Category Archives: Thriller Films

Stage Fright-1950

Stage Fright-1950

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding

Scott’s Review #1,160

Reviewed July 9, 2021

Grade: A-

Stage Fright (1950) is a British film directed by Alfred Hitchcock right before his American invasion. The film feels like a hybrid British/American project with the leading lady, Jane Wyman, being American, but otherwise is set in London with many British actors. Hitchcock mixes plenty of film noir influences with the typical thrills and suspense creating an excellent product that flies under the radar when matched against his other films.

Wyman is cast well as an attractive aspiring actress who works on her craft by going undercover to solve a mystery. There are Nancy Drew elements and it’s fun to watch Wyman, who would become Mrs. Ronald Reagan before he entered politics and later would become President of the United States. She reportedly divorced him because she had little interest in entering the political spectrum by association.

The action gets off to a compelling start with two characters driving in a car in clear peril. Hitchcock loved driving scenes like these. It is learned that the police think actor Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is a murderer, and now they’re on his tail. He seeks shelter with his ex-girlfriend Eve (Wyman), who drives him to stay in hiding with her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim).

He explains that it was his lover, the famous and snobbish actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), who killed the victim (not coincidentally, her husband). Convinced Jonathan is innocent, Eve plays detective and assumes multiple disguises, slowly developing feelings for Detective Inspector, Wilfred O. Smith (Michael Wilding). Once she becomes embroiled in a web of deception, she realizes that Shakespeare was right and that all the world is a stage.

Wyman is the Hitchcock brunette as opposed to his later fascination with the blonde bombshell. Therefore, her role is more sedate and astute than the sex appeal that would come with Hitchcock’s later characters. Eve closely resembles the character of Charlie that Teresa Wright played in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt. They are both astute and investigative with a mystery to unravel. Interestingly, they both fall for detectives.

All the glasses! Hitchcock’s fetish with women wearing glasses is on full display especially with the character of Nellie, a cockney opportunist played by Kay Walsh. Look closely and one can spot several minor or background ladies sporting spectacles and even Eve dons a pair as a disguise.

Pat Hitchcock, the director’s daughter, plays a small role as she would in Strangers on a Train (1955) and Psycho (1960).

Speaking of Strangers on a Train, there are similarities to mention. Both involve a tit-for-tat exchange where one character is requested by another to kill someone in exchange for either a payoff or another form of motivation.

Marlene Dietrich is as sexy as ever in the pivotal role of Charlotte. She is self-centered, self-absorbed, and thoughtless, constantly mispronouncing Eve’s fictitious name and barely noticing that she is covering for her regular maid/dresser.

But is she evil and capable of killing her own husband?

Stage Fright has a thrilling finale. In the climax, the audience finally finds out who has been telling the truth and who has been lying and what explanations are revealed. There is a pursuit, an attempted killing, and a shocking death by way of a falling safety curtain, in the theater naturally. Just what one would expect from a Hitchcock final act.

The focus on theatrical stage actors is a nice topic and adds to the existing drama as the implication of playing various roles comes into play big time. So is the prominence very early on of the Big Ben landmark in London and other location trimmings.

Stage Fright (1950) doesn’t get the love saved for other Hitchcock masterpieces and that’s a shame because the film is excellent.

Foreign Correspondent-1940

Foreign Correspondent-1940

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Joel McCrea, Laraine Day

Scott’s Review #1,158

Reviewed July 2, 2021

Grade: B+

As a superfan of all films Alfred Hitchcock, I had been chomping at the bit to see some of his older selections before he took American audiences by storm throughout his 1950’s and 1960’s heyday. Many people do not realize just how many films the “Master of Suspense” actually made that are not household names.

Foreign Correspondent, made in 1940, is a black and white production and an obvious precursor for his later works. In fact, much of the fun is zeroing in on particulars that would be featured in later films. Some Hitchcock favorites like a tower, a circling airplane, an unwitting and innocent man involved in a political plot, and false identity are served up. And the director’s obsession with female characters wearing glasses is certainly part of the fun.

What Hitchcock fan doesn’t giggle with glee after discovering the director’s trademark cameo appearance in each of his films?

As an aside, I just love the cover artwork for this film.

There are reasons why Foreign Correspondent isn’t one of the best-remembered Hitchcock films because it’s only very good rather than exceptional. In 1940 the director was just getting his groove following a surprising Best Picture Oscar win for Rebecca (1940), a film that was a very early American effort. He was still finding his footing in production values.

The legendary Costume Designer, Edith Head, and Music Composer Bernard Hermann had not joined the fold yet as they would in masterpieces like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) and it really shows. The musical score is ordinary, more or less what a picture made in 1940 sounded like. The costumes are decent but lacking the grandeur and style that Head brought to the productions.

New York City-based crime reporter John Jones, later renamed Huntley Haverstock played by Joel McCrea is reduced to producing dull copy despite the world being on the cusp of war. His editor hopes a change of scenery will be the thing Jones needs to get back on track and also to provide the juicy story.

He is re-assigned to Europe as a foreign correspondent. When he stumbles on a spy ring, he attempts to unravel the truth with the help of a politician, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), his daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and an English journalist (George Sanders). But can any or all of them be trusted or are they in cahoots with the bad guys for their own personal gain?

I immediately was reminded of Saboteur (1942) by way of the plot alone. Both involve a complicated (maybe overly?) story of government, investigations, and sabotage. They also each focus on a couple either attempting to outwit or outrun authorities. And, they are both filmed with black and white cinematography.

Foreign Correspondent contains its share of thrills and compelling moments. The best sequence is when John is nearly shoved off Westminster Cathedral tower by a hitman who is ultimately the one who plummets to his death. The obvious parallel is to Vertigo especially when the nuns give the sign of the cross after the body falls.

Other mentions are a terrific airplane finale that contains special effects astounding for such a long time ago. Also unforgettable is a windmill sequence that will remind any Hitchcock fan of the famous cropduster scene from North By Northwest. I half expected a character to exclaim, ‘the windmill is turning where there ain’t no wind”.

At two hours even in run time, Foreign Correspondent is a good fifteen minutes or so too long. The plot takes a bit of time to pick up speed and the chemistry between John and Carol is rather weak. They are certainly no Mitch and Melanie like from The Birds (1963).

Foreign Correspondent (1940) is a second-tier Alfred Hitchcock film with enough components to serve as a solid opening act for North By Northwest. This is not such a bad thing and the film holds its own against similarly patterned films of its day.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actor-Alan Basserman, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects

The Day of the Jackal-1973

The Day of the Jackal-1973

Director-Fred Zinnemann

Starring- Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale

Scott’s Review #1,155

Reviewed June 22, 2021

Grade: A

Political thrillers can run the gamut of taut plots involving espionage assassinations, and car chases all woven into the political landscape. They often run the risk of being overly complicated and losing their audience with too much wordiness and not enough meat and potatoes.

The Day of the Jackal (1973), telling the story of an assassination attempt on a world leader is perfectly paced and intriguing offering some titillating elements and nothing run of the mill. It’s not lazy and can be classified as a thinking man’s film.

I loved it.

Certain complexities and trysts experienced by the deadly title character add extra pizazz and spiciness to the already compelling plot. And the sequences of Paris and its lovely metropolis can aid any film.

A cagey and intelligent underground French paramilitary group is determined to execute President Charles de Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand), but when numerous attempts on his life fail, they resort to hiring the infamous hitman known as “The Jackal” (Edward Fox). As he plots to assassinate de Gaulle, he takes out others who stand in his way. Meanwhile, Lebel (Michel Lonsdale), a Parisian police detective, begins to solve the mystery of the killer’s identity.

The film is not in French but is English speaking.

Fox is the major draw. Charismatic, handsome, and athletic, he hardly looks like a fiend.  But that’s just the point. A lesser film would have cast an actor who looks like a killer. With Fox, we get many more intricacies. He beds women…..and men. Think- a bisexual James Bond. This is enchanting to see in 1973, though the film is British and sometimes the Brits were well ahead of American filmmakers in this regard.

The director, Fred Zinneman, is actually Austrian and boy can he direct.

I wasn’t sure how engaged I would be. After all, the history books can tell us how the assassination attempt ended. It failed. What was the motivation for watching a film, especially one destined to be complicated? I quickly realized that The Day of the Jackal had that special sauce. It’s more than engaging, it’s enthralling.

Obviously, the audience is meant to root for Lebel to best Fox but there is so much more bubbling under the circumstance. The villain is mysterious and we know almost nothing about him. The ambiguity continues after the film ends. This is definitely a positive to the character and subsequently to the film.

Meanwhile, the hero of the film, the guy after the “Jackal”, is your average, every day, Joe. He is unexciting but very smart and determined to capture Fox. Lebel is quite likable for his savviness alone but I still argue many will root for Fox to escape the clutches of Lebel. I know I did.

Great scenes occur in a swanky hotel when Fox becomes intrigued by Madame de Montpellier, played by Delphine Seyrig. He picks up the rich and mysterious woman as they chat in the dining room. He later sneaks into her room and gets the girl. Whoever cast this woman must have seen the Hitchcock classic Frenzy (1972) because she’s a dead ringer for Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt).

Is it an accident that both meet grisly ends?

Not to be satisfied with merely bedding rich women he goes to a Turkish bath to avoid the police and picks up a French gentleman. It is implied they have a romantic date before the gentleman catches onto Fox’s identity (he is now on the run from the police) and meets his maker in his own kitchen.

The Day of the Jackal (1973) is a meticulously crafted film that should be the blueprint for anyone intent on creating a political thriller. It avoids hokey stereotypes or predictability instead offering an edge-of-your-seat experience with nuances for miles.

It’s exceptional on all levels.

Oscar Nominations: Best Film Editing

The Friends of Eddie Coyle-1973

The Friends of Eddie Coyle-1973

Director-Peter Yates

Starring-Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle

Scott’s Review #1,151

Reviewed June 11, 2021

Grade: B+

Borrowing heavily from the standard cop thriller films to emerge during the early 1970s but containing a unique cynicism and a point of view all its own, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is a taut and engaging crime thriller that will please fans of the genre but never bailing on those cinema fans seeking a more intellectual experience.

The Boston landscape is plentiful and a treat for fans of locale shoots and 1970s qualities.

A superior film based against the many similar films to be created during the decade, there is a moroseness that encompasses the experience. I felt sorry for the main character and The Friends of Eddie Coyle lacks a clear good guy versus bad guy standard. This actually helps the film.

What I’m trying to say is that those crime thriller fans desiring a clear hero or standard characterization might be unsatisfied or miss the point, though the bank robbery scenes alone are worth the price of a ticket.

Some say, Robert Mitchum, cast in the title role gives his finest film performance but I wasn’t entirely blown away.  The film is an ensemble and at times Eddie Coyle feels like a supporting character.  Think Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). Instead, I ruminated over his brilliant performances in my two favorite films of his, The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

His performance is fine but all the actors bring their A-game.

Aging low-level Boston gunrunner Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) is fearful of the possibility of several years of jail time for participating in a truck hijacking in neighboring New Hampshire. Having a wife and kids dependent on him, and feeling old and desperate, he volunteers to funnel information to Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), an ATF agent.

Eddie buys some guns from another gunrunner, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), then gives him up to Foley, but the agent isn’t satisfied. Panicked, Eddie decides to also give up the gang of bank robbers he’s been supplying, only to find that Foley already knows about them, and the mob believes Eddie snitched.

These events do not bode well for poor Eddie who now has a mark on his back.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a handful of plots happening simultaneously. There is Eddie’s predicament, the saga of the bank robbers and the bank owners they put in peril, and a bartender played by Peter Boyle (of televisions Everybody Loves Raymond fame), who is also an informant. The stories intertwine but sometimes not quite enough and a conclusion over how the players relate is sometimes unclear.

From the get-go, I was reminded of Dirty Harry (1971) which arguably propelled the cop/crime thriller/crime drama to mainstream audiences. Dave Grusin gets credit for the music composition and creates a similar score to Dirt Harry with funky tempo, time-relevant arrangements. They really work and fit the times perfectly.

Differing from Dirty Harry, which is a superb film in many ways, is the messaging. Whereas, Dirty Harry professes a good vs. bad approach and a conservative pro-gun stance, The Friends of Eddie Coyle doesn’t partake in schooling the audience on the viewpoints of most cops. The bad guys are complex and nuanced characters with worries and fears to wrestle with themselves.

The location sequences are plentiful and give the film authenticity and Boston appreciation. The classic Boston Garden is featured as two characters attend a Boston Bruins hockey game. The Charles River, downtown, and surrounding areas like Quincy are featured. Director, Peter Yates certainly creates a blue-collar, Irish-represented community.

Lovers of classic 1970s American automobiles will be in heaven. I spotted a Ford Galaxy, Chevy Impala, and similar full-sized cars. One character drives a green muscle car. I mean, there are tons and tons of car sequences in this film.

The seedy Boston underworld, a terrific performance by Robert Mitchum, and enough guns, car chases, and bank robberies to satisfy the action audience, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is a win. The film didn’t stick with me as much as I would have liked but it’s a striking entry in the crime thriller genre.

The French Connection II-1975

The French Connection II-1975

Director-John Frankenheimer

Starring-Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey

Scott’s Review #1,148

Reviewed June 2, 2021

Grade: B

The French Connection, the winner of the coveted Best Picture Academy Award for pictures released in 1971, is a brilliant film, holding up well as a cream of the crop cop film. An action film winning an Oscar is as rare as a horror film winning it. It’s rare.

The decision to make a sequel is debatable but The French Connection II (1975) forges as a decent action crime thriller but hardly on par with the original.

Is anyone surprised?

Sequels rarely usurp their predecessors especially when The French Connection is such a superior genre film. In a way, Part II didn’t have much of a chance measured up against Part I. Films like The Godfather only come around once in a lifetime. Unfortunately, William Friedkin did not return to the fold to direct, replaced by John Frankenheimer, best known for the nail-biting The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Thankfully, Gene Hackman did return. He helps the film from an acting perspective and gives his all in a tough role. His partner, played by Roy Scheider does not appear and is not mentioned.

Picking up a couple of years after the first one ended, Detective “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) is still hot on the heels of cagey and sophisticated drug trafficker Charnier (Fernando Rey). Doyle hops a flight to lovely Marseilles, France. Away from his familiar New York City territory, he struggles to assimilate himself in a strange city and conquer the drug ring to bring Charnier down.

Doyle is accosted and spends time as a dreary heroin addict in rough confines before being tossed away and forced to recover cold turkey style. He becomes even more determined to bring the bad guys to justice- dead or alive.

As a stand-alone action film, The French Connection II is not a bad experience. It is certainly better than the still-to-come 1980s doldrums like the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon cop/buddy films that marginalized the genre into cookie-cutter popcorn films.

The gripping New York City is replaced by the equalling compelling French landscape. Gorgeous locales like the French Riviera and the Meditteranean Sea are featured but Marseilles is not Paris. There exists a seediness and dirtiness that helps the film a bit.

Hackman acts his ass off especially as a drug addict. I shudder to think of a weaker actor trying to pull off this acting extravaganza. From scenes featuring his withdrawals to his drug cravings are exciting to watch and showcase Hackman’s wonderful acting chops.

But the intent is to produce a good action film after all and that effort is mediocre. The French Connection II is simply not as compelling as The French Connection and despite some decent chase scenes and a cool finale where Doyle gets his satisfaction there is little else but by the numbers activity.

To be fair, the final fifteen minutes is the best part of the film.

Remember the frightening car chasing a subway sequence? Or the delicious cat and mouse subway sequence between Doyle and Charnier? Brilliant scenes like this do not exist.

A few clichés are bothersome. Predictably, Doyle stands out like a sore thumb in France and his hot-headedness emerges quickly, offending or pissing off the French authorities. He is not the most likable character and I frequently found myself rooting for the bad guys!

I don’t think I was supposed to.

Other implausibilities occur like the boneheaded decision to send Doyle to Marseilles, to begin with. Was he the only detective, including the French authorities, capable of catching Charnier?

What was the point of the old-lady heroin addict stealing Doyle’s watch?

A shadow of The French Connection, The dull titled The French Connection II is a weaker effort but still respectable as matched against other genre films. This is mostly because of the French landscape and the return of Gene Hackman.

Femme Fatale-2002

Femme Fatale-2002

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas

Scott’s Review #1,137

Reviewed April 28, 2021

Grade: B+

The plot of Femme Fatale (2002) is muddy, to say the least, and I was left perplexed by the details by the time the film concluded. I even needed to review a synopsis to figure out what the hell went on but I was willing to do so. But, let’s remember that it’s directed by Brian De Palma so the beauty is in the visuals’ style and stimulation, which makes the film pay off in spades.

Probably more similar to a modern De Palma film like 2012’s underrated and underappreciated Passion than more familiar turf like Carrie (1976) or Dressed to Kill (1980), Femme Fatale has juicy trademarks that only fans of the director will immediately notice and revile in.

The entire experience that De Palma creates is titillating, erotic, fetishist, and thrilling. It’s an enrapturing piece. Unfortunately, Femme Fatale was a box-office dud but has subsequently amassed a cult following status likely by the legions of De Palma fans who appreciate the good stylistic film.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, with legs for miles and an abdomen to fry eggs off of, stars as Laure Ash, a master manipulator, who takes part in one last jewel theft intending to leave behind her life of crime. Her intention predictably doesn’t turn out so well but Laura sure does look great in her leather-clad outfits and affair with a female supermodel.

Later, Romijn-Stamos also plays an odd character named Lily, who is suicidal.

Reinvented under the presumption of a respectable married woman, Laura captures the attention of eager photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas). He becomes mesmerized by the elusive woman amid the gorgeous locales of Paris and accidentally shatters her carefully crafted world by way of his photo taking.

The steamy women’s bathroom love scene between Laura, who is bisexual, and Veronica, a model with a diamond gold ensemble top, is not just a male chauvinistic turn-on, but hugely important to the storyline. Laura is supposedly in cahoots with thugs “Black Tie” and Racine who aggressively wait outside the restroom, but is Laura double-crossing them both? Is she partnered in crime with Veronica or is she just a mark?

The riddles of the plot are both positive and negative especially when one scene plays out twice, midstream and during the finale. There is a mystique that forces the viewer to give up on any comprehension and plausibility over Laura and her motivations and modus Operandi. I chose to immerse myself in the bevy of trimmings that De Palma tosses our way like a hungry dog salivating over a bone.

He borrows a bit from the best of Alfred Hitchcock films (when doesn’t he?)and his own, neither a bad thing. The most obvious is from the 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, an orgy of fetishism, which appears throughout, mostly concerning Nicolas as he spies on Laura again and again, almost obsessively.

Romijn-Stamos isn’t the best actress in the biz and Banderas would grow as an actor after this film but Femme Fatale is about style, not Academy Award acting and the beauty is trying to figure out a puzzle and being startled by a twist ending and a replay of the events to provide some sort of explanation.

The twist is quite a doozy and had me rethink the entire film. Plot holes be-damned it was a very good reveal but also made most of the rest of the film a bit worthless.

Femme Fatale (2002) will never reach the upper echelons of the best of Brian De Palma films but it’s hardly a waste of time to give it a spin either. Forgetting the steaminess altogether, pleasing will a European appreciating viewer be with the astounding and plentiful sequences in and around Paris.

Zodiac-2007

Zodiac-2007

Director-David Fincher

Starring-Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. 

Scott’s Review #1,134

Reviewed April 16, 2021

Grade: A

Zodiac (2007) is a great film in its mood alone. The attention to detail circa the 1960s and 1970s is spot on and adds to the flavor of the entire experience. The locale of San Francisco is moody and lurking with the antics of the self-professed zodiac killer. With excellent acting, the sum of its parts adds up to a wonderful film experience.

The film is incredibly well-paced, character-driven, and layered in rich texture. What more can be asked of a cinematic production? It simply has it all and will engage any viewer craving mystery and intrigue.

David Fincher, at the director’s chair, creates a world unto itself with carefully crafted sets, artistic nuances, and of course a superb story. A lesson learned is that sometimes evil exists and cannot be caught despite best efforts and the ramifications are endless. Painfully, the characters in Zodiac slowly realize this.

Zodiac is based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Robert Graysmith, a pivotal character in the film. The novel is very similar to James Elroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, another unsolved case set in California.

The film tells the story of the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorized the foggy San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Investigators (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) and reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.) become obsessed with learning the killer’s identity and bringing him to justice.

Meanwhile, Zodiac claims victim after victim and taunts the authorities with endless and specifically graphic letters, bloodstained clothing, and cryptic messages shrouded in menacing phone calls. The case remains one of the United States’ most infamous unsolved crimes.

Much of the acclaim must go to the three actors cast in the central roles and Gyllenhaal is top of his game in the leading role. As cartoonist Robert Graysmith he is the main hero and the person who spearheads the investigation, prompting disbelievers to listen to him. Gyllenhaal is sensitive, sympathetic, and obsessed and at first, perceived to be a laughing stock, but audiences will immediately get behind the man and this is thanks to Gyllenhaal’s powerful acting.

The character-driven approach continues as Mark Ruffalo gives a wonderful portrayal of Inspector David Toschi. The tough-as-nails and no-nonsense approach led Toschi into obsession and fudging evidence.

Finally, Robert Downey Jr. provides energetic gusto as Paul Avery, a journalist who turns to drugs and alcohol because of the intensity and emotional investment in the case.

Plenty of red herrings make the film fun and the prime suspect of Arthur Leigh Allen, played by character actor John Carroll Lynch may or may not be the assailant. It’s breathtaking watching all the twists and turns in this ferociously complex film.

Zodiac is based on real events and reportedly is extremely historically accurate. In fact,  Fincher and others spent eighteen months conducting their own investigation and research into the Zodiac murders. So, authenticity is everywhere in this film.

Watching a film beginning in 1969 and ending in 1983 is a joy for someone who grew up in that era. Fincher drizzles the film with timely automobiles, clothes, and other sets so it appears to be walking into a time capsule. I’m sure this only will add to the viewer’s enjoyment.

For fans of films based on the zodiac killers, the 1971 film Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood delivers an exceptional experience based on the real-life case. But Fincher’s Zodiac is just as good.

Despite the behemoth running time- two hours and thirty-seven minutes, Zodiac (2007) is an edge of your seat thriller. The pulsating yet prowling pace is worth several viewings to appreciate the juiciness of all of the elements David Fincher offers.

A hefty round of applause is deserved.

Promising Young Woman-2020

Promising Young Woman-2020

Director-Emerald Fennell

Starring-Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham

Scott’s Review #1,132

Reviewed April 13, 2021

Grade: A

Emerald Fennell, making her film directorial debut, kicks her viewers in the ass with major help from star Carey Mulligan, with Promising Young Woman (2020). The actress gives the best performance of her career. The film is a sexy and haunting experience mixing black comedy and witty dialogue with an important and timely subject matter- the abuse and victimization of young women by men.

Both men and women can be held responsible as Fennell make abundantly clear. Predators often have a share of people who choose to “look the other way” and thereby enable. This is a constant theme throughout the film involving many characters who are called out for their passivity.

Fennell makes this point during two of the best scenes of the film as she calls out a high-powered dean and attorney for their betrayals. The scenes are so powerful that I wanted the characters to suffer as much as the revenge seeker does.

There is also a wackiness in the pacing and dialogue that reminds me quite a bit of the 1999 masterpiece, American Beauty.

The film is depravity, bizarreness, and brilliance all rolled into one. I felt this film in my bones.

Almost every scene is a treat in the mysterious and unexpected and the film features peculiar characters and creative musical score renditions and includes a scene and music from the underappreciated masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955). Fennell knows her classic cinema.

Mulligan stars as a woman named Cassie who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend, who was a victim of rape when they were in medical school and their young lives had potential and such possibility lay ahead of them. Cleverly, we never see her friend, named Nina Fisher, but she is of vital importance and nearly a major character herself despite her absence.

Everyone said Cassie was a “promising young woman” until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But now at age thirty and still living at home, her parents suggest via a giant suitcase for her birthday, it may be time for her to move on.

Cassie is tough to figure out since she’s wickedly clever, sometimes wisecracking, and tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. She goes to nightclubs looking drop-dead gorgeous and lures men to her rescue pretending to be inebriated.

What happens when they go back to their pad is shocking, dark, and justified. The men will never see this coming.

Before the presumption is that Cassie is nothing more than a bad-ass, her intentions are not only admirable, but she has a heart and desires love. Promising Young Woman is a dark character study.

Besides the powerful story, Promising Young Woman is riddled with interesting cinematic techniques. Cassie’s parents lounge in their afternoon one afternoon watching The Night of the Hunter, a dark fairy tale for adults. Later, a haunting version of Britney Spear’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” complete with a string arrangement is featured most uniquely.

All the supporting players add pizzazz and strength, some in odd or unclear ways until certain revelations bubble to the surface. Jennifer Coolidge as Cassie’s strange mother, Bo Burnham as the smitten Ryan Cooper, and Alison Brie as Cassie’s college friend Madison McPhee are the best examples.

Bo and Madison have the most to hide but will they or won’t they face Cassie’s wrath is the question. Not much is worse than a woman scorned.

But the main draw is Mulligan. Startlingly good, with an astonishingly powerful, deeply layered performance by her. She showcases a remarkable acting range, where she effortlessly alternates from brash to darkly humorous and at times, emotionally vulnerable in her best performance to date.

Two scenes stand out to me. The first is a delicious scene between Cassie and the female dean of her school, played by Connie Britton. At first dismissive and annoyed by Cassie’s accusations, Dean Elizabeth Walker finally takes notice when she believes that Cassie had kidnapped her teenage daughter and left her with a group of drunken frat boys. What comes around goes around!

The second is the finale wedding scene, interestingly not featuring Cassie other than by text messages. As the happy young couple says their vows a parade of police cars ruins the moment and the audience cheers victory. It’s a satisfying moment.

The screenplay is original, fresh, and timely. In the “Me Too” movement the timing is vital and makes the subject matter relevant. Fennell wrote the screenplay- is there anything she can’t do?

Promising Young Woman (2020) is an exceptional film. It’s a controversial revenge film but it’s so much more. Taking a powerful subject matter and examining the hypocrisy, from men and women, is telling and eye-opening. That is why this film is very important to see and brings awareness to a situation society still too often deems as okay.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Actress-Carey Mulligan, Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Emerald Fennell, Best Female Lead- Carey Mulligan (won), Best Screenplay (won)

The Silent Partner-1978

The Silent Partner-1978

Director-Daryl Duke

Starring-Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer

Scott’s Review #1,120

Reviewed March 10, 2021

Grade: A-

The Silent Partner (1978) is an exceptionally thrilling film that is relatively unknown to most moviegoers but is well-regarded by cinema lovers, especially fans of 1970s relics. Watching the film in tandem with Brian DePalma’s clever and steamy Dressed to Kill (1980) one will immediately notice some similarities and will be able to draw comparisons. Might have DePalma even patterned his film after The Silent Partner?

Even the finest of directors borrow snippets of greatness from other directors. That’s the way it works.

It’s a shame so few realize that the film even exists. Starring Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer, admittedly the late 1970s was not the best-known time-period for Plummer but saw Gould in his heyday. The film also is peppered with notable sequences reminiscent of Frances Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece, The Conversation.

I can best describe the film as a Canadian heist film but this might imply that it’s cookie-cutter or generic in some way. It’s not. It’s not even a “guy film”- it’s way more cerebral than that.

There are a style and momentum in The Silent Partner that is individual with unique and unexpected trimmings along the way. The cat and mouse dynamic adds trickery and a murky nature that makes the film work.

Daryl Duke, unfamiliar to me and primarily known for television work, is at the helm as director, crafting from a screenplay written by Curtis Hanson. Hanson adapted his work from a Danish novel and should be familiar to movie fans for his participation in the thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and the neo-crime thriller L.A. Confidential (1997).

Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) plods along during the holidays at his bank teller job at the local mall. It’s Christmastime and Miles is down because he attempted to ask out his co-worker Julie Carver (Susannah York), who is more interested in dating their married boss- for now!

After discovering a secret plot by the mall Santa Claus (Christopher Plummer)to rob the bank at which he works, Miles cunningly hides a large portion of the cash in his own safe-deposit box. After the robbery, it is discovered that Santa is really a deranged master criminal named Harry Reikle.  He discovers that he’s been duped by Miles and puts horrific pressure on Cullen to hand over the money.

I adore the added romantic angle that blossoms amid the cat and mouse antics between Miles and Harry. No sooner than Julie softens towards Miles a mysterious and gorgeous woman enters the scene claiming to know Miles’s father. Elaine (Celine Lomez) is flirtatious and immediately wants to bed Miles but what is she up to?

From a character perspective, Miles and Harry are great studies. Related to the aforementioned films, Miles exhibits qualities similar to Harry Call in the brilliant The Conversation. Suspicious, paranoid, and intelligent, he is the perfect counterpart to Plummers Harry. Michael Caine played a transvestite in Dressed to Kill and Harry’s mascara, long nails, and fishnet top made me feel he possessed those qualities though the film never confirms this.

Psychologically speaking, Harry is disturbed based on his treatment and the perceived hatred he expresses towards women. He picks up and beats a young prostitute unconscious.

Is there a gay vibe? Most certainly especially when Harry looks longingly at Miles during more than one scene as he watches Miles in his apartment and proclaims, “You know we really are partners, right?”

Plummer is great and I can’t recall seeing any role of his being so villainous and he plays it superbly. Certainly a far cry from the musical patriarch in The Sound of Music (1965).

The Silent Partner contains one of the most gruesome murder scenes I’ve witnessed in cinema. It involves decapitation and a fish tank and is so shocking and unexpected that viewers may audibly gasp during the scene.

Nearly rivaling this is the great finale and a justified death on the mall escalator. It is fun to revisit the time when malls were flocked to especially during the Christmas holidays. The Santas, decorations, big crowds, and music made The Silent Partner a walk down memory lane.

A great and sadly lost gem, The Silent Partner (1978) is a film for movie lovers to check out, embrace, and fall in love with. A perfect watch would be around the Christmas holidays. Hopefully, with due word of mouth, this film will be rediscovered.

Air Force One-1997

Air Force One-1997

Director-Wolfgang Petersen

Starring-Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close

Scott’s Review #1,085

Reviewed November 21, 2020

Grade: B+

If ever a straight-ahead, summer blockbuster, popcorn flick ever existed, Air Force One (1997) is it. Surprisingly, this is not a bad thing. It’s not cerebral, but it’s never dull. The film has hooks and muscle and assembles a thrill ride, edge-of-your-seat action fest. Some would say this is just what the doctor ordered, and they’d be right, provided the mood is for a mind escaping, meat and potatoes affair.

Air Force One is pure Americana. With a patriotic musical score and a clear hero and villain, it’s easy to know who to root for. Suspension of disbelief is mandatory since some scenes are as implausible as Santa Claus really shimmying down a chimney on Christmas Eve, but the film is entertaining and fun. The action is non-stop.

At the tail end of his prime action star years (the 1980’s and 1990’s), Harrison Ford stars as the president of the United States of America, James Marshall. After making a bombastic speech in Moscow vowing never to negotiate with terrorists, a group of them led by the dastardly Ivan (Gary Oldman) hijack Air Force One with the president and his family on board. Marshall, a former soldier, hides in the cabin of the plane and races against time to save his family and those aboard the flight from the terrorists.

The plot is implausible and hokey and reeks of plot points to carry the story along, but surprisingly, the film works. There is no way a president would ever race around performing stunts aboard an airplane, conquering the villains like clockwork. But Ford has the charisma to make us believe it could happen, and his character is a family man, a Vietnam veteran, and a Medal of Honor recipient. Can this guy be any more perfect?

Oldman, always reliable as a villain, is perfectly cast. His character’s motivations are simplistic and nationalistic. Ivan believes that the collapse of the Soviet Union has ruined his country and somehow it’s the fault of the United States. The reasoning is silly, but it’s in keeping with the patriotic nature of Air Force One- us versus them mentality. The United States is good; Russia is bad. It’s what middle America wants, and the target audience of this film is clear. Back to the Cold War.

Wolfgang Petersen, who directs the picture, knows his way around the action genre. After all, he crafted the memorable Das Boot (1981) and Outbreak (1995). The film has a Tom Clancy-Patriot Games meets Die Hard (1988) style. Petersen meshes the score with the quick editing style to layer the film with more action than slowed down conversational scenes. We know how it’s going to end but enjoy the ride.

Looking closely, the film is not just for the guys. Glenn Close is cast as a female Vice President and a strong gender twisting presence. Kathryn Bennett is a bold, careful woman and the implication is that she is more than capable of taking over should anything happen to the president. Her scenes mostly take place in the White House Situation Room and provide a nice calm as she is pressured by Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) to declare the president incapable. The scenes between Stockwell and Close are very strong.

Air Force One (1997) is a cliché-riddled and mainstream Hollywood creation to the max. Both the pacing and the pulsating style make the film a guilty pleasure and is quite enjoyable. When the mood strikes to kick back and relax with a fun, action-packed affair, this one is your choice. Just don’t dissect the details too much or expect real-life to mimic art.

Oscar Nominations: Best Sound, Best Film Editing

They Call Her One Eye-1973

They Call Her One Eye-1973

Director-Bo Arne Vibenius

Starring-Christina Lindberg, Heinz Hopf

Scott’s Review #1,061

Reviewed September 14, 2020

Grade: A-

They Call Her One Eye (1973) is a marvelously wicked revenge film that is a must-see for any Quentin Tarantino fans since it’s a blueprint for his works to come. The famous director worked as a clerk at a video store (back when they had video stores) and stumbled upon many odd and wonderful obscure, independent films. Through the guidance of his stepfather, he was encouraged to pursue his love of film by visiting art theaters and such. Undoubtedly, They Call Her One Eye was one of his findings.

A young woman (Christina Lindberg) struggles to overcome her tortured past but runs into more trouble when she gets mixed up with a seemingly wonderful man (Heinz Hopf), who ends up being the exact opposite. After she misses her bus to her job at a farm, the man picks her up and soon has her working as a prostitute and addicted to drugs. Her only chance to escape will be to learn martial arts and exact revenge on her pimp. She spends her time off learning to fight and plotting a day of reckoning.

Impossible not to conjure images of Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), the film is told from a female perspective and revenge is the recipe of the day. The main character also wears an eye-patch, following a horrific scene when her eyeball is removed as punishment for being defiant. Any fan of Tarantino knows that the character of villainous Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) in Kill Bill also wears an eye patch and is a force to be reckoned with.

The film is clearly focused on the 1970’s female revenge genre so the fun is witnessing how bad Madeleine is treated by her pimp and her myriad of clients because we know they will soon be dead. Director, Bo Arne Vibenius makes no bones about what type of film this is and as a good measure of gender equality, throws in a female client who abuses Madeleine. They Call Her One Eye is also reminiscent of I Spit on Your Grave, a disturbing 1978 American film with a similar story and more fanfare.

Those with even the slightest hint of prudishness must be forewarned. There is not only extreme nudity (the film is Swedish after all!) but contained within are several pornographic sequences of both vaginal and anal sex. The scenes are tough to watch, and the unknown is whether the actors appeared in these moments themselves since their faces cannot be seen. Only, well, you know. My hunch is that these scenes were spliced in from real pornographic films of the day, but are not necessary or relevant to the rest of the film.

The Swedish locales are lovely especially those of the countryside or farmland and the subtitles are nice to have. The film loses a point because my copy of the DVD is dubbed in English rather than authentically Swedish speaking. I personally found this a slight detraction but there are other viewers who may find this just fine.

The fight scenes are mostly done in slow-motion which is another Tarantino stamp. This adds some flavor as the slowed-down scenes become more effective as blood and saliva spattering is at a maximum level. Madeleine is the clear heroine (no pun intended) of the story so the film doesn’t contain any other good characters except for Madeleine’s parents who quickly commit suicide after receiving hateful letters they think are from their daughter. Her plight is lofty since she is raped at a young age by a filthy derelict which leaves her mute. The girl has little luck.

Her pimp Tony is dastardly and when he picks her up on the roadside we know there is terror in the store even though he benevolently takes her for dinner. They Call Her One Eye is so low budget that it almost feels like someone walked around with a camcorder and videotaped the sequences. Of course, this only lends credence to the grit the film produces and works exceptionally well for offering a seedy, dirty delight. Rumor has it that during the eye-slicing scene, recommended for only those with steel-lined stomachs, a real corpse was used. Whether or not this is an urban legend is anyone’s guess.

Fans of Tarantino or those of experimental, artsy, horror meets thriller lined productions will adore They Call Her One Eye (1973) as it is plagued with richness, disturbing storylines, and much blood. However, the result will leave feminists or anyone championing women with a small smile on their face after the dramatic conclusion.

The Mackintosh Man-1973

The Mackintosh Man-1973

Director-John Huston

Starring-Paul Newman, James Mason, Dominique Sanda

Scott’s Review #1,058

Reviewed August 31, 2020

Grade: B

The Mackintosh Man (1973) is not one of legendary director John Huston’s best films. Known for well-remembered titles like The African Queen (1951), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and The Misfits (1961) that all movie historians and fan buffs are familiar with (or should be), this project is rather lackluster, only picking up at the very end to offer a riveting ending. The rest is mediocre, suffering from a terribly weighted down plot, a lacking romance, and little in the way of answers or good wrap-up.

If this sounds too harsh I will say that anything starring Paul Newman is worth seeing. Huston hit the jackpot in the casting department and the actor provides enough to raise The Mackintosh Man’s status to an adequate “B” ranking. I hate the title as it took days for it to stay in my memory. Huston attempts to make the film a taut thriller which at times is achieved especially during the climax, and mix humor, but the funnies rarely come, only getting in the way of what would have been better in a darker vein. It feels like a weak attempt to turn Paul Newman into James Bond.

Back to Newman. With his handsome face and icy blue eyes, he makes any film compelling, but I never really bought him in the role. This could be because of how the character is written. Newman is an American actor who plays a British secret agent pretending (sometimes) to be Australian. This is a busy ask even for an actor of Newman’s caliber. He was much better in Alfred Hitchcock’s critically panned, but well-aged, Cold War thriller, Torn Curtain (1966) in a similar role. Dominique Sanda, brilliant in The Conformist (1969), has little screen time until the finale at which time her character finally shows depth.

Newman plays Joseph Rearden, a British intelligence agent tasked with bringing down a communist spy ring. After purposely getting himself tossed in a high-security prison, he breaks out of the joint in an escape arranged by a mysterious organization. Rearden then tries to track the group’s activities and unmask its shadowy leader played by James Mason. On paper, the premise sounds quite appealing and with Newman, Mason, and Sanda in pocket my expectations were lofty, but not met.

I am not painting the film as bad by any means, just not as good as I anticipated. Certainly, some aspects work. Reardon’s time in the prison is appealing and might have influenced the not yet made Escape from Alcatraz (1979). When a male prisoner makes a pass at Reardon on the lunch line asking Reardon if he’d like to dance with him, he is kindly rebuffed. Does the prisoner cleverly respond with “maybe in a year or two”? The scene is played for laughs but also contains a sweet innocence. The Mackintosh Man is not a film where a scene like this can be interpreted as anything more than re-affirming Reardon’s (and Newman’s) masculinity, though.

From there, we get back to business.  He meets a convicted Russian spy and the two conceive a successful prison break. How they escape so easily is hard to swallow, but they apparently have help from an organization.  After the breakout, Reardon finds himself drugged and sent to Ireland. It turns out that the escapade was organized by Mackintosh in the hopes Reardon could infiltrate the Scarperers and gather information on the group’s leader, Sir George Wheeler (James Mason), and prove him to be a Russian spy. Just writing this out feels too confusing which is the film’s main problem.

Reardon has a flirtation with an eccentric tall, bad girl straight out of a Kubrick film before connecting better with Mrs. Smith (Sanda) and culminating in a harrowing climax aboard a luxury yacht with the gorgeous backdrop of Malta. The sequence almost makes the rest of the film forgivable as a lot of action suddenly develops and the landscape is gorgeous. A deadly and unexpected shooting occurs after an incident involving drugged champagne or white wine.

I advise watching The Mackintosh Man (1973) with the knowledge that the slowness and the confusion of most of the film are worth watching for the fantastic finish. Events and plot points may not necessarily all be spelled out, but the yacht scene and Malta locales are tremendous. Newman clearly carries the film with good acting from Mason and Sanda supporting the star.

Absence of Malice-1981

Absence of Malice-1981

Director-Sydney Pollack

Starring-Paul Newman, Sally Field

Scott’s Review #1,055

Reviewed August 20, 2020

Grade: A-

Absence of Malice (1981) is a terrific, slick crime thriller that while compelling and way above average in content, feels like a studio creation and a starring vehicle for its two A-list stars.

There is little wrong with this since Paul Newman and Sally Field are top-notch talents and the resulting project has tension, thrills, and a relevant concept. I loved the Miami locales as the hot and steamy atmosphere helps set the proper tone tremendously with sizzling romance and intrigue. Despite feeling manipulated for the casting, the film nonetheless feels fresh and authentic.

The film compares to 1976’s magnificent All the President’s Men as far as story and looks go, though Absence of Malice is much more mainstream. The former has more grit and dirt while the latter adds some romance that may or may not have been a wise decision and the chemistry between Newman and Field is mediocre, but it’s the story that works. In rock n roll terms, Absence of Malice is the opening act to All the President’s Men’s headliner. They make a perfect double-bill.

Field plays Megan Carter, an ambitious young journalist who writes a scathing article implicating Michael Gallagher (Newman), a successful liquor wholesaler with ties to a criminal family, with the disappearance of a labor leader. When he confronts Megan, she sees his side, and the duo team up to find the truth. Complicating matters is their mutual attraction which leads to romantic interludes.

The initial setup seems like a ploy to have Megan and Michael at odds and then fall madly in love. Fortunately, the story has more depth than that. Any trite 1980’s or 1990’s romantic comedy uses the same trick. No, not only do sparks fly but the characters realize that Megan was duped in order to write the article. This sets off a series of events to figure out who wants to frame Michael and why. And why Megan has been “chosen” to help see this through.

There is plenty of political espionage and other things to keep the audience engaged. Similar genre films would flood movie theaters throughout the decade becoming watered down. If Absence of Malice was released in 1988 or 1989 it would not have had the same effect as it did upon release in 1981. The soggy 1980’s style of filmmaking had not yet appeared, so I like to think of Absence as more of a 1970’s film.

Sally Field is a Nancy Drew type, a sleuth determined to solve a mystery. She is assertive, yet feminine with a trendy hairstyle. Newman is, well, Newman. Aging handsomely with his dazzling blue eyes he can charm the pants off any woman. I didn’t quite buy the romantic element and not because he is at least twenty years older than she. He is suave and charming, and she is so strait-laced that the romance doesn’t work. The film would have been better as a buddy film with a male and a female buddy.

Supporting stars flesh the film out nicely, especially Melinda Dillon who is fabulous in the role of Teresa Perrone, the conflicted friend of Michael’s who serves as his alibi. In a nicely crafted side story, she suffers because her abortion is revealed to the public. Teresa, a devout Catholic must decide between life and death. Admirable is it to give a supporting character a good, juicy story.

Pollack is the right director for the job and he successfully crafts a thriller that is laden with liberal beliefs and serves up a message film without losing the tension. Absence of Malice has snippets of style and tone reminiscent of some of his other films like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), The Way We Were (1973), and The Electric Horseman (1979). My mind wanders thinking about a potential Robert Redford/Jane Fonda pairing instead of Field and Newman, or some combination of a Barbra Streisand/Newman/Redford/Fonda mix.

I am not sure if Absence of Malice (1981) is still on anyone’s radar, but some forty years later the message couldn’t be timelier. When journalists are regularly attacked by government officials for providing “fake news” or “alternate facts” this film is a refreshing reminder that more often what they seek is to uncover corruption and get to the truth.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Paul Newman, Best Supporting Actress-Melinda Dillon, Best Original Screenplay

Uncut Gems-2019

Uncut Gems-2019

Director-Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie

Starring-Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel

Scott’s Review #1,049

Reviewed August 5, 2020

Grade: A-

The Safdie brothers have quickly emerged as a directing force to be reckoned with, producing two “gems” in only three years. Co-writing the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein, the final product is jagged, fast-paced, and frighteningly intense. Uncut Gems (2019) follows up the similar themed Good Time (2017) giving star Adam Sandler his greatest role yet. Yes, his performance even rivals the brilliant Punch-Drunk Love (2002) persona leading him to his first Independent Spirit Award win for Best Male Lead. He was robbed of an Oscar nomination. We can’t have everything.

Playing a loud-mouthed Jew is hardly new territory for the actor. Think-most of his screwball comedies from the 1990’s and 2000’s before he delved into serious actor territory. In the dreadful Jack and Jill (2011) he played two of them! But a trip down memory lane is surely not what the actor prefers, instead undoubtedly preferring to veer off course to more mature movies for the latter part of his film career. Uncut Gems made money so let’s hope so.

We meet Howard Ratner (Sandler) following his first ever colonoscopy which leaves him anxious and irritable. On better days he is needier, and a somewhat lovable teddy bear as he carries on an affair with his employee, Julia (Julia Fox) and his estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) who has agreed to a divorce after Passover. Howard runs KMH, an upscale jewelry store in the Diamond District section of New York City. How he lands and carries on with both gorgeous ladies are a mystery, but Dinah is a kept woman and Julia’s father is in the jewelry industry, thus explaining why Howard is. There is something particularly charismatic about Howard that draws other characters and the viewers to him.

As revealed in the beginning of the film, and the main story line, Howard has made a deal with Ethiopian Jewish miners somewhere in Africa to obtain a valuable black opal and sell it to him for cheap presumably so that he can make a ton of money from it in the States. It is also quickly established that Howard is a mess, owing $100,000 to his brother-in-law and loan shark. To complicate matters, his shady business associate brings basketball star Kevin Garnett into Howard’s shop. After he eyes the opal, he asks to borrow it for one night with his NBA Championship ring as collateral. This cannot end well, and it doesn’t.

The subsequent activity in Uncut Gems is crude, foul-mouthed, and off-putting to some. I have friends who watched eight or twelve minutes of it and either turned it off or left the theater in a huff. If you are expecting a comedy rife with potty jokes or other juvenile humor look elsewhere. This is the real deal with a deadly ending impossible to imagine. I loved the settings of Manhattan, Long Island, and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut the best.

The Safdie brothers have two major knacks. They can craft a tense, edge of your seat crime thriller like nobody’s business with a pulsating backdrop and a herky-jerky editing style. They can also catapult A-list actors teetering on the verge of being typecast for specific roles into the deep waters of creativity and sink or swim risk. No better example than Robert Pattinson’s risky turn as a grizzled bank robber in Good Time (2017), shedding his sterile pretty boy image that The Twilight (2008-2013) films brought him. This led to his wonderful turn in The Lighthouse (2019).

The soon to be household names directing team does not deserve all the credit though even though the men serve in a variety of key positions including acting, editing, shooting, mixing sound, and producing their films. Sandler has become an interesting and versatile actor as he forges into the drama vein. Happy to roll up his sleeves and do an indie film for little money (like he needs it!) he proves that an unlikable character can have hints of likability, black humor, and pizzazz. He completely embodies Howard and makes the audience love/hate him. He balances two women, schemes to get rich, and neglects his kid’s school play, yet he is appealing.

Let’s ceremoniously proclaim 2019 as the year that stars previously known for generic films determined to break out with challenging and fantastic roles were shunned by the Academy. Jennifer Lopez, shockingly snubbed for Hustlers (2019), clearly being punished for years of drivel such as Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Monster-in-Law (2005) joins her compadre Sandler in two of the biggest snubs of the decade with Uncut Gems (2019).

Perhaps an Oscar will be in their future if they stay the course and remain true to the work.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Male Lead-Adam Sandler (won), Best Director-Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie (won), Best Screenplay, Best Editing (won)

A Prophet-2009

A Prophet-2009

Director-Jacques Audiard

Starring-Tahar Rahim

Scott’s Review #1,034

Reviewed June 18, 2020

Grade: A-

A Prophet (2009), known as Un prophète in the French language, is a prison drama/crime thriller made exceptionally well and told from a character perspective rather than a plot angle. Skirting any traditional genre prison characteristics, the film instead crafts a character study with the conflicting emotions of its main character taking center stage.

The result is a layered, complex experience led by a brilliant acting turn by actor Tahar Rahim.

Malik (Rahim) is a nineteen-year-old French youth of Algerian descent imprisoned for six years for attacking police officers. Friendless and unable to read, he is vulnerable and coaxed into murdering a witness involved in a crucial trial.

He becomes embroiled in tensions between the Corsicans and Muslims who populate much of the prison. Malik cannot forget his participation in a murder, tortures himself, and has frequent nightmares of the incident. He slowly rises the ranks of power within the prison community becoming involved in dangerous events and pivoting from meek to fear.

Largely avoided are overused prison elements common in many films of similar ilk. In other films, humor or standard dramatic situations occur that make a watered-down experience. A Prophet breathes fresh life into the prison film, albeit grisly and violent life. The film is not for everyone and is extremely dark, even brutal at times.

During murder scenes, blood and guts are spilled at an alarming rate, and there ceases to exist many characters to sympathize with. Malik is the main character but is an opportunist, readily doing what he must to gain power and control. Can we blame him? No.

Malik is a complex and nuanced character who is a joy to watch and dissect. He starts his prison tenure as a naive and timid boy, illiterate and easily manipulated. Over time, he grows into a seasoned gangster becoming involved in intricate plots and messy situations. Actor Tahar Rahim successfully makes the character both likable and detestable, fleshing him out so the audience will love and hate him. This is the mark of a wonderful actor who can give complicated dynamics to the character.

Prison life is portrayed exceptionally well by director Jacques Audiard, who relays an authentic representation. It was good enough to make me never want to be imprisoned anyway. He wisely hired former convicts as both extras and advisors to flesh out the experience. Life in prison, Audiard style, is not a rosy picture, but one filled with pain, fright, and violence. The Arab population, woefully underrepresented in cinema, is given a voice.

Another subject matter, homosexuality, a popular addition in prison films is not explored. Mostly played either for laughs or providing a conveniently situational plot device, A Prophet does not need the inclusion, too much else is going on. Although a titillating prospect for many, the subject may have added a sexual or romantic angle taking away from the main point of the film, which is one man’s journey within the prison system.

Told from one man’s viewpoint, A Prophet (2009) is a triumphant French film that deservedly received accolades for its courage and realistic feel. Starring a young actor with great potential and a brave director unafraid to develop logical storytelling and avoid typical traits, one wonders what their next project will be. Violent gangs, corrupt guards, and impressionable prisoners would be a good way to continue.

Oscar Nominations: Best Foreign Language Film

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Foreign Film

Suspicion-1941

Suspicion-1941

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Carey Grant, Joan Fontaine

Scott’s Review #1,029

Reviewed June 3, 2020

Grade: B+

An early American effort by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (1941), follows the Oscar winning Rebecca (1940) with a similarly themed film. A dazzling beauty (Joan Fontaine) is manipulated by her charming husband (Carey Grant) but is he gaslighting her and plotting her death or is it all in her mind? The puzzle unfolds with a sizzling final thirty minutes that eclipses the remainder of the film, which drags and plods along slowly.

Wealthy but insecure Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine) meets handsome and irresponsible playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) on a train in England. He charms her into eloping despite the strong disapproval of her father, General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) who thinks Johnnie is after the family money. After a lavish honeymoon and return to an extravagant new home, Lina discovers that Johnnie has no job and no income, habitually lives on borrowed money and was intending to try to sponge off her father. She talks him into getting a job, which he ends up embezzling from.

Lina begins to think that not only is Johnnie after her money but intends to kill her. She becomes aware of his financial schemes and motivations, feeling conflicted over her love for him and her own survival. Events kick into high gear after a friend’s death, an insurance policy, and discussions with an author friend, Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), a writer of mystery novels, about untraceable poisons. A bizarre dinner conversation surrounding ways to get away with murder causes Lina to start unraveling.

Many suspensions of disbelief must be contained in frustrating measures throughout most of the film and a bothersome level of female mistreatment is to be endured. Gnawing at me from the very first scene is the insecurity of Lina. She is gorgeous, rich, and intelligent so why does she feel, and is perceived even by her parents, as a lonely spinster certain to become an old maid. Despite Hitchcock’s love of glasses on female characters, brandishing Lina with gawky bifocals hardly makes her an ugly duckling. Johnnie’s nicknaming her “monkeyface” is jarring and insulting.

The determination to not make Hollywood royalty Carey Grant too bad of a guy does not work. It feels like a weak effort to suddenly go in a different story direction to thwart the perception of a character as not a villain but someone to feel sympathetic towards. Unclear is if this was Hitchcock’s decision or the mighty studio’s (my best guess would be the latter since Hitchcock was not afraid to take risks). The audience hardly has a chance to let their emotions marinate as the big reveal quickly culminates in the end credits rolling and the film concludes.

A significant positive to Spellbound is the hidden tidbits brewing beneath the main saga of the Hollywood glamour boy and girl (Grant and Fontaine). A clever LGBTQ+ revelation among two supporting characters can be unearthed, decades before the terminology was even invented. Hitchcock loved his gay characters, who could not be openly gay at the time, though the director did his best to offer the now obvious idiosyncrasies. Sophisticated Isobel seems to live alone in her quaint and lovely cottage, but during a dinner party, a blonde woman wearing a suit and tie, clearly butch, joins the conversation. As Isobel asks her to pour more wine, we realize she is hardly a servant but Isobel’s lesbian lover!

The stunning yet highly subtle revelation is prominent to eagle-eyed viewers cagey enough to catch on. Besides these lovely ladies, an odd-looking male dinner guest wearing glasses and discussing murder novels is an interesting character though we see little of him. The same can be said for Lina’s sophisticated mother, Mrs. Martha McLaidlaw (Dame May Whitty), and Lina and Johnnie’s maid, Ethel (Heather Angel). Both, playing small roles, add subtle delights to the film.

Suspicion (1941) is an early Hitchcock film that flies under the radar, rarely mentioned among his best works. The film is a tough sell for its tedious pace, the inexplicable insecurity of the lead character, and an unfulfilling story conclusion. The suspense and activity in the final act (mostly the stunning edge of the cliff car drive) promotes the film to an above-average rating, but grander and greater works were soon to follow in the decades ahead. The most fun is noticing the delicious peculiarities of the bevy of interesting supporting characters.

Oscar Nominations: Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Actress-Joan Fontaine (won), Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture

Lifeboat-1944

Lifeboat-1944

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Slezak

Scott’s Review #1,020

Reviewed May 6, 2020

Grade: A-

Alfred Hitchcock, well-known for big, bouncy, suspenseful productions, creates a stripped-down, intimate story of adventures while adrift on a survival boat, leaving plenty of tension and peril. Lifeboat (1944), now teetering on extinction from memory save for fans of the director, deserves appreciation and respect for the brilliant direction and wonderful cinematography alone. The film was met with controversy and some derision for sympathetic depictions of a German U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) amid the horrors of World War II.

Events begin in the middle of calm Atlantic Oceanic waters after dastardly battle results in a German U-boat and a British/American ship sinking each other, leaving fewer than a dozen civilians and service members to survive in one lifeboat. The snooty and glamorous columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), clad in the finest fur coat around, is irritated by a run in her stocking, a travesty in her mind. She is slowly joined by other survivors including a young British woman with a dead baby, a steward, a U.S. Army nurse (Mary Anderson), a wealthy entrepreneur, and other people from most walks of life.

Lifeboat plays out like a more cerebral version of a disaster film. Think- a smart man’s version of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which is said with love since it’s one of my favorite films. But with Lifeboat, darkness and a sense of sadness is missing from the 1970s more lightweight disaster films. The black-and-white camerawork helps tremendously as does the mist, the rain, and even the strong beating sun. The weather elements play an important role and are characters themselves.

Speaking of characters, the individuals are plentiful and diverse, ranging from British, American, Black, German, wealthy, and working-class, to eventually dead and alive with a gruesome leg amputation taking place mid-stream. Each is well-written, exhibiting fear, bravery, and suspicion of the other’s motivations, especially the German captain who communicates in native tongue with Connie, causing conjecture among the other survivors.

Events would hardly be complete without a good melodramatic romance and such is the treat to see two formulate. Connie and handsome John (John Hodiak) share a love/hate relationship, clearly from opposite backgrounds, while the more stable Alice and Stanley (Hume Cronyn) even decide to marry! Genteel Alice reveals a marriage and an affair to Stanley uncovering layers and complexity to the character.

My favorite character is Connie, and Bankhead is a pure delight in the bitchy, no-nonsense role. She enshrouds the camera from the first scene. Reminiscent of Bette Davis, the actress has a similar composure, stance, and trademark cigarette, but slowly reveals her insecurities and desperation. What fun she is to watch!

A tender and poignant scene occurs at the end of the film and is lovely to witness especially given the tumultuous time of the mid-1940s. A drifting young German soldier attempts to board and shoot at the survivors but is apprehended. Disputes occur, but instead of shooting or casting the lad overboard to drown, he is saved and presumably provided food and water. Does he inquire why they don’t kill him? The message is powerful and anti-war.

The direction methods are brilliant, looking as realistic as anything could in 1940s cinema where CGI was decades away. Hitchcock had me fooled as I bought lock, stock, and barrel that the lifeboat was in the middle of rough and murky waters instead of a Hollywood studio tub. The creative method of getting so many characters into one shot wonderfully and effectively provides a claustrophobic feel as the lack of food and drinking water causes hysteria and emotion. The one-set approach is marvelous and perfect for the film’s specific storyline.

After decades of underexposure and playing second or third fiddle to other Hitchcock masterpieces, Lifeboat (1944) is finally getting a bit of notice and acclaim. Here’s to hoping the trend will continue as the film contains enough frights and perils to keep anyone guessing which characters will sink and which will swim. Perhaps not the best watch on a cruise ship or other watery surfaces, the escapade will delight most fans of classic black-and-white thrill cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director- Alfred Hitchcock, Best Original Story, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White

A History of Violence-2005

A History of Violence-2005

Director-David Cronenberg

Starring-Viggo Mortensen, Mario Bello, Ed Harris

Scott’s Review #1,016

Reviewed April 28, 2020

Grade: B+

David Cronenberg has directed films such as Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and Crash (1996), stories safely classified as “off the beaten path”.

With A History of Violence (2005), he creates a film that on the surface appears conventional and even wholesome at the onset, a family drama or thriller, that turns sinister and bloody as it lumbers along.

The Christian-like small Indiana town is the perfect backdrop to quietly inflict mayhem and terror on its characters. Stars Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris give tremendous portrayals.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a quiet mid-western life and owns a quaint, little diner nestled in the center of town. He is a popular man and quite neighborly, befriending the many patrons who visit his lovely eatery. At his side are his adoring wife Edie (Maria Bello), and children, Jack and Sarah. If they owned a golden retriever and resided in a house with a white picket fence, they would define the all-American family.

Late one night, two men attempt to rob the restaurant and when they attack a waitress, Tom kills both robbers with surprising ease and skill barely blinking at his violent tendencies. He is professed a hero by the townspeople and the incident makes him a local celebrity.

Tom is then visited by the frightening scarred gangster Carl Fogarty (Harris), who insists that Tom is a notorious gangster from Philadelphia named Joey Cusack. Tom is perplexed and vehemently denies the claims, but Fogarty begins to stalk the Stall family. Because of the pressure, Tom’s family life hits crisis mode.

As the film ticks along the plot become thicker and thicker as the puzzle pieces are rife with mystery. Is Fogarty merely a liar, holding a vendetta against the person who killed his men? Does Tom suffer from amnesia, having forgotten his past life due to an accident? Has Tom fled the criminal life seeking refuge and a new life in middle America, safely leaving his troubles behind? Does the truth lie somewhere in the middle of these possibilities?

Bello is cast in the role of Edie, Tom’s loyal wife. Bello is a stellar actor and does a wonderful job in the complicated role. Far too often, especially in thrillers, the wife role is as lacking in the challenge as it is in glamour. The ever-supportive wife must be a drag to play but certainly pays the bills. Edie is different, and as soon as the viewer has her figured out, she acts out of the blue that will surprise this type of character. This has a lot to do with Bello’s pizzazz and acting chops.

I adore the setting of the film. A far cry from the bustling City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, when the action eventually flows to the city, the rural setting of Indiana becomes even more important. The quiet mornings, the imagined smell of fresh-brewed coffee, the crackling of sizzling bacon on the grill at Tom’s Diner, and finally, crickets chirping in the distance, all provoke the potent atmosphere and surroundings that really work in this film.

A History of Violence (2005) is a superior film that contains excellent writing, the best aspect of the rich experience. A top-notch screenplay written by Josh Olson leaves the viewer not only with mounting tension but the mysterious unknown as to what will happen next and what the truth is.

Mortensen, commonplace in recent Cronenberg films, has found his niche playing complex yet humanistic characters, which must be a challenge for the actor and a splendid reward for the audience.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-William Hurt, Best Adapted Screenplay

Spellbound-1945

Spellbound-1945

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck

Scott’s Review #1,015

Reviewed April 24, 2020

Grade: A-

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s early American films, after his voyage from home base London to the United States soil proved profitable and critically acclaimed, Spellbound (1945) followed the box office and awards success of Rebecca (1940). Probably the most spoofed of all the Hitchcock works in the 1977 Mel Brooks parody High Anxiety, Spellbound provides a psychological storyboard that uses enough vehicles like amnesia, hypnosis, and danger to impress any daytime soap opera writer. Not in the director’s top arsenal or remembered well, but a stellar effort.

Youthful Doctor Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives one day at the sprawling Green Manors Mental Asylum as the new director. After immediately falling for each other, the beautiful Doctor Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) discovers that Edwardes is not who he claims, but instead is a paranoid amnesiac impostor, more reminiscent of a patient. This literally gives new meaning to the term “the inmates are running the asylum.”

Constance becomes obsessed with answering the following questions: What happened to the real Dr. Edwardes? If Edwardes has been kidnapped or murdered who is responsible? Who is the gorgeous man that she has just fallen head over heels for? The intelligent psychoanalyst must practice what she preaches by becoming a sleuth and figuring out what is going on. The action takes place in both bustling New York City and snowy Rochester, New York.

I love the progressive nature of the story. To have a leading female character with a lofty professional status is admirable given the year 1945 when female roles were just beginning to evolve. While most roles that Hollywood heavyweight Bette Davis portrayed in the 1930s and 1940s were vital and strong, this was the exception and not the norm. Bergman, quite beautiful, does not need to play sex kitten to make her character sexy. She does well with that by wearing glasses and a lab coat, using the intelligence of her character to her advantage.

In 1945 Alfred Hitchcock was still considered a “new” director to most and was only beginning to make his mark on audiences unfamiliar with his work. His cunning and masterful use of lighting and shadows to produce suspense is on display during much of Spellbound. The faces of Constance and Anthony glow with a combination of warmth and suspicion, and both are wonderful at eliciting emotion through subdued facial expressions. While Peck is slightly wooden, it does add a dimension to his uncertain character.

The atmosphere is everything with Hitchcock. Treats, like shots of the old Penn Station and Grand Central Station, monumental parts of everyday New York City life, are magnificent. They provide a glimpse of what bustling commuter life was like in the 1940s before most of us were born. Undoubtedly, many extras and non-actors were used that enrich the scenes and offer what regular people looked like in those days.

As Constance and Anthony team up to determine what secrets lie beneath his subconscious, they board a train for the seclusion of upstate New York, where more secrets are revealed. A heavy dose of psychoanalysis and hypnotism allay the best scene of the film. Anthony sinks into a dreamlike world where he sees strange objects fraught with symbolism: a man with no face, scissors, playing cards, eyes, and curtains. What do they all mean? Fans will have fun piecing together the clues to solve the mystery.

The works of Salvador Dali, a famous surrealist artist known for bizarre and striking images, are on display during the dream sequence. Though limited, they do envelope the scene with fright and mystique and are a perfect addition to the odd sequence. Shot in black and white, the final scene adds a blood-red image as a character turns a revolver on themselves and commits suicide. When Anthony drinks a glass of milk, the camera is inside the bottom of the glass, creating a hallucinogenic effect.

While Peck does his best with a peculiar character, Anthony is not as interesting as Constance, Doctor Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov), or Doctor Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). Personally, I would have loved more scenes or back-story for Brulov and have gotten to know him better. Anthony has some light annoyances as when he inexplicably passes out whenever events become too much for him.

Spellbound (1945) is the perfect accompaniment for a snowy winter night since the film has a warm and cozy look with an atmosphere and a soothing musical score. Perfect is to watch in tandem with High Anxiety (1977) for a double-punch of suspense and appreciation for the film with the humor the satire furnishes. While not the best of the best of Hitchcock films, it stands proudly on its own merits.

Oscar Nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Director-Alfred Hitchcock, Best Supporting Actor-Michael Chekhov, Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (won), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Best Special Effects

I Confess-1953

I Confess-1953

Director-Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter

Scott’s Review #1,007

Reviewed April 2, 2020

Grade: A-

I Confess (1953) is an early effort by the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock with a decidedly religious slant but keeps the suspense and thrills commonplace in his other films. The picture is not one of his best-remembered works and in fact, is one of his least remembered projects. This is unwarranted because the film contains all the standard elements known to the director, creating an entertaining and enthralling effort. Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter, big Hollywood stars of the day, are featured.

Not a fan of exterior shoots where he couldn’t control the elements, filming was nonetheless done largely on location in Quebec City with numerous shots of the city landscape and interiors of its churches and other emblematic buildings, such as the Château Frontenac, heavily featured. This factor adds to the enjoyment as a French sophistication and culture are added and the accents provide a European influence, especially powerful during the final act.

Handsome Catholic priest, Father Michael Logan (Clift), wants nothing more than to be a good priest but his calling is made complicated after someone confesses a murder to him and he’s subsequently blamed for the death. A World War II veteran, he harbors secrets told in the back story, as a strong connection to another character comes to light. An easy way to clear his name is to reveal exactly what he knows, but doing so would break his vows as a clergyman and alienate members of his community who trust he will keep their steamy secrets very private.

Ruth Grandfort (Baxter) is a respected member of society, married to husband Pierre (Roger Dann), a member of the Quebec legislature. They live a comfortable existence in a lavish house with servants and regularly throw cosmopolitan parties befitting people of their stature. Amid martinis and festive party games, Ruth keeps not one secret but two and is being blackmailed for her shenanigans. Her connection to Father Michael slowly bubbles to the surface.

Christian viewers will neither be offended nor completely embraced either. Hitchcock does not mock the religion but makes certain of the conflict and demons that can encircle even a pious or righteous man. Known as far back as 1940’s Rebecca as toying with viewers and frequently adding an LGBTQ uncertainty, this can be said of I Confess. Assumed to be in love, Father Michael offers little romantic passion or zest towards Ruth and the connections seem one-sided. Could his descent into the Catholic Church be a front to cover up his sexuality? Only Hitchcock will know the answer.

Eagle-eyed Hitchcock fans will certainly discover similarities to his other works. In the very first scene, an unknown man is strangled to death, collapsing to the floor. This is reminiscent of the 1948 masterpiece, Rope (1948) when an identical sequence occurs. The audience knows nothing about the stranger- yet. In both films, the character, even after death, become integral to the plot twists and turns in store. The tremendous use of shadows and lighting is on careful display mirroring the look of the soon to come The Wrong Man (1956).

While not the cream of the crop among Hitchcock’s best film entries or even a top ten offering, I Confess (1953) is certainly deserving of viewing or two on its own merits. Clift and Baxter have excellent chemistry and enough mystique and plot are guessing to keep audiences well occupied. The final twenty minutes provides cat and mouse revelry and a shocking death perfect for a dramatic climax to a film oozing with Hitchcock’s finest traits.

5 Against the House-1955

5 Against the House-1955

Director-Phil Karlson

Starring-Brian Keith, Kim Novak

Scott’s Review #998

Reviewed March 11, 2020

Grade: C-

5 Against the House (1955) is a film that may have influenced heist films such as the Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 (1960) or countless other films featuring groups of young men holding up an establishment for money. The film is mediocre and lacks much that is memorable as nothing distinguishes it from other similar themed genre films. Star Brian Keith is charismatic in the lead, but the chemistry with the ravishing Kim Novak goes nowhere with any of the actors. The film is mildly interesting with a few tense moments but little more. 

Four Midwestern University college pals, Brick (Keith), Al (Guy Madison), Ronnie, and Roy, devise a grand casino heist while drunk and partying one weekend in Reno. The idea is to go through with their plan and then return the cash, just to prove they can get away with the high-stakes prank. But when one of the group betrays the others and plots to keep the money for himself, he imperils them all. Novak plays Kaye, the girlfriend of Al, who recently has become a singer at a local nightclub.

The standouts from the cast are Keith and William Conrad and this might be more because the then-unknown actors became television stars in later years, for Family Affair and Jake and the Fat Man, respectively. Keith is great in the lead role of Brick, the tormented and conflicted ex-veteran of the Korean War, unable to forget tragedies he saw while abroad. He is a cool every man with an edge, angry and out to prove something to the world. He also needs the money that the heist will provide him. The character is interesting and empathetic.

Conrad is gruff and memorable in the role of a cart operator, who plays an important role in the film’s finale. Sent to retrieve cash from the money room, using the prerecorded message to make him believe that there is a desperate man with a gun in the cart who will shoot him if he does not cooperate, Conrad does wonders with his eyes and facial expressions.

The luscious Novak, soon to be a household name in the stunning and cerebral Alfred Hitchcock film, Vertigo (1958), is not very compelling as Kaye. The main reason is that she has little to do but stand around and serve as window dressing. This is too bad as the actress has talent and charisma for miles, but this work is beneath her. Not her debut, but one of her early films, what’s a girl to do? To add insult to injury, her voice was dubbed by another singer. Novak clearly needed the paycheck.

Director, Phil Karlson is unsuccessful at bringing the picture full- circle but does pepper in some nice exterior night scenes of Reno. The casino sequences are also commendable with proper zesty and flashy set pieces when appropriate. But trimmings never make a film complete and 5 Against the House needs more meat on the bone than it serves up.

The heist is the main attraction as it always is in these types of films. Some tension does exist but not enough, and the finale is a letdown. After the robbery, which is unspectacular, Brick leaves the others behind and escapes with the money, and a pursuit ensues. Kaye, having alerted police, follows them, and a tepid standoff follows. Ultimately, Brick changes his mind while Al and Kaye embrace on a crowded street. The feeble final scene is meant as a romantic sendoff between Al and Kaye, who didn’t have chemistry to begin with.

5 Against the House (1955) contains an adequate cast and a few positive tidbits worth mentioning, but the story is way too predictable, the conclusion, which should be the high-point disappoints, and the actors are too old to be believable as college-aged students. Many other film noir or heist films released before or after this film are superior and better crafted.

Dial M for Murder-1954

Dial M for Murder-1954

Director- Alfred Hitchcock

Starring-Ray Milland, Grace Kelly

Scott’s Review #995

Reviewed February 28, 2020

Grade: A

A fabulous offering by stylistic director Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder (1954) arrived on the scene when the cinematic genius was hitting his stride in the United States, already having found success in England. The late 1950s and early 1960s revealed his best offerings, but this one is no slouch either. The film mixes thrills, double-cross, and murder in a way only Hitchcock can- perfectly. It is fast-paced and shot almost like a play, using primarily one set only. Based on the Broadway hit, which came first.

An English former tennis champion, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) hatches a scheme to kill his wealthy but unfaithful wife Margot (Grace Kelly), who’s embroiled in a liaison with handsome writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). When Tony’s plans go awry, he attempts the second act of deceit, but events spin out of control for him when Margot, Mark, and a sly Scotland Yard inspector (John Williams) begin putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

The film is a popular one by way of the story because it is very conventional and pure Hitchcock. The viewer immediately knows who the killer is and what his motivations are- the hunger for wealth and the jealousy of another man. The most fun is when hiccups begin to form, and Tony must fly by the seat of his pants to cover his tracks and think of another way to seal Margot’s fate. If he cannot murder her why can’t he send her to prison? Milland is perfect in the role with perfect eye shifts and head turns.

Set pieces like a key and a handbag come into play giving the film zest. When it is revealed that there are multiple keys the plot gets juicier and juicier. The flat where Tony and Margot reside is beautifully designed with state-of-the-art furniture and decorations making the set a character. Lavish curtains and French doors are utilized during the late-night attempted murder scene, which is thrilling to witness, leaving the astounded viewer with heart palpitations.

The brilliance is that the viewer is not intended to hate Tony, at least this viewer didn’t. While he is not likable his motivations can be somewhat understood. On the flip-side, Margot and Mark are not the heroes of the film either and their shenanigans come back to bite them. I dare say that Grace Kelly has had better roles in Hitchcock films. To Catch a Thief (1955) immediately comes to mind. Margot is not a particularly strong character and is quite weak.

Dial M for Murder has commonalities with two other Hitchcock gems that immediately come to mind. As with Strangers on a Train (1951), the use of a tennis star is utilized as a major character and twisted strangulation is the name of the game. Also, a tit-for-tat technique is used. Like the underappreciated Rope (1948), the one-take sequence style and a film that could be a stage play are traits that are noticed. Those films are good ones to be in the same company with.

The final thirty minutes travel by at break-neck speed as we wonder what will happen next. The cat-and-mouse activities are delightful and remind us that the film is quite basic and stripped down compared to his later films. One set, good actors, and a full-throttle story does wonders to satisfy a fan. The camera movements and techniques are key to the entire film as a shot here or a shot there are timed with flawless precision. Hitchcock used 3-D filming, inventive for this time.

Perhaps not as famous as Hitchcock delights like Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), or North by Northwest (1959), Dial M for Murder (1954) serves as much more than a warm-up act to those classics. With a fast pace, twists and turns, and good British sensibilities, the setting of a stylish London flat and good sophistication make this film one to remember.

1408-2007

1408-2007

Director-Mikael Hafstrom

Starring-John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Scott’s Review #983

Reviewed January 23, 2020

Grade: C+

A bundle of film adaptations of Stephen King novels has been birthed over the years. 1408 (2007) is one of many and while suspenseful, the project might have been better served as a quick fifty-minute episodic television event rather than a big-screen effort. The content seems displaced and disjointed, stretched too thin. Nonetheless, big stars like John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson provide some stamina to a film that slowly teeters into nonsense and a confusing conclusion.

Based on Stephen King’s 1999 short story of the same name, the film follows Mike Enslin (Cusack), an author who investigates allegedly haunted houses, and rents the titular room 1408 at the Dolphin, a New York City hotel, to see what all the fuss is about. Although skeptical of the paranormal, he is soon unable to leave the room as he experiences bizarre events. The hotel manager, Gerald Owen (Jackson) attempts to convince Mike not to inhabit the notorious room, and intriguing is why?

The film has key success when it focuses on the atmospheric and the tense moments. The lighting and the camera techniques elicit a closed-in and claustrophobic aura because the set is mostly the hotel room. The use of psychological tension works better than a slice-’em, dice-’em approach.

During Mike’s examination of his room, the clock radio suddenly starts playing “We’ve Only Just Begun”, a hit song by The Carpenters. Mike assumes that Olin is pulling a prank to scare him. At 8:07, the song plays again and the clock’s digital display changes to a countdown starting from “60:00.” This is creepy, and the viewer is intrigued by what will happen next.

The window slams down and wounds Mike’s hand. He begins to see ghosts of the room’s past victims, followed by flashbacks of his dead daughter Katie, and his sick father. This catapults Mike into terror and he attempts to escape the room, fearing for his life. He is unsuccessful in his escape and the room appears to have him prisoner until his wife, Lily (Mary McCormack) comes to the rescue. What does Olin have to do with the events? Is Lily sinister or benevolent?

When Mike is out of the hotel room the film falls apart. Containing too many weird circumstances to make much sense- a surfing event on the beach, a Molotov cocktail, a fire alarm, and a return to the hotel room spin the viewer in too many directions as a hallucinogenic experience is created. Before long the viewer will stop caring. I know I did. On paper, these oddities sound intriguing, but they did not translate to screen well.

Hafstrom directs the activity adequately and uses actors that viewers are familiar with, adding to the credibility. With lesser talents or unknowns, the film may have felt low budget or independent, and I think the film, while not great, needs these actors to add professionalism. The star is naturally Cusack, who enjoys the most screen time as a man who only believes what his eyes and ears tell him, and not the silliness of spirits and ghosts. The actor possesses an offbeat look which adds to the film.

From a storyline perspective, 1408 (2007) never really catches fire. The film is not pitiful, nor is it a great adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The novel is hardly a household name, which does the film a few favors. The result is fair to middling, with a promising first half followed by a dour second. 1408 will certainly be forgotten five years after its release.

Knives Out-2019

Knives Out-2019

Director-Rian Johnson

Starring-Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig

Scott’s Review #969

Reviewed December 17, 2019

Grade: B+

Knives Out (2019) is a cleverly constructed whodunit, created in a style not too dissimilar from the famous board game, Clue. In fact, this facet is mentioned by one character during a scene in the film. With a hefty cast of film stars both young and old (mostly old), the result is a good time with intelligent writing and surprises and a crowd-pleasing tone. The project is presented by a cast who undoubtedly had a ball during filming. The point of the film is to try and figure out whodunit and why, in perfect murder mystery form.

It is explained through narration that wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has invited his family to flock to his mansion for his eighty-fifth birthday party. The next morning, Harlan’s housekeeper Fran finds him dead, apparently having slit his own throat. An anonymous figure hires private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the situation. When Blanc arrives at the grand estate to interrogate family and friends, tidbits of scandal and intrigue slowly brim to the surface as layers are revealed.

The sizable cast features Hollywood stalwarts like Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda, Harlan’s daughter), Don Johnson (Richard, Harlan’s son-in-law, and Linda’s husband), Chris Evans (Ransom, Harlan’s grandson), Michael Shannon (Walt, Harlan’s youngest son), and Toni Collette (Joni, widow of Harlan’s deceased son Neil). Helpful is how the film spends time introducing and explaining each prominent character so that the viewer has a good sense of who’s who and how one character relates to the others before the tangled web unravels.

The delicious aspect of Knives Out are the many twists and turns offered throughout the course of the run time. Surprising me was a key revelation exposed quite early on, so that the pacing is more left of center than classic whodunits of days past. Once the new story arc is revealed the plot thickens further and we know more events will ultimately abound as the story just cannot be this simple. This successfully kept me as a viewer engaged during the entire experience.

Having witnessed the previews at length and the way the trailer presents a Hercule Poirot/Agatha Christie/Jessica Fletcher type sleuth to solve, it was delightful to see one-character snuggling on the couch absorbed in an episode of the 1980’s television series “Murder, She Wrote”. Director, Rian Johnson offers several sly homages to influential tidbits of pop culture that helped create his film and retain the amusements.

Another momentous positive is the incorporation of a political discussion among the family as they brood and fret over how much money they stand to inherit from their dead patriarch. Donald J. Trump, a man who catapulted the United States into controversy post 2016, is never mentioned by name, but immigration, children in cages, and expletives are carefully hurled about in his honor so there is no question the connotations. Harlan’s caregiver is Marta (Ana de Armas), the heroine of the film and the standout, and whose mother is an undocumented immigrant. So political overtones abound.

Knives Out mixes dark humor with traditional mystery and is never dull. The big reveal at the end is not brilliant nor is it disappointing. It simply satisfies after numerous red-herrings and lies bubble to the surface. The final sequence is palpable and smart viewers will wonder what one character will possibly do next to either please or anger the rest of the characters. Might a sequel be at hand?

A film not meant to be high art or anything more than an entertaining good time, Knives Out (2019) achieves its intent by offering an experience reminiscent of an Agatha Christie tale that is fun for the audience. The benefits are reaped as an enormous box office return was awarded the film. Thanks in large part to a talented cast, a gloomy mansion, and wealthy people faced with peril and comeuppance, these elements are a wonderful recipe for a good solid mystery.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

Parasite-2019

Parasite-2019

Director-Joon-ho Bong

Starring-Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin

Scott’s Review #963

Reviewed November 28, 2019

Grade: A

Parasite (2019) is a South Korean language film that has it all. The writing is powerful and thought-provoking, the direction is unique and intriguing, the acting stellar, and the story perfectly paced with dizzying twists and turns. The film is uncomfortable and unsettling (in a good way), catapulting from dark humor to horror by the time the shocking finale plays. An experience to be dazzled by and ravaged at the emotions it will instill in the viewer.

The story centers on two families. The affluent Park’s live in the lap of luxury, enjoying the finer things in life like a lavish residence, a personal driver, and a live-in housekeeper. Park Dong-ik is the CEO of an IT company, his beautiful wife, Park Yeong-gyo, stays at home with their two children, Park Da-hye and Park Da-Song. They are rich and, on the surface, rather spoiled and superficial.

The struggling Kim’s reside in a semi-basement that constantly floods, accept menial jobs to pay the bills, and are grifters. Patriarch Kim Ki-taek and wife Kim Chung-sook have two teenage children, Kim Ki-woo and Kim Ki-jeong. They are cagey and resourceful and think up schemes to garner money. Each is good-looking but struggles to find much success in life.

Kim Ki-woo’s friend tutors for the Park daughter and will soon travel abroad for studies. He convinces Kim Ki-woo to interview for the position, who easily gets the job by charming the gullible Park Yeong-gyo. He and the rest of the Kim’s create an elaborate ruse to insinuate themselves into the Park family by tricking Mr. and Mrs. Park into dismissing their driver and housekeeper. The Park’s are unaware that their new staff are related!

The underlying theme of Parasite is one of class distinction and social inequality. The tension builds more and more with each scene and the monetary differences between the haves and have nots is always on the surface. Once the Kim’s get a taste of the good life they have no intention of being satisfied merely as hired help- they want it all for themselves.

The fact that the Kim’s are clever, and manipulative is no accident on the part of director, Joon-ho Bong. Conversely, the Park’s are gullible and easily outsmarted by the Kim’s. Why are they rich and the Kim’s poor, the audience wonder? Are we to root for the Kim’s to overtake the Park’s? The Kim’s are no saints as they resort to the firings of other people to get what they want. Allegiances to characters will shift along the way.

As the Kim’s get comfy one night in the Park house when the family goes on a weekend camping trip, the film really takes off. Drunk and sparring with each other, the doorbell rings and the haggard former housekeeper begs to be let in. When she claims to have left something behind in the basement, this leads to a shocking secret and dramatic turn of events. I did not see the revelation coming and events only catapult the film into something else. The pacing and tension during this scene are outstanding.

Tough to rival this scene, the film does just that with the gruesome and bloody birthday party scene. The proverbial “sh## hits the fan” as the tensions among the characters come to life. The scene results in several deaths and the rage of a prominent character reaches a crescendo. The scene is set on a gorgeous sunny day, perfect for birthday cake, balloons, and shiny wrapped presents. After a lovely start the party becomes laden with blood, screams and intensity.

Bong writes the Kim patriarch as the most sympathetic character, and a montage at the end of the film makes this clear. The other characters are less benevolent and more complicated. When Mrs. Kim shoves the family dog she is unlikable, but then she is kind to the former housekeeper. Mrs. Park appears innocent at first but then is a shrew when she plans her son’s birthday party, expecting all to cater to her every whim. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Park mock Mr. Kim behind his back and insinuate that poor people “smell funny”. Do the Park’s deserve their fates?

Parasite (2019) is a dark film filled with clever writing, good character development, that takes audiences on a roller coaster ride. The sub-titles do little to detract from the fantastic experience this film offers as Bong spins a spider-web of deceit, desperation, and tragedy. Viewers will certainly be thinking and talking about this one for days.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Bong Joon-ho (won), Best Original Screenplay (won), Best International Feature Film (won), Best Production Design, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best International Film (won)