Julia-1977

Julia-1977

Director-Fred Zinnemann

Starring Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards

Scott’s Review #1,283

Reviewed July 31, 2022

Grade: A

Jane Fonda leads the charge in a powerful, and gorgeously shot, drama named Julia (1977) centering around pre-World War II and the impending Holocaust.

The drama is based on the writing of Lillian Hellman, a famous playwright, which depicts the relationship between two close friends and its unexpected consequences when one desperately needs help from the other.

When Lillian (Fonda), a renowned playwright, reunites in Russia with her childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), the writer is asked to smuggle funds into Germany to aid the anti-Nazi movement. In the mix is Lillian’s mentor, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), who is unaware of her dangerous assignment.

I immediately relish the film mainly because the message is extremely female empowering and a dynamic friendship between two women is examined. This does not happen enough, successfully, in films even to this day.

Given the World War II theme, one would naturally assume the film would center around men not women, and plenty of female spies and the like, are featured.

Added to the mix is the astounding cinematography of Germany, Poland, and Russia. In truth, the film was actually shot in England and France for security and restrictive reasons but it could have fooled me since the countries look authentic and believable.

Julie looks polished and that’s hardly a gripe. The production design and costumes are perfectly shot and colored to perfection. It’s not a dowdy or drab film and it depicts little amounts of violence or torture choosing to focus on relationships and intrigue.

The suspenseful train sequence is brilliant in every way, sprinkling in Hitchcokian bits along with enough nail-biting to make the long scene a key takeaway. Lillian must keep secret her intentions as she traverses toward Russia and each train scene whether it’s the peril of being checked while crossing the border, or eating in the dining car, is captured with perfection.

A slight suspension of disbelief is the casting of the beautiful Fonda as the plain-looking playwright Lillian Hellman. In some scenes, she is made up to look haggard, tired, and homely but the trick never works for a minute.

It’s even giggle-worthy and recommended to sit back and watch Fonda give a splendid performance forgetting altogether that she is portraying the writer.

In other movies, it might have only been about Fonda from an acting perspective but in Julia, the spoils go round and round. At the very least Redgrave, Robards, and Maximilian Schell, who plays a pivotal character named Johann, must be mentioned. Each brings professionalism and believability to their characters.

But quieter parts by a woman passenger and a girl passenger are my favorites. They go from cheery to serious, speaking in a sort of code, not stating they are helping Lillian, but obviously they are using facial expressions to reveal true alliances.

A delightful point to make is that Julia is Meryl Streep’s first film role, albeit in a tiny part.

Speaking of Redgrave, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award she made an infamous speech that marks a great controversy.

In her acceptance speech, she thanked Hollywood for having “refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression”.

This was preceded by members of the Jewish Defense League picketing the ceremony and followed by some boos and retorts to her comments.

But back to the film, Julia does not end in a happily ever after way. A major character is killed and a baby is lost forever. But, that’s part of the truth to create a film that harkens back to a day when non-conformity led to death.

Julia (1977) is a vital film that still holds up tremendously well and in a world still filled with chaos and oppression, it’s a great reminder of the power of cinema.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best DIrector-Fred Zinnemann, Best Actress-Jane Fonda, Best Supporting Actor-Jason Robards (won), Maximilian Schell, Best Supporting Actress-Vanessa Redgrave (won), Best Screenplay-Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score

Dune-2021

Dune-2021

Director-Denis Villenueve

Starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac

Scott’s Review #1,282

Reviewed July 29, 2022

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I probably should have read the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

42nd Street-1933

42nd Street-1933

Director-Lloyd Bacon

Starring Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels

Scott’s Review #1,281

Reviewed July 28, 2022

Grade: A-

Whenever I am fortunate enough to watch a film made in the 1930s I am reminded of the vast nature of cinema and how far it’s blossomed.

Filmmakers could do unique things back then having very little of what filmmakers have in the modern day for technology’s sake.

I’ve heard it said that films of the 1930s are dated and dusty, the acting style is different, and the musical scores always have a standard sound. I find them like little presents beckoning to be opened to escape to another time, long ago.

The famous musical 42nd Street (1933) is a Broadway stalwart since the beginning of time, seemingly. This is a falsehood since a stage adaption of the film debuted on Broadway in only 1980, winning two Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Director Lloyd Bacon creates a slow and steady build to set the drama properly. The final thirty-five or forty minutes culminates in a lavish and fascinating extravaganza of the gala show opening.

All in all, events transpire in a brisk one hour and twenty-nine minutes. If I’m honest, I could have done with another ten minutes of the merriment-laden conclusion.

I giggled with delight at the professionalism inhabiting unique cinematography sequences like a camera rolling through a dozen spread legs to land on a handsome young couple’s face.

In a timely fashion, the Great Depression Era is the focus and props go to all involved for placing a focus on this dastardly time with an escapist show.

Revered and impatient Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) has fallen on hard times like the rest of the United States. He is warned by his doctor to take care of his health but his finances are dire.

He launches an ambitious musical as a final production before his retirement. The lead actress, bitchy Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), is torn between two men, the show’s rich financer, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), and struggling actor Pat Denning (George Brent).

Meanwhile, aspiring young performer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is hoping for her big break. She is completely green and impressionable but humorously looks similar to Dorothy, right down to their curled hairstyle.

It’s easy to see what direction the plot is going in but instead of an All About Eve (1950) theater story of one actress scheming for the role of another actress, events happen organically.

The first portion of 42nd Street is all well and good. We get snippets of the women traversing amongst their male admirers and Julian becoming more and more frustrated with the incompetent talent but I kept hoping events would finally take off.

The romantic triangles and irritated threats to fire the cast almost get repetitive until the spectacular second act.

When the company is reduced to the opening in Philadelphia, the dregs of society to them, instead of the bright lights of New York City, 42nd Street becomes a different type of film.

A magical and marvelous escapade of leggy performances and astounding costumes and song and dance numbers emerge onto the big screen before my delighted eyes. It is startlingly like watching the production in real-time.

The cherry on top was watching the petrified Peggy fill in for the injured Dorothy. Instead of the women continuing their feud, the older Dorothy gives Peggy a pep talk about how much the crowd wants to like her, and she has no reason to be nervous.

She’s got it and Dorothy’s got her back.

The moment is filled with sweetness as the veteran passes the baton to the upstart. Dorothy’s words resonated with me as any entertainer, public speaker, or anyone else can take her advice to heart.

The musical numbers are cheery and robust led by the toe-thumping title track which I continue to hum along to whilst writing this review.

A gripe is that, according to legend, Julian is a gay character but there is never a moment where the film implies this. A pleasant jolt would have been for him to at least flirt with a cast member.

Old fashioned has rarely felt better because 42nd Street (1933) provides enough flash and dance, and razzle-dazzle, to make its audience harken back to the good old days of classic cinema.

There are even some words of wisdom to embrace.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Sound

Viva Las Vegas-1964

Viva Las Vegas-1964

Director-George Sidney

Starring Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret

Scott’s Review #1,280

Reviewed July 24, 2022

Grade: B

A lightweight romp created exclusively as a vehicle for superstar Elvis Presley and his lofty success, Viva Las Vegas (1964) is one of the better Elvis film entries.

This may not be saying much because he’s not the greatest actor in the world. He doesn’t need to be since he’s got enough charisma and chemistry with co-star Ann Margret to elicit a smile or two, and the musical numbers together and separately are entertaining.

That’s really what Viva Las Vegas is about.

Elvis was at his peak in 1964 both musically and physically so watching the hunky singer croon, dance, and writhe with style on the big screen is not the most daunting task in the world.

The silly story feels forced, obvious, and created on the fly to provide humor, hijinks, and a bit of drama for the leads. It’s not the most substantial part of the film.

Appealing are the opening camera shots of ‘old Las Vegas’ during the 1960s. The lights and glitter are colorful and appealing as is the Vegas setting, though disappointingly, most of the film is shot on a studio soundstage.

The sloppily conjured-up story involves a  musically gifted race car driver named Lucky Jackson (Presley, naturally) who arrives in Las Vegas to score enough money for a new car motor so he can win the upcoming Grand Prix race. He befriends a cagey racing rival named Elmo (Cesare Danova).

When he encounters sexy swimming instructor Rusty (Ann-Margret), he considers staying around longer to get better acquainted with the dame. After Lucky loses his winnings in the hotel pool, he’s forced to remain in Vegas working as a waiter.

He not only wants to recoup his financial losses, but he is now determined to win Rusty’s heart. Unfortunately, so does Elmo, setting off a chain of events that culminates with the Grand Prix race. Elmo and Lucky try to outwit each other.

To say the events in Viva Las Vegas are predictable is an understatement as a meager attempt at an invested triangle between Lucky, Rusty, and Elmo is laughable. There is no doubt that Lucky and Rusty will ride off into the sunset together.

Unintentionally I am sure, director George Sidney is no Alfred Hitchcock after all, there exists homoeroticism between Lucky and Elmo. As they lie side by side under the wheels of a broken-down greaser, a titillating thought is what if the men were to kiss.

Elvis’s enormous fan base was not ready for that scandal in 1964 so the result is a by-numbers boy meets girl, boy intends to conquer girl, a traditional love story.

Sigh.

The anticipation of a grand musical finale is disappointing because there isn’t one, only the race itself tepidly watched by Rusty and company from an overhead helicopter. The sequence is adequate with enough suspense and car wrecks to enthrall the viewer but unsurprisingly Lucky wins the race.

In a rushed final scene, Lucky and Rusty are seen happily emerging from a church on their wedding day whilst a bouquet sits in Rusty’s hand. Big smiles are on the faces of everyone.

The chemistry between Presley and Ann-Margret is strong and endearing. This is no surprise given the real-life affair the pair were reportedly having. Nonetheless, the sweetest number occurs early on when Lucky tries to convince Rusty, through song, that she is in love with him, but just doesn’t know it yet.

I gushed at the thought of Marilyn Monroe in the Rusty role which may have been the original intent. The blonde bombshell died less than two years before the film’s release, and likely after the idea was birthed.

No disrespect to Ann-Margret.

Of course, the main reason to watch Viva Las Vegas is for the tunes. The title track is a super-charged song about the enjoyment of the city of sin and a multitude of other numbers appear throughout the film at breakneck speed.

This is a relief since there is not much time to invest in the paper-thin plot.

Viva Las Vegas (1964) is a film recommended mostly for Elvis fans seeking a glimpse of the star in his heyday.

Tender Mercies-1983

Tender Mercies-1983

Director-Bruce Beresford

Starring Robert Duvall, Tess Harper

Scott’s Review #1,279

Reviewed July 22, 2022

Grade: B+

Tender Mercies (1983) is a quiet, down-home film about a country musician struggling with alcohol addiction, god, and a tepid musical career. Anyone starting to elicit a yawn will have the same reaction I did when reading the premise.

It’s not the most original idea but the film works surprisingly better than I initially expected. The 1983 film is largely forgotten at this point but has a Cinderella story as its legacy.

Funding and a marketing push were limited, resulting in low box-office returns but the Academy sure took notice heaving five nominations its way.

It’s quite the departure for those expecting actor Robert Duvall to mirror his The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974) character.

Tender Mercies is an actor’s film, and it belongs squarely to Duvall who delivers a wonderful performance perfectly carved out for an Oscar nomination. He instills himself into the role of a drunken, washed-up, country star vowing to stay straight.

Duvall does more than act in it, crafting and performing his songs in a role standing side by side with his role in The Apostle (1998) as his very best.

He won the coveted Academy Award for Tender Mercies.

Though the tone is low-key, filming was anything but, and reports of disagreements and blow-ups between Duvall and director, Bruce Beresford, surfaced.

The Australian director was later made famous for Driving Miss Daisy (1989) at one point even considered quitting the production.

The story tells of alcoholic drifter Mac Sledge (Duvall), who awakens one day in the middle of rural Texas after a night of heavy drinking.

His surroundings are a run-down roadside motel and gas station.

He meets the owner, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and offers to perform maintenance work at the motel in exchange for a room. Rosa, whose husband was killed in the Vietnam War, is raising her young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard), on her own.

Mac and Rosa become smitten with one another, attending church, and forging a life of solitude together. Demons surface when it is revealed that Mac is a once-famous country singer with a currently famous ex-wife, Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley).

When the opportunity for a career comeback surfaces, Mac must choose between his new life and the life he let slip through his hands.

The story is very good for several reasons. At the forefront, Mac is a likable guy who the audience pulls for. Instead of the tried-and-true story of a man battling his demons and being ‘saved’ by a woman, Mac is already on the road to recovery and has the desire to stay sober.

Rosa Lee and Sonny merely serve as steady influences versus the bright lights and broken hearts of the country music world.

Mac also has a chance to be a father figure to someone. The bad stuff has already transpired in the past, so the audience is spared having to endure a pile of shit in exchange for a big payoff at the end of the film.

There are a couple of negatives that hold the film from being a masterpiece.

On the wagon, Mac is tempted to down a bottle of whiskey after a tragedy, but he resists the urge instead pouring the devil’s juice out onto the ground. is that a big surprise?

Buckley does her best with a one-note character, clearly in existence as an obstacle to Mac’s happiness.

But, at its core, Tender Mercies is about relationships, and though a slow under texture, delicious are the low-key scenes between Mac and Rosa Lee, and Mac and Sonny. The scenes prove that good crisp dialog with grace and heart trumps car chases any day.

They discuss life!

The cinematography of remote Texas is magical in its vastness and its loneliness. Key expressions on the face of Duvall perfectly match the western landscape.

I’m not a religious guy and I’m not a country & western guy but I enjoyed the story I was served up by Tender Mercies (1983) quite a bit.

The combination of superb acting, an emotionally charged character-driven story, and a fabulous glimpse at the dry state of Texas, made for a compelling, and relatively short viewing time of ninety minutes.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Bruce Beresford, Best Actor-Robert Duvall (won), Best Screenplay-Written Directly for the Screen (won), Best Original Song-“Over You”

Unfaithful-2002

Unfaithful-2002

Director-Adrian Lyne

Starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez

Scott’s Review #1,278

Reviewed July 21, 2022

Grade: A-

Unfaithful (2002) is an American version of the brilliant 1969 French film named The Unfaithful Wife, directed by Claude Chabrol.

Directed by Adrian Lyne, most famous for directing the smoldering and creepy Fatal Attraction (1987) which awarded him an Academy Award nomination in the direction category, Unfaithful is unsurprisingly brimming with the same eroticism and sexual ferocity.

What’s exceptional about it is the character development and the empathy felt for the characters and their convictions.

This makes Unfaithful work.

To say it’s watered down from the Chabrol version is a bit unfair because it has an identity all its own, though his version is superior in suspense and naturally, more French from a cinematic perspective.

Lyne’s film is slicker and wrapped up tighter, and much more mainstream-it does the job well and provides compelling entertainment.

In both films, the subject matter of guilt runs rampant.

Edward (Richard Gere) and Connie (Diane Lane) live seemingly happily in their upper-middle-class Westchester County, New York neighborhood.

When Edward learns that Connie has lied to him about an affair, suspicion leads him to uncover the devastating truth about her infidelity with Paul. (Olivier Martinez) the hunky man who has captured her heart.

He confronts Connie’s ‘boy toy’ which results in a deadly accident caused by Edward’s surprising rage. Edward must cover up the truth with detectives questioning both him and Connie about their involvement with Paul.

Can their marriage survive the damage?

The Hallmark television movie premise rises to tremendous credibility thanks to the fantastic acting by Lane, Gere, and Martinez.

The standout is Lane who the audience may relate to a bit more than the other two. She fills Connie with a tired and weary tone. She appreciates her good life but is nonetheless bored with it.

Some may relate to her, but others will shame her for her infidelity.

Each character provides their motivation for their character actions. The stoic chemistry between Lane and Gere’s characters perfectly balances the lusty dynamic between the Lane and Martinez characters.

Wisely, the story is one that most married couples can deem true. When the romance wanes, sometimes the doldrums result. Connie doesn’t purposefully set out to cheat on Edward but the repetition of raising their eight-year-old son and casserole Wednesdays cause her to seize an unexpected opportunity.

The rainy, windy setup with a sexy young French artist at her fingertips, is smoldering with intrigue. The lusty scenes between Connie and Paul are rich with sex, like when they bathe together and make love in Paul’s hallway.

The titillating chemistry works well.

A clever scene in a coffee shop is daringly good. Connie’s girlfriends drool with delight as Paul walks by them, completely unaware that he is Connie’s new beau. How jealous they’d be if they knew the truth.

The face-off scene between Edward and Paul is shrouded with machismo as both struggled for the upper hand, toying with each other for power.

The tone changes to one of Hitchcockian intrigue as Edward and Connie must forge together and cover up their actions. Not trusting each other, there is an interesting dynamic among themselves and what they tell and keep hidden from the flocking detectives.

After all, an upstanding white couple couldn’t possibly be involved in murder, could they, the detectives ponder?

Easily serving as the opening act to the more famous Lyne offering, Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful (2002) both films draw parallels to each other.

They successfully manipulate the audience in a good way, using intrigue, thrills, and flesh to elicit a ‘glued to their seats’ result.

Sometimes a good, old-fashioned, thrill ride is just what the doctor ordered.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Diane Lane

Red Rocket-2021

Red Rocket-2021

Director-Sean Baker

Starring Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

Scott’s Review #1,277

Reviewed July 15, 2022

Grade: A-

Sean Baker has become a director I am intrigued by. Firmly planted in the independent circuit, recent films like Tangerine (2015), and The Florida Project (2017) offer a slice of life look at troubled or otherwise forgotten or discarded groups of people.

His works are fascinating and humanistic, admittedly skewing darker or daring avenues like the transgender community, the homeless, or in the case of Red Rocket (2021), a former male porn star.

And while his characters may not always be likable, they are complex, requiring exploration and consideration.

There are also enough butts, boobs, and fornicating to remind us what the subject matter at hand is.

Baker has an incredible way of providing depth to the people considered dregs of society, and a voice with a story to tell. He treats them like human beings oftentimes using real people who are non-actors in pivotal roles.

This lofts the authenticity and realism off the charts and successfully gets his audience to empathize with the characters and see them as living beings with fears, thoughts, and emotions.

Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a charismatic con man and washed-up porn star who returns to rural southeast Texas to shack up with his depressed and estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod).

He plots his triumphant return to Los Angeles and the porn industry after meeting a teenager named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works at the local donut shop. They connect and plot ways to flee their depressing small-town existence into the adult film world.

Like other Baker films, the city of Los Angeles is considered one of grandeur or where the characters’ lives will be better than they currently are. Mikey and Strawberry feel their destiny lies outside of the daily doldrums of their surroundings and they are convinced their lives will change.

Red Rocket is a film about longing for a better life and being frustrated with the present. That’s a message many audiences can connect with.

Even though Rex and Son are successful with their lead roles it’s the supporting characters who I found even more interesting. I liked Mikey and Strawberry but never loved them together. Interesting to me were Mikey’s relationships with other characters.

Lexi and her mother are fascinating characters. It’s mentioned that before Mikey returned to town, Lexi would meet men on craigslist to pay the rent. Along with her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), who smokes pot to ease some health pain, they exist in a dilapidated house.

Their neighbors, a black family, sell drugs to make ends meet and appear to do alright for themselves, respected around town.

I love how there is small-town harmony and the neighbors seem fond of each other, united with pleasantries. There’s a sense of having one’s back, and there is no mention of racism.

I adore these surface characters and longed to know more about their stories. Of course, since Mikey and Strawberry are the core characters there is not enough time to go into much detail.

Baker provides political overtones about American life which are both noticeable and depressing. News clips of former President Donald Trump boasting and pandering to his blue-collar base are included in various scenes.

A ‘Make America Great’ fixture covers the side of a building.

These points are oxymorons of what the characters’ lives are and always will be. They are poor and stuck and cling to some false hope hammered into their heads by a crooked salesman gone politician that he will make their lives great.

It’s heartbreaking and scary in its realism and Baker makes his point clear without having to hammer it over the heads of the audience.

Red Rocket (2021) makes it a solid trifecta for Baker and his earlier works. With a sometimes brutal depiction of small-town life in poverty, he shows there is always hope and heart despite the many obstacles many people continue to face.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Male Lead-Simon Rex (won), Best Supporting Female-Suzanna Son

A Star Is Born-1976

A Star Is Born-1976

Director-Frank Pierson

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson

Scott’s Review #1,276

Reviewed July 13, 2022

Grade: B

Four incarnations of A Star Is Born: 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018 have been created. Strangely enough, the most recent film starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga is worlds above the others, though I haven’t yet seen the 1937 version.

The fourth time is rarely the charm in film remakes.

The focus of this review, however, is largely on the 1976 film starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. A hit movie at the time, and nonetheless despised by some, the film is perfectly fine though it bears multiple repeatings that it’s inferior to the 2018 film.

There is no question about that.

Amazingly, it was nominated for four Academy Awards and deservedly won for Best Song. The other nominations are generous.

Watching A Star Is Born circa 2022 the 1976 rendition suffers severely from a dated tone mostly because of the jaw-droppingly hideous perm hairdo worn by Streisand.

Did somebody think it was flattering in 1976?

The chemistry between Streisand and Kristofferson starts tepid but increases in intensity as the film plods along. The ending is underwhelming and I expected more emotional pizazz than I was given, leaving me with almost a ‘so what’ reaction to a devastating turn of events.

Until that is, Barbra sings her heart out in one unbroken, gut-wrenching shot of seven or eight minutes.

For those unfamiliar, the story surrounds John Norman Howard (Kristofferson), a troubled rock star on the decline, frequently indulging in excessive drugs and drinking and trying to write hit records.

He drunkenly wanders into a club one night and watches aspiring singer Esther Hoffman (Streisand) perform and is instantly smitten. The two begin dating, and soon John lets Esther take the spotlight during his concerts.

However, even as Esther finds fame and success with her singing, John continues his downward spiral.

Let’s face it. The main draw is who is playing the lead roles in a film like A Star Is Born. To make a love story work there must be sizzling chemistry so that the audience is invested in the romance. Streisand commands the center stage and her singing is the selling point.

Otherwise, Ms. Streisand suffers another bout of miscasting as she did in 1969’s Hello, Dolly. She’s simply too talented and established to be believable as an aspiring singer.

Her singing saves the film.

The gorgeous song “Evergreen” is a quite powerful moment and great strength. Without it, the film would have felt lacking and mediocre. The tune rises the overall experience up a notch.

The chemistry is merely the warm-up act. It’s ho-hum until a smoldering bathtub scene occurs where John and Esther soap each other down and fall madly between the sheets for a night of passion.

It’s Streisand’s sexiest scene and the romance takes off.

Back to Streisand’s vocals, the scene is preceded by a gorgeous songwriting sequence between John and Esther at the piano where they craft a new song. As they collaborate, the connection and bond between the characters are birthed.

Those are the romantic highlights.

Otherwise, the scene where John becomes infatuated with Esther holds no appeal since he is drinking and arguing with another patron and barely has time to notice her. This was thankfully changed in the 2018 version when John is mesmerized by the rising talent.

Additionally, when John invites Esther to his concert and she watches from backstage it goes nowhere. In the 2018 version he drags her out to perform with him and it’s a moment. 

Some films are best reviewed on their own merits but what great fun to compare renditions of the same film because, why not?

The supporting characters have little to do except for an impressive turn by Gary Busey as John’s drug-pushing manager.

There is little reason to watch A Star Is Born (1976) more than once, or at most twice to confirm that the film lacks a bit. It’s not terrible but hardly memorable unless the desire is to giggle over an incredibly bad 1970s hairstyle by one of the greatest divas.

Then, move on to the outstanding Cooper/Gaga 2018 version.

Oscar Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Original Song-“Evergreen” (won), Best Sound

Cat People-1982

Cat People-1982

Director-Paul Schrader

Starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard

Scott’s Review #1,275

Reviewed July 10, 2022

Grade: B+

Cat People (1982) is a mysterious and psychological trip into the strange universe of humans possessing cat qualities, sometimes with a tendency towards vicious limb extraction and other such mauling techniques.

It’s an absurd premise though admittedly clever with an identity all its own. Feeling slightly dated mostly due to the early 1980s synthesizer-like musical score, film style, and the casting of some actors at the top of their game then, Cat People is nonetheless enjoyable and sexual.

Especially recommended is a late Friday or Saturday night viewing with as little light as possible for the best ambiance.

Since our rented DVD copy was ravaged by poor visual quality and hard-to-hear sound, a thought is to simply buy the film.

The 1982 version of Cat People is directed by Paul Schrader who is best known for writing or co-writing Scorcese greats Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). The director also has his share of his films as recent as 2021.

His production is a remake of one made some forty years earlier which I have not seen.

The mood of Cat People is an overwhelmingly sensual and violent horror and thriller tale. The action immediately gets off to a sexually perverse start when during presumably prehistoric days, a wild black panther impregnates a young girl offered to him via sacrifice.

The message is clear that this results in a weird human/cat hybrid being coming into existence.

In present times, Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) harbors a dark family secret that she despises. She reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell) who shape-shifts into a savage beast. He lives in the southern city of New Orleans and has spent time in a mental hospital.

Irena visits the local zoo and finds herself attracted to handsome zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard), even as her brother makes his incestuous advances toward her. Inevitably, the family curse rears its ugly head when Paul rips the arm off one of the zoo workers played by a young Ed Begley Jr.

I like tremendously how Schrader incorporates New Orleans as the central setting. Having nothing really to do with the story the French-influenced city is nice to look at as restaurant scenes feature Creole style and other southern/European sophisticated little gems.

Ruby Dee is cast as a wacky housekeeper named Female rippling with New Orleans flair and who is aware of the terrible family secret.

Nastassja Kinski is perfectly cast as the provocative and sultry main character and she effortlessly leads the charge. Others like Heard and Annette O’Toole who were A-list stars in the early 1980s provide a time capsule of Hollywood relevancy.

Unfortunately, this also makes Cat People feel like from another time and the 1980s film style is painfully obvious.

The growling and vicious cats feel both scary and fake during close-ups but imagine the trickery of using real-life leopards? The filmmakers did the best they could and this is also obvious.

Some sequences are quite grisly and when they aren’t there are best-remembered scenes of peril and intrigue. O’Toole’s character of Alice (another zoologist) takes a late-night dip in a swimming pool and is harassed by a menacing Irena.

Earlier, a great scene occurs when a prostitute named Ruthie visits her client in a dingy motel room only to realize that her john is a mean leopard. We assume she will be ripped to shreds but this dubious honor is saved for another slutty character who Paul picks up at a funeral.

An attempted triangle between Irena, Oliver, and Alice goes nowhere and bewildering is why the decision was made to even try. The power couple is Irena and Oliver as their smoldering love scenes are sensual and skin heavy professing almost immediate love for each other.

With enough explicit sex and gratuitous violence to keep many viewers titillated, Cat People (1982) has positives and negatives. When it was released I bet it was a pot boil of juicy and relevant intrigue, but the film hasn’t held up quite as well as some others.

Flee-2021

Flee-2021

Director-Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Scott’s Review #1,274

Reviewed July 7, 2022

Grade: A-

Flee (2021) has the distinction of being the first film that is a documentary, an animated movie, and also classified as international since it was made in Denmark. It was nominated in all three categories for icing on the cake at the Academy Awards.

It’s a unique telling of one man’s journey out of war-torn Afghanistan as a refugee and his eventual safe destination of Denmark. He eventually goes to Princeton University in the United States.

This is pretty impressive for a man who could have easily died in Afghanistan before he even had a fair shot.

The film also depicts stories of his family and his realization that he is gay is made further complicated because of the country he is born in.

Flee contains beautiful graphics and art design and shifts focus from the present-day to the past and back again and includes real-life footage of various soldiers and battles (hence the documentary status).

It’s one of a kind and a tremendous effort, though I longed for a bit more of the LGBTQ+ storyline, and was curious for a glimpse of what the real-life figures looked like, which usually comes at the end of a biography-type film.

In this case, it never did.

But the gripe is small potatoes when stacked against the meaning and inspiration that Flee provides.

The focus of the story is on Amin Nawabi who wrestles with a painful secret he has kept hidden for over twenty years, one that threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband, Kasper.

Recounted mostly through animation by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, he tells the story of his extraordinary journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan.

Because of the animation, I was at first thrown by Flee since it starts with the interviewer and interviewee having a conversation. In a traditional documentary, we would see the two people face to face but instead, we hear their voices in animated characters.

I quickly got used to this and it’s the way the film is throughout. The real-life characters like Amin’s family and future husband are all animated and real human beings never appear except for the newsreel-type footage.

Surprising, and also a deepening of the story is when Amin admits that he initially lied about his family all being dead. The reason he does this is out of instinct and a survival technique (for both him and his family).

Flee is perfectly paced at one hour and thirty minutes. There is ample time to discuss and showcase Amin’s decision to leave Afghanistan and the terrible journey his mother and sisters were forced to endure.

They traveled by boat from Russia to the safety of Sweden as human traffickers.

What a horrific way to escape a country especially as many stories of deaths due to suffocation follow human traffickers.

Amin is a man of secrets and anyone who has ever harbored some out of desperation will assuredly relate to Amin’s plight.

He keeps many even from his husband to be and the viewer can understand his secrecy and deep-seated fear of a return to Afghanistan and certain execution.

His story is tragic and courageous but I yearned to know more about his life with Kasper. How did they meet? Did Amin have trouble realizing his homosexuality? He mentions that he was a ‘different’ child and openly wore girls’ dresses but how else did he deal? What obstacles did they or do they continue to face?

There is a beautiful scene where he comes out to his understanding brother and sisters but I guess I wanted more.

Visually, the graphics are modern and edgy. The different countries of Afghanistan, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark all take on distinctive identities and the animation during the boat sequences is quite nerve-racking.

If a standard documentary can provide adequate emotion and storytelling, the way the filmmakers decided to make Flee (2021) is remarkable and worthy of praise.

For those desiring a humanistic story of one man’s valiant plight, Flee will leave you very satisfied.

Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature Film

Hello, Dolly!-1969

Hello, Dolly! -1969

Director-Gene Kelly

Starring-Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau

Scott’s Review #1,273

Reviewed July 5, 2022

Grade: B+

I was surprised by my reaction to Hello, Dolly! (1969), a musical comedy starring the brilliant Barbra Streisand in only her second film role. The songs are tailor-made for the diva’s vocals and are the follow-up to her Oscar-winning turn in Funny Girl made just a year earlier.

The film is enjoyable and there are enough songs to hum along with but it suffers mightily by miscasting Streisand in a role much too old for her, and a ghastly lack of any decent chemistry between the leads.

Nevertheless, the memorable and outstanding dinner scene toward the conclusion of the film makes the overall effort worth the wait and rebounds it to a generous B+ rating up from a tepid B rating.

The wonderful supporting players help save Hello, Dolly! from mediocrity since I felt much more invested in their story than I did in the lead action.

Still, based on the synopsis and talent potential I was anticipating a solid A rating but this was not to be as Hello, Dolly! brought the once-reliable musical comedies of the 1950s and 1960s to a crashing halt as 1970 was nearly upon us.

The time is 1890s New York City and Yonkers, New York as the bold and enchanting widow Dolly Levi (Streisand) is a socialite-turned-matchmaker, though she yearns for her own love life.

Her latest client is the grumpy but wealthy Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) and a young artist named Ambrose (Tommy Tune), who is in love with Horace’s niece, Ermengarde (Joyce Ames).

Dolly has secret romantic designs on Horace and is determined to land him while Ambrose and Ermengarde have little to do.

Dolly’s meddling soon involves Horace’s employees Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby (Danny Lockin) who become smitten with a New York hatmaker named Irene (Marianne McAndrew) and her ditzy assistant Minnie (E.J. Peaker).

For starters, anyone who has seen or knows the history of the 1960s stage version of Hello, Dolly! knows that Carol Channing portrayed the role and should have in the film.

She is so well known for the role that she won a Tony and reprised it many times during her storied career becoming way more famous than Streisand would ever be for the role.

Streisand was only twenty-six years old when she made Hello, Dolly! and is too youthful for the matronly role despite the help of makeup and costumes. This is bothersome because the main reason Streisand was cast was that her career was taking off.

The other glaring problem is there is no chemistry between Streisand and Matthau and it’s unknown why Dolly is even romantically interested in Horace besides perhaps for his money.

Needless to say, is that he is too old for her.

There is no rooting value for the couple at all and a fun fact is that the two stars hated each other during filming. This provided a chuckle or two.

All is not lost though because the supporting foursome of Cornelius, Barnaby, Irene, and Minnie steals the show. The hijinks between the characters as the boys struggle to figure out how to pay for a lavish champagne dinner for the girls is physical comedy at its finest.

In fact, the lavish dinner scene set at the Harmonia Gardens Restuarant saves the film. Dripping with beautiful set design, bright red velvet decor, and perfect choreography, the highlight is an adorable rendition of the title song between Streisand and Louis Armstrong.

The sequence is so great that it almost makes me forget about the missteps surrounding the rest of the film.

Director and Actor, Gene Kelly, is most known for starring in An American in Paris (1950) and knows his way around a musical or two. He does wonders with all facets of the production but can’t be blamed for the casting choices.

Surprisingly, Hello, Dolly! (1969) received seven Academy Award nominations winning only two. This assuredly is a result of a conservative tendency by the Academy members who worshipped the once-mighty musical genre.

Unfortunately, the genre limped into the more edgy 1970s and would remain more or less obscure for many years.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Score of a Musical Picture-Original or Adaptation (won), Best Sound (won)

The Many Saints of Newark-2021

The Many Saints of Newark-2021

Director-Alan Taylor

Starring Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, Vera Farmiga

Scott’s Review #1,272

Reviewed July 4, 2022

Grade: B

Fans of the iconic HBO series The Sopranos which ran from 1999 to 2007 have been chomping at the bit since the announcement of the soon-to-be-released The Many Saints of Newark (2021).

The film is a prequel to the series centering on a young Tony Soprano. The kicker is that the actor who portrays Tony in the movie (Michael Gandolfini) is the real-life son of James Gandolfini who played Tony in the series.

To add mustard to the on-paper perfect setup is that the film is written by David Chase, the writer, and creator of The Sopranos. This ensures rich character development and dedication to the rich history.

What could go wrong?

The answer is that nothing is ‘wrong’ with The Many Saints of Newark. It’s just not brilliant like the series was and rather unnecessary to have been made in the first place, especially after such a long gap.

While the film meanders at times this gave me time to thoughtfully ruminate that perhaps The Many Saints of Newark would have been better as a limited series.

There are so many characters and too few of them are familiar to audiences of The Sopranos. The two-hour and change running time couldn’t possibly provide enough time to get to know many of them and I longed to.

On the upside, the film is shot quite well and the costumes, sets, and design of the 1960s and 1970s are remarkably beautiful with superior accuracy.

It succeeds in transplanting the audience to what Newark, New Jersey was like during that time. Additionally, the film looks quite a bit like The Sopranos and is influenced by the legendary 1991 offering Goodfellas and other mafia-laden films.

Young Anthony Soprano (Gandolfini) is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history, as rival gangsters begin to challenge and desecrate the powerful DiMeo crime family.

As the year 1967 emerges and Newark is now an increasingly race-torn city events take on a violent and historical time.

Conflicted by the changing times is Tony’s Uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola) whom he idolizes much more than his own father Johnny (Jon Bernthal) or domineering mother Livia (Vera Farmiga).

The Many Saints of Newark depicts how Tony will eventually become whom the audience knows as mob figure Tony Soprano!

Besides looking like his father, Gandolfini is not the best actor in the world but he does his best with a small role billed as the lead. He hardly appears until thirty minutes before the film concludes and he never carries the film like one would expect the character to.

The real star of the film is Dickie (Nivola) who is terrific. The storyline follows his conflict and a damaged relationship with his father, wonderfully played by Ray Liotta, and his father’s horny wife Giuseppina, who later becomes his mistress.

A shocking scene occurs when Dickie beats a major character to death by repeatedly slamming their head against a steering wheel. The death will hold forever repercussions for Dickie, emotionally and otherwise.

The problem is that even though Dickie is a great character the audience doesn’t know him and this is a problem.

Despite flaws with the marginally adequate casting, the uneven writing, and the focus on unfamiliar characters, there are other small treats to enjoy.

The film is peppered with familiar characters like Paulie, Big Pussy, and Carmella as younger people. Even though they don’t have much to do with the story their mere presence feels like an old home week.

The racial tensions are another win and actor Leslie Odon Jr. adds a winning formula to his character of Harold McBrayer, a black associate of Dickie’s.

I haven’t watched an episode of The Sopranos since it ended in 2007 and it may be advantageous to watch The Many Saints of Newark immediately after. Situations, history, and characters will be fresher in one’s mind and it may result in more cohesiveness.

Or maybe the film shouldn’t have been made fourteen years after the series ended.

Regardless, The Many Saints of Newark (2021) is a pretty solid effort but completely underwhelming especially when compared with such a groundbreaking television series.