere that is perfect for horror.

The plot is the weak point in an otherwise exceptional offering. The story has a standard setup and unsatisfying ending save for an attempt to push the wheels in motion for a potential sequel.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Antler’s release date was postponed twice and flew under the radar as many films did in the early 2020s.

Plus, star Jesse Plemons received an Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog (2021) by the time the film hit the screens so it’s doubtful he’d make a return appearance.

I’m not sure the film is good enough to warrant a follow-up but I did thoroughly enjoy the perfect trimmings and quality acting even though the story didn’t completely satisfy me.

The film is based on the short story The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca.

The action is set in a rural, isolated Oregon town where a middle-school teacher (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother (Plemons) become entangled with her taciturn student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) whose dark family secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature known for creating debauchery.

The dazzling cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister perfectly encapsulates the setting of the Pacific Northwest making it appear grim and constantly cloudy. The foreboding presence is only helped by adding a dark mine as the main set where the dire events occur.

Russell does a fine job with carrying the film and Cooper and the team provides a character-driven approach to the story. Julia has returned to her hometown after the suicide of her father, who we quickly learn was abusing her as a little girl.

She bonds with Lucas who is also abused and this portion of the story works well. We get the bond and they connect well. He’s got a different set of daddy issues though since his wolf-like papa salivates at the sight of him and is diseased from an incident in the mine.

But, the Julia/Lucas relationship ultimately has very little to do with a wild creature running around killing a student and a principal. A quick scene involving a local townsperson explaining an ancient curse is uninspired even if he is played by Graham Greene from Dances With Wolves fame (1990).

I was more invested in the Julia and Paul raising Lucas angle and what comes next over the silly folklore curse that we’ve seen countless times in films.

The texture of Antlers easily awards it a solid B+ rating because it’s spooky and scary in some sequences. When Julia and Principal Ellen (Amy Madigan) separately approach the run-down Weaver house the camera follows the characters making the audience feel like they are the ones entering the house.

We know bad things will soon happen and that makes it fun.

Because of the great camera work and use of lighting, I’d never want to set foot in Cispus Falls.

As an aside for every film writer out there, it’s time to discard the anti-LGBTQ slurs once and for all. Aren’t we beyond this? Can’t we write one character calling another a ‘loser’ and leave it at that?

The visceral style of Antlers (2021) is more than enough reason to recommend it. A straight-ahead supernatural horror film with a grim veneer is the reason to see it. The ho-hum story is rather secondary.

The Phantom of the Opera-1962

The Phantom of the Opera-1962

Director-Terence Fisher

Starring Herbert Lom, Michael Gough, Heather Sears

Scott’s Review #1,254

Reviewed May 12, 2022

Grade: B+

Probably not the best-known film adaptation of the famous 1910 French novel written by Gaston Leroux, but likely the most horrific. Hammer Horror Productions getting their hands on this is a significant win since the story is perfectly suited for the horror genre.

I’ve not yet seen the 1925 silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney which I hear is wonderful so I cannot compare that to this.

The possibilities for a macabre telling are endless and director Terence Fisher, a familiar director in Hammer films, is back at the helm to mix the dreariness of a musty London theater with the creepy face mask of its lonely and wounded inhabitant.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating in this review. It’s impressive to notice the astounding achievements the Horror films obtained by making lemonade out of lemons from a budget perspective. The limited funds necessitated creativity which can be seen in every series frame, especially the colorful sets and costumes.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962) is no different and is even better than some others in the brilliant mix of mood and sympathy for its main victim, specifically the luminous and disfigured ‘phantom’ played by Herbert Lom.

Dastardly Composer Lord Ambrose D’Arcy, wonderfully played by Michael Gough, and his bullied backer, Harry Hunter (Edward De Souza), struggle to find a replacement for the female lead in their new opera after she quits and flees town in the wake of a gruesome theater murder.

When a new prospect, the virginal Christine Charles (Heather Sears), disappears after the advances of Ambrose, Harry cautiously investigates unaware that there is a lonely figure inhabiting the theater.

Meanwhile, a mysterious masked man (Lom) who is eerily familiar with the opera holds Christine captive and offers to groom her to play the part.

He is a mix of crazy and passionate and his plight is sympathetic when what he’s been through is finally explained.

But the atmosphere is what sets The Phantom of the Opera apart from other similar films of the 1960s, even Hammer films.

This is never more evident in an early scene when the camera follows the characters on the misty streets of London, the darkness and shadows becoming prominent as they walk through streets and dark alleys.

Fisher, now five years into his association with the production company has hit his stride. A limited budget might reduce another director to a fretting basket case but the result and ease that he parlays to The Phantom of the Opera are quite beautiful.

Many scenes take place in the theater itself adding a foreboding element to the events. Dusty yet brimming with musicianship and artistic pizzazz, it’s fun to watch the characters sneak around and scheme within the confines of this structure.

Therefore, the mood and trimmings are exquisite without actually being so.

The music sequences are impressive without going on for too long, and despite the locale being switched from Paris to London for obvious reasons, the main being that the actors are British, this doesn’t hamper the overall experience.

The best, and most gruesome scene, occurs when a poor chap swings across the theater stage in a neck rope, dead as a doornail. The creaking sound of the rope as the man swings back and forth is chilling and dubious.

Lom is my favorite actor in the film and his character’s backstory reveal is humanistic and impressive. Who can’t relate to at least once being swindled or cheated out of work that is rightfully theirs?

Gough, also familiar to Hammer Horror fans, is tremendous as the treacherous main villain.

Sears is okay but perhaps not the greatest actress nor the best choice for the role. She’s rather bland and unmemorable.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962) falters a bit when it ends too suddenly, though many Hammer films suffer the same fate. This film is not for those expecting a grandiose Andrew Lloyd Webber style musical but for fans of down and dirty horror it’s just what the doctor ordered.

The Queen-2006

The Queen-2006

Director-Stephen Frears

Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen

Scott’s Review #1,253

Reviewed May 8, 2022

Grade: A

Before the Netflix series, The Crown (2016-2023), loudly stomped into existence and took the world on a historical journey through the trials and tribulations of British royalty there was The Queen (2006).

Starring Helen Mirren, the film is a quiet telling of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II, especially immediately after the death of Princess Diana and the conflict and contention that took place.

Ironically, The Crown is created and primarily written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen. He created The Crown because of The Queen so there is an instant correlation between the two brilliant projects and the handwriting is very similar.

Stephen Frears, who also directed Judi Dench to an Oscar nomination for Philomena (2013) is at the helm and won himself an Oscar nomination for directing as well as scoring a win for Mirren.

The Queen is a terrific film across the board and Mirren is phenomenal in her portrayal of the grand dame. She cleverly fuses a stiffness and stoicism with subtle warmth and humanity few see from the queen, at least publicly. Layers of complexity are provided to an already mysterious public figure.

Following the death of Princess Diana in a fiery auto accident, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) struggle to reach a compromise on how the royal family should publicly respond to the tragedy.

In the balance is the family’s need for privacy and the public’s demand for an outward show of mourning. This causes mayhem and drama behind the sacred walls of Buckingham Palace.

The acting of Mirren and the direction are what make The Queen pure magic and a standout among the many royalty-themed films to emerge since the beginning of motion pictures.

First of all, Mirren looks like the part of Queen Elizabeth II and this goes way beyond wearing glasses and a sweater or having the same hairdo. She encompasses the role and this is no small feat.

The mannerisms, the speech patterns, and the lowkey attitude are the amazing nuances that the actress is somehow able to channel.

It feels more than simply Mirren dressing up like royalty and showing up scene after scene. She does something much more with the unspoken looks and inner workings of the queen that become apparent to the viewer.

Frears chooses to include many closeups of characters, mainly of Mirren, which only encircle what each character is thinking and pondering.

The film is very subdued with a lovely musical score adding texture and appeal to each frame. The inclusion of archival footage is powerful realism.

Merely nine years after the real-life death of the uber-popular Diana the event was still so fresh in the minds of viewers that releasing The Queen at this time was a stroke of genius.

It’s no secret that while Queen Elizabeth II is respected she is worlds away from wildly popular Diana and emits a coolness that baffles the public.

Thanks to Mirren, the public gets a glimpse into the heart and soul of a mysterious person and that’s a good feeling indeed.

However, Mirren couldn’t have delivered fully if not for the talents of Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair. Generations apart and with differing views they spar and respect each other, slowly forging a friendship of sorts.

The Queen (2006) hardly needs bombs, bombast, or quick editing to get its point across, though speaking of editing, a fantastic job of it with family scenes of Diana. The film lures the viewer into its web and makes them feel like an insider amongst the walls of royalty.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Stephen Frears, Best Actress-Helen Mirren (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score

War Wolves-2009

War Wolves-2009

Director-Michael Worth

Starring John Saxon, Adrienne Barbeau, Tim Thomerson

Scott’s Review #1,252

Reviewed May 7, 2022

Grade: C-

Technically, a horror-television film that aired on the Syfy network, War Wolves (2009) is an abysmal experience in both filmmaking and plot. Bad dialogue and juvenile special effects are just the tip of the iceberg in what could easily be a hard-hitting review.

But, strangely enough, even with bad films pleasure is to be found and sometimes more than is rightly earned. My final rating of ‘C-‘ is my gift to the film that currently rates an anemic 8% audience favorability rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The only saving grace is the inclusion of veterans Adrienne Barbeau (Escape from New York-1981) and John Saxon (Black Christmas-1974) into the mix though Barbeau’s character is completely throwaway. Saxon is the co-lead and what a treat to see the seasoned actor do his best with weak material.

The action begins on the battlefields of the Middle East, presumably Afghanistan, where veteran Jake Gabriel (Michael Worth) is cursed with lycanthropy during a gunfight. He is aware of this and struggles to suppress his inner werewolf once he quickly returns to the United States.

His military comrade and girlfriend, Erika (Natasha Alam), and other female former soldiers begin to grow fangs and develop a fancy for the taste of blood. Jake resists but members of his “pack” attempt to hunt him down and convert him to the more thrilling life their changes are introducing them to.

Saxon plays a commander named Tony who is sent to the States to apprehend Jake before he can infect others and is joined by Frank Bergman (Tim Thomerson), his best friend, and polar opposite. Barbeau plays a woman named Gail who talks incessantly about her deceased husband.

Hopefully, Saxon, Barbeau, and Thomerson were thrown what little monetary breadcrumbs existed in the budget for this film. They play their parts earnestly while providing much-needed professionalism. Poor Barbeau even throws in a southern accent to her northern California hailing character in an attempt to make her more interesting.

I’ll say one thing. The above-average acting by the veterans makes up for the tepid and wooden acting by the rest of the cast. But casting gorgeous female ‘actresses’ as military personnel has a market too.

Unsurprisingly, the plot doesn’t add up and it’s never explained why Jake is infected in the first place or what anyone’s motivations are besides the obvious infecting and destroying the infecters.

The pale attempts at below the surface humanistic connections either go nowhere or result in the reaction of ‘who gives a shit, let’s see more blood’!

Worthy of mention is that star Michael Worth also directs the film. A better title than War Wolves would have been desirable. Although a humorous take on the word ‘werewolves’, it doesn’t roll off the tongue very well and conjures images more aligned with parody versus seriousness.

Unfortunately, Worth doesn’t play the film for laughs and it’s meant to be taken seriously, at least on paper. Tony and Frank have experienced this mission before and it causes Tony to be estranged from his family, a weak attempt at creating humanistic drama that never goes anywhere other than one conversation with an unseen family member from a pay phone.

I daresay the film is a load of fun providing some unintended laughs, especially in the final act. When the female pack appeared with cute, tiny brown noses, with matching pointy ears, and uttered demonic dialogue to appear threatening, I roared with laughter.

War Wolves (2009) is a film focused on the werewolf genre that is merely a blip on the radar and is probably forgotten already. It’s not my favorite horror sub-genre of all time but I’d still list The Wolf Man (1941) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) as the best entries.

But, for the 1230am-to 2 am timeslot on a boozy Saturday night, War Wolves is an appropriate fit.

Really bad movies can be fun too.

The Pacifier-2005

The Pacifier-2005

Director-Adam Shankman

Starring Vin Diesel, Lauren Graham

Scott’s Review #1,251

Reviewed May 1, 2022

Grade: C

The Pacifier (2005) is the kind of film that has been made for decades in one form or another. The setup is familiar and puts its macho movie star in situations that go against type or are deemed a bit feminine, and lightweight, all for the sake of a laugh.

As far back as the 1950s when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis donned lady’s clothing in Some Like it Hot (1959), to Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom (1983), to the 1990s when Arnold Schwarzenegger entertained audiences in Kindergarten Cop (1995), there is a pattern to follow.

And those are just the decent films.

In 2005, the sexy Vin Diesel was one of the highest-grossing leading men in Hollywood churning out hits like Boiler Room (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001) to rabid audiences.

Known primarily for his action films, someone had the bright idea to domesticate the muscular star and put him in a situation where he would comically change baby diapers or vacuum a living room.

Unfortunately, The Pacifier is juvenile in nearly every way with canned gags and predictability for miles. Diesel is terrific to look at but isn’t the best actor in the world which causes the film to lose credibility.

Despite cliche after cliche and ridiculous situation, the film occasionally will elicit a chuckle or two from anyone brave enough to watch it.

That’s mostly because Diesel is willing to emerge in one scene covered in shit.

But don’t expect much more from The Pacifier.

Shane Wolfe (Diesel) is an elite Navy SEAL with muscles and charisma for miles. He is the type of man who would run into a fire and save a baby or swim out to sea to save a drowning child.

One day he makes a grave error in judgment when he fails to keep scientist Howard Plummer (Tate Donovan) safe from assassination and the man is killed.

Riddled with guilt, he is assigned to protect Plummer’s five children when the mother played by Faith Ford needs to leave the country temporarily. The kids include rebellious Zoe (Brittany Snow), Seth (Max Thieriot), and clingy Lulu (Morgan York).

The kid’s pet duck is along for the ride pushing the seasoned veteran to his breaking point.

Predictably, when Shane is not busy tending to the kids there is a secret project contained somewhere in the household that he must uncover.

Of course, a film like The Pacifier requires some romance so the inclusion of Principal Claire Fletcher (Lauren Graham) is for the sole purpose of having someone for Shane to fall in love with.

There is not great chemistry between Diesel and Graham so I wasn’t invested in them. The casting of the children is so one-dimensional with standard characteristics that it would be easy to laugh at.

I chose not to do this but rather strove to find something enjoyable in The Pacifier.

It’s a cute film but it’s so mainstream, dull, fluffy, and whatever generic adjective one would choose to describe it that it deserves the bland grade of C I am awarding it.

Diesel is the only appealing factor to The Pacifier.

Why make the bad guys as stereotypical as possible? They are North Korean and the ‘twist’ that Shane’s boss is in cahoots with them is as surprising as realizing the two-week-old Chinese leftovers in the fridge have gone bad.

The film has a small comparison to the superior The Sound of Music (1965) which the filmmakers must have realized since they incorporate it into the story. The kids that Shane is in charge of are behaving badly and attempting to play a practical joke on him.

In the end, there is a chase sequence, a reveal, peril, and a happy ending in more or less that order.

The Pacifier (2005) is a Disney film so there is a safe, family-friendly vibe throughout. It marginally entertains largely on the strength of Diesel.

He is sexy, macho, and provides enough charisma to forget the bevy of standard gags and silly situations that he, and the audience, must endure.

Spartacus-1960

Spartacus-1960

Director-Stanley Kubrick

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons

Scott’s Review #1,250

Reviewed April 30, 2022

Grade: A

Typically, when influential director Stanley Kubrick’s name is uttered, films such as The Shining (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Barry Lyndon (1975) are immediately thought of, and for obvious reasons.

The haunting, moody musical score, the long camera shots, the dark humor, and the clever camera tricks are easy to pinpoint.

Rewinding to 1960, the director was brought in to grab the reigns and direct the gorgeous epic, Spartacus, after Hollywood star Kirk Russell had unceremoniously fired the first director.

None of the previously mentioned elements are easy for me to notice and are more or less absent, but a grand battle scene in a luscious green field is very reminiscent of Barry Lyndon. This is likely because Spartacus was not Kubrick’s film entirely instead belonging to others with more clout.

Throwing out the director issues, Spartacus is a brilliant film for many reasons. Some epics suffer from a hokey, cliched feel and can be overwrought, predictable, and tired.

The rebellious Thracian Spartacus (Russell), born and raised a slave, is sold to Gladiator trainer Batiatus (Ustinov). After training to kill for the arena, Spartacus turns on his owners and leads the other slaves in rebellion.

As the rebels move from town to town, their numbers increase as escaped slaves join their ranks. Under the leadership of Spartacus, they make their way to southern Italy, where they intend to cross the sea and return to their homes.

Spartacus is grand, sweeping, cinematically great, and everything else you’d expect from a 1960s Hollywood epic with enormous stars of its day. Looking beneath the surface, the film is riddled with interesting tidbits like bisexuality, homoeroticism, and violence more in tune with an art film or modern war film than the safety of a film made during this time.

Particularly noteworthy is that Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay. One of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 during the committee’s investigation of alleged Communist influences in the motion picture industry.

After the release of Spartacus, it marked the beginning of the end of the Hollywood Blacklist for Trumbo and other affected screenwriters.

Thank goodness.

In a famous scene, recaptured slaves are asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency; instead, each slave proclaims himself to be Spartacus, thus sharing his fate.

The suggestion is that this scene was meant to dramatize the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era.

Besides the political importance, Spartacus also showcases a beautiful romance between Spartacus (Russell) and Varinia (Jean Simmons), a gorgeous slave girl. The tenderness and authenticity are palpable as many of their early scenes involve no dialogue but only longing and expression through both actors’ eyes.

I celebrated the connection between the actors who are at the forefront of much romance. Russell carries the film with a calm, masculinity that easily makes him heroic and likable.

He is the charismatic good guy who has been wronged and ill-fated.

A sequence oozing with machismo and homoeroticism occurs when evil Crassus (Olivier) is bathed by his slave boy Antoninus (Tony Curtis). He seductively explains that while sometimes he prefers snails, he also likes oysters too. The implication is that he is bisexual, brazenly so, and expects the youngster to become his sex slave.

The warmth of the bathtub and the luxurious atmosphere is juxtapositioned against the proximity and touch of both male characters.

In 1960, this scene was way ahead of its time.

The conclusion of Spartacus is melancholy and surprising. The expectation might have been to happily see Spartacus and Varinia ride off into the sunset having bested the cruelty of Rome.

This doesn’t happen and the film is all the richer for it. There is pain and despair as there were in real-life. Wisely sparing complete doom and gloom, the ending is satisfying as one major character is allowed to escape a deadly demise and conjure ahead with their life.

Spartacus (1960) is one of the greats. It has muscle, texture, and many below-the-surface nuances ripe for discussion. It’s a must-see for many reasons.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Peter Ustinov (won), Best Art Direction-Color (won), Best Cinematography-Color (won), Best Costume Design-Color (won), Best Film Editing, Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

The Object of My Affection-1998

The Object of My Affection-1998

Director-Nicholas Hytner

Starring Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd

Scott’s Review #1,249

Reviewed April 24, 2022

Grade: B

The Object of My Affection (1998) is a romantic comedy riddled with the standard cliches and obvious situation setups of similar types of film. As a whole, it is plot-driven rather than character-driven.

The redeeming factor is that it adds a left of center approach and delves into LGBTQ territory, albeit in a soft touch, which more mainstream American films were only starting to do in the late 1990s.

The best part of the film is the casting of Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd who have tremendous chemistry as a potential couple who has no chance of riding off into the sunset together. At least in any romantic sort of way.

He is gay and she is straight and nothing can change that.

Though fluffy, The Object of My Affection deserves some level of praise. Several gay men can easily relate to a situation where he finds a female friend enamored with him and experiences a return of affection differently.

It’s common to fantasize about what might have been if feelings were different and as the film explores, even try to go straight.

The film itself has a definite Will & Grace vibe, a popular television program emerging at this time, and even has the same location. The main characters become the very best of friends, watching movies together and sharing intimate moments just like a romantic couple would do.

The late 1990s was a time when gay characters took the center stage so The Object of My Affection gets a thumbs up for being part of the herd.

Nina Borowski (Jennifer Aniston) lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works as a social worker. She invites her new gay friend, George (Paul Rudd), to move into her apartment after he breaks up with his longtime lover, Robert (Tim Daly).

Meanwhile, Nina gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, but ends her relationship with the child’s father, her controlling boyfriend Vince (John Pankow).

As Nina and George live and experience her pregnancy together, they grow close and Nina realizes she’s beginning to fall in love with her friend.

Aniston and Rudd work well together as a couple, friends or otherwise, and the chemistry tones are terrific. Even during the sappiest of scenes, and there are many of them, I always smiled a bit at their bond.

When Nina and George have the inevitable dramatic scene and express their feelings it doesn’t feel as forced as one might expect. Their bond is solidified and the film unsurprisingly has the pair remain in each other’s lives, presumably forever.

In satisfying form, Nina and George do ride off into the sunset along with little Molly but in solid relationships with other mates. Each character finds their destiny and soulmate while keeping in each other’s life.

While nice, there are many hurdles the filmmakers could have gone further with but don’t. The message is clear- regardless of sexuality, race, religion, or politics, a friend is a friend and a bond is meant to be forever.

It’s a warm message which is the basis for what the intent was and the film delivers a heartfelt story that eases the conflict of real-life and perhaps that is needed sometimes.

As much as The Object of My Affection (1998) has its heart in the right place with a progressive and inclusive slant, the film is bogged down by standard cliches and a fairy tale ending.

It’s a nice, fulfilling fantasy film but skates over hard-hitting realistic issues in favor of kid gloves type situations making it feel dated nearly twenty-five years later.

Other films in the years ahead would supersede the premise and take it to different and more interesting levels delving outside the box further and further.

But, a nice attempt.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation-1989

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation-1989

Director-Jeremiah S. Chechik

Starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid

Scott’s Review #1,248

Reviewed April 23, 2022

Grade: A-

Made several years after the first in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series (1983-2015), the inevitable production of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) is my personal favorite of the bunch and the most laugh out loud.

Silly personified but the jokes work and the enjoyment carries throughout the entire running time.

In retrospect, you knew they were going to do it. What better fodder for the bumbling Griswold family than to have them reunite with extended family on such a seasonal holiday. The gags and awkward situations are ripe for the picking as situation after setup is done exceptionally well and with grand humor.

The silliness works and the film is a recommended watch around the holidays with the family gathered around. Viewers can either relate directly to the film or inevitably know families that resemble the incompetent yet loveable Griswolds.

As the holidays approach, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is determined to have a perfect family Christmas. He motivates his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), and their children to make sure everything is in line, including the tree and house decorations.

Naturally, things quickly go awry in the greatest of humor.

His hick cousin, Eddie (Randy Quaid), and his family show up unplanned and start living in their camper on the Griswold property. Even worse, Clark’s employers renege on the holiday bonus he needs causing a great deal of stress for the family patriarch.

For starters, the film has a cool holiday vibe. The setting is wisely the midwest United States somewhere outside of Chicago, Illinois. Snow is to be found everywhere and Christmas decorations and lights are lit all over the place throughout the film. This equates to a suburban and homey atmosphere that is warming and friendly.

Most viewers can snuggle in amid a warm fireplace and delicious hot cocoa and enjoy the film. The environment is one of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’s finest achievements.

A classic moment and the film’s funniest scene occurs when Clark excitedly decorates the inside and outside of the house to the nth degree and blows the town’s electric circuit as a result leading to uproar among his neighbors. Proud Clark’s ego is suddenly deflated and the man must rise above it all to somehow enjoy his family Christmas.

Watching the film decades after its release is still great fun as a nostalgia offering. The tacky Griswold Ford LTD station wagon with paneled siding is garish and unsightly (then and now) and anyone growing up in the 1980s can easily recall when suburban families would pile into this gas-guzzling car.

Not every aspect works perfectly in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation like the unappealing yuppie neighbors Todd and Margo (played by Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) or Eddie and his redneck family. These roles are a bit too over the top and secondary inclusions to be the major win that the film is.

The real wins from the supporting cast are Clark’s immediate family. His parents and Ellen’s parents are perfectly cast and provide excellent comic timing and seasoned wit. Special notice goes to John Randolph, Diane Ladd, and Doris Roberts.

And who won’t fall in love with Clark’s senile Aunt Bethany played with hilarity by Mae Questel (the voices for animated Betty Boop and Olive Oyl).

Predictably, and well-intentioned, all the Griswold problems quickly fade away when Clark receives his annual Christmas bonus after all and all characters have a lovely send-off while singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ just in the odd way that the Griswolds would do.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) used to be a traditional Christmas viewing for me but has shamefully fallen out of favor over the years. It might be time to dust off this forever gem that provides laugh after laugh, fun, and togetherness for the whole family.

Madagascar-2005

Madagascar-2005

Director-Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath

Voices-Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer

Scott’s Review #1,247

Reviewed April 17, 2022

Grade: B-

Madagascar (2005) is a film that I found mildly entertaining but struggled to enjoy as much as others might. Films with a target audience of age thirteen and under are a tough sell for me because I don’t see them very often.

Having no children I have few opportunities to join in on the children’s games or sit at the kiddie table and get in that mindset.

Nonetheless, this film somehow crossed my radar.

It’s lighthearted and juvenile but playfully fun sending a positive message of friendship and dedication. Not a fan of the zoo at all my curiosity was piqued at how this angle would be represented if at all. Would the captivity of the zoo face off against the natural African wildlife?

The screenwriters tread safe waters keeping their audience in mind and don’t go for any deep message or environmental or animal issues, playing it quite safe.

Madagascar suffers from blandness and predictability knowing that the audience isn’t quite ready to think outside the box and their parents will obediently sit beside them watching the film.

The result is a film brimming with possibilities that it never realizes. It’s a ready-made family film and nothing more.

Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) is the king of the urban jungle and the main draw at New York’s Central Park Zoo. He and his best friends Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) have spent their lives at the zoo with admiring fans and tasty meals provided for them.

In their minds, they have it pretty good.

Yet Marty yearns for more and lets his curiosity get the better of him when he escapes the zoo to explore the world. He and his friends wind up on a ship back to Africa and are then shipwrecked on Madagascar and left to fend for themselves in the wild.

They face dangers and allies during their adventures and wrestle with either returning to the zoo or staying in their natural habitat.

There is plenty of humor to occupy the crowd but most of the jokes are tepid or fall flat altogether. They have very little substance to offer but rather are silly gags meant to keep the adventure going.

Big stars like Rock, Schwimmer, and Stiller are cast most likely to appeal to parents forced to go to the show with their kids. Recognizable voices always sell tickets in the animated world.

Secondary characters work better than the main cast. Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julien XIII is a standout.

Mildly entertaining and soft touch in its approach Madagascar (2005) left me feeling dull and yearning for something a bit more challenging and robust in the field of kid’s film.

Its intent is merely to entertain and not to challenge so the result is a middle-of-the-road experience for me.

I’ll take any of the Toy Story (1995-2019) films any day.

The Convent-2000

The Convent-2000

Director-Mike Mendez

Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Joanna Canton, Megahn Perry

Scott’s Review #1,246

Reviewed April 16, 2022

Grade: C+

I debated whether or not to reward Adrienne Barbeau with top billing recognition for The Convent (2000). After all, she doesn’t even appear, save for a quick silhouette scene that probably wasn’t even the actress, until the final third of the film.

Since I am a fan of Barbeau’s work, mainly the television series Maude, and films like The Fog (1980), and Escape From New York (1981), I decided to throw caution to the wind and cement her star status.

The film itself is terrible and needs all the help it can get. It’s campy beyond belief, amateurish, hokey, and acted poorly, suffering from enough ridiculous one-liners for me to wonder whether director Mike Mendez was purposely trying to make a bad film.

But before I get all curmudgeonly and smack this film in the face with an ‘F’ rating I’d like to justify my more than generous ‘C+’ rating.

If The Convent had tried to take itself seriously and produced shit like this I would have gone for the jugular in my review but it knows it’s a silly film and instead embraces this fact wholeheartedly.

Still, I kept wondering if the film was some sort of nod to the slasher film genre that took over the world from the late 1970s until the late 1980s, or if it feebly tried to merge this genre with the zombie genre and produce something fresh.

If made in say 1985, The Convent would have fit snugly amongst the heaps of other similar themed films that were patterned after superior feasts like Halloween (1978) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

The film opens impressively enough when a young woman named Christine walks into a convent and goes batshit crazy shooting every nun she sees and burning the place to the ground.

I grinned because Christine looks exactly like Uma Thurman’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction with bright red lipstick and dark shades. Even her outfit looks the same.

Unfortunately, that’s where any parallels end.

From this point, the plot is basic and uninspired. A coed named Clorissa (Joanna Canton) joins her best friend Mo (Megahn Perry) and a group of college students on a dare to venture into the aforementioned convent (now rebuilt) and tangle with nun and priest spirits rumored to be inhabiting the structure.

After Mo is left alone and the rest of the bunch dine at Denny’s the plot goes from standard to wacky as the returning students are bitten and become possessed by Satanists who want to beckon Satan back to earth. There is an attempt to sacrifice any virgin among the group to help with this.

Conveniently, Christine (now older) lives down the street after spending a thirty-year stint in the loony bin. The badass woman comes barreling to the rescue with her motorcycle and an arsenal of machine guns to kick Satan’s ass.

The fun begins when Barbeau finally appears. With her dangling cigarette and macho talk, the actress is in her comfort zone. The dialogue uttered by her and the rest of the characters is so bad that once again I wondered whether this was the intent. I truly hope it was.

The robotic head twitching and glowing green eyes by the now possessed students align perfectly with the gimmicky art direction and juvenile special effects. I’ve seen better on a 3 pm daytime afternoon soap opera.

The most irritating character is easily played by rapper Coolio in a ridiculous role as a loud policeman. This attempt at comedy fell completely flat and I was more entertained by the gay satanist who cleverly decides that if he and another virgin boy have sex they will be spared.

Once the credits rolled I was happy not to have to endure any more of the one-hour and twenty-minute experience. Upon my five-minute reflection, I decided to interpret the film as a comical satire over anything more.

The Convent (2000) isn’t distinct enough to get the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ award because it lacks any sort of identity. However, for a midnight movie that is so goofy and over-the-top that there is plenty to mock the film is a fun time.

And, it’s always a joy to see Barbeau in anything she is willing to appear in.

Death on the Nile-2022

Death on the Nile-2022

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring Armie Hammer, Tom Bateman, Gal Gadot

Scott’s Review #1,245

Reviewed April 15, 2022

Grade: B+

Death on the Nile (2022) is a modern remake of the 1978 thriller of the same name which in turn is based on the famous 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, one of many stories the author wrote. I love a good whodunit and the fact that I already knew the outcome from seeing the original film did not lessen the entertainment and suspense that befell me.

It only made me salivate with anticipation about how the new incarnation would handle the inevitable big reveal during the final chapter of the film.

As the suspects are locked in a boat bar one character boldly announces that the murderer is in this room and will be unmasked.

Death on the Nile is a meat and potatoes offering peppered with glamour.

Similar to the remake of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is once again enshrouded by mysterious folks with money to burn and secrets to hide. One of them has murdered a wealthy young heiress with her own set of secrets and Poirot must quiz and entrap the perpetrators aboard a sailing vessel.

Or could there be more than one murderer?

The setting of mystical Egypt and the luminous Nile river in northern Africa puts the players amid gorgeous locales. This only enhances the juiciness and the appetite for a good, solid murder mystery.

Our hero’s lush Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamboat turns into a deadly search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is cut short by killing one of them.

It turns out that almost everyone aboard has a reason to want her dead. Naturally.

Set against an epic landscape of sweeping desert vistas and the majestic Giza pyramids, Poirot peels back the onion of the lives of his fellow vacationers. He discovers jealousy and deceit as he gets to know the wealthy cosmopolitan travelers.

The trip includes the honeymooners, Simon and Linnet, played by Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot, Bouc (Tom Bateman), a long-time friend of Poirot’s, Euphemia (Anette Bening), a renowned painter and Bouc’s mother, Salome (Sophie Okonedo), a black jazz singer, and her niece Rosie (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s maid, Linnet’s godmother, and her companion, and a doctor who used to date Linnet.

It would seem as if all roads lead to Linnet, which it does since she is the character who suffers her fateful demise. What is key is that every character has a connection to her making the puzzle all the more intriguing and interesting to figure out.

Branagh, coming directly from his Oscar-winning film Belfast (2022) deserves the most credit because he not only stars in but directs the film as he did with Murder on the Orient Express. The screenplay is once again created by Michael Green. The consistency is very important and satisfying to the overall product and the two films can be watched back to back with ease.

There is trust that the anticipated enjoyment will be fulfilled and for me it was.

Death on the Nile is not high art but merely slick entertainment done quite well. There is much manipulation for the audience to endure and the setup of the potential suspects and the victim’s background are thrown directly into the viewer’s face.

This was welcomed.

I didn’t mind the implausibility of every character having reason to kill the heiress, nor did I mind a mystery character racing around the ship causing mayhem then changing into formal evening wear in less than thirty seconds flat.

The numerous plot devices are to be expected from a film like Death on the Nile and I happily and willingly fell for them hook, line, and sinker. The wealth of most of the characters is splendid intrigue and only adds to the enjoyment.

Considering the time is the 1930s a same-sex relationship and a brewing romance between the caucasian Poirot and the black Salome are fabulous additions.

Rumor has it, there will be another production of an Agatha Christie novel adaptation directed by and starring Branagh and I can’t wait for this. He has dusted off the old whodunit storyline and updated it with a spectacle about crimes of passion that feels fresh.

The result is a modernized Death on the Nile (2022) brimming with fun and pleasure while never taking itself too seriously.

House of Gucci-2021

House of Gucci-2021

Director-Ridley Scott

Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto

Scott’s Review #1,244

Reviewed April 10, 2022

Grade: B+

Upon the release of 2021’s House of Gucci, much Awards buzz surrounded the film, especially for Lady Gaga’s performance. A story of a once lofty Italian fashion family of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s seemed a prime winner on many levels.

Sadly, reviews quickly turned mediocre or downright lethal as more and more people saw the film reducing it to a meager one lonely Oscar nomination in a category viewed as minor.

The accolades were expected to be much loftier but the buzz was tarnished very quickly. Critics largely dismissed the work as too campy and melodramatic for its good but did praise the acting. Some ripped it to shreds entirely.

Mainstream audiences were a bit kinder than your average critic was.

While I recognize the criticisms and even agree with some, mostly its uneven pacing, I find House of Gucci a resounding guilty pleasure. The main appeal is Lady Gaga who takes charge, playing an unlikable manipulator who you shouldn’t root for but will anyway.

Here is a brief synopsis for those not familiar with the real-life story of the rise and crumble of the Gucci empire.

The film is inspired by the shocking true story of the family behind the Italian fashion empire. When Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), an outsider from humble beginnings, marries Maurizio Gucci and all his wealth, her unbridled ambition and manipulations tear the once close-knit family apart.

The family legacy quickly unravels and triggers a domino effect of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and murder.

With a cast including heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto there is much to focus on in the acting department. Besides Hayek who plays a psychic, all contain Gucci blood. All are terrific except Leto who suffers from overreaching for the stars in terms of the emphasis he puts on being a red-blooded Italian man. He overacts.

Of note is that all of the principal cast is American, not Italian, so the fact that I bought the language, culture, and mannerisms as authentic is another testament to their talent.

The fact that House of Gucci is directed by the legendary Ridley Scott is a surprise. Known for either science-fiction or different sorts of offerings like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Gladiator (2001), House of Gucci feels like a stretch for the seasoned director by way of subject matter.

Perhaps he phoned it in? There is little that is a cinematic spectacle in House of Gucci and its straight-ahead drama. Some argue it’s shot like a television movie. While I disagree that it’s as dismal as all that I do get the point.

From the camera lens, the film is saved tremendously by the juicy and lavish sequences that transpire in Milan, Italy. The decadence of the 1980s is never more apparent than amid the fashion capital of the world. With lavish estates, nightclubs, and enough exterior scenes to satisfy anyone who has been to Milan (I have!), it’s enough to save most viewers from the ho-hum story.

I’ve mentioned early how House of Gucci feels uneven. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly but there’s a feeling of a gaping hole or something missing from the film. Sure, there is enough drama and schemes to make television’s The Bachelor proud but there is a glaring misfire throughout.

I would have assured that Lady Gaga made the Best Actress Oscar list but sadly this was not to be. This is too bad because she gives it her all as badass Patrizia. She is a woman not to be fucked with and when she turns the tables on her husband and the love of her life he better watch out.

It’s a shame that all the dots didn’t connect for House of Gucci (2021). With such a terrific cast, juicy locales, and a respected director, the film could have been a contender. Instead, it’s a pretty good film that needs not be watched a second time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Modesty Blaise-1966

Modesty Blaise-1966

Director-Joseph Losey

Starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde

Scott’s Review #1,243

Reviewed April 9, 2022

Grade: B

Loosely based on a British comic strip of the same name, Modesty Blaise (1966) is a campy, over-the-top escapist film that features a relaxed style but a convoluted plot. The story doesn’t matter much and the film feels based on the James Bond film series with some Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr comic elements thrown in.

Throughout the action, I chuckled at the situation comedy antics of the characters. Both heroes and villains get mixed up in one hokey situation after another and all of the actors seem well aware that they are not performing Shakespearean comedy.

They forge ahead with gusto making it as much of a zany offering as humanly possible.

I mused at how much the film was reminiscent of televisions, Get Smart, a foolish but sweet-natured 1960s spy-genre offering.

I challenge the odd decision to make a film of this genre a bloated one hour and fifty-seven minutes. A spry ninety or ninety-five minutes would have been more than ample time to wrap up the experience and allow audiences to head for the exits.

This might prevent some from realizing how silly a film they’d just sat through

Modesty Blaise is not a traditionally good film but grooviness and pizazz are the main attractions as characters indulge in an orgy of colorful situations, and preposterous setups.

Lavish locales like Amsterdam, London, and the roaring beaches off the coast of the Meditteranean Sea bring the film back from going too far off the rails and pepper it with some cultivation.

If one is in the right mood Modesty Blaise is a chuckle fest but if aching for high art don’t waste your time. The psychedelic and groovy art design and Mad Men-like sets won me over as I quickly forgot to try and piece together the overcomplicated plot.

I simply didn’t care who was who or who was trying to outwit who and why. And I was okay with that.

Gorgeous Italian actress Monica Vitti leads the charge followed by the dashing English actor, Terence Stamp. Together, they make a lusty and good-looking pair though Vitti gets no acting accolades from me.

Her looks are the primary reason for her casting win.

The actress plays a  beautiful former criminal named Modesty who decides to go straight and work for the Secret Service. They send her to infiltrate a ring of jewel thieves. She is not especially respected by the stuck-up older regime but she shrugs it off and offers her best services.

Soon after she joins the gang, sophisticated and dangerous head honcho Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) grows suspicious of his new charge, and Modesty realizes that British Intelligence gave her a mission they could care less if she survives.

She then enlists her former partner in crime, Willie (Stamp), to help her out of her peril while outsmarting both sides.

Most of the action scenes are ludicrous. The likelihood of any of the stories being true is slim to none. Plenty of sequences takes place on a luxury yacht or some other water transportation so that viewers can see Vitti and Stamp clad in as little as possible.

I smirked at more than one James Bond nod though I dare say some influence on the still-to-be-made Diamonds Are Forever (1971) is noticed.

If I’m making Modesty Blaise out to be a terrible film, it’s not.

The gimmicky angle of having Modesty appear with a different hairstyle in every sequence is clever and enjoyable (my preference is for her as a blonde).

When she is imprisoned in a spiraling colored basement cell and must climb out the roof for help it’s one of the best-looking set designs I’ve ever seen. The creative team gets an A-plus for expressiveness and imagination which is the reason Modesty Blaise is so damned fun.

The cartoonish criminals Gabriel and Clara, played by Dirk Bogarde and Rossella Falk, are deliciously wicked. I was amazed at Gabriel’s towering purple cocktail and craved trying a sip of it to see exactly what he was drinking.

Satisfyingly, both main villains get their comeuppance.

The film is foolish, campy, and a silly time wrapped up in amazing artistry from a creative team who deserves more credit than they probably received.

Modesty Blaise (1966) is a messy film that I enjoyed and found endearing way more than I probably should have. It’s the guiltiest of pleasures in a chest full of sub-par spy comedy films.

La Bamba-1987

La Bamba-1987

Director-Luis Valdez

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto

Scott’s Review #1,242

Reviewed April 3, 2022

Grade: A-

The brief musical career of Mexican rock ‘n’ roll star Richie Valens is showcased in a lovely little film called La Bamba (1987).

The film spawned a massive United States number one hit, the title track, for the band Los Lobos, that filled the summer with rich culture and a hummable beat. The song is a recreation of Valen’s earlier hit from 1958.

I’m humming it as a write this review!

The film itself is flavorful and tinged with Latino colors and traditions such as the importance of family. It provides a much-needed look at diversity and recognition of a young talent taken way too soon.

His rise to stardom is the main focus but not forgotten is his influence on his family, most notably his younger brother in which love, respect, jealousy, and conflict engulf their relationship.

Valens, a Los Angeles teenager played by Lou Diamond Phillips, becomes an overnight rock ‘n’ roll success in 1958, thanks to a love ballad called “Donna” that he wrote for his girlfriend (Danielle von Zerneck) whose parents didn’t want her to date a Latino boy.

But as his star rises, Valens has conflicts with his jealous brother, Bob (Esai Morales), and becomes haunted by a recurring nightmare of a plane crash, in which he is terrified of flying, just as he begins his first national tour alongside Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw).

Foreshadowing indeed. It’s common knowledge that Valens tragically died in a plane crash over Iowa, alongside Holly and other prominent musicians.

Lou Diamond Phillips is fantastic in the lead role of Ritchie. The actor can entertain the audience while staying true to the life of the Mexican star. Not merely resembling him physically, Phillips brings Ritche’s famous life and energy to the table. Not lasting long in this world, the actor infuses as much soul as he can into the ill-fated singer successfully creating a dedication to his life.

The supporting actors are all terrific. Highly talented is Morales, his character of Bob is conflicted by his brother’s success but also closely bonded to him as well. As mama Connie, Rosanna DeSoto is fiercely protective of her cub while championing his career path and natural talent. Finally, Elizabeth Pena deserves praise for playing Rosie, the victimized girlfriend of Bob.

The interracial romance between Ritchie and Donna is also a strong area of La Bamba. Many decades after their short romance differing races coming together is commonplace but there are still those who object. The chemistry between Phillips and von Zerneck is palpable but mostly I imagined how nice it was between the real-life figures and the endless possibilities had the singer not perished.

Director and writer, Luis Valdez deserve credit for giving meaning to this relationship by making it obvious that other marginalized minority communities can be assured that most people support their unions.

La Bamba (1987) is a film where all the parts come together in perfect form. The music, the culture, the characters, all brim with life and meaning, ironically since the biography could have easily been a downer. Instead, it inspires and teaches unity and the forever-lasting power of music.

Yes, there are occasional cliches but I enjoyed the film immensely.

The Karate Kid-1984

The Karate Kid-1984

Director-John G. Avildsen

Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita

Scott’s Review #1,241

Reviewed April 2, 2022

Grade: B+

The Karate Kid (1984) is a wholesome and predictable film from the commercial entrails that were the 1980’s cinema. With a clever marketing pitch about a bullied boy overcoming obstacles, the film is utterly predictable. But the warm message and chemistry between the two leads make the film work marvelously.

It’s a truthful film that showcases the power of friendship.

The film was a smash at the box office becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest sleeper summer hits of 1984, making the lead actor Ralph Macchio an enormous star and household name. It also successfully brought karate to American households spanning a  new trend and appreciation for Asian sport.

The film was followed by three tired sequels before the franchise finally ran out of steam. A re-launch emerged in 2010 with mixed results.

Daniel (Macchio) moves to Southern California with his mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), but quickly finds himself the target of a group of bullies who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo. This heightens in severity when he becomes smitten with the ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) of the lead bully, Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) who vows revenge on Daniel.

Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), a kindly repairman who is a martial arts master himself. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate, and prepares him to compete against the brutal Cobra Kai.

The Karate Kid is very sweet but never too saccharin-laced and is easy to compare to Rocky (1976). In a clear example of manipulation and copycatting, Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the screenplay, was instructed to write something similar to Rocky which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Avildsen also directed that critically acclaimed film.

The result is Rocky-lite. The Karate Kid would be a great warm-up film before the headliner Rocky takes the screen.

The mission is to tell a story about an underdog rising to glory while staying true to himself. The Karate Kid is a product but is extremely likable and a fist-pumping good time. It’s not the sort of film one necessarily needs to see repeatedly nor will it be studied in film school.

The main reason that The Karate Kid works is because of the chemistry and connection between Macchio and Morita. The latter is terrific casting since Morita was usually known for comedic roles but works against type in his memorable role. His character is kind and humble and impossible not to fall in love with. As a mentor, he coaches Daniel with valuable and truthful life lessons.

Macchio surprisingly carries the film. Handsome and charismatic, he also represents to the audience anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or different from everyone else. He’s the boy next door but with an ethnic overtone. He is clearly different and therefore unliked by some.

The elements that don’t work as well are the traditional love triangle, hardly a triangle because one of the three is the villain, and the stereotypical nature of the bully gang. Shue plays her part well but the romance between Ali and Daniel is the supporting act to the fight scenes which inevitably show up mostly towards the end of the film.

The finale is one very familiar in sports-type films because it’s all too obvious how events will play out. Surprisingly though, it’s a satisfying payoff as every character wins out, even the villainous Johnny. Though he is soundly defeated, he learns a lesson from Daniel and comes to respect him. So, he repents.

It’s a powerful message that stayed with me and made me appreciate the approach to valued storytelling.

Safe and sturdy for a PG audience, The Karate Kid (1984) may feel dated and flounder for modern audiences but the message remains poignant and fresh. Hard work, determination, and respect equal success and satisfaction.

This may be a point easy to ridicule and pick apart but the film works well.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Pat Morita

Jaws-1975

Jaws-1975

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

Scott’s Review #1,240

Reviewed March 28, 2022

Grade: A

The directorial breakthrough by the iconic Steven Spielberg is Jaws (1975). The film is such a legendary and familiar project that even stating the name to pretty much any human being immediately conjures images of a man-eating great white shark and the unforgettable ‘duh-duh, duh-duh’ musical score.

It’s the film that famously made people afraid to go into the water just as Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho made people afraid to take a shower. When I have occasion to be near the ocean I always think of this film.

Jaws is a hybrid horror/thriller/adventure/action film whereas the subsequent sequels were all straight-ahead horror films that cast more teenagers, and some better than others.

Spielberg teaches a valuable lesson that much can come from very little and that a small budget can create greatness. What he accomplishes with Jaws is admirable, to say the least.

With Jaws, the story is more about the attempts of three men to destroy a killer shark and their relationship with the shark itself. The scary aspect, always terrific in horror, is we do not know what the shark’s motivation is. Why does it kill?

It’s a brilliant film that holds up well decades later despite the shark feeling less authentic as the years go by. But, the time a film is made must always be kept in mind.

When one summer day a young woman is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping near the New England tourist town of Amity Island, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches. He comes into conflict with the mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who overrules him, fearing that the loss of tourist revenue will negatively affect the town during its summer season.

Dismissed as a mere boating accident, the great white shark then kills a young boy in full view of a beach crowd resulting in panic and mayhem. It’s as if the shark is determined to be taken seriously.

Oceanographer, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled ship captain Quint (Robert Shaw) offer to help Brody capture the killer shark, and the trio engages in an epic battle with the beast.

Jaws is a film that can be viewed multiple times and provides sheer pleasure each time. Forgetting the horror elements, the film provides adventure and heart-pounding thrills per minute once the men dare to try and foil the shark.

The fun, as in any film of this kind, is not knowing when or where danger will strike, only that it inevitably will come.

Scheider excels in his household name-making role as the determined police chief. He cares deeply about the townspeople and is therefore a likable hero. During frequent scenes, he gazes out to the water, a troubled look on his face, pained and feeling responsible for the deaths.

The audience empathizes with him.

Lorraine Gary, who would have a lead role in later films with poor results, is terrific as the supportive yet challenging wife, Ellen. She is the yin to his yang and it comes across on-screen.

The best scenes of the film are the very first one when the girl is eaten by the shark and the later one when Brody yells at everyone on a crowded beach to flee the water. Munching on the first victim, this is the scene where the dreaded music makes its debut. From this point, the audience knows that once this music is heard it means the shark is nearby.

In the other scene, the panic caused is breathtaking and palpable and sympathy is felt for Brody. He obediently takes the blame for the chaos and the deaths and makes it personal when his own son is victimized. The scene sets the tone for the scramble and mayhem.

Jaws (1975) has it all: adventure, thrills, horror, action, a hero, and blood. The technical aspects are astounding with underwater sequences and effects that remain viable.

It arguably created what has become to be known as the summer blockbuster.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Film Editing (won), Best Original Dramatic Score (won), Best Sound (won)

Two Evil Eyes-1990

Two Evil Eyes-1990

Director-George Romero, Dario Argento

Starring-Adrienne Barbeau, Harvey Keitel

Scott’s Review #1,239

Reviewed March 26, 2022

Grade: B+

Two legendary masters of horror, American director George Romero, famous for zombie films, and Italian director Dario Argento, famous for stylistic horror,  team up to create a thrilling double-bill horror feast.

For fans of the genre, the idea is titillating, to say the least, and the follow-through is a robust success. There is a gnawing television film feel to each of the films that are eventually usurped by the reminder that grand directors are at the helm.

Cleverly, they base their films on the works of the poet Edgar Allan Poe, famous for writing poems and short stories of the macabre and peculiar. ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1990) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1990) are the featured tales.

Having seen many Argento and Romero works with Suspiria (1977) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) being my respective favorites, the fun is seeing how each film contains familiar aspects of each with a sprinkling of the 1960 Hitchcock masterpiece, Psycho, thrown in for good measure.

Fun fact- Psycho star Martin Balsam appears in ‘The Black Cat’ story.

In the first feature, ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, Adrienne Barbeau plays an ex-flight attendant named Jessica who plots with her lover Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada) for her elderly husband’s money. While liquidating large amounts of cash, her husband’s lawyer grows suspicious and warns her there will be consequences should her husband die in the next three weeks.

Naturally, he does, and events grow weird and terrifying.

In the second film, ‘The Black Cat, Harvey Keitel plays an unlikeable man named Rod Usher who works as a crime scene photographer. He suffers the consequences when he viciously kills his girlfriend’s cat. In his attempts to rid himself of both his girlfriend and the cat, they continue to reappear, much to his chagrin. With two detectives on his tail, the finale is both grim and satisfying.

If forced to choose, I am more partial to ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ and this is mostly to do with the casting of Barbeau of whom I am a big fan. It’s also the winner of the two as far as the unexpected conclusion goes.

Barbeau carries the film, short at only an hour or so, and infuses likeability into a character who could easily be dismissed as a gold-digging bitch. Jessica feels some sensitivity and truly wants no harm done to her husband, she only desires some money. After all, in her mind, she deserves the payoff for having married an old man.

Romero’s influence is apparent but not as much as Argento’s is in ‘The Black Cat’. A gruesome scene at the conclusion when a character’s decomposing body lumbers forward immediately brought me back to the zombie delights of ‘Dawn of the Dead.

The music in the opening credits reminds me of Argento films in general. A mysterious high-pitched synthesizer sound peppers the experience with horrific beats that are highly effective.

I did not enjoy the prevalent cat torture scenes that appear in ‘The Black Cat’ and these are tough to sit through. I was somewhat encouraged by the knowledge that the dead cat does enact revenge on its torturer in the end.

I chuckled at the numerous references to ‘Psycho’ mostly when Balsam’s character of Mr. Pym appears. When the man climbs a flight of stairs who won’t immediately think of a similar scene in ‘Psycho’ with a deadlier result. Another scene of draining shower water immediately conjures up the legendary shower scene in ‘Psycho’.

Casting heavyweights like Barbeau, Keitel, Balsam, Tom Atkins, John Amos, and Kim Hunter provide credibility to a project that could easily have been dismissed as a throwaway horror double-feature.

The experience is much better than that as the compelling nature and thrills by the minute will keep the audience invested and longing to know what happens next.

‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1990) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1990) effectively team two of the best horror directors out there in dedication to the best horror poet.

Perhaps a longer duration for each film might have allowed time for more character exploration but the results are just fine.

King Richard-2021

King Richard-2021

Director-Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis

Scott’s Review #1,238

Reviewed March 13, 2022

Grade: B+

King Richard (2021) is an inspirational, feel-good, Hollywood film with a strong message. It champions the little guy rising beyond expectations to achieve greatness. Audiences will be left with a warm feeling of possibility and that nearly anything can be achieved with hard work and determination.

The story of the world-famous tennis stars, the Williams sisters, and their parents, just happens to be true, lending the necessary credibility to make this film quite enjoyable. It’s a conventional film and contains many cliches but is a heartwarming family drama.

Richard Williams (Will Smith) is determined to write his daughters, Venus and Serena, into the tennis history books while also keeping them educated and away from the drug-infested streets of Compton, California where they reside. Along with his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), they defy all odds in their meteoric rise to fame and fortune just as Richard had planned.

The Williams family story is told in an uplifting fashion as they face trials and tribulations along the way like gang violence and racism. The sisters would soon become two of the world’s greatest sports legends.

The film is led by an excellent performance by Smith though I’m careful to make the bold statement that it’s his best role ever. I haven’t seen Ali (2001) but have heard he brings down the house in that role, again playing a real-life figure.

Time will tell.

The lesson learned about Smith is that when he skirts away from his usual summer popcorn blockbuster action roles in which there are many, he is truly a great actor. Plenty of backstories is given to Richard and the violence and marginalization he has faced in his past, living as a child in Louisiana. His occasional shrewdness and feistiness can be forgiven as the character is explored very well.

Aunjanue Ellis, unknown to me before this film, is a revelation. As Brandy and the assumed second-in-command supportive wife role, she does way more than one might have expected. In one tense scene, she lays down the law with Richard and refuses to play the second fiddle. Ellis brings a subdued toughness and quiet to the role that not all actresses can bring.

The casting all around is strong. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena are believable though they are not given the material that Smith and Ellis are afforded. Delightful is Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn in supporting roles as coaches.

Director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, sticks to a straight-ahead approach and achieves what his intention seems to be. He forges into R-rated territory with some of the gang relationships and an occasional racist remark but the effect is soft-touch only and the main message is how a struggling black family can succeed.

I enjoyed the depictions of California and then sunny Florida throughout the 1980s and the 1990s and finally into more recent times. It felt realistic and appropriate to the film especially when real-life incidents like the Rodney King police beatings were shown.

The editing team is flawless, especially in the multiple tennis match sequences which are very difficult to shoot and make seem real. The continuity is exceptional and a massive undertaking.

A safe passage and not a film to be watched a second time or dissected much with post-credit discussions, King Richard (2021) is nonetheless a winner. It provides enough positive vibes to leave its viewer smiling and determined to beat any odds.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Will Smith (won), Best Supporting Actress-Aunjanue Ellis, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song-“Be Alive”

Dead Snow-2009

Dead Snow-2009

Director-Tommy Wirkola

Starring-Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen

Scott’s Review #1,237

Reviewed March 12, 2022

Grade: B

First off, the cover art (pictured above) to the 2009 Norwegian horror-comedy film Dead Snow, is simply incredible. The creepy Nazi head embedded in the snow with a background chainsaw is perfect marketing and genuinely artistic.

It automatically makes the tired zombie horror genre feel fresh and alive with endless possibilities.

The film itself is a decent watch and tongue-in-cheek sensibilities are necessary to appreciate the movie. There is a hint of art film qualities peppered throughout and it’s not a run-of-the-mill mainstream horror film either but a sense of humor and embracing the ridiculousness is required.

In other words, one must be a fan of the genre to watch Dead Snow. Otherwise, it will not win people over with a great storyline or character enrichment.

It’s a slice and dice ’em affair and after a slow build goes into overdrive with the kills and thrills.

The familiar setup of a group of young people, this time intelligent medical students, heading off for a long weekend of booze and sex in a remote location gets Dead Snow off to an intriguing start. A lonely cabin in the middle of the snowy mountains of Norway is the primary setting for the Arctic Easter bloodbath.

The eight of them plan to ski and relax during the time away. After one of their group disappears while on a solo cross-country hike, a mysterious resident (Bjørn Sundquist) provides the remaining visitors with a backstory.

In the last days of World War II, a battalion of Nazi soldiers disappeared into the nearby woods after the residents turned on them, and that their zombified corpses remain on the prowl in the area looking for fresh meat.

Of course, the students hoot and snicker at the stranger’s proclamations but the audience knows full well the Nazi soldiers will emerge eventually. After all, in the very first scene, one of the students who never shows up to join the others is killed by an unidentifiable figure in the dark woods.

If nothing else, Dead Snow is prime-grade entertainment. I eagerly awaited who from the group would be butchered first and how it might happen. As all fans of the slasher horror genre know he or she who parties or has sex is not long for this world, and Dead Snow is no different.

What is different from a straight-ahead release is the dark humor that encompasses the film. When one student who is deathly afraid of blood must remove his arm with a chainsaw after being bitten, he does so with deep seriousness and precision.

The macabre scene nearly rivals some others like when a male member of the group is seduced for sex by a female member of the group while sitting on the toilet in the cold outhouse.

Enough splatters of blood exist to forget how silly the Nazi soldiers look. But the makeup and creative team do a superior job of making the zombies look horrific too. In particular, their leader, Colonel Herzog, is a combination of sexy and hideous.

The international quality and the Norwegian language require sub-titles but that is no problem for me. This brings sophistication and intelligence that I appreciate, rising the film above the mediocrity that it may have suffered from had it been an American release. The foreign lands add mystique.

Dead Snow at one hour and thirty minutes is short enough not to wear out its welcome which it starts to do in the final fifteen minutes or so. A chase scene across the snowy mountains and motivation for some ancient gold coins is explained as the final character makes it to safety in an until then missing car.

Or does he or she?

Providing some fun without taking itself too seriously, Dead Snow (2009) contains no message nor any marquis stars. Making Nazis the evil ones is no stretch so that there is immediately enough rooting value to forgive some of the students for their idiotic decisions.

It’s a bloody fun time but not much more.

No Time to Die-2021

No Time to Die-2021

Director-Cary Fukunaga

Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek

Scott’s Review #1,236

Reviewed March 6, 2022

Grade: A-

Celebrating the twenty-fifth in the iconic James Bond film franchise, No Time to Die (2021) is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final appearance as the British MI6 agent. As of this writing, it is yet to be determined who will next step into the shoes of the legendary character but Craig was able to make the character his own since his debut in Casino Royale (2006).

He retains his hunky and muscular portrayal with a sullen and serious tone.

No Time to Die is visually and stylistically similar to the recent handful of films to come before it with a slick and modern look and feel. The difference is that the film is about relationships and has a shocking conclusion that nearly rivals Mrs. James Bond’s, death in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service way back in 1969.

There are few quips or one-liners uttered by James Bond and we can agree that Craig does not play the character in the same way that Roger Moore did. But, there exists a dark and dreary tone throughout and more than one surprising death.

It’s a serious affair.

I love the parallels to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that emerge mostly in the beginning and end of the film. The inclusion of the famous Louis Armstrong song ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ recalls both love and loss experienced by Bond and is played in full during the closing credits.

This is a special treat for fans of that film, myself included. I felt emotionally connected to No Time to Die which was a major score for it.

In a long opening sequence, a young girl named Madeleine witnesses the murder of her mother by terrorist Lyutsifer Safin in a failed attempt to murder her father Mr. White (appearing in Casino Royale). Madeleine shoots Safin (Rami Malek), but he survives and rescues her after she falls into a frozen lake. This connects them for life.

In the present, after the capture of villain Blofeld, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is vacationing in Southern Italy with Bond when Spectre’s assassins ambush him. He incorrectly assumes Madelaine has betrayed him and he ends their relationship after they escape death.

Depressed, Bond retires to Jamaica but returns to action after his friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

With the emotional and relationship investments successfully sealed any worthy Bond film should have great action with interesting locales, stellar villains, and relevant Bond girls. In this regard, the film gets a solid B+ with the aforementioned bumping it up a notch.

The chase throughout southern Italy is fabulous with delicious scenery of the culturally lavish country getting the film off to a fast start. Other sequences in Chile and Cuba show the sophistication and investment in quality locales. Naturally, London is heavily featured and I adore the grand and frequent aerial views that allow prominent landmarks to be discovered.

As creepy as actor Malek can be in his roles and as dastardly a villain as he plays, I wasn’t completed satisfied with the character of Safin. Not appearing in an obvious fashion until midway through his screen time is limited and his motivations murky- I wanted more.

The casting is terrific but the character is underwhelming and not explored to his potential.

Christoph Waltz’s limited appearance as an imprisoned Blofeld is great, and double agent Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), and scientist Obruchev (David Dencik) prove quality secondary villains. The storyline with Felix and the returns of Moneypenny, Q, and M (now played by Ralph Fiennes) is solid.

Main Bond girl Madelaine did not win me over at first but by the end, I was heavily invested, especially since she is a powerful female character and a true romantic partner to Bond. A new female 007, played by Lashana Lynch is a progressive inclusion that breathes new life into MI6.

May both appear in the future?

Time, and perhaps another viewing, will determine how No Time to Die (2021) ranks compared to other Bond films. At a hefty two hours and forty-three minutes, the film drags in the middle section, and some characters receive limited exploration.

The nods to history and the heavy emotional investment kept me glued to my seat.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Song-“No Time to Die” (won), Best Sound, Best Visual Effects

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

Director-John Requa, Glenn Ficarra

Starring Jim Carey, Ewan McGregor

Scott’s Review #1,235

Reviewed March 5, 2022

Grade: A-

Easily the most daring and arguably the best film role of Jim Carey’s career, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a delightful romantic comedy featuring same-sex characters in the central roles. At the risk of being too fluffy, there is a sardonic and wry wittiness that I fell in love with.

Those criticizing the film as ‘gay porn’ are silly since there is hardly a sex scene to be critical of or anything more than would appear in a traditional male/female romantic comedy. Prudes wouldn’t see a film as I Love You Phillip Morris anyway.

It is based on the 1980s and 1990s real-life story of Texas con artist, impostor, and multiple prison fugitive Steven Jay Russell who was clever beyond belief and successful at outwitting his opponents.

I Love You, Phillip Morris, is the directorial debut by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra who received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Steven Russell  (Carrey) becomes a cop, gets married, and starts a family, but after a terrible car accident, he vows to be true to himself. Thus far in his life, he has played by the rules and done what is expected of him and because of the crash, he pivots to an emotional bloodletting.

The key irony is that Steven is telling the audience his story from his deathbed so most of the activity is in the past. This is the hook because it made me wonder how and why he dies. But is there a twist?

He comes out of the closet, moves to Florida, and finances a luxurious lifestyle with bad checks and credit cards. Arrested and now in prison, Steven meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a mild-mannered inmate who becomes the love of his life. Determined to build a beautiful life with his partner, Steven embarks on another crime spree.

The film caters to the LGBTQ+ audience but has crossover appeal so that all audiences can enjoy it. This is in large part in thanks to the screenwriters and whoever had Carey and McGregor in mind for the film.

Too often films centering around gay characters are deemed second fiddle and not profitable but with bigger stars, the audiences will come.

I Love You Phillip Morris is an independent film but builds momentum when the message is that big stars are comfortable in gay roles, something Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal taught us a few years earlier in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Jim Carey, fabulous in The Mask from 1994, and having his share of hits and misses over the years, is perfect in the role of Steven. It’s the most interesting role he has portrayed since he gets to provide his usual physical humor in a role that matters. LGBTQ+ audiences see a character who makes them laugh without the typical gay stereotypes.

Straight audiences will see a character whose sexual identity doesn’t matter to them.

Props go to McGregor as well who makes a perfect counterpart for Carey as the calm, cool, and collected ‘straight man’. The film could not have worked without him. He meshes so well with Carey that the audience instantly roots for Steven and Phillip to ride off into the sunset despite being criminals.

The stereotypes are limited but the subject matter of AIDS, especially given the time in which the film is set, is given notice. This is a win and Requa and Ficarra are very careful not to teeter too close to the edge of doom and gloom while respecting the disease.

At its core, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a romantic comedy, and the trials and tribulations of Steven and Phillip are told. I immediately fell in love with them and viewers will too. It’s a film that feels fresh and alive with the exploration of character richness that is not easy to come by.

Halloween-2007

Halloween-2007

Director-Rob Zombie

Starring-Malcolm McDowell, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tyler Mane

Scott’s Review #1,234

Reviewed February 27, 2022

Grade: B

I’ve seen director/musician/entertainer Rob Zombie tear down the house as the headlining second stage act at the metal festival Ozzfest in the 2000s. He’s a striking individual with ferocious energy and a creative persona. He’s also quite brave to take on such an undertaking as remaking the legendary slasher film Halloween from 1978.

The results of his 2007 effort simply titled Halloween is a mixed effort but props to him for having the balls to try.

Similar to other horror films he has directed, and his music, there is brutality and rawness mixed with nastiness and a grim outlook. He wisely focuses on the character of Michael Meyers but fulfills too much backstory for my liking. Part of the appeal of the crazed killer is his mysteriousness.

Michael is played by both Daeg Faerch and Tyler Mane.

The story is a bit of a remake and an original. The original aspect focuses on events that begin on Halloween when ten-year-old Michael inexplicably butchers a school bully, his sister, her boyfriend, and his abusive stepfather. He is sent to a mental hospital for the next fifteen years becoming despondent and fixated on making paper machete masks.

The second part is more familiar territory. Nearly two decades later he breaks out, intent on returning to the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. He arrives in his hometown on Halloween to hunt down his younger sister, Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton). The only thing standing between Michael and a night of bloody carnage is psychologist Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell).

I stress the point of the nearly impossible task that Zombie faced of remaking or even reviving a film as iconic as John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece. Without even putting pen to paper there would immediately be those who would mock and trivialize any attempt.

Zombie both wrote and directed the film. He immediately provides a reason for Michael’s dirty deeds. Close with his mother, played by Zombie’s real-life wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, who does a fantastic job, Deborah is a struggling stripper married to an abusive man. So Michael’s earlier butchery can be somewhat understood by audiences.

My preference is how Michael’s parents were portrayed in the original in their one brief scene. They appear to be an upstanding middle-class couple with a nice house and family. This makes Michael’s psychotic rampage all the more vague and confusing.

A fabulous scene at the mental hospital showcases an ominous moment. It’s Halloween Eve and Doctor Loomis visits the despondent Michael in the outdoor yard. The audience knows he will escape but not when or how things will erupt and who will be slashed, we just know the bloodletting will soon commence.

The rest of the film is standard fare and a letdown compared to the ambitious first half, though there is way more violence and gore than can be imagined. The film feels haunting and brutal with an uncompromising approach by Zombie to kick the killings up ten notches.

It’s like the original Halloween on steroids.

The casting highlights start and stop with the exceptional Malcolm McDowell as the tortured Loomis. The famous actor, forever known as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) carries the film with his expression-filled crystal blue eyes and tremendous acting ability.

Another winning choice is Brad Dourif as Sheriff Lee Brackett. Classic film fans will remember the actor as a mental patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in 1975 which he was Oscar-nominated.

Scout Taylor-Compton does a decent job as Laurie Strode but can anyone compare to Jamie Lee Curtis? I snicker at the thought. The rest of the actors portraying the teen friends are okay but not memorable.

Followed by Halloween II in 2009, Halloween (2007) received enough attention at the time to give fans a flurry of excitement but with the later recreation and reprisal by Jamie Lee Curtis and others from the original, the Zombie offerings won’t be remembered well.

It’s dirty, bloody, and raw but never terrifying. Zombie adds story points, some that work and some that don’t but I give the man much respect for dusting off a film as brilliant as Halloween (1978).

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #1,233

Reviewed February 26, 2022

Grade: A-

When thinking of the name Tammy Faye Baker, usually images of outlandish pancake makeup and ridiculous evangelical spewings are conjured up. Alongside her husband Jim Baker, the duo was prominent and highly visible throughout the 1970s and the 1980s as fixtures of Christian broadcasting.

Naturally, scandals ensued resulting in prison time for Jim and shame and career ruin for Tammy.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) delves into the thoughts and experiences of Tammy, hence the title. It’s sympathetic material and made me learn much more about the celebrity than I knew of. Other characters like husband Jim and sullen evangelists like Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson are explored but Tammy is the main draw.

I love the depiction of Tammy Faye Baker and hats off to a dynamite performance by Jessica Chastain, especially in the final act. Nearly unrecognizable, the actress unleashes a flurry of brilliant scenes and a depiction of a tacky woman winning over an audience.

It is Chastain’s best role yet.

Tammy’s LGBTQ+ community appreciation and thoughtfulness during the A.I.D.S crisis in the 1980s when very few others, especially in her inner circle, wanted anything to do with them is especially powerful and heart-wrenching.

She saw them as human beings when others saw them as lepers. She continued to support the LGBTQ+ community until she died in 2007.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. The film begins with her humble beginnings in frigid Minnesota and her closeness with her very religious mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), and her kind stepfather who accepted her as his own.

An innocent college romance with Jim Baker (Garfield) results in marriage and the rise to success in creating the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park, promoting a message of love whilst skimming from the top to enjoy their lavish lifestyle.

Tammy Faye was legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, it wasn’t long before financial improprieties and scandal toppled their carefully constructed empire.

This is the point where the film takes off.

Chastain had me at the very first scene when an extreme closeup of her face, now aging, is featured. Though wacky, she infuses a humanism and kindness into Tammy that immediately made me champion her.

Through trials and tribulations like nearly cheating on her husband to looking the other way amid the financial scandals surrounding her, she always keeps her head held high and fills any room she enters with love and sincerity.

The best scene by Chastain is at the end of the film when Tammy makes a triumphant yet humble return to the stage. As she nervously takes the stage at Oral Roberts University she imagines a stage filled with glamour and pomp rather than the meek one it is. It helps her get through and I wanted to give her a big hug.

All the awards attention has gone to Chastain but Andrew Garfield is nearly as flawless. Complex and struggling with Tammy’s brazen approach, his sexuality, and playing nice with the other major players, he gets his comeuppance but Garfield makes him sympathetic and a fine study.

Directed by Michael Showalter, I feel he could have gone much darker with this film. Sure, there is some sadness like when Tammy overhears a bunch of kids whispering that she is a freak or colleagues mocking her as a clown, but it’s soft touch. The woman battled cancer for years before dying from it but the film ends before any of that even happens.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) belongs to Chastain and Garfield. It’s a bit glossy and skates over some hard-punching attributes it could have showcased but it balances the camp with endearment and champions acceptance and compassion for one another.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Jessica Chastain (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

Welcome to my blog! 1,250 + 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. They range from dramas to horror to documentaries to Oscar winners to weird movies to mainstream fare and everything in between. 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 Top 100 Films section! I periodically update these rankings. Simply scroll down to the Top 100 Films category on the left or right hand side of the page.