Valerie and Her Week of Wonders-1970

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders-1970

Director-Jaromil Jires

Starring-Jaroslava Schallerova

Scott’s Review #1,076

Reviewed October 30, 2020

Grade: B+

One of the oddest films I’ve ever laid eyes on, the best way to view a film like Valerie and Her Week of Wonder (1970) is to absorb it and let it either pull you in or turn you off. The cadence is to feel the film and then search for any semblance of meaning or interpretation later, or perhaps never.

The genre or genres best to categorize the film art cinema meets fantasy meets horror meets fairy tale. Is it ever a bizarre experience. If one is to take hallucinogens first, this film is a recommended watch. The production is Czech and is translated to Valerie a týden divů in its native language. 

The story involves a week in the life of Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and the weird and sexual thoughts and desires she encounters while blossoming. She encounters witchcraft, vampires, and a bizarre Constable, who wears a mask. Valerie is raised by the strangest grandmother (Helena Anýžová) imaginable, who morphs into other characters named Mother and Redhead. Valerie does not live a boring life. One poster for the film is of a blooming flower with splotches of blood that can be interpreted as a girl losing her virginity.

To delve much further into the plot than a quick summary is wasteful because it doesn’t really make very much sense. Such activities such as Valerie’s grandmother making a pact with vampires to keep her young forever, Valerie lying in a coffin surrounded by rotten apples, and being burned at the stake, and finally being followed and menaced by her priest, are a few of the shenanigans the film presents. This is shrouded by some of the loveliest photography and scenery you’ve ever seen.

The creativity and the experimental nature of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are what will allure an open-eyed viewer seeking something left-of-center….very left-of-center. The story is secondary. The medieval landscape is gothic and haunting, perfect for evil-doings and strangeness. Not to harp on this point, but the look of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is the money shot. All else can be left by the sidelines.

The perspective is all Valerie’s, which is nice in an early 1970’s feminist way. It feels like Valerie is changing from girl to woman and a strong one at that. She is coming into her own after facing and challenging demons. In the mix is a handsome man who titillates Valerie. I felt like I was emerging into the girl’s subconscious and experiencing her fears and desires alongside her.

Critically speaking, I would have preferred a little more logic and wrap-up, but that’s just me. Surely, not a realistic interpretation, was the girl dreaming while asleep or merely delving into fantasy one day? The more I tried to follow the story and put together the pieces like working on a puzzle, the less this did me any favors. I then decided to space out and indulge in the other lovelies included. I should have done this from the beginning.

I am unsure how many Czech films I have seen if any, but Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a clear example of what Czech filmmakers can do and it’s crazy what they can come up with. The mystique is likely multiplied on American audiences and a viewer used to more formulaic approaches to film. With a desire for more put-together stories and logic, I nonetheless admired this film for the magic and style offered.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974

Director-Martin Scorsese

Starring-Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd

Scott’s Review #1,075

Reviewed October 27, 2020

Grade: A-

Deserving of the Best Actress statuette she won for her role, Ellen Burstyn carries the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) from start to finish with drama and comedy. I can’t watch any performance of Burstyn’s without smarting at how she lost the same award years later after her frighteningly good performance in Requiem for a Dream released in 2000. She was defeated by Julia Roberts, who gave an adequate though unexceptional performance in Erin Brockovich (2000). But, I digress.

A character study Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells the powerful story of a woman (Burstyn) forced to begin a new life and forge her own path after her husband is killed in a car accident. She is thirty-five years old and wary of middle age approaching as she pursues a singing career. She is joined by her young son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), and faces fear and loneliness as the pair embarks on a journey throughout the southwestern United States. She dates, fights, and does a soul-search, finally landing a job as a waitress at a roadside diner.

On paper, this film could have been reduced to television movie status as the premise sounds kind of corny and sentimental. Shocking to me is that Martin Scorsese directed it. Best known for male-driven mobster pictures like Goodfellas (1993), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Irishman (2019), an introspective female journey film doesn’t seem like his thing. A fun fact is that he agreed to direct at Burstyn’s urging as she wouldn’t have starred in it otherwise. The actress surmised that the script needed more darkness and grit, which it contains without losing its heart.

A strange yet lovely photographed scene kicks off the picture and seems to be an homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939). With a dusty, golden backdrop, a young Alice looks like Dorothy with an idyllic life. Suddenly, Alice’s mother bellows her to come home for dinner. She responds with salty language. The scene feels out of place based on the rest of the film but looks good.

Burstyn made me care about Alice from the first scene containing adult Alice. Alice is a good person. She is hard-working and strives to please her husband, hoping he will enjoy the delicious dinner she has prepared for him. He barely grunts at the meal and has a tumultuous relationship with Tommy, who Alice spoils. This plot point returns later in the film. Alice is not a doormat, however, as she provides humor and comic relief during tense moments. She also shares a warm friendship with her neighbor. We do not know what the husband’s demons are (depression?). He and Alice share an emotional moment in bed one night before he dies the next day.

With her marriage behind her and limited financial means, Alice and Tommy take to the road. I adore the relationship between the two. Tommy is not always easy to parent, exhausting his mother with typical young adult nonsense. It’s easy to forget that he has lost his father and has no direction. Their relationship is complicated but there is much love.

The juiciness comes when Alice finally lands a singing gig at a seedy lounge bar and meets the maniacal Ben, played flawlessly by Harvey Keitel. At first, he is charming and attentive, wooing her like she’s never been wooed before. When she learns he is married he turns psycho and she is forced to leave town. The meat of the film comes when Alice begins working at the diner and meets her new friend, Flo (Diane Ladd), and her new love David (Kris Kristofferson). After some trials and tribulations, Alice realizes her life is not so bad.

As much as there are dramatic elements Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not soap opera or overwrought. The scenes and situations bristle with energy and authenticity and this is thanks to the great acting and fluid direction. My favorite scenes occur at the diner. With greasy, blue plate specials and dishes piled with ham, eggs, and hash browns, the working-class extras are perfectly positioned around the diner. In the background, they lend a feeling of rush, chaos, and family traditions. The diner scenes are where Alice bonds the most with Flo and David and are delicious.

Turned into a popular television sitcom in the late 1970s named Alice, a lighter, wholesome production, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is a progressive story about a woman on her own and getting it done, mustering courage no matter what life throws at her. It’s an inspiring story for both women and men.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Ellen Burstyn (won), Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd, Best Original Screenplay

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives-1986

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives-1986

Director-Tom McLoughlin

Starring-Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke

Scott’s Review #1,074

Reviewed October 26, 2020

Grade: B-

Due to the fan outrage that surrounded Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), a film I thought was decent, the powers that be decided that a return to form was in order, quickly resurrecting Jason in the corniest of ways. Re-discovering the “real Jason” is not the worst idea in the world but the execution is not there and I’m not crazy about the introduction of “superhuman” Jason. How is anyone supposed to ever kill him?

Adding comedy and children is okay with me but both ideas largely fall flat when paired with inadequate acting and gimmicky sitcom situations with no character development. There is no time invested in getting to know any of the characters. The heavy metal soundtrack, featuring the music of Alice Cooper, is the best part. The film isn’t helped by a slicker 1980’s visual look though this does come with better production values. Not the greatest of all the Fridays.

The chapter gets off to a compelling start when Tommy (Thom Mathews) and his friend Allen Hawes (Ron Palillo- yes, Horshack from the Welcome Back Kotter television series) trudge through the rain and mud back to Camp Crystal Lake to finally bury Tommy’s demons.

Fans of the series will recall that Tommy did a stint in Pinehurst Halfway House and a pretend Jason went on a killing spree to avenge his son’s death. The friends dig up the grave of Jason. The murderer is struck by lightning and magically comes back to life, killing Allen. Tommy spends the rest of the film trying to warn the town that Jason is alive and well and back on a deadly rampage.

The camp has been renamed to the more pleasant-sounding Forest Green to make people forget that numerous killings have ever taken place. This seems to have worked as a busload of kid’s flock to the camp for a summer of fun along with the usual batch of camp counselors in tow.

To the film’s credit, like with its predecessor, there is a black character, this time a counselor named Sissy Baker (Renee Jones), and some of the child characters offer different ethnicities. The diversity and inclusiveness are to be admired, but unfortunately for Sissy, she is dragged through a window and savagely beheaded. Jason kindly spares the kids.

I like how there is consistency in keeping the main character Tommy Jarvis, albeit with a different actor. We’ll probably never know why it was decided to recast John Shepherd with Thom Mathews, but the actors look enough alike to avoid too much confusion. Like Shepherd, Mathews possesses a wounded look which makes the casting adequate.

There is a rooting quality to Tommy especially as he faces adversity with the police department. Sheriff Garris and Deputy Rick are played purely as foils and are a roadblock to capturing Jason.

Any attempt at romantic chemistry between Tommy and Megan (Jennifer Cooke) falls flat because there simply isn’t any between the actors, try as they might. Neither are the best actors in the world (not a requirement for the horror genre) but have the right, fresh-faced look warranted to be cast. Megan is the only person who believes Tommy as they race to the camp to stop and kill Jason.

The rest of the film is more of the same and offers no surprises except for more humor. A coked-up pair having sex in a motorhome and a group of corporate types on a paintball outing are examples of this. The four “suits” beheaded by a machete are the best part of the otherwise campy and obnoxious sequence. The rest of the characters are killed off systematically with nothing especially interesting to add to the film.

Writer and director Tom McLoughlin attempts to revitalize the aging series and genre with more special effects and techniques and does little else to freshen his characters. It would have been nice to get to know some of them better. By 1986 the slasher film needed rest and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is a dull entry in the series catalog. There is nothing terrible about the film, nor is there anything memorable either.

The Boys in the Band-2020

The Boys in the Band-2020

Director-Joe Mantello

Starring-Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer

Scott’s Review #1,073

Reviewed October 21, 2020

Grade: A-

One may ask themselves why bother checking out the 2020 version of the legendary (and dark!) 1970 stage turned cinematic rendition of the sniping and vicious gay drama The Boys in the Band? Mostly because of the wonderful cast- a cast featuring the troupe who starred in the recent 2018 stage revival. But more than that the film feels surprisingly modern and relevant and provides a message of hope that the original did not contain.

Crucial and historical to point out is that every principle actor is openly gay and their characters are gay, or bisexual. My, how much progress has been made for actors when not too long ago an “out” actor risked both reputation and career for the price of his truth. This is monumental.

The remake wisely keeps to the crucial time-period of 1968, and really, how could a modern setting work at all? Being gay in 1968 is nothing like being gay in 2020, I don’t care if it is the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To bring this film to any other time would diminish its power and importance. If anything, it makes one proud how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, though there are further advancements left to make.

Alas, the Vietnam era is safely intact, during a time when a strip of gay bars and a group of gay friends were the only thing to keep a gay man from going crazy regardless of how abusive they were. This will hopefully teach young gay viewers, or anyone else, what being a gay male was like over 50 years ago. When the rest of the world was deemed “normal” and you were cast aside as either a sexual deviant or a head case this is powerful. Self-hatred, denial, or the closet were commonalities.

The Boys in the Band has no females save for a blink and you’ll miss it moment featuring a snooty neighbor. Important to realize is that the film is pre A.I.D.S epidemic in a time of carefree love and endless hookups, where booze and drugs were a necessary escape and usual was to feel out of sorts on a regular basis.

A few characters are effeminate. One is presumably bisexual and closeted, and one is masculine and recently divorced from a woman, now cohabiting with a male lover, one is black, and one is an escort. Each character comes from a different walk of life but are bonded. The running of the gamut of unique types and personalities is part of why I love this story.

The events commence one evening when Michael (Jim Parsons) throws a birthday party for friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) at his apartment. They are joined by other friends Donald (Matt Bomer), Hank (Tuc Watkins), Larry (Andrew Rannalls), Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington), Emory (Robin de Jesus).  Guests include Cowboy (Charlie Carver), a “birthday present” for Harold, and Alan (Brian Hutchison), a college friend of Michael’s. As the booze flows talk gets vicious and the claws come out.

The men, prompted by a drunken Michael, play a daring game of “telephone”. Each guest is dared to call the one person he truly believes he has loved. With each call, past scars and present anxieties are revealed in tortuous fashion. This is when the film really gets interesting. Bernard and Emory bear the brunt the hardest as their phone calls take a tremendous toll on each.

Parsons and Quinto are the standouts. As the lead, the character of Michael seems stable at first. He is stylish, well-dressed, and lives in a reputable apartment. Though unemployed, he once traveled the world. Parsons slowly unleashes the vicious fury contained within Michael the more he drinks. He enjoys hurting others just as he has been hurt. The catalyst to his character is Alan. Are they in love? Is Michael in love with Alan? Alan takes a fancy to masculine Hank.

Quinto, as Harold the self-professed “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy”, is becoming increasingly morose about losing his youthful looks and his ability to attract cute young men. The catalyst to his character is Cowboy, who has those qualities that Harold lacks. Strangely, Harold and Michael are best friends, both loving and hating each other. After brutalizing each other with words, Harold exits the apartment announcing he will call Michael tomorrow. They’ve been through this before and probably will again.

No, The Boys in the Band circa 2020 is not quite on par with The Boys in the Band circa 1970, but this is merely because brilliance is a tough act to replicate. The modern telling is an absolute joy and will hopefully recruit fresh audiences to the perils and brutality is was to be gay in another time.

Thanks to Ryan Murphy for adapting this project to Netflix as part of his United States $300 million deal with the streaming platform.

Airport ’77-1977

Airport ’77-1977

Director-Jerry Jameson

Starring-Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland

Scott’s Review #1,072

Reviewed October 20, 2020

Grade: B+

The word that springs to mind following a viewing of the disaster flick Airport ’77 (1977) is entertaining. Whether this is positive or negative depends on the viewer and what that viewer wants out of a film. As a huge fan of the disaster genre, I was one satisfied customer though there is little to distinguish the film from other efforts. It is a more cohesive and professional-feeling effort than its predecessor, Airport ’75. The fun is watching the cast, the grandiose list of who’s who of Hollywood heavyweights gracing the opening credits. We wonder who will survive and who will not.

The star is the airplane. Showcased by way of both interiors and exteriors, the luxurious privately-owned Boeing 747-100 is a great highlight of the picture. Owned by wealthy philanthropist Philip Stevens (James Stewart), the plane is packed with VIPs and priceless art traveling to his Florida estate for a party. The wealthy travelers are drugged, and the aircraft is subsequently hijacked before crashing into the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle and sinking 100 feet, prompting the survivors to undertake a desperate struggle to live.

The airplane set is a feast for the eyes. A double-deck plane (naturally!) the plush green carpets and the spiral staircase complete with a robust bar stocked with every type of liquor imaginable is wonderful trimming. It allows the viewer to forget all about the typical in-flight treats like their seat being kicked, a screaming baby, or a fat man snoring, and escape to the pleasures of champagne, caviar, and slippers. Seriously, the sets are tremendous and worthy of their accolades.

Jerry Jameson, primarily a television director, sticks to a formulaic approach that makes the film look like a long television series. Think Murder, She Wrote, Dallas or Dynasty at 30,000 feet. I say this because the melodrama is sky-high (no pun intended) and situations arise between flight crew and passengers to create more tension than the crash itself. The juiciest drama exists between husband and wife Martin (Christopher Lee) and Karen Wallace (Lee Grant). He flirts with women at the bar, drinks too much, and gets jealous. They squabble. You get the idea.

What a joy it is to see some of the stars on-screen together, specifically Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, and Joseph Cotten. As Nicholas, Cotten is a romantic match for de Havilland’s Emily Livingston, and they appear to be old friends. Fans of classic cinema will undoubtedly associate him with Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and she with Gone with the Wind (1939) and to see the side of the legendary star by side is darling, nearly worth the price of admission. Stewart is perfectly cast as the rich and distinguished man eager to see the impending arrival of his estranged daughter and her son, hopeful of a happy reunion. These delights are why I love this genre.

The actors teeter back and forth between phoning in their lines and enthusiastically having a ball with their respective roles. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. I’ll bet the set was tension-free as everyone was earning a bundle of cash. And why not? The budget is plentiful and filled with overabundance.

The plot is generally ludicrous as is to be expected. The thought that anyone, let alone nearly everyone, could survive a crash into the ocean and remain unscathed as it sinks to the depths of the water is beyond silly. Suddenly, when all passengers conveniently emerge from their drug-induced stupor simultaneously, hysterics erupt which is quite humorous. As the water slowly begins to seep into the plane a frenzied effort to find a way out commences. The last portion of the film involving a rescue crew coming to save the passengers is a disappointment, lacking much captivation.

Airport ’77 (1977) has all the elements its target viewer expects it to have. If the well-known cast were instead unknowns and the crash peril and its following adventure were not danger personified, and the dramatic and romantic tensions left out, the film would be a disappointment. The film is like sinking your teeth into a fattening, highly caloric Whopper from your favorite Burger King. It’s a guilty pleasure that you wouldn’t necessarily tell your health-conscious friends you get so much enjoyment from. But, it’s fun, so why not indulge from time to time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design

Thieves Like Us-1974

Thieves Like Us-1974

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall

Scott’s Review #1,071

Reviewed October 16, 2020

Grade: A

The first time I saw Thieves Like Us (1974) I was not blown away. I have forgotten what my original gripe was, but my lackluster star rating on Netflix years ago is confirmation of such. All is now forgiven and like a fine wine, this film gets better and better with each viewing. It’s basically a gangster film, but a heart-wrenching story containing one of the sweetest romances in cinema history.

Based on the novel of the same name by Edward Anderson, director Robert Altman, famous for allowing his actors to ad-lib their lines to their heart’s content and peppering his films with overlapping, “real-life” dialogue, limits this technique this time around. His stars, Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, regular fixtures in his films, are the main attraction, but supporting players like Louise Fletcher, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck give tremendous performances.

Set in the 1930’s United States, Deep South Mississippi, the time-period and location are key elements to the success of the film. Having never have set foot in this geographical area, I nonetheless found myself escaping there and ruminating what it would have been like to live there in the Great Depression era. The many outdoor sequences with trees, forests, country roads, and home-cooked meals provide a luminous atmosphere and texture. Small town living never felt so good and cozy.

Wisely, Altman steers clear of any racial overtones or dialogue within the film. The film is not about that. There appear many black characters mostly in the background, townspeople scenes, or as prisoners which add flavor. But they are represented as living among other folks without any aggression or stereotypes. They simply are and it feels like the South. Altman crafts an experience of understated, good storytelling, proving a quality film can be quiet and proud, not needing explosive bells and whistles to prove showy. The dialogue crackles on its own and is smart.

The plot is compelling. Bowie (Carradine) is an escaped convict who embarks on a crime spree with fellow former prisoners Chicamaw (John Schuck) and T-Dub (Bert Remsen). While in hiding between bank robberies, Bowie meets a young woman named Keechie (Duvall), and the two quickly fall in love. A life of crime doesn’t sit well with Keechie, however, so she and Bowie try to settle down, but the law is determined to bring him to justice.

The fun is in watching romance blossom between Bowie and Keechie. Despite Bowie being a criminal, his character contains sweetness and purity that matches like a glove with the whimsical truth and simplicity of Keechie. Throughout the length of the film, I compared the characters to the legendary icons, Bonnie and Clyde, from the self-titled cinema masterpiece. They are similar but different. The pair sit quietly on the front porch talking about life and the future, optimistically planning their lives together unaware of what fate has in store for them. Their innocence and their goofy humor made me fall in love with them.

The relationship between the three men is apt. They have each other’s backs and are loyal to a fault. The men are convicts and cause death and injury, but there is a humanity that Altman gives to each character. We do not think of them as derelicts. When Bowie poses as a sheriff to break Chickamaw from prison, we root for the escape and not for the warden. Bowie kills the warden, shocking Chickamaw. Even with dispute comes caring between the men.

It does take patience to get into this film, probably I did not give the film its due on my first watch. Once the film ends I was left with a feeling of having experienced something of value and an artistic cinematic visionary story. The homespun characters eating a feast of meat and southern biscuits and discussing the day’s event are rich and atmospheric.

Carradine and Duvall would reunite a year later in another Altman masterpiece, Nashville (1975) playing vastly different characters, both unlikable, so a recommendation is to watch both films back to back to appreciate the dizzying morphed characterization. Thieves Like Us (1974) is no mere opening act for Nashville but of a different ilk.

The film is a treasure.

Mad Max-1979

Mad Max-1979

Director-George Miller

Starring-Mel Gibson

Scott’s Review #1,070

Reviewed October 15, 2020

Grade: A-

Mad Max (1979) is a gritty and dirty film that is nothing like any other film coming before it. There are an edginess and an “off the beaten track” quality that sucks you in and pummels you into submission with its energy and ferocity. The film is raw and not slick and hats off for that. This is all done with fun intentions and it’s meant to be enjoyed, but the film has brutality and power that must be experienced to be believed. The plot is not the most important quality, nor is it the most believable, but it’s the trimmings that make Mad Max unforgettable.

I haven’t seen the two follow-up sequels, Mad Max 2 (1981) or Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but my understanding is they are more family-friendly films, disappointing to hear after viewing the raw power of the original. The undesirable Fury Road (2015), an enormous critical and commercial success, but the appeal lost on me, is to be skipped in favor of the first. I disliked that film. But alas, a treasure such as the original can never be duplicated. The revenge-themed, fast car driving, lewd masterpiece, is a must-see cult classic. It stands the test of time.

In a post-apocalyptic future, an angry cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is looking forward to retiring, having had enough of the derelicts that populate his region. One day, his world is shattered when a malicious gang murders his family as an act of retaliation, forcing a devastated Max to hit the open road seeking vengeance. As he travels the Australian outback’s empty stretches of highway, he tours the bloodstained battlegrounds ruled by low-life bikers who feed on violence.

Mad Max made Mel Gibson a star. His breakthrough role, led to future work in the action and buddy genres, specifically the Lethal Weapon franchise (1987-1998) with tepid success from any artistic standpoint until he bravely took on more creative and challenging roles. Max is his finest action character and most authentic feeling. He mixes a blend of rage, sentimentality, and humanity, perfectly, never missing a beat. And his youthful looks are enchanting to see.

The multitude of scenes featuring super fast-cars, motorbike gangs, and leather-clad creatures with colorful tattoos and missing teeth are just the icing on the cake of the fun that lies ahead. Names like Toecutter and Bubba give you an idea here. These are all great add-ons, but the revenge-seeking Max is the one to watch. The scene is immediately set when the grizzled Nightrider is killed by Max in a chaotic police chase. His gang goes rampant and loots and destroys shops and businesses, raping both women and men. All hell breaks loose.

The best sequence is also the most horrific. Taking place on the open road, naturally, a sweet vacation by Max, wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel), and son Sprog begins with a pleasant drive, only to result in a chase scene climaxing with Sprog’s death and Jessie languishing in intensive care. The image of Sprog and Jessie lying on the open road, tattered and torn, is memorable and sticks with you.

The film is intelligent if studied thoroughly enough, and a study in film school is recommended. Credit must be given to director George Miller who knows his way around a camera. The cinematography lends much to the film and a feeling of being there is the desirous result. The editors deserve a special prize for their brilliant efforts.

Undoubtedly influencing countless action genre selections of the 1980s and 1990s, most running the gamut between only marginally fun (the Terminator franchise-1984-present) or downright atrocious (The Running Man-1987), Mad Max (1979) breathes life into the genre. Action films are categorically known to be one-dimensional but by adding a cool Australian locale, characters who are filled with cartoon bombast and punky zest, and a futuristic mystique, Miller crafts well.

It’s a low-budget flick, destined for underground viewership and appreciation, that is somehow nearly flawless.

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

Clemency-2019

Clemency-2019

Director-Chinonye Chukwu

Starring-Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff

Scott’s Review #1,068

Reviewed October 7, 2020

Grade: A-

I will be candid. Clemency (2019) is not a film that will be everybody’s cup of tea. The topics of prison, execution, and psychological conflict among its characters are quite the heavies. After a long day of work and the desire to snuggle on a comfy couch with a tall glass of wine, this film may not be recommended. But, for those seeking a thought-provoking experience about timely and serious social issues, with racial overtones, Clemency is a riveting and powerful story. This film is written well, and it matters.

Haggard, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) trudges along day after day managing the multitude of tasks that her job requires of her. She is committed to overseeing the prison executions and experiences her twelfth at the start of the film. The procedure is botched causing the prisoner excess pain and an investigation is launched. Bernadine is conflicted and consumed by her job causing her marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) to deteriorate and her visits to a local watering hole to increase.

When Bernadine takes interest in Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) a prisoner slated for execution in a case receiving national media attention and prison protests, her conflict escalates. Anthony’s ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks) and attorney (Richard Schiff) play vital roles, especially when the convicted cop killer’s innocence is called into question. Will he or won’t he receive a last-minute pardon from the governor sparing his life?

Chinonye Chukwu, a rookie director, is a black, Nigerian, female with lots of interesting things to say and a bright future ahead of her. She also penned the screenplay and tackles a weighty issue of great controversy in the United States. The age-old debate of whether capital punishment is inhumane or even thwarts crime in the film’s subconscious, but neither is the film about that per se. The fact that Chukwu and her characters of Bernadine and Anthony are both black introduces an additional racial element. In the time of “Black Lives Matter”, this is a powerful statement.

To say that Clemency is a downer is an understatement, though it leaves the viewer with some sense of hope amid an ambiguous ending. I won’t spoil the film, but we wonder what will become of Bernadine. Has she had enough of the prison lifestyle and decide to fly off in a new direction or is she so consumed by her work that she is trapped for life, too forgone for any growth?

The final sequence is brilliant. An impending execution, emotional goodbyes are said, and a full minute or so of a closeup scene focused on Woodard’s face taps a range of emotions that includes compassion, disgust, and unbridled sadness. The gloomy and stark atmosphere that Chukwu presents fills the film with a bleakness that is eclipsed ever slightly by the possibility of change.

A common theme, and not only with Bernadine, is the need to be heard and the frightening perception of being invisible. Jonathan, in a strong supporting role by Pierce, is the perfect husband. A teacher, he is responsible, loyal, and even prepares a surprise dinner on their anniversary. He feels diminished by Bernadine and resides in a motel after he has had too much. Anthony’s attorney and a priest, both plan to soon retire, feeling their jobs are pointless, they are not heard, and their work neither appreciated nor noticed.

Interesting that Chukwu does not reveal which state within the United States the twelve or thirteen executions take place in, though we can only guess it’s somewhere in the south, Clemency (2019) is a bold offering fraught with debate, questions, and character conflict. A slow build, there is much to savor and mull over, and the story feels personal. Woodard gives a soaring performance with exceptional work by all the supporting players.

I cannot wait to see what Chukwu comes up with next.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Female Lead-Alfre Woodard, Best Screenplay

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 like 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.

Likable 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 the 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. He is someone to 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.