The Convent-2000

The Convent-2000

Director-Mike Mendez

Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Joanna Canton, Megahn Perry

Scott’s Review #1,246

Reviewed April 16, 2022

Grade: C+

I debated whether or not to reward Adrienne Barbeau with top billing recognition for The Convent (2000). After all, she doesn’t even appear, save for a quick silhouette scene that probably wasn’t even the actress, until the final third of the film.

Since I am a fan of Barbeau’s work, mainly the television series Maude, and films like The Fog (1980), and Escape From New York (1981), I decided to throw caution to the wind and cement her star status.

The film itself is terrible and needs all the help it can get. It’s campy beyond belief, amateurish, hokey, and acted poorly, suffering from enough ridiculous one-liners for me to wonder whether director Mike Mendez was purposely trying to make a bad film.

But before I get all curmudgeonly and smack this film in the face with an ‘F’ rating I’d like to justify my more than generous ‘C+’ rating.

If The Convent had tried to take itself seriously and produced shit like this I would have gone for the jugular in my review but it knows it’s a silly film and instead embraces this fact wholeheartedly.

Still, I kept wondering if the film was some sort of nod to the slasher film genre that took over the world from the late 1970s until the late 1980s, or if it feebly tried to merge this genre with the zombie genre and produce something fresh.

If made in say 1985, The Convent would have fit snugly amongst the heaps of other similar themed films that were patterned after superior feasts like Halloween (1978) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

The film opens impressively enough when a young woman named Christine walks into a convent and goes batshit crazy shooting every nun she sees and burning the place to the ground.

I grinned because Christine looks exactly like Uma Thurman’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction with bright red lipstick and dark shades. Even her outfit looks the same.

Unfortunately, that’s where any parallels end.

From this point, the plot is basic and uninspired. A coed named Clorissa (Joanna Canton) joins her best friend Mo (Megahn Perry) and a group of college students on a dare to venture into the aforementioned convent (now rebuilt) and tangle with nun and priest spirits rumored to be inhabiting the structure.

After Mo is left alone and the rest of the bunch dine at Denny’s the plot goes from standard to wacky as the returning students are bitten and become possessed by Satanists who want to beckon Satan back to earth. There is an attempt to sacrifice any virgin among the group to help with this.

Conveniently, Christine (now older) lives down the street after spending a thirty-year stint in the loony bin. The badass woman comes barreling to the rescue with her motorcycle and an arsenal of machine guns to kick Satan’s ass.

The fun begins when Barbeau finally appears. With her dangling cigarette and macho talk, the actress is in her comfort zone. The dialogue uttered by her and the rest of the characters is so bad that once again I wondered whether this was the intent. I truly hope it was.

The robotic head twitching and glowing green eyes by the now possessed students align perfectly with the gimmicky art direction and juvenile special effects. I’ve seen better on a 3 pm daytime afternoon soap opera.

The most irritating character is easily played by rapper Coolio in a ridiculous role as a loud policeman. This attempt at comedy fell completely flat and I was more entertained by the gay satanist who cleverly decides that if he and another virgin boy have sex they will be spared.

Once the credits rolled I was happy not to have to endure any more of the one-hour and twenty-minute experience. Upon my five-minute reflection, I decided to interpret the film as a comical satire over anything more.

The Convent (2000) isn’t distinct enough to get the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ award because it lacks any sort of identity. However, for a midnight movie that is so goofy and over-the-top that there is plenty to mock the film is a fun time.

And, it’s always a joy to see Barbeau in anything she is willing to appear in.

Death on the Nile-2022

Death on the Nile-2022

Director-Kenneth Branagh

Starring Armie Hammer, Tom Bateman, Gal Gadot

Scott’s Review #1,245

Reviewed April 15, 2022

Grade: B+

Death on the Nile (2022) is a modern remake of the 1978 thriller of the same name which in turn is based on the famous 1937 novel by Agatha Christie, one of many stories the author wrote. I love a good whodunit and the fact that I already knew the outcome from seeing the original film did not lessen the entertainment and suspense that befell me.

It only made me salivate with anticipation about how the new incarnation would handle the inevitable big reveal during the final chapter of the film.

As the suspects are locked in a boat bar one character boldly announces that the murderer is in this room and will be unmasked.

Death on the Nile is a meat and potatoes offering peppered with glamour.

Similar to the remake of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is once again enshrouded by mysterious folks with money to burn and secrets to hide. One of them has murdered a wealthy young heiress with her own set of secrets and Poirot must quiz and entrap the perpetrators aboard a sailing vessel.

Or could there be more than one murderer?

The setting of mystical Egypt and the luminous Nile river in northern Africa puts the players amid gorgeous locales. This only enhances the juiciness and the appetite for a good, solid murder mystery.

Our hero’s lush Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamboat turns into a deadly search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is cut short by killing one of them.

It turns out that almost everyone aboard has a reason to want her dead. Naturally.

Set against an epic landscape of sweeping desert vistas and the majestic Giza pyramids, Poirot peels back the onion of the lives of his fellow vacationers. He discovers jealousy and deceit as he gets to know the wealthy cosmopolitan travelers.

The trip includes the honeymooners, Simon and Linnet, played by Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot, Bouc (Tom Bateman), a long-time friend of Poirot’s, Euphemia (Anette Bening), a renowned painter and Bouc’s mother, Salome (Sophie Okonedo), a black jazz singer, and her niece Rosie (Letitia Wright), Linnet’s maid, Linnet’s godmother, and her companion, and a doctor who used to date Linnet.

It would seem as if all roads lead to Linnet, which it does since she is the character who suffers her fateful demise. What is key is that every character has a connection to her making the puzzle all the more intriguing and interesting to figure out.

Branagh, coming directly from his Oscar-winning film Belfast (2022) deserves the most credit because he not only stars in but directs the film as he did with Murder on the Orient Express. The screenplay is once again created by Michael Green. The consistency is very important and satisfying to the overall product and the two films can be watched back to back with ease.

There is trust that the anticipated enjoyment will be fulfilled and for me it was.

Death on the Nile is not high art but merely slick entertainment done quite well. There is much manipulation for the audience to endure and the setup of the potential suspects and the victim’s background are thrown directly into the viewer’s face.

This was welcomed.

I didn’t mind the implausibility of every character having reason to kill the heiress, nor did I mind a mystery character racing around the ship causing mayhem then changing into formal evening wear in less than thirty seconds flat.

The numerous plot devices are to be expected from a film like Death on the Nile and I happily and willingly fell for them hook, line, and sinker. The wealth of most of the characters is splendid intrigue and only adds to the enjoyment.

Considering the time is the 1930s a same-sex relationship and a brewing romance between the caucasian Poirot and the black Salome are fabulous additions.

Rumor has it, there will be another production of an Agatha Christie novel adaptation directed by and starring Branagh and I can’t wait for this. He has dusted off the old whodunit storyline and updated it with a spectacle about crimes of passion that feels fresh.

The result is a modernized Death on the Nile (2022) brimming with fun and pleasure while never taking itself too seriously.

House of Gucci-2021

House of Gucci-2021

Director-Ridley Scott

Starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto

Scott’s Review #1,244

Reviewed April 10, 2022

Grade: B+

Upon the release of 2021’s House of Gucci, much Awards buzz surrounded the film, especially for Lady Gaga’s performance. A story of a once lofty Italian fashion family of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s seemed a prime winner on many levels.

Sadly, reviews quickly turned mediocre or downright lethal as more and more people saw the film reducing it to a meager one lonely Oscar nomination in a category viewed as minor.

The accolades were expected to be much loftier but the buzz was tarnished very quickly. Critics largely dismissed the work as too campy and melodramatic for its good but did praise the acting. Some ripped it to shreds entirely.

Mainstream audiences were a bit kinder than your average critic was.

While I recognize the criticisms and even agree with some, mostly its uneven pacing, I find House of Gucci a resounding guilty pleasure. The main appeal is Lady Gaga who takes charge, playing an unlikable manipulator who you shouldn’t root for but will anyway.

Here is a brief synopsis for those not familiar with the real-life story of the rise and crumble of the Gucci empire.

The film is inspired by the shocking true story of the family behind the Italian fashion empire. When Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), an outsider from humble beginnings, marries Maurizio Gucci and all his wealth, her unbridled ambition and manipulations tear the once close-knit family apart.

The family legacy quickly unravels and triggers a domino effect of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and murder.

With a cast including heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto there is much to focus on in the acting department. Besides Hayek who plays a psychic, all contain Gucci blood. All are terrific except Leto who suffers from overreaching for the stars in terms of the emphasis he puts on being a red-blooded Italian man. He overacts.

Of note is that all of the principal cast is American, not Italian, so the fact that I bought the language, culture, and mannerisms as authentic is another testament to their talent.

The fact that House of Gucci is directed by the legendary Ridley Scott is a surprise. Known for either science-fiction or different sorts of offerings like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Gladiator (2001), House of Gucci feels like a stretch for the seasoned director by way of subject matter.

Perhaps he phoned it in? There is little that is a cinematic spectacle in House of Gucci and its straight-ahead drama. Some argue it’s shot like a television movie. While I disagree that it’s as dismal as all that I do get the point.

From the camera lens, the film is saved tremendously by the juicy and lavish sequences that transpire in Milan, Italy. The decadence of the 1980s is never more apparent than amid the fashion capital of the world. With lavish estates, nightclubs, and enough exterior scenes to satisfy anyone who has been to Milan (I have!), it’s enough to save most viewers from the ho-hum story.

I’ve mentioned early how House of Gucci feels uneven. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly but there’s a feeling of a gaping hole or something missing from the film. Sure, there is enough drama and schemes to make television’s The Bachelor proud but there is a glaring misfire throughout.

I would have assured that Lady Gaga made the Best Actress Oscar list but sadly this was not to be. This is too bad because she gives it her all as badass Patrizia. She is a woman not to be fucked with and when she turns the tables on her husband and the love of her life he better watch out.

It’s a shame that all the dots didn’t connect for House of Gucci (2021). With such a terrific cast, juicy locales, and a respected director, the film could have been a contender. Instead, it’s a pretty good film that needs not be watched a second time.

Oscar Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Modesty Blaise-1966

Modesty Blaise-1966

Director-Joseph Losey

Starring Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Dirk Bogarde

Scott’s Review #1,243

Reviewed April 9, 2022

Grade: B

Loosely based on a British comic strip of the same name, Modesty Blaise (1966) is a campy, over-the-top escapist film that features a relaxed style but a convoluted plot. The story doesn’t matter much and the film feels based on the James Bond film series with some Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr comic elements thrown in.

Throughout the action, I chuckled at the situation comedy antics of the characters. Both heroes and villains get mixed up in one hokey situation after another and all of the actors seem well aware that they are not performing Shakespearean comedy.

They forge ahead with gusto making it as much of a zany offering as humanly possible.

I mused at how much the film was reminiscent of televisions, Get Smart, a foolish but sweet-natured 1960s spy-genre offering.

I challenge the odd decision to make a film of this genre a bloated one hour and fifty-seven minutes. A spry ninety or ninety-five minutes would have been more than ample time to wrap up the experience and allow audiences to head for the exits.

This might prevent some from realizing how silly a film they’d just sat through

Modesty Blaise is not a traditionally good film but grooviness and pizazz are the main attractions as characters indulge in an orgy of colorful situations, and preposterous setups.

Lavish locales like Amsterdam, London, and the roaring beaches off the coast of the Meditteranean Sea bring the film back from going too far off the rails and pepper it with some cultivation.

If one is in the right mood Modesty Blaise is a chuckle fest but if aching for high art don’t waste your time. The psychedelic and groovy art design and Mad Men-like sets won me over as I quickly forgot to try and piece together the overcomplicated plot.

I simply didn’t care who was who or who was trying to outwit who and why. And I was okay with that.

Gorgeous Italian actress Monica Vitti leads the charge followed by the dashing English actor, Terence Stamp. Together, they make a lusty and good-looking pair though Vitti gets no acting accolades from me.

Her looks are the primary reason for her casting win.

The actress plays a  beautiful former criminal named Modesty who decides to go straight and work for the Secret Service. They send her to infiltrate a ring of jewel thieves. She is not especially respected by the stuck-up older regime but she shrugs it off and offers her best services.

Soon after she joins the gang, sophisticated and dangerous head honcho Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) grows suspicious of his new charge, and Modesty realizes that British Intelligence gave her a mission they could care less if she survives.

She then enlists her former partner in crime, Willie (Stamp), to help her out of her peril while outsmarting both sides.

Most of the action scenes are ludicrous. The likelihood of any of the stories being true is slim to none. Plenty of sequences takes place on a luxury yacht or some other water transportation so that viewers can see Vitti and Stamp clad in as little as possible.

I smirked at more than one James Bond nod though I dare say some influence on the still-to-be-made Diamonds Are Forever (1971) is noticed.

If I’m making Modesty Blaise out to be a terrible film, it’s not.

The gimmicky angle of having Modesty appear with a different hairstyle in every sequence is clever and enjoyable (my preference is for her as a blonde).

When she is imprisoned in a spiraling colored basement cell and must climb out the roof for help it’s one of the best-looking set designs I’ve ever seen. The creative team gets an A-plus for expressiveness and imagination which is the reason Modesty Blaise is so damned fun.

The cartoonish criminals Gabriel and Clara, played by Dirk Bogarde and Rossella Falk, are deliciously wicked. I was amazed at Gabriel’s towering purple cocktail and craved trying a sip of it to see exactly what he was drinking.

Satisfyingly, both main villains get their comeuppance.

The film is foolish, campy, and a silly time wrapped up in amazing artistry from a creative team who deserves more credit than they probably received.

Modesty Blaise (1966) is a messy film that I enjoyed and found endearing way more than I probably should have. It’s the guiltiest of pleasures in a chest full of sub-par spy comedy films.

La Bamba-1987

La Bamba-1987

Director-Luis Valdez

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto

Scott’s Review #1,242

Reviewed April 3, 2022

Grade: A-

The brief musical career of Mexican rock ‘n’ roll star Richie Valens is showcased in a lovely little film called La Bamba (1987).

The film spawned a massive United States number one hit, the title track, for the band Los Lobos, that filled the summer with rich culture and a hummable beat. The song is a recreation of Valen’s earlier hit from 1958.

I’m humming it as a write this review!

The film itself is flavorful and tinged with Latino colors and traditions such as the importance of family. It provides a much-needed look at diversity and recognition of a young talent taken way too soon.

His rise to stardom is the main focus but not forgotten is his influence on his family, most notably his younger brother in which love, respect, jealousy, and conflict engulf their relationship.

Valens, a Los Angeles teenager played by Lou Diamond Phillips, becomes an overnight rock ‘n’ roll success in 1958, thanks to a love ballad called “Donna” that he wrote for his girlfriend (Danielle von Zerneck) whose parents didn’t want her to date a Latino boy.

But as his star rises, Valens has conflicts with his jealous brother, Bob (Esai Morales), and becomes haunted by a recurring nightmare of a plane crash, in which he is terrified of flying, just as he begins his first national tour alongside Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw).

Foreshadowing indeed. It’s common knowledge that Valens tragically died in a plane crash over Iowa, alongside Holly and other prominent musicians.

Lou Diamond Phillips is fantastic in the lead role of Ritchie. The actor can entertain the audience while staying true to the life of the Mexican star. Not merely resembling him physically, Phillips brings Ritche’s famous life and energy to the table. Not lasting long in this world, the actor infuses as much soul as he can into the ill-fated singer successfully creating a dedication to his life.

The supporting actors are all terrific. Highly talented is Morales, his character of Bob is conflicted by his brother’s success but also closely bonded to him as well. As mama Connie, Rosanna DeSoto is fiercely protective of her cub while championing his career path and natural talent. Finally, Elizabeth Pena deserves praise for playing Rosie, the victimized girlfriend of Bob.

The interracial romance between Ritchie and Donna is also a strong area of La Bamba. Many decades after their short romance differing races coming together is commonplace but there are still those who object. The chemistry between Phillips and von Zerneck is palpable but mostly I imagined how nice it was between the real-life figures and the endless possibilities had the singer not perished.

Director and writer, Luis Valdez deserve credit for giving meaning to this relationship by making it obvious that other marginalized minority communities can be assured that most people support their unions.

La Bamba (1987) is a film where all the parts come together in perfect form. The music, the culture, the characters, all brim with life and meaning, ironically since the biography could have easily been a downer. Instead, it inspires and teaches unity and the forever-lasting power of music.

Yes, there are occasional cliches but I enjoyed the film immensely.

The Karate Kid-1984

The Karate Kid-1984

Director-John G. Avildsen

Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita

Scott’s Review #1,241

Reviewed April 2, 2022

Grade: B+

The Karate Kid (1984) is a wholesome and predictable film from the commercial entrails that were the 1980’s cinema. With a clever marketing pitch about a bullied boy overcoming obstacles, the film is utterly predictable. But the warm message and chemistry between the two leads make the film work marvelously.

It’s a truthful film that showcases the power of friendship.

The film was a smash at the box office becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest sleeper summer hits of 1984, making the lead actor Ralph Macchio an enormous star and household name. It also successfully brought karate to American households spanning a  new trend and appreciation for Asian sport.

The film was followed by three tired sequels before the franchise finally ran out of steam. A re-launch emerged in 2010 with mixed results.

Daniel (Macchio) moves to Southern California with his mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), but quickly finds himself the target of a group of bullies who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo. This heightens in severity when he becomes smitten with the ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) of the lead bully, Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) who vows revenge on Daniel.

Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), a kindly repairman who is a martial arts master himself. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate, and prepares him to compete against the brutal Cobra Kai.

The Karate Kid is very sweet but never too saccharin-laced and is easy to compare to Rocky (1976). In a clear example of manipulation and copycatting, Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the screenplay, was instructed to write something similar to Rocky which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Avildsen also directed that critically acclaimed film.

The result is Rocky-lite. The Karate Kid would be a great warm-up film before the headliner Rocky takes the screen.

The mission is to tell a story about an underdog rising to glory while staying true to himself. The Karate Kid is a product but is extremely likable and a fist-pumping good time. It’s not the sort of film one necessarily needs to see repeatedly nor will it be studied in film school.

The main reason that The Karate Kid works is because of the chemistry and connection between Macchio and Morita. The latter is terrific casting since Morita was usually known for comedic roles but works against type in his memorable role. His character is kind and humble and impossible not to fall in love with. As a mentor, he coaches Daniel with valuable and truthful life lessons.

Macchio surprisingly carries the film. Handsome and charismatic, he also represents to the audience anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or different from everyone else. He’s the boy next door but with an ethnic overtone. He is clearly different and therefore unliked by some.

The elements that don’t work as well are the traditional love triangle, hardly a triangle because one of the three is the villain, and the stereotypical nature of the bully gang. Shue plays her part well but the romance between Ali and Daniel is the supporting act to the fight scenes which inevitably show up mostly towards the end of the film.

The finale is one very familiar in sports-type films because it’s all too obvious how events will play out. Surprisingly though, it’s a satisfying payoff as every character wins out, even the villainous Johnny. Though he is soundly defeated, he learns a lesson from Daniel and comes to respect him. So, he repents.

It’s a powerful message that stayed with me and made me appreciate the approach to valued storytelling.

Safe and sturdy for a PG audience, The Karate Kid (1984) may feel dated and flounder for modern audiences but the message remains poignant and fresh. Hard work, determination, and respect equal success and satisfaction.

This may be a point easy to ridicule and pick apart but the film works well.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor-Pat Morita

Jaws-1975

Jaws-1975

Director-Steven Spielberg

Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

Scott’s Review #1,240

Reviewed March 28, 2022

Grade: A

The directorial breakthrough by the iconic Steven Spielberg is Jaws (1975). The film is such a legendary and familiar project that even stating the name to pretty much any human being immediately conjures images of a man-eating great white shark and the unforgettable ‘duh-duh, duh-duh’ musical score.

It’s the film that famously made people afraid to go into the water just as Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho made people afraid to take a shower. When I have occasion to be near the ocean I always think of this film.

Jaws is a hybrid horror/thriller/adventure/action film whereas the subsequent sequels were all straight-ahead horror films that cast more teenagers, and some better than others.

Spielberg teaches a valuable lesson that much can come from very little and that a small budget can create greatness. What he accomplishes with Jaws is admirable, to say the least.

With Jaws, the story is more about the attempts of three men to destroy a killer shark and their relationship with the shark itself. The scary aspect, always terrific in horror, is we do not know what the shark’s motivation is. Why does it kill?

It’s a brilliant film that holds up well decades later despite the shark feeling less authentic as the years go by. But, the time a film is made must always be kept in mind.

When one summer day a young woman is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping near the New England tourist town of Amity Island, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches. He comes into conflict with the mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who overrules him, fearing that the loss of tourist revenue will negatively affect the town during its summer season.

Dismissed as a mere boating accident, the great white shark then kills a young boy in full view of a beach crowd resulting in panic and mayhem. It’s as if the shark is determined to be taken seriously.

Oceanographer, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled ship captain Quint (Robert Shaw) offer to help Brody capture the killer shark, and the trio engages in an epic battle with the beast.

Jaws is a film that can be viewed multiple times and provides sheer pleasure each time. Forgetting the horror elements, the film provides adventure and heart-pounding thrills per minute once the men dare to try and foil the shark.

The fun, as in any film of this kind, is not knowing when or where danger will strike, only that it inevitably will come.

Scheider excels in his household name-making role as the determined police chief. He cares deeply about the townspeople and is therefore a likable hero. During frequent scenes, he gazes out to the water, a troubled look on his face, pained and feeling responsible for the deaths.

The audience empathizes with him.

Lorraine Gary, who would have a lead role in later films with poor results, is terrific as the supportive yet challenging wife, Ellen. She is the yin to his yang and it comes across on-screen.

The best scenes of the film are the very first one when the girl is eaten by the shark and the later one when Brody yells at everyone on a crowded beach to flee the water. Munching on the first victim, this is the scene where the dreaded music makes its debut. From this point, the audience knows that once this music is heard it means the shark is nearby.

In the other scene, the panic caused is breathtaking and palpable and sympathy is felt for Brody. He obediently takes the blame for the chaos and the deaths and makes it personal when his own son is victimized. The scene sets the tone for the scramble and mayhem.

Jaws (1975) has it all: adventure, thrills, horror, action, a hero, and blood. The technical aspects are astounding with underwater sequences and effects that remain viable.

It arguably created what has become to be known as the summer blockbuster.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Film Editing (won), Best Original Dramatic Score (won), Best Sound (won)

Two Evil Eyes-1990

Two Evil Eyes-1990

Director-George Romero, Dario Argento

Starring-Adrienne Barbeau, Harvey Keitel

Scott’s Review #1,239

Reviewed March 26, 2022

Grade: B+

Two legendary masters of horror, American director George Romero, famous for zombie films, and Italian director Dario Argento, famous for stylistic horror,  team up to create a thrilling double-bill horror feast.

For fans of the genre, the idea is titillating, to say the least, and the follow-through is a robust success. There is a gnawing television film feel to each of the films that are eventually usurped by the reminder that grand directors are at the helm.

Cleverly, they base their films on the works of the poet Edgar Allan Poe, famous for writing poems and short stories of the macabre and peculiar. ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1990) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1990) are the featured tales.

Having seen many Argento and Romero works with Suspiria (1977) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) being my respective favorites, the fun is seeing how each film contains familiar aspects of each with a sprinkling of the 1960 Hitchcock masterpiece, Psycho, thrown in for good measure.

Fun fact- Psycho star Martin Balsam appears in ‘The Black Cat’ story.

In the first feature, ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, Adrienne Barbeau plays an ex-flight attendant named Jessica who plots with her lover Dr. Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada) for her elderly husband’s money. While liquidating large amounts of cash, her husband’s lawyer grows suspicious and warns her there will be consequences should her husband die in the next three weeks.

Naturally, he does, and events grow weird and terrifying.

In the second film, ‘The Black Cat, Harvey Keitel plays an unlikeable man named Rod Usher who works as a crime scene photographer. He suffers the consequences when he viciously kills his girlfriend’s cat. In his attempts to rid himself of both his girlfriend and the cat, they continue to reappear, much to his chagrin. With two detectives on his tail, the finale is both grim and satisfying.

If forced to choose, I am more partial to ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ and this is mostly to do with the casting of Barbeau of whom I am a big fan. It’s also the winner of the two as far as the unexpected conclusion goes.

Barbeau carries the film, short at only an hour or so, and infuses likeability into a character who could easily be dismissed as a gold-digging bitch. Jessica feels some sensitivity and truly wants no harm done to her husband, she only desires some money. After all, in her mind, she deserves the payoff for having married an old man.

Romero’s influence is apparent but not as much as Argento’s is in ‘The Black Cat’. A gruesome scene at the conclusion when a character’s decomposing body lumbers forward immediately brought me back to the zombie delights of ‘Dawn of the Dead.

The music in the opening credits reminds me of Argento films in general. A mysterious high-pitched synthesizer sound peppers the experience with horrific beats that are highly effective.

I did not enjoy the prevalent cat torture scenes that appear in ‘The Black Cat’ and these are tough to sit through. I was somewhat encouraged by the knowledge that the dead cat does enact revenge on its torturer in the end.

I chuckled at the numerous references to ‘Psycho’ mostly when Balsam’s character of Mr. Pym appears. When the man climbs a flight of stairs who won’t immediately think of a similar scene in ‘Psycho’ with a deadlier result. Another scene of draining shower water immediately conjures up the legendary shower scene in ‘Psycho’.

Casting heavyweights like Barbeau, Keitel, Balsam, Tom Atkins, John Amos, and Kim Hunter provide credibility to a project that could easily have been dismissed as a throwaway horror double-feature.

The experience is much better than that as the compelling nature and thrills by the minute will keep the audience invested and longing to know what happens next.

‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1990) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1990) effectively team two of the best horror directors out there in dedication to the best horror poet.

Perhaps a longer duration for each film might have allowed time for more character exploration but the results are just fine.

King Richard-2021

King Richard-2021

Director-Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis

Scott’s Review #1,238

Reviewed March 13, 2022

Grade: B+

King Richard (2021) is an inspirational, feel-good, Hollywood film with a strong message. It champions the little guy rising beyond expectations to achieve greatness. Audiences will be left with a warm feeling of possibility and that nearly anything can be achieved with hard work and determination.

The story of the world-famous tennis stars, the Williams sisters, and their parents, just happens to be true, lending the necessary credibility to make this film quite enjoyable. It’s a conventional film and contains many cliches but is a heartwarming family drama.

Richard Williams (Will Smith) is determined to write his daughters, Venus and Serena, into the tennis history books while also keeping them educated and away from the drug-infested streets of Compton, California where they reside. Along with his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), they defy all odds in their meteoric rise to fame and fortune just as Richard had planned.

The Williams family story is told in an uplifting fashion as they face trials and tribulations along the way like gang violence and racism. The sisters would soon become two of the world’s greatest sports legends.

The film is led by an excellent performance by Smith though I’m careful to make the bold statement that it’s his best role ever. I haven’t seen Ali (2001) but have heard he brings down the house in that role, again playing a real-life figure.

Time will tell.

The lesson learned about Smith is that when he skirts away from his usual summer popcorn blockbuster action roles in which there are many, he is truly a great actor. Plenty of backstories is given to Richard and the violence and marginalization he has faced in his past, living as a child in Louisiana. His occasional shrewdness and feistiness can be forgiven as the character is explored very well.

Aunjanue Ellis, unknown to me before this film, is a revelation. As Brandy and the assumed second-in-command supportive wife role, she does way more than one might have expected. In one tense scene, she lays down the law with Richard and refuses to play the second fiddle. Ellis brings a subdued toughness and quiet to the role that not all actresses can bring.

The casting all around is strong. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena are believable though they are not given the material that Smith and Ellis are afforded. Delightful is Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn in supporting roles as coaches.

Director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, sticks to a straight-ahead approach and achieves what his intention seems to be. He forges into R-rated territory with some of the gang relationships and an occasional racist remark but the effect is soft-touch only and the main message is how a struggling black family can succeed.

I enjoyed the depictions of California and then sunny Florida throughout the 1980s and the 1990s and finally into more recent times. It felt realistic and appropriate to the film especially when real-life incidents like the Rodney King police beatings were shown.

The editing team is flawless, especially in the multiple tennis match sequences which are very difficult to shoot and make seem real. The continuity is exceptional and a massive undertaking.

A safe passage and not a film to be watched a second time or dissected much with post-credit discussions, King Richard (2021) is nonetheless a winner. It provides enough positive vibes to leave its viewer smiling and determined to beat any odds.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Will Smith (won), Best Supporting Actress-Aunjanue Ellis, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song-“Be Alive”

Dead Snow-2009

Dead Snow-2009

Director-Tommy Wirkola

Starring-Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen

Scott’s Review #1,237

Reviewed March 12, 2022

Grade: B

First off, the cover art (pictured above) to the 2009 Norwegian horror-comedy film Dead Snow, is simply incredible. The creepy Nazi head embedded in the snow with a background chainsaw is perfect marketing and genuinely artistic.

It automatically makes the tired zombie horror genre feel fresh and alive with endless possibilities.

The film itself is a decent watch and tongue-in-cheek sensibilities are necessary to appreciate the movie. There is a hint of art film qualities peppered throughout and it’s not a run-of-the-mill mainstream horror film either but a sense of humor and embracing the ridiculousness is required.

In other words, one must be a fan of the genre to watch Dead Snow. Otherwise, it will not win people over with a great storyline or character enrichment.

It’s a slice and dice ’em affair and after a slow build goes into overdrive with the kills and thrills.

The familiar setup of a group of young people, this time intelligent medical students, heading off for a long weekend of booze and sex in a remote location gets Dead Snow off to an intriguing start. A lonely cabin in the middle of the snowy mountains of Norway is the primary setting for the Arctic Easter bloodbath.

The eight of them plan to ski and relax during the time away. After one of their group disappears while on a solo cross-country hike, a mysterious resident (Bjørn Sundquist) provides the remaining visitors with a backstory.

In the last days of World War II, a battalion of Nazi soldiers disappeared into the nearby woods after the residents turned on them, and that their zombified corpses remain on the prowl in the area looking for fresh meat.

Of course, the students hoot and snicker at the stranger’s proclamations but the audience knows full well the Nazi soldiers will emerge eventually. After all, in the very first scene, one of the students who never shows up to join the others is killed by an unidentifiable figure in the dark woods.

If nothing else, Dead Snow is prime-grade entertainment. I eagerly awaited who from the group would be butchered first and how it might happen. As all fans of the slasher horror genre know he or she who parties or has sex is not long for this world, and Dead Snow is no different.

What is different from a straight-ahead release is the dark humor that encompasses the film. When one student who is deathly afraid of blood must remove his arm with a chainsaw after being bitten, he does so with deep seriousness and precision.

The macabre scene nearly rivals some others like when a male member of the group is seduced for sex by a female member of the group while sitting on the toilet in the cold outhouse.

Enough splatters of blood exist to forget how silly the Nazi soldiers look. But the makeup and creative team do a superior job of making the zombies look horrific too. In particular, their leader, Colonel Herzog, is a combination of sexy and hideous.

The international quality and the Norwegian language require sub-titles but that is no problem for me. This brings sophistication and intelligence that I appreciate, rising the film above the mediocrity that it may have suffered from had it been an American release. The foreign lands add mystique.

Dead Snow at one hour and thirty minutes is short enough not to wear out its welcome which it starts to do in the final fifteen minutes or so. A chase scene across the snowy mountains and motivation for some ancient gold coins is explained as the final character makes it to safety in an until then missing car.

Or does he or she?

Providing some fun without taking itself too seriously, Dead Snow (2009) contains no message nor any marquis stars. Making Nazis the evil ones is no stretch so that there is immediately enough rooting value to forgive some of the students for their idiotic decisions.

It’s a bloody fun time but not much more.

No Time to Die-2021

No Time to Die-2021

Director-Cary Fukunaga

Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek

Scott’s Review #1,236

Reviewed March 6, 2022

Grade: A-

Celebrating the twenty-fifth in the iconic James Bond film franchise, No Time to Die (2021) is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final appearance as the British MI6 agent. As of this writing, it is yet to be determined who will next step into the shoes of the legendary character but Craig was able to make the character his own since his debut in Casino Royale (2006).

He retains his hunky and muscular portrayal with a sullen and serious tone.

No Time to Die is visually and stylistically similar to the recent handful of films to come before it with a slick and modern look and feel. The difference is that the film is about relationships and has a shocking conclusion that nearly rivals Mrs. James Bond’s, death in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service way back in 1969.

There are few quips or one-liners uttered by James Bond and we can agree that Craig does not play the character in the same way that Roger Moore did. But, there exists a dark and dreary tone throughout and more than one surprising death.

It’s a serious affair.

I love the parallels to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that emerge mostly in the beginning and end of the film. The inclusion of the famous Louis Armstrong song ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ recalls both love and loss experienced by Bond and is played in full during the closing credits.

This is a special treat for fans of that film, myself included. I felt emotionally connected to No Time to Die which was a major score for it.

In a long opening sequence, a young girl named Madeleine witnesses the murder of her mother by terrorist Lyutsifer Safin in a failed attempt to murder her father Mr. White (appearing in Casino Royale). Madeleine shoots Safin (Rami Malek), but he survives and rescues her after she falls into a frozen lake. This connects them for life.

In the present, after the capture of villain Blofeld, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is vacationing in Southern Italy with Bond when Spectre’s assassins ambush him. He incorrectly assumes Madelaine has betrayed him and he ends their relationship after they escape death.

Depressed, Bond retires to Jamaica but returns to action after his friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

With the emotional and relationship investments successfully sealed any worthy Bond film should have great action with interesting locales, stellar villains, and relevant Bond girls. In this regard, the film gets a solid B+ with the aforementioned bumping it up a notch.

The chase throughout southern Italy is fabulous with delicious scenery of the culturally lavish country getting the film off to a fast start. Other sequences in Chile and Cuba show the sophistication and investment in quality locales. Naturally, London is heavily featured and I adore the grand and frequent aerial views that allow prominent landmarks to be discovered.

As creepy as actor Malek can be in his roles and as dastardly a villain as he plays, I wasn’t completed satisfied with the character of Safin. Not appearing in an obvious fashion until midway through his screen time is limited and his motivations murky- I wanted more.

The casting is terrific but the character is underwhelming and not explored to his potential.

Christoph Waltz’s limited appearance as an imprisoned Blofeld is great, and double agent Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), and scientist Obruchev (David Dencik) prove quality secondary villains. The storyline with Felix and the returns of Moneypenny, Q, and M (now played by Ralph Fiennes) is solid.

Main Bond girl Madelaine did not win me over at first but by the end, I was heavily invested, especially since she is a powerful female character and a true romantic partner to Bond. A new female 007, played by Lashana Lynch is a progressive inclusion that breathes new life into MI6.

May both appear in the future?

Time, and perhaps another viewing, will determine how No Time to Die (2021) ranks compared to other Bond films. At a hefty two hours and forty-three minutes, the film drags in the middle section, and some characters receive limited exploration.

The nods to history and the heavy emotional investment kept me glued to my seat.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Song-“No Time to Die” (won), Best Sound, Best Visual Effects

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

I Love You Phillip Morris-2009

Director-John Requa, Glenn Ficarra

Starring Jim Carey, Ewan McGregor

Scott’s Review #1,235

Reviewed March 5, 2022

Grade: A-

Easily the most daring and arguably the best film role of Jim Carey’s career, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a delightful romantic comedy featuring same-sex characters in the central roles. At the risk of being too fluffy, there is a sardonic and wry wittiness that I fell in love with.

Those criticizing the film as ‘gay porn’ are silly since there is hardly a sex scene to be critical of or anything more than would appear in a traditional male/female romantic comedy. Prudes wouldn’t see a film as I Love You Phillip Morris anyway.

It is based on the 1980s and 1990s real-life story of Texas con artist, impostor, and multiple prison fugitive Steven Jay Russell who was clever beyond belief and successful at outwitting his opponents.

I Love You, Phillip Morris, is the directorial debut by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra who received a nomination from the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Steven Russell  (Carrey) becomes a cop, gets married, and starts a family, but after a terrible car accident, he vows to be true to himself. Thus far in his life, he has played by the rules and done what is expected of him and because of the crash, he pivots to an emotional bloodletting.

The key irony is that Steven is telling the audience his story from his deathbed so most of the activity is in the past. This is the hook because it made me wonder how and why he dies. But is there a twist?

He comes out of the closet, moves to Florida, and finances a luxurious lifestyle with bad checks and credit cards. Arrested and now in prison, Steven meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a mild-mannered inmate who becomes the love of his life. Determined to build a beautiful life with his partner, Steven embarks on another crime spree.

The film caters to the LGBTQ+ audience but has crossover appeal so that all audiences can enjoy it. This is in large part in thanks to the screenwriters and whoever had Carey and McGregor in mind for the film.

Too often films centering around gay characters are deemed second fiddle and not profitable but with bigger stars, the audiences will come.

I Love You Phillip Morris is an independent film but builds momentum when the message is that big stars are comfortable in gay roles, something Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal taught us a few years earlier in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Jim Carey, fabulous in The Mask from 1994, and having his share of hits and misses over the years, is perfect in the role of Steven. It’s the most interesting role he has portrayed since he gets to provide his usual physical humor in a role that matters. LGBTQ+ audiences see a character who makes them laugh without the typical gay stereotypes.

Straight audiences will see a character whose sexual identity doesn’t matter to them.

Props go to McGregor as well who makes a perfect counterpart for Carey as the calm, cool, and collected ‘straight man’. The film could not have worked without him. He meshes so well with Carey that the audience instantly roots for Steven and Phillip to ride off into the sunset despite being criminals.

The stereotypes are limited but the subject matter of AIDS, especially given the time in which the film is set, is given notice. This is a win and Requa and Ficarra are very careful not to teeter too close to the edge of doom and gloom while respecting the disease.

At its core, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) is a romantic comedy, and the trials and tribulations of Steven and Phillip are told. I immediately fell in love with them and viewers will too. It’s a film that feels fresh and alive with the exploration of character richness that is not easy to come by.

Halloween-2007

Halloween-2007

Director-Rob Zombie

Starring-Malcolm McDowell, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tyler Mane

Scott’s Review #1,234

Reviewed February 27, 2022

Grade: B

I’ve seen director/musician/entertainer Rob Zombie tear down the house as the headlining second stage act at the metal festival Ozzfest in the 2000s. He’s a striking individual with ferocious energy and a creative persona. He’s also quite brave to take on such an undertaking as remaking the legendary slasher film Halloween from 1978.

The results of his 2007 effort simply titled Halloween is a mixed effort but props to him for having the balls to try.

Similar to other horror films he has directed, and his music, there is brutality and rawness mixed with nastiness and a grim outlook. He wisely focuses on the character of Michael Meyers but fulfills too much backstory for my liking. Part of the appeal of the crazed killer is his mysteriousness.

Michael is played by both Daeg Faerch and Tyler Mane.

The story is a bit of a remake and an original. The original aspect focuses on events that begin on Halloween when ten-year-old Michael inexplicably butchers a school bully, his sister, her boyfriend, and his abusive stepfather. He is sent to a mental hospital for the next fifteen years becoming despondent and fixated on making paper machete masks.

The second part is more familiar territory. Nearly two decades later he breaks out, intent on returning to the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. He arrives in his hometown on Halloween to hunt down his younger sister, Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton). The only thing standing between Michael and a night of bloody carnage is psychologist Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell).

I stress the point of the nearly impossible task that Zombie faced of remaking or even reviving a film as iconic as John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece. Without even putting pen to paper there would immediately be those who would mock and trivialize any attempt.

Zombie both wrote and directed the film. He immediately provides a reason for Michael’s dirty deeds. Close with his mother, played by Zombie’s real-life wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, who does a fantastic job, Deborah is a struggling stripper married to an abusive man. So Michael’s earlier butchery can be somewhat understood by audiences.

My preference is how Michael’s parents were portrayed in the original in their one brief scene. They appear to be an upstanding middle-class couple with a nice house and family. This makes Michael’s psychotic rampage all the more vague and confusing.

A fabulous scene at the mental hospital showcases an ominous moment. It’s Halloween Eve and Doctor Loomis visits the despondent Michael in the outdoor yard. The audience knows he will escape but not when or how things will erupt and who will be slashed, we just know the bloodletting will soon commence.

The rest of the film is standard fare and a letdown compared to the ambitious first half, though there is way more violence and gore than can be imagined. The film feels haunting and brutal with an uncompromising approach by Zombie to kick the killings up ten notches.

It’s like the original Halloween on steroids.

The casting highlights start and stop with the exceptional Malcolm McDowell as the tortured Loomis. The famous actor, forever known as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) carries the film with his expression-filled crystal blue eyes and tremendous acting ability.

Another winning choice is Brad Dourif as Sheriff Lee Brackett. Classic film fans will remember the actor as a mental patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in 1975 which he was Oscar-nominated.

Scout Taylor-Compton does a decent job as Laurie Strode but can anyone compare to Jamie Lee Curtis? I snicker at the thought. The rest of the actors portraying the teen friends are okay but not memorable.

Followed by Halloween II in 2009, Halloween (2007) received enough attention at the time to give fans a flurry of excitement but with the later recreation and reprisal by Jamie Lee Curtis and others from the original, the Zombie offerings won’t be remembered well.

It’s dirty, bloody, and raw but never terrifying. Zombie adds story points, some that work and some that don’t but I give the man much respect for dusting off a film as brilliant as Halloween (1978).

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

The Eyes of Tammy Faye-2021

Director-Michael Showalter

Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield

Scott’s Review #1,233

Reviewed February 26, 2022

Grade: A-

When thinking of the name Tammy Faye Baker, usually images of outlandish pancake makeup and ridiculous evangelical spewings are conjured up. Alongside her husband Jim Baker, the duo was prominent and highly visible throughout the 1970s and the 1980s as fixtures of Christian broadcasting.

Naturally, scandals ensued resulting in prison time for Jim and shame and career ruin for Tammy.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) delves into the thoughts and experiences of Tammy, hence the title. It’s sympathetic material and made me learn much more about the celebrity than I knew of. Other characters like husband Jim and sullen evangelists like Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson are explored but Tammy is the main draw.

I love the depiction of Tammy Faye Baker and hats off to a dynamite performance by Jessica Chastain, especially in the final act. Nearly unrecognizable, the actress unleashes a flurry of brilliant scenes and a depiction of a tacky woman winning over an audience.

It is Chastain’s best role yet.

Tammy’s LGBTQ+ community appreciation and thoughtfulness during the A.I.D.S crisis in the 1980s when very few others, especially in her inner circle, wanted anything to do with them is especially powerful and heart-wrenching.

She saw them as human beings when others saw them as lepers. She continued to support the LGBTQ+ community until she died in 2007.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. The film begins with her humble beginnings in frigid Minnesota and her closeness with her very religious mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones), and her kind stepfather who accepted her as his own.

An innocent college romance with Jim Baker (Garfield) results in marriage and the rise to success in creating the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park, promoting a message of love whilst skimming from the top to enjoy their lavish lifestyle.

Tammy Faye was legendary for her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, it wasn’t long before financial improprieties and scandal toppled their carefully constructed empire.

This is the point where the film takes off.

Chastain had me at the very first scene when an extreme closeup of her face, now aging, is featured. Though wacky, she infuses a humanism and kindness into Tammy that immediately made me champion her.

Through trials and tribulations like nearly cheating on her husband to looking the other way amid the financial scandals surrounding her, she always keeps her head held high and fills any room she enters with love and sincerity.

The best scene by Chastain is at the end of the film when Tammy makes a triumphant yet humble return to the stage. As she nervously takes the stage at Oral Roberts University she imagines a stage filled with glamour and pomp rather than the meek one it is. It helps her get through and I wanted to give her a big hug.

All the awards attention has gone to Chastain but Andrew Garfield is nearly as flawless. Complex and struggling with Tammy’s brazen approach, his sexuality, and playing nice with the other major players, he gets his comeuppance but Garfield makes him sympathetic and a fine study.

Directed by Michael Showalter, I feel he could have gone much darker with this film. Sure, there is some sadness like when Tammy overhears a bunch of kids whispering that she is a freak or colleagues mocking her as a clown, but it’s soft touch. The woman battled cancer for years before dying from it but the film ends before any of that even happens.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) belongs to Chastain and Garfield. It’s a bit glossy and skates over some hard-punching attributes it could have showcased but it balances the camp with endearment and champions acceptance and compassion for one another.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Jessica Chastain (won), Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won)

The Lost Daughter-2021

The Lost Daughter-2021

Director-Maggie Gyllenhaal

Starring-Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson

Scott’s Review #1,232

Reviewed February 21, 2022

Grade: A

Throughout The Lost Daughter (2021), there is a constant feeling of dread that may result in viewer anxiety. We know that bad things are coming but we do not know how or when. This makes for good drama done exceptionally well by director Maggie Gyllenhaal in her astounding debut.

She has acted for years and has made the transition to writer/director.

Gyllenhaal adapts her film from a novel written by Italian author, Elena Ferrante. The experience is extremely female-centered and having a female pen both book and film makes it a rich and authentic project. The result is a brilliant depiction of motherhood and choices but everyone must see and appreciate this film.

However, the film is not for everyone nor will it please those seeking a conventional work about mother and daughter love and moments of happily skipping through the field of daisies. It has feel-good moments but is much, much darker than some would imagine.

For me, those aspects are what make The Lost Daughter so damned amazing.

We meet middle-aged Leda (Olivia Colman) when the woman embarks on a seaside vacation in Greece. She begins to observe a young mother, Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, and her daughter, Elena, on the beach and becomes obsessed with them. Leda unwisely butts heads with the mother’s menacing extended family who may be mafia related.

Leda begins to have memories of her early motherhood when she struggled to raise two young girls while balancing her career as a professor. When she spontaneously steals Elena’s doll she becomes increasingly more obsessive while battling moments of rage and emotion.

Colman is a perfect choice for the central character. From the first moment, she appears on the screen we know there is conflict surrounding her. She is angry and consumed with either guilt or tension. The actress is wonderful at portraying Leda’s complexities through her eyes and facial expressions. Many shots of Leda quietly observing events or sitting on the beach deep in thought are powerful.

Though a quiet film, The Lost Daughter never drags or lags as Gyllenhaal is perfect at providing a doom and gloom feeling. I was dying to know Leda’s secrets and the interspersing flashbacks to a young Leda, wonderfully played by Jessie Buckley, finally provide resolution.

But that’s just the beginning of the fun. Once Leda’s backstory is revealed, and Gyllenhaal makes us wait quite a while for the reveal, there are more places for the film to go, like what about the stolen doll?

The viewer will not only wonder why Leda stole the doll but why won’t she return it, especially when it’s known how desperately the family wants it back. Will they kill her when they find out she has it?

Beneath all the drama there is a lingering question that is asked of the viewers. Do I want to be a parent? The film is not only for women but men can certainly ask themselves the same question.

The inclusion of a male character played by Ed Harris is evidence of this. Older now, in his youth he struggled with being a father.

The film has a sense of purpose and meaning that many films lack. A film that poses questions and makes the viewer squirm a bit is top-notch for me. The basic story of a lone woman on vacation grows into intensity and psychological warfare among oneself and their feelings.

The Lost Daughter (2021) is a difficult watch but a lesson in great acting, directing, writing, and what atmosphere and mood can do to a story layered with intrigue. As shocking and unsettling as moments are I was left feeling satisfied that I had seen something of worth and merit.

I can’t wait to see what Gyllenhaal does next.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Olivia Colman, Best Supporting Actress-Jessie Buckley, Best Adapted Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Director-Maggie Gyllenhaal (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Supporting Female-Jessie Buckley

Splendor in the Grass-1961

Splendor in the Grass-1961

Director-Elia Kazan

Starring-Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle

Scott’s Review #1,231

Reviewed February 20, 2022

Grade: A-

Splendor in the Grass (1961) is mainly a film about teenage angst but the angst spills over to the adults as pressures are heaved on many characters. Fortunes are gained and lost following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that handicapped some characters obsessed with money while the teenage characters battle emotions.

It offers poetic relics and references from English poet, William Wordsworth about life and longing for love that can be thought about.

The film is written by William Inge, who also wrote 1955’s Picnic, and is directed by Elia Kazan, famous for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On The Waterfront (1954). Splendor in the Grass is an uneasy watch but provides slices of the brilliance that those other films have.

Isn’t the point of the superior film to make us think and ponder?

At the risk of feeling a tad dated some sixty years later how powerful a film it must have been in 1961 and sending inevitable shock waves to those audiences expecting a more wholesome show.

It’s also legendary Hollywood actor Warren Beatty’s film debut and showcases an emotionally superb performance from Natalie Wood.

Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) have an innocently blossoming relationship but if only they could be left alone. It is weighed down by their parents’ mutual oppressiveness.

Bud’s father, Ace (a terrific Pat Hingle), is hell-bent on Bud attending Yale University in the fall and is afraid of Deanie becoming pregnant and ruining the bright future expected from the affluent young man.

Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) cautions her daughter from engaging in sexual relations and remaining a ‘good girl’ because she is frightened of Bud not marrying a girl with questionable morals.

The meddling by both parents causes the teens emotional pressure and threatens not just to ruin their relationship but perhaps ruin their futures. Bud’s mother is complacent and Deanie’s father offers proper support to his daughter.

There is a lot of story going on in Splendor in the Grass and all of it is juicy and relevant from whomever’s perspective the viewer takes. This is part of the beauty of the film- told through the eyes of Bud and Deanie and the fragile feelings teenagers possess, their parents can be dissected as well and wanting the very best for their kids.

The romance is not just about Bud and Deanie. Other players and potential love interests are introduced and we begin to wonder if Bud and Deanie will ride off into the sunset together.

Inge and Kazan make us pose several questions. Do people who belong together make it? Do some people settle for different lives based on sacrifice? Can heartbreak lead to madness and a different perspective for some?

The terrific screenplay written by Inge is the film’s sweet spot. It’s complex and fraught with emotion and questions. The setting of remote Kansas in the late 1920s gave me a feeling of stifling predictability and one’s lives already planned for them rather than encouragement to reach for the stars.

This is dangerous territory in itself.

Bud is expected to get an education but all he really wants is to live on a simple ranch and be a family man. Deanie is trained to be sweet and kind and to resist the pleasures of the flesh like her mother did but is that enough for Deanie?

The great writing is brought to life by Kazan, a master at offering brutal yet realistic films. Based on knowledge of his other films I knew I was not in for a cheery experience but the rather harsh reality. That sits well with me as films that make one think are celebrated by me.

Splendor in the Grass (1961) is similar to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and also stars Wood. The film teaches me that although generations come and go the feelings and emotions felt by young people in the moments that they are young never change.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Natalie Wood, Best Original Screenplay (won)

Wild at Heart-1990

Wild at Heart-1990

Director-David Lynch

Starring-Nicholas Cage, Laura Dern

Scott’s Review #1,230

Reviewed February 19, 2022

Grade: B+

David Lynch has created some weird films. Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (1992) are masterpieces that skew the odd and peculiar facets of human behavior. But Wild at Heart (1990) takes the cake as the strangest in the lot.

Fascinatingly unhinged, yet hard to understand, it’s got the Lynch handprint from start to finish, but only a warm-up act as stacked against those other films.

Somehow the film is classified as a comedy. It’s got to be one of the darkest of dark comedies. Anyone who is not a Lynch fan will not appreciate or get this film- I am a Lynch fan and I’m not sure I even got it. I do appreciate it though.

It’s also the best role of Diane Ladd’s career in which she plays a fiendish, witchy mama. The graceful actress belts a home run in her storied performance.

A situation occurs during the opening sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) serves prison time for a self-defense killing and reunites with girlfriend Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) when he is released.

Lula’s mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), is desperate to keep them apart and hires a hitman to kill Sailor. But those are only the start of his troubles when he and Bobby Peru, played by Willem Dafoe, an old buddy who’s also out to get Sailor, try to rob a store.

When Sailor lands in jail again, he may be destined never to reunite with Lula ever again.

Wild at Heart deep down is a love story about Sailor and Lula and the many obstacles they must overcome to live happily ever after.

Cage and Dern are terrific though I fantasized while watching how nice it would have been to see Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Sailor. A Blue Velvet reunion would have been splendid since his chemistry with Dern in that film was top-notch. Nonetheless, I enjoyed watching Cage and Dern as the romantic leads.

The many references to The Wizard of Oz are delightful like when an image of Marietta flying through the air on a haggard broomstick appears just like the Wicked Witch of the West. When Lula desperately clicks her red heels three times to no avail we strangely wonder where the home she wants to return to is?

The film is one of those that is hard to take seriously or focus on the plot too much. This is evidenced by the inclusion of Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017) alumni Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, and Grace Zabriskie. They play The Good Witch, Girl in Accident, and Juana Durango, respectively. Each character is indescribable in their strangeness.

The nuttiness continues with bizarre turns from Crispin Glover and Harry Dean Stanton.

Interesting is how Wild at Heart was released the same year as Twin Peaks was. The inclusion of a seedy bar named One-Eyed Jacks which appears in both productions is about all there is comparable with each other. The main events in Wild at Heart are in Texas and Washington for Twin Peaks.

Forgetting the storylines, the best part about Wild at Heart is the cinematography. Enough dark and dusty highway sequences emerge using glowing and moody lighting and foreboding cracks and crevices in other visceral scenes. Cigarette smoking has never looked as sexy or dangerous as it does in this film.

Despite there being admirable and perfectly Lynch-y elements to Wild at Heart (1990) the film is just too far overboard for me to fall in love with.

I’ll pull out my copies of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive any day before Wild at Heart.

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Male-Willem Dafoe, Best Cinematography (won)

Nightmare Alley-2021

Nightmare Alley-2021

Director-Guillermo del Toro

Starring-Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Scott’s Review #1,229

Reviewed February 13, 2022

Grade: B+

I have not seen the original Nightmare Alley made in 1947 so can make no comparisons to how the film noir remake in 2021 compares but I am a fan of respected filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. His knack for creating such dark treats containing fantastical elements like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017) have similar tones.

Set back in the 1930s and the 1940s when the United States of America suffered from the Depression and subsequently World War II, a midwestern carnival and then wintry Buffalo, New York are the chosen settings for his latest film.

Nightmare Alley feels like two different films and I prefer the first half by a small margin. del Toro is a major filmmaker and while he creates an experience that is gorgeously shot and simmering with effective elements it’s not one of his best films and certainly not on par with the above-mentioned gems.

The story stretches believability at times and feels like the film noir elements from the original might have been included just for the sake of making it fit a defined category. The twist at the end shocks and disturbs which cements the del Toro flavor.

To summarize, the look of the film is exceptional and the story is pretty good and the two halves, one in the midwest and the other in Buffalo, feel disjointed.

When handsome and very charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) meets the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her aging mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, he creates a powerful act utilizing his ability to manipulate townfolks.

He has fled from a dark past involving his father and fire but we don’t know the exact details.

Moving on to Buffalo, he enshrouds the wealthy elite of 1940s New York high society. With the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) by his side, Stanton plots to con a rich yet vulnerable tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the aid of a mysterious and pouty psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who might have tricks up her sleeve.

Since I adore Blanchett I was eagerly awaiting her entrance which unfortunately doesn’t come until midway through the film. Nonetheless, she makes quite an impression as she smokes and drinks in stylish glamour befitting gorgeous women of the time. Moreover, her character of Lilith Ritter is cold and calculating as the audience knows she is toying with Stanton, we just don’t know how or why.

While not quite a romantic triangle, Cooper has good chemistry with Mara but tremendous chemistry with Blanchett. Both actresses reunite from their turn together in Carol (2015) but have very little screen time together.

Each of the three delivers a mighty performance with Cooper and Blanchett simply mesmerizing.

One can even forget the plot entirely and simply look at the film. It’s that good and polished. From the dusty and depressing midwestern ordinary towns to the architecturally fabulous Buffalo, del Toro and team construct a lavish production design. Each costume and set piece is perfectly staged.

I was more attuned to the strange and creepy carnival characters like the ‘geek’ and Cooper and Blanchett making on-screen magnificence than to care as much as I should have about the storyline plotholes or inconsistencies.

The unsatisfying reveal about the relationship between Stanton and his father or the backstory of the rich tycoon abusing young girls only gave me mild interest. The story as a whole becomes too complex and uncompelling for me to really care for a while.

The sweet spot of Nightmare Alley (2021) is the grand production design and the flawless acting. Besides an effective ‘oh, shit!’ moment at the conclusion which confirms Cooper as a great actor, the story mainly meanders.

It’s a very good effort but not one of del Toro’s best.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Heat-1995

Heat-1995

Director-Michael Mann

Starring-Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer

Scott’s Review #1,228

Reviewed February 12, 2022

Grade: A-

Fans of the popular 1980s NBC television series, Miami Vice will recall that Michael Mann was the Executive Producer of the show during its run.  He has a distinctive crime thriller style that goes perfectly well with Heat, a sizzling 1995 offering starring two films greats-Al Pacino and Rober De Niro.

The fact that the pair do not appear too often on screen together can be forgiven because when they are the stars align and the power of quiet scenes cannot be outdone. I savored over the moment when they first appeared together. Quality over quantity.

De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a lifelong criminal who is trying to handle damage control caused by one of his men, while also planning one last big heist before retiring to parts unknown. He meets a lovely young Los Angeles-based artist played by Amy Brenneman in a diner and the two plan to relocate abroad.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hanna (Al Pacino) is a seasoned officer attempting to track down McCauley and his cohort while dealing with the chaos in his own life, including the infidelity of his wife (Diane Venora) and the unhinged mental health of his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman).

McCauley and Hanna discover mutual respect, even as they try to thwart each other’s plans. The two characters become doppelgangers of one another. The situation comes to a cat and mouse-based conclusion on the tarmac of LAX airport.

To say that Heat is a by-the-numbers 1990s thriller is a fair assessment although it’s way better than that classification and it’s of that genre.

For starters, the acting is superior and obviously, De Niro and Pacino bring a level of professionalism to the film in the lead roles. My favorite scene is not the one you’d most expect me to say but rather a quiet and powerful chit-chat in a small coffee shop. They are rivals, having lived opposite lives, and yet have troubled lives that mirror each other.

Without a doubt, Hanna wants to bring McCauley to justice, and yet he admires him and sees parts of himself in the man. The feeling is mutual and the two actors relay this revelation without actually speaking the words. Viewers immerse themselves into the characters pivoting from this powerful scene.

There are a ton of characters in Heat but each one feels like he or she has much to offer. Juicy storylines are introduced but never forgotten even if not part of the main canvas. Hanna’s wife and stepdaughter play a central part in the final act even though they mainly appear during the first chapter.

In supporting roles, Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd share beautiful chemistry and a melancholy storyline as a damaged couple trying to survive surrounded by a life of crime.

At two hours and fifty-two minutes, there is plenty of time for each character to make their mark.

I love the rich character development that Heat offers but sometimes it’s admittedly tough to keep track of the motivations of the characters and how they tie into the main action.

Mann’s style is all over the place and even the musical score brought me back to the episodic song intervals that Miami Vice created. The moody and dark atmosphere of dingy and crime-infested Los Angeles is perfectly placed against glossy and glamorous high-rise and sprawling estate scenes. The bright and luminous city skyline is a feast for the eyes.

The cop/criminal dynamic is the main draw as Heat flexes its masculine muscles scene after scene. A bloody bank heist gone wrong at the beginning of the film cements what Mann is trying to create here. A guy’s film with enough juice to hook the introspective film viewer too.

Not remembered as well as it probably should be, Heat holds up surprisingly well when put up against similar but hokey 1990s action films like Lethal Weapon and the Die Hard films.

Though there’s not a whole lot that is new in Heat (1995), rich writing and powerful acting win out every time, and of course, Pacino and De Niro are worth the price of admission.

The Faculty-1998

The Faculty-1998

**Updated Review- Original Review in 2017**

Director-Robert Rodriguez

Starring Josh Hartnett, Jordanna Brewster, Clea Duvall

Scott’s Review #1,227

Reviewed February 5, 2022

Grade: B

The Faculty (1998) was released during the late 1990s horror film renaissance. Wisely, it cast film veterans that improved its merit along with young rising stars bankable at the box office. The film was only a moderate success but has become a cult classic over the years.

With a teacher/student dynamic incorporating all the standard cliches that go along with that, it mixes classic horror with a direct ode to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and is enjoyable, though hardly worthy of regular viewings.

Instead, it can be part of a 1990s nostalgia night or taken out as an opening act for comparison film Scream (1996), a similar vehicle also released by Dimension Films. The sunny yet somber high school setting is nearly identical in both films.

The Faculty is a sheer delight for teenage audiences or even twenty-somethings who can relate to the idea of their teachers being otherworldly or some such alien beings.

Stars Josh Hartnett, who had just jumped into the horror circle by being in Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later (1998), along with attractive and similar-aged Jordanna Brewster and Elijah Wood, lead the pack.

Piper Laurie, Robert Patrick, and Bebe Neuwirth appear in supporting roles as part of the faculty.

The setting is midwestern Ohio, where the students at Harrington High find Principal Drake (Neuwirth) and her gang of teachers a bit odd. Wacky under the best of circumstances, suddenly they become controlled by a parasite and attempt to infect the students one by one.

Cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster), football player Stan (Shawn Hatosy), drug dealer Zeke (Hartnett), and new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris) team up with some of their other classmates to fight back against the invaders.

But is one of the students actually the ringleader and controlling the faculty?

The horror standardized offing one by one is intelligently mixed up in The Faculty. Rather than a maniac brandishing a hatchet and chopping the students to bits, they are instead infected by more subtle means. The fun is finding out who will become an alien next and enjoying the weird behavior of the staff.

And who hasn’t imagined one of their teachers writhing around on a sports car coquettishly toying with the hunky high school football players?

Yes, there are some plot holes to contend with and some stale attempts at pairing the teens off romantically. Predictably, the standard jock, cheerleader, nerd, outcast stereotypes abound as well as perceptions of what a school nurse, math teacher, and drama teacher look and sound like.

For good measure, one of the faculty (Salma Hayek) is ‘hot’.

There is much fun in the film and perhaps some truth and that’s what director Robert Rodriguez showcases throughout. He doesn’t take himself or his characters too seriously as inside high school jokes and role interplay make for a playful, light experience.

Rodriguez is the best friend and frequent collaborator of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino but The Faculty holds no Tarantino influence whatsoever.

My favorite line may be when Casey says to snooty Delilah Profitt, “You’re actually pretty cool when you’re not being a bitch”.

The film isn’t really about students versus teachers or the faculty getting their comeuppance. The target audience is the teen crowd and they will have a marvelous time experiencing The Faculty. Times may change but the same teenage angst is shared from generation to generation.

The film is a good outlet for that.

Any fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, either the 1950s version or the 1970s remake will notice some familiar territory. The pods become fish and the explanation of taking over planet Earth because another planet is dying is intentionally (hopefully!) silly with a science-fiction edge.

The film ends happily ever after which is satisfying for the level of seriousness one must take while watching.

Borrowing heavily from other horror films near and dear, The Faculty (1998) carves out enough originality in the science fiction area to warrant some props. It’s not a measured success but evenly distributes the pacing and the entertainment in a nice way.

And the big stars add a nice touch.

The Game-1997

The Game-1997

Director-David Fincher

Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn

Scott’s Review #1,226

Reviewed February 5, 2022

Grade: A-

The Game (1998) is a fantastic cat and mouse ‘game’ created by director David Fincher who always gets some street credibility where I’m concerned. The thrills come a mile a minute reaching a crashing crescendo in the final act.

It’s a film that produces a roller coaster, edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride, or whatever metaphor serves you best. The result is the same- a fantastic and deliciously wicked experience.

Hollywood A-listers Michael Douglas and Sean Penn team up with chemistry and radiance as brothers with a rivalrous streak. But, who is the cat and who is the mouse is the question of the day as the puzzle pieces continue to mount.

Anyone who knows Fincher’s work, especially films like Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) realizes that atmosphere and storytelling are his sweet spot and The Game never disappoints. It grasps the viewer by the neck and never let’s go.

The screenplay is intelligent and daring. Now, before anyone gets their knickers in a bit of a twist, I do not dare say that The Game is on the level of Zodiac or Seven-both masterpieces in my opinion. But The Game plays its cards well and measures up well if we are ranking Fincher films.

Nicholas Van Orton (Douglas) is a successful banker who keeps mostly to himself spending most nights alone in his luxurious home. When his estranged brother Conrad (Penn) returns to town on his birthday with an odd gift Nicholas’s suspicions are piqued.

The gift is a personalized, real-life game that he cannot resist accepting. Beginning slowly, the game grows increasingly personal, and Orton begins to fear for his life as he eludes agents from the mysterious game’s organizers. With no one left to trust and his money all gone, Orton must find answers for himself before he goes off the rails into psychosis.

Let’s discuss everything but the story first. The look of The Game is stunning with perfect lighting and shadows exhibiting the mood. The editing, whether in rapid-fire motion or slow-motion is brilliantly effective.

Do we feel sorry for the characters? That would be a resounding no but that’s also the fun of The Game. As Orton spirals down a dark and mysterious path we are not too invested in the character so watching the ‘game’ is all the more enjoyable for the viewer.

The message delivered after The Game can either be loved or hated by viewers. I, for one, loved it. Chaos and uncertainty can be argued to be better than complacency but is it really? Nicholas may argue his case when his life is turned topsy turvy.

The conclusion, while unsettling, is riveting and mind-blowing.

Penn has rarely been better being given a healthy dose of mystique and caginess matched up against a musical score that shines a ghostly light on his scenes. The actor does his best when playing a black sheep or estranged character type so Conrad is ripe for the picking with potential.

Sandwiched in release between Seven and Fight Club (1999), both much better remembered than The Game (1997), that is a bit of a shame. The film deserves a good dusting off and fans of Fincher will undoubtedly enjoy piecing together a good, solid perplexity or at least attempting to.

Election-1999

Election-1999

Director-Alexander Payne

Starring-Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick

Scott’s Review #1,225

Reviewed January 30, 2022

Grade: A

Election is a 1999 black comedy film directed by Alexander Payne. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, and it’s based on Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel of the same name.

Anyone film fan who knows Payne’s work can attest that they are noted for their dark humor and satirical depictions of contemporary American society. His best is About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and Nebraska (2013).

And Election ranks among his finest works.

The subject matter at hand this time out is politics and education with the familiar Payne setting of Omaha, Nebraska. Right smack in the middle of the American Heartland.

Only his second film, Election stars Reese Witherspoon in her breakthrough role that built momentum towards her becoming a superstar. She is utterly fantastic and this would rank as one of her best roles, if not the best.

And, no, that is not a slight against her iconic portrayal of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (2001), which I love, but Tracy Flick gets my vote.

The film itself is a masterpiece and has become a cult classic. Payne takes a subject matter, a rivalry between a teacher and student, still considered somewhat taboo. He takes into question authority and tomfoolery and then spins everything around.

Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), is a straight and narrow, well-liked high school government teacher who notices that successful student Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) uses unethical tactics and manipulation to get exactly what she wants.

Since Jim believes that Tracy has ruined his friend’s marriage he already despises the girl. Though, could he also be in love with her?

When Tracy decides to run for school president, Jim feels that she will be a horrible influence on the student body. He convinces Paul (Chris Klein), a dull but popular student-athlete, to run against Tracy. When she becomes aware of Jim’s secret involvement in the race, a bitter feud develops between teacher and student as they try to outsmart the other.

The writing in Election is brilliant. The audience may see Jim or Tracy as the villain or perhaps both. They resort to drastic machinations to get their way. Tracy wants to win at all costs while Jim becomes obsessed with ensuring that Tracy does not win.

I love the high school setting and the normal goodie two shoes Jim resorting to ballot cheating and affairs to best his rival. Tracy is no better as she manipulates and conspires to win the election.

I also worry that the viewers who should see this film either won’t or won’t get the message that Payne is sending.

The editing is flawless and the quick cuts that allow each character a chance to narrate and share their perspective is a major win. We see each motivation and understand what makes each character tick-especially Jim and Tracy.

The acting is wonderful and enough praise cannot be reaped upon Witherspoon and Broderick for their sick and twisted performances. They each radiate desperation and dark comedy and delightful is the perkiness and drive that Witherspoon gives Tracy.

When she bakes cupcakes in the hopes of bribing her classmates for votes, this counterbalances Broderick’s angry and grizzled Jim. He is at war with a student and goes for the jugular instead of being the role model a teacher should be.

It’s delightfully fun though many high school teachers may not appreciate the deviousness.

There’s also a cool LGBTQ+ inclusion which is a positive.

I’d venture to compare Election to American Beauty (1999), made the same year and with a similar tone. Cynical and witty, they both question morality and ethics especially with the sugar coating of a high school or small-town Americana.

Satire never looked finer with both films.

Made in 1999, how dubious the realization is that Election continues to have relevance as time goes by. In the current state of United States politics where lying, cheating, and a blatant refusal to accept election results unless one side is the victor is running rampant, and shockingly tolerated by some, Payne’s message has never been more powerful.

Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature (won), Best Direction-Alexander Payne (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Female Lead-Reese Witherspoon, Best Debut Performance-Jessica Campbell

Carlito’s Way-1993

Carlito’s Way-1993

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller

Scott’s Review #1,224

Reviewed January 29, 2022

Grade: B

Brian De Palma would be firmly planted in my Top 10 favorite directors of all time- maybe even the Top 5. His daring and juicy Dressed to Kill (1980), and horrific Carrie (1976) is still visually mesmerizing to me.

Carlito’s Way (1993) takes De Palma into New York mobster territory similar in vein to his 1983 disappointment Scarface (1983). Both star Al Pacino.

The latter is set in Miami while the former offers many reminders of its New York City setting like street signs and other exterior trimmings of the Big Apple, especially in Spanish Harlem. Sequences also occur on Long Island, New York, and Rikers Island prison.

The film is based on two like novels written in the 1970s when the events in the film are supposed to be set. This doesn’t work as well as you might think but more about that later.

Carlito’s Way itself is a solid mobster film that borrows from many others including Scarface, The Godfather (1972), and Goodfellas (1990). If I were to take ten mobster films it might get lost somewhere in the middle.

But it’s still an above-average watch and sprinkles pleasant De Palma familiarities like slow-motion dreamlike sequences and a terrific chase through the subway and Grand Central Station that will bring a smile to Dressed to Kill fans.

It’s just not one of the best Brian De Palma films nor one of the best mobster films.

Released on a technicality after years in prison, Carlito Brigante (Pacino) swears to give up his criminal ways, but it’s not long before the ex-con is sucked back into the New York City underworld thanks to his shady lawyer and friend Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn).

All he wants to do is save enough money to leave town and retire in paradise.

Carlito reconnects with his aspiring actress/dancer girlfriend, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) while young and dangerous gangster Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo) plots revenge on Carlito and Kleinfeld after being slighted.

Kleinfeld has also stolen money from a dangerous convict so that’s an added stressor for both him and Carlito.

The time is very odd. It’s supposed to be the 1970s as the musical score suggests as disco party music blasts during club scenes. The clothes and hairstyles somewhat align but there is a strange 1980s feel which is even stranger given the film was shot in the 1990s.

The chemistry between Pacino and Miller is okay but nothing terrific either although it grows during the film. At first, I wondered what they saw in one another but was slowly won over by the pair. By the end, I was rooting for them to ride off into paradise together.

The best part of Carlito’s Way is the final thirty minutes or so. On the run from the bad guys, Carlito and Gail decide to meet on a late-night train bound for Florida. There, they will forget their troubles and live happily ever after on the beach.

Oh, and by the way, Gail is now pregnant.

De Palma, as he usually does, creates a dazzling climax. I was mesmerized by the cat and mouse chase scenes and what Grand Central looked like in the early 1990s when the film was shot. And there’s also the terrific running from subway car to subway car chase scene just like in Dressed to Kill.

As an aside, Pacino who is Italian is playing a Puerto Rican character. One character comments that Carlito could almost pass for an Italian. Given Pacino’s heritage in the very Italian Godfather films, this is an anecdote that made me chuckle.

Penn and Pacino give it their all and craft unusual characters, especially Penn, and it’s a delight seeing great actors play off of one another.

Carlito’s Way (1993) has some hits and some misses and borrows heavily from similar films including De Palma’s films. This too often makes it become a comparison film rather than containing its own identity.

The Da Vinci Code-2006

The Da Vinci Code-2006

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou

Scott’s Review #1,223

Reviewed January 23, 2022

Grade: B+

Based on the best-selling 2003 novel written by Dan Brown, Ron Howard directs the film version of The Da Vinci Code (2006). Since I haven’t read the novel at this writing I cannot fully give a fair assessment from the perspective of comparison but my hunch is that the book is superior to the film.

Isn’t it usually?

The film is entertainment personified and Howard wisely casts a big name like Tom Hanks to draw audiences to the theaters. It’s a slick and adventurous thrill-ride which is all well and good but it’s also a type of film that you can see once, enjoy for what it is, and then never need to see again.

The most fun is the controversy the film, like the book, encountered.

It was met with especially harsh criticism by the Catholic Church for the accusation that it is behind a two-thousand-year-old cover-up concerning what the Holy Grail is and the concept that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and that the union produced a daughter.

So, those who are sensitive or uptight about religion may want to skip the film and the novel.

But this is Hollywood, after all, and Howard and Hanks do what they do best. They create and produce a fun, solid, blockbuster flick.

When the curator of the Louvre is found murdered in the famed museum’s hallowed halls, Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) must untangle a deadly web of deceit involving the works of Leonardo da Vinci.

The most enjoyable parts are the locales and the focus on art. The famous Louvre in Paris, France permitted to film relevant scenes at their premises but only a replica of the Mona Lisa was used during filming as the crew was not allowed to illuminate the original work with their lighting.

The Westminster Abbey scenes were instead filmed at Lincoln and Winchester cathedrals.

The Parisian nightlife is gorgeous and murky in its depiction and a plentiful helping of sequences are shot throughout the United Kingdom with Scotland and England receiving the most representation.

So, while strict limitations were harboring, there is an international flavor to The Da Vinci Code that works wonderfully especially for those who have traveled to those locations.

For art lovers, particularly of da Vinci himself, there is satisfying respect for the art. I always attempt to improve my art knowledge so this film is helpful to me and the novice art fan to educate themselves and learn more about the subject.

Hanks, as usual, carries the film in his steady-Freddy approach.

While not as compelling as his roles in either Philadelphia (1993) or Forrest Gump (1994), the actor can convey his suspicious plight and the need and desire to solve the complex puzzle.

Audiences will follow suit.

The Da Vinci Code (2006) was riddled with bad reviews and jest mostly at its ridiculous plot and absurd story. While there is a grain of truth to this, I found the film enjoyable entertainment and that’s all I expected out of it. The film pleases and satisfies if not taken too seriously.

Passing-2021

Passing-2021

Director-Rebecca Hall

Starring-Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga

Scott’s Review #1,222

Reviewed January 22, 2022

Grade: A

Passing (2021) is a quiet film brimming with importance. It’s the feature directorial debut of Rebecca Hall and she hits a home run with a film pleasing both visually and from a storytelling perspective.

The title of the film equates, the word ‘passing’ refers to three different meanings as the viewer will need to wait until the end to figure it out.  I was not able to deduce the third meaning until I read the synopsis and was left in a state of shock.

The setting is 1920s New York City, a polished time when status and sophistication meant everything. Unfortunately, despite the liberal-leaning metropolis racism is still alive and kicking.

The first scene shows a pair of well-dressed ladies entering a store commenting how thankful they feel that their children have only met ‘colored’ people who are members of their staff. The message is laid clear that they feel anyone of dark skin are lepers.

Passing is a film about race but so much more.

Tessa Thompson plays Irene Redfield, a well to do light-skinned black woman who is married to a successful doctor, Brian (André Holland). They reside in Harlem in a largely black neighborhood. Irene is respected and is also able to walk amongst cultured white people and ‘pass’ for white. She is treated differently when she does.

One day Irene stops for a sandwich at a posh hotel. She runs into her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) who is also of mixed race. Clare completely passes for white and is married to a successful and handsome banker, John Bellew (Alexander Skarsgård). He makes no secret of despising black people.

As Irene and Clare reconnect, Clare begins to immerse herself in the black culture and specifically in Irene’s life. She flirts with many black men and grows close to Brian much to Irene’s chagrin. Irene becomes both jealous and enamored with Clare.

They both risk their established lives as they soul search for their truths.

Passing is not conventional and that’s what I admire and love about it. While watching I never knew what direction the film was going in and I missed one subtle, yet important, detail- Irene’s fascination with Clare. The complex relationship is shaken to the core in a jarring final sequence during a winter party in a luxury apartment.

Hall makes the monumental good decision to film in black and white cinematography thus making the racial subject and tones all the more powerful.

Visually, this is never more evident than when Clare stands beside a darker-skinned black character. The contrast is astounding and made me believe how everyone would be fooled into thinking she is a white woman.

The story of two cultured black women dealing with life in the early twentieth century is juicy enough but the stuff peeking out from beneath the surface heightens the meaning of Passing and adds layers and layers of emotional vigor.

The film reminds me of the 2002 masterpiece Far from Heaven. Visually brilliant and both offering stories about race, they are both also tragic. Nobody ends up happy or fulfilled and a terminal sense of loss is palpable in each. A tortured, well-manicured central character exists in both films.

Negga has received the lion’s share of praise for playing Clare but Thompson is also flawless. Both actresses are brilliant playing characters who are very much alike. They strive for perfection but are nonetheless living in fantasy worlds whether they realize it or not. It’s tough to convey this to audiences but they do in measured calmness.

The film shows that we all pretend just a little bit and pass it off sometimes, don’t we?

It’s a scary realization.

My standard modus operandi when I review a film is to think whether it stays with me after the credits roll or if it is quickly dismissed from my train of thought.

Passing (2021) has powerfully remained in my mind and caused me to ruminate and peel back the onion more and more in this tremendous and stylistic effort.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Supporting Female-Ruth Negga (won), Best Cinematography (won)

Welcome to my blog! 1,250 + reviews posted so far! My name is Scott Segrell and I reside in Stamford, CT. My blog is a diverse site featuring tons of film reviews I have written since I launched my site in 2014. They range from dramas to horror to documentaries to Oscar winners to weird movies to mainstream fare and everything in between. I hope you enjoy perusing the site for latest or greatest films or to search for your own favorites to see how we compare. Please take a look at my Top 100 Films section! I periodically update these rankings. Simply scroll down to the Top 100 Films category on the left or right hand side of the page.