Category Archives: Epic

Killers of the Flower Moon-2023

Killers of the Flower Moon-2023

Director Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone

Scott’s Review #1,406

Reviewed October 22, 2023

Grade: A

One great thing about legendary director Martin Scorsese, and there are plenty I could mention, is that he continues to challenge his audience with his films well into his eighties.

Any aspiring filmmaker, or any cinephile, should study his films.

Before I knew too much about his new picture, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) I knew I wanted to see it because I trust Scorsese as a director.

His most recent films, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Irishman (2019) are not easy watches but the payoff is tremendous.

Scorsese is not the kind of filmmaker to create feel-good fluff but leaves the audience pondering what they’ve seen long after leaving the theater.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, two frequent Scorsese collaborators and great actors appear in Killers of the Flower Moon assuring something of quality.

Be forewarned that at an enormous running time of three hours and twenty-six minutes, the film is long! Like a fine wine, it took me about an hour or so to immerse myself in the texture and storytelling but this only defends the richness of the experience.

Based on David Grann’s broadly lauded best-selling book, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is set in 1920s Oklahoma and depicts the serial murder of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation, a string of brutal crimes that came to be known as the Reign of Terror.

In 1918, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returns from World War I to his uncle, rancher William “King” Hale (De Niro), who lives with Ernest’s brother Byron (Scott Sheperd) on the reservation. Hale pretends to be a friendly supporter of the Osage people, but he secretly schemes to murder them and steal their wealth.

Lily Gladstone who has starred mainly in independent films makes her breakthrough performance as Mollie Burkhart, a wealthy Native American woman who is the love interest of Ernest.

The cast is unwieldy and features stalwarts like Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow in small roles but the notable mentions are DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone.

Each scene between the three crackles with phenomenal acting and attention to their craft. Gladstone quietly yet expressively emotes her character’s feelings and emotions. Mollie is a proud woman but not gullible as she presents a strong feminist quality.

Her scenes with DiCaprio resonate the most. His character of Ernest is complicated and possesses good and bad qualities. As Mollie professes early on he is handsome but not too smart.

Her statement comes further into play at the end of the film.

Amid the schemes and murders Killers of the Flower Moon embraces a sweet romantic story between Ernest and Mollie. They love each other and he adores her and their children but is it ultimately enough?

Any aspiring actors should hone in on scenes between DiCaprio and De Niro for inspiration. Each scene and line within the scene is delivered with naturalness. Carefully yet authentically executed their conversations are mesmerizing.

De Niro reportedly and unsurprisingly modeled his character after the callous and dastardly reality star turned-politician Donald Trump.  Pretending to be well-intentioned but instead bullying and scheming his way to fortune by bamboozling the weak, De Niro channels his inner asshole with precision.

I immediately recognized what the actor was going for concerning the hateful politician.

In what only enhances the film, Scorsese appears at the beginning and end with impassioned moments about the importance of telling this story.

Filmed in Oklahoma, many sequences of open land, fields, streams, and other natural elements appear. Scorsese often uses the same film crews which enhances the authenticity.

The cinematography is filled with early 1900s facets and real Native American people are featured. The colors and tribal outfits offer culture and a glimpse into their way of life.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) is an important film because it teaches and reminds the audience that oppression and tragedy have existed in the United States and still do today.

The telling of one group of people is sound and a stark reminder of how many more stories exist each needing the help of a great filmmaker to bring exposure.

Scorsese does it again.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Martin Scorsese, Best Actress-Lily Gladstone, Best Supporting Actor-Robert De Niro, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song-“Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People)

Oppenheimer-2023

Oppenheimer-2023

Director Christopher Nolan

Starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt

Scott’s Review #1,384

Reviewed August 1, 2023

Grade: A

Knowing the films of Christopher Nolan who directed works like The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), Inception (2010), and Dunkirk (2017) I expected what I would be served with by his new film Oppenheimer (2023).

This would include a big booming soundtrack and an arguably more ‘guys’ genre film, but with intelligence, than other contemporary hits like Barbie (2023).

Dark and looming with complexities are usual for Nolan so I settled in for a three-hour epic journey centered on the atomic bomb and physics that has unexpectedly become a blockbuster.

Speaking of the pink phenomenon its simultaneous release with Oppenheimer led to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon on social media, which encouraged audiences to see both films as a double feature.

This forever links the two vastly different films that were responsible for filling movie theaters once again.

I expected to enjoy Oppenheimer but was jarred (in a good way) by the sheer brilliance of its construction. Prepared for more mainstream fare that typically follows a biography or historical piece I was instead overly fascinated by the experimental elements enshrouding a more conventional film.

During World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) appoints physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer and a team of scientists spend years developing and designing the atomic bomb. Their work came to fruition on July 16, 1945, as they witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion, forever changing the course of history.

The film is constructed marvelously in every way and is authentic to the eye. The first notice is that it feels like it’s the 1940s 1920s or 1960s or anywhere in between depending on where the film goes.

The art design, costumes, and makeup feel natural rather than stagey which helps its audience escape into the scientific world.

Speaking of, Nolan constructs the film in a series of pockets and goes back and forth between periods. We see Oppenheimer many times as an aspiring upstart with visions, a confident, established physicist, and in 1963 when President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

His personal life is also explored.

Many, many scenes shift back and forth involving different characters at different ages. Most of the scenes in the 1940s take place in the desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico while the later years are set in a stuffy conference room where Oppenheimer is grilled for his left-leaning and suspected Communist politics.

The cinematography led by Hoyte van Hoytema provides some edgy moments especially when Oppenheimer descends into frightening and psychedelic hallucinations of those suffering the aftereffects of the atomic bomb. Images of peeling and melting faces are terrifying.

Cillian Murphy successfully makes Oppenheimer sympathetic especially after he creates the bomb and is left forgotten by his government.

Various moments in the film showcase Murphy at his best. After relinquishing his deadly bomb after a test the government callously tells Oppenheimer that ‘they’ll take it from here’. The look of dread, regret, and sadness in Murphy’s crystal blue eyes speaks volumes.

Another great scene occurs when President Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman) a left-leaning democrat calls Oppenheimer ‘a crybaby’ when he expresses interest in returning land to the American Indians.

The supporting cast is a bevy of riches with several top-caliber actors appearing in cameos. My standouts in larger roles are Robert Downey Jr. shredding his Iron Man superhero persona as a slighted and venomous Lewis Strauss, intent on revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and Emily Blunt as the boozy biologist and former communist wife of Oppenheimer.

My biggest takeaway from Oppenheimer (2023) though is a powerful one. The difference between the United States of America during and post World War II and in present times, 2023.

Then, a patriotic infrequently questioned nation brimming with pride and glory, where nationalism was rampant and expected and those with foreign respect were cast aside as traitorous.

Now, a divided country half of whom support an ideology based on hate, racism, and cultlike dedication to a corrupt ex-president, and the other focused on diversity inclusion, and equality for all.

This film resonated so powerfully well and in so many different ways.

Oscar Nominations: 7 wins-Best Picture (won), Best Director-Christopher Nolan (won), Best Actor-Cillian Murphy (won), Best Supporting Actor-Robert Downey Jr. (won), Best Supporting Actress-Emily Blunt, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Original Score (won), Best Sound, Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Camelot-1967

Camelot-1967

Director Joshua Logan

Starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero

Scott’s Review #1,370

Reviewed June 21, 2023

Grade: A-

Camelot (1967) is an adaptation of the well-known Broadway spectacle that explores the creation of the Knights of the Roundtable. It’s medieval times and King Arthur is the main character.

Original stage stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews declined participation which is unfortunate but their replacements played by Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave are more than adequate in the main roles.

At an epic length of nearly three hours, not every moment is the edge of your seat and some lagging exists but the film does justice to the stage production only with a big budget to add extravagance.

The setting and experience are pure magic and not only because of the far-removed time either. The Shakespearean elements are strong as royalty and entitlement mesh with scheming, jealousy, and dangerous romance.

This makes for some juicy soap opera drama.

After the arranged marriage of Arthur (Harris) and Guinevere (Redgrave), the king gathers the noble knights of the realm to his Round Table. The dashing Lancelot (Franco Nero) joins but soon finds himself in love with Guinevere.

When Arthur’s illegitimate and conniving son, Mordred (David Hemmings), reappears in the kingdom and exposes the secret lovers, Arthur finds himself trapped by his own rules into taking action against his wife and closest friend.

There are some dull moments to face at epic length, especially in the first half. I tuned out once or twice but then was whisked back to the dramatic events.

The great moments are truly great with enough punch to pack a wallop emotionally speaking.

During a sequence when Lancelot is challenged to a game of jousting with some knights events turn deadly and one knight, Sir Dinadan, is critically injured. Horrified Lancelot pleads for Sir Dinadan to live, and as he lays hands on him, Dinadan miraculously recovers.

The scene is fraught with emotion as a powerful moment occurs between the men. It’s also pivotal to the storyline because it links Lancelot with Guenevere and sets off a romantic chain of events.

Guenevere is so overwhelmed and humbled that her feelings for Lancelot begin to change. Despite his vows of celibacy, Lancelot falls in love with Guenevere.

More than one song is lovely in Camelot and as the course of the production went on I yearned for more musical numbers.

My favorites are the coy  “The Lusty Month of May” appearing when Guinevere and the women frolic and gather flowers to celebrate the coming of spring. Later, Lancelot and Guenevere sing of their forbidden love and how wrong life has all gone in ‘I Loved You Once In Silence’.

The lovers in the eyes of the law are to be punished so they are aware they are not long for this world.

Visually, Camelot is a spectacle and rich with style and pizazz. Whimsical colors and a ton of vibrant and fragrant flowers appear regularly amid fields of greens and forests of trees.

The castles and battlefields also lend support to gothic structures and masculine power that perfectly balances the exquisiteness of other aspects.

This more than makes up for any drudgery the story might have. It’s nice to sit back and be fulfilled by the cinematic beauty. Especially keeping in mind the romance that is at the heart of the picture.

So when the story drags one can merely enjoy the visuals and escape for a moment.

Also impressive is the story of friendship and how two male friends can be torn apart over the affections of a woman.

Camelot (1967) is an epic of behemoth length and requires patience to sit through. Some parts flat-out drag. But the daring and compelling triangle between the three leads parlays the experience into an above-average thrill ride most of the time.

Oscar Nominations: 4 wins-Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design (won), Best Costume Design (won), Best Original Song Score or Adaptation Score (won), Best Sound

Babylon-2022

Babylon-2022

Director Damien Chazelle

Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt

Scott’s Review #1,365

Reviewed June 4, 2023

Grade: A-

Babylon (2022) is a film that will largely divide audiences. Slightly late to the table, I viewed the film after the awards season hoopla had ended and the film came up empty-handed. Sure, a few nominations were received but much more was expected from the epic Hollywood-themed venture.

I’m a fan of director Damien Chazelle, most famous for the similarly set Los Angeles film La La Land (2016), which I adore.

His direction style reminds me a great deal of Baz Luhrmann’s with the incorporation of intense musical numbers during many scenes and a strong chaotic and frenetic nature.

I realize this style is not for everyone so I’m not surprised Babylon is somewhat revered and somewhat reviled. This isn’t always a bad thing as a good film debate can be fun.

I adore Babylon mostly for the powerful and potent silent-era Hollywood story and the terror stars of the 1920s faced with the realization that sound had entered their pictures and they were expected to keep with the times.

Sadly, many careers ended in devastating fashion sinking one-time big stars into depression and despair.

The acting is superb and major props go especially to Margot Robbie as debaucherous film star Nellie LaRoy and newcomer (to me) Diego Calva as handsome Mexican immigrant Manny Torres. Both actors elicit superb performances that should have landed them Oscar nominations.

The major overtones that Chazelle incorporates into Babylon are those of ambition and outrageous excess, but also belonging and acceptance. The rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood are explored.

As Hollywood makes the transition from silent films to talkies, ambitious up-and-coming actress Nellie and aging superstar Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) each struggle to adapt to the new medium as well as a rapidly changing world.

And Manny just wants a seat at the table.

Another reason I love the film is the dedication and exposure given to pre-sound Hollywood movies which nobody remembers. I struggle to recall ever viewing a film from that era with my earliest film being the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front.

The hit film The Artist (2011) may have paid tribute but it’s not the same and Babylon goes for the jugular in showcasing an entire movement that is now largely forgotten.

Cinema fans will respect Babylon.

Besides the film’s characters, there is so much movie stuff to appreciate. A Hollywood movie set, repeated takes, scripts, dialogue, lighting equipment, and rehearsals, make for a feast of riches for any cinephile.

The weak point is the behemoth length of the film. At three hours and nine minutes, an epic length, the erratic structure is a challenge to get through. A piecemeal approach can sometimes affect the continuity and it did detract a bit in this case for me.

If one can sit still long enough the final thirty minutes is superb. A tidy wrap-up and truthful storytelling give several characters a proper sendoff. The film ends in 1952 so a great conclusion befits.

Before we get to this point though, a nailbiting sequence involving Manny and a fiendish Los Angeles gangster played by Toby MacGuire is second to none. Fake money, a rat-eating entertainer, and pornographic dwarfs make for an odd adventure that one can’t look away from.

A fascinating and bombastic experience, Babylon (2022) loudly delves into the silent film world and gives a proper head nod to a long-forgotten period.

The film successfully makes me appreciate Hollywood and its history more than I already do.

Oscar Nominations: Best Musical Score, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Gangs of New York-2002

Gangs of New York-2002

Director Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz

Scott’s Review #1,327

Reviewed December 26, 2022

Grade: A-

Gangs of New York (2002) is an extremely violent and bloody epic by director Martin Scorsese that is an exquisite piece of filmmaking nearly flawless in every way except maybe its length and story.

On the one hand, it’s a beautifully choreographed and filmed crime drama with perfect costumes, art direction, and cinematography. Still, on the other, it’s tedious and lengthy, especially during the final hour, with choppy storytelling and seemingly one long continuous battle.

Scorsese being Scorsese and knowing his way around crafting an excellent film or two left me ruminating over the cinema and pondering whether I’d ever need to see it again.

Usually, I’m all in when it comes to repeated viewings of his films,  especially Raging Bull (1980) or Goodfellas (1990) but with Gangs of New York, the sobering almost three hours running time and the non-stop bloodshed gives me pause.

It’s not a mafia film but it is an Irish-centered crime drama harkening back to the mid-1800s so there are historical lessons to be exposed to. Familiar with most of his films there are good guys, bad guys, and a criminal, feuding overtone, and lots of grit and grime to plow through.

I can’t say it’s one of Scorsese’s top 10 but it’s a grandiose, epic-length behemoth that features a host of top-name talent but there are nonetheless aspects that leave it slightly beneath his most famous works.

But that’s nearly akin to comparing the works of Beethoven, Rembrandt, or other geniuses of one art form or another. Anyone respecting Scorsese or appreciating good cinema should see Gangs of New York.

Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young Irish immigrant released from prison. He returns to the Five Points seeking revenge against his father’s killer, William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) also known as ‘The Butcher’, a brutal and powerful anti-immigrant gang leader.

He knows that revenge can only be attained by infiltrating Cutting’s inner circle. Amsterdam’s journey became a fight for personal survival and to find a place for the Irish people in 1860’s New York.

The most delicious part of the film is the rivalry between Amsterdam and ‘The Butcher’. DiCaprio and Day-Lewis make powerful sparring partners and as much as Amsterdam’s motivations are admirable it’s Day-Lewis who has the more interesting character.

To no one’s surprise, the actor channels his inner dictator as he method acts throughout the film. To no one’s additional surprise, he steals the show away from other tremendous actors like DiCaprio, Jim Broadbent, and John C. Reilly in supporting roles.

However, I need to ask why Day-Lewis was selected for the Lead Actor Oscar category when he is a supporting one.

Worthy of mention is Cameron Diaz who, for once, plays the dramatic role of a pickpocket. Typically cast in comedic roles she shows she has acting chops.

The story gets a bit wayward about halfway through and I stopped giving the story much credence about three-quarters of the way through. It’s as if Scorsese had frenetic schizophrenia moments with tons of good ideas but none of them formulating a cohesive plot.

The New York City setting is a favorite of mine especially pre-civil war and well before the NYC of modern times even existed. The prevalence of Canal Street and various others make this northeasterner heavily invested in geography.

Finally, to bring it all full circle, Gangs of New York powerfully reminds the audience of the age-old topic of immigration and how those who have citizenship too often oppose those who desire to enter a country they once also did.

‘The Butcher’s’ brutal opposition is a sad reminder of how the United States of America was never united and the senseless violence towards immigrants is never-ending.

Gangs of New York (2002) may not be Scorsese’s best work but even on his worst day, he creates a film worth watching. Mixing toxic masculinity, and revenge with a crazy story he succeeds where other directors might fail by providing compelling filmmaking with all the fixings.

Just don’t get too hung up on the story points.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Martin Scorsese, Best Actor-Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song-“The Hands That Built America”, Best Sound

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-1966

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-1966

Director Sergio Leone

Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef

Scott’s Review #1,320

Reviewed December 9, 2022

Grade: A

Any film lover cannot view The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) without realizing its enormous influence on Quentin Tarantino, one of the greatest filmmakers of modern times.

Obsessed with the ‘spaghetti western’ a derogatory categorization for cheaply made Italian western films with lousy lip-syncing and an over-the-top stylization, he made them ‘cool’ and interspersed moments and film scores from some of these films.

Director, Sergio Leone also created brilliant films like Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and was famous for his sprawling epics at great length.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is top-notch in nearly every way. The instantly recognizable hauntingly operatic score is to be revered. It brings dubious and edgy energy that defines the entire film representing the title characters.

Unfortunately, the film received mixed reviews at best upon initial release but is now considered a masterpiece.

The sprawling landscape represents the American Western territory with lush mountains and desert dryness. In reality, the film was shot mostly in Spain but you’d never know it. It’s a pleasing feeling to possess this knowledge since it makes for more fun and comparisons to the fake world of the frontier.

The creative sweeping widescreen cinematography is also a major win. Combined with violent, stylized gunfights, the use of close-ups and long shots makes the film unique.

Story-wise, during the bloody Civil War, a mysterious stranger, Blondie ‘the Good’ (Clint Eastwood), and a Mexican outlaw, Tuco ‘the Ugly’ (Eli Wallach), form an uneasy partnership. Blondie turns in the bandit for some reward money, then rescues him just as he is being hanged. When Blondie’s shot at the noose goes awry during one escapade, a furious Tuco tries to have him murdered.

The men re-team abruptly, however, to beat out a sadistic criminal named ‘Angel Eyes’ (Lee Van Cleef) or ‘the Ugly’ and the Union army and find $20,000 that a soldier has buried in the desert.

The hook is that each of the three principal characters is looking for loot, specifically a buried cache of Confederate gold. This plot enhances the duels and peril along the way which is surely a selling point to the viewer.

The finale and paired ‘noose sequence’ is the highlight of the film.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is purely a ‘guy’s film’ though this is not to say females who appreciate influential cinema will not get something from it. Even if the plot is a one-trick pony the other aspects of the film quality are worthy of admiration.

In 1966 Clint Eastwood was not the big Hollywood star he would soon become and certainly hadn’t tried his hand in the director’s chair.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is very early Eastwood, and worth noting that it’s the film that propelled him into a rebellious action hero he cemented with Dirty Harry (1971).

Studying the characters may be a superfluous approach for a film like this but Blondie’s nickname of ‘the Good’ is laughable. He’s a pure anti-hero and joins forces with ‘the Ugly’ a known criminal. Sure, he spares lives but he’s not exactly a goody two shoes. That just makes the character more appealing in my book.

Spaghetti westerns were derided and scoffed at when they were originally released. Nobody could have predicted that decades later a film like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) would be revered and influential.

The great filmmakers who appreciated this film mirrored their own after it.

Dune-2021

Dune-2021

Director-Denis Villenueve

Starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac

Scott’s Review #1,282

Reviewed July 29, 2022

Grade: B

Dune (2021) is a film that under normal circumstances I would not have seen. I’m not a huge blockbuster, fantasy film kind of guy. If not for the slew of Oscar nominations the film received, ten to be precise, Dune probably would have flown under my radar.

I needed to see what all the fuss was all about.

Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), a brilliant and gifted young man born into a destiny that he doesn’t completely understand, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people.

As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence, only those who can conquer their own fear will survive.

My assessment of the film before even viewing it proved correct. It’s an epic-length, science-fiction, fantasy type of adventure film all rolled into one. I liken it to the unwieldy Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy in tone and content and a peculiar reminiscence to the popular television series Game of Thrones (2011-2019).

For most of Dune, my attention was squarely glued to the story as well as the astounding cinematic grandiose trimmings. I knew if I didn’t pay close attention I would quickly be out in a left field (I’ve made this mistake before).

Overall, I admired Dune and struggled to grade it either a B or a B+ finally deciding on the latter. The visuals are astounding and cleverly show off what can be done with enough CGI to make a film a marvelous spectacle.

But, for me, there needs to be more and I struggled after a while with the plot.

The story is too confusing. Why does every fantasy, or epic film need to be so deep in the plot with too many characters to keep track of? It started off okay and I was clear who Paul’s family is, and more or less who the good guys are. But then other groups like the Fremen (who I think are good) and House Harkonnen (who are all bald and I think are bad) are introduced, and a battle over valuable spice ensues.

To complicate matters, Paul suffers from strange dreams/visions mostly involving a young girl and some battle scenes involving Paul’s connection to a mysterious sword. He can also command without speaking, somehow.

I had no prior history to draw from which in retrospect did me a disservice. Dune began as a novel in 1965 written by Frank Herbert and was turned into a 1985 film directed by David Lynch which was deemed a disaster.

I probably should have read the book.

To be fair, the acting is quite good, especially by Chalamet and Isaac, completely believable as father and son. Their connection and chemistry are pliable but there is not enough of it. Instead, the main focus is Paul’s relationship with his mother, played by Rebecca Ferguson.

Chalamet, already an Oscar-nominated actor for Call Me By Your Name (2017), has the chops to carry a film.

Other worthy turns are by legendary British actress Charlotte Rampling as a Reverend Mother, and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, leader of the Fremen tribe.

Despite the over two and a half hour running time Dune does not drag. The bright sweeping desert scenes featuring a pulsating underground worm, mixed well with darker scenes in the Harkonnen’s lair.

Dune (2021) is made incredibly well and is a clear spectacle. I found it too similar to other genre films to give it a thumbs up unless you are already a fan of the novel, but this style of cinema may not really be my cup of tea.

Villeneuve, who directed Blade Runner 2049 in 2017 knows his way around the fantasy genre and is perfectly capable. He is directing Dune: Part II to be released in 2023 so I’d expect more of the same.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (won), Best Costume Design, Best Sound (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Cinematography (won), Best Production Design (won), Best Visual Effects (won),

Ben-Hur-1959

Ben-Hur-1959

Director William Wyler

Starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet

Scott’s Review #1,265

Reviewed June 9, 2022

Grade: A

One of the many pleasures of watching Ben-Hur (1959) is to marvel at the extensive cinematic brilliance involved by the entire cast and crew.

Saying it’s a spectacle is not enough and a must-see.

It had the largest budget ($15.175 million), and the largest sets built, of any film produced at the time. That allowed enormous spending to create one of the most lavish and grand films in cinema history.

I shudder to think of how powerful it was to see this film on the large screen in a movie theater and the sheer mesmerizing quality it had on audiences.

I’ve anticipated viewing the film for years and finally did. Why I waited so long is beyond me. It does not disappoint and the extravagance is immeasurable. I sat back in awe at the many aspects of the film, way before CGI was created, that make it as impressive in 2022 as it was over sixty years ago.

Charlton Heston plays a Palestinian Jew named Judah battling the Roman empire at the time of Christ. He becomes involved in a vicious feud with his ambitious boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd).

Their hatred culminates in an exciting yet vicious chariot race.

Condemned to life as a slave, Judah swears vengeance against Messala and escapes, later crossing paths with a gentle prophet named Jesus who helps Judah save his family despite his death.

The film made a household name out of Heston and other than its big budget is legendary for its use of homoeroticism and an unspoken love story between two men who are at first the best of friends and who later become bitter rivals.

The film had several screenwriters and if looking closely there is some uneven storytelling that is largely overlooked by the enormous spectacle of the finished product. Gore Vidal who was openly gay insisted on a homosexual interlude, conspicuously of course, between Judah and Messala.

Giggle worthy to those in the know is that Boyd played his character as a spurned gay lover of Heston’s, with Heston unaware of the underlying romantic angle. This is rumored to be because Heston couldn’t handle it had he known.

This knowledge made me enjoy the subtext of the scenes between the two men even more than I should have.

As if to prove the above point, the written romance between Judah and Esther (Haya Harareet) doesn’t have much chemistry and I viewed them more like brother and sister or good friends.

Other scenes of shimmering, muscular men sitting around in towels are further proof of Ben-Hur’s homoeroticism.

These tidbits of juicy intrigue provide tingles but the main draw is the famous chariot scene which is as exciting as an action scene gets in cinema. The outdoor arena, packed with thousands of onlookers, provides a perfect setup for the round-and-round racetrack as dozens of horses are whipped into a dizzying frenzy, going faster and faster.

The peril is prominent as numerous riders drop to their death, mangled into pieces from being stampeded by the horses.

Other sequences like the leper colony and the crucifixion of Jesus are beautiful and astounding.

Director, William Wyler, a heavy hitter at the time with gems like Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) easily usurps those excellent films with Ben-Hur.

It won eleven of its twelve Oscar nominations and employed ten thousand extras!

Ben-Hur (1959) is the definition of an epic film. Expensive and expansive, the breathtaking chariot scene is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film.

Not feeling dated it’s a marvel in exquisiteness and magnificence.

Oscar Nominations: 11 wins-Best Picture (won), Best Director-William Wyler (won), Best Actor in a Leading Role-Charlton Heston (won), Best Actor in a Supporting Role-Hugh Griffith (won), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Direction-Color (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Costume Design-Color (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Sound Recording (won), Best Music-Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Special Effects (won)

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 or 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 are 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

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 it belonged to others with more clout.

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 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 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. 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 are 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 escapes a deadly demise and conjures ahead.

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: 4 wins-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

East of Eden-1955

East of Eden-1955

Director Elia Kazan 

Starring James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet

Scott’s Review #1,092

Reviewed December 17, 2020

Grade: A

James Dean wasn’t with us for very long, tragically dying at the tender age of twenty-four, but he made three films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and East of Eden (1955), all-powerful showcases and unique.

Dean gives a brilliant, humanistic, and sometimes tragic performance.

East of Eden, his first film, is the only one he got to preview. I hope he liked it because it will live forever as a gem.

Based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, the story is also a biblical retelling of Cain and Abel, brothers who clash and spar. Director, Elia Kazan, famous for supporting and using Method actors in his films, got a tremendous performance out of Dean, which was key to the empathetic nature of the film.

The key to East of Eden is that it reflects on several characters, who are both good and bad, possessing qualities of each, detailing their struggles.

Nobody is completely good or completely bad. The story is an analysis of good versus evil and the multitude of layers that exist between both extremes. This makes the experience juicy, truthful, and brilliant.

Set during World War I, around 1917, two sunny coastal California towns are the backdrop for the action, Cal Trask (Dean) perceives his father, farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) as favoring Cal’s brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), which leads to much resentment, jealousy, and conflict. Aron is the apple in Adam’s eye, and we wonder why.

Furthering the drama is Cal’s love for Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris) who doesn’t rebuff any advances. Cal and Aron’s mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), who they think is dead, is alive and well and running a brothel in a nearby town. Assuming a different name, she harbors secrets.

Before you get the impression this is some cheesy soap opera, East of Eden, like the novel, is heavily character-driven and nuanced with development. It completely draws the audience in and envelopes one around the simmering qualities of everyone.

East of Eden is packed with powerful scene after powerful scene and in more than one the allegiances and rooting values shift from character to character.

Some of the best are when Cal self-destructs following his father’s refusal of his birthday gift, or when Cal cruelly exhibits the true nature of their mother’s vocation to the innocent and unsuspecting Aron.

Finally, Cal and Abra’s kiss atop a Ferris wheel is filled with smoldering desire and deadly consequences.

The acting was tremendous across the board, much of the thanks must go to Kazan for pulling fabulous performances out of the players- a talent only a Method acting director can achieve.

While the cast is exceptional, the film belongs to Dean, who provides enough emotion and vulnerability to sustain his character’s topsy-turvy and tortured existence. Knowing that the actor died soon after filming gives an eerie and sentimental feeling.

This is comparable to a more modern-day example when Heath Ledger died after giving a brilliant performance in The Dark Knight (2008).

This is hardly a war film or a guy’s film, as the ladies get to shine with rich characters too. Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet portray flawed characters in juicy roles rife with meaty scenes filled with conflict.

As with most of Steinbeck’s works, specifically The Grapes of Wrath, the landscape is a character, and East of Eden is no exception. With dusty roads and mountainous backgrounds, events ooze with atmosphere and beauty.

The lush northern, coastal, California landscape portrays a grandiose magnificence that counterbalances the conflict its human beings are dealing with.

The major note to take away from East of Eden (1955) is that we are complex creatures with a mixture of good and bad. We sometimes want to do the right thing but hurt those we love. The main characters suffer from pain, regret, good intentions, poor decisions, and loss.

The rich dialogue, adaptation, acting, and cinematography make the film near perfection.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Director-Elia Kazan, Best Actor-James Dean, Best Supporting Actress-Jo Van Fleet (won), Best Screenplay

Dances with Wolves-1990

Dances with Wolves-1990

Director Kevin Costner

Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Scott’s Review #1,091

Reviewed December 14, 2020

Grade: A

A western epic of grand proportions, Dances with Wolves (1990) is a quiet, yet bombastic story of one man’s yearning to understand and appreciate a different culture.

The liberal-leaning story is of dire importance in American history, which is my main love of it. This project matters and it has sincerity and truth. The content and the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography make this a must-see on the big screen for full appreciation.

Sort of like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), western style.

The lovely musical score is well-paced and simply gorgeous, only enhancing the experience and appreciation of the film.

The directorial debut of a then inexperienced and up-and-coming star, Kevin Costner, success catapulted him into the big leagues, garnering tremendous respect among the Hollywood community.

He also produced the film and used his own money when the budget ran over. The accolades were justified, leading him to become an A-list star.

He never achieved anything comparable to Dances with Wolves again.

The time is 1863 when the United States was embroiled in the Civil War. Union soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), depressed and suicidal, is injured in battle and receives a hero’s praise. He requests to be transferred to the western frontier, where he lives in solitude.

He slowly befriends the local Sioux tribe and eventually becomes an honorary member, falling in love with a white woman, Stands with a Fist, (Mary McDonnell), who was raised by the tribe.

They name him Dances with Wolves. Chaos erupts when the Union Army arrives to snatch the land at any cost.

Never the greatest actor in the world, but certainly competent, this is the role of a lifetime for Costner. That Dances with Wolves is Costner’s project is crucial. He had a vision and saw that vision to fulfillment.

To my knowledge, the studio didn’t interfere and strive for control but gave Costner the freedom to do whatever he wanted. It shows in the final product.

The romance between Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist is tender, alive, and without standard obstacles. No silly misunderstandings or drama. Theirs doesn’t need any trimmings. The chemistry between Costner and McDonnell is strong.

At over three hours in length, the film has time to carefully pace these brilliant moments.

The film is a political vehicle to teach the audience the ravages and unfairness that Native Americans suffered at the hands of the White Man, and that is huge. Too often the issue is skimmed over or diminished in school textbooks so it’s nice to see the truth given its due.

Dances with Wolves serves as an educational tool and no happy ending is provided. How great would it be if the film were shown in high schools and colleges around the United States?

I love how the film, a western, avoids the stereotypes always included in that genre. No good guys are wearing white or bad guys wearing black, no shoot ’em ups at local saloons, and no cowboys to save the day.

Dances with Wolves provides a character study with pivotal thoughts and motivations from the three central characters.

Graham Greene must be mentioned as an integral part of the supporting cast. His authenticity is illuminating.

Over the years Dances with Wolves (1990) doesn’t hold up as well as other films- Silence of the Lambs (1990) and Goodfellas (1991) are legendary contemporaries that everyone remembers better.

Dances may suffer from an “of its time” label, justifiably so, but the film is a masterpiece. Recommended is to dust this one off and give it a whirl, if even for old-time’s sake.

Oscar Nominations: 7 wins-Best Picture (won), Best Director-Kevin Costner (won), Best Actor-Kevin Costner, Best Supporting Actor-Graham Greene, Best Supporting Actress-Mary McDonnell, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

A Hidden Life-2019

A Hidden Life-2019

Director-Terrence Malick

Starring-August Diehl, Valerie Pachner

Scott’s Review #1,063

Reviewed September 22, 2020

Grade: A

Terrence Malick returns to the big screen with A Hidden Life (2019), a lavish, sprawling beauty with a more structured plot than many of his other films.

His recent offering, The Tree Of Life (2011), though marvelous, lost some viewers with its spirituality and lack of pacing.

With A Hidden Life, the director offers more substantial writing and an easier-to-follow story. It seems we can never get enough of World War II Nazi stories and conflict in cinema, as the topic remains relevant and powerful.

This one stands out to me in a powerful way because it is based on a real-life figure, and although set in 1940’s Germany and Austria, shrieks of relevance in current United States history as Malick offers clear parallels to the Donald Trump era. Frightening stuff.

He weaves the past with the present, so Trump and Hitler’s personalities are comparisons, and the supporters of each are portrayed as similar. Again, frightening stuff.

A peaceful peasant farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), lives a quiet life with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), in rural Austria. Over the years they welcome three daughters and exist in the idyllic village, popular and well-liked by the townspeople. Their beautiful life soon turns ugly when the German army recruits Franz for basic training.

Events escalate when he refuses to take a loyalty oath to Hitler, wanting nothing to do with a war he does not support nor with those who align themselves with the dictator.

This leads to many conflicts for Franz and his family as they face the wrath of once kindly neighbors, and the vicious Nazis.

The artistic details are gorgeous as frequent scenes of lush landscape erupt in a frenzy. The statuesque mountains in the background, a shot of a running stream, the characters digging, planting, and growing produce, all are exquisite, adding a grandness and a spirituality.

Advisable is to watch the film on the big screen, though I did not and still marvel at these sequences.

Despite the camerawork, A Hidden Life is not an easy watch, but it is an important one. The film is rich with meaning, texture, and substance. You get the feeling you are watching something of worth and that means something.

The film is not a work of fiction and the realism is quite powerful. To imagine a man like Franz sticking to his values and beliefs in the face of death and peril in real life is astonishing and sobering. Malick does not do glossy or downplay the ordeals that Franz endures in the hideous German prisons.

Treated barely better than Jews were in concentration camps, he was nonetheless mocked, humiliated, and eventually executed.

When Franz is repeatedly advised by a local priest and others to merely take the oath and not mean a word of it, Franz cannot do it. I was left wondering how many other German and Austrian people pretended to support Hitler to save him from death but did not. I couldn’t find any studies.

The comparisons to the horrific conditions in the United States present day with a wannabe dictator in the White House are sobering.

Thankfully, the United States is still the land of the brave and the free and certainly the outspoken. But we have a voice, and Franz did not nor do the Austrian people who he presumably represents. He did his best and refused to succumb to the pressures, but the question can be asked if it was worth it.

Oh, how I wish A Hidden Life had a different title, though. Not exactly one that rolls off the tongue it took me days to remember what the title was.

I kept confusing it with A Better Life (2011), a completely different type of film with a similar name. Something a bit more dynamic would have been preferred though I get why the word “life” was included. It’s such a profound word. The correlation of titles with The Tree of Life (2011) does make sense.

Malick does it again, offering another left-of-center production that goes against the grain compared to most modern cinema. World War II films are a dime a dozen, but this film stands out for its beauty and characterization.

One most likely needs to get Terrence Malick and his films to truly understand and appreciate what the man is going for here and props for adding a more concise story to draw viewers.

A Hidden Life (2019) is grand and fraught with meaning adding relevance to the current United States political state.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Terrence Malick

The Great Escape-1963

The Great Escape-1963

Director John Sturges

Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough

Scott’s Review #1,053

Reviewed August 17, 2020

Grade: B

Often heralded as one of the great World War II action films of all time, there is little great about the first half of the interminable two-hour and fifty-three-minute running time.

With enough military silliness to make television’s Hogan’s Heroes seem like high drama, the first half of The Great Escape (1963) would be graded a mediocre C or a C- and that’s being generous.

The final hour is an entirely different matter and when the actual “great escape” is launched the film kicks into high gear. Not only does the action kick off, but the characters become more layered, emotional, and compelling.

There are also killer location shots of Germany and Switzerland occurring at a zooming pace and the comedy soon turns to tragedy.

Why the decision to save all the goodies for the final act instead of dispersing them around is beyond me, but I am glad this film took off as it did.

Directed by John Sturges, known for creating a similarly masculine and muscular offering from 1960, The Magnificent Seven,  he once again is lucky to cast several of Hollywood’s then hot, young stars like Steve McQueen and James Garner, and more relatable character actors like Donald Pleasence and Richard Attenborough who provide the acting grit.

While not on my list of great World War II films (Schindler’s List (1993) gets top honors), the film is recommended for the gutsy and enthralling finale alone.

The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 nonfiction book of the same name, a firsthand account of the mass escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from German POW camp Stalag Luft III in Nazi Germany.

Unsurprisingly, and rather shockingly, the real events are significantly modified from the historical record, depicting a starkly fictionalized version of the escape, including Americans among the escapees.

Let’s discuss both portions, warts and all.

The changes are most irritating and done to make it more “Americanized” and therefore more appealing to mainstream audiences. This manipulation gnawed at me during most of the film since it’s factually incorrect.

To be fair, there is a brief disclaimer at the beginning of the film with a note saying the story is a work of fiction save for the escape portion, but this will inevitably be unnoticed or forgotten by the casual viewer.

Most of the first arc action is spent within the confinement of a massive, high-security, prisoner-of-war camp where the group of men is huddled, having escaped other camps or prisons. You would think the camp would be the equivalent of Alcatraz but besides some barbed wire and not-so-threatening German soldiers with guns they rarely use, it’s not so intimidating.

Nonetheless, shortly upon arrival, the group begins to plot their elaborate, mostly underground escape.

Whoever composed the musical score for the first section was going for a campy, situational comedy-style tone with brassy, patriotic tunes worthy of Gilligan’s Island.

This does nothing to create tension or danger nor do the Nazi soldiers.

The men would be terrifying and rely on torture, but there is none of that to be found. Safe, but trying to be stern, this does not work as the German soldiers are played more like foils than those to be feared.

When the “great escape” is upon us, The Great Escape gets an A-plus for its thrills, action, and emotion.

A harrowing plane ride taken by Robert Hendley (Garner) and Colin Blythe (Pleasence) is juicy with tension and atmosphere. As the duo flies low across the German terrain heading over the Swiss Alps for safety the plane exhibits trouble.

Meanwhile, Hilts (McQueen) steals a motorcycle and traverses the Germany/Switzerland border in a frantic chase scene while the Germans are in hot pursuit.

In a third sequence, other men flee via train in a cat-and-mouse pursuit.

Seventy-six POWs flee the camp and a startling fifty are killed. Twenty-three are returned to the camp and only three successfully escape.

If Sturges had built around the final hour and reduced the silly comedy style, probably attempting a contrasting theme to make the drama more imbalanced, he might have had a masterpiece on hand.

Instead, The Great Escape (1963) is a twofold experience.

A comedy that develops into a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thriller, but suffers from too much historical inaccuracy to reach the depths of cinematic greatness.

Oscar Nominations: Best Film Editing

Exodus-1960

Exodus-1960

Director Otto Preminger

Starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint

Scott’s Review #1,005

Reviewed March 30, 2020

Grade: A-

Creating a monumental epic about the modern state of Israel, director Otto Preminger’s vast project Exodus (1960) is a bold adaptation of the Leon Uris novel from 1958.

Starring stars of the day for added Hollywood spice and a romantic element, the result is a sprawling war drama with robust proportions and a hefty running time.

At times the film lags or even drags, but the enormous importance of the message and the influence of stimulating Zionism should never be forgotten.

With the treacherous World War II barely in the rear-view mirror, Israeli resistance fighter, Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), attempts to bring six hundred European Jewish Holocaust survivors from British-blockaded Cyprus into newly developed Palestine.

He meets Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), an American volunteer nurse, at the camp. The pair team up, along with others, to attempt to liberate the survivors.

The action eventually switches to Palestine where other characters and motives come into play in a complex story. During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states was heating up, leading to tension, bombs, and death among similar types of people.

Central to the main plot is a young love story involving spirited Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a radical Zionist resistance group member, and Karen Hansen Clement (Jill Haworth), a young Danish-Jewish girl searching for the father from whom she was separated during the war.

Exodus has so much story going on and multiple plots to follow.

The main draw, besides the tense story, is the two love stories told amid the political turmoil.

Newman and Saint have marginal chemistry, he is an eye candy who electrifies the screen, and she seems too old for him and does not photograph well. Kitty, a widow, hedges on her romantic feelings for Ari, but they do ultimately unite.

A gorgeous sequence occurs when the two share a delicious meal of fish and martinis amid a rooftop restaurant overlooking the dazzling landscape. She later dines with his parents, his mother a classic Jewish mother who in stereotypical fashion, cooks, and fusses.

The fresh-faced pairing of Dov and Karen is reminiscent of Tony and Maria from West Side Story. Doomed from the start, the youngsters are opposites in many ways, hot-headed, sensible, and resilient. He is bronze and swarthy, she is blonde and blue-eyed.

I fell in love with the couple, more than Ari and Kitty, and rooted for their happily-ever-after moment, which sadly never occurred.

At nearly four hours in length, the film is best watched in segments, perhaps even four, to let the action marinate overnight. The complex drama is aided by the sweeping cinematic photography and the lush exterior sequences.

A drawback was not getting to see the film on the big screen, almost a must in hindsight, and limited by the DVD quality over Blu-Ray.

Nonetheless, the film is delicious in nearly every way. Just when tedium is about to occur, an event happens that snaps the viewer back to immediate attention.

A notable fun fact is that Preminger boldly hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, on the dreaded Hollywood blacklist for over a decade for communist leanings, to write the script.

Together with Spartacus (1960), made the same year, Exodus is credited with ending the practice of Blacklisting in the motion picture industry. The importance of what is written on the blank page is arguably surpassed by the man who wrote those pages.

Exodus (1960) nearly rivals the epic of all epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in its cinematography of exotic and sacred landscapes in daring and forbidding lands.

Perhaps twenty minutes or so could be carved out when the action loses momentum, but with great direction, a top-tier cast, and a history lesson in the harshness of war and generations of conflict, the film resonates with the realism of the subject matter.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Supporting Actor-Sal Mineo, Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Cinematography, Color

The Leopard-1963

The Leopard-1963

Director Luchino Visconti

Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale

Scott’s Review #991

Reviewed February 18, 2020

Grade: A

One of the great works in cinematic history, I preface this review by stating that I viewed the English dubbed version of the brilliant The Leopard (1963) starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.

This version is considerably shorter, at two hours and forty-one minutes than the Italian version, which is three hours and five minutes.

As grand as the former is, my hunch is that something is lost in translation put side by side with the latter. The English version has no subtitles and is available only on DVD, so the film is difficult to follow but is still rich in texture.

An interesting tidbit is that the film surgery was performed without director Luchino Visconti’s input – the director was unhappy with the editing and the dubbing. This point is valid since some of the voices are Italian and French, sounding too American and unauthentic.

Admittedly inferior, the English version is nonetheless extravagant and lovely by its own merits, though I am dying to see the original version, if available.

The time is during the 1860s as the tumultuous era affected the country of Italy and more specifically, Sicily. Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Lancaster) is at a crossroads, torn between holding onto the glory he once knew and accepting the changing times, welcoming a more modern unity within the country.

He is surrounded by a new mayor, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) who has a gorgeous daughter, Angelica (Cardinale), who intends to marry Fabrizio’s French nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon).

The film dissects the changing times in Italy.

The visual treats that await the viewer are astounding and by far the best part of the film. The lovely and palatial estates are gorgeous with decorative sets, bright and zesty colors, and ravishing meals displayed during parties to make any audience member salivate with joy.

The costumes are state of the art, as each frame can easily be a painting on a canvas. A tip is to periodically pause the film and study and immerse oneself in its style.

Many film comparisons, both past and yet to come, can easily be made when thought about. An Italian Gone with the Wind (1939), if you will, with Angelica as Scarlett and Tancredi as Rhett (okay, the chemistry is not quite the same, but similarities do exist), and Concetta as the long-suffering Melanie, the characters can be compared.

The great ball, the costumes, and the ravaged country are more prominent comparisons.

Nine years after The Leopard, a little film entitled The Godfather (1972) would change the cinematic landscape forever.

Director, Frances Ford Coppola must have studied this film, as the plentiful scenes of the Italian landscape and the Italian culture are immersed in both films. Even snippets of the musical score mirror each other.

What a grand film to borrow and cultivate from!

Despite all the beautiful trimmings that make The Leopard a masterpiece, the film belongs to Lancaster, in the best role of his career. The hunk in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, as the Prince, he is aged to perfection, distinguished-looking with graying sideburns.

The film is an epic extravaganza and the actor leads the charge, carrying the film. He is a stoic man, but not without fault and emotion, wearing his heart on his sleeve, realizing that he must adapt to the changing times. We feel his quandary and embrace the character as a human being.

Attention-paying fans must be forewarned that the plot is basic and while difficult to follow because of the absence of sub-titles, at the same time there is not a highly complex story to follow.

The story is about how the Prince maneuvers his family through troubled (and changing) times to a more secure position. This is the overlying theme of the film.

Suffering from dubbing and quality control issues can do nothing to ruin a spectacular offering that is a cinematic gem and testament to the power of The Leopard’s (1963) staying power.

I eagerly await the day when the traditional Italian version can be located, and discovered, as this will assuredly be a treat to sink my teeth into.

Until then, the film is a historical epic that can be appreciated for the dynamics and importance it so richly deserves.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Color

1900 (Novecento)-1977

1900 (Novecento)-1977

Director Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring Robert De Niro, Gerard Depardieu

Scott’s Review #984

Reviewed January 28, 2020

Grade: A

An epic to rival all epics, 1900 (Novecento) (1977) is a grandiose offering of monumental proportions featuring legendary actors and created by a brilliant director.

With a running time of a whopping three-hundred and seventeen minutes in its original version, 1900 is known for being one of the longest commercially released films ever made.

The cinematography is breathtaking, and the historical values, like friendship, class distinction, and rivalry are outlined and explored in depth.

The key is to let the experience marinate and blossom with a slow and patient build.

Brilliant director Bernardo Bertolucci’s tale follows the lives of two Italian men, a peasant named Olmo (Gerard Depardieu) and landowner Alfredo, (Robert De Niro), both ironically born on January 1, 1900.

Inseparable as children, the two become estranged as their differing social status pulls them apart. Their conflicts mirror the political events in Italy, as both fascism and socialism gained prominence in the country.

Here is a bit of background on the film.

Due to its length, the film was presented in two parts when originally released in many countries, including Italy, East, and West Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Colombia, Pakistan, and Japan.

In other countries, such as the United States, a single edited-down version of the film was released.

The latter is not the way to watch this film. I do not like severely edited films, especially in an epic such as 1900, so the full-length version is highly recommended.

The film opens on April 25, 1945, the day Italy is liberated from the fascists, and this is key to the political message Bertolucci crafts. As peasants revolt against the owner of the land, Alfredo (De Niro), and female laborers wield deadly pitchforks, the resulting ambiance is one of chaos.

We know nothing of Alfredo yet but know enough to realize he is rich and perceived as a tyrant. The natural reaction is to sympathize with them because they are oppressed.

As the film backtracks to the turn of the century, a more elegant scene emerges with the birth of two infants, Alfredo and Olmo. The sequence is sweet, both babies are bright and filled with promise.

Sadly, this is not meant to be.

A railway track is an important addition to the film and one that culminates in the climactic finale.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the dynamic development of Alfredo and Olmo as they grow. Alfredo resents his family’s wealth and sides with Olmo, a socialist. Alfredo sees his family as false and Olmo and his family as genuine.

This aspect is timeless and can be related to by any viewer with any intelligent sense of the world today. The obvious analogy of the haves and have-nots cannot be clearer in this film. Frightening, is that some have-nots are convinced they will one day become the haves.

The messages and feelings that 1900 elicited are emotional and strong. Aren’t all men created equal? On the surface they are, but Alfredo and Olmo are not equal. As the birth scene reveals and as Bertolucci makes clear, they are born with advantages and disadvantages.

These characteristics simply are what they are, and as human beings grow and learn social norms the financial differences become more robust and the humanistic connections weaker.

If the social aspects of the film or the brilliant cinematography are not enough to please a viewer, the historical lessons presented are second to none. One can revel in the political and historical excitement that existed in Europe throughout the forty-five years in which the film is set.

I wish Hollywood made more films like this.

1900 (Novecento) (1977) can be enjoyed as both a grandiose dramatic period piece, revered for its majestic and flourishing design style, or as a thought-provoking message film, about the unresolved social class distinctions that exist in the world.

I found the film a treasure that works on all levels and showcases just how good a director Bertolucci is.

This film is not his best-known work, but for fans of cinema as an art form, this is a must-see.

1917-2019

1917-2019

Director-Sam Mendes

Starring-George Mackay, Dean-Charles Chapman

Scott’s Review #979

Reviewed January 14, 2020

Grade: A

My tastes do not always lean towards the standard war film, so when I first heard about 1917 (2019) I was less than enthusiastic for no other reason than my pre-conceived perceptions.

Though peaked with the idea of a World War I film rather than the standard World War II or Vietnam War film, I anticipated a run-of-the-mill experience or a story that had already been told.

Boldly told with incredible intensity and a brilliant technical style, director Sam Mendes creates a memorable cinematic treasure.

In April 1917, during the height of World War I, two British soldiers are tasked with a daring assignment, to hand-deliver crucial news to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off their planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have faked a retreat to the Hindenburg Line and are ready to ambush the battalion, intending to kill sixteen-hundred soldiers.

Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are chosen, Blake’s brother Joseph among the soldiers bound to meet their fate.

As they journey, the young men face a myriad of hurdles including booby traps left by the Germans, terrain littered with dead bodies of their comrades, a precarious helicopter crash, giant rats, and the rapidly approaching deadline to deliver their message.

If they do not accomplish their mission in a timely fashion (twenty-four hours) the results will be devastating. Mendes keeps the tension high because he tells his film in real-time style.

1917 is raw and emotional and hits a hard punch. Powerful scenes of dead bodies riddle the land, fat and pale from days spent immersed in cold water, young soldiers once handsome, now dead and bloated, remind the viewer what a terrible thing war is, and the ravages caused.

Unlike other war films, patriotism and nationalist pride are not there. Rather, the soldiers are weary and angry, confused as to why they are sent to fight for land as ugly as where they are, to die for land that is not even their own. They are depressed and confused.

The relationship between Schofield and Blake is wonderful. Both men are weary and afraid but have each other’s backs throughout their assignment.

It is not clear how long they have known each other, but they are at least acquaintances. They each come to the other’s rescue and a pivotal scene occurs in a dusty hideout where they nearly die after a cave-in.

The characters have grit and determination, but humanity and a connection with each other resonate powerfully to the viewer.

A wonderful scene is produced as day turns into night, Schofield well into enemy territory. To avoid a pursuant German soldier, he hides in a dusty basement area and finds a cowering young French girl. At first fearful, the pair quickly bond, and a realization occurs to Schofield.

The girl is accompanied by a newborn child.

Assumed to be hers, the soldier immediately parts with his stash of food, not realizing the baby can have only milk. A ghastly realization is that the baby is not the French girl at all but was instead found and rescued to prevent its death. The scene is tender and beautiful, perfectly contrasting the ugliness of the war.

The wonderful scene gives the viewer pause wondering what will become of the girl and the baby.

Nearly rivaling this lovely scene, another poignant moment occurs when Schofield stumbles upon a group of soldiers watching another soldier perform a rendition of the melancholy war tune, “Wayfaring Stranger”. This moment slows the action down to a crawl with a dedication to loneliness and sadness amid the terrible battles.

The technical aspects that Mendes creates are spectacular and meant to be enjoyed on the largest screen possible. He uses a one-take approach which keeps the action fast and furious.

The lavish and grandiose exterior scenes of immense dry land perfectly counterbalance a terrific watery scene when Schofield is chased into the river and soon embarks into wavy grand rapids.

The camera remains on the soldier throughout the scene as the viewer is the one taken on the wild adventure, sweeping every morsel of up and down motion with the tide.

To piggyback this point, a scene occurs when one of the young men is knocked unconscious. It is daylight, but when he regains consciousness it is night. The cinematography is brilliant with a sharp left turn to translucent colors and blurry images of buildings.

The viewer is as disoriented as the soldier and fears what lurks in the shadows, as is found out when an unknown approaching figure begins to fire his gun.

1917 (2019) is a progressive-leaning gem with an anti-war message and a genuine approach to a “day in the life of a soldier”. It is not glossy or contrived, but a candid realistic view of the savagery of war.

With a creative technical style, it is one of the best of its genre ever made.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Sam Mendes, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing (won), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Visual Effects (won)

A Passage to India-1984

A Passage to India-1984

Director David Lean

Starring Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft

Scott’s Review #971

Reviewed December 24, 2019

Grade: A-

David Lean, famous for his sweeping, masterpiece epics including Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), returns with his swan song, a grandiose and lavish film, A Passage to India (1984).

Though not quite on the same level as the two other mentions, the brilliant cinematography alone makes this one a winner.

The story is compelling with a mystery and he said/she said rape story that deepens, exploring racism and religion, assuredly switching viewer allegiances between characters.

A Passage to India is based on the famous E.M. Forster novel from 1924. Along with A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), the three make up a series that examines class differences and hypocrisy among the British.

All three are set at least partially in England and were all adapted to film with immeasurable success. While the film is potent and meaningful, it is the least brilliant of the three, but only by a hair.

Set in the 1920s, the British had control over India causing some tensions in the air. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) sails from England to India with Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), the mother of her intended bridegroom, whom they plan to see when they arrive at their destination.

The women have a wonderful relationship and excitedly anticipate their adventure.

After Mrs. Moore meets the kindly Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), becoming enamored and enraptured, the women accompany him to an exploration of ancient caves, along with a guide.

When Adela and Ahmed are left alone, she suddenly appears frantic, accusing the Indian Doctor of attempted rape, setting off a blistering scandal that causes public debate and divides the townspeople, culminating in a trial.

The story is naturally the focal point of the film, but not the strongest part. At first left aghast at the accusations hurled at Aziz, by all appearances a wonderful man, the intention is for the viewer to be unclear of what transpires when Aziz and Adela are alone. The events, if any exist, take place off-screen, so we only see a disheveled Adela flee the caves in panic.

The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination and to wonder what happened. As the truth is eventually revealed, we wonder about the intended motivations and the ramifications the accusations will have on the central characters.

The film is successful at interestingly discussing racism and assumptions, leading major characters to disagree. Adela and Mrs. Moore wind up at odds after the events, with Moore refusing to believe Aziz did anything wrong.

This is a bold stance to take as the women are good friends and we would assume one would support the other. While Moore is liberal and open-minded, Adela is conservative and buttoned-up, making the ideological differences clearer.

Did Adela imagine the attack? Did somebody else attack her?

The cinematography is brilliant and the pure excellence of the film is. The plentiful exterior scenes are delectable and simmer with beauty within each frame. Since many of them take place in the grandiose mountains or caves the results are exquisite.

One can easily sit back and revel in the majestic sequences and many scenes are still and quiet which enhances the effects. As with other Lean epics, it advisable is to see this film on the biggest screen known to mankind.

At one-hundred and sixty-four minutes, the film is hardly non-stop action, but rather slightly laborious and lumbering. Some parts are a tad too slow, but the payoff is mighty and there is a measure of intrigue throughout, especially once the cave incident occurs.

I hate to say the film drags, but perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes could have been shaved off. When Lean is at the helm, a hefty running time is a guarantee.

A Passage to India (1984) is a film by a respected director that culminates a lengthy and inspired career boldly. While not his best film, this should not detract from the excellent experience the film provides.

Grandiose sequences and sophisticated style make the film able to be viewed more than once, a marvel for a film released in the lackluster 1980s.

Oscar Nominations: 2 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-David Lean, Best Actress-Judy Davis, Best Supporting Actress-Peggy Ashcroft (won), Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Original Score (won), Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing

The Irishman-2019

The Irishman-2019

Director- Martin Scorsese

Starring-Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

Scott’s Review #960

Reviewed November 20, 2019

Grade: A

Any film created by legendary director, Martin Scorsese is sure to impress legions of adoring followers and most critics. Every project he touches on results in something fantastic, and easy to revel in good analysis and discussion about the movie moments after the closing credits have rolled.

The Irishman (2019) is a film that requires repeated viewings and thought to obtain the full flavor and relish in the savory and vast cast of characters.

The picture may not be on the same level as Goodfellas (1990) or The Godfather (1972), which it seems patterned after, but the work is highly impressive and should stand the test of time resulting in a fine wine analogy.

The years will likely be kind to the film and enrich the experience- it’s that kind of film. With stars like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel on board, the viewer expects a plethora of riches and that is exactly what is delivered.

The film spans the period of the 1950s through the 1970s and follows the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who becomes a hitman and gets involved with mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his crime family, including his time working for the powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran is dubbed “the Irishman”.

He narrates much of the story, now quite elderly and residing in a nursing home, of his time in the mafia and the mystery surrounding the death of Hoffa.

The only negatives to the film are the suspension of disbelief that De Niro is Irish- was there ever a more Italian New Yorker? But, alas, this film is Scorsese directed and De Niro produced, so they could tell me the sky is green and I would readily nod in agreement.

At three hours and twenty-nine minutes, the film is a long haul and towards the middle, the film meanders a bit. Perhaps twenty or thirty minutes could have been sliced to the cutting room floor.

The rest of the experience The Irishman serves up is brilliance, with rich characters and a wonderful atmosphere. Have I mentioned that Scorsese directed this film? The cast of characters is endless and drizzles with zest speaking volumes for what The Godfather did with casting.

Many recognizable actors appear in small roles like Ray Romano as attorney Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale as “Skinny Razor”, and Anna Paquin as Frank’s estranged daughter, Peggy. An endless supply of character actors fleshes out the remaining cast.

Wonderful is the plethora of food references that would impress notable food director, Alfred Hitchcock, known for incorporating meals into many of his scenes. The delectable early scenes when Frank delivers meat to grocers and gets in with a gangster over a discussion about a good steak will leave viewers mouth-watering for a tender sirloin.

The conversations between characters are interesting, slowly building and adding robust grit to a packed film. They have good, careful dialogue exchanges and talk matter-of-factly about life and experiences.

Characters are given a chance to develop and grow and even small characters like a nurse or a wife add a good, comforting aura. It is evident what treasured films look like when a director can simply create and develop without outside interference.

The standouts in the acting department are Pacino and De Niro, the former crossing my fingers will receive an Oscar nomination.

The pairing is flawless and eagle-eyed fans will recall that both actors appeared together in The Godfather Part II (1974) yet never shared a scene.

In The Irishman, they appear together in pivotal scenes. Pacino infuses Hoffa with humor and poise as only Pacino can do with a character. He is my favorite character and is tough to look away from.

Both actors, along with Pesci, are treated to a recent marvel in cinema- that of the de-aging process. Each actor, well into his seventy’s, is transformed to mid-forties in many scenes and then aged to appear elderly later in life.

While each has a strange unnatural look to him as a younger man, the process is impressive and an innovative technique that assuredly will become more common in film, and subsequently offer limitless possibilities.

The Irishman (2019) is a cinematic gem by a storied director advancing in years, but still offering grandiose films. With stalwarts like De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, the players are well cast, and nuanced touches add dimensions to the finished product.

Offering a gangster film with grace and style, the story is poignant and crisp and a thoughtful approach to one of the legendary mysteries- what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Martin Scorsese, Best Supporting Actor-Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects

The Bridge on the River Kwai- 1957

The Bridge on the River Kwai- 1957

Director David Lean

Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness 

Scott’s Review #908

Reviewed June 11, 2019

Grade: A

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a war film that is an example of character-driven story-telling from each person’s perspective.

Films of this genre frequently do not steer too far from the straight and narrow showcasing the war event perspective. This often becomes larger than the humanity piece. A key is the American, British, and Japanese points of view turning the grand epic experience into a more personal one.

The film was awarded numerous Oscar nominations culminating with the Best Picture of the Year victory.

The time is early 1943 amid the powerful and destructive World War II when a group of British prisoners of war (POW) arrives at a Japanese camp. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) commands all prisoners regardless of rank to begin work on a railway bridge that will connect Bangkok with Rangoon.

The British commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses manual labor and a battle of wills erupts between the two men. Meanwhile, an American, Commander Shears (William Holden), also being held at the same camp, vows to destroy the bridge to avoid a court-martial.

The complexities of the relationships between the men are the main draw and an aspect that can be discussed at length. Each possesses a firm motivation, but the emotions teeter back and forth as they face various conflicts.

Each of the three principles is an analytical juggernaut in the human spirit, ranging from courageous, cowardly, and even evil. We are supposed to root for Shears and supposed to not root for Saito but why is that not so cut and dry?

Is Shears too revenge-minded? We cheer Nicholson’s resilience but is he too stubborn for his good?

The film’s whistling work theme nearly became famous when the film was originally released in 1957. Ominous and peppered with a macabre depression, the prisoners go about their work in a near ode to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ cheerier “Whistle While You Work” anthem.

As they dutifully continue to build the bridge the audience feels a sense of dread and a foreboding atmosphere. What will ultimately happen? When two prisoners are shot dead while attempting to escape the film takes a different turn.

Given that David Lean, responsible for such epic masterpieces as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and A Passage to India (1984), directs The Bridge on the River Kwai, should be telling as far as the sweeping exterior landscape treats in store for the viewer.

The lavish Asian landscape, so picturesque and beautiful, is peaceful amid the chaos and vile way the prisoners are treated. This imbalance is wonderfully rich and poignant against the robust storytelling.

The climax is bombastic (literally!) and a nail-biting experience resulting in a stabbing, an explosion, and a heap of tension. A train carrying important dignitaries and soldiers is racing towards the newly constructed bridge as one man is intent on detonating a bomb and destroying another race against time to prevent the bloodbath.

The suspense, action, and cinematic skill are front and center during the final act.

Deserving of each one of the accolades reaped on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the film is the thinking man’s war film.

Layered with an underlying humanistic approach and little violence given the subject matter, one can sink into empathy for each point of view presented instead of being force-fed a one-dimensional message film.

Fine acting and gorgeous cinematography make this film one to be forever remembered.

Oscar Nominations: 7 wins-Best Motion Picture (won), Best Director-David Lean (won), Best Actor-Alec Guinness (won), Best Supporting Actor-Sessue Hayakawa, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Scoring (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

Giant-1956

Giant-1956

Director George Stevens

Starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean

Scott’s Review #898

Reviewed May 14, 2019

Grade: A

Giant (1956) is a sweeping epic firmly ensconced in both the Western genre and the dramatic field of play. The film is a flawless Hollywood production featuring three of the most recognizable stars of the time and a slew of powerful supporting actors offering rich performances and good characterizations.

The thunderous melodrama plays out over decades with the dry and dusty locale and the superb cinematography one of the finest aspects of the film experience.

Dashing and wealthy Texas rancher Jordan Bick Benedict Jr. (Rock Hudson), falls in love with and marries socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) after a whirlwind romance in Maryland.

The pair begin their married life on Bick’s immaculate Texas ranch but not before two central figures thwart their happiness. Jett Rink (James Dean) falls obsessively in love with Leslie while Bick’s sister, Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge) despises Leslie, taking out her vengeance on Leslie’s horse.

The trials and tribulations continue as the characters age through the years.

The trifecta of talents Taylor, Hudson, and Dean make Giant the ultimate in treats as one fawn over the good looks of each (or all!) over the long three hours and eleven minutes of illustrious screen time.

Making for more powerful poignancy is that the film is Dean’s final appearance on-screen before his tragic death in a car accident, his death occurring before it was even released to the public.

Dean plays Jett to the hilt as a surly ranch hand jealous of the riches that Bick possesses and wanting to take Bick’s woman for himself. Jett is an unsympathetic character and the one I find the most interesting. Decades-long rivals, Jett and Bick’s lives overlap continuously as Jett finally becomes rich and dates Bick and Leslie’s daughter much to their chagrin.

The character of Jett is a racist- common in the early to mid-1900s, especially in southwestern Texas. Sadly, the character never finds happiness, which is the main part of his depth.

The screenplay is peppered with important and relevant social issues that provide sophistication and a humanistic approach. The film inches towards a liberal slant as the plot progresses, the most famous example occurring in the final act as Benedict’s stop at a roadside diner with a racist sign, implying the restaurant will not serve Mexicans.

Bick takes a dramatic stance and shows heart as his family, now multi-racial, needs his help. Culminating in a fight, the scene reveals the enduring love that Bick and Leslie share for one another.

Criticisms of the films’ enormous length and scope are wrong as these aspects deepen and the components I find the most appealing.

Director, George Stevens never rushes through a scene or makes superfluous edits to limit running time. Rather, he allows each scene to marinate and graze like real life. Lengthy scenes play out with real conversations and slow build-ups allowing character’s opinions and motivations to take shape slowly.

On the surface a drama and western, the film can be peeled back like an onion to reveal deeper nuances. The racism, love story, and class structure ideals are mesmerizing, especially given the true-to-life humanitarian that Taylor was.

One can sit back and revel in the knowledge that she must have been enjoying the rich character.

Along with great epics like Gone with the Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1963), and The Godfather (1972) sits a film that is rarely mentioned with the other stalwarts and that is a shame. With magnificent shot after shot of the vast Texas land and with enough gorgeous stars to rival the landscape, Giant (1956) is a must-see.

A Western soap opera with terrific writing, rife with racism, prosperity, and fortitude, the film deserves more praise than it’s given.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Motion Picture, Best Director-George Stevens (won), Best Actor-James Dean, Rock Hudson, Best Supporting Actress-Mercedes McCambridge, Best Screenplay-Adapted, Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Art Direction-Color, Best Costume Design-Color, Best Film Editing

Saving Private Ryan-1998

Saving Private Ryan-1998

Director Steven Spielberg

Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore

Scott’s Review #778

Reviewed June 26, 2018

Grade: A

Famed director Steven Spielberg does not always get his due respect. This is usually because, for better or worse, he has become synonymous with the “blockbuster” film, drawing comparisons to either lightweight fare or films of “lesser” artistic merit.

His 1980’s works- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), were enormous commercial successes, though I enjoyed all of the films.

During the 1990s Spielberg continued to direct “popcorn flicks” such as Hook (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), with large studio budgets, but with somewhat less critical acclaim.

Finally, he was able to change many opinions with 1993’s Schindler’s List and the war film to end all war films, Saving Private Ryan (1998), an epic, profound experience.

Both received numerous Oscar nominations and success at the box office.

The film is a tremendous treat for nothing other than the riveting opening sequence alone (more about that later). If that is not enough to impress, Saving Private Ryan is known for infusing a very graphic element into the war film- with no letting up from the brutality.

Spielberg does not water down this picture, instead shows the pain and angst of war. The film is helped tremendously by the casting of Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks, who leads an enormous cast of mainly young men.

Saving Private Ryan opens with a prologue- in present times a veteran brings his family to visit an American cemetery at Normandy. Flashbacks then take the audience back to the Omaha Beach debacle in 1944, where American troops faced deadly German artillery attacks in France.

After the horrific three-day D-Day, it is learned that three of the four Ryan sons have died in the events. Captain Miller (Hanks) is ordered to bring a team of men to Normandy and bring the fourth Ryan son (Matt Damon) to safety.

Spielberg’s opening D-day sequence is just astounding and propels the film to unforgettable status. With a running time of twenty-four minutes, the riveting and horrific slaughter of American soldiers is intensely brought to the screen.

Audiences undoubtedly sat open-mouthed (I know I did!) as bullets riddled the beach and left soldiers killed or with limbs torn off. The camera-work is brilliant as the use of a shaky technique, almost documentary style is used for effect.

Successful is this sequence at promoting an anti-war sentiment while not glorifying the combat at all. The scene will stay with its audience for years to come.

Saving Private Ryan can be compared to the decades later Dunkirk (2017) in that each film took the war genre and turned it upside down.  The similarities between the films start with the obvious- the main events in both films are during World War II, the same week, and the French beach settings making the films perfect companion pieces.

Both films feature a gray, rainy setting with many horrific moments of death and suffering. The war film is a common genre that has historically teetered on predictability and over-saturation, but both films do something completely different and unexpected, yet mirror each other in style.

To counter-balance the violence in the opening sequence, a quiet scene is created and remains one of my favorites. The scene contains almost no dialogue throughout the seven-minute duration and is pivotal to the entire film.

As a typist realizes that three letters of death are to be delivered to the same family, a woman on a mid-west farm quietly washes dishes and is calmly horrified when she sees a government car approaching.

What else can this mean but that one of her sons is dead? The poor Mrs. Ryan will be told that she has lost not one, but three sons.

How utterly unimaginable and the scene is incredibly touching!

The best part of Saving Private Ryan is that Spielberg provides a deep level of sentimental vision combined with the terrible atrocities of war. He portrays not only the violent effects of the battles on the soldiers but also the surviving families.

This is not always done in war films, at least not to the level that Spielberg chooses to.

With such a film as the startling Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg turned the war film genre inside out. Breaking barriers with a no-holds gusto, Spielberg influenced war films for years to come- Black Hawk Down and Enemy at the Gates (2001) are prime examples, and received acclaim from fellow directors for his interesting techniques.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was an enormous financial winner at the box office, proving that great films don’t have to be watered down to find an audience.

Oscar Nominations: 5 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Steven Spielberg (won), Best Actor-Tom Hanks, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound Effects Editing (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (won), Best Makeup, Best Film Editing (won)

Schindler’s List-1993

Schindler’s List-1993

Director Steven Spielberg

Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes

Scott’s Review #775

Reviewed June 19, 2018

Grade: A

Schindler’s List (1993) is a film that is arguably Steven Spielberg’s finest directorial work and Liam Neeson’s finest acting performance.

The film is as disturbing as it is awe-inspiring as many emotions will undoubtedly envelop any viewer- most of them dark and dire.

Spielberg’s most personal story centers on the devastating Holocaust of World War II that will grip and tear audiences to pieces.

The work deservedly secured the Oscar award for Best Picture and Best Director as well as numerous other accolades.

Oskar Schindler (Neeson) is a powerful German businessman who arrives in Krakow, Poland during the antics of World War II, presumably to make his fortune. Handsome and respected, he is charismatic and feared by the German army, who have forced most of the Polish Jews into the overcrowded ghettos where they await their fates.

Schindler himself is a Nazi, but becomes more humanistic than most and ultimately against the Holocaust killings. He establishes a factory and hires a Jewish accountant (Ben Kingsley) to assist.

As he is tremendously affected by the inhumanity he sees throughout the city, he makes arrangements to hire and thus save the lives of over a thousand Polish refugees.

He does so by allowing them to safely work and be productive in his factory. The story is reportedly true and was a rare instance of humanity in a cold and ugly chapter in world history.

To be clear, Schindler does not start as a hero and is admittedly rather an unlikely one. The man is a businessman, greedy, and undoubtedly flawed. He plans to use the Jews because they are cheap labor and can be used to his advantage.

Because of the very long running time of the film (over three hours), Spielberg slowly depicts Schindler’s complex character growth and eventual determination to save these poor people from the Auschwitz gas chambers.

Spielberg shoots Schindler’s List entirely in black and white with tremendous results. The camera work adds such ambiance and style to the 1990s film- so much so that throughout the film I felt as if I were watching a documentary from the 1940s.

The film is epic and choreographed with precision and timeliness- some of the best camera work in cinema history as far as successfully creating the perfect solemn and dreary mood.

Supporting turns by Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes must be noted. In vastly different types of roles, both shine.

As the understandably nervous, Jewish accountant for Schindler’s factory, Itzhak Stern is most notable for creating the famous “list”. This contains the names of those who would be transferred to the factory and thus have their lives spared.

Kingsley, a brilliant actor, fills the character with empathy and heart.

Conversely, Fiennes plays a dastardly character in that of Amon Goth, a commander at the concentration camp. Evil and known for taking glee from killings, he is the man instrumental in deciding to exterminate all of the people in the ghetto.

A pivotal character, Goth is important because he is the man who makes Schindler realize how sickening and inhumane the treatment is.

Fiennes carves the character with so much hate that he is believable in the part.

One of the most beautiful scenes is aptly named “the girl in red” and is highly symbolic and worthy of analysis. Oskar watches as prisoners are escorted, presumably to their executions. He notices a three-year-old girl walking by herself- she is clad in a bright red coat.

The coat is Spielberg’s only use of color throughout the entire film.

The scene is incredibly important as the girl stands out, proving that all the Nazi commanders are accepting of her death. In tragic form, Oskar later sees her dead body draped in her red coat.

The scene is sad and powerfully distressing.

Schindler’s List (1993) is an outstanding film that elicits such raw emotion from anyone who views the masterpiece. By no means an easy watch and most assuredly “a heavy”, the film depicts the true struggles and catastrophic events occurring not all too long ago.

A film for the ages that simply must be seen by all to appreciate the terror and inhumanity that occurs throughout the world.

Oscar Nominations: 7 wins-Best Picture (won), Best Director-Steven Spielberg (won), Best Actor-Liam Neeson, Best Supporting Actor-Ralph Fiennes, Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound, Best Art Direction (won), Best Makeup, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens-2015

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens-2015

Director J.J. Abrams

Starring Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill

Scott’s Review #540

Reviewed December 8, 2016

Grade: B

As a youngster who grew up exposed to the original three Star Wars films (admittedly, I cannot keep track nor care enough to learn the exact chronological order of the franchise), the 2015 reincarnation is very nostalgic.

Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) were magical films for a kid to enjoy.

I saw each one in the movie theater.

Sadly, The Phantom Menace in 1999 was a rather forgettable endeavor and did nothing to draw new fans to the franchise, nor keep existing fans engaged.

Taking center stage in this installment are beloved stalwart characters Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

A slight gripe is the shamefully under-use of one of these characters.

The visual effects are impressive, the main villain is okay, and the action sequences adequate, but the ode to history keeps the long-time viewer engaged the most.

In a way, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is aptly titled as it is a rebirth of sorts for the storied franchise.

Legendary actor Max von Sydow is shamefully under-utilized in a throwaway part in the film’s first sequence.

He resembles deceased actor Alec Guinness, made famous again in the 1970s when he appeared in the first Star Wars.

A coincidence?

Filmmakers are going for a modern reboot of Episode IV (the 1977 Star Wars).

The main character of Rey (Daisy Ridley) is meant to be the new Luke Skywalker, who is known as a Jedi hero in the land and has been missing for years. Rey has special powers and is accompanied by her sidekick droid, BB-8, a similar character to R2-D2.

The villain is Kylo-Ren, son of Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia, and reminiscent of Darth Vader.

The film is a classic tale of good versus evil as the evil First Order battles the good Resistance.

I enjoyed the good storytelling most of all and prominent roles for Han Solo and Leia were good choices for the storied franchise. Newcomers Rey and her love interest, Finn, are appealing, as are fighter pilot, Poe, played by Oscar Isaac.

Reportedly, this film is the start of another trio of films so we will undoubtedly see more of these characters.

I could not help but notice the Nazi similarities of the First Order and their soldiers, the Stormtroopers. Possessing a red quality and a Nazi-like salute to their supreme leader, they even look German in appearance.

Kylo-Ren, raven-haired, pale, and clad in a dark black cape, was derived from Darth Vader, especially when he appeared in mask attire.

He almost could have been his son.

Set thirty years since the original Star Wars, the plot is more or less similar, and I think this is a wise move in introducing the franchise to a new audience while staying true to the rich history of the central characters and their offspring.

Han Solo and Leia discuss their love affair, past adventures, and their son, who has been hypnotized to the dark side. They struggle to concoct a way to rescue him and hope to persuade him that aligning with the Resistance is the only way.

Favorite scenes include the ultimate showdown between Rey and Kylo-Ren. Set in a snowy, wintry forest, with their glistening and glowing lightsabers, the scene is visually gorgeous, as are the many scenes in one battle station or another.

The re-appearance of comical C-3PO is darling.

As with the original Star Wars, humor is mixed to lighten the mood. Han Solo and his dedicated side-kick Chewbacca, gently spar, and when Han Solo takes the group to a saloon filled with interesting creatures, the scene is light and fun. 

The real drawback for me is that the film is not all that compelling save for the nostalgia aspects. It is a classic battle of two wills, but nothing new and exciting. Sure there are a few new characters, but the plot is rather basic and what one would expect. 

I am not truly invested in the franchise, despite zillions of die-hard fans being fanatics of the films and their intricacies, so that is more of an opinion than a criticism of the merits.

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) will undoubtedly please fans and introduce new ones to a world of galaxies, and the “force”.

A satisfying trip down memory lane.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects