Category Archives: Comedy Films

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)

Year of the Dog-2007

Year of the Dog-2007

Director-Mike White

Starring-Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly

Scott’s Review #1,131

Reviewed April 9, 2021

Grade: B-

Comedienne, Molly Shannon stars in Year of the Dog (2007), a quirky independent film that can be classified as a hybrid of the comedy and drama genres. It’s peculiar, sometimes being very creative and nuanced while other times feeling generic and clichéd. Somehow it’s not predictable either- a plus.

Certainly, it’s not the cute, sentimental film the premise might lead one to believe and at times it’s downright dark and depressing.

A story centering around dogs seems pretty cool but it usually conjures up a pitifully dreary family-style affair with a husband, wife, two cookie-cutter kids (a boy and girl naturally), and some story and drama involving the family pet. And, of course, a happy ending. Thankfully, Year of the Dog bears little resemblance to that type of film.

While it could have been more cohesive and less messy, the film deals with pet death in the most interesting ways and the effort is there. While it’s not a downer it’s not cheery either.

After her beloved beagle, Pencil dies unexpectedly when she lets it stay outside all night, an administrative assistant named Peggy (Shannon) strives to find ways to fill the void in her life while blaming herself for his death.

She becomes lonely and despondent, finally bringing in treats for her co-workers and fussing over other people’s kids. An ill-advised love affair with a gun fanatic (John C. Reilly) leads to more misery causing Peggy to go off the deep end and change her life completely.

Shannon, unsurprisingly, is the best part of the film, though she doesn’t quite cut it as the lead. She is cast perfectly as the odd-ball secretary with no life outside of her pet dog, but isn’t she better as the interesting sidekick?  It’s tough to imagine another actress being as believable in the part and her comic timing is on fire. The dramatic parts are a bit of a stretch and I like her in comedic situations better.

The supporting characters are where Year of the Dog really lacks. None of them are very interesting. Laura Dern and Regina King are reduced to caricature types as the loyal best friend, Layla, and the cold sister-in-law, Bret, respectively. Layla is only interested in finding romance for lonely Peggy while Bret barely notices Peggy’s suffering. Yawn!

Characters like these occur so often in stock comedies I can hardly keep count. Talents like Dern and King deserve better than one-note characters.

Reilly, as the intended love interest has no chemistry with Shannon and it’s obvious from the start that Al is written as the foil and opposite in every way from Peggy. It’s just another standard cliché screaming from a mile away. Peggy dates Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) but the romance isn’t there either.

Where the film gets both interesting and lost, is when Peggy becomes an animal rights activist. It sets up Year of the Dog as a message film which never really works. Peggy ruins furs, attempts to show children a slaughterhouse, and spontaneously adopts fifteen dogs because another injured dog dies.

It just doesn’t flow together with the comedy stuff. Especially when the ending takes Peggy in yet another direction. It’s like the filmmakers decided to try and roll things up in a neat little bow but instead have a sloppily wrapped present with a nice bow on it.

Director, Mike White, also producer and writer, creates a great concept but Year of the Dog (2007) hardly lights the world on fire.  The finale is too sentimental and too many cliches surface as the action plays out. Shannon is the only interesting character and the supporting players are stock written. White also penned School of Rock (2003) which is a better film.

Emma-2020

Emma-2020

Director-Autumn de Wilde

Starring-Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn

Scott’s Review #1,128

Reviewed March 31, 2021

Grade: B

I haven’t read the classic Jane Austen novel written in 1815 nor have I seen the 1996 film version starring Gweneth Paltrow. Neither of these is a prerequisite to enjoy the 2020 version of Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role of Emma Woodhouse.

The film, while set in the early nineteenth century, feels incredibly contemporary and seemingly makes little attempt at a classic style save for the hair, makeup, and costumes. These items are splendid, and the high point, and make the film stylish and bright.

Beautiful, smart, and rich, Emma (Taylor-Joy) enjoys her matchmaking skills that sometimes lead to awkward or failed matches and romantic missteps. She claims to not be interested in her own romance or potential suitors though that changes with time.

She struggles with the challenges of growing up, though she is terribly pampered and has a habit of involving herself in other’s business. Emma is also mischievous and not always kind though deep down she is a good person and has regret when she hurts someone’s feelings with her antics.

In a good, coming of age way, she finally realizes that love for her and a proper match of her own has been there all along and staring her in the face.

The film begins with Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), marrying and becoming Mrs. Weston. She and Emma are best friends and Emma is saddened so she settles on Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a younger girl whom Emma supposes is the unclaimed child of a gentleman; Harriet’s parents are unknown, but her education has been provided for. They become bonded and Emma’s influence is immeasured.

Taylor-Joy does a wonderful job in the title role and carefully makes Emma naughty and sometimes unlikable before carefully reeling her in with an act of kindness. She has no malice in mind but is often bored and looking for excitement. I found myself rooting for her to find romance with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), which she does but not without a hurdle or two on the way.

Other characters come and go with flirtations and romantic possibilities explored.

Speaking of Flynn, the actor is rumored to play rock icon David Bowie in a future theatrical feature. A real musician, Flynn should be the perfect casting for that important part. He is the only character to show some flesh, his bare bum, in Emma and one wonders if female director Autumn de Wilde did this purposefully. After all, traditionally in cinema, it’s been the female who is more commonly nude. Turnabout is fair play.

While Taylor-Joy is good she is nearly upstaged by the delightful Goth who is fabulous as the insecure and impressionable Harriet. With humor and innocence, she makes her character quite likable. I’d like to see more from this young actress. Bill Nighy is perfectly cast as the comical father of Emma while Miranda Hart as Miss Bates steamrolls over every scene she is in.

Apparently, some inconsistencies exist especially where Miss Bates is concerned. A quick mention that Miss Bates and her family had once been rich and are now struggling is not explored where it reportedly was in the novel.

Dividing the film into seasonal sections (Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer) is a good decision and makes it more like a novel. The winter snow and Christmas festivities along with a summer picnic do wonders to add fresh atmospheric tidbits. The many scenes of delicious spreads of food and drink laid out for hungry eyes to see offer a robust and colorful glimpse of the culture.

The vibrancy, the food, and the aforementioned clothing, all brimming with richness based on the seasons are the main draw. The castles and large houses featured surely small-town English style brim with vastness and atmosphere.

Emma (2020) is a fun film and the story is not the best part of it. Predictable, all characters wind up with romantically who they should wind up with and there is a happily ever after sensibility.

Adolescents can easily sit in comfort with their mother and father and enjoy the lightweight affair. Nobody will be offended and all will be satisfied. It’s a solid romantic period piece.

Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Tadpole-2002

Tadpole-2002

Director-Gary Winick

Starring-Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Stanford, John Ritter

Scott’s Review #1,125

Reviewed March 23, 2021

Grade: B

Tadpole (2002) is an enjoyable coming of age effort that carefully, or too carefully for that matter, toes the line between being cute and exploring some morally questionable material. The film gets away with the naughty subject matter because there exists a wholesomeness that lands somewhere between fresh and a commodity.

It’s a fun romp but nothing terribly memorable either, borrowing from better films.

Aaron Stanford, the lead actor, makes the film better than it might have been and seamlessly matches wits and comic timing with heavyweight actors like Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, and Bebe Neuwirth. He is charming just like his character and carries the film.

As Oscar Grubman (what a name!) he is compassionate and sophisticated, reciting Voltaire and speaking fluent French. When he arrives home for Thanksgiving weekend it is revealed that he has a major crush on his stepmother, Eve (Weaver). She and Oscar’s father, Stanley (Ritter) share a ritzy Manhattan apartment and entertain a girl they think would be perfect for Oscar but he only has eyes for Eve and rebuffs the poor girl.

Despondent at not having a chance with his stepmom but desiring her, Oscar visits a local bar and runs into Eve’s best friend, Diane (Neuwirth). He gets drunk and she takes him home winding up in bed together! Oscar is filled with remorse.

Oscar’s and Diane’s tryst is the caveat for the rest of the antics of the film. Oscar is terrified that Diane will tell his father and Eve especially as she is on the guestlist for dinner the next night!  An amusing game of footsie under the table ensues between Oscar and Diane.

Diane is clearly a Mrs. Robinson type character to Oscar’s Benjamin if we want to draw comparisons to The Graduate (1967) and how could we not? Eve is like Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. Unsuspecting and slightly naive. It’s fun to reminisce about the classic film that director Gary Winick borrows from.

Speaking of Winick, he has a knack for creating coming of age stories featuring teenage characters with light angst and he commonly releases independent films. My hunch is that if Tadpole was a big-budget mainstream affair even more concessions might have been made for the brewing May/December romance.

The “dinner scene” is the best part of Tadpole and provides good physical comedy and a hilarious setup. It’s a stretch in plausibility and borrows from many slapstick comedies but somehow the scene works well and stands out.

The subject matter of a woman three times the age of Oscar is not as harsh as it sounds and is largely played for laughs and misunderstandings. This is where the film misses the mark and stays firmly in the safe lane. Imagine the juicy possibilities that would occur if Eve reciprocated Oscar’s advances? Now that is an interesting concept!

I shudder to think that if Oscar were a fifteen-year-old girl and Eve a forty-something-year-old man this film would never have been made. The double standard gnawed at me.

The ending is wholesome and predictable making the film satisfying for the character yet limiting for the viewer. Oscar more or less “snaps out of it” and realizes that girls his own age are actually okay after all. I half-wondered if the film would be revealed to have all been Oscar’s dream.

The cougar-Esque subject matter provides light entertainment never daring to go as far as it could have, or should have. In the end, we understand a young, pubescent boy’s dreams and desires and may fondly recall when we were his age and all the troublesome sexual feelings that bubbled under the surface.

Tadpole (2002) is a watchable independent comedy providing enough to digest thanks to the worthy actors among its cast.

Bone-1972

Bone-1972

Director-Larry Cohen

Starring-Yaphet Kotto, Andrew Duggan, Joyce Van Patten

Scott’s Review #1,121

Reviewed March 12, 2021

Grade: B+

It’s tough to review a film like Bone (1972) because it’s a tough film to be categorized. Is it a satire or does it dissect racism and classism? The truth is it does all of the above and offers a bizarre and jagged cinematic experience that will leave the viewer perplexed, scratching his or her head, and ruminating about the experience long after the credits roll.

I was originally expecting Bone to be a 1970s exploitation film but it’s not that at all.

One lazy sunny day, in Los Angeles’s illustrious Beverly Hills, local salesman Bill (Andrew Duggan) and his wife Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) bicker beside their luscious pool. They are horrified when they realize a filthy rat has become stuck in the filter. This provides some symbolism as the film chugs along. When they rush to call the exterminator a threatening black man named Bone (Yaphet Kotto) suddenly appears.

Frightened, they firstly assume he is with the exterminator company but when he terrorizes them with the now-dead rat they offer him money to leave. While they search for banking materials, Bone realizes that Bernadette and Bill are not as wealthy as appearances would dictate. Bone sends Bill to the bank to withdraw cash or else he will rape and beat Bernadette. At the same time, Bernadette becomes suspicious of Bill’s financial intentions.

There are moments in the film that left me feeling like I was watching something bizarre or of little sense. I’m still not sure what the opening scene of Bill filming a television commercial featuring cars involved in wrecks with dead bodies inside. The images are bloody and horrific- artistic but unclear is the message.

The conclusion also is unclear. When one character appears to murder another, a third character vanishes. Naming the characters would ruin the story but suffice it to say one may wonder if the entire film was a dream.

The realization that Bill and Bernadette make individually is that they don’t care for one another and would happily leave the other to die. We know little about their life from before but assume, while rich, they live a life of boredom, each yearning for some spice. How many nights does Bernadette sit alone by the pool drowning her sorrows in Chardonnay?

Yaphet Kotto is wonderfully cast. Soon to be well-known as a James Bond villain in Live and Let Die (1973), his character in Bone starts as menacing and slowly becomes sympathetic almost rootable. When he reveals to Bernadette that he cannot maintain an erection unless he is raping someone, the thought is sickening, but he also appears vulnerable and feeble.

He gradually became my favorite character of the three whereas in a conventional film he would be the one not to root for.

Bill’s experiences are a mind-fuck. Tasked with withdrawing money from his bank to save his wife, he thinks why should he? He meets a gregarious woman at a bar played by Brett Somers and a chatty young woman online at the bank, who beds him and makes him a salted steak. They frolic away the afternoon as, for all he knows, his wife could be dead!

The issues of classism and racism are the meat and potatoes of Bone and where the film really succeeds. We feel the pain of Bone when he as a black man must stand out like a sore thumb in swanky Beverly Hills. He has had to struggle for every crumb he has gotten while he sees spoiled brats like Bill and Bernadette getting everything and working half as hard. It’s not fair and the audience is meant to empathize with him.

Larry Cohen, well-known for the low-budget campy circuit, creates a perplexing project with added black comedy. The rat, the chatty girl, the X-Ray lady, everyone in the film is wacko!

Bone is a weird film that I don’t know what to make of.  I took it as a glimpse into social issues and I loved the food references, the steak, and eggs mostly. The plot and conclusion will leave you wondering but I guess that’s better than forgetting the film five minutes later. I’m still trying to make heads or tails of it.

Booksmart-2019

Booksmart-2019

Director-Olivia Wilde

Starring-Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever

Scott’s Review #1,113

Reviewed February 17, 2021

Grade: A-

I usually avoid teenage coming-of-age comedies or more to the point, being not of that demographic, they are not usually even on my radar. The only reason I saw Booksmart (2019) is but for the Independent Spirit Award it won and the Golden Globe nomination it achieved. Still, I was skeptical of what the appeal of two female teenaged bookworms who decide to become party animals would have on me.

Boy, was I wrong? The film is a fabulous and fast-paced experience that I enjoyed immensely.

Director, Olivia Wilde, in her very first effort, believe it or not, delivers the goods. She takes a genre absolutely told to death and knocks it on its keester offering a fresh and creative spin on a tried and true formula that feels anything but formulaic. There is diversity, inclusiveness, and heart for miles without the feeling that these add-ons were done intentionally for a modern spin.

Before I get carried away too much Wilde carefully keeps the standard moments of teenage angst, rejection, breakups, and makeups, and there are one or two of the commonplace high school “types”- loner, jock, weirdo, etc. but evident is a strong LGBTQ+ stronghold including one of the main female characters. Booksmart sure feels authentic to me.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy are forever friends. The girl’s study, they giggle, they hang-out, and they tell each other about their problems, sexual and otherwise. The kicker is that Molly is straight and Amy is gay. Amy is happily “out” and nobody gives a damn. Her parents, played in small but juicy parts by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are hilarious and progressive in their approach to understand a gay child. They incorrectly assume that Molly and Amy are a couple which the girls use to their advantage.

Anyway, Amy and Molly are intelligent and anticipate graduation day and going off to great schools. Once they realize that their fellow students who in their minds slack off and party are also going off to Ivy League schools, they panic. They realize they have wasted four years studying and decide to let finally let their hair down the night before graduation, intent on attending a popular boy’s (and Molly’s crush) party.

The situations the duo get themselves into are clever and witty and the most fun of the film. Feldstein and Dever have exceptional chemistry and I bought them as best friends from the moment of their first scene. When they have a knock-down, drag-out argument towards the end of the film it’s acting at its finest, which made me feel proud. I admire young talent with great acting chops and pride in their craft and Feldstein and Dever both have it.

Wilde peppers much of the film with hip and trendy pop songs that surprisingly enhance rather than slow down or take away from the viewer enjoyment. The lyrics match the specific events of the particular scene.

The romanticism is pivotal as the crushes Molly and Amy have are not necessarily who they wind up with at the end of the film, which naturally culminates on graduation day. I love how their ceremony includes no parents.

The creativity within Booksmart is admirable. When Molly and Amy trip on a hallucinogenic they accidentally ingest they imagine they are barbie dolls. The scene is laden with hilarity as they bend and twist and turn. Later, Molly imagines a dance with Nick amid a colorful, slow-motion sequence that is beautiful, while Amy has an awkward unexpected sexual experience with a mean girl.

Booksmart (2019) is quite R-rated almost shockingly so, which is not a negative. In fact, it’s a positive. Too many films of this ilk try to soften how teenagers really speak and the feelings they really have which are usually sexual. It’s raunchy and definitely not for the younger teen set but mature audiences will reminiscence about their own high school days.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Feature (won)

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult-1994

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult-1994

Director-Peter Segal

Starring-Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy

Scott’s Review #1,104

Reviewed January 26, 2021

Grade: B-

Despite being the third and final (get it?) installment in the popular Naked Gun (1988-1994) franchise, Naked Gun 33 1/3 The Final Insult (1994) is my favorite of the trio despite having a silly title. The title of “33 1/3” is a reference to the revolutions per minute of an LP playing on a phonograph, a point that has nothing to do with the actual film. It was also inexplicably decided to leave off the “The” in the title, leaving Naked Gun instead of The Naked Gun. Why is anyone’s guess? Nor does it matter.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great film but it’s better than the other two, which is shocking in a spoof/screwball comedy going for the standard gags. But, as dumb as the film is, it’s also kind of fun and light-weight. Think- a needed chuckle requiring little thought following a rough day at the office.

A familiar formula is followed and this time the events culminate at the glorious Hollywood Oscar celebration, the apple in the eye of all Los Angeles, undoubtedly the main reason this effort is marginally enjoyable. For unfamiliar viewers, the Naked Gun films are a combination of the Airplane! (1980-1982) and the over-exhausted Police Academy (1984-1994) franchises. The films were out of gas by 1994.

The franchise is based on the short-lived television series Police Squad! (1982), a procedural comedy about bumbling police personnel and the situations they get themselves into to showcase their ineptness.

The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult was O.J. Simpson’s final role before he was damned for all eternity for his presumed role in the murder of his wife and her friend in a ritzy area of California.

Leslie Nielsen returns as Frank Drebin, retired and living with his wife Jane (Priscilla Presley). Bored with life, they experience marital problems and seek counseling. Six months after Frank’s retirement, he is visited by Captain Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) and Officer Nordberg (Simpson), who ask for Frank’s help with an investigation. Police Squad has caught wind that mischievous bomber Rocco Dillon (Fred Ward), who is currently incarcerated, has been hired by terrorists to conduct a major bombing against the United States.

As Frank tries to keep Jane from finding out that he is dabbling in detective work again, he jokes that he is having an affair to throw her off the track. When she begins to suspect he really is having an affair this leads to a silly series of misunderstandings and gags which naturally are wrapped up as is always the case in films like this.

Nielsen is the main draw and he does what he does best and what makes him the king of spoof films. A serious actor before Airplane! he became typecast but had lots of successes ahead of him. He embraces his role which adds freshness. He doesn’t take himself so seriously so audiences can sit back and relax, enjoying the entertainment.

The lavish awards ceremony and the ingenious idea to plant the bomb within the coveted Best Picture Oscar sealed envelope is delicious, especially when the bomb is set to detonate when the card is pulled from the envelope and the winner crowned. This creates a good measure of suspense as the award show carries on toward the big finale.

George Kennedy has little to do but it’s the inclusion of stars like Vanna White, Weird Al Yankovic, and Pia Zadora that add zest to the production.

Director, Peter Segal, famous for lightweight comedies with heart, is wise to keep the running time at a quick one hour and twenty-two minutes. If longer, any momentum the film musters would have disintegrated. This was his feature-length directorial debut.

The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) may be the best in the trio but that says quite little considering it’s based on funnier and fresher endeavors. I champion the early Police Academy films for a needed dose of police incompetence and hilarity done up in a fun way. If one must watch a Naked Gun film and is partial to the Academy Awards, this one is begrudgingly suggested.

The Prom-2020

The Prom-2020

Director-Ryan Murphy 

Starring-Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #1,101

Reviewed January 17, 2021

Grade: A

Hollywood legends Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman take on singing and dancing roles in the lovely and timely film, The Prom (2020). James Corden joins them in a prominent role in a musical based on the popular and recent Broadway production of the same name. The LGBTQ+ storyline is important and powerful but doesn’t overshadow the colors and the fun. The message is perfectly incorporated in the delicious comedy romp.

The Prom reminds me of John Waters Hairspray from 1988 or even the fun remake from 2007. Instead of racism, the topic is now homophobia, with a few characters rebuffing the lifestyle. Most of the performances are over-the-top, but the film works on all levels. The one-liners are crackling and polished, especially by Streep and Corden.

As should be the case, the homophobic characters are written as fools and finally come to realize the error of their ways.

Director, Ryan Murphy, has become a favorite of mine for creating both extremely dark and light-hearted projects that usually slant towards LGBTQ+ recognition and inclusion. His treasured FX series American Horror Story (2011-present) and miniseries The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story are excellent examples of this. I drool with anticipation over what his next offering might be.

High school student, Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), wants to bring a female date to the upcoming prom. Chaos has erupted after the head of the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association), Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington) has canceled the prom. The setting is Indiana and the same gender coupling conflicts with the town’s traditional beliefs and values. Little does she know that her daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is Emma’s secret girlfriend. The school principal, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) supports Emma and has leaked the story to social media outlets.

Meanwhile, in sophisticated New York City, snooty broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) are devastated when their new musical flops. They join forces with struggling performers Angie Dickinson (Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and take a bus trip with the cast of Godspell to remote Indiana to champion Emma’s cause, and drum up sympathy from their fans and critics.

The rest of the film is as one might expect with bursts of song and dance combined with teaching the stuffy residents of small-town Indiana to accept and embrace Emma and her LGBTQ+ brethren. Amid a flurry of misunderstandings, mainly between newly dating Tom and Dee Dee, Emma and Alyssa, and Alyssa and her mother, a lavish prom is funded for the town, high school students straight and gay, to flock to and co-mingle in unity.

While The Prom is sheer fantasy and real-life doesn’t usually work out so perfectly, the sentiment is meaningful and the film takes a progressive stance.

I adore the song and dance numbers with my favorites being rapturous “It’s Time to Dance” and “Tonight Belongs to You”. They match well with the meaningful “The Acceptance Song”.

My curiosity wonders how residents of Indiana or other small towns might react to The Prom. While the film depicts a stuffy, close-minded viewpoint by many of the residents- besides the ones already mentioned, two male students, and two cheerleaders bully and ridicule Emma, other characters like Emma’s grandmother (Mary Kay Place) are kind and accepting. The bullying is a soft touch and Murphy keeps the plot light.

The contrasts of Dee Dee and Barry’s derision of Edgewater is comical and delightful, the main fun of the film. Dee Dee has never heard of the restaurant, Applebees, or knows not what it is. Barry and Dee Dee are horrified to have to stay in the local hotel because it is beneath their standards. The hotel is pretty nice.

A beautiful moment occurs towards the end of the film when Barry reunites with his mother, played by Tracey Ullman. Distant for years because of his parent’s inability to accept him as gay, the old woman comes to terms, and the two reunite with tears. A sad reality is that the dad still cannot come to terms with his son’s sexuality. This is surprising and hurtful that some parents still have a tough time with lifestyle choices in the year 2020.

The Prom has heart and the side story of the blossoming romance between Dee Dee and Tom, opposites, is charming and sweet.  Learning to curb her narcissism and doing for others as tough as that might be for her, Streep is a hoot and has tremendous chemistry with Key. The interracial match is a bonus for a film keen on promoting diversity and inclusion.

Related to this, one preposterous notice is the small Indiana town having oodles of Hispanic, black, and Asian townspeople. A real small town in Indiana would almost certainly be 99% white. But, the message is diversity so Murphy does what he sets out to do. I just don’t feel it’s accurate.

Those desiring a pulsating, riotous comedy musical with snippets of cutting humor are in for a treat with The Prom (2020). The musical numbers may fade and are not as memorable as instantly recognizable songs from classics like West Side Story (1961) or The Music Man (1962), but enough is on the table for pure enjoyment for the entire family. And the strong message is enough reason to tune in.

Hairspray-2007

Hairspray-2007

Director-Adam Shankman

Starring-Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Christopher Walken

Scott’s Review #1,095

Reviewed December 28, 2020

Grade: B+

Hairspray (2007) is a fun film, without being superfluous. The third incarnation of the musical treat doesn’t disappoint, offering a brighter production. A safer affair than the 1988 escapade directed by naughty film maker John Waters, it’s nonetheless not a “watered” down version either. It loses none of the charm that the original had and includes plenty of big-name stars. In short, it’s a solid summer popcorn flick with sing along tunes and a cool vibe. The important message of racial relations is not lost nor dismissed.

The setting is early 1960’s Baltimore, Maryland, a city rife with racial problems representing the entire United States during that decade. Our star, Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is a chubby, bubbly, sixteen-year-old, who wants nothing more than to trudge through the school day and come home and indulge in her favorite television show, The Corny Collins Show, a popular local dance competition.

Tracy auditions for a spot on the show, and wins. She becomes an overnight celebrity, a trendsetter in dance, fun and fashion. She and her fans hope that her new status as a teen sensation is enough to topple Corny’s reigning dance queen, Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and bring racial integration to the show. Amber’s racist mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) manages the television station and thwarts Tracy’s efforts, leading to tension and dance competition between Tracy and Amber.

The casting is a big part of the success. Blonsky, making her film debut, carries the film flawlessly. Both energetic and empathetic, she is the perfect girl next door and relatable for any young girl who is not a stick figure. More broadly, she represents anybody who feels like a misfit or put upon for not being classified as perfect. Her joy and sincerity as she sings and dances to “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “I Can Hear the Bells” is infectious and makes her a perfect protagonist.

The supporting cast is delightful and laden with A-list Hollywood stars clearly having a ball with their over-the-top roles. My favorite is John Travolta as Tracy’s mother and compadre, Edna. Fans of Hairspray know that Edna is always cast with a male actor in drag and Travolta is fantastic. His mannish body and movements only make the character more fun and fabulous. And with his beehive hairdo and pink ribbon he is so darn cute!

Tracy’s father, Wilbur, is played by Christopher Walken. His love for his wife and daughter is sweet. Pfeiffer fuels her one-note character with venom as the racist woman gets her just due.

Director, Adam Shankman, puts the focus on the musical numbers, and that’s just fine. For added pleasure, he includes both John Waters and Rikki Lake (the original Tracy) in cameo roles, which is a treat for anyone who has seen the original. The best numbers occur when the entire company join in, especially the wonderful finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Besides being musically contagious, the song sends an important message of progression and embracing change.

Despite the fluffy trimmings, the important message of racial inequality is not overlooked, nor does it feel dated in the year 2007. Clearly racism is still an issue. Justifiably so, the racist characters like Velma and Prudence Pingleton (Allison Janney) look ridiculous with outrageous fear for anyone different than themselves. Tracy and her friends champion causes like racism, integration, and being true to oneself, which are themes at the heart of the film, along with the merry songs.

While I still prefer the 1988 version of Hairspray for more seediness and a colder vibe, Hairspray (2007) is a colorful rendition exposing a new generation to the chirpy and danceable tunes while maintaining the important themes. It’s family friendly affair and very funny experience without sacrificing any credibility.

Calendar Girls-2003

Calendar Girls-2003

Director-Nigel Cole

Starring-Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton

Scott’s Review #1,090

Reviewed December 11, 2020

Grade: B+

A clever female version of The Full Monty (1997), the middle-aged bordering on senior citizen characters, nudity comparisons notwithstanding, Calendar Girls (2003) has standard similarities. The film is a light-hearted affair, charming and fun with positive and inspiring messages about friendship and helping with cancer research.

How can a film like this not bring a smile to the viewer’s face? It did to mine.

That said, it’s hardly high drama or material that requires much thought or dissection. I’d wager to say you only need to see it once. There lies a situational or clichéd theme as the women face the standard and guessable awkward moments, but the film entertains in style.

Calendar Girls is based on a true story adding merit, appreciation, and endearing quality. It’s a feel-good film if there ever was one which is just fine in this case. The film was a box-office smash, and why not? It’s a comically robust experience.

A likable group of “women of a certain age” conspire to launch a calendar, bearing their best assets for all to see. Before this sounds too scandalous or corny, the ladies do it for a good cause and not for any titillating pleasure. The women are British and, while attractive, are average-looking gals with womanly figures. These tidbits lead to humorous and embarrassing situations as some of the women are more modest than others especially laid parallel to the conservative and crusty town that they live in. This leads to shocks among the prudish townspeople.

Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are best friends. When Annie’s husband dies of leukemia, they conjure up an idea of creating a nude calendar, where women pose while doing traditional duties like baking and knitting. The proceeds will go to research for the deadly disease. Unexpectedly, Chris and Annie, along with others from the Women’s Institute in which they are members, achieve worldwide success even invited to Los Angeles to appear on television’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The women clash due to their success and differing lifestyle directions, before reconciling and deciding that their ordinary lives aren’t so bad. They happily resume their nice lives away from the spotlight.

The comparisons to The Full Monty must be mentioned because they are so obvious. Whereas the men in The Full Monty strip on stage, the women prefer more modesty, nestled behind calendars for safety, but both groups hail from the English countryside and are regular folk. Since nudity is the word of the day, both groups possess average bodies and are championing worthy causes. Like it or not, this setup produces giggles.

The “calendar girls” are a relatable group that is a marketing genius and allows the film to achieve much merit. Who would care if a bunch of supermodels posed nude while baking cookies? No, the everywoman factor is sky-high, allowing the film to be appreciated and savored.

Because Mirren and Walters, two respected British actresses appear in Calendar Girls, there is an added respectability. After all, would either choose a project less than credible? The obvious answer is they make the film better than it might have been. Penelope Wilton does too. There is a classiness the ladies bring so that we can sink into our theater seats and revel in the good-natured comedy, assuring ourselves we are seeing something of quality too.

Calendar Girls (2003) is so like The Full Monty that they ought to be watched back to back. Perhaps a naughty night in, with a bottle of wine and some cheese, ready to embark on delights and jolly laughs.

Back to School-1986

Back to School-1986

Director-Alan Metter

Starring-Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, Sally Kellerman

Scott’s Review #1,089

Reviewed December 7, 2020

Grade: B

Back to School (1986) is a formulaic, mid-1980’s comedy featuring obnoxiously loud funnyman, Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian you may love-to-hate. On paper, this film might have been a train wreck, but some proper pacing and good casting save it from being classified as drivel. Let’s be clear- it’s not great filmmaking, but it serves a purpose- to amuse and delight.

Clearly, a vehicle for Dangerfield with a character mirroring his real personality, the film works. With a brisk one hour and thirty-six minutes, the film sticks to the script, not wasting time getting its point across, nor pretending to be some serious film with a clever message. No, there is little special or inventive about the film, but it’s light, entertaining fun.

The premise, a middle-aged man who returns to college and tries to persevere, is a setup rife with standard situations and comedic moments. Director, Alan Metter, known for gag films, this one his most notable, and big studio, Orion, take full advantage of the task at hand. They provide a mainstream, summer popcorn flick approach. Presumably, the story was conjured up by a group tasked with crafting an appropriate story for Dangerfield, and they succeed. The film delivers what it sets out to.

This might be a nice, nostalgic watch for parents and soon-to-be college-bound kids to watch together.

Thornton Melon (Dangerfield) is a wealthy corporate tycoon who wants his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) to get the college education that Thornton was unable to receive. While Jason is enrolled in college, he is unhappy and ready to quit. Thornton decides to enroll in the same college, determined to achieve his respect. Jason tries to fit in with his peers while Thornton falls in love with his literature professor, the sophisticated Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) while feuding with the college dean, David Martin (Ned Beatty).

Predictably, Thornton is hardly the college type, so he pays others to write his papers for him, which is all the fuel that the dean needs to ruin him. He also attends parties and raucous events, preferring these to study groups. Thornton is eventually found out and forced to pass an exam to prove himself.

A more straight-ahead approach would have been to make Thornton an unsuccessful man, making his need to return to school more important, and the desire for his son to obtain a college education more powerful, but this might have made Back to School too serious a film.

We can ponder why Thornton joining Jason in college will do anything but alienate the kid, and we can ask ourselves why Jason is bullied by the swim team. He is a nice, likable kid, and students aren’t typically bullied in college- this is more a junior high or high school torture. There’s also little reason Diane would have a romantic interest in Thornton, and clichéd characters like the dean and Thornton’s bitchy ex-wife, Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) surface along the way. But, Back to School isn’t a film to be overanalyzed either.

On the positive side, the chemistry between Dangerfield and Kellerman is a nice addition, not feeling forced as it might have. They flow through their scenes with a light-hearted innocence. The father and son relationship is a success. Gordon’s brooding counterbalances Dangerfield’s over-the-top nature, so they possess differing personalities.

I’m not sure Back to School (1986) has the legs to be remembered very well. Too similar to other successful comedies of the late 1970s and early 1980s like Porky’s (1981) or Animal House (1978) to stand out, the film is for fans of Dangerfield only. Perhaps served up as an opening act to the better and much funnier Caddyshack (1980), one of the best genre films of the decade.

Airplane!-1980

Airplane! -1980

Director-Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker

Starring-Robert Hays, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty

Scott’s Review #1,087

Reviewed December 2, 2020

Grade: A-

Airplane! (1980) is a landmark film in the spoof genre, leading the pack in the decade of silly (the 1980’s) where films of this ilk and dumb comedies, in general, became a dime a dozen oversaturating the market. While the film is unabashedly brainless with gags for miles, the jokes work, and the tasteless brand of humor provides plenty of belly laughs.

Better yet, Airplane! never ages, holding up incredibly well long after its initial release. It’s just perfect for a Saturday late-night watch, or when one needs cheering. It’s in my Top 10 comedies.

When it was originally released, the timing was perfect to spoof by then the aging world of disaster films. I refuse to believe that Jim Abraham and the Zucker brothers had malcontent on their minds since they created a friendly and benevolent yarn that’s just perfectly timed. Good comedy is tough to find, but this film gets it right. The monotone dialogue said with straight faces is what makes the hysterics genuine and palpable.

Not unfairly, is to say that Airplane! is to disaster films what Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was to daytime soap operas. A celebration and a clever wink to each, infusing much-needed light-hearted appreciations. It’s fun to re-watch Airport (1970) and Airport ’75 with fresh eyes and a new perspective in parallel to this film.

Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is an ex-fighter pilot traumatized by the war, now working as a taxi driver. He is now terrified of flying despite his previous occupation, His girlfriend, Elaine (Julie Haggerty), conveniently a flight attendant, dumps him just before her flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Naturally, Ted throws caution to the wind and boards the flight in hopes of reconciling.

When several of the passengers and flight crew succumb to food poisoning, an inflatable named Otto must steer the plane towards Chicago. The crew convinces Ted to muster up the courage to safely land the plane because Otto cannot do it and subsequently conquer his fear of flying. A perilous yet comical landing ensues, and Ted and Elaine happily reunite.

The plot is a direct steal from Airport ’75 when poor Karen Black’s flight attendant character famously is instructed how to land the aircraft. Until, in a sexist fashion, the men arrive to take control, sending her back to serve coffee. This is intentional and spot-on to show the ridiculous nature of that plot point.

The gags are legendary, the “Surely you can’t be serious”, “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” exchange the most famous one, always providing a laugh. The effortless dialogue as inane as it is somehow works exceptionally well and combines brilliantly with the pacing and delivery. It’s like a long and wonderful episode of television’s Saturday Night Live.

The chemistry between Ted and Elaine is very strong, making the audience root for their eventual reconciliation though it’s obvious they will ride off into the proverbial sunset together. Actors, Hays and Hagerty deserve tremendous praise for aligning the characters so well. Also of note, are the efforts of Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves as Doctor Rumack and Captain Oveur, respectively. Nielsen would subsequently become famous for spoof films, none of them as good as Airplane!

I’ll never profess to be a slapstick person, but Airplane! (1980) is one that I embrace, undoubtedly because of my love for disaster films and fondness for airplanes. Advisable is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the zany ride that this satirical and very funny film offers.

After Hours-1985

After Hours-1985

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette

Scott’s Review #1,069

Reviewed October 9, 2020

Grade: A-

After Hours (1985) is a gem of a film. When thoughts of director Martin Scorsese are conjured, usually Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), or Goodfellas (1993) are his films that immediately spring to mind.

Scorsese’s decision to create a pared-down independent film was met with enormous success and accolades for the very first Best Feature indie film victory and Best Director honors. The experience is a black comedy set within the gritty and unpredictable underbelly of Soho-New York City in the 1980s.

Mixing comedy with satire, Scorsese leapfrogs from similar content in The King of Comedy (1983) to this film made only two years later. Any fan of New York City will cheer with joy at the authenticity achieved since the film was shot on location there. The Big Apple in the 1980s was a notoriously violent cesspool so the genuine setting and the use of dark streets and alleys is an immeasurable treat and adds much zest to this unusual film.

Yuppie nice guy, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), works hard as a computer data entry worker by day and shares an encounter with a quirky young woman named Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) in Manhattan coffee shop. After she gives him her number and leaves, he is unable to stop thinking about her and embarks on a late-night adventure to go and see her at her apartment.

The night does not end how he thinks it will. Not by a long shot, as he spends the rest of the long night meeting various women and other strange characters as he traverses around the city attempting to get back home. He has lost his money and is broke.

The great aspects of After Hours are its bizarre characters and the cinematography that offers a tantalizing view of downtown Manhattan. The film is atmospheric and zany in its gloomy and steamy side streets and odd locales sprinkled with color.

A dingy bar, a sophisticated artist’s apartment, and a man sculpture that follows Paul everywhere are usurped by the film’s strangest and most interesting set, Club Berlin, an “after hours” club inhabited by punks who want to shave Paul’s head into a mohawk.

I enjoyed this film as a sort of “a day in the life of Paul” adventure story, albeit a gothic one. The film concludes wonderfully as the sun begins to rise just as the film ends and thus Paul’s wild night finally ends. I was chomping at the bit with the thought of what a new morning would bring and the possibilities of reuniting with any of the women he encountered the night before, either dead or alive.

Particularly charming to me while watching After Hours, the decade of decadence well into the past, are the relics once commonplace in everyday life. A phone booth, the traditional yellow cabs, and desktop personal computers are heavily featured. These items, relevant when the film was made, now seem like throwback niceties that make the film endearing and like a glimpse into someone’s time capsule.

I did not pick up on much authentic romance between Paul or any of the female characters- Marcy, June, Gail (Catherine O’Hara), or Julie (Teri Garr), but maybe that’s the point. While one winds up dead, not one, but two of them pursuit him, and not in a good way. The film is mystical, weird, and energetic. The inclusion of Cheech & Chong only adds to the revelry.

Sadly, underappreciated and too often forgotten, After Hours (1985) is a Scorsese treat worth dusting off now and then. The birth of the Independent Spirit Awards has a lot to owe to this film for grabbing top honors and the admiration works both ways. For a glimpse at the creative genius that is Martin Scorsese, this film gets an enormous recommendation.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Martin Scorsese (won), Best Female Lead-Rosanna Arquette, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography

Adventures in Babysitting-1987

Adventures in Babysitting-1987

Director-Chris Columbus

Starring-Elisabeth Shue

Scott’s Review #1,067

Reviewed October 5, 2020

Grade: B

Swimming in the myriad of teen comedies that were all the rage in the 1980s, a few good, most bad, Adventures in Babysitting (1987) is one of the “okay” ones. It’s lightweight, yet fun. I like the female-centered character who drives the story, likable, personable, but also strong and bold, capable of handling tough situations without the saving hands of a man.

The antics throughout the city of Chicago are also a major draw as I loved seeing the landscape and sites. The film is formulaic but works better than most.

The premise is quite far-fetched, bordering on absurd, masking in no sort of reality whatsoever. The plot points are gimmicky, silly, predictable, and filled with urban, inner-city stereotypes, playing on the timely feeling of terror at the thought of being lost and in danger amid a major city.

The reality of this decade was of crime-ridden United States cities and the idea is brilliant for a mostly suburban audience safely nestled in their homes away from any real trouble. They can securely escape to the cinema where pretend danger awaits.

Elisabeth Shue, a near novice fresh off her debut film role in The Karate Kid (1984), takes center stage like the cool, pretty girl who is everyone’s best friend, not the least bit snobby.

She plays Chris Parker, the fresh-faced, perky, seventeen-year-old high school senior, who is ditched by her boyfriend on their anniversary and is convinced by her mother to spend the evening babysitting the two Anderson kids, Brad (Keith Coogan) and Sara (Maia Brewton). Naturally, trouble ensues, and a planned dull evening of popcorn and a movie goes awry.

The gags must not be taken seriously. Beginning in the friendliness of Oak Park, Illinois, the action quickly spells out danger as a dirty, downtown bus station becomes the next set. Teenagers and youngsters being left alone in a metropolis is most parent’s worst nightmare and the film uses this angle to create one perilous situation after another. The gang even dangles from a skyscraper!

Adventures in Babysitting is director Chris Columbus’s first film and a worthy debut. Soon to hit the big time with the Home Alone film and its sequel (1990-1992) it’s easy to see how those films are patterned after Adventures. The tone is similar, and the antics of a young adult are explored. Columbus then moved to success with Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) before taking on the Harry Potter films. So, he adopts stories with a youthful or a young person’s point of view.

While watching Adventures in Babysitting the viewer needs to suspend all disbelief and just go into the experience for the enjoyment value. I vividly recall seeing this film in a theater on a hot summer night with popcorn and soda in tow, eager for a nice, light-hearted experience. This film delivered then and still does.

The best part is witnessing Chris and the gang driving a station wagon throughout downtown Chicago. Could this particular car be any more obvious a symbol of the ‘burbs? Does anyone in a city drive a station wagon ever? The image conjures up a boatload of kids, the shopping mall, and McDonald’s. Chris is so out of place in the city and the situations so preposterous that we should be annoyed by the hijinks. But, somehow the film works!

Of course, the film is riddled with banalities like car thieves, gangs, a dirty blues club, and as many criminals as one can imagine.

For viewers aching for a carefree trip down memory lane 1980’s style, the typical bunch of offerings from John Hughes- the trio of Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986) usually come to mind first.  But lest not forget a fine and fun film, Adventures in Babysitting (1987) with a subtle message of a young woman taking charge and taking control, albeit with every other stereotype in the book contained in glaring fashion.

Enjoy the ride.

Adventureland-2009

Adventureland-2009

Director-Greg Mottola

Starring-Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #1,066

Reviewed October 1, 2020

Grade: B-

Adventureland (2009) is a cute film. That may seem like a compliment, but it’s not. There is nothing wrong with this film, but it’s a rather safe experience. In a word, it is fine, nothing more, nothing less. It plays as a romantic comedy and is mixed with a coming-of-age theme about two young adults merging from kid to adulthood. It’s a story that most of us can appreciate though it’s been done too many times in cinema for this film to do much more with. The selling point is the excellent acting.

The theme park (aka Adventureland) and the nostalgic 1980’s time period is a nice touch though it feels like a 2009 film with the actors fitted into retro costumes and hairstyles. Greg Mottola directed Superbad in 2007 so you can see the influence. He has a knack for directing films with a light comedic touch that will appeal to young adults going through some angst or young, blossoming feelings of love.

The stars of the film, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, terrific actors in their own regard, have little chemistry together and that weakens the picture. They are helped immensely by a talented supporting cast, who pick up the slack and improve the film. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Wendie Malick, and Ryan Reynolds give a comic boost to the events. Unfortunately, despite positive trimmings the film feels like your standard, every day, independent comedy with little left to separate it from other contemporaries. It just has big stars.

Likeable James Brennan (Eisenberg) anticipates a fabulous trip to Europe after graduating from Oberlin college, having earned it for his achievements. Unfortunately, his parents Mr. and Mrs. Brennan (Jack Gilpin and Malick) break bad news to him. They are in dire financial straits and can no longer support him. He must get a part-time job immediately. The disappointing news disappointed me as well. I was savoring a nice adventure in London, Paris, and Rome. Sadly, the rest of the film takes place in an amusement park in Pennsylvania.

Predictably, Mottola, who wrote the screenplay as well, offers banal and stereotypical characters such as Mike Connell (Reynolds), the resident mechanic, who is a rival for the affections of Em (Stewart), the love interest of James. Thrown into the mix are various characters who are a bitch, a sarcastic college student, and a nerd. And, for good measure, James is a virgin. Naturally. The film nosedives with some slapstick humor and misunderstandings worthy of American Pie (1999).

When Adventureland was made Eisenberg was on the brink of breaking out into a fantastic role in The Social Network (2010) that garnered him an Oscar nomination and credibility. Stewart, meanwhile, was in the middle of her Twilight (2008-2012) years which made her a household name but was undoubtedly creatively very unfulfilling. This film is a reminder that actors need to work and make the best of the material they are given.

Truth be told, the main attraction of watching Adventureland is to sit back and admire what was to become of Stewart and Eisenberg. Since the film’s release in 2009 they have traversed meatier and better projects. Eisenberg has a Tom Hanks or a James Stewart likeability. His is someone who the average young male can relate to and the problems that James must face could easily be challenges the viewer might also have.

In the case of Stewart, what a star this girl is with the right roles. Since 2012 she has declined roles in big-budget films in favor of independent productions for the next few years. She took on a terrific supporting role in the drama Still Alice (2014) as a troubled daughter. Still young, the future looks very bright for the talented actress.

But, back to Adventureland (2009). This film is only suggested for a glimpse at the early work of Eisenberg and Stewart. Two young stars who went on to enormous critical cinematic success.

Adaptation-2002

Adaptation-2002

Director-Spike Jonze

Starring-Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

Scott’s Review #1,064

Reviewed September 24, 2020

Grade: B+

Adaptation (2002) is a kooky film that is recommended for all writers or lovers of the written word, especially for those ever having suffered from writer’s block. The film is wonderful for people who are either curious or obsessed (me!) with how a novel is turned into a screenplay.

With an A-list cast featuring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, the offering is credible and not just a bumbling indie experiment with no budget. Stars must get paid, which allows the film a mainstream audience, and awards.

The film will certainly be too weird for some. There is a measure of conceit and self-indulgence (it’s set in Los Angeles after all!) that is sometimes off-putting, but I adored the premise too much and chomped at the bit at what I was offered. It’s quite non-linear and the characters sometimes do things that are weird or out of turn.

Adaptation is certainly different (in a good way) and is recommended for its oddness as I cannot think of another film like it, though Being John Malkovich (1999) would be close. Director, Spike Jonze would later create Her (2013) and, of course, directed Malkovich too.

Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay and the central character is Charlie Kaufman, played by Cage, who also plays Kaufman’s brother Donald, a mooch. Charlie is self-loathing and disheveled but somehow likable. He struggles mightily to bring words into his head as he nervously sits at his typewriter day after day when he is tasked to adapt the novel, The Orchid Thief, into a film. The novel’s author, Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, intimidates Charlie, who decides to pay her a visit to New York City.

This film features the best work of Cage’s career. An actor that is mysterious “not for everybody”, the performance rivals that of Leaving Las Vegas (1995), in which he won an Academy Award. A dual role is certainly tough to play, but the actor does so with bombast and confidence, making the characters very different from each other and making me forget they were Cage.

Too often sinking to inferior action films like Face/Off (1997) or Con Air (1997), the actor wisely had an epiphany or something and made a wise decision. Cage does best when he goes for wacky- Raising Arizona (1987) is proof of that.

The supporting players, specifically Streep and Cooper are fantastic. Streep could fart through a film and still give a great performance and you can tell she enjoys the part of Susan, allowed to let loose. Her character loves sex and drugs and is not above devious shenanigans to get her way. Cooper, who won the Oscar, is delicious as John Laroche, a theatrical character with missing front teeth, who is the secret lover of Susan. Both provide great entertainment.

Adaptation simply feels good for a thought-provoking writer providing oodles of “writer things” to ponder and discuss with friends after the credits roll. Many scenes are rich with layered dialogue and rife with originality making the words sparkle with pizzazz. And there are enough twists and turns to keep viewers guessing.

One of the most original and kooky films you will ever see, Adaptation (2002) pairs well with Being John Malkovich (1999) for an evening of the odd and absurd, but also films not altogether hard to follow. The satirical Hollywood theme will both please and annoy but it’s all good fun and a lesson in creative art cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Nicholas Cage, Best Supporting Actor-Chris Cooper (won), Best Supporting Actress-Meryl Streep, Best Adapted Screenplay

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

A Prairie Home Companion-2006

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin

Scott’s Review #1,033

Reviewed June 16, 2020

Grade: B

The final film by legendary and influential director Robert Altman is not his greatest work. If I were to compare A Prairie Home Companion (2006) to another of Altman’s pictures it would be Nashville (1975) both having grassroots entertainment similarities. The latter combines satire amid a political rally in a southern city while the former celebrates behind the scenes events at a long-running radio show in Minneapolis.

Difficult to criticize anything a genius does, my expectation was much more than was given. The film plods along with little excitement or juiciness ever happening so the experience is to enjoy the standard Altman fixtures like a huge cast, overlapping dialogue, and witty chatter. A melancholy effort since no new material will ever be released by the cinema great, but a chance to celebrate his achievements all the same.

Set in present times, events take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a chilly city in the United States mid-west. A long-running live radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, prepares for its final broadcast. The radio station’s new parent company has scheduled the show’s home, the storied Fitzgerald Theater, for demolition and dispatched “the Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones) to judge whether to save the show. Prospects are grim as radio shows are deemed a thing of the past and irrelevant.

The many radio stars revel and reminisce in memories as they prepare for cancellation. Led by the singing Johnson Girls, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and sister Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) who are most prominent, other characters include cowboy duo Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly); pregnant PA Molly (Maya Rudolph) and the show’s creator and host, Garrison Keillor. A spirit known as “Dangerous Woman” (Virginia Madsen) also joins the group.

Star-power is not the issue here and pleasing is to witness a bevy of A-list Hollywood stars duke it out for screen-time. Anyone possessing knowledge of Altman knows that he was an actor’s director, meaning he let his actors truly shine and interpret what the motivations of the characters were. Garrison Keillor, who wrote the piece, follows Altman’s lead in this area letting the cast try and bring to life what is on the written page. Unfortunately, they fail.

While meandering greatly, A Prairie Home Companion has an earthy and humanistic theater troupe quality. The stars of the radio show are like family and cling to each other for moral support during uncertainty. This feels nice to the viewer as a common compassion is endearing, many of the individuals have spent decades together. Their stories and experiences resonate warmly, and one can’t help but being sucked into their lives.

The problem with this is that the stories go on and on and quickly seem pointless. There is little doubt whether the show will close. While the people are enamoring nothing much really happens in the film and it becomes a bore. The character interactions lack any energy and do not carry the film in any direction. They merely are what they are.

I can appreciate a slow build if there eventually is a pay-off. A Prairie Home Companion (2006) never achieves full-throttle or hits the gas petal so that the film exists but doesn’t shine. With masterpieces such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977) my expectations were soaring so that may be a part of my let down. Prairie Home is not included in my go-to catalog of Altman greats and would teeter at the bottom of a master ranking of his films.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Director-Robert Altman

A Fish Called Wanda-1988

A Fish Called Wanda-1988

Director-Charles Crichton

Starring-Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis

Scott’s Review #1,013

Reviewed April 20, 2020

Grade: B

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is an intelligent and witty British-American comedy that was a sleeper hit upon its release garnering critical acclaim and awards affection.

The heist-flavored production has good comic timing and brisk acting. I adored it not quite as much as most critics though admirable is a quick wit and energetic timing, to be respected in comedies. With some silly moments thrown in that feel staged and unnecessary the film is not as brilliant as some would say and not a memorable entry in the comedy genre.

A crooked foursome, all from shady backgrounds and manipulative tendencies, come together to commit the heist of the century. They are about to get away with it until the London police arrest one of them. Can the other three now on the lam persuade their comrade’s lawyer to reveal the stolen loot’s location? Will they double-cross each other to find stolen diamonds that the gang leader has secretly hidden?

The players are con artist Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), Otto West (Kevin Kline), her lover pretending to be her sibling, George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), and his right-hand man, Ken Pile (Michael Palin), an animal lover with a stutter. Each has their own personal motivations while relying on the others to get what they want, presumably at the other’s expense as events escalate to dire urgency.

The film gets props for being different. Frequently, in the comedy genre, laughs are attempted at a dizzying speed so that often they do not feel fresh. They also usually contain stereotypical or stock characters who serve little purpose other than to move events along for the sake of character development.

A Fish Called Wanda is quirky, to say the least with some intelligently written dialogue and sequences, especially the reveal of where the key to the safe deposit box containing the diamonds is housed. The film’s title is a major clue.

The chemistry between the actors is the best part of the film, especially between Kline and Curtis, two actors with exceptional comic timing. As they spar and bicker and plot not just against each other but the others they are in cahoots with, the antics get wilder and wilder. Kline was recognized with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and victory. His character Otto is also the most developed.

The final sequence which takes place at Heathrow Airport in London is a fun wrap-up to the caper. A gun, a steamroller, and wet cement are key elements in the wacky finale as characters run rampant inside the airport and on the airport tarmac as an airplane is about to take off for parts unknown. Many other scenes take place in London since that is where the film was shot.

Where the film loses me, a bit is with very little sense of the meaning of the subject matter. The group is con-artists or otherwise unsavory characters, but little more. There are no characters to root for or empathize with and the events that transpire are quite silly and superfluous. While the story is fun, what is really the point? All the characters manipulate each other but that is it.

Going against the grain in cinema is always appreciated and the comedy genre is too often stagnant and trite, rarely feeling fresh. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) is an encouraging project that dares to offer new and inventive gags and physical comedy. The film hits some high marks and strikes out with some portions, leaving an uneven result.

Oscar Nominations: Best Director-Charles Crichton, Best Supporting Actor-Kevin Kline (won), Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

A Day at the Races-1937

A Day at the Races-1937

Director-Sam Wood

Starring-Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx

Scott’s Review #1,011

Reviewed April 13, 2020

Grade: B

Spewing out a collection of successful films throughout the 1920s and 1930s, A Day at the Races (1937) is a creation by the Marx Brothers that continues the zany adventures of the bumbling men. Not as laugh out loud funny as their earlier works, particularly the memorable Duck Soup (1933), considered to be their best achievement, the film has trademark chuckles and physical comedy for miles that celebrate their vaudeville roots. A horse and a private sanitarium are the major players in this installment.

The film suffers from a myriad of stereotypes and startling racial overtones as any apt viewer will likely need to remind themselves of the decade the film was made. These scenes are thankfully brief and not the highlight of the story. A Day at the Races belongs to the Marx Brothers as their klutzy humor and one-liners are the best parts leaving the romantic leads and the foils as standard characters. Backstage problems were prevalent leaving some continuity issues in the final product.

Judy Standish (Maureen O’Sullivan) owns the struggling Standish Sanitarium which she can barely afford to keep afloat. The devious J.D. Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille) owns a nearby racetrack and nightclub and aspires to use the sanitarium space to open a successful casino. Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx), a horse doctor, treats the wealthy Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont), who she thinks is a “real” doctor, and agrees to financially back the sanitarium, but only if Hackenbush runs it. Suspicions arise when Morgan and his business manager attempt to locate the real Hackenbush in Florida.

Meanwhile, Judy’s fiancé, singer Gil Stewart (Allan Jones), who performs in Morgan’s nightclub, has just spent his life’s savings on a racehorse named Hi-Hat. He hopes that the horse, which he purchased from Morgan, will win a big race and the money will save the sanitarium. Hi-Hat is afraid of Morgan and runs away whenever he hears Morgan’s voice. All the principal players gather for a hysterical conclusion as an exciting horse race ensues with a case of mistaken identity mixed in for good measure.

The main attraction is Groucho, Harpo, and Chico as they provide a robust dose of clumsy, action-filled pranks, misunderstandings pops and bops that keeps them fluttering about the silver screen in fast-paced fashion. The other characters serve as either foils or support for the trio of funny men, so much so that they feel like stock characters. Jones and O’Sullivan have some chemistry as the straight leads and a few tender moments, but neither is the film about them.

The running time of one hour and fifty minutes feels long for a genre film like this and several scenes meant only to balance the physical comedy could have been eliminated. The famous exchange between Hackenbush and Mrs. Upjohn where she exclaims “I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!” and he, without missing a beat replied, “Well, it’s early yet” is a classic comedy and heartwarming to the eyes and ears as the pacing between the characters is nice.

A Day at the Races (1937) feels dated during some scenes and a stark reminder that inclusion did not always exist in cinema and laughs were to be had at the expense of minority groups. Putting this aside, as a comic creation the writing is witty and entertaining and a perfect showcase for the Marx Brothers to continue their fantastic run of films. The film might be a suggestion as one in a group of a marathon or binge-watching effort rather than as a stand-alone since better chapters are to be found elsewhere.

Oscar Nominations: Best Dance Direction

Tag-2018

Tag-2018

Director-Jeff Tomsic

Starring-Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm

Scott’s Review #1,010

Reviewed April 10, 2020

Grade: D

Tag (2018), starring Ed Helms, weakly attempts to re-create some semblance of magic that The Hangover trilogy (2009-2013) initially had, in which the actor starred. The result is an over-the-top and self-indulgent mess that incorporates the standard gags that raunchy comedies always do and little more. The characters are caricatures and the film provide no character development or anything fresh to stay with the viewer after the end credits role. The most interesting part is post-credits where the real-life figures the film is based upon, appear.

The film gets off to a dumb start as Hogan Malloy (Helms), an established physician, inexplicably gets a job as a janitor at an esteemed corporation in order to go undercover and “tag” Bob Callahan (Hamm). The childhood friends, along with “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), and Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress) attempt to pursue and “tag” their other buddy Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), who has alluded the “loser award” for the past thirty years, given to the member last tagged during the month of May, when their annual contest is held.

The rest of the film piggy-backs on this premise as the group pursues Jerry in tired form as adventures ensue. The specifics are running through other people’s apartments, tumbling down fire escapes, impersonating elderly women, and a continued use of back flips, stop-motion editing, and nutty situations. You get the idea.

The least appealing quality that Tag possesses is it feels forced and too derivative of other similar films. The film-makers try to create a “buddy film” and a camaraderie between the characters that never amounts to much. The reason for this is they embed each with specific qualities that define the character instead of making them fresh or creative in any way. We meet Chilli as he smokes pot with his father, revealed that he is divorced, unemployed, and a pothead. Bob is uptight, business-like, and the ladies’ man. A token black character (Kevin) is the comic relief. The characters are one-note and uninspired.

Other weak points from a character standpoint are prevalent. Hogan is written as the “straight man”, meaning the most sensible of the group. He is the main character and has a competitive streak that his wife, Anna (Isla Fisher) shares. Her character is most irritating as she has fits of rage then turns sweet. Fisher has been cast in raunchy comedies for most of her career so it would be nice to see her branch out to better roles. Finally, Hogan’s mother, the local bartender, and a fitness worker are written poorly.

As a bonus, the film chooses to add a homophobic sequence in to offend audiences. Meant for laughs, as are most offensives, the male fitness worker is lightly interrogated as the men attempt to locate Jerry. A back and forth involving presumptive oral sex is written as a joke and in addition to being unnecessary, the sequence goes on and on. Wishful thinking is for genre comedies to finally create something fresh, stereotype free, or making mockeries of groups of people.

Predictably, the conclusion is silly and trite. The film culminates in a hokey wedding scene when the friends are tricked by Jerry’s fiance who fakes a pregnancy and miscarriage in a gag-worthy effort. A moment of feigned sincerity is followed by a juvenile rapid-fire torrent of “You’re It!” that would make a ten-year-old boy roll his eyes in disbelief.

Tag is not a complete disaster. If one sticks to the entire watch, a couple of tidbits of pleasure espouse themselves. Familiar classic rock songs like Danzig’s “Mother”, Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”, and “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by Crash Test Dummies are interspersed throughout the running time. An added romantic triangle between Bob, Cheryl (Rashida Jones), and Chilli has potential if it were not relegated to a sub-plot with no resolution. Both men have chemistry with Cheryl and possess some rooting power.

A film that will certainly wind up in the $1.99 (or less) bargain bin, Tag (2018) might have been a relaxed effort to shoot by the cast of actors, but they must have had more fun than anyone watching it will have. With big name stars and an, on paper anyway, interesting premise, the film fails to deliver the goods, embellishes a based on a true story to the max, and results in a complete waste of time.

(500) Days of Summer-2009

(500) Days of Summer-2009

Director-Marc Webb

Starring-Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Scott’s Review #1,002

Reviewed March 20, 2020

Grade: B

(500) Days of Summer (2009) is an unconventional love story that deserves props for being different, but never completely catches fire as a film effort. What it tries to do left-of-center from most conventional romantic comedies is to be admired, but I did not feel much connection to the characters and the result seemed pointless.

The independent film garnered some praise for being unique and clever, but this is out-shined by a gnawing, forced feeling, like the filmmakers are trying to be edgy for the sake of being edgy, adding in story elements that are contrived. The lead characters conveniently both like an obscure band and an obscure artist, throwing them immediately together. The film is a modest effort but will only be remembered as an indie project with a bit of unfulfilled potential.

When his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), unceremoniously dumps him, greeting-card copywriter and hopeless romantic Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spins into a depression and begins reflecting on the year-long relationship the pair spent together, looking for clues as to what went wrong. As he rummages through the good times and the bad times, his heart reawakens to find what is most important. The Los Angeles backdrop sets the tone for the five-hundred days of Tom and Summer.

Director, Marc Webb, a first-time director at this point, now known more for The Amazing Spider-Man reboot franchise (2012-2014) steers in an experimental direction. Shown somewhat as a “year in the life” in the young lovebirds blossoming relationship, the film is presented in a nonlinear narrative, jumping between various days within the five-hundred days of Tom and Summer’s relationship. There is an on-screen timer showing the day, which is a nice addition.

Props are given for the creativity Webb infuses. The romantic comedy genre, not my favorite, is constantly saturated with formulaic films, predictable from the start. Frequently told from the female perspective, (500) Days of Summer tells the story from the male perspective, even reversing the traditional gender stereotypes. Tom is the lovesick romantic, and Summer the rough and tumble, one-night stand type. This is nuanced and throws the entire genre upside down.

The characters are questionable and the most able to relate to is Tom. There is some confusion and mystery with some motivations. The audience can understand how Tom falls head over heels for Summer, immediately smitten. His depression is deep and to be taken seriously, but he is depressed because of Summer, and any history or previous causes of depression are not mentioned. It feels like his depression is a convenient way of adding a story element.

Summer is even more perplexing and not deeply explored. Is she merely playing the field? After a song and dance scene where she explains she is not looking for anything serious and wants a casual romance, she suddenly marries another man. She hurriedly tells Tom that she discovered her husband was her true love and that she now believes in love, whereas Tom doesn’t anymore. Again, this feels more like story-line dictated writing versus anything character-rich.

Despite receiving a Best Screenplay Independent Spirit Award nomination, two Golden Globe Award nominations, and oodles of praise, (500) Days of Summer (2009) is a non-conformist piece with some nice moments but feels irrelevant. The lead actors are talented and do a decent job with the material given, but meander through the experience since it is more about the film than the acting. The result is not a pure dud, but neither is it a pedigree winner.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Male Lead-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Best Screenplay (won)

50/50-2011

50/50-2011

Director-Jonathan Levine

Starring-Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

Scott’s Review #1,001

Reviewed March 17, 2020

Grade: B+

The subject matter of cancer is an incredibly tricky one to portray in film. Especially tough when any comedic bits are incorporated- the risk lies in jokes not going over well or being misinterpreted. With 50/50, director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser craft and intelligent and genuine story, based on a true one, led by upstart actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, shining in the lead role. Comic actor Seth Rogan is on board cementing the comedy elements.

Otherwise healthy twenty-something Seattle resident, Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) experiences severe back pain and is shocked to learn he has a malignant tumor in his spine. Devastated, his world is turned upside down. He is usually accompanied by best friend Kyle (Rogan). While Kyle is brash and outspoken, Adam is reserved and mild-mannered. They are opposites, but inseparable friends. Adam is dating artist Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), whom Kyle despises adding conflict to the story.

The screenplay and Gordon-Levitt’s performance are the superior aspects of 50/50. The title of the film is poignant because Adam is given the dubious news that he has only a 50/50 chance of surviving his cancer. The young actor provides heart and soul to his challenging role and his acting is such that scenes do not feel cliched or manufactured. This, naturally, is due to the excellent writing by Will Reiser. He crafts a sincere script that is straightforward, avoiding razzle-dazzle, but one that is also heartfelt.

My only criticism with 50/50 is that I would have liked a bit more darkness. As we all know, real-life cancer patients must endure the ravages that the brutal disease inflict. The film never really goes there and shows how devious the disease is and what happens to the human body. I get that the film tows the line carefully, but despite shaving his head, Adam does not lose much weight or suffer other visible indignities. The toned-down approach feels PG- rated rather than R-rated as it might have been.

This can largely be forgiven because the main message of the film supersedes this point. The film shows that love and friendship can be the best healers and the root of good, kind, humanity. This is something every viewer can take and learn from and it makes the film lovely and worthy to witness. The romantic comedy elements do not work, and I am not even sure they are necessary. The main draw is the undying friendship between Adam and Kyle and Adam’s experiences with other cancer patients along his journey.

Combining comedy and cancer are not easy tasks, but thanks to exceptional writing and a talented cast, 50/50 (2011) succeeds in its achievements. The film and Gordon-Levitt were rewarded with Golden Globe nominations but missed out on any Oscar nominations. If the intended result of the film, to ease cancer patient’s minds about their situations, and provide some meaningful entertainment, the film is a major win.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Supporting Female-Anjelica Huston, Best First Screenplay (won)

Bread and Chocolate-1974

Bread and Chocolate-1974

Director-Franco Brusati

Starring-Nino Manfredi

Scott’s Review #996

Reviewed March 6, 2020

Grade: B

Bread and Chocolate (1974), known as Pane e cioccolata in Italian is a mixed dramatic and comedic offering by the director, Franco Brusati, a well-known Italian screenwriter and director. The film is charming and tells of one man’s trials and tribulations trying to make it as a migrant worker in a foreign country- in this case neighboring Switzerland. He is conflicted by the opportunities presented and the catastrophic way his life is screwed up at every turn. The film is meaningful and poignant but sometimes has no clear path. A commonality is the representation of differing cultures.

Nino (Nino Manfredi) is a hard-working Sicilian man who heads for Switzerland in search of a better life- the time-period is the 1960’s or the 1970’s when this was a common occurrence. Despite his best efforts to fit in with his neighbors, he never quite seems to make it, haplessly going from one situation to the next.

He befriends and is supported for a time by a Greek woman named Elena, who is a refugee and harbors secrets. He forages a career as a waiter and befriends a busboy. As his luck dwindles, he is reduced to finding shelter with a group of Neapolitans living in a chicken coop, with the same chickens they tend to in order to survive. With bizarre gusto they frequently emulate the chickens, strangely parading around their quarters like animals.

The main character of Nino reminds me of the character that Roberto Benigni played in the 1997 gem, Life is Beautiful. In that film, Guido tries to shelter his son from the horrors of war. In Bread and Chocolate, Nino has a zest for life using humor to survive and get through daily situations, slowly realizing his dire straits. Both characters are scrappy and daring; Nino humorously urinating on a tree or awkwardly finding a dead body in the woods.

The theme of the film is loaded with conflict overstaying in Switzerland to find a better life or returning in shame to his homeland of Italy, assumed a failure. Nino constantly wrestles with this quandary and discusses this point with his family photos in his bedroom. In two instances he nearly gets on a train headed back to Italy but changes his mind. The film does not do a great job explaining or showing what is so awful back in Italy.

Bread and Chocolate are difficult to categorize because it is neither a straight-ahead comedy nor pure drama. As the film progresses it loses some situation comedy moments in favor of exhibiting melancholia and sadness. I am not sure this is a great decision as we wonder many times if we should laugh with Nino or feel bad for him? Perhaps both?

The film scores big when it focuses on comedy as evidenced by several laughs out loud restaurant scenes. Nino, clearly not knowing what he is doing, struggles to properly peel an orange to serve a guest. He emulates another waiter with hilarious results. Later he offends a snobbish, sophisticated woman after she blames him for causing her to fall to the floor.

The strangest scene occurs when the chicken people spy on four gorgeous Swiss siblings bathing in a nearby river. Gorgeous and tranquil, they are the definition of stunning and lush. Charmed by the idyllic vision of the group, Nino decides to dye his hair and pass himself off as a local. The images of the cackling and dirty Italian people, with their snickering and drooling set against the peaceful family, are both beautiful and odd. The scene could almost be featured in an Ingmar Bergman art film.

Bread and Chocolate (1974) is a film about a man’s journey that nearly can be classified as an adventure, drama, art film, or comedy, and sometimes crosses genres too much. The comedic antics draw rave reviews, but the film slips a bit when it goes into the dramatic territory and becomes middling and too preachy. Actor Nino Manfredi breathes all the life he can into a film that is appealing, but not quite marvelous.

21 Jump Street-2012

21 Jump Street-2012

Director-Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Starring-Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

Scott’s Review #992

Reviewed February 20, 2020

Grade: C+

21 Jump Street (2012) is a nostalgic ode to the general style of the 1980’s, more specifically a popular television series that ran from 1987 to 1991. The teen police drama launched the successful career of actor Johnny Depp. He starred as the good-looking leader of a team of young police officers who can pass for high school students, and infiltrate potential drug rings, prostitution circles, or other such shenanigans.

Let’s be clear- the film is hardly high art nor cinematic genius. The gags are silly and trite, other times not funny at all. But the film contains a freshness that feels cool, sleek, and fun and a throwback to the decade of materialism, and the film never apologizes for this. The combination of stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have nice chemistry, turning a standard buddy film into something bearable to watch. The film is formulaic, but not dull.

The film makers strive for an action-comedy hybrid even though the series was only conventional drama and taught a lesson with each episode. They also change course and focus on two characters instead of a group making it more of a guy movie. Honor roll student Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and popular underachieving jock Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) reunite seven years after graduating high school at the police academy where they are studying to be cops.

Eager to leave their juvenile problems, and their dislike for each other behind, they use their youthful appearances to go undercover at a local high school as part of a Jump Street unit. As they trade in their guns and badges for books and bagged lunches, Schmidt and Jenko risk their lives to investigate a violent and dangerous drug ring. They slowly realize that high school is nothing like they left it just a few years earlier, and they revisit the terror and anxiety of being a teenager again and all the issues they assumed they had left behind.

The film is only mediocre and while there is nothing wrong with the film, there is also nothing terribly outstanding about it either. As the setup clearly poises the audience for, Morton and Greg are opposites in every way and must come together to achieve a common goal. This is a standard cliche told countless times in films such as Stir Crazy (1983) and 48 Hours (1982), the clear reference being one of the 1980’s.

Speaking of the decade of excess, 21 Jump Street achieves what it sets out to in this regard with a clever nod to a revived scheme from that decade. Set in present times, the film is nonetheless a nod to teen films of the day. Wild comedy and lavish adventures are in order in every high school situation imaginable. Dating, AP chemistry class, and the senior prom are heavily promoted so that any viewer above the age of twenty-five can reminisce.

A fun, and necessary quality is the inclusion of a few of the original cast of the television series-Holly Robinson Peete, Peter DeLuise, and of course, Johnny Depp all appear in cameo roles. This is a treat for fans of the original series and a tribute to its creation, though nothing else is utilized very well and no other history ever quite measures up. Robinson Peete’s role is nice because she appears as a police officer.

While doing little to honor the television series it is based off, instead churning out more of a male cop film, the incorporation of the original cast does deserve praise. The lead actors are charismatic and clever in their roles which saves the film from being a disaster. 21 Jump Street (2012) kvetches too far into slapstick instead of sending an important message to its audience, which it could have. The box-office hit was followed in 2014 by an unnecessary remake, aptly entitled 22 Jump Street.

Sex Tape-2014

Sex Tape-2014

Director-Jake Kasdan

Starring-Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel

Scott’s Review #980

Reviewed January 15, 2020

Grade: C

Sex Tape (2014) is a cliched, by the numbers, standard romantic comedy that meets expectations, but does little to exceed them. It is a raunchy affair, perhaps too raunchy for some, and riddled with juvenile moments. The film contains good chemistry between the leads and is fun up to a point. The final sequence strays too far into dumb, situation comedy style moments, with way too many seen before stereotypes, that take most of the preceding fun away.

With universally scathing reviews, I expected to hate the film, and salivated over the opportunity to craft a good, old-fashioned terrible review, but alas, Sex Tape is marginally fair to middling. Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, reuniting again after starring in Bad Teacher (2011), do what they can with the material given, offering strong convictions and fluid moments of enamored charm. In a supporting role as the boss, Rob Lowe is fine in a stock role, and the child actors are abhorrent (what else is new in romantic comedy casts?)

The film treats the viewer to a brief backstory, narrated by Annie, about the fresh romance between twenty-somethings, Jay and Annie Hargrove (Segel and Diaz). Much in love, they can barely keep their eyes off each other and have sex at the drop of a hat. Once they settle down and have kids, their romantic interludes must be balanced and scheduled amid bath time, feedings, and the necessity of sleep. Annie writes a popular blog, expressing the challenges of being a mom, as she bucks for a well-paying job at a company run by Hank Rosenbaum (Lowe).

One day, while feeling naughty, Jay and Annie rapturously and spontaneously decide to record their session of hanky panky on video, to enjoy later. Predictably, an error occurs, and their lovemaking session is inadvertently synchronized to video to several iPads the couple had given away over time, which ridiculously is the entire cast. They struggle to retrieve the iPads one by one and erase their session, while being blackmailed by an anonymous viewer.

The strength of Sex Tape is in the pairing of Diaz and Segel because without these actors the film would be drivel. In physical comedy films, chemistry and antics are everything, and these two have it down. We accept that the married couple, despite it being ten long years, are still smitten with each other, avoiding the doldrums. What they need is a spark and it is fun watching them come up with a sneaky idea. Even when the film gets bad, the actors are a hoot.

The supporting cast is what one usually gets in a romantic comedy and wonder of wonders is why these characters are always written as a “type” and not better fleshed out. Examples are Jay and Annie’s best friends, Robby and Tess Thompson (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper), one-dimensional and offering merely extensions of the lead characters, with no character development of their own. The same can be said for Annie’s mother (played by Nancy Lenehan), and the children.

To say nothing is how the studio clearly attempt to promote the latest technological tool, the iPad, to death is strongly evident. If one more iPad appeared on screen I would have screamed. And how is it possible to record yourself in numerous sexual positions with an iPad? If they were filming themselves how did they move the iPad and get into those positions? Why did everyone and their brother have an iPad? A weak explanation alluded to Jay’s occupation being somehow responsible.

Sex Tape (2014) does not rewrite the comedy road map and will assuredly be forgotten over time- might this film’s bad reviews and the disastrous remake of Annie (2014) be the reason why Diaz retired from acting altogether? Regardless, for a pleasant Saturday night of silly laughs over a cosmopolitan or two, this film may be the way to go, but for fans of Diaz, watch There’s Something About Mary (1998) instead.