I Am Sam-2001

I Am Sam-2001

Director-Jessie Nelson

Starring-Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer

Scott’s Review #1,097

Reviewed December 30, 2020

Grade: B-

Sean Penn stars as a mentally disabled man who fathers a child and is determined to cling to the custody of her after he is deemed unfit to parent in I Am Sam (2001), a drama that garnered Penn an Oscar nomination. The brilliant actor may have deserved the win since he breathes life into a film riddled with every cliché imaginable. Besides his performance, and that of novice Dakota Fanning, the film would be drivel. As it is, it’s mediocre at best.

Somewhere, sometime, somehow, in cinema history, the consensus became that if an actor plays a mentally challenged character, he or she is assured an Academy Award nomination. Juliette Lewis tried and failed with the cringeworthy The Other Sister (1999), but Penn has better credibility. Dustin Hoffman also succeeded with Rain Man (1988).

Sam (Penn) is a well-adjusted man and has a supportive group of friends with disabilities. His neighbor, Annie, (Dianne Wiest) assists with raising Sam’s daughter, Lucy (Fanning), but the eight-year-old quickly exceeds the mental capacity of her father, leading to frustration and conflict. Lucy’s mother, a homeless woman, has vanished from the scene.

The justice system determines that Lucy must go to a foster family led by Randy (Laura Dern), which results in Sam hiring a no-nonsense attorney, Rita (Pfeiffer). Both Randy and Rita sympathize with Sam and must convince the courts that he can raise her.

Jessie Nelson, who directs I Am Sam, also directed safe films like Corrina, Corrina (1994), and Stepmom (1999), so her intention to present a warm and soft experience is easy to figure out. This is not meant to criticize her direction style as much as to point out that the result is not a hard-edged, gritty experience. It’s a crowd-pleaser and there is never a moment where Nelson wants the audience to root against Sam keeping custody of Lucy, regardless of the reality.

Penn saves the film from being a complete stereotype. It’s apparent that Sam adores Lucy and the actor is not afraid to cry and express genuine emotion on cue. He’s a great actor and makes the most out of the role. He does his best to insinuate that mentally challenged people are like everyone else- they can keep a job, pay bills, hire a lawyer, and fight for their kids. His task is tough, but he succeeds. That’s what raises I Am Sam as an overall product.

Fanning, who in 2001 was about to embark on a fabulously rich acting career, is wonderful. Unlike many child actors, cast because they are cute or bubbly, she has real acting chops. She is neither girly nor overly sad in her emotions. Fanning is as strong, focused, and detailed as her eight-year-old character is.

Speaking of stereotypes, Pfeiffer is awarded the grand prize in female attorney banality. She is haggard, absorbed in her work, and has no time for her own son, only taking Sam’s case to prove she is a kind person since she agrees to pro bono work. Predictably, she realizes, through Sam, that she is wasting her life away, leaves her husband, and spends more time with her son. Dern does her best with a weak role as the one-dimensional foster parent who realizes she cannot be half the parent that Sam can.

The film’s title is derived from the opening lines “I am Sam / Sam I am” of the book Green Eggs and Ham, which is read in the movie. This makes the film showcase sentimentalism and hammers home the point that the mentally disabled are child-like and need the help, patience, and understanding of non-disabled adults as if that isn’t obvious.

The conclusion to I Am Sam is expected. The lengthy courtroom scenes are wrapped with a nice shiny bow as Sam predictably retains custody of Lucy as the supporting cast gather on a soccer field and dutifully gush with delight at how great a father he is. This is a fine tribute or fantasy, and if only real-life were like this what a better world it would be. I would have preferred a story with more meat.

I Am Sam (2001) is recommended only for huge fans of Sean Penn or those who desire an oversentimental experience. It might have been better suited for Lifetime television.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Sean Penn

The Witches-1967

The Witches-1967

Director-Cyril Frankel

Starring-Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh

Scott’s Review #1,096

Reviewed December 29, 2020

Grade: B

Legendary film actress Joan Fontaine chose a Hammer horror film as her final role. While not high-brow art, these films are entertaining and a fun treat for horror fans. They are frequently macabre, clever, and make the most of a small budget. In The Witches (1967), Fontaine leads the way adding class and huge star quality. The film is good, but not great, with an unfulfilling ending. The cinematography and Fontaine’s involvement are the best aspects.

Also worthy of mention in the acting department is Kay Walsh, a talented British actress, who is terrific as the seemingly kind woman turned crazed witch. She adds professionalism to a pivotal role. The other supporting actors play their parts well to ensure that the craft of acting is respected. I adore the British flair that Hammer films always have.

Fontaine plays Gwen Mayfield, an English schoolteacher who accepts a new job as the headmistress of the local school in the quaint village of Heddaby. The quiet town is exactly what Gwen needs after suffering a nervous breakdown while residing in Africa. She experiences a small flirtation with the Reverend Alan Bax (Alec McCowen), who confesses that he is not overly religious. Stephanie is his sister, played by Walsh.

Before long, Gwen becomes immersed in the worlds of two of her students, Ronnie (Martin Stephens) and Linda (Ingrid Brett). Ronnie insists that Linda is being abused, which prompts Gwen to investigate. Meanwhile, Gwen discovers a voodoo doll and sleuths to find out what is going on in the village. Events lead her to a sanitarium, and finally to a coven of witches, intent on human sacrifice.

The Witches has a late 1960’s look and feel which gives some sophistication. Gwen is draped in stylish clothes and jewelry and wears a cute, trendy bob haircut. The set design is cool with groovy, colorful furniture that enhances the tight budget to full advantage.  Alan and Stephanie’s estate is particularly impressive with modern furniture, drapes, and various trimmings.

Another positive is the hefty amount of exterior sequences offered. Director, Cyril Frankel, who directed many episodes of the popular British television series, The Avengers, provides a similar production so The Witches feels like a long episodic series. The luxurious English village is sunny, calming, and atmospheric brightening the atmosphere of the film. This counterbalances the themes of demons, voodoo, and witches, well.

Frankel builds the story momentum throughout The Witches at a good pace, but this is lost in the final act, which is way too abrupt. During the first three-quarters of the production, we are led to believe that Gwen is either crazy, imagining the strange events, or that one of the townspeople is gaslighting her. It’s easy to deduce the latter is what is going on, and the fun is figuring out who or who is doing the dirty deeds.

When the culprit is revealed (and it’s displayed on the cover art!), the conclusion is underwhelming. An attempted cemetery human ritual to remove life from Linda and infuse into Stephanie so that she can live forever is weak. After an odd sequence of the townspeople dancing and writhing around like nutcases in an unintentionally laugh-out loud example of overacting, Gwen foils Stephanie’s plan. The witch succumbs to death, a victim of her own heinous plan backfiring.

It is hinted that Gwen and Alan (who is revealed to be good) will forge a romance in the future, but I would have liked if we had gotten more of a taste of their budding attraction during the film. Still, it is likely the two will ride off into the sunset together in safety.

While not as gory as other Hammer films, The Witches (1967) instead casts exceptionally well and tells a decent story, interesting until the low-key finale. I expected a bit more from the ending, which simmers out instead of electrifying.

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 filmmaker 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 a 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 joins 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 a family-friendly affair and a very funny experience without sacrificing any credibility.

Game Change-2012

Game Change-2012

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris

Scott’s Review #1,094

Reviewed December 23, 2020

Grade: B

Sarah Palin is an idiot. John McCain is not. We didn’t know that in 2008-we do now. Somehow their different worlds collided as partners in crime for the 2008 United States Presidential election, she the vice-presidential nominee to his presidential. McCain’s people wanted a fresh face, someone with charisma, who could help defeat the surging U.S. Senator from Illinois, named Barack Obama.

Game Change (2012), an HBO film, chronicles how an unknown female governor from Alaska was chosen as McCain’s running mate without proper vetting, leading to one of the biggest political fiascos of the twenty-first century.

The production is a well-acted, well-paced affair that makes even the most liberal viewer (me!) sympathize, ever so slightly, with Palin, who was thrust into the spotlight at lightning speed. Julianne Moore takes center stage, giving the political figure empathy and some heart. Supporting turns by Woody Harrelson as the campaign’s senior strategist, Steve Schmidt, and Ed Harris as John McCain provide levity.

The acting is the best part of the film. Otherwise, the film might have been best served as a documentary (more about that below). As believable as Moore, Harrelson, and Harris are, they feel like performances rather than authenticity. They try to give their best interpretations of the players instead of immersing themselves in their bodies. Maybe that’s the point of the film?

I love how the film opens. In 2010, after the debacle has ended, Steve Schmidt sits uncomfortably before Anderson Cooper from CNN. He asks Schmidt if Palin was chosen as the VP candidate because she would make the best vice president or because she could win the election? The question is quite poignant and the basis for the entire film.

Another excellent sequence is set during the Republican National Convention. Palin’s speech is well received, bombastic even, and energetic, catapulting her as the potential saving grace of the party. Sadly, for her, the campaign becomes concerned that she is ignorant about many political issues and grossly unprepared. These scenes are the weakest- the audience laughably realizes she believes Korea is one country, and many other gaffs follow. But, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, this is common knowledge.

Game Change makes a mistake by editing too many snippets of real-life interviews and other news media moments. This detracts from the dramatization that is the intention and makes me wonder why a solid documentary wasn’t made instead.

Jay Roach, who directs Game Change, revels in close-ups, especially of Palin, perhaps as a nod to her being thrust onto every television station in the United States. Danny Strong screen writes the project. The duo sets up the predictable situations nicely. Palin’s disagreements with McCain, the woman clearly not his choice. For reference, he wanted Joe Lieberman, a moderate from Connecticut who was considered “boring”.

Let’s give the most credit to Moore. The actress doesn’t exactly embody Palin. She is more like a dressed-up impersonator, hardly Charlize Theron flawlessly playing Aileen Wuornos. But what she does do is successfully make the audience care about her and feel sorry for her. Palin had no idea what she was in store for, nor knew what she signed up for. Moore portrays the emotions well.

Moore carries the film. Palin became a source of venom and mockery after her embarrassing interview with Katie Couric in which she was unable to name any magazines. She quickly became the whipping girl rather than the ‘it” girl.

The message is competent without feeling preachy or overpowering, but there is something a bit dull about Game Change. Schmidt and Nicole Wallace chose Palin, making the enormous mistake of knowing very little about the woman.

Game Change (2012) is recommended for those who want to be entertained or who desire a history lesson without seeing the real people. I still think a documentary would have worked better.

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Director-Michael Moore

Starring-Michael Moore

Scott’s Review #1,093

Reviewed December 22, 2020

Grade: B

Reviewing a political documentary about a president considered incompetent pre-Donald Trump is a tough task. Can anyone rival Trump’s incompetence? In the United States circa 2016, the proverbial shit hit the fan as no other controversial figure had ever set foot in the White House. Let’s hope that’s as bad as it gets.

To watch a documentary that ridicules George W. Bush knew what we now know with the widespread notion that we would love Bush back in the office makes Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by liberal filmmaker Michael Monroe, dated and rather superfluous. It’s still a good watch, but it was better in 2004.

But ever the professional, I will soldier on and review this documentary with gusto and try to remember the time it was made and the issue at hand.  The United States was a tragic war zone in 2001. I am salivating at the thought of a Moore helmed follow-up documentary about Donald Trump, considered the worst United States president of all time. In a clever play on titles, Moore would release Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 and unleash a documentary tirade on the 45th president, but only at halfway through his term.

Released only halfway through Bush’s reign, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) focuses on the devastating events of 9/11, hence the title, while questioning the how’s and why’s Bush found himself in office. The main point is how he bungled the response to 9/11 and his selfish and inept focus on Afghanistan and Iraq. The documentary is a good piece of work and a history lesson.

To elicit controversy, and it did, Moore bravely and brazenly calls out the reasons why the United States was the target for terrorism. The events leading up to the gruesome day are chronicled, with bombast and humor, sure to provoke debate among viewers not aligned politically.

But, Moore’s documentary is not a debate. It’s a one-sided attack on Bush. Anyone with a firm “The United States is the greatest country in the world” will not like the experience, and Moore knows this, teetering carefully around mockery.

The cover art is brilliant, featuring a sly Michael Moore holding hands with a goofy-looking Bush, a shit-eating grin on his face. This implies that Bush was carried along throughout his term and helped to win the presidency. The title in bold red emergency letters amid the White House background tells you all you need to know about the tone of the documentary. Republicans will despise the work.

Helpful to the documentary is that Moore narrates it, adding a good dose of sarcasm and wit to the myriad of verbal insults he hurls at the former president. If one isn’t familiar with Moore, his hoodie and baseball cap look and garish Michigan accent cement his “regular Joe” persona, though he is intelligent beyond belief.

Moore’s commentary isn’t only a way to smack Bush upside the head, but there is substance here. He angrily points out the interminable amount of time it took Bush to abort storytime on 9/11 and drag his ass to a camera and microphone to address the startled nation.

The point of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to label Bush as a dangerous and flawed president and describe why. The motivation is clear- it’s an attack on Bush pure and simple. But it’s hardly sour grapes or dark and dreary. Moore instills humor and an exposé on the multitude of gaffs Bush made and adds appearances by Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice. Should he be the president? Hell no! This comedy makes the fact that he was easier to absorb.

At just over two hours of running time, the documentary feels slightly long. I got the point of it quickly enough and had my fill around the ninety-minute mark- the ideal length for this genre. The rest feels like overkill and redundant, though I get Moore’s point of hammering home the necessary discussion points.

I’m not sure Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) needs more than one viewing to absorb its point. It’s a well-made documentary obviously slanted to Moore’s political leanings. But, the points made are relevant and thoughtful, and factual. For a tribute to the World Trade Center attacks this is not a good reason to watch. For a proper dissection of why they occurred and where the United States goes from here (in 2004 anyway), the documentary is a solid watch.

East of Eden-1955

East of Eden-1955

Director-Elia Kazan 

Starring-James Dean, Julie Harris, Jo Van Fleet

Scott’s Review #1,092

Reviewed December 17, 2020

Grade: A

James Dean wasn’t with us for very long, tragically dying at the tender age of twenty-four, but he made three films: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and East of Eden (1955), all-powerful showcases and unique. In each, Dean gives a brilliant, humanistic, and sometimes tragic performance. East of Eden, his first film, is the only one he got to preview. I hope he liked it because it will live on forever as a gem.

Based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, the story is also a biblical retelling of Cain and Abel, brothers who clash and spar. Director, Elia Kazan, famous for supporting and using Method actors in his films, was able to get a tremendous performance out of Dean, which was key to the empathetic nature of the film. The key to East of Eden is that it reflects on several characters, who are both good and bad, possessing qualities of each, detailing their struggles.

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

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

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

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

East of Eden is packed with powerful scene after powerful scene and in more than one the allegiances and rooting values shift from character to character. Some of the best are when Cal self-destructs following his father’s refusal of his birthday gift, or when Cal cruelly exhibits the true nature of their mother’s vocation to the innocent and unsuspecting Aron. Finally, Cal and Abra’s kiss atop a Ferris wheel is filled with both smoldering desire and deadly consequences.

The acting tremendous across the board, much of the thanks must go to Kazan for being able to pull the fabulous performances out of the players- a talent only a Method acting director can achieve. While the entire cast is exceptional, the film belongs to Dean, who provides enough emotion and vulnerability to sustain his character’s topsy-turvy and tortured existence. Knowing that the actor died soon after filming gives an eerie and sentimental feeling. This is comparable to a more modern-day example when Heath Ledger died after giving a brilliant performance in The Dark Knight (2008).

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

As with most of Steinbeck’s works, specifically The Grapes of Wrath, the landscape is a character, and East of Eden is no exception. With dusty roads and mountainous backgrounds, events ooze with atmosphere and beauty. The lush northern, coastal, California landscape portrays a grandiose magnificence that counterbalances the conflict its human beings are dealing with.

The major note to take away from East of Eden (1955) is that we are complex creatures with a mixture of good and bad. We sometimes want to do the right thing but end up hurting those we love. The main characters suffer from pain, regret, good intentions, poor decisions, and loss. The rich dialogue, adaptation, acting, and cinematography make the film near perfection.

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

Dances with Wolves-1990

Dances with Wolves-1990

Director-Kevin Costner

Starring-Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell

Scott’s Review #1,091

Reviewed December 14, 2020

Grade: A

A western epic of grand proportions, Dances with Wolves (1990) is a quiet, yet the bombastic story of one man’s yearning to understand and appreciate a different culture. The liberal-leaning story is of dire importance in American history, which is my main love of it. This project matters and it has sincerity and truth. The content and the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography make this a must-see on the big screen for full appreciation. Sort of like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), western style.

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

The directorial debut of a then inexperienced and up-and-coming star, Kevin Costner, success catapulted him into the big leagues, garnering tremendous respect among the Hollywood community. He also produced the film and used his own money when the budget ran over. The accolades were justified, leading him to become an A-list star. He never achieved anything comparable to Dances with Wolves again.

The time is 1863, the United States embroiled in the Civil War. Union soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), depressed and suicidal, is injured in battle and receives a hero’s praise. He requests to be transferred to the western frontier, where he lives in solitude. He slowly befriends the local Sioux tribe and eventually becomes an honorary member, falling in love with a white woman, Stands with a Fist, (Mary McDonnell), who was raised by the tribe. They name him Dances with Wolves. Chaos erupts when the Union Army arrives to snatch the land at any cost.

Never the greatest actor in the world, but certainly competent, this is the role of a lifetime for Costner. That Dances with Wolves is Costner’s project is crucial. He had a vision and saw that vision to fulfillment. To my knowledge, the studio didn’t interfere and strive for control, but gave Costner the freedom to do whatever he wanted. It shows in the final product.

The romance between Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist is tender, alive, and without standard obstacles. No silly misunderstandings or drama. Theirs doesn’t need any trimmings. The chemistry between Costner and McDonnell is strong. At over three hours in length, the film has time to carefully pace these brilliant moments.

The film is clearly a political vehicle to teach the audience of the ravages and unfairness that Native Americans suffered at the hands of the White Man, and that is huge. Too often the issue is skimmed over or diminished in school textbooks so it’s nice to see the truth given its due. Dances with Wolves serves as an educational tool and no happy ending is provided. How great would it be if the film were shown in high schools and colleges around the United States?

I love how the film, a western, avoids the stereotypes always included in that genre. No good guys are wearing white or bad guys wearing black, no shoot ’em ups at local saloons, and no cowboys to save the day. Dances with Wolves provides a character study with pivotal thoughts and motivations from the three central characters. Graham Greene must be mentioned as an integral part of the supporting cast. His authenticity is illuminating.

Over the years Dances with Wolves (1990) doesn’t hold up as well as other films- Silence of the Lambs (1990) and Goodfellas (1991) are legendary contemporaries that everyone remembers better. Dances may suffer from an “of its time” label, justifiably so, but the film is a masterpiece. Recommended is to dust this one off and give it a whirl, if even for old time’s sake.

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

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.

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Gretel & Hansel-2020

Director-Oz Perkins

Starring-Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Sammy Leakey

Scott’s Review #1,088

Reviewed December 5, 2020

Grade: B+

Gretel & Hansel (2020) is not a film with a plot that makes complete sense, but in this instance that’s okay, making the experience creepier by the wonderful trimmings provided. A horror film released in the month of January has the cards stacked against it- most studios use quarter one as a dumping ground for films with little box-office hope or much fanfare. Predictably, the film flopped, but it’s a diamond in the rough.

For fans of horror post 2010, this film immediately reminded me of The Witch, the 2015 independent film, and the directorial debut by director and screenwriter Robert Eggers. The slow pacing and assumed seventeenth century remote village setting is an instant comparison. The dark sets and candle lit scenes grabbed me in their startlingly good ambience.

With exceptional cinematography, eerie lighting and the obvious Brothers Grimm fairy tale theme, always a plus in horror, who cares if the t’s are all crossed. The elements supersede the story, though with a witch and two children at play I was immediately hooked. The follow through is crooked and confusing, not the wrapped up in a bow variety. Expect to be perplexed by the ending.

We are provided a quick story of a little girl wearing a pink dress who frightens the village with her special powers. Because she nearly died as a baby and was taken to an enchantress who saved her life, she is odd. She makes her father commit suicide and causes other deaths, so she is taken to the middle of the forest to fend for herself or starve. She manages to find her own way and makes other children die. Pay close attention because this story will tie into the end of the film.

In present times we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sam Leakey). Gretel is sixteen years old while Hansel is eight. Their mother goes mad and they are forced to provide for themselves as they hit the road. Gretel is both drawn to and fascinated by the story of the girl in the pink dress. They eventually stumble upon a cabin with tons of lovely food, which they hungrily devour. A mysterious woman named Holda/The Witch (Alice Krige) takes them in, but is there a price the children must pay for the riches they enjoy?

Unclear is where the film is set. Is it Germany, where the folklore is derived? Is it supposed to be in the United States? The actors have American accents. It was shot in Ireland, but this hardly matters. It’s a village and a forest in an anywhere land though I fantasized the setting was a northern country like Norway or Finland. Maybe the ambiguity is a good thing.

I like how Gretel & Hansel has a feminist vibe and the perspective is from her point of view. That is why her character is older, hence the title. She is a coming-of-age teenager, so there is a more measured approach. Gretel even has a short pixie, almost boyish herself, giving the character a more modern look. This serves the film well adding an interesting take on the classic fairy tale.

There’s also a weird mommy theme played out in two different stories that end up connecting. Gretel and Hansel’s mother are psychotic while Holda is revealed to be a mother herself and harbors a deep secret about what she does with children who wonder into her house. Spoiler alert- it isn’t good.

The acting is very good especially on the part of Sophia Lillis as Gretel and Alice Krige as Holda. Lillis, an up and coming star after appearing in It (2017) and It: Chapter II (2019) is a talented commodity, while Krige gives Holda a ghastly and convincing persona. She is ambivalent and we mostly don’t know what to make of her, or what her intentions are. Lillis and Krige have delightful chemistry.

The cretins that the children meet along their journey to anywhere are worthy of any devilish story. A creepy gentleman who Gretel intends to cook and clean for to make money eyes her greedily and asks about her virginity. A bald wailing monster chases Gretel & Hansel but is shot by a stranger.

Anyone with a hankering for a good, old-fashioned, ghostly, gothic horror film, Gretel & Hansel (2020) is a recommended watch. The film has a hearty recipe of horror elements like eeriness, dark sets with illuminating lighting, and forbidding sequences in the forest featuring nice production design. It may leave you scratching your head but enjoy the ride.

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.